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An Introduction to the Apocrypha-Part Three



by Jared L. Olar

In Part One of this ongoing series, we explored the Book of the Wisdom of Ben-Sirach, an example of ancient Hebrew Wisdom literature. In Part Two we turned our attention to II Maccabees, a work of Jewish history written in the Greek language about a century before the birth of Christ. In this, our third installment, we will turn once again to a work that is properly to be classified in the genre of Hebrew Wisdom literature, The Book of Wisdom (also known as The Wisdom of Solomon). And yet, as we shall see, this particular example of Wisdom literature is quite unique, not exactly like any other work in the entire genre. Let us now survey and explore The Wisdom of Solomon.

Authorship and Other Literary Concerns:

Simply making a judgment from the traditional title of this book-The Wisdom of Solomon-would lead one to conclude that wise King Solomon of Israel had something to do with the content or authorship of the book. That the author never divulges his own name is of no real importance, because one of the peculiarities of The Wisdom of Solomon is the complete absence of proper names of any kind. However, from the author's own words in chapters 7-9, especially Wis. 9:7-8, it is clear that this book has been presented as a philosophical discourse coming directly from the lips of King Solomon. Indeed, the tone and content of the book is very `Solomonic,' and the book bears a strong resemblance to the manifestly Solomonic books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Reading the book, one gets the impression of a very Hebraic literary style. It would seem to be reasonable to conclude that Solomon was the author of this book.

And yet there are very grave difficulties with accepting Solomon as the author. Although there can be no doubt that the book was written by a Jew, nevertheless The Book of Wisdom is written in Greek rather than Hebrew. It is of course quite true that Solomon could have written an original version of this book in Hebrew, which was subsequently translated into Greek. However, if it was translated from Hebrew into Greek, then the translation must have been a work of unspeakably profound genius, for the Greek bears little if any sign of translation. In fact, while the book is masterfully written in the traditional literary style of Hebrew verse, the Greek language found in the book is of a noticeably higher quality than the Greek of the rest of the Septuagint. In all likelihood, then, this book was not translated into Greek at all, but was originally written in Greek. This book is unique, then, for being an example of Hebrew Wisdom literature written in Greek! And in that case King Solomon could not really have been the author. As a matter of fact, from the very earliest times Christians have had doubts about the Solomonic authorship of this book. For instance, the Roman Christian who compiled the Canon Muratorianus circa 170 A.D. was not sure whether Solomon really wrote this book, for he suggests that it may really have been written by ``friends'' (i.e. disciples or admirers) of Solomon.

If it is true, as seems likely, that Solomon did not actually write The Book of Wisdom, why does the anonymous author write as though he were Solomon? Is this book nothing but a crass forgery? In order properly to answer that question, we will need to examine the development of `Solomonic' literature, which might be classed as a sub-genre of Hebrew wisdom literature.

In the Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament may be found many songs and proverbs that are attributed to wise King Solomon of Israel, whose reign some nine or ten centuries before the coming of the Messiah was Israel's Golden Age. For example, not only does The Song of Songs claim Solomon as its author, but Psalms 72 and 127 are also attributed to him. Solomon was also apparently the primary author of the Book of Proverbs, since he is identified as the author or compiler of the two largest sections of that book. Finally, it is not difficult to discern that Solomon was the Qoheleth ben David, ``Teacher son of David,'' who presents himself as the author of Ecclesiastes (Greek ekklesiastes is a translation of qoheleth).

King Solomon was obviously a gifted writer and talented songsmith, and for many centuries his wisdom was famous throughout the ancient Near East. It would be inevitable, then, that in both ancient and modern times he would be claimed as the author of other songs and books with which in all likelihood he had nothing to do. For instance, some modern scholars have made the fascinating suggestion that he may have been the unknown author of the Book of Job. However, even in ancient times there were `Solomonic' literary compositions that were not, in fact, written by him. Among those writings are the so-called Psalms or Odes of Solomon. But the best known of this sub-genre is The Wisdom of Solomon, which, as we have seen, was almost certainly not really written by Solomon. It is the best known, of course, because it was included in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, which served as the original Bible of the early Church.

