Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Book of Wisdom

The Book of Wisdom, or The Wisdom of Solomon
from the New English Bible, © 1970 Cambridge and Oxford University Press

Christian personification of Wisdom

My favorite book in the Judeo-Christian bible is that of Ecclesiastes,  in which a man known as 'the preacher' or 'the teacher'  engages in a search for the meaning of life, exploring both the 'low road' of exulting in pleasure and the 'higher' road of seeking wisdom and religious discipline. He finds that the best approach may be one of moderation, as neither hedonism nor obsessive scrupulosity create happiness over the long run. I think Ecclesiastes a humble and pragmatic book, and so when Isaac Asimov mentioned that a book of the original Jewish and Catholic bibles called The Book of Wisdom was similar to Ecclesiastes in genre, I determined that I had to read it.

Wisdom shines bright and never fades; she is easily discerned by those who love her, and by those who seek her she is found. She is quick to make herself known to those who desire knowledge of her; the man who rises early in search of her will not grow weary in the quest, for he will find her seated at his door. To set all one's thoughts on her is prudence in its perfect shape, and to lie wakeful in her cause is the short way to peace of mind. For she herself ranges in search of those who are worthy of her; on their daily path she appears with kindly intent, and in all their purposes meets them half-way. (6: 12-17)

The Book of Wisdom is not really a book of wisdom  in the same sense that Ecclesiastes and Proverbs are, though it does praise wisdom lavishly.  Proverbs refers to wisdom as a woman at least once, and the Book of Wisdom takes that personification and runs with it for page after page. I took perverse pleasure in reading these sections of the text as though they were a poem in praise of Athena, although the Christian personification of wisdom is referred to as Sophia. The prose or this translation thereof is beautiful and stylish. I relished reading the text aloud, although the viciousness of some of it amused me.  While the author doesn't tell you what qualifies as wisdom, he is quick to tell you it is the path to God, the path to both peace on earth and immortality. The godless who reject it are treated with as much hate as the author can muster, which I thought somewhat comical. The lack of wisdom is its own punishment, just as virtue is its own reward.

Protestants may not have heard of the Book of Wisdom because it -- along with books like Tobit, Judas, the Maccabees, and additions to Daniel and Easter -- were dropped by various Protestant denominations preparing their own bibles. These books were included in the original Jewish canon, the Septuagint, and would have been read by Paul, Jesus, and the other apostles. A later Jewish canon, compiled  around the turning of the second century, threw out those books which were written in Greek*. The Christian church didn't, though. The devotional poetry to wisdom aside, this book makes for interesting reading. It's not a very Jewish book, at least not by the standards of modern Jewish orthodoxy. Christianity and Islam have a completely different notion of Satan than Judaism does: the Christians turn a loyal servant of God who tests people and gives them opportunities to strengthen themselves by triumphing over temptation into a pathetic rebel who attacks people just to be a dick, but whose attacks are co-opted by God into use as trials.  In the Book of Wisdom, though, he is mentioned as spiteful, which seems a hint to me that the author shared the same villainous perception of Satan that some Jews around the turn of the century did -- Jesus refers to him as a roaring lion trying to eat people, and (I think) as a foul Dragon.  I don't know what happened to that train of thought within Judaism, but I think they're better for having lost it.

"But the souls of the just are in God's hand and torment shall not touch them. In the eyes of foolish men they seemed to be dead; their departure was reckoned as defeat, and their going from us as disaster. But they are at peace, for though in the sight of men they may be punished, they have a sure hope of immortality; and after a little chastisement they will receive great blessings, because God has tested them and found them worthy to be his."  (3: 1-9)

Protestants often attack the Catholic idea of Purgatory as unbiblical, and they're sort of right -- because they removed the parts of the Bible which refer to Purgatory from their own canon. It would be as if I held up the Jefferson Bible and said, "The idea that Jesus worked miracles is unbiblical!", or tore out Genesis from the Torah and said "The idea of a Great Flood is unbiblical!".   The Book of Wisdom specifically mentions that even the good who die must endure 'some chastisement', which sounds like the Catholic idea of purgatory as it has been explained to me by three sources -- two books and a deacon.  I'd be very much interested in finding out when this book was written, and in what part of the world, because the author is obsessed with bastards. He devotes several 'paragraphs'  to attacking people born out of wedlock, leading me to believe that there's some 'illegitimately-born' monarch or warlord somewhere that he's taking aim at. There's also a section that celebrates a martyr for wisdom, which probably also has a real-world inspiration.

If you're looking for wisdom literature, this isn't it -- but if you want to find a lovely poem about wisdom, or gain some insights into the evolution of Jewish and Christian thinking, I would suggest tracking this down.  The Oxford/Cambridge translation is very readable

* I think this may have had something to do with the fact that the Temple had just been destroyed by Rome (Year 70)  in retaliation for the Jewish revolt, which was prompted by the attempted installment of a statue inside the Temple to honor the emperor as god. Hatred of all things Greco-Roman may have prompted the dumping of these Jewish texts written in Greek.

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