The Book of Wisdom: Intelligence for a Good Life

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Giancarlo Pani SJ

 Giancarlo Pani SJ / Church Thought / 9 December 2019


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The Book of Wisdom in the Old Testament, is little-known, poorly studied and occasionally used for prayer. Some extracts are present in the Liturgy of the Word and in the Breviary. Even in ancient times the book was rarely commented on. The Fathers of the Greek Church spoke little about it, Latin ones even less, and the great theologians of the Middle Ages mostly ignored it. What are the reasons for this lack of attention?

One reason could be found in the nature of Western culture where Christianity developed: a culture very attentive to philosophy and science, and less to popular wisdom, which is expressed in pithy sayings, transmitted mostly orally, and therefore not easily catalogued as literary material.

Another reason could be that the book belongs to the “sapiential” genre, which was shared by different ancient cultures. All peoples have a type of literature that can be defined as “sapiential.” This includes proverbs, maxims, aphorisms and didactic examples, which collect and synthesize the life experience of a people, handing down the common fund of wisdom. It becomes enriched over generations. There are “sapiential” books in the Bible: Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Sirach and Wisdom.[1] However, biblical wisdom was little studied until the beginning of the last century.

The study of biblical wisdom changed with the discovery of the literature of the ancient Near East, in particular Egypt and Mesopotamia, where a vast wisdom culture emerged, written centuries before the Bible. During the last century, as these ancient sapiential texts were published, scholars discovered the Book of Wisdom’s impressive affinity with the literature of the ancient world, to which the sacred book is largely indebted.

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