Wisdom (in Ephesians)

From Anabaptistwiki

ADB logo letters.jpg Home A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z Abbreviations Glossary


Wisdom (sophia) refers to a tradition or set of traditions that in the Bible comes to clearest expression in Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes (Qohelet), and many psalms (e.g., Pss. 1, 19, 37, 49, 73, 112, 119, 127-128, 133). The apocryphal books of Baruch, Ecclesiasticus (Sirach/Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirah), and Wisdom of Solomon, which are part of the Catholic canon, are also important wisdom writings (note the frequent references to Wisdom of Solomon throughout this commentary). Solomon is identified as the source of much of this wisdom, and a good part of it may have ancient roots (see esp. Prov. 10–31), but most scholars believe the bulk of this literature in its present form is postexilic.

This literature, especially Proverbs, contains a great deal of proverbial wisdom, aphorisms of wisdom distilled from experience in light of the divine source of creation. The sages believed that the Creator brought into being an orderly creation, in which human life takes place according to divinely ordained rules. Hence, the presence of mundane instructions on table manners (Prov. 23:1-3; Sirach 31:12-31) as well as the lofty celebration of Torah as the distillation of wisdom (Ps. 119; Baruch 4:1; Ecclus./Sirach 24:23).

The wisdom tradition thus shows us the reflective side of Jewish piety. Given that God is Creator of the whole world and all peoples, the wisdom tradition represents an open window to the wisdom of other peoples (note the presence of Egyptian wisdom in Proverbs, and of Hellenism in Wisdom of Solomon). It was the assumption of a good creation at the hands of a benevolent deity that gave the troubling reflections in Job and Ecclesiastes their sharp edge. Note the debate among the sages about justice, God, and creation, reflected in the arguments between Job and his friends, or the world-weary opening cry of the Preacher/Teacher of Ecclesiastes to the effect that “all is vanity” (1:2).

Unlike in prophecy, where the utterances are imbued with the ambience of proclaiming the words of Yahweh directed at specific circumstances, in wisdom those words and the day-to-day experiences of the people become the object of probing reflection. The ways of God are visible in creation and law, but they are beyond knowing without the help of revelation. The sages were endlessly curious about the way God and God’s creation work, and deeply impressed by the limits of wisdom, by the mystery of God (compare the words of Job’s friends in Job 11:1-8 and 36:22-26 with Paul’s wonderful pastiche of wisdom aphorisms in Rom. 11:33-36).

In Jewish wisdom the acknowledged need for revelation in no way closed the door on intellectual activity, and vice versa. Such a conviction also informed the growth of prophetic traditions over many decades, such as those attributed to Isaiah. Apocalyptic literature such as Daniel insisted that only revelation (the meaning of the Greek apocalypsis [see essay in the commentary: Apocalyptic]) could offer insight into the real state of the world and into the mystery of God’s designs for it, but these writings too were the product of self-consciously intellectual circles of visionaries. A careful study of the Revelation of John, for example, shows how meticulously even a recitation of visions and dreams was rehearsed in literary form (cf. also Millard Lind’s BCBC vol., Ezekiel (BCBC), esp. pages 18-19).

Wisdom literature contains poetic celebrations of Wisdom as the personified daughter of God and companion of faithful people (e.g., Job 28:12-28, which should be read as a poem about personified Wisdom, as correctly presented by NJB; Prov. 1; 3:13-20; 8–9; Baruch 3:9—4:4; Sirach 6:18-31; 14:20—15:8; 24; 51:13-22; Wisd. of Sol. 6–9). Creation and law are personified in the figure of an intensely attractive woman who is identified with God’s activity as Creator and Lawgiver and with the human activity of faithfulness and “scientific” inquisitiveness. “Solomon” has Wisdom as a science and theology tutor (Wisd. of Sol. 7, esp. 7:15-28), but he also desires her as a lover and wife (8:2), a desire the wisdom literature intended to instill into all the faithful (e.g., Prov. 8:2-5; 9:1-6; Baruch 3:36—4:4; Sirach 4:11-13; 14:20-27).

