Thoughts on the Book of Wisdom

The apocryphal Biblical text, sometimes called the “Book of Wisdom” is a collection of 19 chapters intended to encourage readers and listeners to pursue a life of wisdom. It is a non-canonical text that likely emerged from the educated city of Alexandria, Egypt. It is sometimes attributed to Solomon and was listed in the Vulgate as “Liber Sapientiae” or the “Book of Wisdom.” Early Christians considered the text as part of the “Old Testament” with the rest of the Wisdom books, and some Catholics continue this tradition today, however most denominations of Christianity consider the book apocryphal.

The frame of the text is less of a dialogue or a story, and more of a theological treatise or prayer. It is listed as one of the seven “Sapiential Wisdom Books” of the Greek Septuagint, along with Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Sirach (another apocryphal text). It contains more than a hint of influences from Epicureanism, as well as echoes of Stoicism.

The text contains some beautiful poetry, however I was troubled by this book. What is wisdom (understood Biblically)? Why should someone pursue a life of wisdom?

According to Chapter 1, wisdom is akin to “righteousness” -or upright moral behavior. In order to act according to righteousness, one must first be persuaded and reared to do so. Chapter 2 indicates that the unwise bemoan the apparent meaningless in the world (a la Ecclesiastes), while the wise will be rewarded by God with “blessings” and “glorious fruits of their labor.”

Therefore, wisdom (the theologian teaches) should be pursued not for its own sake, as might be said among philosophers, but rather wisdom must be pursued to avoid suffering, and even to gain rewards from God. People should seek wisdom because it pleases God, and he will provide rewards. The text approaches human beings with a promise and a threat.

Both philosophy and theology teach the goodness of wisdom, but theology claims to distribute divine rewards and punishments. For theology, everyone should pursue a life of wisdom, or else face consequences, while philosophy is not necessarily accessible to all. Additionally, philosophy cannot make such a promise of bliss. The historical life of a philosopher is dangerous, and in many cases; deadly, however this is also true of the theologian.

At Chapter 6, the text laments the lack of wisdom of the great kings, who have forgotten that power comes only from God. The writer promises to bring to light the nature of wisdom, he gives an apologia. Where did he receive wisdom? When he was young he “cried out” and the “spirit of wisdom” came unto him from God (7:7) -a greater possession than riches (note: the same claim was made by the Sophists in ancient Athens -that wisdom could be taught and possessed, contra Socrates as described in Plato’s dialogues). Is wisdom the same as knowledge?

The remaining chapters of the text detail an extended prayer of thanks to God for apportioning all things according to wisdom. As in the surviving manuscript of Boethius from the ‘Middle Ages’, Wisdom is personified, as a female person at the right-hand of God. She is praised for her beauty. The author follows wisdom through an abbreviated story of the Torah. The text is intended to be educational for kings, as well as autobiographical, but also a scholarly reflection on theological implications of wisdom. It is a fascinating mix of prose styles in one single short book. However, the philosophical questions still linger at the end of the text: What is wisdom? And, can it be taught?

For this reading I used an internet-based Project Gutenberg translation.

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