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The Wisdom of Solomon and the Solomon of Wisdom: Tradition's Transpositions and Human Transformation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 September 2014

Barbara Green
Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, Graduate Theological Union


Scripture offers readers not a prescriptive printout but a recital behind our experience, invites a transformative engagement between text and life. The main insight available from Wisdom of Solomon is that Wisdom, intimate of God and structuring element of all creation, saves her friends into Life, not without their collaboration; the alternative is Death. Processes of transposition and transformation are the hermeneutical key to the book, both as authored and as read. The book's few central claims shift from genre to genre and from section to section for fresh and illustrative presentation. Transformation is also the challenge offered to readers: reappropriate the heritage afresh and thus survive. The envisioned transposition implies not simply change but growth out of a profound fidelity to something valued. What is at stake in the book is the “mother of transformations”: the journey from life through death, either to Life or to nothingness (Death), but also the survival of the Jewish community in Alexandria in the first century C.E.

Copyright © The College Theology Society 2003

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1 Lakeland, Paul, Postmodernity: Christianity in a Fragmented Age (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997) 39.Google Scholar

2 Lakeland, , Postmodernity, 9192.Google Scholar

3 My understanding of transformation relies on the thought of Schneiders, Sandra, whose work on the Fourth Gospel is relevant to the book of Wisdom: Written That You May Believe: Encountering Jesus in the Fourth Gospel (New York: Crossroad, 1999)Google Scholar, chaps. 4 and 9 in particular; and on that of Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, whose work as most useful to biblical scholars I have presented in Green, Barbara, Mikhail Bakhtin and Biblical Scholarship: An Introduction (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2000).Google Scholar

4 For a concise review of scholarship see Mack, Burton L. and Murphy, Roland E., Carm., O., “Wisdom Literature,” in Early Judaism and Its Modern Interpreters, ed. Kraft, Robert A. and Nickelsburg, George W.E. (Philadelphia: Fortress and Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986), 371410Google Scholar (Wisdom of Solomon is discussed specifically on 380–88). The two fullest studies are those of Reese, James M., Hellenistic Influence on the Book of Wisdom and Its Consequences (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1970)Google Scholar and Winston, David S., The Wisdom of Solomon (Garden City, NY: Anchor Doubleday, 1979).Google Scholar See also Collins, John J., Jewish Wisdom in the Hellenistic Age (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997), chaps. 8, 10, 11, 12.Google Scholar Beverly Roberts Gaventa's briefer article, “The Rhetoric of Death in the Wisdom of Solomon and the Letters of Paul,” in The Listening Heart: Essays in Wisdom and the Psalms in honor of Roland E. Murphy, O. Carm., ed. Hoglund, Kenneth G. et al. (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1987), 127–45Google Scholar, points out the shift in the sort of comparative work that is currently being done, not simply a matter of matching motifs and language but a more organic search for genuine similarities and differences (see 127–31).

5 Wright, Addison C., “The Structure of the Book of Wisdom,Biblica 48 (1967): 165–84.Google Scholar For example, when Wisdom of Solomon takes shape under the aegis of the Golden Mean, certain portions (11:15–22; 13:1–15:19) are labeled digressions, since they do not suit the architecture. I have called them digressions for years and thought of them as such. But, upon reconsideration, they are central to the book, an importance which can be obscured if one automatically labels them digressions.

6 In both a long process of studying this book and recently while working on this piece, I am most grateful for conversations with William J. Fulco, S.J., who helped me clarify my thinking and made many helpful suggestions.

7 See Day, John, “The Development of Belief in Life after Death in Ancient Israel,” in After the Exile: Essays in Honour of Rex Mason, ed. Barton, John and Reimer, David J. (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1996), 231–57Google Scholar for a more than usually inclusive discussion of the life-after-death question in biblical sources. Not all agree with his view that the concept rises early in Judaism, but his argument makes the topic less anomalous than is sometimes the case.

8 See Borgen, Peder, Early Christianity and Hellenistic Judaism (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 7981, 87–90Google Scholar for a description of other ways in which the traditional stories were available in Alexandria (e.g., a drama of the exodus in iambic trimeter by Ezekiel the tragedian).

