The Wisdom of Solomon (or Book of Wisdom, as it is called in the Old Latin) is a Hellenistic Jewish writing from around the turn of the eras that encourages the pursuit of wisdom. The author assumes the identity of King Solomon, Israel's sage par excellence, but only as a literary device; the book was actually written centuries after Solomon by an unknown Jew steeped in Greek language, philosophy, and rhetoric, as well as in Israel's biblical heritage. The anonymous author contends that forsaking wisdom is utter folly and dooms one to extinction, while appropriating wisdom leads to righteousness and immortality.

Contents and Structure.

The contents fall naturally into three sections, although there is disagreement on where to locate the seams because the three sections overlap. The first (1:1—6:21), often designated the Book of Eschatology, contrasts the destinies of the righteous and wicked and exhorts readers to seek wisdom, live righteously, and thereby gain immortality. According to the opening address to rulers of the earth (1:1–15), evil deeds lead to judgment and death, while “righteousness is immortal.” Wisdom is introduced as God's spirit, a cosmic force that pervades the world and holds all things together, exposing the ungodly but indwelling the righteous to convey immortality. Empiricists who suppose this life to be the whole of reality are shown to be gravely mistaken and are said to have invited death. In the first of two speeches placed on their lips (2:1–20), the ungodly advise doing as one pleases because death means annihilation. In their view the righteous man, designated “God's son,” will prove by his own suffering and death that there is no divine retribution. In the second speech (5:4–13), the ungodly, now facing judgment, realize their miscalculation and recant; they finally see that the righteous are vindicated by God, while those who mocked and persecuted these sons of God are the ones facing annihilation. Before the second speech by the ungodly, the author offers his own rebuttal of a materialistic perspective by contrasting appearances and reality (2:21—4:20). Apparent injustices merely prepare the righteous for ultimate blessedness. Not even the death of the righteous supports the nihilist's case. Indeed, the righteous only appear to die; through physical death they actually pass into the fullness of immortality. The wicked, on the other hand—despite any apparent benefits of their behavior—are cursed to extinction. Following the second speech by the ungodly, the author reiterates that God will vindicate the righteous and exact bitter vengeance on their oppressors (5:15–23). The section ends, as it begins, with an exhortation to rulers of the earth to seek wisdom and avoid judgment (6:1–11); because wisdom seeks out those who desire her, the search for wisdom is not futile (6:12–21).

The second section, the Book of Wisdom proper (6:22—9:18), recounts Solomon's own quest for wisdom and her nature and rewards. Without mentioning Solomon by name, the author adopts the persona of Israel's celebrated king most clearly in 7:1–22A, where he builds on the account of Solomon's attainment of wisdom through prayer in 1 Kings 3. In a litany of praise for this greatest of all gifts (7:22B–8:1), he enumerates twenty-one attributes of wisdom that balance her transcendence and immanence. She is the fashioner of all things but also indwells individuals and enables them to know the workings of the universe. She relates to God as his breath, emanation, reflection, mirror, and image, but also to human beings by entering “holy souls” to make them “friends of God.” Wisdom permeates the cosmos and “orders all things well.” The acquisition and benefits of wisdom are described again in terms of Solomon's wooing of a bride (8:2–21). The section ends with Solomon's prayer for wisdom (9:1–18); expanding upon 1 Kings 3 and 2 Chronicles 1, Solomon acknowledges his finitude and prays that the wisdom present at creation be granted him as guide and guardian. The gift of wisdom is declared necessary if one is to understand God's will, for “a perishable body weighs down the soul” and makes human reasoning precarious; only because “you [God] have given wisdom and sent your holy spirit from on high” is salvation possible (9:14–18).

