Thursday, May 25, 2017

Jesus the Sage: The Pilgrimage of Wisdom, Ben Witherington III, #1

WitheringtonThe latest book I am reading for my New Testament devotions and study is by Ben Witherington III, Jesus the Sage: The Pilgrimage of Wisdom.  In this book Witherington looks at the influence of Jewish wisdom on the teachings of Jesus and how He develops and expands the wisdom tradition. I am posting from my reading in New Testament theologies and devotionals on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I welcome comments and discussion on my Facebook page. I am using the Logos version of the book.

Witherington sees Jesus as a sage who operates, not only in the Jewish wisdom tradition, but who is an innovator who develops wisdom thinking into what will become the wisdom of the New Testament. To fully understand what Jesus is saying we need to be familiar with the Jewish wisdom tradition.

This book then is not only about the pilgrimage of Wisdom but also about Jesus the sage as one who contributed to the growth and development of Jewish Wisdom and, for the community of his own followers, charted a course that they would follow in further developing Wisdom ideas and forms. xi

Chapter 1 looks at the wisdom tradition in the Old Testament. This tradition is more international in scope (borrowed proverbs from Egypt for example) and relies a great deal on tradition and human observation, although both must be interpreted through the revelation of God in the Torah.

The sage reflected on what the world and ordinary human and animal affairs can reveal about God but especially about how as a human being one ought to live in order to rightly express reverence for God in accord with the moral structure of the universe God set up in the first place. 11–12

Proverbs provides an earlier example of the wisdom tradition. The proverbs tend to be general observations about the way God has set up creation and gives advice about how to function most successfully within it. Generally the way one acts has consequences that follow and wisdom knows and does those acts that bring success. This tends to work because God has set up the universe according to wisdom.

Rather than trying to offer Truth with a capital T, perhaps in some cases the function of a proverb was either to provide a general rule of thumb, not an exclusive rule, or the maxims were meant to aid the listener to discern the proper context in which to illuminate the human situation. 23

Wisdom, which begins with the idea of reverence for Yahweh, is seen as the key to the good life. Wisdom teaches the art of steering through life’s difficulties and how to live long, live well, and live in an upright fashion. 49

Ecclesiastes and Job provide the later counter-wisdom to the conventional, conservative wisdom of Proverbs. Sometimes things don't work out according to conventional wisdom. We don't always know the wise thing to do because we don't have God's perspective on proper timing or on the foolish actions of others. We don't always know what God is up to, so wisdom does not always bring success.

Qoheleth was still seen as a sage who stood within the Wisdom tradition, even if as the “loyal opposition” he offered a fundamental rethinking of various Wisdom generalizations about life. 52

Qoheleth has provided a great service by showing the hopelessness of such a view of life. Qoheleth stands at the ragged edge of a world gone wrong and sees it for what it is. A Wisdom philosophy under such circumstances, especially if there is suffering, persecution, oppression, and poverty is frankly inadequate and this book proves it, however accurate certain maxims may be under certain limited good circumstances. 57–58

In chapter 2 Witherington looks at intertestamental Jewish wisdom literature, in particular The Wisdom of Ben Sira and The Wisdom of Solomon. Ben Sira lived during the Hellenistic period in Israel under the Seleucids. He presents a more traditional, back to Torah and Proverbs type, view of wisdom while updating and applying it to the new situation in which the Jews found themselves. He also recognized that, while wisdom goes back to creation and is international in scope, it has taken up particular residence in Jerusalem in the Torah, prophets and temple priesthood and ritual.

Ben Sira first identifies Wisdom with God’s oral word, which spoke the universe into being and ordered it, and then suggests that God’s Wisdom has taken up particular location in Zion in the form of the Book of the Covenant, God’s written word. This means that while Torah expresses Wisdom for Israel, it does not exhaust it. 86

Ben Sira regards wisdom as belonging to the divine world and available to humankind only as a gift. There is therefore a close parallelism between wisdom and the Spirit, and correspondingly, between one endowed with wisdom and the prophet. 89

Ben Sira’s work represents the apex of the development of the Hebrew Wisdom tradition prior to the time of Jesus. But it is well to say in closing that Ben Sira was no Gnostic; he did not affirm that knowledge was the way to salvation...he stressed that obeying the Lord and living in a way that pleases God is the most critical thing of all. 99

Witherington concludes the section on intertestamental development of wisdom literature by looking at the Wisdom of Solomon. This book was probably written during the late Greek or early Roman period by an unknown sage taking on the persona” of Solomon. Some important developments would include the inclusion of Greek ideas, especially Platonic, into the Jewish idea of wisdom, development of a view of the soul pre-existent and separate from the body, a doctrine of after-life where injustice would be made right, and further personification of wisdom into a "hypostasis," an actual entity, emanating from God.

It is also not clear that our author affirms the idea of bodily resurrection, though 5:1ff suggests this. Especially crucial is Wis. 8:19–20 where one not only sees the idea of body-soul dualism enunciated but probably also the idea of the pre-existence of the soul...Fundamentally the kind of immortality he is commending to his audience is “Immortality … not rooted in the human makeup, but in one’s relationship to God.”  105

For the sake of clarity, I will call what is being expressed in the Wisdom of Solomon an hypostasis, not merely a personification of an attribute, because it now entails the new element of Wisdom emanating from God. This idea is closely linked with the idea of Wisdom as light or even more radiant than mere light (cf. Wis. 7:10). 109

It may be that in the Wisdom of Solomon there is a hypostasis of Wisdom. It is striking that what happens to personified Wisdom is what happens in general in Ben Sira’s book and the Wisdom of Solomon, for in both these books one sees a drawing on the particularistic traditions of Israel’s history and a focus on God’s elect people and their future direction. This trend of particularization takes a further and dramatic step in the New Testament Wisdom material. 116

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