The Wisdom of Solomon – Recap Session 1
The Septuagint, an early Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, included a number of Jewish writings beyond the traditional Torah, Prophets, and Writings. The Septuagint was completed around 132 b.c.e. and was widely circulated among early Christians. When the Jewish canon was finalized somewhere between 100 and 200 ad, (c.e.) several of the books included in the Septuagint were not included in the Hebrew Bible canon.
These books became known as the Apocrypha, a term first used by Jerome to describe this set of books that he didn’t think should be included in the Christian canon. (Augustine had persuaded Jerome to include these books in his translation to the Vulgate [Latin] against Jerome’s better judgment. The Vulgate was completed around 405 c.e.)
Apocrypha means “hidden things”. They were hidden because they contain things that had mysterious or esoteric teachings. – perhaps heretical. This set of books is also referred to as Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical books. This distinguished them from the Protocanon – books (Old Testament) about which there was no (Catholic) debate. The Deuterocanon describes books that were accepted as canonical at the Council of Trent in 1566. (The Council of Trent followed the start of the Protestant Reformation, begun in Germany by Martin Luther in 1517. Luther was adamantly opposed to including any of the books of the Apocrypha as part of the canon.)
In his translation, Jerome had followed the Hebrew canon in the Old Testament, but included a preface distinguishing between the Hebrew canon and the apocrypha. After the Council of Trent, the books of the Apocrypha were included in sequence with other books in the Catholic bible. For example, Tobit and Judith came after Nehemiah. The Prayer of Manasseh and 1 and 2 Esdras appear in an index after the New Testament – without implying canonical status.
Today, most Protestant churches do not recognize the books of the Apocrypha as Scripture or authoritative, therefore they are not included in most Bibles used by Protestants. For United Methodists, however, reading from the Apocrypha, while not considered authoritative, is now an option in the commonly used lectionaries.
The Wisdom of Solomon is a Jewish writing, preserved (and probably originally written) in Greek. It was used as Scripture as early as the third century by Clement of Alexandria, and became part of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox canons, but is considered part of the Apocrypha by many Protestant groups. Although the author claims to be King Solomon, it has been recognized as literary fiction since ancient times. The author was probably a Hellenistic Jew writing some time in the late first century b.c.e. or the first century c.e., possibly in Alexandria in Egypt.
The Wisdom of Solomon (or The Book of Wisdom, as it is also called) is considered wisdom literature, similar to Job, Ecclesiastes or Proverbs. The genre of the book has been considered as an “encomium “, or alternatively, as an “exhortatory discourse”, or perhaps an ancient diatribe.
The first six chapters constitute what some interpreters consider the introduction to an encomium, an ancient work praising something, in this case the quality of wisdom. Under this interpretation, Chapters 7-9 are the encomium proper, followed by a comparison (Chapters 10-18), and finally an epilogue and conclusion (Chapter 19).
Other interpreters consider the first six chapters to be a Book of Eschatology (study of the end times). Chapters 7-10 are considered a Book of Wisdom, and chapters 11-19 are a Book of History. Still other interpreters see other types of structure in this collection.
The first verse of the first chapter of the Wisdom of Solomon (Wisdom 1:1) establishes that the book is intended to give advice to the “rulers of the earth” – even though we are aware that the actual audience is the Hellenistic (Greek) Jewish community, probably around Alexandria. The figure of Wisdom is introduced in the book as a holy spirit, or a spirit of the Lord (Wisdom 1:4–5). After verse 7, specific references to Wisdom disappear until the sixth chapter. The early chapters of the book contrast righteousness and wickedness, where the earth’s rulers are encouraged to embrace righteousness, and hence immortality. The next ten verses (Wisdom 1:6 – 15) counsel the unrighteous on how to avoid death (eternal separation from God) by watching their tongues and hands – being careful about what they say or do. God did not make, nor does He delight in death. Righteousness leads to immortality.
Next, the author describes the deluded reasoning of the ungodly (Wisdom 1:16–2:24). The unrighteous believe everything is material, life and creation came about by accident, and death is the end of the individual. This Epicurean viewpoint goes further to actively challenge the lives of the righteous. The wicked refuse to know God.
In Chapters Three and Four, the author demonstrates the contrast between the just and the wicked (the unrighteous). The first contrast involves suffering and death (Wisdom 3:1–12). “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God. “ The author repeatedly emphasizes the importance of the soul in human identity. The righteous are rewarded even though it often doesn’t seem like they are being rewarded. To others it may look like they have been punished in death, but the faithful will abide with God. The unrighteous, on the other hand, will be punished. “Their labors are unprofitable and their works are useless.”
The second contrast (Wisdom 3:13–19) tells us that it is better to be childless than to have children born of wickedness. In this turn on the traditional Old Testament understanding that bearing children is a sign of God’s blessing, we are told that there are times that bearing children is a curse. For the righteous, barrenness may be the real blessing. Barrenness, often thought to indicate divine displeasure, if not sin, may be the condition of the morally pure.
The two additional contrasts between the righteous and the unrighteous in chapter four will be discussed in the next session. Increasingly we will see the anguish of the wicked compared with the salvation of the righteous. Beginning in chapter six, the figure of wisdom will become the main subject and the identity of King Solomon as the author becomes more apparent.
Primary Text: The New Oxford Annotated Apocrypha – New Revised Standard Version, (Revised Fourth Edition) Michael D. Coogan, Editor, Oxford University Press, 2010
Other Sources: Wisdom of Solomon, (T&T Clark Study Guides), by Lester L. Grabbe, T&T Clarke International, 1997
Next Week: Chapters 4 – 7; Introduction to wisdom literature