Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
Introduction to the Book of Wisdom from Lawrence Boadt’s Reading the Old Testament
The Book of Wisdom is known only in Greek and was possibly the last Old Testament book written. It contains philosophical arguments found in Philo of Alexandria and other Jewish writers in 1st c. BC. The author is interested in reassuring the Jewish community in Egypt that keeping their faith is worthwhile despite hardship in a pagan land. The focus is on salvation history as a path to learning wisdom. It is interesting that the idea of immortality enters Jewish thinking as an explanation of how God rewards the sufferings of the just.
The Wisdom “movement” in Jewish history lasted longer than the prophetic movement. The prophets borrowed from it. The following themes are part of the wisdom movement:
Wisdom knows its limits. God’s thoughts are beyond our understanding. The basic virtue of the wise is trust.
Wisdom 1 – “Love virtue you who are judges on earth, let honesty prompt your thing about the Lord, seek him in simplicity of heart” (1:1). Virtue means the perfect accord of behavior with the will of God. The two traditions of the Jewish people, the tradition of wisdom and the tradition of prophetic ministry, both involve seeking God. The wisdom of this book is directed at those who are given power over others – kings, judges, people in power in whatever form of government.
“Wisdom is a spirit, a friend to man, though she will not pardon the words of a blasphemer, since God sees into the innermost parts of him” (1:6).
“The spirit of the Lord, indeed, fills the whole world, and that which holds all things together knows every word that is said. The man who gives voice to injustice will never go unnoticed, nor shall avenging justice pass him by” (1:7-8). Every thing we do and everything we say has consequence: blasphemy, complaint, fault-finding, lies. They deal death to the soul.
“Death was not God’s doing, he takes no pleasure in the extinction of the living . . . and Hades holds no power on earth; for virtue is undying” (1:13-15).
Wisdom 2 – It is the “godless” who are partners of death - the worldly philosophers of Alexandria who say “life is short and dreary” (2:1), that we are only here “by chance” and “after this life we shall be as if we had never been” (2:2). This sounds as if it is directed at the Epicureans who were known for promoting these ideas and argued that if death is the end of all, we should “eat, drink and be merry.”
Go ahead, they say, exploit the poor, the widow, the old. The virtuous are annoying people who reproach conduct like this. They talk about God protecting them but let’s test that, they say.
The writer ends by saying: “This is the way they reason, but they are misled, their malice makes them blind. They do not know the hidden things of God, they have no hope that holiness will be rewarded; they can see no reward for blameless souls. Yet God did make man imperishable, he made him in the image of his own nature” (2:21-23).
Death came into the world through the envy of the devil.
Acts 26 – Paul presents his case, saying to Agrippa that it pleases him to be able to do it before him whom he considers to be “an expert in matters of custom and controversy among the Jews” (26:3).
Paul tells of his life and especially how he “followed the strictest party . . . and lived as a Pharisee” (26:5). He says he is on trial because of his “hope in the promise made by God to our ancestors . . .the promise that our twelve tribes . . .hope to attain” (26:6-7). He says he tried to suppress the Nazarene sect, even pursuing them into foreign lands. It was during a pursuit like this that he “[saw] the light” that changed him.
Paul recounts how in Jesus’ appearance to him, he heard Jesus say to him the words that became Paul’s “call” in life:
“I have appeared to you to appoint you as my servant. You are to tell others what you have seen today and what I will show you in the future. I will rescue you from the people of Israel and from the Gentiles to whom I will send you. You are to open their eyes and turn them from the darkness to the light and from the power of Satan to God, so that through their faith in me they will have their sins forgiven and receive their place among God’s chosen people” (26:16-18). Then he tells Agrippa how he started preaching and how this led to the anger he faced from Jews who disagreed with him.
Hearing all this, Festus shouts that Paul is “out of his mind” (26:24). But he seems also convinced by Paul’s arguments and says, “’A little more, and your arguments would make a Christian of me” (26:28).
After conferring a little with Festus, Agrippa says he can find nothing in what Paul is doing that deserves death or imprisonment. He says he would have set him free if he had not appealed to Caesar.