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Jesus as the Wisdom of God: Wisdom Christology in the Gospel of Matthew

17 Dec

Jesus is never explicitly identified in the canonical Gospels with divine wisdom, and the sole Biblical instance of such an equation is in 1 Corinthians 1:24, where Paul writes that Jesus is “the wisdom of God.” Wisdom is therefore unlike titles commonly used in the Gospels to refer to Jesus such as teacher, son of man, son of God, son of David, and Christ or Messiah. According to Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, though, “Christological discourses” began within “a time span as short as twenty years after Jesus’ death” that described Jesus as the incarnation of the wisdom of God.[1] Wisdom Christology is more often associated with the Gospel of John, wherein Jesus is likened to the divine logos present from the creation of the cosmos (John 1:1, Genesis 1:1), than with the Synoptic Gospels.[2] However, the identification of Jesus as divine wisdom incarnate is present in Matthew, albeit more subtly than in John. In this paper, then, I will examine the wisdom Christology of the Gospel of Matthew. I will begin with a discussion of the historical roots in ancient Israel of the link between God and wisdom; a strong argument is made that this history originated in Israel’s monarchical period with the Israelite appropriation of wisdom literature, along with monarchical government itself, from Egypt. Following this historical sketch, I will identify where wisdom Christology is present in Matthew’s Gospel, with what divine actions this understanding of Jesus is associated, and how this notion of Jesus as wisdom might enrich the contemporary Church.

Wisdom literature in ancient Israel was an “exceedingly complex” tradition with a “variety of uses and implications” both secular and religious.[3] It was not novel at the time of Jesus’ earthly life, but dates back, according to Fiorenza, to at least the Babylonian Exile.[4] Moreover, Fiorenza writes, “wisdom’s theological roots are found not only in postexilic Jewish circles… but also in apocalyptic literature and in the writings of Qumran.”[5] Roland E. Murphy traces the wisdom genre of Israel to its monarchical period, and even beyond, to ancient Egypt: “Israel seems to have imitated Egypt in cultivating this type of literature, just as she had imitated Egypt in adopting the government of kingship.”[6] 1 Kings 3:1, which tells of the marriage of Solomon to a daughter of Pharaoh, is Biblical evidence in Murphy’s view of a strong probability of Egyptian cultural influence on monarchical Israel. The complex bureaucracy of a royal court system resulted from Israel’s adoption of monarchical government in imitation of its neighbours. Therefore, as “other nations” (1 Samuel 8:5) upon which Israel’s kinship was patterned had governed the intricate relationships between and “conduct of” courtiers, so too did Israel.[7]

Egypt’s ordering of its royal court through “teaching” or Sebayit, is notable, Murphy contends, for its influence on the organization of Israel’s monarchy, particularly under King Solomon. Murphy goes on to cite “remarkable similarities” between the Egyptian Sebayit and wisdom sayings of the Book of Proverbs that relate to order in a royal court and by extension to regulation of society as a whole. For example, both the Sebayit and Proverbs 2:4 extol those who seek after wisdom as a “hidden treasure.” Proverbs 23:1 mirrors passages of the Sebayit that list rules to be observed when dining before a ruler, and Egyptian wisdom writings about the “absolute reliability”[8] of a royal messenger are paralleled in Proverbs 25:13. Murphy contends that sapiential sayings from the Sebayit resemble not only those in Proverbs but many contained in other Old Testament wisdom books as well. He relates for instance the twenty-second century B.C.E. instructions in the Sebayit (ANET 417) to Meri-ka-re from his father Wah-ka-re on the importance of a ruler’s virtue– “More acceptable is the character of one upright of heart than the ox of an evildoer”– to the connection in 1 Samuel 5:22 and Ecclesiastes 4:17 between the value to God of Israelite kings’ sacrifices and their moral integrity.[9]

