The scope of biblical wisdom is disputed, but three books are almost universally included in this category: Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. To these are added Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) and Wisdom of Solomon from the Deutero‐canon, often called the Apocrypha. These five books resemble an extensive literary corpus in Egypt identified by the expression seboyet (“instruction”) and in Mesopotamia. Some significant Instructions from Egypt are those of Ptahhotep, Merikare, Ani, Amenemopet, Insinger, and Onksheshonky. Mesopotamian wisdom includes instructions of Shuruppak, proverbs (Sumerian and Akkadian), and reflections on life's meaning (the Sumerian “Man and his God,” and the Babylonian “I Will Praise the Lord of Wisdom,” “The Babylonian Theodicy,” and “The Dialogue between a Master and Slave”). In addition, omen texts, onomastica (name lists), and scribal texts can be classified as wisdom literature.
Other biblical texts contain vocabulary and ideas similar to those found in wisdom literature. This common usage has prompted some modern interpreters to enlarge the wisdom corpus or to magnify its influence greatly. Many canonical books have been placed under the sage's domain, including Genesis 1–11, 37–50; Exodus 32; Deuteronomy; Amos; Micah; Isaiah; Jonah; Habakkuk; Esther; 2 Samuel 9–20; 1 Kings 1–2; Song of Solomon; and Psalms. The result of this effort is unclear, although many claims are exaggerated or lack adequate criteria to be persuasive.
It therefore remains fundamentally correct to label wisdom literature as an alien body within the Hebrew scriptures. That judgment rests partly on what is missing in these texts: the promises to the ancestors, the Exodus from Egypt and the Mosaic covenant, the centrality of Jerusalem and the Davidic dynasty, and much more. The situation changed when Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon entered the picture, for with them a decisive transition occurred as a result of the combination between wisdom and traditional Yahwism. However, the assessment of alienness also arises from a consideration of the unique form and content of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. These books represent a human search for knowledge that enriches life or makes existence bearable. A self‐revealing deity manages one brief appearance (Job 38–41), and Ecclesiastes rejects revelation on principle.
Wisdom literature can be divided into four categories: natural, experiential, judicial, and theological. Encyclopedic name lists did not survive in Israel, although 1 Kings 4.33 (MT 5.13) may allude to them. The widespread folktale about Solomon's judgment (1 Kings 3.16–28) exemplifies judicial wisdom. The distinction between theological wisdom and experiential is not an absolute one, for some lessons from experience use religious reinforcements. The difference is therefore one of degree, and certain texts (Job and Ecclesiastes) are more theological than others. In Egypt the wisdom corpus aimed at training courtiers and equipping pharaohs for effective leadership. Mesopotamian wisdom was in part an attempt to manipulate the gods to ensure prosperity; cult and magic thus lay at the heart of some of these nonbiblical texts.
When did Israel's wisdom literature come into existence? Centuries of observations went into the compilation of the book of Proverbs, a process that probably began in the early monarchy and ended in postexilic times. The probable sequence of the several collections is as follows: chaps. 25–29; 10.1–22.16; 22.17–24.22; 24.23–34; 30.1–9; 30.10–33; 31.1–9; 1–9; 31.10–31. The book of Job dates from the late sixth or fifth century BCE, although the prose tale existed much earlier. Ecclesiastes best fits in the mid‐ or late third century, Sirach at the beginning of the second (ca. 190), and Wisdom of Solomon in the first century BCE.
