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Why is Jesus called ‘the wisdom of God’?

Jesus is “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24). St. Augustine notes that, while the same can truly be said of each of the divine persons, it is the second person of the Trinity that Scripture usually refers to as “wisdom” (“De Trinitate” viii. 4). This revelation in the New Testament has deep roots in the Wisdom books of the Old Testament, which are arguably the least well-known books of sacred Scripture. In them is one of the great Christological threads running through the Bible, from Job through Proverbs, Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon, and culminating in the Gospels.

Recall that the Book of Job comprises Job’s conversations with his friends, who try to convince him that the sufferings in his life are the result of his sins. Firm in his innocence, Job questions the wisdom of his friends, and this leads him to meditate on the difficulty of really attaining wisdom. In the poem of Chapter 28, he asks: “where shall wisdom be found?” (28:12a), indicating that wisdom is not in a fixed place as are corporeal things — certainly wisdom is not located in his interlocutors.

The Book of Proverbs presents a complementary picture: “Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice. On the top of the walls she cries out, at the entrance of the city gates she speaks” (1:20-21). Here, wisdom, while still not limited to a fixed place, is everywhere around us. Indeed, wisdom is personified and tries to get our attention. Proverbs develops this teaching by stating that she participates with God in the act of creation (8:27-30). (The word “wisdom” in both Hebrew and Greek is grammatically feminine, and this explains why personified wisdom is described using feminine pronouns.)

The Book of Ben Sira (or Sirach, or Ecclesiasticus) builds on Job and Proverbs. In Chapter 24, personified wisdom surprisingly reveals her origin and where she is to be found. “I came forth from the mouth of the Most High” (24:3a). Thus, wisdom is like the “word” of God. She relates that she coursed through the universe looking for a resting place, until God finally assigned a place for her “tent”: “Make your dwelling in Jacob (that is, Israel)” (24:8). So, while Job taught that wisdom is not bound to a single locale, in Ben Sira, personified wisdom is located specifically in Israel.

The Wisdom of Solomon likely was the last of the Old Testament books to be written. In this book, wisdom is described as having divine properties. She is “all-powerful, overseeing all,” “a reflection of eternal life,” “an image of (God’s) goodness” (7:25-26). Interestingly, this book further associates her with the word of God. God creates everything by his word and wisdom together (9:1-2), and both wisdom and word are described as the savior of Israel throughout its history (10:1-21, 16:26, 18:15, 18:22). This connection is reflected in the first “O antiphon” of Advent: “O Wisdom, O holy Word of God.”

The prologue to John’s Gospel (1:1-18) picks up on this teaching, describing Christ as the Word of God, who was with God in the beginning, and through whom all things were made — teachings that also recall those in Job and Proverbs. At the same time, he became flesh and “dwelt among us” (1:14). The word “dwelt” in this passage in Greek is “eskēnōsen,” which has the same stem as the words describing wisdom’s “dwelling” in Ben Sira. Thus, the Incarnation perfectly brings together the ancient teachings that wisdom is beyond mankind yet has dwelt among us. This background might help us to contemplate where wisdom is to be found and to rejoice that wisdom has come to us in the Incarnation of the eternal Word of God.

Montanaro is assistant professor of sacred Scripture at Christendom Graduate School of Theology in Alexandria.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020