While the wisdom literature of the kingdoms of Egypt and of Israel is concerned with the ordering of expanded royal court systems, prophetic allusions to wisdom immediately prior to and during the Babylonian Exile take on a more negative tone than in the sapiential writings of Israel’s monarchical period. The first “explicit references to… wise men, or hăkāmîn,” Murphy writes, are found in Isaiah, whose characterization of those said to be wise is especially “harsh.”[10] Murphy quotes Isaiah 29:14 to support this assertion: “The wisdom of [Israel’s] wise men shall perish and the understanding of its prudent men [will] be hid.” In the midst of the Exile, the prevailing notion among Israelites became that human wisdom is negligible in comparison to that of God. This sapientology persisted after the Exile, with two important modifications: Firstly, human beings were increasingly viewed as capable of discerning right moral conduct from experience and from natural order, thought to be a manner of divine self-communication to humankind. Secondly, Mosaic Law was increasingly understood as the utmost form of God-to-human communication of wisdom. Thus the roles of scribes and priests– both of whom Ezra is a prime example (Ezra 7:6)– evolved into that of interpretation and instruction in Torah.[11] These sopherim, or wise men (in Greek, σοφοι), whose main function had become religious, in contrast to the mainly secular occupation of the wise men of Israel’s royal courts, were significant well into the New Testament period and especially in the Gospel of Matthew (Matt 23:34).[12]

Although the concept of divine self-communication as wisdom– particularly through Torah and through nature– developed in the post-Exilic period, “only in the later books [of the Old Testament]” was “wisdom… predicated of God.”[13] The personification of divine wisdom present in these late Old Testament period texts introduces a paradox: wisdom is at once remote from creation, attributable only to God (Job 28:13, 23), yet revealed to humankind as the recognition that “the fear of the LORD is wisdom” (v 28) or as the “craftsman” present in creation (Proverbs 8:30, Wisdom 9:9). Another problem arises with this representation “of wisdom as a person”: Wisdom thus might be understood as “no more than a personification, just as other aspects of God are personified in the Old Testament [such as God’s] Word (Isa 55:10-11) and spirit (63:10-11).” Roland E. Murphy responds to that potential danger by emphasizing not the late Old Testament personification of wisdom itself, but that the chief theological purpose of this period’s depiction of wisdom as a person is to highlight wisdom as divine communication to humankind. Wisdom in this period is not yet synonymous with God, but wisdom personified is understood in the late Old Testament era as a means of God-to-human communication. Therefore “the possibility of a supreme communication [of God as wisdom in the person of] Jesus Christ” in the New Testament age is left open.[14]

The depiction of Jesus as divine wisdom incarnate is most overt in 1 Corinthians and in the Gospel of John, among the earliest and latest New Testament writings, respectively. In the former, Paul affirms that Jesus is Θεου σοφιαν, “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24), while from the outset of the latter, while not using the Greek word for wisdom, σοφια, or its derivatives in his prologue, John identifies Jesus as God’s wisdom and then immediately as God; the Johannine Jesus is the Word who at the creation of the universe “was with God and… was God” (John 1:1).  Clearly, then, the notion present throughout the New Testament period of Christ as God expressed as wisdom represents a shift from the latest Old Testament sapientology in which divine wisdom is not God but an attribute of God and the principal manner of divine-to-human communication. This shift, as Fiorenza indicates, occurred within twenty years of Jesus’ death,[15] during a time that gave rise to the written source material for much of the New Testament. Thus, the probability is strong that where wisdom sayings are present in the New Testament, they are intended, after their sources, to portray Jesus as God’s wisdom, not only as a divine trait but as fully God.

Jesus is associated with divine wisdom not only in the Johannine and Pauline literature, but also in the Synoptic Gospels. While such an identification of Jesus as the wisdom of God is made once in Mark (6:2) and six times in Luke (2:40, 52; 7:35; 11:31, 49; 21:15),[16] wisdom Christology is also integral to the Gospel of Matthew. Five instances of σοφια and cognates occur in the first Gospel (Matt 11:19, 25; 12:42; 13:54; 23:34).[17] This term is used Christologically the first four times it appears in Matthew, whereas in its fifth and final incidence it is applied to those whom Jesus has sent in his stead and who will be persecuted and killed.

