The Third Person II: The Wisdom Literature

The rabbinical term for the Hebrew Bible is the Tanakh; the term was introduced in the Middle Ages and is an acronym drawn from the Hebrew names for the three sections of the canonical Jewish scriptures: Torah (Teachings), Neviim (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings). The standard Hebrew text of the Tanakh was compiled in the Middle East in the Middle Ages and is known as the Masoretic Text (from the Hebrew word for tradition).

Since the Holy Spirit does not appear in the Tanakh as a standalone actor and is only alluded to there three times, the question arises whether the Holy Spirit plays a role in other pre-Christian Jewish sources. Mystère.

In 1947, Bedouin lads discovered the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls in a cave (which one of them had fallen into) at the site of Qumran on the West Bank of the River Jordan near the Dead Sea. These texts were compiled in the centuries just before the Christian era by a monastic Jewish group called the Essenes and they include copies of parts of the Tanakh. On the other hand, the texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls also include non-biblical documents detailing the way of life of the Essenes and their special beliefs. In the scrolls, there are multiple mentions of the Holy Spirit and the role of the Holy Spirit there has much in common with the later Christian concept: the Essenes believed themselves to be holy because the Holy Spirit dwelt within each of them; indeed, from a scroll The Community Rule, we learn that each member of the group had first to be made pure by the Holy Spirit. Another interesting intersection with early Christianity is that the Essenes celebrated the annual renewal of their covenant with God at the Jewish harvest feast of Shavuot which also commemorates the day when God gave the Torah to the Israelites establishing the Mosaic covenant. The holiday takes place fifty days after Passover; in the Greek of the New Testament, this feast is called Pentecost and it is at that celebration that the Holy Spirit establishes a covenant with the Apostles.

Wisdom, aka Holy Wisdom, emerges as a concept and guiding principle in the late Biblical period. Wisdom is identified with the Christian Holy Spirit, for example, through the Seven Pillars of Wisdom; thus, after relocating to North America and leaping ahead many centuries to 1885 and the Baltimore Catechism, it is Isaiah 11:2 that provides the answer to Question 177:

Q. Which are the gifts of the Holy Ghost?
A. The gifts of the Holy Ghost are Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety and Fear of the Lord.

Isaiah 11:3 and Proverbs 9:10 make it clear that, among these Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Fear of the Lord is the most fundamental of these gifts – for once, we can’t blame this sort of thing on Catholics and Calvinists !

Wisdom as a personification plays an important role in the Wisdom Literature, a role that also links pre-Christian Jewish writings to the Christian Holy Spirit. The Book of Proverbs, itself in the Tanakh, is part of this literature. But there is something surprising going on: in Hebrew grammar, the gender of the word for Wisdom, Chokmâh, is feminine; in the Wisdom Literature, Wisdom has feminine gender, not only grammatically but sexually as well. Indeed, in Chapter 8 of Proverbs, Wisdom puts “forth her voice”

1 Doth not wisdom cry? And understanding put forth her voice?
2 She standeth in the top of high places, by the way in the places of the paths.
3 She crieth at the gates, at the entry of the city, at the coming in at the doors.
4 Unto you, O men, I call; and my voice is to the sons of man.

and declaims that she was there before the Creation

22 The LORD possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old.
23 I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was.
24 When there were no depths, I was brought forth; when there were no fountains abounding with water.
25 Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth.

So the author of this part of the Book of Proverbs (4th century BC) clearly sees Wisdom as a kind of goddess.

The Tanakh, which corresponds basically to the Protestant Old Testament, excludes Wisdom books that are included in the Catholic Bible such as the Book of Sirach (aka Book of Ecclesiasticus) and the Wisdom of Solomon (aka Book of Wisdom). These texts, however, develop this “goddess” theme further.

The Book of Sirach, which dates from the late 2nd century BC, has these verses in the very first chapter where this preternatural female note is struck cleanly:

5 To whom has wisdom’s root been revealed? Who knows her subtleties?
6 There is but one, wise and truly awe-inspiring, seated upon his throne:
7 It is the LORD; he created her, has seen her and taken note of her.

