1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Wisdom Literature

WISDOM LITERATURE, the name applied to the body of Old Testament and Apocryphal writings that contain the philosophical thought of the later pre-Christian Judaism. Old Semitic philosophy was a science not of ontology in the modern sense of the term, but of practical life. For the Greeks “love of wisdom” involved inquiry into the basis and origin of things; the Hebrew “wisdom” was the capacity so to order life as to get out of it the greatest possible good. Though the early Hebrews (of the time before the 5th century B.C.) must have reflected on life, there is no trace of such reflection, of a systematic sort, in their extant literature. “Wise men” are distrusted and opposed by the prophets. The latter were concerned only with the maintenance of the sole worship of Yahweh and of social morality. This was the task of the early Hebrew thinkers, and to it a large part of the higher energy of the nation was devoted. The external law given, as was believed, by the God of Israel, was held to be the sufficient guide of life, and everything that looked like reliance on human wisdom was regarded as disloyalty to the Divine Lawgiver. While the priests developed the sacrificial ritual, it was the prophets that represented the theocratic element of the national life—they devoted themselves to their task with noteworthy persistence and ability, and their efforts were crowned with success; but their virtue of single mindedness carried with it the defect of narrowness—they despised all peoples and all countries but their own, and were intolerant of opinions, held by their fellow-citizens, that were not wholly in accordance with their own principles.

The reports of the earlier wise men, men of practical sagacity in political and social affairs, have come to us from unfriendly sources; it is quite possible that among them were some who took interest in life for its own sake, and reflected on its human moral basis. But, if this was so, no record of their reflections has been preserved. The class of sages to whom we owe the Wisdom Books did not arise till a change had come over the national fortunes and life. The firm establishment of the doctrine of practical monotheism happened to coincide in time with the destruction of the national political life (in the 6th century B.C.). At the moment when this doctrine had come to be generally accepted by the thinking part of the nation, the Jews found themselves dispersed among foreign communities, and from that time were a subject people environed by aliens, Babylonian, Persian and Greek. The prophetic office ceased to exist when its work was done, and part of the intellectual energy of the people was thus set free for other tasks than the establishment of theistic dogma. The ritual law was substantially completed by the end of the 5th century B.C.; it became the object of study, and thus arose a class of scholars, among whom were some who, under the influence of the general culture of the time, native and foreign, pushed their investigations beyond the limits of the national law and became students and critics of life. These last came to form a separate class, though without formal organization. There was a tradition of learning (Job viii. 8, xv. 10)—the results of observation and experience were handed down orally. In the 2nd century B.C., about the time when the synagogue took shape, there were established schools presided over by eminent sages, in which along with instruction in the law much was said concerning the general conduct of life (see Pirke Aboth). The social unification produced by the conquests of Alexander brought the Jews into intimate relations with Greek thought. It may be inferred from Ben-Sira's statements (Ecclus. xxxix. 1-11) that it was the custom for scholars to travel abroad and, like the scholars of medieval Europe, to increase their knowledge by personal association with wise men throughout the world. Jews seem to have entered eagerly into the larger intellectual life of the last three centuries before the beginning of our era. For some the influence of this association was of a general nature, merely modifying their conception of the moral life; others adopted to a greater or less extent some of the peculiar ideas of the current systems of philosophy. Scholars were held in honour in those days by princes and people, and Ben-Sira frankly adduces this fact as one of the great advantages of the pursuit of wisdom. It was in cities that the study of life and philosophy was best carried on, and it is chiefly with city life that Jewish wisdom deals.

The extant writings of the Jewish sages are contained in the books of Job, Proverbs, Psalms, Ben-Sira, Tobit, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom of Solomon, 4th Maccabees, to which may be added the first chapter of Pirke Aboth (a Talmudic tract giving, probably, pre-Christian material). Of these Job, Pss. xlix., lxxiii., xcii. 6-8 (5-7), Eccles., Wisdom, are discussions of the moral government of the world; Prov., Pss. xxxvii., cxix., Ben-Sira, Tob. iv., xii. 7-11, Pirke, are manuals of conduct, and 4th Maccab. treats of the autonomy of reason in the moral life; Pss. viii., xix. 2-7 (1-6), xxix. 3-10, xc. 1-12, cvii. 17-32, cxxxix., cxliv. 3 f., cxlvii. 8 f. are reflections on man and physical nature (cf. the Yahweh addresses in Job, and Ecclus. xlii. 15-xliii. 33). Sceptical views are expressed in Job, Prov. xxx. 2-4 (Agur), Eccles.; the rest take the current orthodox position.