Matthew refers to wisdom or to the wise on these five occasions in five distinct pericopes, the first three of which are original to Q, paralleled in Luke but omitted in Mark: Jesus’ words about John the Baptist (Matt 11:7-19),[18] his thanksgiving to the Father (vv 25-27),[19] and his condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees for seeking signs from him (12:38-42).[20] One Matthean pericope that includes a sapiential saying, that of Jesus rejection at Nazareth, is of Markan origin and is not paralleled in Luke.[21] The fifth Matthean reference to wisdom or to the wise occurs within Jesus’ denunciation of the scribes and Pharisees (23:1-36). While this pericope is present in abbreviated form in both Mark and Luke, the allusion to the “prophets… wise men (σοφους) and scribes”[22] (Matt 23:34) sent by Jesus, who will be rejected by Israel’s religious authorities, is uniquely Matthean.[23]

Although Matthew and Luke share Jesus’ speech “to the crowds about John” (Matt 11:7-19, Luke 7:24-35), and both end this pericope with a wisdom saying, the two evangelists differ slightly yet significantly in their redaction of that concluding verse. Whereas in Luke Jesus asserts that “wisdom is vindicated by all her children” (Luke 7:35), Matthew has edited the same Q verse to “wisdom is vindicated by her deeds” (Matt 11:19). M. Jack Suggs argues that “Luke’s editorial activity has taken the entire passage out of the context of wisdom thought altogether.”[24] The purpose of Luke’s closer approximation of the Q form than Matthew is to emphasize the expanded accessibility of divine wisdom personified in Christ to “the entire nation of Israel” as wisdom’s “children.”[25] According to Fiorenza, the Lukan “Sophia-God of Jesus recognizes all Israelites as her children.” Israel therefore “is justified… by all of them.”[26] D. Rebecca Dinovo notes that Luke’s version of this verse more closely parallels the wisdom text of Proverbs in which Wisdom speaks to her children: “Now, O children, listen to me; instruction and wisdom do not reject… Happy [are] those who keep my ways” (Prov 8:32).

In contrast to Luke, Matthew’s redaction as “wisdom is vindicated by her deeds” emphasizes that Jesus is the unique manifestation of divine Sophia. The Matthean Jesus is “Sophia incarnate”[27]; the same cannot be said of the Lukan Jesus on the basis of this pericope alone. In Matthew as in Luke, Suggs writes, “Jesus and John stand as the eschatological envoys of Wisdom.”[28] Both are therefore Wisdom’s prophets, but at that point the Matthean characterizations of each diverge.  With the inclusion of the proverb that “wisdom is vindicated by her deeds” (Matt 19:11) within the longest Q section preserved intact in Matthew and Luke[29] that extends from John’s disciples’ question to Jesus about whether he is the awaited Messiah (vv 2-3) to Jesus’ thanksgiving to the Father (vv 25-27), Matthew distinguishes John, wisdom’s greatest-ever prophet, from Jesus, who is wisdom. Suggs therefore writes that, as per Matthew,

Jesus is no longer the last and greatest of wisdom’s children; in him are the deeds of Wisdom to be uniquely seen… A succession of prophets [has] been inspired by Wisdom, of whom the greatest is John… Wisdom sends forth her prophets– from the first generation to this generation [that] has rejected Jesus and John. However, it would not… overstate the case that for Matthew [as for John the evangelist] Wisdom has “become flesh and dwelled among us.” (John 1:14)[30]