The meme of Wisdom as a feminine goddess-like being also occurs in Psalm 155 one of the Five Aprocryphal Psalms of David, texts which date from the pre-Christian era:

5 For it is to make known the glory of Yahweh that wisdom has been given;
6 and it is for recounting his many deeds, that she has been revealed to humans:

and

12 From the gates of the righteous her voice is heard, and her song from the assembly of the pious.
13 When they eat until they are full, she is mentioned, and when they drink in community

What is more, this theme also appears in the Essene Wisdom texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls, e.g. the Great Psalms Scroll and Scroll 4Q425. In fact, the latter begins with a poem to Wisdom in the idiom of the Beatitudes

“Blessed are those who hold to Wisdom’s precepts
and do not hold to the ways of iniquity….
Blessed are those who rejoice in her…
Blessed are those who seek her …. “

Then too the word for “Wisdom” in the Greek of the Wisdom of Solomon is “Sophia”, the name for a mythological female figure and a central female concept in Stoicism and in Greek philosophy more generally. Indeed, “philosophy” itself means “love of Sophia.” For a 2nd century statue of Sophia, click HERE . For a painting by Veronese, click HERE .

Most dramatically, Chapter 8 of the Wisdom of Solomon begins

1 Wisdom reacheth from one end to another mightily: and sweetly doth she order all things.
2 I loved her, and sought her out from my youth, I desired to make her my spouse, and I was a lover of her beauty.
3 In that she is conversant with God, she magnifieth her nobility: yea, the Lord of all things himself loved her.
4 For she is privy to the mysteries of the knowledge of God, and a lover of his works.

So these sources all imply that the Holy Spirit derives from a female precedent.

What is more, in Christian Gnosticism, Sophia becomes both the Bride of Christ and the Holy Spirit of the Holy Trinity. This movement denied the virgin-birth on the one hand and taught that the Holy Spirit was female on the other. The Gnostic Gospel of St. Phillip is one of the texts found in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Egypt and the manuscript itself dates from the 2nd century; in this Gospel the statement of the Angel of the Lord to Joseph in Matthew 1:20

“the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit”

is turned on its head by the argument that this is impossible because the Holy Spirit is female:

“Some said Mary became pregnant by the holy spirit. They are wrong and do not know what they are saying. When did a woman ever get pregnant by a woman?”

Not unsurprisingly, Gnosticism was branded as heretical by stalwart defenders of orthodoxy such as Tertullian and Irenaeus. Tertullian, “the Father of Western Theology,” was the first Christian author known to use the Latin term “Trinitas” for the Triune Christian God – naturally, the thought of a female Third Person was anathema to him, leading as it would to a blasphemous mėnage à trois.

In the Hebrew language literature, Wisdom/Sophia as a personification enters the Tanakh relatively late in the game in the Book of Proverbs and then somewhat later in the Aprocrypha and in the Dead Sea Scrolls. She appears as Sophia in the Greek language Wisdom of Solomon of the late 1st century BC; so Wisdom/Sophia appears to be an influence from the Hellenistic world and its Greek language, religion and philosophy. But why does this begin to happen at the end of the Biblical period? Is Wisdom/Sophia filling a vacuum that was somehow created in Jewish religious life? But the literature search does not end here. In the pre-Christian period there also emerged rabbinical practices such as Midrash and writings such as the Jerusalem Talmud and the Targums. Are further threads leading to the Holy Spirit of Christianity to be found there? Further examples of links to a female diety? Links to Wisdom/Sophia herself? Mystères. More to come.

2 thoughts on “The Third Person II: The Wisdom Literature

    1. I cleverly chose Tertullian because he is not a Father of the Church – in the end, he fell victim to the lure of the Montanist heresy and so was never even promoted to Sainthood or other rank of distinction! Perhaps a bit Jesuitical of me.

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