Wisdom literature is a 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 while techniques of traditional story-telling are used, books also presume to offer insight and wisdom about nature and reality.
The genre of mirrors for princes writings, which has a long history in Islamic and Western Renaissance literature, represents a secular cognate of biblical wisdom literature. In 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
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In ancient Egyptian literature, wisdom literature belonged to the sebayt ("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 and Jewish texts
The most famous examples of wisdom literature are found in the Bible. The term Sapiential Books or "Books of Wisdom" is used in biblical studies to refer to a subset of the books of the Hebrew Bible in the Septuagint version. There are seven of these books, namely the books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Book of Wisdom, the Song of Songs (Song of Solomon), and Sirach (Ecclesiasticus). Not all the Psalms are usually regarded as belonging to the Wisdom tradition.
In Judaism, the Books of Wisdom are regarded as part of the Ketuvim or "Writings". In Christianity, Job, Psalms, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are included in the Old Testament by all traditions, while Wisdom, Song of Songs and Sirach are regarded in some traditions as deuterocanonical works which are placed in the Apocrypha within the Anglican and Protestant Bible translations.
The Sapiential books are in the broad tradition of wisdom literature that was found widely in the Ancient Near East, and includes writings from many religions other than Judaism.
The Greek noun sophia is the translation of "wisdom" in the Greek Septuagint for Hebrew חכמות Ḥokmot. Wisdom is a central topic in the "sapiential" books, i.e. Proverbs, Psalms, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Book of Wisdom, Wisdom of Sirach, and to some extent Baruch (the last three are Apocryphal / Deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament.)
Philo and the Logos
Philo, a Hellenised Jew writing in Alexandria, attempted to harmonise Platonic philosophy and Jewish scripture. Also influenced by Stoic philosophical concepts, he used the Greek term logos, "word," for the role and function of Wisdom, a concept later adapted by the author of the Gospel of John in the opening verses and applied to Jesus Christ as the eternal Word (Logos) of God the Father.
- Apophthegmata Patrum
- Conduct book
- Eastern philosophy
- Sage writing
- Teaching stories
Notes and references
- Crenshaw, James L. "The Wisdom Literature", in Knight, Douglas A. and Tucker, Gene M. (eds), The Hebrew Bible and Its Modern Interpreters (1985).
- Comay, Joan; Brownrigg, Ronald (1993). Who's Who in the Bible: The Old Testament and the Apocrypha, The New Testament. New York: Wing Books. pp. Old Testament, 355–356. ISBN 0-517-32170-X.
- Harris, Stephen L., Understanding the Bible. Palo Alto: Mayfield. 1985. "John" p. 302-310
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "article name needed". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.