Wisdom literature

Wisdom literature is a genre of literature common in the ancient Near East. It consists of statements by sages and the wise that offer teachings about divinity and virtue. Although this genre uses techniques of traditional oral storytelling, it was disseminated in written form.

Tablet of the Dialogue between a Man and His God, c. 19th-17th centuries BC, Louvre Museum

The literary genre of mirrors for princes, which has a long history in Islamic and Western Renaissance literature, is a secular cognate of wisdom literature. In Classical Antiquity, the didactic poetry of Hesiod, particularly his Works and Days, was regarded as a source of knowledge similar to the wisdom literature of Egypt, Babylonia, Israel and India.[citation needed] Pre-Islamic Arabic literature is replete with many poems of wisdom, including the poetry of Zuhayr bin Abī Sūlmā (520–609).

Ancient Mesopotamian literatureEdit

Wisdom literature from Sumeria and Babylonia are among the most ancient in the world, with the Sumerian documents dating back to the third millennium BC and the Babylonian dating to the second millennium BC. Many of the extant texts uncovered at Nippur are as ancient as the 18th-century BC. Most of these texts are wisdom in the form of dialogues or hymns, such as the Hymn to Enlil, the All-Beneficent from ancient Sumer.[1]

Proverbs were particularly popular among the Sumerians, with many fables and anecdotes therein, such as the Debate Between Winter and Summer, which world-renowned Assyriology expert Samuel Noah Kramer has noted as paralleling the story of Cain and Abel in the Book of Genesis (Genesis 4:1–16)[2] and the form of disputation is similar to that between Job and his friends in the Book of Job (written c. 6th-century BC).[3]

My lord, I have reflected within my reins, [...] in [my] heart. I do not know what sin I have committed. Have I [eaten] a very evil forbidden fruit? Does brother look down on brother? — Dialogue between a Man and His God, c. 19th-16th centuries BC[4]

Several other ancient Mesopotamian texts parallel the Book of Job, including the Sumerian Man and his God (remade by the Old Babylonians into Dialogue between a Man and His God, c. 19th-16th centuries BC) and the Akkadian text, The Poem of the Righteous Sufferer;[5] the latter text concerns a man who has been faithful his whole life and yet suffers unjustly until he is ultimately delivered from his afflictions.[6] The ancient poem known as the Babylonian Theodicy from 17th-10th centuries BC also features a dialogue between a sufferer and his friend on the unrighteousness of the world.[7]

The 5th-century BC Aramaic story Words of Ahikar is full of sayings and proverbs, many similar to local Babylonian and Persian aphorisms as well as passages similar to parts of the Book of Proverbs and others to the deuterocanonical Wisdom of Sirach.[8]

Ancient Egyptian literatureEdit

In ancient Egyptian literature, wisdom literature belonged to the sebayt ("teaching") genre which flourished 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, the Loyalist Teaching, and the Hermetica.[9] Hymns such as A Prayer to Re-Har-akhti (c. 1230 BC) feature the confession of sins and appeal for mercy:

Do not punish me for my numerous sins, [for] I am one who knows not his own self, I am a man without sense. I spend the day following after my [own] mouth, like a cow after grass.[10]

Much of the surviving wisdom literature of ancient Egypt was concerned with the afterlife. Some of these take the form of dialogues, such as The Debate Between a Man and his Soul from 20th-18th centuries BC, which features a man from the Middle Kingdom lamenting about life as he speaks with his ba.[11] Other texts display a variety of views concerning life after death, including the rationalist skeptical The Immortality of Writers and the Harper's Songs, the latter of which oscillates between hopeful confidence and reasonable doubt.[12]

Hermetic traditionEdit

The Hermetica is a piece of Egyptian-Greek wisdom literature in the form of a dialogue between Hermes Trismegistus and a disciple. The majority of the text date to the 1st-4th century AD, though the original materials the texts may be older;[13] recent scholarship confirms that the syncretic nature of Hermeticism arose during the times of Roman Egypt, but the contents of the tradition parallel the older wisdom literature of Ancient Egypt, suggesting origins during the Pharaonic Age.[14][15] The Hermetic texts of the Egyptians mostly dealt with summoning spirits, animating statues, Babylonian astrology, and the then-new practice of alchemy; additional mystical subjects include divine oneness, purification of the soul, and rebirth through the enlightenment of the mind.[16]

Islamic HermeticismEdit

The wisdom literature of Egyptian Hermeticism ended up as part of Islamic tradition, with his writings considered by the Abbasids as sacred inheritance from the Prophets and Hermes himself as the ancestor of the Prophet Muhammad. In the version of the Hermetic texts kept by the Ikhwan al-Safa, Hermes Trismegistus is identified as the ancient prophet Idris; according to their tradition, Idris traveled from Egypt into heaven and Eden, bringing the Black Stone back to earth when he landed in India.[17] The star-worshipping sect of the Sabaeans also believed their doctrine descended from Hermes Trismegistus.[18]

Biblical wisdom literature and Jewish textsEdit

 
Illuminated manuscript depicting Job, his friends, and the leviathan, Mount Athos, c. 1300

The most famous examples of wisdom literature are found in the Bible.[19][20]

Sapiential BooksEdit

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 translation. There are seven of these books, namely the books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs (Song of Solomon), the Book of Wisdom and Sirach (Ecclesiasticus). Not all the Psalms are usually regarded as belonging to the Wisdom tradition.[21]

In Judaism, the Books of Wisdom other than the Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach are regarded as part of the Ketuvim or "Writings," while Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach are not considered part of the biblical canon. Similarly, in Christianity, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes are included in the Old Testament by all traditions, while Wisdom, and Sirach are regarded in some traditions as deuterocanonical works which are placed in the Apocrypha within the Anglican and Protestant Bible translations.[22]

The Sapiential Books are in the broad tradition of wisdom literature that was found widely in the Ancient Near East, including many religions other than Judaism.

