Jesus, Wisdom and our world
What happens when the rather neglected wisdom traditions of the Bible are applied to our understanding of Jesus? Elizabeth A. Johnson, who is Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University, New York City, shows how 'the symbol of Jesus as Wisdom of God lends powerful support to the ongoing struggle to transform the Church into a community of genuine mutuality where women and men are equal in human Christian dignity'.
The early Christian communities were enormously creative in interpreting the meaning and message of Jesus. They experienced that the offer of salvation came to them from God in Jesus through the power of the Spirit. To describe what a blessing he was in their lives, they gave him names and told his story over and over again in a multitude of frameworks. Their exuberant efforts led them to ransack their Jewish religious tradition and, in time, the Hellenistic religious heritage for titles, images and other elements that could be used to interpret his meaning. In the process, they named him the Messiah/Christ; they named him Son of Man, Lord, Lamb of God, Word of God, Son of God. The biblical wisdom tradition was also pressed into service to interpret Jesus of Nazareth. Early Christians connected Jesus with this in general and with its central figure, Hokmah, Sophia, Holy Wisdom herself, a female figure of power and compassion.
What did this mean for Christ and his followers? The biblical picture of Sophia is a composite one, formed of differing presentations in Job and Proverbs (books common to all users of the Bible), and in deuterocanonical books such as Sirach, Baruch and the Wisdom of Solomon. Intertestamental literature such as Enoch also contributes to her depiction. Portrayed as sister, mother, bride, hostess, female beloved, woman prophet, teacher and friend, but above all as divine creating and redeeming Spirit, Sophia's portrait has its roots in the Great Goddess of the ancient Near Eastern world.
Overall, there is no other personification of such depth and magnitude in the entire scriptures of Israel. Scholarly debate on how to interpret this figure, this icon, abounds, not least because various biblical books depict her in differing ways so that no one interpretation can be applied to every verse where Wisdom appears. Thus the arguments: Wisdom is the personification of cosmic order; no, she learned in Israel's wisdom schools; no, she is a quasi-independent agent who mediates between heaven and earth; no, she is a personification of God's very own self in this sense: the one God is utterly transcendent; yet this same God also approaches the world and dwells within it with intense care for its well-being.
Immanence of God
Wisdom is the sages' way of talking about the immanence of the ineffable God. Rabbinic commentators favoured this last interpretation, arguing that biblical wisdom texts must be read within their historical context, which was and remains monotheism. Wisdom texts affirm that Sophia is the fashioner of all things, that she delivered Israel from a nation of oppressors, that whoever finds her finds life, that she overcomes evil all divine actions. Unless one thinks that the Jewish community broke with its faith in one God when writing and receiving wisdom literature, Sophia's functional equivalence with Yahweh requires that she be interpreted as a powerful female symbol of the one indescribable God. The Wisdom of God in late Jewish thought is simply God, revealing and known. This is the meaning that was to bear fruit in Christology.
At first, early Christians saw Jesus as a wisdom teacher, speaking sage words in parables, beatitudes, and evocative sayings. More than this, they depicted him as an envoy sent by Wisdom, one of her prophets uttering oracles and laments in the pattern of her speech, and offering consolation and knowledge of the intimate ways of God. He does her deeds, too, so that when Jesus' acts of power enable the blind to see, the lame to walk, and the lepers to be cleansed, Matthew can affirm that 'Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds' (11:19). There is yet more. The identification of Jesus with Holy Wisdom becomes so intense that he himself is perceived as personified Wisdom indeed, the incarnation of Sophia herself. The prologue to John's Gospel, which more than any other scriptural text influenced subsequent development in Christology, actually presents the pre-history of Jesus in terms lifted right from the story of Sophia: present with God 'in the beginning', an active agent in creating the world, a radiant light that darkness cannot overcome, one who descends from heaven to pitch a tent among the people, rejected by some, but giving life to those who seek (John 1:1-18). Biblical scholarship holds this prologue to be originally an early Christian hymn to Wisdom/Sophia which at its climax identifies her with Jesus the Christ. It is a matter of some dispute why the Gospel's final redactor substituted the symbol of Logos/Word for Sophia/Wisdom in the hymn. At least one reason would seem to lie with the gender issue.
As patriarchal tendencies grew stronger in the early Church, it became unseemly to interpret the male human being Jesus in terms of a powerful female symbol of God. To give but one example of this view: Wilfred Knox argues that the fact that the Logos is masculine makes it a convenient substitute for 'the awkward feminine figure'.1 Whatever the reason for the change, in John's prologue the Word is a male surrogate for Wisdom, whose story becomes Jesus' own pre-history. Indeed, there is no such detailed corresponding myth of the Logos in all of the Jewish scriptures.
