Wisdom Literature

Wisdom Literature
Wisdom Literature

Historians of the ancient world have come to recognize that wisdom literature represents the expressions of cultures and civilizations that rely on human experience to cope with life’s mysteries and uncertainties.

The genre is pervasive over a wide spectrum of peoples in many ages and places. Wisdom literature in the Bible is a genre that is somewhere between the prophetic and the apocalyptic writings in its content and style.

When the prophets of the Bible became fewer and less vocal after the Babylonian captivity, the teachers of wisdom began to promote their perspective as the representatives of biblical faith. After them there arose, centuries later, the seers and mystics who were writers of apocalypticism.


In many ways the teachers of biblical wisdom coincided with the development of philosophy in the Greek intellectual world as it outgrew the mythical explanations of the creation and life crafted by Homer and Hesiod. The time period for both biblical wisdom and Greek philosophy was the fifth–fourth centuries b.c.e. and later, otherwise known as the Persian, or Attic, Period.

The Hebrew people drew upon three sources for their wisdom literature. First, Israel had produced leaders and thinkers over the centuries whose achievements had been remembered, studied, and emulated.

In the course of its history, such figures as Solomon, Daniel, and Baruch had made an impression on later generations as teachers of wisdom. Thus, traditions developed that were native to the Hebrew people and distinctive in comparison to neighboring ethnic groups.

By the same token, many other ancient kings and rulers had reputations for dispensing wisdom and sound advice, and stories circulated in their societies that would enhance public trust in their administration. Second, the nature of government and civilization favored the emergence of educated classes who could organize peoples and run social institutions.

These people had to learn reading and writing, and they specialized in bringing stability to otherwise chaotic situations. This source of wisdom literature, therefore, relied on scribes and bureaucrats who had the leisure for reflection and writing. They might have had the resources to travel, learn other languages, and consider moderate reforms.

Third, the surrounding nations of the Middle East also presented a rich matrix for biblical wisdom literature. The Egyptians, the Sumerians, and the Babylonians were most famous for their wisdom teachings.

Their traditions emerged long before the Greeks and the Hebrews of the fifth–fourth centuries b.c.e. Scribal schools probably sprang up in response to the demands of Middle Eastern governments for able administrators. Masters who exercised great influence over their pupils led such schools.

This phenomenon also is similar to the education that was offered by the purveyors of sophism (and perhaps Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle) in the Greek world. Invariably, in most of these environments the scribal classes favored stability and order, and so wisdom literature was largely supportive of the status quo.

Ancient Egypt in particular was the center for learning for thousands of years. As is often the case in wisdom literature, Egyptian materials come in the form of a father’s advice to his sons. One very old collection of sayings, the Instruction of Vizier Ptah-hotep (2400 b.c.e.), shows parallels to the biblical book of Proverbs.

Schools set up for educating Egyptian civil servants about their roles in court life are the background for passages in the Instruction of Amenemope (1000–600 b.c.e.) and excerpted and adapted by the editor of Proverbs. The civilization of Sumer has proverbs almost as old as Egypt’s.

Clearly it also had scribal schools set up by its government. Sumerian editors organized their wisdom materials by topic and theme, while it is hard to find the organizational thread that unites much of biblical wisdom. Sumerian observations on nature also do not moralize as much as the Hebrew writings.

The city-states of Akkad and Babylon also gave a milieu for Hebrew biblical traditions. One theme of wisdom literature has to do with undeserved suffering, most famously expressed by the long-suffering hero Job in the Bible.

This theme is found in the Babylonian poem I Will Praise the Lord of Wisdom, whose main character is often called the Babylonian Job, and in other works such as Dialogue about Human Misery and Dialogue of Pessimism.

There are a couple other possible influences on Hebrew wisdom literature. First, there is a fragmentary book from the Aramaeans called Proverbs of Ahiqar that was well known in the ancient Middle Eastern world and translated into many languages.

The earliest written text, however, for Ahiqar comes from the Persian Period. Then there is the Greek world, with its later emphasis on rationalism and science. Biblical books such as Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon, and Ecclesiastes may betray familiarity with late Greek philosophy.

The themes of Hebrew wisdom imply that the God of the Bible works through creation, natural phenomena, and life experiences. Contemplation of the created order gives perspective for life’s most vexing problems: death, sickness, and poverty.

There is often optimism in early wisdom literature that everything has a purpose and that this purpose can be discovered. Later wisdom literature, however, shows skepticism that nature alone will supply answers. Even wisdom has its limits in the face of the mystery of suffering.

Wisdom books in the Bible are distinguished from others because they do not depend on law and prophecies—direct revelation—for their validity. These books include Proverbs, Job, Qoheleth, Sirach, and Wisdom of Solomon (Greek). Other candidates for this category are Song of Solomon and specific parts of Genesis, Psalms, Jonah, Daniel, and Baruch (Greek).

In the New Testament one can find the semblances of wisdom sayings in many of the speeches of Jesus (Christ) of Nazareth and in the practical teachings of the letter of James. In fact, there is a tension between the wisdom dimension of much of the New Testament and the apocalyptic urgency of the Kingdom of God in its preaching.

Outside of the Bible canon are later pseudepigraphical sources (e.g., 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch [Syriac], Odes of Solomon), and many believe that rabbinic Judaism has its roots in the traditions of Hebrew wisdom literature.

According to the Bible, true wisdom is personified as a woman in a variety of positive female roles. The book of Proverbs especially shows her to be a hostess, a sister, a wife, and source of intimate revelation about how the biblical God relates to creation. In some cases she serves as a mediator between God and humanity.

Early models for this image can be found in the Egyptian concept of maat, or cosmic truth or balance, and in the Canaanite fertility goddess of Asherah, who was symbolized as a tree of life and who hosted banquets in the Ugaritic myths of Baal.

In the New Testament aspects of personified wisdom were incarnated in the divinized identity of Jesus Christ. Rabbinic Jews tended to interpret any personification of wisdom in terms of the Halakah, or the religious duties of daily life.