9 Green, , Bakhtin, 5556.Google Scholar Another way to take the question is to investigate the formal match between Wisdom of Solomon and other works. Enns, Peter, “A Retelling of the Song of the Sea in Wis 10, 20–21,Biblica 76 (1995): 124Google Scholar and Exodus Retold: Ancient Exegesis of the Departure from Egypt in Wis 10:15–21 and 19:1–9 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997) traces various links and discusses midrash in a creative way. Gilbert, Maurice, “Wisdom Literature,” in Jewish Writings of the Second Temple Period: Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Qumran Sectarian Writings, Philo, Josephus, ed. Stone, Michael E. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 306–09Google Scholar weighs comparative advantages of calling the work a Logos Protreptikos (exhortation), and sees its fit with the classic genre Encomium, as Beauchamp, Paul, “Typologie et ‘Figures du Lecteur,”Recherches de Science Religieuse 7 (1990): 221–32Google Scholar prefers.

10 Though other books may speak in various ways of being rescued from death, the explicit belief in immortality is rare in the wisdom tradition. Wisdom is also atypical in maintaining a single point (or tightly conceived set of related points) in various forms; see other wisdom books which are more likely to offer multiple points in their many genres. Wisdom of Solomon also reverses some of the life-related values of other biblical literature, such as progeny or longevity (see 3:10–19).

11 See, however, Beentjes, Pancratius, “Wisdom of Solomon 3, 1–4, 19 and the Book of Isaiah,” in Studies in the Book of Isaiah: Festschrift Willem A.M. Beuken, ed. Van Ruiten, J. and Vervenne, M. (Leuven: University Press, 1997), 413–20Google Scholar, who explores resonance between the LXX Isaiah 54–57 and Wisdom of Solomon.

12 Gruen, Erich S., Heritage and Hellenism: The Reinvention of Jewish Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 7980Google Scholar points out the likely appeal for Wisdom of Solomon of biblical Joseph, who, against likelihood, rises to a position of dominance in Egypt. Gruen's work details the ways in which material familiar to most readers in its biblical articulation existed as well in other non-canonical genres.

13 Another significant change rung in this book is that, with the exception of the elaboration of idolatry, “the law” remains wholly general in this book, compared to its rich detail in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

14 It is the bronze serpent of Nm 21:6–9, which we learn is eliminated in Hezekiah's cultic reform of 2 Kgs 18:4.

15 There is, perhaps, unusual agreement on the general structure of the book. For a sense of it, as well as for discussion of details where there is greater divergence, consult Gilbert, Maurice, “Wisdom Literature,” 301–06 and Grabbe, Lester L., Wisdom of Solomon (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), 1823.Google Scholar

16 E.g., the image of the woodchip which helps steer the flood hero but resurfaces negatively when the woodcutter makes a deity of a leftover stick (Wis 10:4; 13:13; 14:6–7), or the formation from clay (7:1; 10:1; 15:8–13). Water is perhaps the most flexible of the elements in the book.

17 By using the same language to characterize both kings and the “ordinary” just, the narrator underlines their common status: e.g., the language of κρίυω, βασιλεύω, κρατέω in 1:1, 6:1–4—which serve the description of monarchs—and 3:8 and 6:21— which characterize the just.

18 The ruling metaphor is developed in the New Testament as the master-image of the reign of God, a process that includes not so much literal royalty but all in God's rule.

19 Webster, Jane S., “Sophia: Engendering Wisdom in Proverbs, Ben Sira and the Wisdom of Solomon,Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 78 (1998): 7479Google Scholar points out how “degendered” the whole book is, and surely the character Sophia, who avoids certain female imagery and partakes unexpectedly in some male traits (74). Whether that binary grouping is helpful or not, the topic of the significance of Sophia's gender, especially the socio-cultural roots of it, demands further study. For diverse and useful discussion consult Camp, Claudia V., “Woman Wisdom and The Strange Woman: Where Is Power to be Found?” in Reading Bibles, Writing Bodies: Identity and the Book, ed. Beal, Timothy K. and Gunn, David M. (London: Routledge, 1997), 85112Google Scholar; Frymer-Kensky, Tikva, In the Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture, and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1992)Google Scholar; and Schroer, Sylvia, Wisdom Has Built Her House: Studies on the Figure of Sophia in the Bible, trans. Maloney, Linda M. and McDonough, William (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996), chaps. 1, 2, 7.Google Scholar