Suggs therefore asserts that, by the Matthean redaction as “deeds” of wisdom as opposed to Luke’s “children,” the evangelist intended to present Jesus as Wisdom incarnate. His argument is sound in that he considers this proverb the culmination of the entire Q section that begins with the list of Jesus’ Messianic deeds in response to the Baptist’s question about whether Jesus is the Christ. (Matt 11: 2-4). The thesis of Matthew 11:2-27 is that Jesus, announced by the Baptist, is the divine deed of wisdom and is Wisdom, fully divine and fully human. Jesus’ deeds of wisdom, as listed in Matthew 11:4-6 and pointed to again in verses 21 and 24, affirm his Messiahship that is exclusive of all other human beings. However, Matthew’s stress on the transcendence of Jesus as wisdom and as Messiah does not relegate the Christian disciple, whether in Matthew’s time or contemporarily, to the role of passive spectator to Jesus’ Messianic deeds. Inasmuch as the Matthean Jesus is uniquely divine Wisdom in human flesh, he is also Wisdom’s eschatological prophet. As such, Jesus has been granted the fullness of the Father’s authority over “all things” (Matt 11:27, 28:18). Stephen C. Barton writes that Jesus’ authority as prophet and mediator of wisdom according to the divine will (Matt 11:26), and indeed Jesus’ identification with divine wisdom itself, “is the fruit of being in a filial relationship with God, a relationship characterized on the human side by specific moral-religious qualities such as humility, obedience, and trust.”[31]

Such are qualities of “the childlike,” whom Matthew contrasts with the “children… in the marketplace” (Matt 11:16) who reject both the austere John the Baptist’s proclamation of the coming kingdom of God– the dirge for which they “do not mourn”– and the joyous actualization of that kingdom in the person of Jesus– “the flute” for which they “do not dance” (v 17).[32] Those children are in Matthew the false disciples who are nevertheless “wise and learned” by the common understanding of the time of Jesus and of the evangelist. The Matthean distinction between the “childlike,” those who trust in God’s wisdom and “gracious will” (v 26), and the restless children in the marketplace or the “wise and learned” is, according to Barton, “part of the larger Gospel theme that wisdom is a gift from God and therefore is not constrained by conventional expectations about where to find it, even expectations [that] associate wisdom with… [leaders] like the scribes, Pharisees, and priests… with… places like Israel, Jerusalem, the Temple, or [with] Torah.”[33]

For the contemporary Church as for the Matthean community, the focal point of the wisdom Christology of Matthew 11:7-19 and 25-27, and of the larger Q section from which these pericopes originate, is that, as Barton indicates, wisdom belongs to God and is revealed by God most fully in Jesus and by the Son to the extent that and “to whom he wishes to reveal [the Father]” in himself as wisdom (Matt 11:27). As Jesus’ revelation to humankind of God’s wisdom is inseparable from the relational unity of being between the Father and the Son, so too, the Christian disciple’s reception and dissemination of that divine wisdom cannot occur outside the context of human commitment to relationship with other human beings– that is, to building inter-human community, a theme integral to the Gospel of Matthew– and with God. Wisdom as God’s gift revealed to and heralded by human beings, is therefore, as Barton states, “the fruit… of a way of life and a pattern of faithfulness, [as opposed to] a process of solitary intellection.”[34]

A pressing temptation for the Church today is to regard itself as capable of mediating wisdom apart from God. To succumb to this deception has eschatological consequences, in particular when Christian leaders, purporting to speak for God, incite anxiety about persecution and disasters that will precede the end of time. Teachings not to worry about these forthcoming events are prominent in Matthew. For example, one ought to depend upon God’s providence to sustain even his or her life (Matt 6:25-32). God, in this case “the Spirit of the Father,” will speak in the disciples’ favour in time of persecution (Matt 10:20); the faithful follower of Jesus will not escape the “knowledge” of the Father (v 29). Matthew therefore attributes to Jesus words of eschatological comfort to those who follow God’s will. That divine will proposes only two related Commandments for Christians to follow: to love God and to love one’s neighbour as one’s self (Matt 22:37-39). In observing those statutes, the disciple is freed from anxiety over final judgment (Matt 11:24) and is open to Jesus who is eschatological consolation, in continuity with “the law and the prophets” (v 40) as well as the wisdom tradition of the Old Testament. While Wisdom in Sirach 6:24-25 calls its disciples to live by Torah as under a yoke and fetters,[35] Jesus invites us to himself, as he is Wisdom and the fulfillment of Torah: “Come to me, all you who labour and are burdened, and I will give you rest… For my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Matt 11:28-30).