SeptuagintEdit

The Greek noun sophia (σοφῐ́ᾱ, sophíā) is the translation of "wisdom" in the Greek Septuagint for Hebrew Ḥokmot (חכמות‎, khakhamút). Wisdom is a central topic in the "Sapiential" Books, i.e., Proverbs, Psalms, Job, 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).

Classical textsEdit

See alsoEdit

Notes and referencesEdit

  1. ^ Bullock, C. Hassell (2007). An Introduction to the Old Testament Poetic Books. Moody Publishers. ISBN 9781575674506.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  2. ^ Samuel Noah Kramer (1961). Sumerian mythology: a study of spiritual and literary achievement in the third millennium B.C. Forgotten Books. pp. 72–. ISBN 978-1-60506-049-1. Retrieved 9 June 2011.
  3. ^ Leo G. Perdue (1991). Wisdom in revolt: metaphorical theology in the Book of Job. Continuum International Publishing Group. pp. 79–. ISBN 978-1-85075-283-7. Retrieved 29 May 2011.
  4. ^ "A Dialogue Between a Man and His God [CDLI Wiki]". cdli.ox.ac.uk. Retrieved 2019-07-06.
  5. ^ Hartley, John E. (1988). The Book of Job. Eerdmans. ISBN 978-0-8028-2528-5.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  6. ^ John L. McKenzie, Dictionary of the Bible, Simon & Schuster, 1965 p. 440.
  7. ^ John Gwyn Griffiths (1991). The Divine Verdict: A Study of Divine Judgement in the Ancient Religions. BRILL. ISBN 9004092315.
  8. ^ W. C. Kaiser, Kr., 'Ahikar uh-hi’kahr', in The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, ed. by Merrill C. Tenney, rev. edn by Moisés Silva, 5 vols (Zondervan, 2009), s.v.
  9. ^ Brian Copenhaver (1995). "Introduction". Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a New English Translation, With Notes and Introduction. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521425438.
  10. ^ Bullock, C. Hassell (2007). An Introduction to the Old Testament Poetic Books. Moody Publishers. ISBN 9781575674506.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  11. ^ James P. Allen, The Debate between a Man and His Soul: A Masterpiece of Ancient Egyptian Literature Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill. ISBN 978-90-04-19303-1
  12. ^ "Ancient Egyptian Literature Volume 1: The Old and Middle Kingdom", Miriam Lichtheim,University of California, 1975, ISBN 0-520-02899-6
  13. ^ Copenhaver, Brian P. (1995). "Introduction". Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius in a New English Translation, with Notes and Introduction. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521425438. Scholars generally locate the theoretical Hermetica, 100 to 300 CE; most would put C.H. I toward the beginning of that time. [...] [I]t should be noted that Jean-Pierre Mahe accepts a second-century limit only for the individual texts as they stand, pointing out that the materials on which they are based may come from the first century CE or even earlier. [...] To find theoretical Hermetic writings in Egypt, in Coptic [...] was a stunning challenge to the older view, whose major champion was Father Festugiere, that the Hermetica could be entirely understood in a post-Platonic Greek context.
  14. ^ Fowden, Garth, The Egyptian Hermes : a historical approach to the late pagan mind (Cambridge/New York : Cambridge University Press), 1986
  15. ^ Jean-Pierre Mahé, "Preliminary Remarks on the Demotic "Book of Thoth" and the Greek Hermetica" Vigiliae Christianae 50.4 (1996:353-363) p.358f.
  16. ^ "Stages of Ascension in Hermetic Rebirth". Esoteric.msu.edu. Retrieved 2015-06-25.
  17. ^ Prophets in the Quran: An Introduction to the Quran and Muslim Exegesis, p.46. Wheeler, Brannon. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2002
  18. ^ Stapleton, H.E.; R.F. Azo & M.H. Husein (1927). Chemistry in Iraq and Persia in the Tenth Century AD: Memoirs of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Volume 8. Calcutta: Asiatic Society of Bengal. pp. 398–403.
  19. ^ Crenshaw, James L. "The Wisdom Literature", in Knight, Douglas A. and Tucker, Gene M. (eds), The Hebrew Bible and Its Modern Interpreters (1985).
  20. ^ Anderson, Bernhard W. (1967). "The Beginning of Widom – Israels Wisdom literature". The Living World of the Old Testament. Longmans. pp. 570ff.
  21. ^ Estes, D. J., Handbook on the Wisdom Books and Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2005), p. 141.
  22. ^ 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, 355–56. ISBN 0-517-32170-X.

BibliographyEdit

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