In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Wisdom

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Origins in Israel
  • Egypt and Israel
  • Education in Ancient Israel
  • Sages and Scribes
  • Genres
  • Influence in the Hebrew Bible
  • Worldview and Theology
  • Wisdom Personified

Biblical Studies Wisdom
Christine Roy Yoder
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0091


The term wisdom, in biblical studies, refers to: (1) a movement in the ancient world that was associated with sages and educational purposes; (2) certain biblical books, namely Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, and the deuterocanonical books of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) and Wisdom of Solomon; and (3) a particular worldview or theological perspective. Wisdom received comparatively little attention in biblical studies until the mid-20th century, owing, in part, to its international character. Because wisdom’s content, for the most part, lacks attention to matters considered typically Israelite—such as the ancestral promises, Moses and the Exodus, the covenant at Sinai, and the promise to David—wisdom stood apart from what was long considered Israel’s overarching storyline, namely, God’s saving acts in history. That changed with the 1970 publication of Gerhard von Rad’s Weisheit Israel (see von Rad 1972, cited under Worldview and Theology). Von Rad sparked fresh consideration of the literature, particularly its contributions to Old Testament theology. That spark has been fueled by the increasing availability of ancient Near Eastern texts associated with wisdom, the study of ethnic proverbs (or paroemiology), and movement away from characterizing Old Testament theology principally in terms of salvation history or covenant. As a result, in the early 21st century we enjoy an “embarrassment of riches” (Crenshaw 1998, p. 1; cited under General Overviews) in the study of wisdom.

General Overviews

Many volumes provide helpful overviews of wisdom and wisdom literature. Murphy 2002, now in its third edition, is a standard in the field; another fine overview is Crenshaw 1998 and, particularly for beginning students, Clifford 1998. Other volumes highlight certain aspects of biblical wisdom literature. Drawing on definitions of character, in literary studies and ethics, for example, Brown 1996 argues that the goal of wisdom literature is the formation of character and describes the contours of normative character in each biblical wisdom book. Bergant 1997 examines the assumptions and claims made in wisdom literature about gender, race or ethnic origin, and class. O’Connor 1988 focuses on the explicit and implicit spiritualities of the wisdom texts and emphasizes their significance for modern believers. And Perdue 2008 introduces the literature through the lens of its origins in the context of empires. For the deuterocanonical books of Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon, and for wisdom in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Collins 1997 is particularly helpful.

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

    Interprets the final canonical forms of the wisdom literature from a liberation perspective that insists on the “intrinsic integrity of creation,” namely, the interconnectedness of humanity, creatures, and the natural world. Highlights matters of race and ethnicity, class, and gender in the texts.

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

    Argues that the central framework and goal of biblical wisdom literature is the formation of character. Brown explores how Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes describe values and virtues, the roles of the community and individual in the formation of character, and the relationship of the self to the world and to God.

  • Clifford, Richard J. The Wisdom Literature. Interpreting Biblical Texts. Nashville: Abingdon, 1998.

    A solid introduction for beginning students of biblical wisdom literature. Clifford gives a survey of ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature, a chapter on each biblical and deuterocanonical wisdom text, and a summary of wisdom traditions in Judaism and early Christianity.

  • Collins, John Joseph. Jewish Wisdom in the Hellenistic Age. Old Testament Library. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997.

    A comprehensive study of Jewish wisdom literature of the Hellenistic age as represented primarily by Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon, Pseudo-Phocylides, and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

  • Crenshaw, James L. Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction. Rev. ed. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998.

    A revision of Old Testament Wisdom (1981), this volume is a clear and accessible introduction to the world of wisdom, biblical and ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature, and key aspects of wisdom’s worldview.

  • Murphy, Roland E. The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature. 3d ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002.

    A standard introduction to biblical wisdom literature. Murphy explores the content of each biblical book, the “echoes” of wisdom in other biblical texts, the personification of wisdom, and key aspects of wisdom’s theology.

  • O’Connor, Kathleen M. The Wisdom Literature. Message of Biblical Spirituality 5. Wilmington, DE: M. Glazier, 1988.

    Interprets the biblical wisdom books (including Song of Songs), with particular interest in their explicit and implicit theological and spiritual claims. Explores ways in which wisdom literature is a valuable resource for contemporary believers.

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

    Sweeping from Egyptian wisdom of the third millennium BCE to rabbinic wisdom of the first six centuries CE, Perdue considers the impact of empires on the sages’ social positions, roles, and worldviews. More accessible to readers with some familiarity with the literature and history of the ancient Near East.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.