The use of wisdom categories to interpret Jesus had profound consequences. It connected the crucified prophet from Nazareth with this divine creating and redeeming figure, thus opening the door for reflection about his divinity. The title Son of God, for example, did not mean divinity in the Jewish sources; neither did Christ, or Son of Man, or (at first) Lord. But Wisdom did! 'Herein we see the origin of the doctrine of the incarnation,' writes James Dunn.2
Method of retrieval
To retrieve this Christology for contemporary persons of faith, it is not enough simply to read the ancient texts and transfer their meaning to our own context. One major reason lies in the fact that, as with many other elements of our intellectual and religious heritage, the biblical wisdom tradition is intensely androcentric, shaped by ruling men in a patriarchal culture and privileging male experience. This pattern of thinking is deeply dependent on the use of sexual difference to structure the world. It generates a symbolic world where men with authority hold the centre while 'woman' exists as a persistent irritant located at the margin. Here she is either idealised as representing man's better half, or vilified as representing darkness and chaos, and thus feared, silenced, or dismissed. Israel's wisdom tradition never examined its patriarchal assumptions. Indeed some of the most vicious biblical statements about women are found in wisdom's pages.
Retrieving the wisdom tradition of Christology, therefore, is not a simple matter of discovering a pristine source unsullied by the sin of sexism and transferring its images and concepts to our own discourse. Rather, we must look critically at every text, discerning the oppressive dynamics within it, and spotting clues to liberating motifs that more truly reflect what we hope is the word of God. Just as the Gospels offer fragmentary glimpses of women acting as subjects of their own history, even leaders of their people; and just as the prophetic scrolls deliver a message of liberation that can be interpreted today to embrace even women whom the prophets had not intended to include; so too a feminist hermeneutic can retrieve from the wisdom tradition an inclusive vision of wholeness that can function as a blessing for women and men, and indeed the whole earth.
With that understanding, we turn to wisdom Christology and ask what its implications might be for the Church, that is, the community of disciples trying to bear witness faithfully in the world today. When personified Wisdom is used as the interpretive symbol for Jesus the Christ, she brings along in her wake central themes of the wisdom tradition that can shape the community's insight and behaviour.
Implications of wisdom Christology
A. Doing justice
It is scarcely possible to separate justice from wisdom, for unjust conditions are perceived to be a violation of the right order of creation, which is established and cherished by Wisdom herself.3 True, this tradition prizes wealth and riches, but not at the expense of the neighbour. According to Proverbs, 'Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker,' while those who reach out to the poor honour God (14:31). Accordingly, the wisdom literature is replete with urgings to care for the widow, orphan and poor man; with warnings that those who are greedy for gain will be caught in their own snare: 'The righteous know the rights of the poor; the wicked have no such understanding' (Prov 29:7).
Personified Wisdom herself betrays a strong identification with the concerns of justice. 'I walk', she proclaims, 'in the way of righteousness, along the paths of justice' (Prov 8:20). This concern with justice is very much connected with Holy Wisdom's role in creation. Hers is the power to arrange the whole universe into a harmony: she reaches from end to end of the world, and orders all things prudently and well (Wis 8:1). So when disorder breaks out, when, for example, people go starving, Wisdom works to deliver and preserve life, to restore the right order of things. In particular she empowers right action in the social-political sphere: 'By me kings reign, and rulers decree what is just; by me rulers rule, and nobles, all who govern rightly' (Prov 8:15-16). When rulers do not govern rightly, Wisdom takes action.
In an act that has become paradigmatic for all liberation events, she breaks the yoke of slavery by leading her people out from a nation of oppressors, bringing them through the deep waters of the Red Sea, becoming to them a starry flame of guidance until they find a safe home (Wis 10:15-19). Whenever corruption creeps in the social sphere, Holy Wisdom reproves and corrects, shouting in the streets and at the city gates, judging wrong doing in robust and stinging terms (Prov 1:20-33). At the same time, she keeps on making all things new. Ultimately, we are assured in our struggles, she will triumph over even the worst evil: no matter how beautiful the sun, night inevitably comes and blocks out the light; but 'against Wisdom evil does not prevail' (Wis 7:30).
