Thursday, August 12, 2010

Sophia in Scripture

Wisdom is a concept in the Old Testament that is overlooked by Christians, and that is rather ridiculous because it was not only very influential in 1st century Judaism but in early Christianity as well, as reflected in some important passages about Jesus.
Wisdom in the Bible can refer to three things.  It can refer to a type or genre of literature which includes Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, or to the collected teaching of the sages which provides instruction for wise living.  But it’s the third way that is most interesting for Christians.  In certain parts of Wisdom literature, wisdom is personified as a woman, variously called “The Woman of Wisdom,” “The Lady of Wisdom” or by the name “Sophia,” which is Greek for “wisdom.”  Theologians often use the latter term for the Old Testament personification because it is a name in English.  There aren’t too many girls named Hokmah, the Hebrew word for “wisdom.”
I wish our English translations would use the name.  It makes the personification so much, well, personal, and isn’t that the point?
Sophia cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice.  At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: "How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?  Give heed to my reproof; I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you.  (Proverbs 1:20-23)

But we don’t do that, we just capitalize “Wisdom,” and I think we lose something in the translation.  English words don’t have gender, but Hebrew and Greek do, and in both languages “wisdom” is a feminine form.  At least that’s reflected in modern translations in the use of feminine pronouns “she” and “her”, but “Wisdom” doesn’t capture the force. 
In the Bible, “Wisdom” is a chick. 
But the really interesting thing is that, in the book of Proverbs, Sophia takes on qualities and functions normally attributed to God.  Listen to these words of Wisdom/Sophia from Proverbs 8:22-31—
The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago.  Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.  When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water.  Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth—when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world's first bits of soil.  When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race. 
Wisdom/Sophia was the first of Creation, was present for the creation of all things; in fact, was co-creator—“I was beside him, like a master worker...”—present both with God and with Creation.  So what we have is Sophia, not only as a personification of Wisdom, but of God.
Undoubtedly Paul had this in mind when he opened his letter to the Colossians with this magnificent hymn:
He (Christ) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers-- all things have been created through him and for him.  He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
And this passage was probably also behind John’s opening to his gospel as well:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
There may be in fact a higher correlation between the personification of wisdom in Proverbs and John’s personification of logos “Word, since wisdom is communicated in words (logos) in order to enlighten people.
The first Christians made use of a rich array of Old Testament metaphors to describe Jesus and his relationship to God: Son of God, Bread of God, Lamb of God—and this one, too long neglected by Christians of today: Jesus, Wisdom/Sophia of God.
Wrap your heads around that.

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