Like Matthew 11:2-27, which includes two references to Jesus as Wisdom and is appended by another, the Matthean addition in verses 28-30 of Jesus’ invitation to take up his yoke, the next application of wisdom to Jesus also occurs within a Q-based pericope.[36] In Matthew 12:38-42, the “scribes and the Pharisees” demand a sign from Jesus (v 38), but do not realize that Jesus, the utmost of divine signs, is the Messiah already among them. Thus, they incur Jesus’ rebuke; they have had many opportunities to witness God with Israel and now does not acknowledge Jesus, the sign of prophecy “greater than Jonah” (v 41) and that of wisdom “greater than Solomon,” (v 42) as divine. The sapiential saying in this pericope’s last verse complements those in Matthew 11: 19 and 26. While those point to the exclusivity of Jesus as Sophia-God and eschatological prophet of wisdom, that in Matthew 12:42 highlights the supremacy– the “greater than” aspect– of wisdom’s self-manifestation as Jesus Christ.[37] The theme of Jesus as supreme sign of God permeates the Gospel of Matthew. Thus Matthew underscores that Jesus, as a human being, is the fullness of God’s presence among human beings. The evangelist does so by applying the Old Testament notion of divine sign as expressions of the “activity of God”[38] in the world to Jesus, who is the sought-after “Emmanuel… God [who] is with us” (Matt 1:23, Isa 7:10) from the beginning to “the end of the age” (Matt 28:20).

Jesus’ claim in Matthew 12:41-42 of Messianic, prophetic, and sapiential supremacy is also relevant for Christianity today. Matthew identifies Jesus as “greater than” all wisdom and prophecy that has preceded or will succeed him, thus for contemporary Christians to dispute over who is greatest (Matt 18:1-5, 20:20-26) is at the same time futile and destructive of human community. The pre-eminence of wisdom and prophecy are the Messiah’s alone. Matthew consistently condemns the urge among some members of his community to dominate fellow disciples. In Matthew, Jesus does not lord his Godhead over his followers (Matt 21:25); his primacy is felt not as the bearer of titles (Matt 23:10) Instead, Jesus, “the greatest among [us],” is so because he has come among us “to serve and to give his life” (Matt 21:28). Jesus thus models service for the Church today to the point of self-sacrifice. In my own ministerial experience, particularly in a leadership role as a children’s sacramental preparation instructor, I am reminded by Jesus as depicted by Matthew that I am to the children I teach their servant and the Church’s servant more than their proud teacher. Jesus is the children’s teacher through me. Also, the more I ask questions of the children and allow them to reflect and to respond as opposed to lecturing them from my knowledge, the more I am awed by their wisdom. The children I teach, then, become my teachers of humility and faithfulness and draw me, as I hope to draw them, the future of the Church, closer to Jesus (Matt 18:2-5), servant, teacher, Wisdom, and God.

After the allusion to Jesus as “something greater than Solomon” in Matthew 12:42, the next reference to wisdom in the first Gospel is when the “people in [the] Synagogue” in Nazareth question the source of Jesus’ “wisdom and mighty deeds.” (Matt 13:54) As in the wisdom sayings in Matthew 11, the evangelist here links the identification of Jesus as wisdom with wisdom’s manifestation through the deeds of its prophet, Christ. Similarly to the wisdom references of Matthew 11, but emphasized further in Matthew 13:54, revelation of Christ as wisdom through his deeds is contingent upon the active faith of wisdom’s receiver. That message again is as true for today’s Church as it was for the Church to which Matthew wrote his Gospel.

The fifth and last Matthean instance of a cognate of σοφια is not applied to Jesus but to the disciples who by Matthew’s time had already come under persecution of both religious leaders within Judaism and Roman authorities. Jesus connects these emissaries of wisdom whom he sends– “prophets, wise men, and scribes” (Matt 23:34) insofar as Christ is the embodiment of wisdom and the prophets and scribes steward and proclaim it­– with the Old Testament prophets who were also persecuted (Matt 23:30). While religious persecution is remote from contemporary North American Christian experience, it occurs at an unprecedented rate, with an estimated annual number of Christians killed for their faith in the world of 150 000.[39] Such a degree of persecution impels Christians who enjoy freedom of religion to advocate its expansion and to be aware of ways to alleviate suffering of those for whom it is suppressed.

