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THE BOOKS OF WISDOM
INTERMEDIATE BETWEEN THE OLD AND THE NEW TESTAMENT
Wisdom of Solomon
The Book of Job
The Books of Wisdom, as literary works, may be described as follows.
The Book of Proverbs: Collections of Traditional Wisdom, with Hymns of Adoration.
Ecclesiasticus: A Collection of Traditional Wisdom by Jesus Son of Sirach, with Original Additions.
Ecclesiastes: A Collection of Traditional Wisdom, with Meditations by "The Preacher."
The Wisdom of Solomon: Imaginary Discourses on Wisdom.
The Book of Job: Wisdom in Dramatic Fórm.
The Books of Wisdom are five in number: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job, in the Bible, with Ecclesiasticus and The Wisdom of Solomon in The Apocrypha. The distinction between the books which make up the Bible and others called collectively The Apocrypha is a distinction which belongs to theology. Theologians have laid down that the books of the Bible are authoritative in matters of doctrine, while the apocryphal books are simply to be read for edification. The distinction does not affect literary study. On the other hand, the two books of the Apocrypha named above are of the highest intrinsic interest to the literary student; they are essential, moreover, for bringing out the connectedness of wisdom literature as a whole.
In the Modern Reader's Bible these five books appear in their proper place as intermediate between the Old and the New Testament. How different this wisdom literature is from the spirit of the Old Testament in general will be clear when it is mentioned that in only two of these books does the word Israel occur; in three out of the five there is no notice of Temple, or Law, or Messianic hopes; in the other two books, if these topics appear, they appear only incidentally. The mission to the nations, which is the connecting thread binding together the different parts of the Old Testament, is ignored in the books of wisdom. The mission to the nations in a transfigured form is also the connecting idea of the New Testament. The wisdom books thus stand apart from all the rest of Scripture; they make an interlude between the movement of the Old and that of the New Testament. Even in a chronological sense the description "intermediate" applies largely to these books; though it must be added that they include a body of traditional literature which goes back to remote antiquity.
If these books of wisdom are separate from the movement of the rest of Scripture, they have a movement and unity of their own. 'Wisdom,' in Scripture, is the counterpart to philosophy in modern speech; but there is a difference. Biblical wisdom is limited to the philosophy of conduct; to devout contemplation of human life. Here it may be convenient to mention that one of the five books stands apart from the rest. The Book of Job is a drama; the other four are meditations on life.
The questions of
life which are subjects of meditation in the other books are, in this Book of Job, raised by a specific example. A narrative story opens up a situation of affairs which seems to challenge accepted views of life; round this situation particular thinkers gather and discuss it; the philosophic discussion is also a dramatic movement, with a stupendous climax. Hence it seems best to reserve this Book of Job for separate treatment later on; what is here said applies to the other four books.
When we read these four books in their proper order, we trace, not only connection, but development. We can see development in literary form, and a still more impressive progression in the underlying thought.
The literary forms in which the wisdom of these books expresses itself may be briefly indicated. The term 'Wisdom Brevities' covers some of these forms: the couplet or triplet of the popular proverb; somewhat longer epigrams and maxims. Then the prose maxim expands into the essay: the wisdom essay has no resemblance to such writings as those of Macaulay or Emerson, but is closely akin to the shorter essay of Bacon. The essay is further enlarged into discourses on texts. The verse epigram expands into poems which in the Modern Reader's Bible are called sonnets; but it must be understood that our current conception of the sonnet as a form limited to fourteen lines has no application to earlier literature. Sometimes we have monologues, in which personified Wisdom, or perhaps Solomon, is heard speaking. There is also what is technically called an 'encomium,' that is, a set act of praise. The exact distinction between these literary forms will appear in the Notes (below, pages 503 fol.); but it does not affect our conception of wisdom in general.
There is another development through the four books of wisdom in literary form, which has to do with what the modern world would call authorship. In all languages philosophy makes its first. appearance in the form of popular proverbs. These are a floating literature: such proverbs pass from mouth to mouth, without any sense of authorship attached to them. In time, the results of individual thinking mingle with traditional proverbs. The reader of to-day, who has lived wholly in the atmosphere of books and original thinking, often finds it difficult to realize how slowly and
gradually, in the ancient world, the conception of authorship and originality came to supersede the idea of tradition. In Scriptural wisdom, better perhaps than in any other literary field, may be seen the evolution from floating literature to individual authorship. The root idea of a 'book of wisdom' is a miscellaneous collection of traditional sayings. It might be compared to the 'commonplace book' which perhaps the reader keeps for noting down literary passages that impress him; only there is the important difference that to such commonplace books' the ancient thinker committed his own original compositions. And in these books of wisdom there is nothing, except conjecture, to distinguish between what is original and what is traditional.
The first of the four books, the Book of Proverbs, is entirely a miscellaneous collection of wisdom sayings. More precisely, it is a collection of collections: five separate miscellanies, put together we know not by whom. The book opens with a series of poems on wisdom. Then, a new title announces "The Proverbs of Solomon." It must be noted that this title has nothing to do with authorship. It is a peculiarity of ancient literature that to the originator of any tradition its later developments are ascribed; thus developments of law, early or late, can be spoken of as 'Moses'; psalms of all periods can be collectively called David; wisdom early or late will be given out as from Solomon, the great Patron of wisdom literature. This second section of the Book of Proverbs is made up of 375 short couplets or triplets, entirely unconnected with one another. The third section is equally miscellaneous, but seems to constitute a 'wisdom epistle,' sent by one wise man to another. Then comes another title: "The Proverbs of Solomon which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied out." A fifth section gives sayings attached to the names of 'Agur' and 'Lemuel's mother.' Thus, so far as this book is concerned, the 'author' is merely the 'collector.'
The second of the wisdom books is a long collection of miscellaneous wisdom all put together by one man-Jesus Son of Sirach, who names himself and occasionally speaks of his own personality. We may be quite sure that a large amount of the essays in this book are the original composition of this son of Sirach; but there is nothing in the text to discriminate these from the other sayings.