Witherington on Jesus as Wisdom

On page 204 of Jesus the Sage, Ben Witherington III states:

“What is especially daring about the idea of Jesus taking the personification of Wisdom and suggesting that he is the living embodiment of it, is that while a prophet might be seen as a mashal or prophetic sign, no one, so far as one can tell, up to that point in early Judaism had dared to [suggest] that he was a human embodiment of an attribute of God—-God’s Wisdom.  Indeed, as M. Hengel has remarked to me, no known person in early Judaism other than Jesus between the time of Alexander and Bar Kokhba was identified with the personification of Wisdom.  Some explanation for this remarkable and anomalous development must be given, and the best, though by no means the only, explanation of this fact is that Jesus presented himself as both sage and the message of the sage—-God’s Wisdom.”

According to Witherington, there are parts of the Q source in which Jesus identifies himself with wisdom, as when Jesus affirms that he is greater than Solomon, to whom a lot of wisdom literature was attributed.  Witherington believes that the association of Jesus with wisdom (which is different from simply saying that Jesus said wise things) could very well go back to Jesus himself, for others in early Judaism did not identify themselves with wisdom, and Q had to get from somewhere the idea that Jesus was that particular attribute of God.  I wonder why one couldn’t just say that Q decided to associate Jesus with wisdom.  The question would then be why it chose to do so.  What was it about Jesus that led some people to conclude that he was more than a mere holy man, but was actually wisdom itself, or even a divine sort of being?  And, if Jesus claimed that he himself was wisdom, what are the implications of that?  Are we placed in a variant of C.S. Lewis’ trilemma: that Jesus is who he says he is, or he is insane, or devilish?  Not many sane people, period, make the grandiose claim that they are the actual embodiment of wisdom, and such a claim would probably have been even more revolutionary or extraordinary in first century Judaism.

In his chapter on the hymns about Christ that are in certain New Testament books and epistles, Witherington says that wisdom helped people who were seeking a way to conceptualize Jesus without violating monotheism.  In wisdom literature, wisdom was a hypostasis or attribute of God, and hymns about Christ try to conceptualize Jesus’ pre-existent state in terms of that.  At the same time, Witherington argues that the hymns do not necessarily adopt the whole ideology of wisdom literature, for wisdom literature tended to regard wisdom as created, whereas Witherington appears to believe that the pre-existent Son was begotten, not made.  Consequently, Witherington interprets the statement in Colossians 1:15 that the Son is the firstborn of creation to mean, not that the Son was the first to be created, but rather that the Son is pre-eminent over creation.  Similarly, when God in Psalm 89:27 promises to make the king his firstborn, he’s referring to the king’s pre-eminence, not his origin before all things.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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