The allusion at the end of Solomon's prayer to those “saved by wisdom” (9:18) introduces the third section, a historical retrospective often called the Book of History (chs. 10–19). Here the theme is wisdom as the means by which God directed the course of Israel's history. Chapter 10 reviews wisdom's activity in the lives of seven righteous persons or groups and their wicked counterparts (all unnamed but easily identifiable by anyone familiar with the narratives of Genesis and Exodus): Adam and Cain; Noah and the generation of the flood; Abraham and the nations confused at the tower of Babel; Lot and the Sodomites; Jacob and Esau; Joseph and Potiphar's wife; and Israel under Moses’ leadership and the Egyptians under pharaoh's leadership. In each case it was wisdom who delivered the heroes and thwarted the villains. Chapter 11 begins a lengthy meditation on the Exodus and the desert wanderings in the form of seven pairs of incidents wherein God's provision for the Israelites is contrasted with his punishment of the Egyptians (again without using proper names). The guiding principle is that God uses the very things to bless the righteous that he uses to punish the ungodly (11:5). The seven pairs are: (1) Israel's provision of water in the desert and the pollution of water in Egypt, 11:1–14; (2) Israel's gift of quail in the desert and the plagues of various animals upon Egypt, 16:1–4; (3) Israel's deliverance from venomous snakebites and Egypt's affliction through the bites of locusts and flies, 16:5–14; (4) manna from heaven for Israel and hail and lightning from heaven upon Egypt, 16:15–29; (5) Israel's illumination by the pillar of fire and Egypt's plague of darkness, 17:1—18:4; (6) the rescue of the Israelite children from death and the death of the Egyptian firstborn, 18:5–25; and (7) Israel's deliverance through the Red Sea and the drowning of the Egyptians there, 19:1–22. Two long excursuses appear between the first and second antithetical pairs. An excursus on God's justice and mercy (11:15—12:27) contends that there is proportionality and harmony even in God's acts of punishment. “One is punished by the very things by which one sins” (11:16), and God, whose “immortal spirit is in all things,” punishes in moderation in order to provide opportunity to repent. The second excursus (chs. 13–15) is a tirade against idolatry that moves from the least to the most reprehensible, reserving harshest judgment for Egyptian animal worship. Again there is justice and harmony in God's punishment of the Egyptians in that the animals they considered gods became the means by which God punished them. After the antitheses, the author reiterates the principle of cosmic harmony according to which God constantly rearranges the elements of nature like notes in a symphony to help the righteous and hinder the wicked (19:18–21). The book closes with a doxology to God for his providential care for his people in all times and places (19:22).

Language, Provenance, and Date.

Despite occasional arguments by earlier scholars for a Hebrew or Aramaic original, there is now a solid consensus that Greek is the original language. Semitisms abound, but no more than in other Hellenistic Jewish works written in Greek. Dependence on the Septuagint in places where it differs significantly from the Hebrew text, the regular use of Greek rhetorical devices, the fondness for compound words to a degree reminiscent of the Greek tragedian Aeschylus, the use of Greek words attested elsewhere only in the Greek poets, and the couching of key themes in Greek philosophical terminology all point to composition in Greek. Occasionally the author even constructs sentences in periodic style, shows touches of Greek lyric poetry, and writes in an iambic or hexameter rhythm. If there are underlying Semitic sources, they have not been simply translated but assimilated into a new literary product. Stylistic features not only confirm composition in Greek but also substantiate the unity of the work over against older theories of composite authorship.

The place of writing is uncertain, but cumulative evidence strongly favors Alexandria. This center of Jewish life within an environment of Hellenistic learning and culture affords the most likely matrix for the social and religious conflicts reflected in the book as well as the philosophical traditions pressed into service. The marked hostility toward Egyptians, who are deemed worse than the Sodomites, the sharp polemic against cultic practices characteristic of Egypt such as the worship of animals or gods depicted as animals, the affinities with the thought of Philo of Alexandria, and the extensive use of the work in early Alexandrian Christianity all support composition in Alexandria.

Suggested dates range from the second century B.C.E. to the mid-first century C.E. Dependence on the Septuagint version of Isaiah establishes a terminus a quo around 200 B.C.E. Acquaintance with the work by New Testament authors (cf. Matt 27:43 and Wis 2:13, 18; cf. Rom 1:18–27 and Wis 13–15) is possible but too uncertain to fix a terminus ad quem; the earliest certain allusions are in patristic sources of the second century C.E. The reference to the worship of monarchs who rule from a distance (14:16–20) more aptly describes the decentralized imperial cult under the early Roman emperors than the centrally organized dynastic cult of the Ptolemaic kings who preceded them in Egypt. Similarly, the address in 6:1–4 to rulers of the far reaches of the earth who “rule over multitudes and boast of many nations” fits the Roman imperial period better than the period of Ptolemaic rule; in 6:3 the term kratēsis, “dominion,” may be a technical term for the Roman conquest of Egypt, as it is in several other sources. There may be a subtle critique of the pax Romana in 14:22 and an allusion in 17:17 to the widespread phenomenon—well documented in Roman Egypt—of impoverished peasants becoming fugitives to escape the fiscal oppression that came with Roman rule. Linguistic evidence favors the same time frame: a number of words and constructions in the book are not attested elsewhere prior to the first century C.E.

