Why Did Wisdom Disturb the Theologians?
Is it wisdom that is the problem or the theological abstractions that exclude
wisdom from religion and then label it profane? The passages below put the problem
back into the hands of the ones who created the problem in the first place: the
"The role of wisdom in Old Testament theology becomes problematical when
theology is limited to salvation history, and concerns about right living are
judged as profane or secular. It has even been considered a foreign import,
not really reconcilable with 'Yahwism,'. . . The discomfort of theologians is
evident in their label of wisdom as 'natural theology': . . ." (R. Brown,
J. Fitzmeyer, and R. Murphy, The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 449)
"The ostracizing of wisdom seems to be the result of the attempt by the
rabbis and historians to define wisdom as a separate doctrine, cut off from
the 'pure' salvation/revelation tradition. There appears to have been a scholarly
reconstruction of 'Israel's pure and primitive response to 'yhwh.' The actual
people, on the other hand, . . . did not consider wisdom 'profane' nor did they
limit their talk about God to salvation and 'were able to canonize the wisdom
literature without betraying their faith." (R. Brown, J. Fitzmeyer, and
R. Murphy, The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 449)
Sophia was a problem because she was the voice that spoke for attributes and
teachings that might have appeared antithetical or even threatening to the religious
agenda of the men who shaped the direction of Judaism. As monotheism took root
in Hebrew religious consciousness, Yahwism directed itself towards revelation
and salvation history. Traditional Yahwism regarded history as the sphere of divine
action. God created the world and remains active in the everyday affairs of his
chosen people. He intervenes and reveals himself to his people through his prophets
and later in his law, the Torah.
The Wisdom Teachings Spoken through the Figure of Sophia Focused on A Spirituality
That Ran Counter to Yahwism
The first difference is the appearance of Sophia next to Yahweh when he created
the world (Proverbs 8:22-31). The monotheism of Yahwism did not allow for either
a female presence or family members.
The second difference is that the wisdom teachings focused on personal engagement
with one's own character and taking responsibility for one's spiritual development.
In religious teachings, on the other hand, the prophets and rabbis became the
vehicles for transmission of Yahweh's will and desire for his people; they were
necessary if the individual wished to participate in revelation and salvation.
Wisdom was not to be discovered in any one book, dogma, or teacher, but everywhere,
even "with slave girls over the mill-stones," the poorest of the poor
(sboyet dated 2400 B.C.E.).
Wisdom requires clear perception and discernment while Yahwism demands the
ascertainment of God's will and obedience to God's laws. Issues about how to
live wisely were judged as profane and secular, "not really reconcilable
with 'Yahwism"' (R. Brown, J. Fitzmeyer, and R. Murphy, The New Jerome
Biblical Commentary, 449).
Wisdom spoke at the city gate and in the marketplace, indicating that integrity
was active, valued, and essential for public life-politics, kingship, and business.
After the Roman invasions of Palestine during the first and second centuries
of the C.E., the Hebrew rulers instituted prohibitions that further split Judaism
from its connection to its wisdom inheritance. Yehudah the Prince prohibited
instruction under the open sky (to avoid trouble with the Romans), meaning that
wisdom could no longer be discussed in the streets, but only in the synagogue
and houses of study. Although the people objected to this rule, citing Prov.
1:20, "Wisdom chants in the street," eventually wisdom was removed
from the streets. In Sirach 24:1, wisdom is off the streets and in a worship
service (B. Lang, Wisdom and the Book of Proverbs, 31). Wisdom was also
severed from its influence on politics and leadership. Rabbi Akiba advised his
son never to live in a town whose leaders were scholars because then they would
not pay attention to practical matters. (Lang, 32).
Where Did Wisdom Go?
Wisdom teachings directed attention to life as both the source
of knowledge as well as the means to that knowledge. The means to acquire this
life-knowledge was through attention to character, pursuing wisdom instead of
gold, and acting with integrity in business, politics, and rulership. Yahwism
departed from this life-oriented spirituality due to complex factors of incessant
invasions, the need to defend the tribe and protect its sacred law, and the devotion
of generations of religious leaders to articulating the god image in written texts.
With these developments, a split became evident between wisdom and religion. The
spiritual dimension of wisdom was usurped by religion and removed from the street,
the marketplace, the city gate and the royal court.
Other Factors Contributing To The Removal Of Sophia From The Street
Philo identified Sophia with the masculine word "logos."
Philo (a renowned Hellenic Jewish scholar in Alexandria in the first c. BCE)
substituted the word Logos for Sophia. The masculine personified Logos assumes
the divine roles of Sophia, including the firstborn image of God, the principle
of order, and even the intermediary between God and humanity. (Englesman 1987,
119) Sophia gradually is excluded and forgotten.
The early Christians (except for Gnostic cults) concurred with this.
The Sophia which gave voice to the need for integrity in the marketplace, royal
court and politics--became abstracted and other-worldly. With the growth of
the Christian movement, the pagan religions which had kept alive the reverence
and memory of the great neolithic wisdom goddesses were supplanted by the Christian
Gnostic controversy: It was necessary for the new testament
writers to link Jesus to Sophia in order to ground the new sect--Christianity--in
history. The Gnostics downplayed or questioned the humanity and death of Jesus
(focusing instead on his universal divine nature which was accessible as an
inward state of consciousness to each person without the need for a priestly
intermediary). The Gnostics seized upon Sophia, making her the central point
of transfiguration of self and creation in their doctrine of the liberation
of soul from the coils of ignorance and religious superstition. Orthodox Christian
teachers, while needing to connect Jesus to Sophia, stopped writing and talking
about Sophia in order to disassociate themselves from their rivals, the Gnostics.
(An excellent account of this controversy is found in The Gnostic Gospels
by Elaine Pagels.)
Kathleen Damiani, Ph.D.
copyright © 2005