Discuss the issue of history in the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible. In your answer make sure to interact with the relevant textual evidence from the Hebrew Bible as well as the work of representative scholars in the academic debate over this issue.


History and TheologyEdit

The Wisdom Literature (WL) of the Hebrew Bible (HB) has long been regarded as distinct in many ways from the rest of the cannon. There is no mention of the pillars of "salvation history" as defined by von Rad (i.e. patriarchs, sojourn in Egypt, Exodus, conquest, etc.). Biblical theology has often tried to find the unifying theme of the HB that brought the HB together, but WL has also been an outlier since its theology has been described as creation theology in contrast to other parts of the Bible that OT theologians argue focus upon covenant or some other aspect. Zimmerli is well-known for his pronouncement that wisdom theology is creation theology and that wisdom, or Ecclessiastes in particular was not connected at all with the relationship of God and Israel in history. The foreignness of WL seemed to be emphasized when brought into conversation with the many related texts in Egypt and Mesopotamia, since it is clearly part of a larger ancient Near Eastern tradition. Earlier scholarship that was entranced by the uniqueness of the biblical notion of a god who interferes in history, an outdated idea that entranced earlier scholarship, made this literature, which seemed to be historically detached, all the more foreign. More recently Michael Fox has stated that Qohelet was “abstracted from history” and “did not have a concept of historical movement” and others echo this sentiment.

Wisdom as Tradition and WorldviewEdit

Such a sharp segregation between the theology and historical consciousness of wisdom and non-wisdom books coincides with trend to see the producers of WL (the “sages”) as a distinct social group within a distinct tradition in Israel. Crenshaw's view of WL is indicative of this trend and implies a sharp distinction between a prophet, priest, or some other class of people. Thus, in Crenshaw's view WL stands in marked contrast with the rest of the HB because it represents a unique class of people with their own unique worldview. The view that WL represents something wholly separate in HB has come under increasing attack. In fact, an entire SBL session on WL was devoted to Mark Sneed's CBQ article, "Is the 'Wisdom Tradition' a Tradition?" in which this idea was openly attacked (with Crenshaw in attendance). It is increasingly recognized that WL reflects tradition sayings written down by scribes. On analogy of the scribal careers in other ANE cultures it is apparent that the same scribes who wrote wisdom literature were also priests, diviners, medical professionals, or cult-singers. Once there is no longer social class of sages who held a different worldview from the rest of Israel there can be less objection to finding wisdom outside of the WL proper (Prov, Job, Eccl) as well as less objection to finding the influence of this history and its culturally embedded influences within the wisdom books themselves.

Wisdom Contextualized and EmbeddedEdit

Indeed, closer inspection shows that these wisdom “books” are historically contextualized collections or compositions within the world of the HB. Proverbs itself says it is these proverbs are from “Solomon the son of David, king of Israel” (Prov 1:1, cf. 10:1) and the “men of Hezekiah king of Judah” are said to “transcribe” earlier Solomonic proverbs (Prov 25:1).Qohelet grounds himself in pre-exilic Judah and Israel by claiming his is “the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (Qoh 1:1) and “king over Israel in Jerusalem” (Qoh 1:12). Recently, Jennie Barbour’s The Story of Israel in the Book of Qohelet argues that Qohelet teams with echoes from Israelite history that are a part of the author’s cultural memory. She argues that “history haunts Ecclesiastes...[r]ather than deliberate veiled reference to real events, the book stead bears a more ghostly impression—more pervasive, but also more muted—of Israel’s account to itself of its past...” She explains that “Israel’s historical traditions push to the surface in Ecclesiastes in a variety of ways: as citations, as ironic retellings of old stories, as fragmentary and jumbled snippets of memory, as turns of phrase with a traditional resonance, and by many other means.” Barbour’s study is interesting in looking for echo and allusion, but also bordering on intertextuality. Barbour’s study exhibits characteristics that one would expect from canonical criticism, since her search for history seems to be mostly a wordplay game among the canon and she stretches toward the New Testament at the end of her study. Her attempt to great an “echo chamber” with which we can hear the historical echoes by reading history back through Qohelet as well as the importance of looking to the history of interpretation to verify, in a way merely rehearses the exegetical methods of early Jewish and Christian commentators. Her echoes are often quite thin and one can’t help but agree with her statement in the introduction that “the presence of the past in Ecclesiastes is often shadowy and perhaps only half-conscious.” Barbour's study is an interesting exercise in biblical interpretation and one of the strengths is its emphasis on the distinctly Israelite cultural milieu that is no doubt at the core of its composition. Whether or not these "allusions" or "echoes" are actually convincing is another matter.


Barbour, Jennie. The Story of Israel in the Book of Qohelet: Ecclesiastes as Cultural Memory. OUP Oxford, 2012. Crenshaw, J. L. “Method in Determining Wisdom Influence Upon ‘Historical’ Literature.” Journal of Biblical Literature 88, no. 2 (June 1969): 129–142. Perdue, Leo. Wisdom Literature : a Theological History. 1st ed. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007. Sneed, Mark. “Is the ‘Wisdom Tradition’ a Tradition?” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 73 (2011): 50–71. Zimmerli, Walther. “The Place and Limit of the Wisdom in the Framework of the Old Testament Theology.” In Studies in Ancient Israelite Wisdom, edited by James L. Crenshaw, 314–26. The Library of Biblical Studies. New York: Ktav, 1976.

Community content is available under CC-BY-SA unless otherwise noted.