The series “Faith and Scholarship Colloquies” explores the boundaries where faith and academic study intersect. The late Roland Murphy reviews the wisdom books, canonical and apocryphal (or “deutero-canonical”), giving basic information, commenting on important issues (e.g., the deed-consequence link in Proverbs), and describing the relationship of the books to each other. A general essay by a judicious and widely read commentator.
Peter Schäfer, Professor of Jewish Studies at Princeton and Director of the Institut für Judaistik at the Freie Universität in Berlin, ably explains how wisdom came to be equated with the Torah in the postexilic period. One reason was that wisdom filled the vacuum caused by the decline of prophecy. Wisdom also came to be identified with Israel. In rabbinic thought (which Schäfer constantly mines), the nations rejected their chance for wisdom by unworthy conduct. Wisdom gives a cosmic significance to Torah, broadening it so that it does not mean merely nomos. “It was only later, and especially in Christianity, that the cosmic aspect of Torah was forgotten, or deemphasized, and that Torah was reduced to a narrowly defined pool of laws, which humans labor in vain to obey.” Schäfer rather lifts up “Torah as wisdom, as the tool with which God created the world and which humans use in order to bring the world to its completion … ” (p. 42). An unusually valuable essay.
Professor Emeritus of New Testament and Religion in the Greco-Roman World at the University of Trondheim, Peder Borgen compares the Gospel of John (end of first century ce) to Philo of Alexandria (ca. 15 bce to 50 ce). Philo was a Jew who interpreted the laws of Moses according to Jewish exegesis and Greek philosophical ideas. Instead of studying John against the background of Philo’s Platonizing views as did C. H. Dodd, The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1953), Borgen studies how John and Philo interpreted the Old Testament and other Jewish traditions. Philo regarded “God said” in Genesis 1 as an entity distinct from God and emphasized the role of wisdom (sophia) and knowledge (epistêmê) in creation. Accepting only that view from Philo, John went his own way in using the masculine noun logos rather than elaborating the feminine side of logos. Philo’s opinion that creation, not God, rested on the seventh day in Genesis 1 on the grounds that God is always active may have influenced John 5:1–18, the healing of the paralytic man, where Jesus says, “My father is working, and I am working” (John 5:17). According to On the Change of Names (§253–63), manna rains down from heaven as heavenly wisdom on the Sabbath, when the laws of Moses are expounded. In John 6:31–58, Jesus is the bread from heaven come down to give life to humans on earth. Borgen developed these last ideas in his Bread from Heaven: An Exegetical Study of the Concept of Manna in the Gospel of John and the Writings of Philo (Leiden: Brill, 1965). Though not all Borgen’s eleven instances of common ground are equally persuasive, he expands the range of interesting possibilities.
The only essay not about wisdom is “John and the Synoptics: Historical Tradition and the Passion Narrative,” by D. Moody Smith, emeritus Professor of New Testament, Duke University. Usefully reviewing the Fourth Gospel’s unusual and delayed acceptance into the canon, he shows how this fact affected scholarly views of the relation of John to the Synoptic Gospels. Celebrated as the “spiritual gospel,” less than a fourth of its narratives and other material is found in the Synoptics, and vice versa. Yet it underlines historical details that differ from the Synoptics, most famously John’s three Passovers in the ministry of Jesus versus the Synoptics’ one. Moody’s probe of the Passion accounts reveal that John’s historical perspective has to be taken seriously and his independence underlined.
The longest essay, “Lady Wisdom and Johannine Christology,” is by James Charlesworth, Professor of New Testament Director of the Dead Sea Scrolls Project at Princeton Theological Seminary. Accepting the now common view that Old Testament personified Wisdom deeply influenced John, Charlesworth (in some cases echoing R. E. Brown’s The Gospel according to John (Garden City: Doubleday, 1966), I.cxxii-cxv; and “Appendix II: The Word”) comments on six major links, among them Wisdom and Jesus symbolizing light and mirror, both sent by God, both bring friendship with God and love and joy. He comments separately on the Prologue to John.
It is always instructive to see distinguished scholars engaged in synthesis on the basis of their specialized knowledge, and wisdom is a worthy and current object of synthesis.