Overview of Terms


The terms used in this course come from Hebrew (terms originating in ancient Israel and Judaism), Greek (terms originating in Greek philosophy and Greek-speaking Jews and Christians), and English words coming from Latin as well as English words coming from the Germanic side of the language family. Sometimes the translated equivalents can be treated as interchangeable. Other times the distinct cultural connotations should be distinguished. For example, on a certain level hokhmah=sophia=wisdom, but on another level the ancient Israelite understanding of wisdom is not identical to the ancient Greek understanding of wisdom. The following chart summarizes some key terms in different languages/cultures.

HebrewGreek/HellenisticLatin, Latinate EnglishGermanic English
חכמה hokhmahσοφια sophiasapientia, sapientialwisdom
Ben Sira (son of Sira), the book by Ben SiraSirach (the Greek form of the book)Ecclesiasticus (the Latin form of the Book) literally “Church book,” not to be confused with Ecclesiastes.most often Ben Sira to refer to the person or Sirach to refer to the book
קהלת Qoheleth (assembler or preacher)Ecclesiastes (assembler)EcclesiastesEcclesiastes


A canon in general is that which defines the straight and narrow. Among theologians a canon refers to an official list. In biblical studies a canon is a list of authoritative books from which none can be removed and to which none can be added. The mechanisms and timing of canon formation is a fascinating topic in itself. From the outset of a course on Wisdom Literature it is necessary to be clear that there are different canons in Judaism and Christianity.

Theological Concepts


Theodicy refers to God’s justice. Jews and Christians generally agree God’s justice must be asserted but offer different responses to the appearance of injustice in a world over which God is sovereign. There are two classical formulations of the problem.

  1. Why do the righteous suffer while the wicked proper?
  2. If God is all-good and all-powerful then evil should not exist. If God can eliminate evil but chooses not to then God is not all good. If God wishes to eliminate evil but cannot then God is not all powerful.


Eschatology is discourse about the last things. In the Middle Ages the four last things were death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Contemporary theologians prefer to think of eschatology as discourse on ultimate Christian hope. I find it helpful to break the category down into personal eschatology (what happens to an individual upon death) and collective eschatology (what fate do we expect for the world).

Universalism and Particularism

Universalism refers to the extent to which all humans are on the same playing field, whereas particularism refers to the extent to which one group (e.g., the Jews or a sect) are set apart and fundamentally distinct. Most of the content of this course is strikingly universalistic (with some exceptions near the end). In addition to possible historical and practical explanations for this, the more theological explanation is that all creation reflects the wisdom of the creator and therefore all citizens of creation can use reason and observation of creation in order to understand the wisdom of the creator, even without the benefit of direct revelation or a covenantal relationship. In this way, this course may interface with other courses that include themes of natural law and natural theology.

Social Location

Social location is the place in society of an author, typically in terms of class, privilege, social status, and economic dependencies. Gender and race are sometimes also related. Social location should not be confused with geographic location. Often our knowledge of social location is indirect, based on assumptions that certain views of the world correlate with certain social locations.

As we shall see, Wisdom can be personified, but persons also earn the title of wise one or sage. This title was not thrown around loosely; it appears to have been a specific social function. We can work toward a more precise definition of what makes someone a sage, but I'll start us with a draft: someone entrusted with gathering, preserving, and transmitting the insights of previous generations to future generations, particularly those insights concerned with understanding the world and how to behave within it.

A more easily defined social function related to sage is that of scribe. Scribes were literate at a time when literacy was rare and the materials of writing were expensive. They studied the written record of the past and preserved and added to it for the future. Their function overlapped with that of the sage. Because our knowledge of ancient Israel and early Judaism comes almost entirely from written texts, we should recognize that our knowledge of the entire religion and culture is filtered through the hands of a minority sub-culture.


This course presumes a prior graduate course in scripture that covered biblical hermeneutics. Not everyone uses the same categories and terminology for biblical hermeneutics, so the following defines briefly the general categories I use.


Despite certain changes over the centuries, a distinctive set of assumptions underlies interpretation as it happened in synagogues and churches over the millennia, starting when there were scriptures to be interpreted and continuing today in some quarters. James Kugel has described four assumptions that characterize premodern biblical interpretation:

  1. The Bible is cryptic. It means more than it appears to say. Small details in the text can be clues to elaborate secret meanings.
  2. The Bible is relevant to us readers and interpreters today. It may even be about us so much that previous generations could not have understood it as fully as we who are living at the times about which it spoke. At the very least it speaks to us as a book of instruction about how we should respond to situations from our own time (e.g., what would Jesus drive?).
  3. The Bible is perfect in three ways. It does not contradict itself. The entire Bible is one integral whole, such that any part can be used to interpret any other part. The positive characters in the Bible are perfectly virtuous and the negative characters in the Bible are perfectly wicked. If there appear to be exceptions see rule 1.
  4. The Bible is divine in some sense of being from God or super-human in character and density of meaning. This point is remarkably ambiguous as Jews and Christians may agree that scriptures can be called the word of God but have very different understandings of what that means. I think Kugel includes this as an assumption primarily to note that, surprisingly, it is not the earliest assumption to develop and not the cause of the other three.


Developing especially in the nineteenth century, modern biblical interpretation rejected the four assumptions of premodern interpretation. The Bible, at least from the original author to original audience, intended to communicate clearly and directly (not cryptic). The Bible is about the historical context of the authors, not us (not relevant to us). The Bible is not a coherent collection (perfect) but the product of different authors and historical contexts. Whatever divinity may be behind the Bible, the Bible as we have it has all the marks of a human enterprise and can be studied as human literature, history, and culture are otherwise studied (not primarily divine).

Phrased positively, modern interpretation has its own assumptions:

  1. A passage has one objective meaning.
  2. The meaning is the meaning intended by the original author.
  3. The authorial intent must be understood in the historical context of the author.
  4. There are many historical contexts relevant to the development of the Bible which can be studied separately using tools such as archaeology, philology, form criticism, source criticism, redaction criticism, text criticism, etc.


Postmodern interpretation advanced in scholarly circles in the 1970s. It rejects the assumptions of modern interpretation, particularly in focusing on the reader rather than the author as the locus of the generation of meaning (hence often called readerly interpretation). Because a text has many readers it can have many meanings, including meanings that could not have been intended by the author. The reader does not need to know ancient languages and history to know how it relates to her and her life. Postmodern interpretation can resemble premodern in that it is not modern (but knowing and rejecting modern is different from not knowing modern), and particularly in the assumption of relevance. The clearest difference is in the assumption of perfection, as postmodern sometimes find that biblical heroes fail by the moral standards of today.