So then, was the author of this book only trying to palm off a forgery onto his unsuspecting readership? No, for the book shows no signs of having been written with deception or duplicity in mind. It is not merely a credible imitation of the authentic Solomonic works, written by a self-serving charlatan, but instead bears marks of a gifted Jewish philosopher and writer who was, as the Canon Muratorianus says, truly a friend or admirer of Solomon's wisdom. Much of the book is manifestly inspired by Proverbs and Ecclesiastes-and it is not impossible (though of course unverifiable) that the author drew upon other authentic writings of Solomon, now no longer extant. From the author's knowledge of Jewish history and talented grasp of Hebrew verse-form, we can tell that he was an ardent student of the Old Testament and a gifted poet. From the author's exquisite command of the Greek language, we can speculate that he was a citizen of Alexandria, Egypt. The fact that he chose to write in Greek rather than Hebrew, coupled with the author's knowledge of Greek philosophy, indicates that his intended audience included not only Greek-speaking Jews in Egypt, but perhaps even Gentile scholars steeped in Hellenistic philosophy.

His words of wisdom, then, were probably intended not only as edification for his fellow Jews, but also to help introduce Judaism to the Gentiles of the Hellenistic world. For such educated and cosmopolitan Gentiles, familiar as they were with Greek philosophy, the best spokesman for the ``philosophy'' known as Judaism would be the wise and internationally famous King Solomon. Therefore the author decided to use an imaginary or ``reconstructed'' philosophical discourse of Solomon to convey his message. The purpose was not to deceive, but to enlighten and to educate. Taking the probable historical background into account, along with indications from the Greek language of the book, scholars believe that the book was written about a century before the birth of Christ-over eight centuries after the time of the historical King Solomon.

The Structure of the Book:

The Wisdom of Solomon has three main sections. The first part of the book (up to ch. 6:21) is a discourse on Righteousness (or ``Justice''). The second part (ch. 6:22 to 9:18) is a discourse on Wisdom, which bears close comparison to the first nine chapters of the Book of Proverbs. This section concludes with Solomon's prayer for wisdom, which was inspired by I Kings 3:5-15. The prayer for wisdom blurs imperceptibly into the third part of the book, which commences with the first verse of chapter 10 and continues to the end of the book. This final section consists of a general overview of Genesis and Exodus, demonstrating the role that wisdom played in the important events related in those books. Beginning in chapter 11 the author begins a detailed discourse on the story of the Exodus, and he remains on that subject for the remainder of the book. Along the way there is a digression on God's mercy (ch. 11:17 to ch. 12:22), and another digression demonstrating the foolishness of pagan religion and idolatry (ch. 13:1 to 15:19)-especially the religion of the ancient Egyptians (which might also indicate the Alexandrian origin of this book).

Let us turn now to an examination of the content of The Wisdom of Solomon, giving special attention to the Jewish and Hellenistic influences that are detectable in the book, and to the importance of the book in Christian tradition.

The Jewishness of The Book of Wisdom:

Despite being written in Greek, the Wisdom of Solomon bears the indelible mark of its Jewish provenance. Most noticeably Jewish of all, of course, is the author's decision to present his discourse as though coming from the lips of King Solomon. We also see the book's Jewishness in the author's use of the traditional Hebrew poetic style (strongly reminiscent of the Book of Proverbs), his monotheism and abhorrence of idolatry, his moral theology and doctrine of Creation, and the lengthy discourse on the stories of Genesis and Exodus.

Incidentally, the author's polemic against idols is an indication that Solomon was not really the author of this book-for Solomon evidently did not object as strongly to idolatry as the author of this book. It is also important to note that the author's theological reflections helped to develop the Jewish understanding of God in ways that continue to shape Judaeo-Christian theology (e.g. Wis. 1:7, 12-15; 2:23-24).

Now, from the outset the author sought to contrast ``the just man'' and ``the wicked man,'' showing that Wisdom-having its origin in the Mind of God-is ever on the side of the just. With that purpose in mind, the author mined the books of Genesis and Exodus for evidence to support his belief in the superiority of righteousness. Thus, he tells the stories of Adam (Wis. 10:1-2), Cain and Abel (10:3), Noah (10:4), Abraham (10:5), Lot's escape from Sodom (10:6-9), Esau and Jacob (10:10-12), Joseph (10:13-14), and the Exodus under the leadership of Moses (10:15 to the end of the book). Yet in no case does the author ever tell us the names of these patriarchs, and even the name of Solomon does not appear in this book. His Jewish readers would have already known those names, while His Gentile readers would not have needed them in order to understand the author's point. Also, in maintaining this vagueness about human proper names, the focus is subtly shifted onto the Lord God and His Wisdom. Human proper names were unimportant to the author, for he sought to establish that Wisdom and Righteousness (i.e. the application of Wisdom to moral conduct) are universal to the entire human race, absolutes that apply to both Jew and Gentile.

Hellenistic Influence in The Book of Wisdom:

As mentioned above, although the author was a Greek-speaking Jew who wrote from a Jewish perspective, he evidently expected that his book might be read by both Jews and Gentiles. This is shown not only by the simple fact that he wrote his book in Greek, but also by the fact that he wrote rather good Greek. Indeed, the author must have been truly gifted to have been able to wed together so perfectly the Greek language and Hebrew poetic style. He certainly expected his readers to be familiar with both Judaism and classical Greek philosophy. This can be shown from Wisdom 2:12-20, which presents the wicked as saying:

``Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us. He sets himself against our doings, reproaches us for transgressions of the law, and charges us with violations of our training. He professes to have knowledge of God, and styles himself a son of the Lord. To us he is the censure of our thoughts. Merely to see him is a hardship to us, because his life is not like other men's, and different are his ways. He judges us debased. He holds aloof from our paths as from things impure. He calls blest the destiny of the just, and boasts that God is his Father. Let us see whether his words be true. Let us find out what will happen to him. For if the just one be the son of God, He will defend him and deliver him from the hand of his foes. With revilement and torture let us put him to the test, that we may have proof of his gentleness, and try his patience. Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for according to his own words God will take care of him.''

From the Jewish standpoint, the author was evidently inspired by the words of Psa. 22:8-22. But from the Hellenistic standpoint, it seems very likely that the author of this book was familiar with Plato's philosophy-for the above passage bears some important similarities to a brief passage in Book II of Plato's Republic, where Socrates and Glaucon debate whether or not living a just life is superior to living an unjust life. Glaucon says:

``. . . the just man who is thought unjust will be scourged, racked, bound-will have his eyes burnt out; and at last, after suffering every kind of evil, he will be fastened to a wooden stake: Then he will understand that he ought to seem only, and not to be, just.''

But where Glaucon sought to show the risks of trying to live a just life, the author of The Wisdom of Solomon exalted the just life, confidently proclaiming that a righteous man who suffers persecution and martyrdom will obtain salvation in the World to Come (Wis. 2:21-24; 3:1-9). This apparent interaction of Jewish and Greek wisdom, with the author advocating Jewish holiness rather than Glaucon's jaded point of view (thereby associating Socrates with Jewish holiness), may perhaps be a reflection in some way of the conflict between Judaism and Hellenistic paganism during the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes, some six decades before this book was probably written. As we saw in our previous installment, just as the Holy Maccabees willingly underwent martyrdom for the sake of the Law of God, confident of the resurrection of the dead, so too in this book we see the righteous being martyred and obtaining their reward in the next life. The author may well have had the Maccabean conflict in mind while he wrote.

Another example of apparent Hellenistic influence may be detected in Wis. 9:15, which says, ``For the corruptible body burdens the soul, and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns.'' In the earlier writings of the Old Testament one does not find so explicit a distinction and comparison of body and soul as we see here. Indeed, in some cases nephesh (``soul'') is actually used in the Old Testament to refer to the body. Here, however, we see a distinction between body (soma) and soul (psuche) that is somewhat reminiscent of the Platonic body-soul dualism. In the Platonic system, however, the body is regarded as a grievous hindrance from which the soul longs to be free. But with our author, while the body does bring various troubles to the soul and the mind, nevertheless the body is still a created gift from God (Wis. 1:14; 10:1), an earthen shelter for the soul.

Of course, it should be said that it isn't clear whether the author made use of philosophy in order to introduce Hellenistic learning to his Jewish readership, or rather to introduce Judaism's sublime moral and religious truths to the pagan Greeks. It is possible that he had both Jews and Greeks in mind. Certainly his intellectual and moral universe was thoroughly Jewish, even though he apparently knew his way around the Hellenistic philosophical world as well. In this he unknowingly set the stage for the Christian Gospel.