This rich tradition is relevant to the NT in various important ways. Jesus’ ethical and parabolic teachings are deeply rooted in wisdom and would have been recognized as such by his contemporaries. Further, early believers made the connection between personified Wisdom and the Christ (explicitly in 1 Cor. 1:24-30; Matt. 11:18-19, 28-30; James 3:13-18 also hints at it). Most dramatic are the hymns that celebrate Christ in the language and categories of personified Wisdom. Colossians 1:15-20 identifies Jesus Christ as the image of God (cf. Wisd. of Sol. 7:25-26) who created all things (cf. Prov. 8:30; Wisd. of Sol. 7:22). The poem on the “Word” (logos) in John 1:1-18 appears to owe much to this tradition, as the following passage from the Wisdom of Solomon illustrates:

For [Wisdom] is a reflection of eternal light,
a spotless mirror of the working of God,
and an image of his goodness.
Although she is but one, she can do all things,
and while remaining in herself, she renews all things; in every generation she passes into holy souls
and makes them friends of God, and prophets. (Wisd. of Sol. 7:26-27)

These words help to show us why early followers of Jesus would have drawn from this rich well.

The radical implications of identifying the crucified teacher from Galilee with Wisdom herself (Matt. 11:18-19; 1 Cor. 1) are particularly noteworthy. The self-giving Messiah is identified with the Wisdom that created the world, who gives guidance to humanity on how to order its existence and fashion its behavior. Hence Colossians 1:16 can claim that Christ is the one who has created and is Lord and disciplinarian of the principalities and powers (cf. 2:15 [See essay in the commentary: Powers]); the Creator is also the one who makes peace through his own death on the cross (1:20). In making the identification of Jesus with the Wisdom of God, his early followers make the radical claim that he represents God’s solution to both human sinfulness and human history and is the key to understanding created reality in all its manifestations and dimensions.

The NT thus contains the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection and the promise of salvation, but also a rich storehouse of proverbial and parabolic wisdom about how to comport oneself in daily life. To give but one example, the love of enemies (Matt. 5:43-48), most dramatically expressed in the death of Christ (Rom. 5), is to be exercised in light of the meticulous care the divine Creator offers even the birds and the flowers of the field (Matt. 6:25-34). Salvation and creation emerge from the one God, and are part of the same loving impulse (Yoder Neufeld, 1999:174-91).

Ephesians reflects the wisdom tradition in a number of ways. As much as any writing in the NT, it values wisdom and insight, most dramatically in 1:8, 17-18; and 3:14-19. It also values wise and righteous living (5:3-21).

Second, its view of salvation is repeatedly depicted as re-creation (cf. 2:4-10, 15; 4:24). Surely the characteristic emphasis on Christ gathering up all things (1:9-10) is a generosity of vision informed by the comprehensive horizon of wisdom.

Third, Ephesians owes much to a Christology rooted in wisdom literature. Much like personified Wisdom, Christ is the one in whom God and reconciled humanity meet. He is the agent of God’s reconciliation and re-creation of humanity (e.g., 1:9-10; 2:14-18). He is also as the one who provides humanity with its identity as the new human (2:15; 4:24). He is the head of the body (1:23; 2:15-16; 4:11-16; 5:23). Just as Wisdom “enters holy souls and makes them friends of God and prophets” (Wisd. of Sol. 7:27), so in Ephesians Christ is the one who lives within so as to enable believers to be filled with the fullness of God (3:16, 19). The often romantically described intimacy between the righteous and Lady Wisdom is evoked in the relation of Christ and the church as his bride in 5:25-32, only now the genders are reversed. Though much of this in Ephesians is a development of what we find in Paul’s letters generally, the debt to the rich wisdom tradition is clear. Ephesians reflects the wisdom tradition in yet another way. In its dependency on and creative restatement of Paul’s teaching, at greater distance from the specific circumstances that usually precipitated Paul’s letters, Ephesians stands firmly in the wisdom tradition of “revelatory reflection,” if I may coin a phrase. What is often observed to be an “overworked” style of writing in Ephesians may, in addition to having the feel of worship about it, be evidence of the highly processed nature of reflective wisdom. The author quite consciously reformulates and restates the apostolic “deposit,” all the while probing its implications.

Such reflection is undertaken with the full conviction that God is intimately present in and through Christ and the Holy Spirit, inspiring the apostle, his co-workers and students, and his congregations (see notes for 1:17-18; 2:20). Such wisdom participates just as fully in the ongoing disclosure of God’s manifold wisdom (2:7; 3:10; 6:19). This observation might shed light on how Ephesians can contain so many echoes of other letters in the Pauline collection, most especially Colossians, while at the same time make so rich and distinctive a contribution to Pauline theology [See essay in the commentary: Pseudepigraphy].

For a more extensive survey of the highly varied wisdom tradition and the extensive secondary literature, see R. E. Murphy.


Invitation to Comment

To recommend improvements to this article, click here.

Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld