McLaughlin, John L. An Introduction to Israel’s Wisdom Traditions. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2018. 217 pp. Pb; $25. Link to Eerdmans
James Crenshaw once suggested wisdom literature is sometimes considered “an orphan in the biblical household” (173). This new book by John McLaughlin attempts to connect the wisdom books to the rest of the First Testament (following John Goldingay’s nomenclature for the Old Testament).
He begins by describing the international context of wisdom literature (chapter 1). For example, Proverbs 17:1 has close parallels in the literature of Sumer, Egypt, and Ugarit. The bulk of this chapter summarizes and gives brief examples from the wisdom literature of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Canaan. He points out that wisdom is quite at home in Canaan. It is unnecessary to appeal to Egypt or Mesopotamia to explain similar elements in Israel. To a large extent, the wisdom literature of Israel reflects the same sort of traditions found in Canaanite cultures as represented by Ebla and Ugarit.
Chapter 2, McLaughlin briefly introduces the readers to Hebrew poetry, especially the various forms of parallelism found in wisdom literature. He discusses other features of Hebrew poetry, such as acrostic, inclusio, keywords, and mirror patterns (chiasm). McLaughlin defines a biblical proverb as “a sentence, plus command or prohibition” (35). But there are other forms, such as instruction, numerical lists, disputations or dialogues, allegory, fable, and riddle.
McLaughlin devotes a chapter to each of the biblical wisdom books, Proverbs, Job, and Qohelet and to two Second Temple books, Ben Sira (Sirach) and the Wisdom of Solomon. Each chapter begins with an overview of the structure, date, and major themes of the book. Proverbs is obviously a compilation of sayings drawn from several periods. McLaughlin suggests shorter sayings in the book may be pre-exilic, while the more developed speeches in Proverbs 1-9, what does the word in the post-exilic period. Regarding Job, the lack of historical references makes the book notoriously difficult to date. He favors a sixth-century BC or later date based on the use of the definite article with the word satan, consistent with the post-exilic use in Zechariah 3:1-2 and 1 Chronicles 21:1.
Although the author of Qohelet claims to be a “son of David,” McLaughlin argues the book was composed well past the time of Solomon, or any other kings of Jerusalem. He detects allusions to the Persian Empire, suggesting a date in the third century B.C. The author was a teacher or a writer (12:9-10) and his observations are consistent with a Judean setting. The writer may have been the head of a school like Ben Sira (Sir 51:23). Ben Sira is a rare example of a book where the author and date are known. Ben Sira 50:27 states the author was Jesus ben Eleazar ben Sira in the book can be dated between 190-180 BC. Ben Sira’s grandson translated the book into Greek in about 132 B.C. Finally, The Wisdom of Solomon does not identify an author, but it is certainly not Solomon. Since the book has some similarity to Philo of Alexandria, McLaughlin suggests the book could have been written under the reign of Caligula.
Chapter 8 traces the influence of this literature on other books in the First Testament. In the penalty, he focuses on Genesis (the Joseph Story), Exodus (Moses’s Birth), and Deuteronomy. He briefly examines the Succession Narrative and Solomon’s reign in the Deuteronomic History. He observes that there are as many as thirty-nine psalms identified as wisdom psalms, but in this short chapter, he can only focus on three (Ps. 1; 37; 49. With respect to the prophets, he spends most of the section discussing wisdom in the book of Amos, although there are scattered proverbs in several prophetic books. Most scholars associate Esther and Daniel with wisdom “court tales” because of their similarities to the Joseph story. Finally, following Brevard Childs, he briefly discusses the Song of Solomon as wisdom literature.
Chapter 9 summarizes the theology of wisdom literature. Most biblical theologies relate wisdom to a theology of creation based on Proverbs 3:19, “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens.” McLaughlin offers several other examples of proverbial literature focusing on God as the creator (Proverbs 16:4; 17:5 22:2). Proverbs 8:22-31 and Ben Sira 1:4-10 describe the role of lady wisdom in the Lord’s creative activities. Since the created world is an orderly creation, wisdom literature implies that living one’s life within the harmonious social order of creation will lead to success. However, an interest in creation is a late development. The earliest stages of Israelite religion saw the Lord as a Warrior God and a Savior God. To see the Lord as a creator only became prominent during the Babylonian exile period.
The final chapter of the book discusses the continuation of this literature in the Second Temple period and New Testament. First, building on Gerhard von Rad, it is possible wisdom was the basis for biblical apocalyptic rather than prophecy (182). McLaughlin offers several examples from 1 Enoch in which the author considers the book to be wisdom (1 Enoch 5:6, for example). Second, theodicy is an important element of apocalyptic literature. Third, he briefly surveys wisdom texts in the Qumran literature. Like apocalyptic literature, some of these examples combine traditional experiential wisdom with eschatological expectations. Fourth, he examines wisdom literature as it appears in Paul, James, Q, the Synoptic Gospels, and finally the Gospel of John. For example, Paul refers to Jesus as the “wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1: 24) and he observes that John’s prologue is the “fullest expression of wisdom Christology in the New Testament” (191). This chapter concludes with a short two-paragraph section on wisdom in Rabbinic literature.
Conclusion. McLaughlin’s Introduction is an excellent introduction to the biblical wisdom books with a few added features to distinguish itself from other introductions. Including Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon extending the introduction into the Second Temple period and his chapter on the continuation of these traditions beyond the First Testament is helpful, even if too brief. This book will serve well in an undergraduate or graduate level introduction course.
NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.