Three Modern Faces of Wisdom -- By: Ben Witherington, III

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 25:0 (NA 1993)
Article: Three Modern Faces of Wisdom
Author: Ben Witherington, III


Three Modern Faces of Wisdom

Ben Witherington, III

Dr. Witherington (Ph.D., Durham) is Professor of Biblical and Wesleyan Studies at ATS.

In a lengthy book I have traced the development of the Biblical Wisdom tradition. There Wisdom was seen to take many faces and forms.1 I looked at the development of Biblical Wisdom in both form and content during the crucial period of 960 B.C. to A.D. 100. This development involved a movement from personification in Proverbs 8 and elsewhere in early Jewish literature to a localization of Wisdom as primarily found in Torah, and finally in the early Christological hymns (especially John 1), to the idea of Wisdom becoming incarnate or essentially embodied in a particular person, the Son of God.

Also examined was how OT wisdom seems primarily to be expressed in such forms as aphorisms, dialogues, or extended instructions from a parent to a child, or a teacher to a pupil. Yet, there were some few examples of parables in the OT corpus and other forms of narrative wisdom speech such as that found in the prologue and epilogue to the book of Job. In the ministry of Jesus the parable apparently becomes the primary wisdom vehicle for expressing his thoughts, with a significant quantity of aphorisms also to be found in the arguably authentic teaching of Jesus. It was also noted how in the Christological hymns some of the forms and content used in the Wisdom hymns in the sapiential literature were taken over and used to speak of the career of the Christ. All of these developments in form and content reflect a living, growing body of literature which was both oral and written in character.

Striking is the fact that by and large this whole corpus is a form of material that intends to force the hearer into reflective thinking by the use of figurative language — whether by simple comparison, simile, metaphor, extended analogy, parable, or even personification. Biblical Wisdom literature then primarily engages in the art of moral persuasion, using an indirect method and a pictographic form of speech to lead the hearer or reader to a particular conclusion. Beyond simple reflective thinking the sages were urging their audiences to certain sorts of attitudes and actions towards God, fellow human beings, everyday life in general, and the whole of creation.

In the light of what I have learned in tracking the pilgrimage of Biblical Wisdom, I intend in this essay to take one further step and examine some of Wisdom’s modern faces and forms. The approach will be to critique these works in light of what has been learned from the Biblic...

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