Though the intellectual world of the sages is different from that of the prophetic and legal Hebraism, they do not break with the fundamental Jewish theistic and ethical creeds. Their monotheism remains Semitic—even in their conception of the cosmogonic and illuminating function of Wisdom they regard God as standing outside the world of physical nature and man, and do not grasp or accept the idea of the identity of the human and the divine; there is thus a sharp distinction between their general theistic position and that of Greek philosophy. They retain the old high standard of morals, and in some instances go beyond it, as in the injunctions to be kind to enemies (Prov. xxv. 21 f.) and to do to no man what is hateful to one's self (Tob. iv. 15); in these finer maxims they doubtless represent the general ethical advance of the time.

They differ from the older writers in practically ignoring the physical supernatural—that is, though they regard the miracles of the ancient times (referred to particularly in Wisdom xvi.-xix.) as historical facts, they say nothing of a miraculous clement in the life of their own time. Angels occur only in Job and Tobit, and there in noteworthy characters: in Job they are beings whom God charges with folly (iv. 18), or they are mediators between God and man (v. 1, xxxiii. 23), that is, they are humanized, and the Elohim beings (including the Satan) in the prologue belong to a popular story, the figure of Satan being used by the author to account for Job's calamities; in Tobit the “affable” Raphael is a clever man of the world. Except in Wisdom ii. 24 (where the serpent of Gen. iii. is called “Diabolos"), there is mention of one demon only (Asmodeus, in Tob. iii . 8, 17), and that a Persian figure. Job alone introduces the mythical dragons (iii. 8, vii. 12, i.. 13, xxvi. 12) that occur in late prophetical writings (Amos ix. 3; Isa. xxvii. i); as the earliest of the Wisdom books, it is the friendliest to supernatural machinery.

Like the prophetical writings before Ezekiel, the Wisdom books, while they recognize the sacrificial ritual as an existing custom, attach little importance to it as an element of religious life (the fullest mention of it is in Ecclus. xxxv. 4 ff., 1); the difference between prophets and sages is that the former do not regard the ritual as of divine appointment (Jer. vii. 22) and oppose it as non-moral, while the latter, probably accepting the law as divine, by laying most stress on the universal side of religion, lose sight of its local and mechanical side (see Ecclus. xxxv. 1-3). Their broad culture (reinforced, perhaps, by the political conditions of the time) made them comparatively indifferent to Messianic hopes and to that conception of a final judgment of the nations that was closely connected with these hopes: a Messiah is not mentioned in their writings (not in Prov. xvi. 10-15), and a final judgment only in Wisdom of Solomon, where it is not of nations but of individuals. In this regard a comparison between them and Daniel, Enoch and Psalms of Solomon is instructive. Their interest is in the ethical training of the individual on earth.

There was nothing in their general position to make them inhospitable to ethical conceptions of the future life, as is shown by the fact that so soon as the Egyptian-Greek idea of immortality made itself felt in Jewish circles it was adopted by the author of the Wisdom of Solomon; but prior to the 1st century B.C. it does not appear in the Wisdom literature, and the nationalistic dogma of resurrection is not mentioned in it at all. Everywhere, except in the Wisdom of Solomon, the Underworld is the old Hebrew inane abode of all the dead, and therefore a negligible quantity for the moralist. Nor do the sages go beyond the old position in their ethical theory: they have no philosophical discussion of the basis of the moral life; their standard of good conduct is existing law and custom; their motive for right-doing is individual eudaemonistic, not the good of society, or loyalty to an ideal of righteousness for its own sake, but advantage for one's self. They do not attempt a psychological explanation of the origin of human sin; bad thought (yēṣer ra‘, Ecclus. xxxvii. 3) is accepted as a fact, or its entrance into the mind of man is attributed (Wisd. ii. 24)to the devil (the serpent of Gen. iii.) . In fine, they eschew theories and confine themselves to visible facts.