20 An excellent, recent summary can be found in Winston, David S., “Wisdom in the Wisdom of Solomon,” in In Search of Wisdom: Essays in Memory of John G. Gammie, ed. Perdue, Leo G., Scott, Bernard Brandon, Wiseman, William Johnston (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1993), 149–64.Google Scholar

21 Winston, , “Wisdom,” 153.Google Scholar

22 This is one of the places where we can perhaps deconstruct the book's tight polarities and imagine “real readers” crossing from one stance to another. I.e., except in an idealizing literature, it is not so simple to diagnose cleanly who is just, who ungodly or to assume that they have consistent identities and behaviors. Insofar as the book is addressed to those who need to choose, we may imagine them as complex centers of consciousness, needing to discern what circumstances of their lives need radical change, which demand fidelity, and so forth.

23 Commentators have been eager to discern the identity of the just one, and candidates from within and without the canon have been named. The Enoch tradition fits in comfortably here, as summarized in Day, , “Life after Death,” 237–48.Google Scholar See Seeley, David, “Narrative, the Righteous Man and the Philosopher: An Analysis of the Story of the Dikaios in Wisdom 1–5,” Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 7 (1990): 5578CrossRefGoogle Scholar for certain Hebraic and Hellenistic texts which help compose these sentiments, including his argument that the impious are characterized in a similar way throughout the book. But my aim is to decenter a bit the question of the authorial identity of the figure and take advantage of the anonymity of the hero and the placement of the story (not in chap. 10 with the other identifiable heroes) to make a readerly suggestion.

24 We may think we spot their trace at 11:17–23, where alternatives to present reality are hinted, or at 12:8 where God sends warning wasps to assist this group.

25 These unnamed oppressors may most obviously be sensed as the group described in the book of Exodus. But readers of Wisdom of Solomon in a much later era may as readily see reference to opponents of their own experience in the Egypt of mid first century C.E. One need not choose a single referent; it can be both.

26 This notion of death underlying the book is one of its challenges, especially if one is struggling to catch resonances with surrounding cultures (see Reese, , Hellenistic Influence, 2531Google Scholar for a summary). If the issue is not the precise origin or general comparability of the Sage's understanding of death, the matter is more straightforward.

27 For a focused discussion of this huge topic, rooted in terminology as well as in world view, see Haymon, A.P., “The Survival of Mythology in the Wisdom of Solomon,” Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic and Roman Period 30 (1999): 125–39CrossRefGoogle Scholar, Collins, , Jewish Wisdom, chap. 10Google Scholar, and Hogan, Karina Martin, “The Exegetical Background of the ‘Ambiguity of Death’ in the Wisdom of Solomon,Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic and Roman Period 30 (1999): 124.CrossRefGoogle ScholarKolarcik, Michael, The Ambiguity of Death in the Book of Wisdom 1–6: A Study of Literary Structure and Interpretation (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1991)Google Scholar considers it at length and comparatively.

28 The outsiders' sins closer to home can be visited efficiently at Ex 32, Ez 8, 2 Kgs 17 among many other more diffuse sites.

29 Detailed discussions of the circumstances can be found in Borgen, Hellenistic Judaism, chap. 3; Collins, Jewish Wisdom, chaps. 8, 10; Grabbe, Wisdom, chap. 5.

30 Miller, Robert J., “Immortality and Religious Identity in Wisdom 2–5,” in Reimagining Christian Origins: A Colloquium Honoring Burton L. Mack, ed. Castelli, Elizabeth and Taussig, Hal (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1996), 199213Google Scholar, thinks the whole book works the question of how the Jewish community can deal with the question of life after death, especially when the deaths contemporaneous with it are innocent, painful, and martyred (Miller supposes that the context is the Maccabean struggles).

31 Miller, , “Immortality,” 206–10.Google Scholar