Wisdom literature is a genre of literature common in the ancient Near East. It consists of statements by sages and the wise that offer teachings about divinity and virtue. Although this genre uses techniques of traditional oral storytelling, it was disseminated in written form.
The literary genre of mirrors for princes, which has a long history in Islamic and Western Renaissance literature, is a secular cognate of wisdom literature. In Classical Antiquity, the didactic poetry of Hesiod, particularly his Works and Days, was regarded as a source of knowledge similar to the wisdom literature of Egypt, Babylonia, Israel and India. Pre-Islamic Arabic literature is replete with many poems of wisdom, including the poetry of Zuhayr bin Abī Sūlmā (520–609).
Ancient Egyptian literature
In ancient Egyptian literature, wisdom literature belonged to the sebayt ("teaching") genre which flourished during the Middle Kingdom of Egypt and became canonical during the New Kingdom. Notable works of this genre include the Instructions of Kagemni, The Maxims of Ptahhotep, the Instructions of Amenemhat, and the Loyalist Teaching.
Biblical wisdom literature and Jewish texts
The most famous examples of wisdom literature are found in the Bible.
The term "Sapiential Books" or "Books of Wisdom" is used in biblical studies to refer to a subset of the books of the Hebrew Bible in the Septuagint translation. There are seven of these books, namely the books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs (Song of Solomon), the Book of Wisdom and Sirach (Ecclesiasticus). Not all the Psalms are usually regarded as belonging to the Wisdom tradition.
In Judaism, the Books of Wisdom other than the Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach are regarded as part of the Ketuvim or "Writings". In Christianity, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes are included in the Old Testament by all traditions, while Wisdom, and Sirach are regarded in some traditions as deuterocanonical works which are placed in the Apocrypha within the Anglican and Protestant Bible translations.
The Sapiential Books are in the broad tradition of wisdom literature that was found widely in the Ancient Near East, including many religions other than Judaism.
The Greek noun sophia (σοφῐ́ᾱ, sophíā) is the translation of "wisdom" in the Greek Septuagint for Hebrew Ḥokmot (חכמות, khakhamút). Wisdom is a central topic in the "Sapiential" Books, i.e., Proverbs, Psalms, Job, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Book of Wisdom, Wisdom of Sirach, and to some extent Baruch (the last three are Apocryphal / Deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament).
- Works and Days by Hesiod (c. 750-650 BC).
- Cato Maior de Senectute by Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC).
- De Officiis by Marcus Tullius Cicero
- Meditations by Marcus Aurelius (121–180).
- Sayings of the Fathers – Pirkei Avot (c. 220).
- Hávamál from Old Norse texts (ca. 1200).
- De imitatione Christi by Thomas a Kempis (1424).
- Maximes of François de La Rochefoucauld (1613–1680).
Notes and references
- Crenshaw, James L. "The Wisdom Literature", in Knight, Douglas A. and Tucker, Gene M. (eds), The Hebrew Bible and Its Modern Interpreters (1985).
- Anderson, Bernhard W. (1967). "The Beginning of Widom – Israels Wisdom literature". The Living World of the Old Testament. Longmans. pp. 570ff.
- Estes, D. J., Handbook on the Wisdom Books and Psalms (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2005), p. 141.
- Comay, Joan; Brownrigg, Ronald (1993). Who's Who in the Bible: The Old Testament and the Apocrypha, The New Testament. New York: Wing Books. pp. Old Testament, 355–56. ISBN 0-517-32170-X.
- Estes, Daniel J. (2010). Handbook on the Wisdom Books and Psalms. ISBN 978-0801038884.
- Crenshaw, James L. (2010). Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction. ISBN 0-664-23459-3.
- Murphy, R. E. (2002). The Tree of Life: An Exploration of Biblical Wisdom Literature. ISBN 0-8028-3965-7.
- Toy, Crawford Howell (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica. 28 (11th ed.). .
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