Religion Wiki

Wisdom literature is the genre of literature common in the Ancient Near East. This genre is characterized by sayings of wisdom intended to teach about divinity and about virtue. The key principle of wisdom literature is that whilst techniques of traditional story-telling are used, books also presume to offer insight and wisdom about nature and reality.

The most famous examples of wisdom literature are found in the Bible.[1] The following Biblical books are classified as wisdom literature:

(Wisdom and Sirach are deuterocanonical books, placed in the Apocrypha by Protestant Bible translations.) [4]

The genre of mirror-of-princes writings, which has a long history in Islamic and Western Renaissance literature, represents a secular cognate of Biblical wisdom literature.

Within Classical Antiquity, the advice poetry of Hesiod, particularly his Works and Days has been seen as a like-genre to Near Eastern wisdom literature.

Ancient Egyptian literature

In Ancient Egyptian literature, wisdom literature was belonged to the sebayt (i.e. 'teaching') genre which flowered during the Middle Kingdom of Egypt and became canonical during the New Kingdom. Notable works of this genre include the Instructions of Kagemni, The Maxims of Ptahhotep, the Instructions of Amenemhat, and the Loyalist Teaching.

Biblical Wisdom Literature

Wisdom literature is the name applied to several books of the Old Testament, including two books of the Deuterocanon (Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach) that are classified as Apocryphal writings by Protestants but canonical by Catholics. The philosophy apparent in these texts combines a more semitic emphasis on practical wisdom with a Hellenic/Platonic concept of transcendent wisdom. The Hebrew wisdom evident in these works is a departure from early Hebraic texts that tell of the decrees of God through prophets and kings to acknowledgment of the plethora of human emotions in daily life and recommendations on how humans can maintain a relationship with God. While connections of good behavior and good individuals maintain a special relationship to God, the books of wisdom introduce opportunities in Lamentations, Psalms, and other books to use one's faith to express displeasure, pain, fear, and dispassion to God in productive ways. Rather than mere discouragement of such emotions, wisdom texts particularly seek to rationalize these human reactions to life and emphasize that they are not excuses to avoid contact with God, but just like joy are to be expressed and lived with.

The extant writings of the Jewish sages are contained in the books of Job, Proverbs, Psalms, Ben-Sira, Tobit, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom of Solomon, 4th Maccabees, to which may be added the first chapter of Pirke Aboth (a Talmudic tract giving, probably, pre-Christian material). Of these Job, Psalms 49, 73, 92 . 6-8 (5-7), Eccles., Wisdom, are discussions of the moral government of the world; Proverbs, Psalms 37, 119, Ben-Sira, Tobit 4, 12: 7-11, Pirke, are manuals of conduct, and 4th Maccabees treats of the autonomy of reason in the moral life; Psalms 8, 29:3-10, 90: 1-12, 107:17-32, 131, 144: 3f., 147: 8f.) are reflections on man and physical nature (cf. the Yahweh addresses in Job, and Ecclus. 42-3). Sceptical views are expressed in Job, Proverbs 30: 2-4 (Agur), and Ecclesiastes; the rest take the then orthodox positions on faith. Though the intellectual world of the sages is different from that of the prophetic and legal Hebraism, they do not break with the fundamental Jewish theistic and ethical creeds. Their monotheism remains Semitic—even in their conception of the cosmogonic and illuminating function of Wisdom. The material consistently regards God as standing outside the world of physical nature and man. Nor does man grasp or accept the idea or the identity of the human and the divine, there is thus a sharp distinction between this general theistic position and that of Greek philosophy. The wisdom books do however maintain the old high standard of Hebraic morals, and in some instances go beyond it, as in the injunctions to be kind to enemies (Proverbs 25:21 f.)(this is, however, not a good example, see following verse for context) and to do to no man what is hateful to one's self (Tobit 4:15).

Like the prophetical writings before Ezekiel, the Wisdom books, while they recognize the sacrificial ritual as an existing custom, attach less importance to it as an element of religious life (the fullest mention of it is in Ecclus. 35 Phoenix-squares 4 if., I); the difference between prophets and sages is that the former do not regard the ritual as of divine appointment (Jeremiah 7:22) and oppose it as non-moral, while the latter, probably accepting the law as divine, by laying stress on the universal side of religion, it deemphasizes the local and mechanical side (see Ecclus. 35:1-3). The interest of the material is in the ethical training of the individual, which is pleasing to God, on earth. Nationalistic overtones, state, or even governmental recommendations are not emphasized in favor of instructing the average man and woman.

Though the wisdom writers regard the miracles of the ancient times (referred to particularly in Wisdom 16-19) as historical facts, they say nothing about a miraculous element in the lives of their own time. Angels occur only in Job and Tobit, and there in noteworthy characters: in Job they are beings whom God charges with folly (4: 18), or they are mediators between God and man (5:1, 33:23), and are consequently more humanized. This is to be contrasted with the angels appearing in Genesis and other earlier canonical works. In the prologue, the figure of Satan accounts for Job's calamities; in Tobit the "affable" angel Raphael is a clever man of the world. Except in Wisdom 2:24 (where the serpent of Genesis 3 is called " Diabolos "), there is mention of one demon only (Asmodeus, in Tobit 3:8, 17), and that a Persian figure. Job alone introduces the Leviathan (3:8, 7:12, 9:13, 26:12) that occurs in late prophetical writings (Amos 9:3; Isaiah 27)

In Contrast to Greek Thought

Interestingly the Hebraic wisdom literature downplays the philosophical discussion on the basis of the moral life that was common in the Greek world at that time. The standard of good and the reason for good conduct is existing law, custom, and individual eudaemonistics in the Hebrew wisdom literature. This is in contrast to social philosophies co-developing in Greece that encourage good behavior for the health of the state, families, or from fear of reprisal. While the wisdom books, particularly Ecclesiastes, note that punishment may follow from poor choices, it is because the laws of goodness and rightness are God's and are ordained good by God that they should be followed. Wisdom is represented as the result of human reflection, and thus as the guide in all the affairs of life but predetermination of good remains God's prerogative (in Wisd. of Sol. and in parts of Prov. and Ecclus., but not in Eccles.). The wisdom texts emphasize human powers as bestowed directly by God; it is identified with the fear of God (Job 28:28; Prov. 1:7; Ecclus. 15:I ff.), an extension of which is obedience to the Jewish law (Ecclus. 24:23).


  1. Crenshaw, James L. "The Wisdom Literature", in Knight, Douglas A. and Tucker, Gene M. (eds), The Hebrew Bible and Its Modern Interpreters (1985).
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Template:Wwbible
  3. 3.0 3.1 'The Wisdom Books'. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, New American Bible. Washington DC: 2002.
  4. Template:Wwbible

See also

  • Proverb
  • Mirror-of-princes writing
  • Conduct book
  • Self-help
  • Eastern philosophy
  • Apophthegmata Patrum

External links

This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

ar:أدب الحكمة ca:Llibres sapiencials sw:Vitabu vya hekima ja:知恵文学 pt:Livros poéticos e sapienciais do Antigo Testamento simple:Wisdom literature