Christ – Wisdom Personified

The identification of Jesus with the personified Wisdom of Proverbs 8 extends well back into the early church. The writings of Justin, Cyprian, Origen, Arius, Athanasius and others display the extent to which the doctrine of Christ as Wisdom permeated the early church. The Jerusalem Bible explains: “Christian tradition from St. Justin onwards sees the Wisdom of the O[ld] T[estament] the person of Christ himself.”[1] Not alone, McGee states: “Wisdom is a person, the person of the Lord Christ Jesus… Wisdom is Jesus.”[2] While the early Church held to Christ being the Wisdom of the Hebrew Scriptures, can we prove it Biblically?

The New Testament authors present several lines of evidence that demonstrate Jesus to be the personified Wisdom of the Old Testament. The apostle Paul presented one of the more explicit statements to this effect, identifying Christ directly as “the Wisdom of God.”[3] (1Cor. 1:24) Christ is certainly not a mere attribute of God, but we understand that the attribute of wisdom dwells within him. (Col. 2:3) It dwelling in him, he is naturally identified with it because he displays it so perfectly, personifying it.

To further demonstrate the New Testament link between Christ and Wisdom we can turn to the Gospels. Luke, in recording the words of Jesus, observed an interesting reference to Wisdom. Jesus stated: “And because of this, the wisdom of God said, I will send prophets and apostles to them, and they will kill and drive out some of them…” (Luk. 11:49) Jesus attributed the words quoted to “the Wisdom of God,” and yet in Matthew’s parallel account the words are ascribed directly to Jesus. Jesus here is said to attribute these words to “the wisdom of God,” and yet when we view Matthew’s account at Matthew 23:43 the words are are attributed to Jesus directly

While these two examples are quite clear, some of the most interesting links between Christ and Wisdom come from the New Testament epistles. To fully understand this argument we must consider the background of the personification of Wisdom in the Hebrew Scriptures and how this ties into Jesus Christ.

Christianity

Praying in Christianity

The Personification of Wisdom

Jewish literature is well known for its use of personification as a literary tool. This type of personification was typically done by assigning personal attributes to impersonal things. This is often seen within the various writings of the 1st century and prior, including the Bible. As such it is natural to find impersonal things at times spoken of as personal, such as with the Holy Spirit. In fact, as an attribute of God, an extension of himself, the Holy Spirit’s personification is well in line with the personification of some of God’s other attributes.

Larry Hurtado cites an interesting example of personification within a 1st century Jewish text. He states: “To illustrate my point [of divine attributes being personified], I cite an example from Joseph and Asenath… we have an elaborate personification of Penitence… as ‘the Most High’s daughter… the mother of virgins… a virgin, very beautiful and pure and chase and gentle.’”[4] It is not entirely unreasonable for Hurtado views the personification of Wisdom to be in line with this type of personification. As such Wisdom was merely an attribute spoken of in personal terms.

Wisdom, as personified by Solomon in the book of Proverbs, has would have only come to be identified with Jesus Christ in the first century. We would not anticipate that the Jews prior to this fully understood that this Wisdom was the pre-existent Messiah. (Joh. 1:1, 14) This is little different than their failure to understand numerous Messianic prophecies. It is only be inspiration that the New Testament authors were able to reveal these things so that they could be understood.

Were it not for the New Testament teaching on Jesus as Wisdom, Hurtado’s position would probably be correct. From the New Testament teaching it is necessary to recognize that Solomon was not merely applying personal characteristics to an impersonal attribute. He was speaking of a person who embodied an attribute so as to personify it. Jesus is Wisdom because the attribute is so clearly seen in him and his works.