It is in keeping with their whole point of view that they claim no divine inspiration for themselves: they speak with authority, but their authority is that of reason and conscience. It is this definitely rational tone that constitutes the differentia of the teaching of the sages. For the old external law they substitute the internal law: conscience is recognized as the power that approves or condemns conduct (ψυχή, Ecclus. xiv. 2; συνείδησις, Wisd. Sol. xvii. 11). Wisdom is represented as the result of human reflection, and thus as the guide in all the affairs of life. It is also sometimes conceived of as divine (in Wisd. of Sol. and in parts of Prov. and Ecclus., but not in Eccles.), in accordance with the Hebrew view, which regards all human powers as bestowed directly by God; it is identified with the fear of God (Job xxviii. 28; Prov. i. 7; Ecclus. xv. 1 ff.) and even with the Jewish law (Ecclus. xxiv. 23). But in such passages it remains fundamentally human; no attempt is made to define the limits of the human and the divine in its composition—it is all human and all divine. The personification of wisdom reaches almost the verge of hypostasis: in Job xxviii. it is the most precious of things; in Prov. viii. it is the companion of God in His creative work, itself created before the world; in Ecclus. xxiv. the nationalistic conception is set forth: wisdom, created in the beginning, compasses heaven and earth seeking rest and finds at last its dwelling-place in Jerusalem (and so substantially 4th Maccabees); the height of sublimity is reached in Wisd. of Sol. vii., where wisdom, the brightness of the everlasting light, is the source of all that is noblest in human life.

Greek influence appears clearly in the sages' attitude toward the phenomena of life. God, they hold, is the sole creator and ruler of the world; yet man is free, autonomous—God is not responsible for men's faults (Ecclus. xv. 11-20); divine wisdom is visible in the works of nature and in beasts and man (Job xxxviii. f.; Pss. viii., cxxxix.) . On the other hand, there is recognition of the inequalities and miseries of life (Job; Ecclus. xxxiii. 11 ff., xl. 1-11; Eccles.), and, as a result, scepticism as to a moral government of the world. In Job, which is probably the earliest of the philosophical books, the question whether God is just is not definitely answered: the prologue affirms that the sufferings of good men, suggested by the sneer of Satan, are intended to demonstrate the reality of human goodness; elsewhere (v. 17, xxxiii. 17 ff.) they are regarded as disciplinary; the Yahweh speeches declare man's inability to understand God's dealings; the prosperity of the wicked is nowhere explained. The ethical manuals, Prov. (except xxx. 2-4) and Ecclus., are not interested in the question and ignore it; Agur's agnosticism (Prov. xxx. 2-4) is substantially the position of the Yahweh speeches in Job directed against the “unco-wise” of his day. Koheleth's scepticism (in the original form of Ecclesiastes) is deep-seated and far-reaching: though he is a theist, he sees no justice in the world, and looks on human life as meaningless and result less. For him death is the end-all, and it is against some such view as this that the argument in Wisd. of Sol. ii.-v. is directed. With the establishment of the belief in ethical immortality this phase of scepticism vanished from the Jewish world, not, however, without leaving behind it works of enduring value.

In all the Wisdom books virtue is conceived of as conterminous with knowledge. Salvation is attained not by believing but by the perception of what is right; wisdom is resident in the soul and identical with the thought of man. Yet, with this adoption of the Greek point of view, the tone and spirit of this literature remain Hebrew.

The writings of the sages are all anonymous. No single man appears as creator of the tendency of thought they represent; they are the product of a period extending over several centuries, but they form an intellectual unity, and presuppose a great body of thinkers. The sages may be regarded as the beginners of a universal religion: they felt the need of permanent principles of life, and were able to set aside to some extent the local features of the current creed. That they did not found a universal religion was due, in part at least, to the fact that the time was not ripe for such a faith; but they left material that was taken up into later systems.

Literature.—K. Siegfried, Philo von Alexandria (1875); J. Drummond, Philo Judaeus (1888); H. Bois, Origines d. l. phil. Judéo-Alex. (1890); T. K. Cheyne, Job and Sol. (1887) and Jew. Relig. Life, &.c . (1898).  (C. H. T.*)