If a specific occasion in the early Roman period is to be identified, events during the reign of the Emperor Caligula (37–41 C.E.) and the prefecture of Flaccus in Egypt (32–38 C.E.) best fit the bill. The aftermath of Flaccus's revocation of Jewish civic rights, the bloody pogrom against Alexandrian Jews in 38 C.E., the demolition of some Jewish synagogues and desecration of others with images of Gaius, and even the emperor Claudius's insulting warning to Jews when he restored their civic rights, provide a fitting backdrop for the book's bitter condemnation of oppressive rulers. The reference to the terrible oppression of those who “shared the same rights” in 19:16 is an apt description of the constant tension between Jews and others in Alexandria over civic rights. However, there are no sure connections with the events of 38–41 C.E. Jews lived in constant tension with their Greek and Egyptian neighbors and Roman masters after the Roman annexation of Egypt in 30 B.C.E. Other disturbances punctuated the period even if the especially bitter ones in the time of Flaccus are better documented. We cannot even be sure of an actual context of persecution as opposed to a general climate of social and religious debate. The tensions reflected in the book transcend any particular incident and preclude a more precise dating than sometime in the early Roman period (ca. 30 B.C.E.–70 C.E.).

Genre and Purpose.

Two major views of the literary genre of the work, both based on Greek rhetorical models, have been proposed: the protreptic discourse, or didactic exhortation to pursue a particular course of action; and the encomium, an epideictic form of rhetoric designed to demonstrate the admirable qualities of someone or some virtue rather than to exhort. In fact, various parts of the book reflect different genres, and it seems unwise to squeeze the whole into one macrogenre. The Book of Eschatology is hortatory and best fits the protreptic model; the Book of Wisdom, with its sustained praise of wisdom, is most like an encomium; and the Book of History is epideictic, demonstrating the historical workings of wisdom. Moreover, the generic categories are not watertight: epideictic rhetoric functions implicitly (sometimes explicitly) to exhort, and protreptic discourse can praise and demonstrate as well as exhort. Within the larger generic patterns, the author deftly employs standard rhetorical devices to structure the material—devices such as the diatribe (speech by an imaginary adversary followed by a refutation), synkrisis (comparison of two things in order to show the superiority of one), and soritēs (chain of propositions in which the predicate of one becomes the subject of the next).

The question of the book's purpose is bound up with the issues of its genre and target audience. The author explicitly addresses gentile rulers (1:1; 6:1, 9, 21), but the contents are ill-suited for instructing such an audience, and there is much to suggest an intramural aim. In assuming Solomon's identity without naming him and in appealing to key figures from the Pentateuch as paradigms of righteousness without naming them, the author seems to presume that his readers are Jewish or at least very knowledgeable about Jewish tradition. The sharp polemic against idolatry may suggest gentile recipients but could also serve to fortify Jews in their convictions and dissuade them from assimilating to the surrounding culture. While a mixed audience is possible, the primary target audience seems to have been Jews who were drawn to Hellenistic culture and who needed affirming in their own heritage. The wisdom that was present at creation, that worked continually to save the just and hinder the wicked, and that afforded the only path to immortality operated precisely and paradigmatically in the foundational events of Israel's own history. Jews could draw strength and pride from a tradition that was superior to the idolatrous polytheism and immorality of their neighbors and that embodied the highest philosophical ideals of the day.


The Wisdom of Solomon presents one of the earliest and most forceful Jewish affirmations of the Platonic idea of the immortality of the soul. However, here the soul's immortality is not inherent, as most Platonists assumed, but conditional: a life of justice leads to immortality (3:4; 6:18–19), whereas a life of wickedness leads to death (1:16; 2:24; 5:17–23). Like the Jewish apocalyptic tradition, Wisdom envisions a postmortem judgment where the injustices of this world will be reversed (chs. 3–5); yet neither the immortality that is the reward of the righteous nor the death that is the fate of the ungodly awaits the afterlife. Immortality and death are states in which the righteous and the ungodly, respectively, participate in the present and which continue after physical death.

