Dr. Dustin Smith on the Embodiment of Wisdom

dustinsmithDr. Dustin Smith has recently released two videos regarding the portrayal of God’s wisdom in Jewish literature, and how it relates to the famous prologue of the Fourth Gospel.  I’ve found Smith’s work especially accommodating to my own position on John 1:1-14, and I believe his evidence is worth considering.

As I laid out in my recent book, my argument is that John’s usage of Logos, far from being a novel (Trinitarian) revelation about a personally pre-existent Messiah, has its background in the LXX and Jewish Wisdom literature.  I have never been convinced of the “memra” reading of the prologue inspired by the Aramaic Targums; I find it unnecessary to link John to the Targums when we already know he was familiar with the LXX.  Furthermore, his prologue’s affinity with Jewish Wisdom literature is quite clear, and Smith’s new exploration of this particular connection is quite revealing.

Image result for lady wisdomIn Smith’s first video, [found here] he demonstrates that in the OT book of Proverbs God’s wisdom, initially personified as “Lady Wisdom” in chapter 8, is later embodied in the “ideal woman” (popularly known as the ‘Proverbs 31 Woman’).  In essence, every woman whose life models the ideal woman could be said to be an embodiment of Lady Wisdom, God’s personified attribute which he employed in creation.  Smith then links Proverb’s human embodiment (read: incarnation) of a personified attribute with the prologue of the Gospel of John.

Image result for israelite high priestIn Smith’s second video, [found here]  he demonstrates that in The Wisdom of Sirach the historical high priest Simon (219-196 BCE) is likewise portrayed as the embodiment of God’s Wisdom; the writer of Sirach takes the attributes of Lady Wisdom in Ch. 24 and lauds Simon for those same attributes in Ch. 50.  This point about Wisdom being embodied in Simon was one that I recently brought out in my book (pp. 479-481).  However, I hadn’t recognized what Smith is now drawing out of Proverbs, and Smith’s work provides even more powerful support for the argument that John’s prologue depicts the embodiment of an impersonal attribute, God’s logos (Wisdom/Torah).

In Ch. 14 of my book, I provide an introduction to these ideas which might lay a good foundation for approaching Smith’s new evidence in Proverbs:

In Jewish wisdom literature, God’s logos (word), God’s wisdom, and God’s Torah are used virtually interchangeably.  While in Proverbs we read that “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens” (3:19), in rabbinical sources we read that “God consulted the Torah and created the world” (Genesis Rabba 1:1).  In the 1st-2nd century BCE book Wisdom of Sirach, a work ostensibly alluded to by Jesus and his disciples,[1] God’s wisdom is equated with the Torah, the law handed down to Moses at Sinai:

“Sirach 24 is the most familiar place where wisdom and Torah are identified.  The first 22 verses parallel the long hymn in Proverbs 8 as well as Proverbs 1:20-33; Job 28 and Wisdom 6-10… The second major section (verses 23-29), identifies wisdom with “the book of the covenant of the Most High God, the law that Moses commanded us…” ” (v. 23).[2]

In verse 8 of Sirach 24 we read: “Then the Creator of all gave me his command, and my Creator chose the spot for my tent.  He said, ‘In Jacob make your dwelling, in Israel your inheritance.’ ”  The idea of God’s wisdom or Torah coming down and making a tent among Israel should seem familiar.  In John 1:14 we read that God’s word “became flesh and dwelt among us,” or literally: “pitched a tent among us.”  With the equation of God’s word, God’s wisdom, and God’s Torah, along with the idea that it can be spoken of as coming down and dwelling among us, we have laid a non-metaphysical foundation for John’s logos.  This picture is further realized by the fact that Jewish circles in the centuries preceding and following Jesus’ ministry even spoke of this word as “becoming flesh” or being personified in a living rabbi.  In Sirach 50:1-21, the historical Jew Simon ben Onias is treated as an embodiment of wisdom, without literal pre-existence.[3]  Could the historical Jew Jesus also be seen as embodying wisdom without literal pre-existence?  Jacob Neusner reveals how the Jerusalem Talmud, a reflection on second century rabbinical thought, portrayed Jewish teachers as the “incarnation” of God’s word or Torah:

“The reason that the Torah was made flesh was that the Torah was the source of salvation.  When the sage was transformed into a salvific figure through his mastery of the Torah, it was an easy step to regard the sage as the living Torah.” [4]