Matthew’s identification of Jesus, wisdom’s prophet, with wisdom itself calls us to such a prophetic role in today’s Church. Employing especially the late Old Testament period concept of God as communicator of divine wisdom to humankind, that itself evolved from Israelite and non-Israelite traditions, Matthew argued that Jesus is uniquely and supremely the fullness of divine wisdom in human flesh. The Christian of Matthew’s time and of ours is given the task to mediate Christ as prophet, as servant, as God, and as wisdom to the world.


Notes:

[1] Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet: Critical Issues in Feminist Christology (New York: Continuum Publishing Company, 1994), 139.

[2] Stephen C. Barton, “Gospel Wisdom,” in Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? Wisdom in the Bible, the Church, and the Contemporary World, edited by Stephen C. Barton (Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1999), 104-105.

[3] Roland E. Murphy, “Introduction to Wisdom Literature,” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968), 1:492.

[4] Fiorenza, Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet, 133.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Roland E. Murphy, “Introduction to Wisdom Literature,” 1:488.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 1:490.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 1:488.

[11] Matthew Black, “Scribes,” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, ed. George Arthur Buttrick et al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962), 4:246.

[12] Ibid., 4:246-247.

[13] Roland E. Murphy, “Introduction to Wisdom Literature,” 1:493.

[14] Ibid., 1:494.

[15] Fiorenza, Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet, 139.

[16] Bible Gateway, “Quick Search Results: σοφ,” http://www.biblegateway.com/quicksearch/?quicksearch= %CF%83%CE%BF%CF%86&qs_version=TR1894. Accessed 8 December 2010.

[17] The Interlinear NIV Parallel New Testament in Greek and English, trans. Alfred Marshall (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976), 44, 51, 59, 104.

[18] Burton H. Throckmorton, Gospel Parallels: A Comparison of the Synoptic Gospels, 5th ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1992), 55-56.

[19] Ibid., 57-58.

[20] Ibid., 72-73.

[21] Ibid., 86. Luke includes Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth and, as in Matthew and Mark, this episode highlights Jesus’ prophetic role. However, this pericope is transposed to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Luke (4:16-30) and does not contain a wisdom saying. Throckmorton does not list the Lukan pericope in parallel with the similar account in the other Synoptic Gospels.

[22] The Interlinear NIV Parallel New Testament in Greek and English, 104.

[23] Throckmorton, Gospel Parallels, 165-168.

[24] M. Jack Suggs, Wisdom, Christology, and Law in Matthew’s Gospel (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970), 55-56.

[25] D. Rebecca Dinovo, “Developing a Biblical Sophia Christology.” http://www.franciscan-anglican. com/Sophia.htm#_ftn12. Accessed 10 December 2010.

[26] Fiorenza, Jesus: Miriam’s Child, Sophia’s Prophet, 140.

[27] Suggs, Wisdom, Christology, and Law in Matthew’s Gospel, 58.

[28] Ibid., 55.

[29] Ibid., 37.

[30] Ibid., 57.

[31] Barton, “Gospel Wisdom,” 96.

[32] John L. McKenzie, “The Gospel According to Matthew,” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968), 2:83.

[33] Barton, “Gospel Wisdom,” 96.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Dinovo, “Developing a Biblical Sophia Christology,” accessed 10 December 2010.

[36] McKenzie, “The Gospel According to Matthew,” 2:85.

[37] James D.G. Dunn, “Jesus: Teacher of Wisdom or Wisdom Incarnate,” in Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? Wisdom in the Bible, the Church, and the Contemporary World, edited by Stephen C. Barton (Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1999), 88.

[38] McKenzie, “The Gospel According to Matthew,” 2:85.

[39] Ron Csillag, “Christianity Arguably the Most Persecuted Religion in the World,” Toronto Star, 4 December 2010.

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