The most central and important theological contribution of Wisdom is its concept of wisdom. Already a cosmic force in Proverbs 8 and Sirach 24, wisdom here reaches new heights of personification, even hypostatization. Wisdom is an eternal effluence or emanation of God's power and glory (7:25–26)—an idea that most Middle Platonists avoided and that even Philo seems reticent to make explicit. Wisdom was present at creation (9:9) and was in fact the means by which God created the world (9:1–2; 8:4). Intimately related to God and “an associate in his works” (8:3–4), she nevertheless “pervades and penetrates all things” (7:24). She enters the souls of individuals to illuminate, guide, and renew (7:17–27). She is the spirit of the Lord that holds all things together (1:5–7), reaching throughout the earth to order all things well (8:1). It was she who ordered the events of Israel's early history (Wis 10–19, although after chapter 10 wisdom recedes into the background and what was previously ascribed to wisdom is ascribed to God).

Human righteousness and human destiny, according to the Wisdom of Solomon, are connected to this cosmic principle of order. Because wisdom integrates all of reality into a harmonious whole, human beings participate in the salvific forces of the world by living in harmony with wisdom. Although wisdom “will not enter a deceitful soul, or dwell in a body enslaved to sin” (1:4), in every generation she enters holy souls to make them friends of God (7:27) She loves humankind and indwells individuals to enable them to comprehend the full range of human knowledge (7:15–21). Those who come to know her gain righteousness and hence immortality (5:15; 15:3; 6:17–20; 8:9–21). The ungodly, who have “reasoned unsoundly” (2:1) and are blinded to “the secret purposes of God” (2:22) are rejected by God and by the very forces of the cosmos that they failed to appreciate. God “will arm all creation to repel his enemies” (5:17) and punish them by the very instruments of their sin (11:16).

The author of the Wisdom of Solomon is poised precariously between the exclusive nationalist tradition of Israel and the universalist impulses of Hellenistic metaphysics. If, as the book indicates, wisdom is a cosmic principle of order that is immanent in the universe, her benefits of righteousness and immortality are not confined to Israel and should be equally accessible to all. Moreover, the author is explicit that God loves all that he has created and that his “immortal spirit is in all things” (11:23–12:1). There is no indication that anyone is bound by distinctive requirements from God's special revelation to Israel, such as circumcision, Sabbath observance, or dietary restrictions. Israel's high priest apparently intercedes for all humanity (18:24). While chapters 10–19 present key figures from the Pentateuch as types of the righteous and wicked, proper names are consistently avoided and the ancestral history is universalized so that the types could be appropriated by anyone.

Nevertheless, Israel's forebears provide the book's only concrete paradigms for righteous behavior, and their role as types does not eliminate their ethnic and religious particularity. In contrasting Israel and her enemies, the author unequivocally affirms Israel's privileged position. Addressing God, the author calls Israel “your people…your children…your servants…your children, to whose ancestors you gave oaths and covenants full of good promises!” Egyptians and Canaanites, on the other hand, are enemies of God's servants and deserve death (12: 18–22). That this dichotomy informs the author's concept of the people of God in his own time is shown by his use of first person pronouns: the biblical forebears are “our ancestors” and their ancient adversaries “our enemies.” Whether the author believed one could achieve righteousness and immortality apart from God's special manifestations to Israel is unclear. In theory it is possible. To the rulers of the earth in the opening address he declares that God “is found by those who do not put him to the test, and manifests himself to those who do not distrust him” (1:2), and in 13:1–9 he insists, as Paul does in Romans 1:19–20, that failure to attain at least some knowledge of God through human reason is inexcusable. However, the very disparaging assessment of human reasoning in 9:13–17 makes it questionable whether that which he allowed in theory he considered possible or likely in actual practice.

Formative Influences.

