The Wisdom of Jesus

In Biblical studies, “wisdom” refers to a distinctive literary genre found in the Old Testament books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth), and Job as well as the deutero-canonical books known as the Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach (Ben Sira).  The genre is characterized by a few distinctive elements: (1) it is didactic meaning it contains teachings about practical or mundane matters rather than speculative; (2) it is moral meaning it talks about how to live a good life; (3) it is philosophical meaning that it has as its goal knowledge, both about divine and earthly things; (4) it is religious meaning that it illustrates how one is rightly meant to follow God.

The Wisdom tradition is not limited to just the Old Testament but also influenced the early Christians, including those Christians responsible for writing the Gospels.  An interesting area of study now in Biblical scholarship, one which has a large impact on the field of ethics, examines how precisely the wisdom tradition influenced both Jesus and the early Christians, as evidenced by the synoptic gospels and especially the  gospel of Matthew.

A Wisdom Christology:

The connection between Jesus and the wisdom tradition has been posited in different ways.  One trajectory sees Jesus as Wisdom incarnate.  This is sometimes referred to as a “Wisdom Christology,” a position for which scholars like M.J. Suggs and James Dunn have argued.  These scholars base their arguments on a number of points:

1. The Gospel of  John is clearly identifying Jesus as Wisdom incarnate, especially in the prologue.  Jesus is the divine logos, rather than just the one who utters God’s logoi.  Wisdom, God’s self-expression and the principle by which God orders the universe, is now incarnate in the person of Jesus.  Like wisdom who was there when God established the heavens (Prov. 8:22-31, Wisdom of Solomon 9:9 and Sirach 24:3-12), Jesus the Logos was “in the beginning with God” and all things came to be through him.”

2. Feminist theologians like Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza have argued that the early church used the (feminine) symbol of divine Sophia to talk about Christology.  Jesus, sometimes seen as the emissary of Dame Wisdom (Sophia) and sometimes as Wisdom herself is the God of the poor, preparing a banquet for her children and nourishing them with her word.

3. The Gospel of Matthew has a number of developments from earlier sources (Q and Mark as well as Luke) that seem to be edited in order to present Jesus more as the embodiment of divine Wisdom.  For example, Luke has Jesus says “Wisdom is vindicated by all her children” (7:35) whereas Matthew changes the passage to say “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds” (Mt. 11:19) which concludes a lengthy passage delineating the deeds of Christ.

Another example is found in Matthew 11:29-30: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.   Matthew subtly changes the original passage from Sirach which reads “Submit your neck to her [Wisdom’s] yoke that your mind may accept her teaching” (Sirach 51:26).

Yet another example is found in Matthew’s editing of Luke 11:49 “Therefore the wisdom of God said, ‘I will send to them prophets and apostles. . . ‘”  Matthew’s text has Jesus himself saying “Therefore I will send prophets . . .” (Mt. 23:34).  Based on these bits of evidence, James Dunn concludes “Jesus the teacher of wisdom hass become Jesus Wisdom, another way of expressing the thematic claim that Jesus is ‘Emmanuel, God with us’” (Mt 1:23).

Jesus as a Wise Man:

The strong identification of Jesus with wisdom as divine Wisdom incarnate has come under criticism, partially because the evidence is sparse and partially because the trajectory of the Synoptics as a whole do not seem to point to an identification with Jesus as Wisdom.  An alternative is to argue that the Synoptic gospels are trying to portray Jesus as a wise teacher, a prominent role in Wisdom literature.  Sometimes the teacher is the father figure as in Proverbs 4:10.  However, other ancient Near Eastern parallels suggest that there were wisdom schools where people would go to be taught.

The evidence for Jesus as a wise teacher most obviously as that the word teacher (rabbi) is the word most frequently used to refer to him.  Additionally, the Gospel of Matthew especially puts a lot of emphasis on Jesus’ teaching.  The Sermon on the Mount, the most famous collection of Jesus’ teaching are introduced by Jesus “teaching in the synagogues” (5:23) and concluded with the crowds “astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (7:28).

