The Oxford Handbook of Wisdom and the Bible

Written by Will Kynes, ed. Reviewed By Cristian G. Rata

The Oxford Handbook of Wisdom and the Bible reflects on the current state of Wisdom Literature and hopes to shape its future. However, as “the study of Wisdom Literature does not completely comprehend the study of wisdom as a concept in the Bible and related cultures” (p. viii), the first half of the handbook explores wisdom as a concept. To achieve this goal, Will Kynes has assembled an impressive team of scholars who specialize in biblical books typically associated with Wisdom Literature, as well as students of wisdom in comparable cultures.

Kynes helpfully introduces the handbook by discussing wisdom and Wisdom Literature (past, present, and future). He rightly points out the current high interest in biblical wisdom and assesses the state of the field, but he exaggerates the demise of Wisdom Literature as a category. (For further reading, see his An Obituary for “Wisdom Literature”: The Birth, Death, and Intertextual Reintegration of a Biblical Corpus [New York: Oxford University Press, 2019].) It is unlikely that there will be a “paradigm shift” away from Wisdom Literature as a category, because there are obvious pragmatic benefits for highlighting significant affinities between the terminology and goals of the texts typically included in this category (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job).

The handbook is divided into six major parts. The first part, consisting of six chapters, focuses on the multifaceted concept of wisdom in the Hebrew Bible. Jaqueline Vayntrub begins in chapter 2 by focusing on wisdom’s association with practical advice for achieving skill and success. This is an appropriate place to start since wisdom is primarily about skill for living an optimum life.

The other chapters in the first part deal with how wisdom connects to knowledge and revelation (its epistemology), its role and association with virtue for character formation, its theology—especially in connection with creation and covenant—and its vision of order in the world. The chapters are well written, highly instructive, and reflect the knowledge of scholars who have dedicated significant time to their study. However, some weaknesses are evident, particularly their sometimes simplistic and speculative reconstruction of the history of the texts, their exaggerated highlighting of differences, and occasional readings of personal, modern concerns into the ancient texts.

Raymond C. Van Leeuwen’s article in chapter 5 is especially useful as a corrective for those who draw a sharp distinction between wisdom and covenant, thus creating a “false dichotomy” for theology. He demonstrates how the very possibility of wisdom and covenant depend on creation. The “primal Noahic covenant” with creation is necessary for Israel’s covenants, which “presuppose YHWH’s wise cosmic sovereignty, even when they do not mention creation” (p. 79, emphasis original). The end of the article provides a superb integration of creation, wisdom, and covenant: “Finally, wisdom’s delight in creation and Creator returns us to the fear of the Lord, which is the beginning of wisdom and the sine qua non for covenant-keeping” (p. 80, emphasis original).

Despite some minor disagreements, I find Ludger Schwienhorst-Schönberger’s article on order to be one of the highlights of this handbook. She demonstrates a solid understanding of all three basic wisdom books of the Old Testament (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job) and clearly explains how order, crisis of order, and deepened understanding of God’s maintained order progress in Job and beyond. The crisis of order in Wisdom Literature is “overcome by a deepened understanding of God’s action and presence in the world” (p. 99). In a few instances, some concepts seem to need a better explanation, for example, the ethics of love towards God and the neighbor and their connection to wisdom (p. 86).

The second part of the handbook comprises seven chapters that focus on the concept of wisdom in related cultures, including ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Dead Sea Scrolls and early Jewish interpretation, Greek civilization, the New Testament, later Patristic interpretation (with a focus on Athanasius), and Rabbinic literature. The articles suffer from superficiality and a lack of focus, particularly in terms of their engagement with the biblical text(s). While the articles are generally useful, especially for their bibliography and their insight into related cultures, they sometimes betray a limited understanding of wisdom in the Hebrew Bible.

For Old Testament relevance the following comment by Joachim Friedrich Quack (Wisdom in Egypt) is especially useful, “It is important to note that loosely organized sayings without clear overall structure are definitely later than works well-organized into well-contained maxims” (p. 111). Thus, the attested situation for wisdom in Egypt does not support the later dating of Proverbs 1–9 common in mainstream scholarship and later evidenced in this handbook.

The chapter by Mariam Kamell Kovalishyn on wisdom in the New Testament is particularly instructive. She suggests that “the link between wisdom and right worship should continue to gain focus,” and observes that wisdom can no longer “be discussed apart from the Crucified Lamb” (p. 184). Her conclusion rightly highlights the importance of the Spirit’s empowering and the necessity of obedience to Christ “to participate in the Wisdom of God.”

Part 2 commonly exaggerates the possible parallels with other literature and tends to underestimate the superiority, depth, and complexity of the biblical texts. Contemporary interpreters must face the problem of explaining how Ecclesiastes can be considered late (as most scholars tend to believe) while also being discussed in connection with the Gilgamesh Epic or even earlier texts from the ANE.