Interpreting the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus in the context of the wisdom tradition, seeing him as Wisdom's prophet and indeed as the human being Sophia became, shows that the passion of God is clearly directed towards lifting social oppression and establishing right relations harmony among people. As with Wisdom herself, it is scarcely possible to divorce Jesus from the path of justice. The table is set for those who will come, the bread and wine are set forth to nourish the struggle. What is needed is for us, the wisdom community, to listen to the loud cries of Jesus-Sophia resounding in the cries of the poor, the violated, the desperate, and to collaborate as a wisdom community with God's struggle to resist evil and establish right order the harmony of justice in the world. Doing wisdom Christology, the community walks the compassionate path of justice.
B. Respecting other religious traditions
When one studies the Hebrew Bible, there is a tendency to sideline the wisdom writings in favour of the historical and prophetic books. These portray Jewish encounter with God through God's mighty acts in history, which then privileges such moments of revelation. But the wisdom tradition does not easily fit into the type of faith exhibited in the historical and prophetic literature. It focuses not so much on once-for-all deeds in history, although it remembers these, as on everyday, mundane life, being interested in personal and social relationships, in nature and its workings, in the meaning of human life, and the anguishing problem of suffering.
Here is where God is manifested; for many, it is the primary way. Moreover, unlike Jewish traditions of law and cult which were preserved and maintained by the priests, wisdom escapes the control of any one group. It does not find its centre in the Temple but is given to anyone who searches out the divine order of creation in order to live in harmony with it. Perhaps most significantly, wisdom is not exclusive to Israel but has an affinity with the insights of the sages of Egypt and other advanced cultures of the ancient Near East. In fact, it borrows freely from these 'pagan' sources of wisdom. As a result, the sages tend to talk not so much about the 'God of Israel' or the 'God of our fathers' as about the Creator of the whole world whose Spirit is present and active everywhere. They see that righteousness and insight are not confined to those of the Jewish faith. Even Job was not an Israelite.
Personified Wisdom herself symbolises God's presence moving throughout the whole world, not just in Israel. In her grand tour of the world in Sirach she describes how she holds sway over every people and nation (Sir 24:6). Her kindly, people-loving spirit fills the world, pervading everything and holding all things together (Wis 1:6-7). Her light shines against the darkness everywhere. From generation to generation she passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God and prophets such friends and prophets being found in every nation and religion.
C. Responsible love for the earth
In this era when scientific discoveries awaken our wonder at the intricacies of the universe and its history, while at the same time the human race wreaks devastation on ecological systems and their living inhabitants, it is challenging to note that interest in and love for the world of nature is an inherent characteristic of the biblical wisdom tradition.
There is a moving prayer that the young Solomon utters in the Book of Wisdom in which he asks to understand the world. When in answer to his prayer Wisdom is given to him, she enables him 'to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements, the beginning and middle and end of times, the turnings of the solstices and the changes of the seasons, the cycles of the year and the constellations of the stars, the natures of animals and the tempers of wild animals, the powers of wind and the thoughts of human beings, the varieties of plants and the virtues of roots: I learned both what is secret and what is manifest, for wisdom, the fashioner of all things, taught me' (Wis 7:17-22).
Personified Wisdom is called the mother of all these good and intricate things, responsible for their existence and therefore knowing their inmost secrets (Wis 7:12). She exists before the beginning of the world and acts as the master craftswoman through whom all things are made. The great creation poem in Proverbs 8 (22-31) depicts her playing with delight in the newly created world, and playing among new human creatures who are a part of this great design. This portrait of Wisdom's creative agency 'in the beginning' is completed by affirmations of her continuing presence.
As the embodiment of Sophia who is the fashioner of all that exists, Jesus Christ's redeeming care extends to the flourishing of all creatures and the living planet itself. The cosmic Christology of the New Testament, evocatively expressed in wisdom categories, makes this quite evident. The Colossians hymn, for example, sings that Christ is the first-born of all creation, in whom all things were created in heaven and on earth; he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. The hymn goes on to praise Christ as the first-born from the dead, the one through whose blood the whole universe is reconciled (Col 1:15-20). The power of Jesus-Sophia's spirit is evident wherever human beings share in concern for the earth, tending its fruitfulness, respecting its limits, restoring what has been damaged, and guarding it from further destruction.
