Bible Overview is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in Bible study. Each month we feature a book of the Bible (in order) by Bible scholar and lecturer, Mary Jane Chaignot.
This month we will look at the non-canonical book entitled, “The Wisdom of Solomon.”
If you want to read some of the history previous to this selection, you can find the earlier books in our archives.
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The Wisdom of Solomon, or The Book of Wisdom
Authorship and Date
Structure and Summary of Contents
Influence on Theology
Authorship and Date
In the OT, Solomon is known as a most esteemed man of wisdom. It comes as no surprise, then, that someone wanted to credit him with the authorship of this book of wisdom. The very title of this book describes its content and presumed author. Such an attribution simply gave the book more credibility and probably assured its success.
Nonetheless, by the first century people were already questioning the authorship of the book because of the author’s use of OT passages from the Septuagint, which wasn’t written until 300 BCE – long after Solomon’s demise. To be fair, however, the author never really used Solomon’s name anywhere in his writings, but he does speak in the first person as though he were Solomon.
Scholars do agree, however, that the author was definitely not Solomon because the style of the book has little in common with the pithy sayings from the Book of Proverbs. However, scholars agree that the real author is totally anonymous. In fact, some scholars refer to this as the Book of Wisdom because the use of Solomon’s name in the title was merely a literary device.
Despite some variations in writing style, most scholars now think the book was written by one individual who remains anonymous. Nonetheless, some assumptions about the author can be made. He was a Hellenistic Jew, probably living in Egypt (more than likely in Alexandria because that city was well known for its Hellenization of Judaism -- the blending of Jewish and Greek cultures). Alexandria was the birthplace of the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible). Our author would have been familiar with these traditions. He was equally proficient in Greek philosophy and the Jewish scriptures (even though he modified some of the Biblical stories to suit his purposes). He valued his faith and held to the belief that God’s sovereignty was what mattered.
The book was originally written in Greek and, because it relies upon OT stories in the Septuagint, it was probably written somewhere between 250BCE-50CE. Scholars think the book was written in Egypt, possibly Alexandria.
The book was probably written to encourage Jews living in the Diaspora, those who weren’t living in Israel. The author tries to make Biblical traditions relevant to Jews in new situations. He realizes that they live in a secular culture and how difficult it is for them to maintain their culture. So his intention is to highlight God’s concern for man. He uses wisdom teachings to make known deep truths about God as revealed in Bible stories and texts. His main point is to press the validity of Jewish faith for contemporary times. It is an ongoing issue for persons of faith in every age.
Structure and Summary of Contents
The book can be divided in many ways, although its themes aren’t always apparent. Nonetheless, scholars have attempted to make some sense out of the structure of the book. Unlike other wisdom writings (like Proverbs with its pithy sayings), this book makes a very sustained argument. Based on Greek rhetorical styles, the author used a variety of forms to make his theological point. These include Solomon’s monologue, a letter, a thoughtful treatise on man’s ultimate fate, a discussion on the origin and character of idolatry, and a conversation on the question of authority.
The first section (chapters 1-5) contrasts the godly with the ungodly, and the opening line invites the “rulers of the earth” to seek justice. The godly are righteous and live in communion with God, while the ungodly make a covenant with death. The ungodly live only for this moment, never thinking about the life to come or how to gain immortality. In their pursuit of evil, they oftentimes torment and oppress the godly, but in due time, God will right all wrongs. Eventually, the ungodly will be punished and put to shame.
The second section (chapters 6-9) is all about the origin, qualities, and deeds of Wisdom. This is where the author speaks as though he is Solomon. He begins by recalling how he prayed for Wisdom and how God responded. He concludes this section by extolling the many benefits of having Wisdom. He uses many OT characters to further his point, but some of these stories are modified to suit his purposes.
In the third section, he presents various contrasts between the Egyptians and the Israelites. The Egyptians are a classic example of the ungodly; the Israelites are God’s people. One is punished; the other is protected. For example, take God’s provision of water. It turned into blood for the Egyptians, but flowed from a rock for the Israelites. (It should be noted that there is no mention at all of any of the grumbling or apostasy issues that plagued the Israelites throughout their wilderness experience. That doesn’t fit in with the author’s main point.) Those who follow Wisdom are blessed; those who don’t follow are punished.