Part 3, the weakest section in the handbook, explores the concept of wisdom in the modern world by interacting with the Islamic tradition, Jewish theology, Christian theology, feminist theologies, wisdom in nature, and the pervasiveness of wisdom in (con)texts, particularly in the Far East. The essay on wisdom in Islam stands out as one of the most informative. The articles on wisdom in Jewish and Christian theology are also useful, even if understandably superficial (e.g., Emmanuel Levinas is covered in less than a page).

I find especially useful Paul Fiddes’s division of wisdom into “Wisdom A” and “Wisdom B,” where the former is practical and the latter is relational (“Wisdom in Christian Theology,” ch. 16). In reality, they are “one, displaying two different aspects of wisdom. On the one hand, wisdom comes from … the careful collecting of evidence; it is a skill requiring discipline and humility, or ‘the fear of the Lord.’ On the other hand, wisdom has a personal, relational quality, symbolized by the figure of Lady Wisdom; wisdom is learning to be attuned to creation and its creator, vibrating with its rhythms of life, living in sympathy with others. The wise live in a world where they are always receiving the offer to participate in God’s wisdom, seeing the world as God sees it. Practical and relational wisdom thus belong together, each assisting each other” (p. 257). For Fiddes, Christ as both prophet of Wisdom (Sophia) and God’s Wisdom “expresses the integration of wisdom as observation (A) and participation (B)” (p. 270).

The fourth part focuses on the category of Wisdom Literature and comprises five chapters. It covers Solomon and the Solomonic collection, the social setting of Wisdom Literature, the literary genres of OT wisdom, its chronological development, and the theology of wisdom. Readers should note Markus Witte’s essay on the literary genres of OT wisdom, while Longman’s article on the theology of wisdom is a must read as it effectively demolishes the idea that the book of Proverbs (and wisdom in general) was originally secular. He demonstrates well that “the consistent message of the Hebrew Bible is that true wisdom is found in God and that humans can only acquire wisdom through a relationship with God characterized by “fear” (p. 403). All three basic wisdom books of the Old Testament reveal “a pervasive theological dimension focused on the concept of the “fear of the Lord” (p. 404). Thus, one must trust, fear, and obey YHWH, the God of Israel in order to obtain wisdom.

The fifth part of this handbook contains five chapters. John McLaughlin proposes three useful overlapping criteria to evaluate “Wisdom influence”: the presence of distinctive Wisdom elements, Wisdom usage, and “the presence of a number of different Wisdom elements distributed through a significant portion of the work in question” (p. 420). Jonathan Burnside guides his readers toward a complementary (not dichotomous) understanding of Law and Wisdom (ch. 26). God gave both Torah and wisdom in order to establish a human society based on justice and righteousness. Suzanna Millar briefly discusses the methodology for finding wisdom influence in historical texts, but she decides to pursue an intertextual approach in which “Wisdom” (human and divine) is used as a helpful lens for reading (ch. 27). She looks at five different narratives (including Adam and Eve, 1 Kings 1–11, Esther) and concludes that they “can be fruitfully read through a Wisdom lens” (p. 456).

Mark Boda’s article on prophecy and Wisdom Literature (ch. 28) is the highlight of part 5. He effectively challenges the common misconception that “wisdom in the Hebrew Bible is largely anthropocentric, a search for truth and meaning apart from divine revelation and illumination” (p. 468). Though Wisdom Literature is different from prophecy, it has a clear revelatory nature that is expanded to include “all humanity.” By advocating an intertextual approach to texts often associated with Wisdom and Prophecy, Boda demonstrates “the creational and international quality of prophetic literature” (p. 470). In the last essay of this section, Bennie Reynolds III makes a good effort to clarify the relationship between wisdom and apocalyptic (ch. 29).

The sixth and final section comprises eight chapters devoted to the texts usually associated with Wisdom Literature, including Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, Song of Songs, Wisdom psalms, Ben Sira, the Wisdom of Solomon, and the wisdom texts found at Qumran. In general, all of these articles are useful in bringing students up to date on the latest issues associated with each text. The most useful and balanced articles in this section are those dealing with Proverbs and Wisdom psalms. Most of these authors could have saved space by skipping the parts dealing with ANE parallels, as experts in the field cover these parallels in section two. They could have, instead, focused on theology and the contribution of the books to wisdom as skill for living the optimal life.

Overall, Kynes’s handbook successfully brings scholars up to date with the latest issues in wisdom and Wisdom Literature. The essays I highlighted are worth reading carefully with pen and paper in hand. Unfortunately, some sections provide limited gain and require considerable discernment to separate unfounded speculations and poorly argued conclusions. Although the book offers valuable insights, it may confuse and even mislead inexperienced students.

Cristian G. Rata

Cristian G. Rata
Training Leaders International
Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

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