Walter T. Wilson, Ancient Wisdom: An Introduction to Sayings Collections

Wilson, Walter T. Ancient Wisdom: An Introduction to Sayings Collections. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2022. 321 pp. Hb; $34.99.  Link to Eerdmans

Walter Wilson is Charles Howard Candler Professor of New Testament at Emory. He previously contributed several works on gnomic (wisdom) literature, including The Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides (deGruyter, 2005), Philo of Alexandria: On Virtues (Brill, 2010), and The Sentences of Sextus (SBL, 2012; link to 54-page sample). Ancient Wisdom introduces readers to twenty-seven ancient wisdom collections from ancient Near Eastern, Jewish, Greco-Roman, Christian sources. Although students in Old Testament Wisdom courses often sample other ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature (usually Egyptian collections such as Sayings of Amenemope), few are exposed to post-biblical Jewish and Greek collections. Wilson’s book fills that gap.

Wilson Ancient WisdomAncient cultures created short sayings, maxims, and proverbs. This gnomic literature contains crafted sayings making observations about life, human experience, or present a moral stance. By way of definition, proverbs are anonymous traditions, while maxims are the product of a single author. Maxims intend to educate the reader, in contrast to epigrams (short, witty poems) which should amuse the reader. A chreia is a short self-contained narrative, usually with a climactic which maybe maxim-like.

In the introduction to the book, Wilson discusses and illustrates the various forms of wisdom literature. Often, this literature addresses the reader by an admonition. The same can be positive or negative (“do this” or “don’t do that”). Sometimes gnomic literature is simply a classification such as “silence is good.” In a section entitled “Constructions and Contexts” Wilson introduces three types of collections. First, gnomologia refers to a collection with relatively little formal or thematic organization, such as the biblical book of Proverbs or the Mishnah tractate ‘aboth. Second, Gnomic poetry (a sub-category of didactic poetry) survives only in fragments such as Pseudo-Phocylides (see also Pseudo-Phocylides on Justice and Hard Work). Third, Wisdom Instruction refers to collections topically organized (the Egyptian Sayings of Amenemope). Sometimes this category is organized as speeches or testimonials (as in the biblical book of Ecclesiastes).

It would be difficult to summarize a general theology of wisdom literature across such a broad spectrum of cultures and eras, nevertheless Wilson includes several reoccurring themes. For example, most of this literature deals with social relationships, obligations to parents, and harmony in marriage. Remarkably, this literature often includes instruction on wealth management. Wisdom literature teaches a balance between frugality and generosity, avoiding both greed and unjust gain, and even helping the poor. This literature often includes statements on how people in different social groups should interact, such as “don’t envy the rich” or “treat your superiors properly.” Frequently, this literature deals with restraining anger and controlling one’s emotions. There are several examples of proper behavior during a banquet when one might become drunk and speak out of turn. Recall Paul’s advice about lawsuits in 1 Corinthians 6 which may have been fueled by drunken behavior at a banquet.

Each chapter is brief, providing a basic summary of the author, dates, and origin of the book. What follows summarizes the contents of the collection and literary observations.Wilson provides several examples of sayings from the collection. Each chapter concludes with a bibliography so interested readers can find modern translations of the complete collection. Chapters are arranged alphabetically rather than chronologically or by culture. Some of the collections should be familiar to biblically oriented readers, such as the canonical book of proverbs, or Wisdom of Ben Sira, which appears only in the Apocrypha. Wisdom of Solomon is not included although thi sis a important wisdom-like text from the Second Temple period.  Others are more obscure such as Ankhsheshonqy, an Egyptian papyrus dated to the first century B.C. or the Sayings of Ahiqar, a Jewish court tale which dates at least to the fifth century B.C. The oldest gnomic literature in this collection is the Sayings of Shuruppak, a Mesopotamian document which appears on tablets from the twenty-fifth century B.C. Wilson includes chapters on the Greek rhetorician Isocrates (d. 338 B.C.), the Greek dramatist Menander (d. 291) and the Stoic Epictetus (d. 135). The only distinctly Christian collection is the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, which seems to draw on both Jewish and Greek proverbial material.

Conclusion. Wilson’s Ancient Wisdom is an excellent introduction to non-biblical wisdom literature found in the ancient world. Each chapter provides sufficient background material to place the wisdom collection into a historical context and examples to illustrate the interests of the author. I think grouping the chapters into units (ancient Near East, Jewish, Greco-Roman, Christian) would improve the book, but the alphabetical arrangement does not diminish the value of the book. Although Wilson writes for a popular audience, the book includes detailed footnotes, and each chapter concludes with a bibliography, pointing interested readers to more detailed studies.

Minor question: at least twice in the introduction Wilson refers to “twenty-nine texts” (18). There are only twenty-seven and there do not appear to be chapters covering two collections. Were two chapters dropped after the introduction was written? Perhaps the Wisdom of Solomon?


NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.


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