Several texts both inspired and otherwise are drawn upon by the apostles in discussing Jesus. Proverbs 8:22, which speaks of Wisdom as the one created as the beginning of God’s ways, is a text alluded to in Colossians 1:15 and Revelation 3:14. Sirach 1:4 and 24:8-9 follow a similar line of though, noting that “Wisdom was created before all things,” which is a parallel to Colossians 1:17 when Jesus is said to be “before all things.” Related, Proverbs 8:30 identified Wisdom as a “master worker,” while John 1:3 and Colossians 1:16 show Jesus filling this role as God’s intermediate agent in creation. Similarly, we call to mind Proverbs 3:19 where God is said to have created by Wisdom when we read Hebrews 1:10.[5]

Further examples are found in places such as the apocryphal Wisdom 7:1. This text identifies Wisdom as “an unspotted mirror of the working of God and an image of his goodness,” a text alluded to in Colossians 1:15 when Jesus is said to be “the image of the invisible God.” This text along with Wisdom 7:25, where Wisdom is said to serve as “an emanation of the glory of the Almighty,” provides a clear parallel to Hebrews 1:3, presenting Christ as “radiance of [God’s] glory.”

Having considered some of the passages taken from Wisdom literature and especially Proverbs that were applied to Jesus, how do we understand the inspired texts that are not quoted from? First, it is essential that we realize that many texts speak only of the attribute, not the personified Wisdom. These texts would not be understood as speaking of the Logos, for he personifies the attribute and is not the impersonal attribute itself. Other texts are a bit more interesting to observe.

Let us consider Proverbs 9:1 as an example. This text relates that Wisdom has “built her house.” Can this possibly be understood of Jesus Christ? Indeed it can, prophetically. What house would Christ come to build? The congregation. There are “seven pillars” that refer to the completeness of the congregation.. The number seven is symbolic and very significant. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia explains: “There is clear evidence in the cuneiform texts, which are our earliest authorities, that the Babylonians regarded 7 as the number of totality, of completeness. The Sumerians, from whom the Semitic Babylonians seem to have borrowed the idea, equated 7 and ‘all.’”[6] The pillars were the supporting structures, there being seven of them shows us that it was complete.

Continuing into verse 2 of Proverbs 9 we read of Wisdom having “slaughtered her slaughter,” if we follow the text literally. Gill properly explains that the expression refers to “a crucified Christ, the principal of the provisions in Wisdom’s house, or the church of Christ. The death of Christ was prefigured by the slaying of beasts for sacrifice under the old law; was foretold in prophecy, and is expressed by ‘killing’ him in the New Testament; and which shows his death not to be natural, but violent.”[7] Continuing in verse 2 we read, “She has mixed her wine,” which is naturally a reference to the blood that Christ gave in his death, symbolically seen in the wine he gave to his disciples. (Luk. 22:20) Further, Wisdom is said to have “set her table.” This is seen in Christ’s preparation of his kingdom, where ones will sit with him there at his table. (Luk. 22:30)

“She has sent out her maidens.” (Prov. 9:3) As Wisdom is seen as a woman for grammatical reasons (see below under Objections Reviewed), the feminine imagery is taken and applied to those that are sent out. This is a reference to Jesus’ disciples, whom he sent out to preach. (Mat. 28:19-20) “She cries on the highest places of the city” is a statement of preaching, both by Jesus himself and his disciples. He was in the highest places of the city, both in his teaching within prominent places such as the temple, and the Mount of Olives.

While other texts might warrant discussion, it is not the purpose of this article to discuss every single text that speaks of Wisdom as a person. What a gloss of these passages reveals is that these passages are seen fulfilled in Jesus. Many use these passages to object to Jesus being this Wisdom, but they do so without proper research.

A Created Being

Of the passages that speak of Wisdom we note the most significant to be those that speak of her creation. (Prov. 8:22) Theologically, this point proves to be very significant, for as Jesus Christ is this Wisdom we see him to be created The Septuagint specifically uses the Greek verb for “created,” while this understanding is furthered by the Targum and Syriac translation. Many will properly observe the use of the Hebrew word qanah not bara, which is the word normally used for create. The basis for this is found in the context, which makes use of birth imagery to denote creation.