D. Promoting the full human dignity of women
In this era when women of all races, classes, sexual orientation and cultures are striving to be silent and invisible no longer, when in the face of an overbearing patriarchal tradition we advocate justice for ourselves, it is heartening to note that the wisdom tradition offers resources for the community of disciples seeking a more equal relationship between women and men. One way it does so is by providing an alternative to spirituality tied to officially sacred times and places. As noted before in the discussion about world religions, Wisdom's work is not experienced mainly through mighty deeds of history but in the search for God amidst daily life. Largely excluded from official religious circles by the present structures of the Roman Catholic Church, women can walk the path of wisdom by understanding that their everyday struggles and joys are every bit as religiously important as what occurs in more explicitly sacred times and places which are under the control of guardians of law and cult. In this manner new ways of appreciating Christ can be born, less associated with patriarchal jurisdiction and more in tune with women's wisdom, so often discounted as a source of insight and blessing.
In addition to this contribution, the figure of personified Wisdom offers an augmented field of female metaphors for God that enable us to understand Jesus Christ, his saving significance and personal identity in non-sexist terms. Here is where the gender of Holy Wisdom becomes highly important. For symbols function to shape the community that uses them. Metaphors matter. In so far as the metaphor of sonship and the relation between a father and a first-born son have been the controlling categories of classical Christology, women's reality has been excluded from the discourse and consequently suppressed. I do not think we can overestimate the seriousness of the feminist charge brought against Christology, that of all the doctrines of the Church it is the one most used to oppress women.
This is not the position held by all women, for African-American, Hispanic and Third World scholars, proceeding from experiences of oppression due to colour, culture and class, assess Jesus in a more friendly light supportive of women's efforts at liberation.
But a fundamental problem does lie in androcentric interpretations of the maleness of the human Jesus, which lift his biological sex to the level of ontological necessity for the incarnation. Wisdom Christology directs us to a different possibility, setting us on a path to a non-sexist Christology.
As Augustine wrote in reference to divine Wisdom: 'But she is sent in one way that she might be with human beings [Spirit], and she has been sent in yet another way that she herself might be a human being [Jesus]'.4 Such a way of speaking breaks through the androcentric thinking that fixates on the maleness of Jesus, the male metaphors of Logos and Son, and the relationship between father and son.
Through wisdom Christology we see that in Christ God revealed herself, her power as Creator, her love as Saviour, in a full and final way. Indeed, her saving power is poured forth in the world through this crucified human being a coincidence of opposites in every dimension. Created in Wisdom's holy image and filled with her holy spirit, women now claim that they too share equally in Jesus-Sophia's redemptive mission throughout time, even though this has been honoured in the breach. As disciples of Jesus the Wisdom of God, women can fully represent Christ why ever not?5
Furthermore, allowing the wisdom tradition to filter the significance of Jesus brings a whole range of values to the fore that are dear to the hearts of feminist women. Friendship, connectedness, nourishing, prophetic struggle, the authority of justice, solidarity with the earth, delight and play, compassion for the little ones, non-dualistic patterns of relationship, the value of the everyday in addition to the heroic deed, the value of bodies that feel as well as minds that seek the truth, the elusive presence of God who is co-inherent in the world rather than distantly ruling over it, right order that pervades everywhere all of these enter into the interpretation of Jesus the Wisdom of God.
The wisdom tradition as a whole with its symbol of personified Wisdom was and still can be a fruitful resource for doing Christology. In the process, the community itself is being transformed into a beacon of Wisdom in the world. The struggle towards the Church's becoming such a community is enormous. There is backlash, fierce opposition, fear, and consequently much discouragement. Those who love Wisdom need to go on singing that old Advent hymn that starts: 'O come, O come, Emmanuel', and whose second verse sings, 'O come, thou Wisdom, from on high, who orders all things mightily; to us the path of knowledge show, and teach us in her ways to go.' The Spirit of Jesus, the Wisdom of God, has not dried up, is not exhausted, does not accept defeat. She moves everywhere throughout the world to heal and redeem and liberate.
1. Wilfred Knox, Paul and the Church of the Gentiles (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1934): p.84.
2. James Dunn, Christology in the Making (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1980): p.212.
3. Bruce Malchow, 'Social Justice in the Wisdom Literature,' Biblical Theology Bulletin 12 (1982): pp.120-124.
4. Of sapientia: 'Sed aliter mittitur ut sit cum homine; aliter missa es ut ipsa sit homo' Augustine, De Trinitate IV:27.
5. See Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her (New York: Crossroad, 1983), pp. 130-140.
This is an edited version of The Margaret Beaufort Institute Mary Ward Lecture. Copies of the full text can be obtianed from the Margaret Beaufort Institute, Wesley House, Cambridge, CB5 8BQ, price £3. Please enclose a self-addressed C5 envelope.