January 23, 2015

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Old Testament: Catholics revere the Book of Wisdom

John F. Fink(Fifty-third in a series of columns)

This is the final column in this series about the Old Testament. I realize that I haven’t covered all the prophetic books thoroughly, but I did put each of the major and minor prophets where they belonged in the history of the Jewish people.

The Book of Wisdom is one of the Old Testament books that is actually more revered by Catholics than by Jews or Protestants. It is part of the Catholic Bible, but not one of the Jewish canonical books because it was written in Greek rather than Hebrew, and Protestants accepted in their Old Testament only the books accepted by the Jews as canonical.

The author of the Book of Wisdom wrote in Greek because that was the prevailing literary language when he wrote it about 100 years before the coming of Christ. (That’s also why the New Testament was written in Greek.) A large colony of Jews who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, spoke Greek, and that’s where this book was written.

Although not all of this book seems to apply directly to Catholics, especially praise of the wisdom of Solomon and a recounting of the events of the Exodus, the first 10 chapters form a preparation for the fuller teachings of Christ and his Church. Many sections are used by the Church in its liturgy.

For example, the first reading at funeral Masses comes from this book: “The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them … ” (Wis 3:1-8). And Solomon’s eloquent prayer for wisdom (Wis 9:1-6, 9-11), which I consider important for me to pray frequently, is included in Morning Prayer in the Liturgy of the Hours on Saturdays once a month. More readings from the Book of Wisdom are included in the Office of Readings during the 30th Week of Ordinary Time.

The main theme of the book, naturally, is the praise of wisdom. As in other of the wisdom books in the Old Testament, wisdom is depicted as a woman. In the patriarchal male-preferred society in which it was written, it is understandable that man’s most desirable possession would be personified as a woman. It is also possible that Israeli ancestors believed in a goddess of wisdom.

Chapter 8 shows how wisdom embodies all the other virtues: “For she [wisdom] teaches moderation and prudence, justice and fortitude, and nothing in life is more useful for men than these” (Wis 8:7). Today we know those as the cardinal virtues.

For the first time in Jewish literature, the Book of Wisdom introduces the Greek concept of a soul, as in the funeral Mass reading.

The author of Wisdom agrees with other wisdom books (Job and Ecclesiastes) that virtue is not always rewarded in this life, nor is evil punished. There are sections on suffering, childlessness, early death, and the final judgment of both the wicked and the virtuous. After the judgment, the just will live forever, the author says. They “shall receive the splendid crown, the beauteous diadem, from the hand of the Lord” (Wis 5:16). †

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