May 21: Wisdom 9:17, etc

Wisdom 9:17, etc

The this final note of the series, I felt it worth exploring the references to the spirit of God—and, in particular, the expression “holy spirit” —in the Deutero-canonical and extra-biblical writings of the intertestamental period. A survey of the evidence will show that the primary context of these references is rooted in Wisdom tradition—with a close association (even identification) of Wisdom with the holy Spirit of God.

This goes back to an ancient way of thinking, whereby a person possessing wisdom and discernment is seen as touched/inspired by a divine spirit (the word genius in English preserves something of this idea). We see this stated, for example, with regard to the leadership of Joshua (Deut 34:9, also Num 27:18), as also of Joseph, in his special ability to interpret the meaning of dreams, etc (Gen 41:38). To be sure, wisdom and understanding, such as is present in all human beings, reflects the role and presence of God’s spirit in creation (Job 32:8); even so, certain individuals are specially gifted with wisdom from God’s spirit.

The book known as the Wisdom of Solomon (or “Book of Wisdom”) is a Greek work from the first centuries B.C., which came to be immensely popular in Hellenistic Jewish circles and among early Christians, to the point of being regarded as authoritative Scripture by many. It is firmly rooted in Wisdom literature and tradition—both Israelite/Jewish and Greek philosophical. In such writings, Wisdom was frequently personified, either as a special manifestation of God Himself, or as a semi-independent Divine being. The famous hymn of Wisdom in Proverbs 8 is perhaps the most notable Old Testament example in this regard. The role of Wisdom in the Creation, with its life-giving creative power, is evocative of what is typically attributed to the Spirit of God (Gen 1:2, and cf. my earlier note). Thus, there is close association, at a fundamental level, between Wisdom and the Spirit, and this is certainly expressed in the Book of Wisdom as well—cf. the opening lines in 1:5-7; note also 7:22-24. The specific connection with the life-breath (spirit) given to humankind by God at creation, is mentioned in 12:1; 15:11, 16.

The expression “holy spirit” (a%gion pneu=ma) occurs in 1:5, where it is clearly synonymous with wisdom (sofi/a, v. 4). The passage seems to allude to the idea that the holy spirit (i.e. the spirit of God’s holiness, cf. the previous note) must depart when any wickedness or deceit (do/lo$) is present (cf. the earlier discussion on Ps 51:10-13). Wisdom is also characterized as a holy spirit in 7:22b-24, where its divine nature is very much in view. The other occurrence of the expression “holy spirit” is at 9:17, in the specific context of wisdom as a gift from God that touches certain individuals in unique ways. Persons (such as Solomon) who possessed wisdom and understanding to a high degree, were seen as having been specially inspired by God’s spirit (cf. above). The divine source of this wisdom is stated clearly:

“And who can know your will/counsel [boulh/], if not (that) you have given (him) wisdom, and sent your holy spirit [a%gion pneu=ma] from (the) highest (place)s?” (9:17)

The expression “from (the) highest places” (a)po\ u(yi/stwn) is reminiscent of Jesus’ promise that the Holy Spirit would come upon his disciples as power “out of (the) height(s) [e)c u%you$]” (Lk 24:49). Indeed, there can be no doubt that the coming of the Spirit, narrated in Acts 2:1-4ff, etc, represents a wider, more universal application of the tradition expressed in Wis 9:17, which there relates primarily to the special inspiration of certain gifted individuals.

We have already discussed the ancient principle of spirit-inspired leadership (of kings and prophets), as well as those individuals with special understanding, skill, and ability in certain areas—such as artistic production (Bezalel) or the interpretation of dreams (Joseph). In the latter case, we may note that what Pharaoh says of Joseph (in Gen 41:38) is essentially repeated, on several occasions, in the case of Daniel (4:8-9, 18; 5:11-12, 14; cf. also 6:3, and Susanna 45). The specific Aramaic wording in these references is worth noting:

“…(the) spirit of (the) holy Mighty (One)s [i.e. Gods] (is) in him”
HB@ /yv!yD!q^ /yh!l*a$-j^Wr

Aramaic /yh!l*a$ = Hebrew <yh!ýa$ (“Mighty [One]s”), a plural form which, when used of El-Yahweh, is best understood as an intensive or comprehensive plural (i.e., “Mightiest [One]”). However, on the lips of a Persian king, probably a normal (numeric) plural is intended (“Mighty [One]s”, i.e. Gods). At the historical level, the equivalent statement, coming from Pharaoh (rendered in Hebrew) in Gen 41:38, would also suggest a true plural:

“…(the) spirit of (the) Mighty (One)s [i.e. Gods] (is) in him”
oB <yh!ýa$ j^Wr

A different sort of inspiration is indicated in Sirach 39:6, where the faithful scribe—one who studies the Torah (and all the Scriptures)—will be granted a special “spirit of understanding” from God, which is equivalent to a divinely-inspired wisdom. Much the same is associated with the scribe Ezra, in 2/4 Esdras 14:22, when he asks God to “send the holy spirit” into him, so that he will be able to expound the Torah and Scriptures accurately for the people. On the association of the Torah with the spirit of God, cf. the earlier note in this series.

