The gift of Wisdom

The Book of Wisdom, or the Wisdom of Solomon, is another of those books whose place in the bible is disputed. Like several of the uncontroversially canonical wisdom books, it links itself with the proverbially wise king, Solomon. Unlike them it was written very late, probably a few decades before the time of Jesus. This means that it also offers evidence of the sorts of beliefs that were important to some groups of Jews at the turn of the eras.

One of its most famous sections is most likely to be encountered at funerals. It also occurs as one of the readings for All Souls’ Day.1 In its original context it may well be extolling martyrs, and reflecting on how God will give justice in the afterlife to those who didn’t receive it in this one.2 It helps fill out the ways in which belief in life after death was being thought about by Jews close to the time of Jesus. Another reading about death, and more specifically about God destining humans for eternity, comes as the related reading to the story of Jesus raising Jairus’ daughter.3

Detail from The Raising of Jairus’ daughter, Paolo Veronese c.1546

There are other key themes in the Book of Wisdom. Unsurprisingly, this includes the importance of finding, or perhaps better, receiving wisdom, since wisdom is the power of God to dwell in human lives, the bridge between God’s eternal light and the human soul. In the passages we looked at in Proverbs it was easy to see echoes of how themes about wisdom became themes about the divine Word for the early Christians.4 In many of the passages in Wisdom, it is easy to see how they also inform early Christian thinking about the Holy Spirit.

Another theme of the book is a polemic against idols, the statues of deities, which could be found absolutely everywhere in the Mediterranean world. Every shopping trip would take you past several cult statues and temples. It emphasises something of the culture shock that Gentile converts to Christianity would have in coming to terms with the biblical tradition attacking carved images of the gods.

The book then finishes in a retelling of the Exodus story as the difference between a people who know they have been made by God’s divine hand, and peoples who have instead hand-made their own gods.


Notes

  1. Anglicans can also read it on All Saints’ Day, Year B.
  2. The passage, from Wisdom 3, begins “But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them.”
  3. The reading is Wisdom 1:13-15,2:23-24, and is used in Year B, the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Proper 8.
  4. The divine Word also occurs in Wisdom. Christians, including the biblical writers, often wrenched verses from their original context, especially where they saw a connection with the story of Jesus. One verse from Wisdom, taken out of the context of judgement and put in the context of salvation, became part of the reason for celebrating a Christmas Midnight Mass. “For while gentle silence enveloped all things, and night in its swift course was now half gone, your all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne” (Wisdom 18:14-15a)

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