The next section focuses even more on idolatry, specifically the worship of animals. While it may be that the ungodly are finding their way to the Creator, the bottom line is that they are taking way too long. They confuse the creation and the Creator. He then launches into a large discourse on the making of idols and how ridiculous it is. Man, who is himself a creation, tries to fashion an idol that he carved out of wood. This idol is unable to see, hear, breathe, or move. Yet people worship it! The very idea is ludicrous. He mocks the person setting out in a ship who prays to an idol that is weaker than the ship. In trying to understand the origin of idolatry, the author comes up with two scenarios: maybe a father lost a young son and carved a remembrance of that son. Or maybe people wanted to have a nearby image of a distant king. From there, things simply got out of hand. By the time of the Egyptians, idol worship was alive and well. They worshiped gods that could not even stand on their own.
In the last section, he returns to more contrasts between God’s treatment of the Egyptians and his people. Needless to say, things don’t go well for the Egyptians. Because they worshiped animals, God sent a plague of frogs. In contrast, God provided quail for the Israelites in the wilderness – a delicacy to satisfy their hunger. (Again, there is no mention of their grumbling about wanting to return to Egypt.) Because of the animal worship, God tormented the Egyptians with locusts. In contrast, when the Israelites were punished with snakes, God provided a resolution by which they could be saved. The Egyptians received no such help. Lightning and hail came down from heaven to punish the Egyptians. But manna came down from heaven to feed the Israelites. And when darkness came upon the land (and terrified the Egyptians), bright light shone upon the Israelites. The death of the firstborn sons only affected the Egyptians; the angel passed over the houses of the Israelites. But the clincher came at the Red Sea. The sea parted for the Israelites and was the cause of death for the Egyptians.
Lest one think this might have been unfair, the author is clear that all the punishments fit the crimes. The Egyptians suffered because they had committed wicked acts. The most egregious was that they originally invited the Israelites to their country as their guests (during the time of Joseph) and then turned them into slaves. Nothing could have been worse. That violated every ancient law of hospitality (even though the author does not spell this out). In order to accomplish his plan, God enlisted all the elements of creation to do his bidding. That’s why the sea opened, the creatures invaded the land, and manna fell from heaven. The book ends on a high note: “In everything, O Lord, you have exalted and glorified your people, and you have not neglected to help them at all times and in all places.”
So who was this book written for? There are several possibilities. The first suggests that the audience was being persecuted – possibly under Ptolemy or the Romans. This would most likely have been observant Jews.
Another group might have been those Jews that were facing a crisis of culture. Because Hellenization had been effective and productive, Jews found themselves in a minority position. This Book of Wisdom would have provided encouragement and a renewed commitment to their ancestral traditions.
A third group might have been Gentile readers. Some of them could have been thoughtfully assessing the problem of idolatry and possibly considering worshiping the one God. Many of these Gentiles would have been highly educated and well-versed in Greek philosophy. The author wanted to show the folly of worshiping impotent Greek idols.
Influence on Theology
This book was influential in several areas of theological development. Its use of wisdom as a personification of God was an important first step in understanding the person of Jesus Christ. Wisdom is a companion of God and an important intermediary between God and people. This Wisdom can only be achieved through prayer. It is through Wisdom that one knows what God requires. Another area was in the realm of immortality, which is understood as a gift from God. It is not a fully developed treatise, though, because at various times immortality seems to be granted upon death; at other points, it appears at the final Judgment. The Book’s polemic against idolatry, however, is very clear. Thought would continue to evolve in these areas throughout the formation of the New Testament.
There are roughly five sections to this letter:
- 1:1-5:23 – The Promise of Immortality;
- 6:1-9-18 – In Praise of Wisdom;
- 10:1-12:27 – Divine Wisdom in History;
- 13:1-15:19 – The Evils of Idolatry;
- 16:1-19:22 – The Pattern of Divine Justice.
Note – throughout the Bible and ancient texts, wisdom is portrayed as a feminine quality. Thus, the pronouns “she” and “her” are used when describing wisdom.