Naturally the author draws extensively on the wisdom traditions of Israel, both the narrative accounts of Israel's greatest sage (1 Kgs 3; 2 Chr 1) and the wisdom writings themselves (especially Proverbs and Ecclesiastes). The personification of wisdom builds on that in Proverbs 8, Job 28, and Sirach 24. The books of Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers provide the characters and events deployed in the Book of History to illustrate wisdom's workings in history. In Wisdom 2–5, in distinguishing between appearances and reality and contrasting the destinies of the righteous and wicked, the author is influenced by Israel's apocalyptic tradition (e.g., Daniel and 1 Enoch) as well as the description of the suffering servant in Isaiah 40–55. The language of the Psalms also surfaces regularly, as in the addresses to the rulers of the earth. The polemic against idolatry in Wisdom 13–15 recalls idol parodies in both biblical and post-biblical Jewish sources.

Most distinctive of the Wisdom of Solomon, however, is the fusion of these Jewish traditions and Hellenistic philosophy, especially Middle Platonism with its synthesis of Stoic and Platonic ideas. The development of the cosmic dimension of wisdom beyond what is found in the earlier wisdom writings is heavily indebted to Stoicism. Wisdom, like the Stoic Logos/Pneuma, is the all-pervasive principle of order in the universe. As in Stoicism, the ideal is to live in harmony with this cosmic principle of order. The description of wisdom as “humane” or “benevolent” follows the Stoic doctrine of philanthropia, and the reference to God's oversight of his creation employs the Stoic term pronoia, “providence.” The conviction that the cosmos is so structured that it “exerts itself to punish the unrighteous and in kindness relaxes itself on behalf of those who trusted in you [God]” (16:24; 19:18–21) draws on Stoic conceptions. Platonic influence is evident in the language of God's transcendence, the emphasis on the immortality of the soul (complete with a reference to the preexistence of the soul [8:19–20] and a statement that the body weighs down the soul [9:15]), and the concept of creation out of “formless matter” (11:17). The pursuit of wisdom leads to the four cardinal virtues prized in Stoic and Platonic thought (8:7). The representation of the materialist's perspective in Wisdom 2 may be indebted to Epicureanism, and certain epithets predicated of wisdom may be modeled on language used to praise Isis in the cult of that Egyptian goddess. The explanation of the origin of idolatry in Wisdom 14:12 may be dependent on Euhemeristic theory about the origin of the gods.

The closest affinities are with the author's near contemporary, Philo of Alexandria, although the similarities are not such as to indicate direct borrowings one way or the other. In particular, Philo's Logos, which is sometimes identified with wisdom and treated as an intermediate reality between the transcendent God and the world, bears close kinship to the figure of wisdom in the Wisdom of Solomon, although the latter is not as fully developed or theologically sophisticated as Philo's.

Text and Versions.

The Greek text is well preserved in five uncial codices and several papyrus fragments that date from the third to the eighth centuries, as well as in more than forty later minuscule manuscripts. The critical edition by Joseph Ziegler, published as part of the Göttingen Septuagint in 1962, relies most heavily on the great fourth- and fifth-century uncials Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, and Alexandrinus, but also takes into account all other known manuscripts, citations, and versions.

Ancient versions in Latin, Coptic (Sahidic and Bohairic), Syriac (three recensions), Ethiopic (Geʾez), Arabic, and Armenian survive in whole or in part. Of these, the most valuable for textual criticism is the Old Latin, which Jerome left untouched when he generated what became the Latin Vulgate. Produced in North Africa in the late second century C.E., the Old Latin preserves some readings earlier than those that have survived in any Greek manuscripts, as well as glosses that are revealing about early interpretation of the book.

The two titles that have endured, “Wisdom of Solomon” and “Book of Wisdom,” derive, respectively, from the Greek manuscripts and the Old Latin. The Syriac Peshitta version entitles the work the “Book of the Great Wisdom of Solomon, son of David,” and the Arabic calls it the “Book of the Wisdom of Solomon, son of King David, who ruled over the children of Israel.”

Reception and Canonical Status.