The Book of Wisdom in Christian Tradition:

In various ways The Wisdom of Solomon has had an important influence on Christianity. One of the most important influences is the author's commingling of Jewish faith and Gentile philosophy. In our consideration of the Jewishness and Hellenism of this book, we have seen an early anticipation of the Church's Mission to the Gentiles. Just as the author of The Book of Wisdom emphasised the universality of Wisdom and Righteousness, so too Christianity proclaims a message that applies to every human soul. The New Testament is a bridge between Judaism and the Gentile world, conveying Jewish concepts and beliefs to the Gentiles in koine Greek, which was the lingua franca of the day. Already in the first century we see Christianity begin to make use of Greek philosophical concepts to aid in evangelisation-most notably, the Stoic theory of the Logos (John 1:1). The Apostle Paul was apparently educated in the learning of the Hellenistic world during his days in Tarsus, and also became a master of the Jewish tradition by studying at the feet of Rabban Gamaliel, leader of the Pharisees. In that way Jesus prepared him for his crucial vocation of Apostle to the Gentiles. But in a way, the road walked by the first Christian evangelists had already begun to be paved by the author of The Wisdom of Solomon. Later on Philo Judaeus continued this dialogue between Hebrew tradition and Gentile philosophy, a dialogue that would subsequently be carried on in the writings of the Church Fathers, eventually yielding a bountiful harvest of theological insight and doctrinal clarification.

Another influence on Christianity was the abovementioned correlation with Plato's Republic. Inevitably, Christians began to see Wis. 2:12-20 as a Messianic prophecy, for Jesus is obviously the Just One par excellence, the only-begotten Son of God. Christians were also impressed by Glaucon's reference to the just man being fastened to a wooden stake. So much did it remind them of the Cross that they concluded that, in this and other ways, a ray of the light of Truth had managed to shine through the darkness of Gentile paganism by the means of their philosophers, in order to prepare them for the coming of Christianity. Indeed, many early Church Fathers were convinced that philosophers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle had somehow gotten the chance to read the Torah.

It should also be noted that the abovementioned distinction between the soul and the body, that makes its first clear appearance in Jewish literature in The Book of Wisdom, is also found throughout the New Testament. It is especially prominent in the writings of the Apostle Paul. Just as the author of this book acknowledges the weaknesses of the body (he is the first man to refer to the ``fall'' of man-Wis. 10:1), so too the New Testament often cautions Christians about the dangers of the flesh. And yet, just as we find no trace of Platonic dualism in The Wisdom of Solomon, so too the New Testament maintains the Jewish belief in the dignity of the body, holding out hope that the body would eventually be redeemed from sin, death, and decay. Such has the Christian teaching ever been. (One should also notice that The Book of Wisdom's image of the body as an ``earthen shelter'' is similar to the New Testament's image of the body as a fleshly tabernacle or tent.)

It is also from The Book of Wisdom that Christian morality has drawn the traditional list of the ``cardinal virtues''-moderation, prudence, justice, and fortitude-virtues that Wisdom teaches to the righteous. ``And nothing in life is more useful for men than these.'' (Wis. 8:7)

Lastly, through the centuries the Christian religion has often drawn upon The Wisdom of Solomon as a source of liturgy and prayer, and as inspiration for sacred music. To cite one noteworthy example, the words of Wis. 16:20-21, 25-26; 19:21, describing the miracle of manna, have provided the Church with beautiful imagery with which to describe the consecrated bread of the Eucharist (cf. also John 6). Another example is Wis. 3:1-8, which has often been applied to Christian saints in public and private devotional readings. Composers have at times set those words to music. It is fitting, then, that we conclude our study of The Book of Wisdom with those words of comfort, confidence, and hope. Faced with injustice, suffering, and cruel death, the righteous can trust in God (cf. Matt. 5:2-12).

``But the souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to be dead; and their passing away was thought an affliction; and their going forth from us, utter destruction-but they are at peace. For if before men, indeed, they be punished, yet is their hope full of immortality. Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed, because God tried them and found them worthy of Himself. As gold in the furnace He proved them, and as whole-burnt offerings He took them to Himself. In the time of their visitation they shall shine, and shall dart about as sparks through stubble. They shall judge nations and rule over peoples, and the Lord shall be their King forever.''

Part 4 of this series

Issue 10


File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.01.On 25 Nov 2001, 14:59.