Finally, in terms of the association between the Spirit and Wisdom, it is perhaps worth mentioning Philo of Alexandria’s philosophical development of wisdom (and to some extent, the prophetic) traditions. This centers around the image of the divine spirit speaking (directly) to the mind, giving wisdom and understanding to the virtuous person—cf. On Dreams 2.252; 1.164-5; Special Laws 3.1-6; On the Cherubim 27-29; On Flight and Finding 53-58.


A brief survey of the remainder of the evidence from the first centuries B.C./A.D. may be summarized as follows:

The surviving Jewish writings of this period, many of which are pseudepigraphic in nature, rely heavily on the Old Testament Scriptures for their literary setting and context. Many Old Testament historical and prophetic traditions are continued, with little development, and this is certainly true with regard to the existing references to the Spirit of God or “holy Spirit”. In most instances, the earlier Scriptural traditions and passages are simply cited or integrated without much evidence of original treatment or development of thought. Indeed, some writings simply re-work the Old Testament narratives and Prophetic sections, and references to the Spirit in the Biblical Antiquities of Pseudo-Philo, or the Antiquities of Josephus, for example, do not go much further than this. The same may be said of the references in the various Scripture commentaries of Philo of Alexandria.

All of the main lines of Old Testament tradition, regarding the Spirit of God, that we have encountered in these studies, are found in the Jewish writings of this period. There is, for example, the idea of the Spirit’s role in Creation (e.g., Judith 16:14; 2 Baruch 21:4; 23:5; 2/4 Esdras 6:39), as well as the special inspiration given to the Patriarchs, Moses and the Prophets (1 Enoch 91:1; Testament of Abraham 4A; 1QS 8:15-16; Philo Life of Moses 1.277, 2.191, etc). If one were to isolate two tendencies that took on greater prominence in the intertestamental period, these might be defined as:

    • An increasing association on the Spirit with important figures from the past, rather than on the occurrence of dynamic, spirit-inspired leadership in the present. In this regard, it may be worth noting here the Rabbinic tradition in the Tosephta (So‰a 13:2-4) that, after the last of the Old Testament Prophets, the Holy Spirit ‘ceased’ operating in Israel.
    • Greater emphasis on the inspiration of Scripture, and the role of the Spirit in expounding/interpreting the Torah and Prophets—this was especially prominent in the Qumran Community (e.g., 1QS 5:9; 1QH 12:11-13), on which see further below.

One also finds a continuation of the post-Exilic emphasis on the spirit-inspired Community—that is, Spirit of God comes upon the people (community) as a whole, cleansing and purifying them (Jubilees 1:21, 23; Testament of Benjamin 8:3; Testament of Levi 18:10-12). There is often a strong Messianic association to this role of the “holy Spirit”, whereby the inspiration of the people reflects the special spirit-inspired status of the Anointed/Elect one (cf. 1 Enoch 49:2-3; Psalms of Solomon 17:37; Testament of Levi 18:7). Prophetic passages such as Isaiah 11:2ff, interpreted in a Messianic sense, were highly influential in shaping this tradition.

It is in the Qumran texts that we find the most significant references to the (holy) Spirit. As in many areas of thought and practice, there are numerous similarities between the Qumran Community and the earliest Christians with regard to their understanding of the Spirit. It is easy to imagine an early Jewish Christian of the 1st century, prior to accepting Jesus, holding a view of the Spirit much like that expressed in the Qumran texts.

The so-called Damascus Document (CD/QD), central to the religious history and identity of the Qumran Community, expresses the important idea of preserving the holiness of the Community. In this regard, the Community (which represents the righteous, faithful ones), already has a “holy spirit”, and there are stern warnings against defiling it—that is, of the need to maintain the purity of the Community and its members (5:11-13; 7:3-5; cf. also 12:11). Purity and holiness is restored through the cleansing that comes from God’s own holy Spirit, as stated in the Community Rule document (1QS 4:21). Even so, this spiritual cleansing is understood as taking place entirely within the context of the Community—that is, God’s spirit is manifest (and mediated) by the “holy spirit” that is upon the Community itself (1QS 3:6-8; 9:3-4). In the Qumran Hymns (1QH), this same idea of purification is given a more personal expression, in which the author/protagonist (representing the Community) recognizes the need for cleansing, etc, from God’s holy Spirit (e.g., VI [XIV].13-14; VIII [XVI].15, 20).


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