Philo himself appears to exhibit very similar thinking: in his Life of Moses I, Philo says that Moses was the embodiment or personification of Torah.  Since “Moses was also destined to be the lawgiver of his nation, he was himself… a living and reasonable law” (Life of Moses I 28:162).  Regarding Moses as king, Philo again writes that “the king is a living law” (Life of Moses II, 4).  Because Moses had been designated as the conduit through which God’s word, wisdom, and Torah would be delivered (See Ex 4:12; 15, Deut 18:18), Moses was himself a seen as an embodiment of that divine word, wisdom, and Torah.  He was called “the law-giving Word” because he himself received “divine communication.”[5]

How might all of this be helpful for understanding John 1:1?  At the beginning of part two, we reviewed how Paul, John’s contemporary, understood that Jesus had come to represent God’s wisdom to the disciples: “Christ Jesus… has become to us the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:30).  God’s wisdom, Torah, or word is not, then, a pre-existing divine person who later took on an abstract human nature.  It is the man Jesus who became God’s wisdom.  He was a living personification of that principle.  Indeed, God’s wisdom/word dwelled in Jesus; he was the conduit through which God’s own word would be delivered (Jn 3:34; 8:28).  As we read from Dunn previously:

“[Paul] presented the Lordship of Christ within the context of Jewish monotheism and Christ as one whom Christians now see to embody and mediate that power of God which created and sustains the world… he sees Jesus not as a pre-existent divine being, but as a man, a Jew, whose God is the one God, and yet who so embodied God’s creative power and saving wisdom… that he can be identified as “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” “[6]

Indeed, for the early Christians, Jesus was “not simply the fulfillment of the Mosaic Torah but also the embodiment of the wisdom of God seen in the revelation of the created order itself.”[7]  And so Paul says that Jesus is himself “the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24).  And likewise, John says in his prologue that God’s word (or wisdom) “became flesh”—was embodied or personified—in the living man Jesus Christ (1:14).

As Professor Colin Brown at Fuller once said, “To read John 1:1 as if it said, ‘In the beginning was the Son’ is patently wrong.”[8]  Indeed, there is something else entirely happening in GJohn’s prologue which can only be observed in light of Jewish history and literature.  I believe, in fact, that there is even more going on here than a Christian appeal to Wisdom tradition.  My upcoming research project is indeed very much concerned with the Fourth Gospel and the historical context in which it was written.  But that’s for another time.

Until then, do yourself a favor and check out Dr. Smith’s videos here and here.  And be sure to visit his blog at Dustin Martyr for more updates related to these topics.

 

 

Notes:

[1] Compare Matt 6:19-20 with Sirach 29:11; Matt 7:16, 20 with Sirach 27:6; Matt 11:28 with Sirach 51:27; James 1:19 with Sirach 5:11; Matt 7:16-20 with Sirach 27:6; Matt 6:12 with Sirach 28:2.

[2] Ryan O’Dowd, The Wisdom of Torah: Epistemology in Deuteronomy and the Wisdom Literature (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2009), p. 177.

[3] Simon J. Gathercole, The Preexistent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), p. 197.

[4] Jacob Neusner, The Incarnation of God: The Character of Divinity in Formative Judaism (Binghamton: Global Academic Publishing, 2001 [1998]), p. 202.  The incarnation of Torah as a sage, says Neusner, “is represented by the claim that a sage himself was equivalent to a scroll of Torah—a material, legal comparison, not merely a symbolic metaphor.  Here are expressions of that conception in the Talmud of the Land of Israel: ‘He who sees a disciple of a sage who has died is as if he sees a scroll of the Torah that has been burned’ ” (Ibid., p. 203).

[5] O. W. Holmes, “Competing Concepts of the Cosmos in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” Phenomenology and the Human Positioning in the Cosmos (London: Springer, 2012), p. 57.

[6] Dunn, Christology in the Making (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988)p. 211.

[7] Daniel L. Akin, A Theology for the Church (Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2007), p. 109, emphasis added.

[8] Colin Brown, Ex Auditu, Vol. 7, p. 89.

 

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2 thoughts on “Dr. Dustin Smith on the Embodiment of Wisdom

  1. Excellent post. Some terrific reference here. I would contend that it would be a mistake to underestimate the importance of the Targums to the Second Temple period, however. For many of the common people, Aramaic was the more common tongue, and the Targums were read after the Hebrew reading of the scroll by the scribe in the synagogue service. The memra doctrine would very much, in my view, have influenced John, in addition to the sources you mentioned above in the Oral Traditions, particularly the Midrashim. Furthermore, it seems probable that John neither wrote nor spoke Greek, particularly in his formative years of development, so I don’t see how LXX would have influenced him in a greater way than the Targums.
    In any case, these posts are outstanding. I am sharing this one.

    Like

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