When we consider verses 24 and 25, depending upon the translation used, we read of Wisdom being “brought forth” or “born.” This use of language is also seen within the Septuagint, which uses γενναω, also meaning “born.” (c.f. Mat. 1:2) This language was used idiomatically for creation, which is similar to how the mountains were spoken of as being born to denote their creation. (Psa. 90:2) The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament explains: “The Pulal is the passive of the Polel, ‘to be born’ (Job 15:7; Psa 51:5 [H 7]). This idiom may be used to refer to creation or origins on a cosmic scale (Prov 8:24-25).”[8] Wisdom being “born” was understood as her being “created” by the LXX’s translators. How does this related to the use of qanah?

C.F. Burney relates the following: “In the first place, the fact needs emphasis that the verb kana always seems to possess the sense of ‘get, acquire’, never the sense of ‘possess, own’ simply, apart from the idea of possessing something which has been acquired in one way or another.”[9] There are different ways that people go about acquiring things. Sometimes things are bought with money (Jos. 24:32), other times the term is used for acquiring a child at birth (Gen 4:1), while the other way that we acquire something is by making it, or in the case of God, creating it. (Gen 14:22; Deut. 32:6) The imagery of Proverbs 8 leads to the thought of birth, for Wisdom is spoken of as being “born.” At the same time, birth is idiomatic for creating, and so there is a definite sense of “create” within the use of the term as well. After all, God does not literally birth something, but he creates everything. Such is also seen in texts such as Genesis 14:22, where God is said be the one who qanah heaven and earth. Indeed, he possesses it, but it was acquired by him through his creating it. The Jewish Study Bible thus states for Proverbs 8:22: “In fact, ‘kanah’ refers to acquisition by means including creation, as here.”{10]

Trinitarians have historically taken various views to overcome the express statements found within this text. Some have argued that it referred only to a position filled by the Son, while others that he was somehow eternally created. Of course no position is referenced within the text, only his person, while to say that he is eternally created is nothing short of an oxymoron.

Consider the thought of eternal existence. It is existing without beginning or end. It is to say that at no time in the past did one not exist. Yet to create is an action, and so to be created requires that one have performed the action of creating. In the Greek text of the Septuagint we find that the aorist is used, capturing this action in a moment in time. How can one be eternal when one’s way of coming into existence is expressed in time? How can he be eternal and yet said to be born if he was never really born? He was either eternal or not.

Trinitarians must resort to special pleading to overcome the meaning of this text. They must say that “created” has a unique meaning when applied to Wisdom. They must claim that it is used in a way that it is never otherwise used. Solomon, in penning the text of Proverbs 8:22, obviously meant what he said. He used language that was established in his day and it meant something specific. The same could be said for the LXX’s translators, as well as the Syriac’s and those who penned the Targum on this text. If they did not mean it as the words were understood they simply would not have said it!

In response to this some might point to Proverbs 8:23, which in some translations does read of Wisdom being “from eternity” or “everlasting.” The Septuagint reads that he was “before the age.” Does this serve as a valid objection? Of course, the very first point we must recognize is that verse 22 eliminates the thought of “eternity,” but more can be said on this.

Consider the account recorded in Genesis 6:4 were we read of men as being “from ancient times” or “from of old.” The world Hebrew word olam is used in both this text and in Proverbs 8:23, in no way demanding an eternal existence. When we take this in light of the birth or creation of the one identified as Wisdom in the context, it is natural to understand this not as “eternity,” but “ancient times.” This does not mean that God was at one time without the attribute of wisdom, but rather that the person identified as Wisdom, because of his personifying it, at one time did not exist. This one is identified as Wisdom for all of God’s wisdom is seen in the creation of this one.

 

Objections Reviewed

One objection raised to identifying Jesus with the Wisdom that Solomon spoke of is the fact that it is spoken of as a woman. We find that the feminine pronouns are repeatedly applied to it, and so it has become commonly known as “lady wisdom.” Is this a valid objection?