The Wisdom of Solomon had no discernable impact on subsequent Jewish thought but has been used widely in Christian tradition. A number of elements in the book illuminate the New Testament, although there are no explicit citations and it is debatable whether the New Testament writers drew directly from Wisdom or merely from traditions in common with it. Representations of Christ as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Col 1:15), the “Word” (John 1:1–18), and the “reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being” (Heb 1:3) are reminiscent of wisdom's portrayal in Wisdom 7:25–26. The notion of wisdom as a spirit with cosmic, personal, and historical dimensions may have influenced Pauline and other early Christian conceptions of the Holy Spirit. Paul's “natural theology” and critique of human depravity in Romans 1:18–27 resonates with the argument in Wisdom 13:1–9. The depiction of the persecuted righteous person in Wisdom 2:12–20 may be reflected in Matthew 27:43. Other possible resonances include the description of God's armor in Ephesians 6:11–17 (cf. Wis 5:17–20) and Paul's description of God as a sovereign potter who fashions out of the same clay objects for both noble and common purposes (Rom 7:21; cf. Wis 15:7).

Patristic writers cited the work explicitly and frequently, especially in formulating Christological and trinitarian doctrine. Thus Ignatius employed language from Wisdom 7:29–30 and 18:14–15 in his presentation of Christ's appearing. Athenagoras applied Wisdom 7:25 to the Holy Spirit, and Origen exploited the list of wisdom's attributes in Wisdom 7:22–8:1 to describe the eternal generation of the Son by the Father and the sharing of the Father and Son in the same essence. Augustine used the same passage to argue for the full equality of the persons of the Trinity. Augustine also drew on Wisdom 9:15–17, according to which the perishable body weighs down the soul and spiritual insight is possible only with the gift of the spirit, to articulate his anthropology; and he read the portrayal of the persecuted righteous one in Wisdom 2:12–20 as a prediction of Christ's passion. Ambrose and others found a foreshadowing of the crucifixion in the reference to the saving wood of Noah's ark: “Blessed is the wood by which righteousness comes” (14:7).

The Wisdom of Solomon is considered part of the Apocrypha in Protestant tradition but is included in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox canons of the Old Testament. This divergence is traceable to two towering figures in late fourth- and early fifth-century Christianity: Jerome and Augustine. Jerome distinguished sharply between the works in the Hebrew Bible and those such as Wisdom that were preserved only in Greek in the Septuagint. Although he considered these latter works edifying and included them in the translation that came to be called the Latin Vulgate, he judged them “apocryphal” and not authoritative for establishing doctrine. Martin Luther's placement of the Apocrypha in a separate collection between the Old and New Testaments in his German Bible of 1534 solidified the Protestant canonical perspective.

Roman Catholic tradition, on the other hand, took its cue from Augustine, who argued against Jerome and endorsed the wider canon that included Wisdom. This position was formalized by the Council of Trent in 1546, where all of the works found in the Latin Vulgate were declared “sacred and canonical.” Even so, what are called Apocrypha in Protestant tradition came to be designated “deuterocanonical” in Catholic tradition in recognition of the fact that they are absent from Hebrew Scripture and were added to the collection later.

Orthodox churches have likewise generally accepted the wider canon (explicitly so at the Council of Jerusalem in 1672), though with considerable tolerance of diverse regional practice and with acknowledgement from as early as the fourth century that the deuterocanonical works are not on a par with other Old Testament books. Greek-speaking Orthodox churches today tend to subscribe to the broader Old Testament canon without differentiating between canonical and deuterocanonical, but there is ongoing discussion in some Orthodox communities, especially Russian Orthodoxy, about the status of the works not found in the Hebrew Bible.

While the deuterocanonical status of Wisdom has limited its role in doctrinal formulation, liturgical and other uses have continued unabated in both Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Thus, for example, Wisdom 3:1 provides language for widely used Catholic prayers for the dead. In Orthodox liturgy, Wisdom is second only to the book of Psalms among the Old Testament books in frequency of usage; vesper services draw especially heavily from the book. Nor are significant doctrinal uses lacking; Wisdom has figured prominently in the Catholic doctrines of the immortality of the soul and the possibility of knowing God through nature and reason.

The Wisdom of Solomon has the distinction of being the only book found in ancient canon lists of both the Old and New Testaments. Indeed, it is included in what is perhaps the earliest known New Testament canon list—the Muratorian Fragment, probably from the late second or early third century. Such status for Wisdom does not find support elsewhere, but the Muratorian Fragment does further attest the work's popularity in early Christianity.



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Randall D. Chesnutt