Jesus’ teachings also take on the distinctive form of wisdom teachings.  He speaks in proverbs and parables, some having an imperative character (e.g. Matthew 7:1), others having an interrogative character (“Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?”) and others having a descriptive, almost pithy character, typical of the wisdom “meshalim” (“The lamp of the body is the eye.  If your eye is sound, your whole body will be filled with light”).  The way Jesus speaks closely resembles the way of speech in Proverbs, the Wisdom of Solomon, and Sirach.

In Matthew especially, the motif of the wise teacher is prominent.  In Matthew 12:42, Jesus says “The queen of the south will rise up at the judgment with his generation and condemn it, because se came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and sees, something greater than Solomon is here.”  The wise men (magoi) make their only appearance in this gospel, finding their search for wisdom leading them to the child Jesus with his mother.

Jesus as the Model of Wisdom

I don’t think that either of these models of Jesus as Wisdom Incarnate or Jesus as the wise teacher do justice to Jesus’ relationship to the wisdom tradition.  Another way of looking at Jesus is as the model of wisdom.

According to Aquinas, wisdom is a gift of the Holy Spirit which denotes “a certain rectitude of judgment according to Divine Law” (ST II-II, Q. 45, art. 2).  There are two elements to wisdom: the first is the perfect use of reason, and the second is a type of affinity between the person and what reason dictates.  A wise person not only knows that adultery is wrong, but also has habituated his sexual appetite to remain chaste, even when faced with temptation.

Thus we see wisdom concerned both with the act (which must be in accordance with the Divine Law) and the person who must have a disposition consistent with what the Divine Law commands.  This “disposition” Aquinas calls a “certain connaturality with Divine things.”  He associates the seventh beatitude “blessed are the peacemakers” to the gift of wisdom, because it is wisdom’s task to put things in order, and peace (both interior and exterior) is the harmony of order.

We see this two-fold interior and exterior treatment of wisdom in Jesus’ teachings in the Synoptic gospels, especially Matthew‘s gospel and particularly the Sermon on the Mount.  Some people like Lisa Cahill think that Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is trying to distance himself from the religion of his listeners and substitute a heartfelt morality for the old prescriptions of the Law.  This interpretation, however, seems inconsistent with Matthew 5:17-20 where Jesus says that he has not come to abolish the law but the fulfill it.  I do not think that Jesus is just presenting a completely interiorized ethic.

Rather, I think that Jesus is presenting an understanding of wisdom much like Thomas Aquinas’.  Wisdom is about both conformity to the law, and about the disposition of the person acting.  The conclusion of his wisdom teachings on the Sermon on the Mount, therefore, may be found in Matthew 7:17-20: “by their fruits you will know them.”  The wisdom of Jesus is about being a certain person, a person who not only does the right things, but does the right things for the right reason.  Jesus’ wisdom teachings, above all, are about being: “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.”

The example we have of the wise person is Jesus himself.  Jesus is the embodiment of his own teaching.  He embodies meekness in his passion.  He embodies mercy in encounters like the Canaanite woman in Chapter 15, even after telling his disciples to go nowhere among the Gentiles.  He is the peacemaker, setting things in order both within people and without.

The paradigmatic statement of wisdom theology is that “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  Fear of the Lord is about revering God above all things and making oneself completely reliant on God.  Aquinas says that fear of the Lord keeps a person from sinning so as to not be separated from God.  Fear of the Lord, then, is the foundation of the moral life.  This too see embodied in Jesus.  He tells his disciples in the  Sermon on the Mount to not worry about their life, to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you.”  And we see Jesus embody even this in the garden when he prays, “My father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.”


The theory that Jesus is the incarnation of wisdom illustrates that Jesus’ teachings are distinctive from what has come before.  Although I do not think that Jesus is consistently being portrayed as the incarnation of wisdom, I do think that his mission is more distinctive and more unique than that of just another wise teacher.  Jesus’ wisdom teachings not only point the way to God; Jesus himself is actually a model of what he are called to be.  Moreover, Jesus is the path we are to follow in this “coming to be.”  “Come to me,” says Jesus, “for my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”


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