Hebrew, much like Greek, assigns a gender to every noun. The Hebrew noun for wisdom, chokmah is feminine in gender, and so it naturally demands the use of feminine pronouns. This proves to be a matter of grammar, and so it should not be taken as teaching that Wisdom is a female. Those in heaven, be it God or angels, do not have a true gender, though they are typically spoken of as men. As this is the case, there would be no objection to assigning similar feminine imagery to them.

Within the New Testament when Jesus is identified as Wisdom it is done with the Greek noun ςοφια, which is also feminine. Others, such as Solomon are identified in a similar manner, with the title of “congregator” also being feminine. (Ecc. 1:1) Genesis 49:21 provides us with another example: “Naphtali is a hind let loose, that bears comely fawns.” (Revised Standard Version.) Here the man Naphtali is called “a hind,” “a female deer,” and “a doe,” but not “a ram.” He, who is metaphorically represented as a “she,” even produces fawns! Clearly the use of feminine nouns and language for a male is not a valid ground for objection.

Another objection is found in referencing Proverbs 8:12. It is asked, “If Wisdom is a person, who is prudence?” There are several points that could be noted, the first of which is that prudence is simply not personified. The text is easily understood in that Christ is with prudence for he is in possession of it. This is understood by Gill: “The phrase, taken both ways, shows that Christ is very largely, yea, fully possessed of prudence; as a man that dwells in a house is the proprietor and possessor of it, so prudence is Christ’s; it belongs to him, he enjoys it; he dwells in prudence, and prudence dwells in him.”[11]

We conclude by revisiting what we have herein discussed. Jesus is the personified Wisdom of Proverbs. He is not the attribute, but a person that personifies the attribute. As the first of God’s creation, he personifies it because all of God’s wisdom is seen in the creation of him and it continues to be seen in this one’s works.


[1] The Jerusalem Bible (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1966), 943nG.
[2] McGee, J. Vernon. Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee, vol. 3. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1988), 32-33.
[3] The verse also speaks of Christ as “the power of God.” From this many will note that Romans 1:20 speaks of God’s “eternal power.” While Jesus is identified as God’s power, he is also distinguished from it. We read: “The son of man will be sitting at the right of the power of God.” (Luk. 22:69) It thus becomes impossible for those holding to Jesus being the “eternal power” to maintain their case. Rather God, himself eternal, with Jesus at his right hand, finds that it is the power within himself that is spoken of at Romans 1:20. Jesus is the power of God as the arm of Jehovah (Isa. 53:1), where the arm of one was figurative for their strength or power. Christ is the arm of Jehovah who rules for Jehovah himself. (Isa. 40:10) As we will come to see, Jesus identified as Wisdom is said to be “created,” thus creating a contradiction if the argument presented is accepted.
[4] Hurtado, Larry W. One Lord, One God – Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism, Second Edition, (London • New York: T & T Clark, 1998), 47.
[5] While the text of Hebrews 1:10 was originally applied to the Almighty in Psalm 102, this text is here assigned to Christ, who is said to be the one that God created through within Hebrews 1:2. The clear parallel between Hebrews 1:10 and Proverbs 3:19 cannot be denied in light of this fact. While some might object based upon what is perhaps an impersonalized personification in verses 16-17, these words are surprisingly fitting when viewed prophetically of Christ.
[6] The International Standard Bible Encylopaedia, vol, 3. Edited by James Orr, Assistant Editors John Nuelsen and Edgar Y. Mullins. (Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., repr. 1986), 2159.
[7] Gill, John. The New John Gill Exposition of the Entire Bible (Gill) [Cited Mar. 23, 2006] http://www.studylight.org/com/geb/, Prov. 9:2.
[8] Harris, R. Laird. Archer Jr., Gleason J. Waltke, Bruce K. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (ASCII version Copyright © 1988-1997 by the Online Bible Foundation and Woodside Fellowship of Ontario, Canada), on the word chul.
[9] Burney, C.F. The Journal of Theological Studies, “Christ as the ARCH of Creation”, vol. 27, 160.
[10] The Jewish Study Bible, (Oxford University Press, 2004), 1461.
[11] Gill, Prov. 8:12.

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