In This Article Proverbs

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Texts and Text Criticism
  • Composition
  • Social Context(s)
  • Scribes and Schools
  • Theology, Ethics, and Religion
  • The Act-Consequence Nexus
  • Wealth and Poverty
  • History of Research, Reception, and Interpretation

Biblical Studies Proverbs
by
Timothy J. Sandoval, Joseph McDonald
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0098

Introduction

Up to 2000, it was common to hear of the relative neglect of the study of Proverbs and Wisdom literature in biblical studies. Those days are over. Since about 1970, in fact, study of the Israelite Wisdom tradition, and the Book of Proverbs in particular, a leading exemplar of that tradition, has exploded. There is no longer any shortage of introductory texts, commentaries, and specialized monographs on Proverbs. The watershed moment is usually traced back to the publication of Gerhard von Rad’s Weisheit in Israel (1970). Von Rad lent his considerable weight as a “senior statesman” of biblical criticism to the study of Proverbs and the Wisdom literature, producing a masterful and provocative monograph, to which scholars still, almost in obligatory fashion, often situate their work. The same year, William McKane published his important and much-discussed commentary. Yet even before 1970, there were significant signs of life in Proverbs and Wisdom studies. In 1965 both McKane and R. N. Whybray each published significant works, and 1968 saw the appearance of Hans-Jürgen Hermisson’s important monograph and Michael Fox’s study of the religion of Proverbs. The relative lack of attention to Proverbs in the mid-20th century is usually attributed to the fact that its status as a species of ancient Near Eastern “international” Wisdom literature, which did not much concern itself with leading Hebrew Bible/Old Testament themes such as the Exodus and Covenant, was well established soon after Budge’s publication of the Egyptian Instruction of Amenemope in 1923. As a result, Proverbs and Wisdom studies often took a backseat to the study of other biblical books and themes, especially those whose leading religious ideas were of much significance to the many scholars concerned with biblical theology. By 1963, however, Brevard Childs had famously announced, perhaps prematurely, the demise of the biblical theology movement, and the stage was set for a new era in Proverbs studies with the appearance of Gerhard von Rad’s seminal text.

General Overviews

Apart from the commentaries noted here whose introductory chapters provide general overviews of Proverbs, other general treatments of Proverbs often appear as chapters in “introductions” to biblical Wisdom literature designed for scholars, college and seminary students, and ministerial professionals. These include Bergant 1997, Fontaine 1998, Murphy 1990, Weeks 2010, Perdue 2008, Yoder 2012, and Longman 2017. However, some monographs written for scholarly specialists also attempt to sketch more precisely the teaching and/or ethics of Proverbs, such as Brown 1996, Brown 2014, and Rad 1972. Several of these contributions tend to focus on the short-sentence proverbs in Prov 10–29 (e.g., Delkurt 1993, Hausmann 1995), which are regularly thought to be older than the poems of Prov 1–9.

  • Bergant, Dianne. Israel’s Wisdom Literature: A Liberation-Critical Reading. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997.

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    Written from a liberationist perspective and offering one of the best, most literarily sensitive treatments of Proverbs in the available “introductions” to Wisdom literature.

  • Brown, William P. Character in Crisis: A Fresh Approach to the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996.

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    Brown’s chapter on Proverbs in this “introduction” to Wisdom literature is finely honed, emphasizing especially Proverbs as moral instruction.

  • Brown, William P. Wisdom’s Wonder: Character, Creation, and Crisis in the Bible’s Wisdom Literature. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014.

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    In a thorough revision and expansion of Character in Crisis (Brown 1996), Brown suggests “wonder” (briefly defined as “fear seeking understanding”) as a hermeneutical lens that can encompass both character formation and creation, two poles of Proverbs and other wisdom literature commonly emphasized by scholars.

  • Delkurt, Holger. Ethische Einsichten in der alttestamentlichen Spruchweisheit. Neukirchen-Vluyn, Germany: Neukirchener Verlag, 1993.

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    A thorough attempt to sketch the ethics of the sentence sayings in Proverbs. Highlights important themes in these proverbs and regularly associates various sayings in interesting and helpful ways.

  • Fontaine, Carole R. “Proverbs.” In Women’s Bible Commentary. Exp. ed. Edited by Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998.

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    A brief and useful introduction that highlights imagery centered on women and women’s social issues in Proverbs, not only in the poems about Woman Wisdom and the “strange woman,” but also throughout the collected proverbs in the rest of the book.

  • Hausmann, Jutta. Studien zum Menschenbild der älteren Weisheit. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr, 1995.

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    Helpfully highlights and discusses important themes in the sayings of Prov 10–29 that, taken together, provide a glimpse into the sages’ view(s) of humans.

  • Longman, Tremper V., III. The Fear of the Lord Is Wisdom: A Theological Introduction to Wisdom in Israel. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017.

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    An approachable synthesis of the author’s work on Israel’s wisdom literature that also considers its developments in early Jewish and Christian contexts. Longman writes from an openly Christocentric and Christian-canonical perspective while engaging and drawing on scholarship from other viewpoints.

  • Murphy, Roland E. The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature. New York: Doubleday, 1990.

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    Presents a thorough introduction to Proverbs that is sensitive to major trends in the scholarly study of the book.

  • Perdue, Leo G. The Sword and the Stylus: An Introduction to Wisdom in the Age of Empires. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008.

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    Includes a full introduction to Proverbs that gives significant attention to important issues such as the book’s rhetoric and the social location of the scribes who produced it.

  • Rad, Gerhard von. Wisdom in Israel. London: SCM, 1972.

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    Translation of Weisheit in Israel (Neukirchen-Vluyn, Germany: Neukirchener Verlag, 1970). The German original is regularly regarded as the key publication that marked the beginning of a renewed scholarly interest in biblical Wisdom literature. Emphasizes Proverbs and the Wisdom literature’s theological and ethical value.

  • Weeks, Stuart. An Introduction to the Study of Wisdom Literature. T&T Clark Approaches to Biblical Studies. London: T&T Clark, 2010.

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    Provides a concise introduction to Proverbs, in addition to other ancient Jewish Wisdom literature, contextualizing the book in terms of both its ancient Near Eastern antecedents and its biblical counterparts.

  • Yoder, Christine Roy. “Proverbs.” In Women’s Bible Commentary. 3d ed. Edited by Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2012.

    E-mail Citation »

    Replacing Fontaine 1998, Yoder covers similar subjects and themes, but with more emphasis on the contingent and multiperspectival nature of Proverbs’ claims, and more attention to issues of class, economics, and larger social and political structures.

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