What was the occasion for writing these texts? The collections in Proverbs were the accumulation of valuable insight within various settings, particularly the family. Ecclesiastes and Sirach, on the other hand, comprise the teaching of scholars to pupils, presumably young men from wealthy families. Both Job and Wisdom of Solomon may also have functioned to expand the horizons of students. However, the appeal of such school texts as these four books certainly reached beyond the academy, and even Proverbs may have assisted in training professional courtiers during Hezekiah's reign (see Prov. 25.1). It is noteworthy that the first epilogist in Ecclesiastes states that Qoheleth taught the people, which may suggest a democratization of learning in his day (12.9–12). Certain themes come to prominence within these five books: creation as an ordering of the universe, the fear of Yahweh as the beginning and end of knowledge, the contrast between fools and wise persons as an ethical distinction, and the literary expression of personified wisdom and folly. The universal character of wisdom requires a grounding of its theology in creation rather than in Israel's particularistic traditions. Revelation occurred at creation, and individuals drew analogies between the natural realm and the social. This search for analogies presupposed an ordering principle of the universe that manifested itself in reward for virtue and punishment for base action. All knowledge rested on a religious commitment, at least for the collection in Proverbs 1–9. But the most radical thinkers, Job and Ecclesiastes, did not dispense with the theistic assumption. The adjective “wise” was an ethical term rather than a cognitive judgment. Fools were not ignorant: they were scoundrels—lazy, hot‐headed, disrespectful, lustful. The personification of wisdom, demanded by her active role at creation, enabled her to address young men and to woo them away from her rival, Dame Folly. This symbolism also mediated between a searching humanity and a transcendent deity. In Sirach a correlation between Torah and Wisdom brought God closer to human subjects and introduced the category of mercy where strict justice had prevailed as a desideratum. (see Wisdom)
If one takes content into consideration, the wisdom corpus used its own distinctive literary forms. These include aphoristic sayings and instructions (in Proverbs mainly), dispute (in Job), reflection (in Ecclesiastes), a school text (Sirach), and a diatribe (Wisdom of Solomon). Within these broader types many other categories exist, for example, royal fiction, autobiographical narrative, numerical proverb, allegory, prayer, hymn, and midrash ‐like interpretation. Three settings for the resulting literature were the family, court, and school. Little is known about any of these sociological contexts, although the clan was probably the earliest, followed by the royal court and finally the scribal (priestly?) school.
Of course, some of the above literary types also occur in prophetic and narrative literature (e.g., disputes, allegory, prayer, hymn). What then is distinctive about the wisdom corpus? Answering this question is complicated by concepts that the sages shared with prophets and the priestly guilds, especially the principle of reward and punishment. The mere allusion to this principle cannot identify wisdom, nor can a reference to creation.
The first identifying characteristic of wisdom literature is its anthropocentric base. The sages asked about human good, which they perceived to rest in long life, health, wealth, children, and reputation. Furthermore, the focus was on each individual rather than on larger groups or the nation itself. Indeed, truth was believed to be universal, which ruled out exclusive claims by special interest groups. Insights from abroad were equally valid, and membership in the Jewish nation was not a prerequisite for contributing to the wisdom corpus. Hence a small portion of the Egyptian Instruction of Amenemopet was included in the book of Proverbs (22.17–24.22), together with two collections by foreign authors (30.1–4; 31.1–9). Even the hero of the book of Job is probably depicted as a non‐Jew. Because of the individualistic emphasis, wisdom placed no stress on historical events as the arena of divine disclosure. The primary concern was existential, often expressing itself in self‐gratification but also asking hard questions about life's meaning in the face of undeserved suffering and the oppressive shadow of death.
A second feature of wisdom literature is its reliance on the intellect to cope with every eventuality. Hidden within the natural universe and the behavior of animals and people were secrets that enriched human existence. The goal of wisdom was to discover these insights and to draw correct analogies that would enable one to live long and well. It follows that such a quest presupposes a cosmos, a reliable order from which to draw lessons with predictable outcomes. Insights gained from nature or from the behavior of animals carried over into the human arena, and these truths perdured through the ages.
This reliance on one's ability to act and to think in a manner that yielded life's richest rewards did not last. Thus, we come to a third feature of the wisdom corpus, its conscious reflection on the injustices of earthly existence and on the limits of the human intellect. To be sure, wrestling with the issue of theodicy was the prerogative of sensitive prophets, psalmists, and historiographers as well. But the crown of theodicy is surely worn by the author of the book of Job, and the radical exposure of life's enigmas in Ecclesiastes brooks no rival. A bankrupt morality and intellect yielded opposite responses in these two masterpieces. Job fell to his knees in repentance and submission before a mystery that defied understanding, and the author of Ecclesiastes ventured the conclusion that life was utterly absurd because the deity's will and actions escaped detection in a world where death and probable extinction were sovereign.
Some emphases of wisdom literature are present in the New Testament and in gnosticism. Jesus' teachings take the form of aphorisms; he invites disciples to take his yoke on them in the same way that Dame Wisdom issues an invitation for her subjects to accept the statutes of the Torah. The Fourth Gospel describes Jesus in the language of the divine logos, just as wisdom was equated with the logos. In addition, Paul uses the language of traditional wisdom in hymns about Jesus as the agent of creation, and the letter of James resembles wisdom literature in form and substance. Within gnosticism, three texts belong to the category of wisdom: the gospel of Thomas, the Sentences of Sextus, and the Teachings of Silvanus (see Nag Hammadi Library).
James L. Crenshaw