Wisdom and Apocalyptic

Wisdom and Apocalyptic September 7, 2015

I posted about the rise of apocalyptic literature, and the theory that it evolved from the prophecy that we know from the Old Testament. For over a century, though, there has been a rival theory to explain apocalyptic, which suggests that its real origins lie in Wisdom literature rather than prophecy. Understanding this debate helps challenge and unsettle many assumptions we may have about the different genres we find in Biblical and post-Biblical literature.

At first glance, this idea may sound odd. The Wisdom genre, we may think, is more usually associated with the kind of shrewd sayings and advice for living that we associate with a book like Proverbs or Ben Sira, although a later book like the Wisdom of Solomon offers exalted speculations about Wisdom as a cosmic figure. How do we get from wise sayings to florid images of the End Times?

But the apocalyptic connections are stronger than we might imagine. The theory is also much deeper rooted than we might think, going back perhaps to the 1850s, and in recent decades, it has been a familiar theme of scholarly debate. Shaye Cohen offers this definition: “an apocalypse is a literary work that has an angel or some inspired worthy revealing a secret or unraveling a mystery.” But the mystery revealed in some of the earliest examples is really a form of learning or wisdom being offered to the spiritual elite, while being kept secret from the ignorant masses. Often, the main emphasis is in matters of cosmology, which so fascinated Second Temple Jews because of their ferocious debates over ritual calendars. This was, for instance, one of the burning concerns of the Qumran community.

We see these themes clearly in 1 Enoch, which as so often emerges as a critical transition between the Biblical world and later Judaism. Much of the book clearly looks forward to later apocalyptic, with its phantasmagoric visions of judgment, and the fates of the good and evil. Yet the book opens with words that could just as easily fit into the realm of Wisdom:

Enoch, a righteous man, who was with God, answered and spoke, while his eyes were open, and while he saw a holy vision in the heavens: This the angels showed me. From them I heard all things, and understood what I saw; that which will not take place in this generation, but in a generation which is to succeed at a distant period, on account of the elect.

To quote Michael Knibb, “Undergirding the narrative, and more particularly the story of the Watchers as it is finally presented in 1 Enoch 1–36, is the theme of the revelation of secrets and of true and false knowledge.” (Michael Knibb, Essays on the Book of Enoch and Other Early Jewish Texts and Traditions (Brill, 2009), 106). The evil angels give humanity all forms of knowledge and Wisdom, the skills of earthly life, as well as astrology and magic (1 En 8). In contrast, it is the angel Uriel who gives Enoch the astronomical and cosmological secrets that make up chapters 71-82 of that work. Wisdom can be good or evil. In Chapters 91-92, we read

[Enoch] wrote all this instruction of wisdom for every man of dignity, and every judge of the earth; for all my children who shall dwell upon earth, and for subsequent generations, conducting themselves uprightly and peaceably…. Concerning these things will I speak, and these things will I explain to you, my children: I who am Enoch. In consequence of that which has been shown to me, from my heavenly vision and from the voice of the holy angels have I acquired knowledge; and from the tablet of heaven have I acquired understanding.

Nor was Enoch unique in this way. In Jubilees – from the mid second century BC? – an angel reveals to Moses the secrets of heavenly tablets (Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, 187-88).

We also have to distinguish the various kinds of “Wisdom” comprehended under that label. Modern readers puzzle slightly when they see glorious images of Wisdom as a near-divine figure, juxtaposed with worldly advice of a “Don’t take any wooden nickels” character. For the original writers though, Wisdom might easily be either didactic or speculative. It might also take the form of “mantic Wisdom.” (Knibb, Essays on the Book of Enoch, 26-27). One of the classic apocalyptic texts is the Book of Daniel, but as John Collins points out, much of that work is devoted to mantic wisdom, that is, to the work of a wise interpreter deciphering and explaining revelations and symbolic messages, with a strong emphasis on dream interpretation.

I like the title that Matthew Neujahr uses for his book on “Mantic Historiography” in the Near East, namely Predicting the Past. One common form of apocalyptic literature was to use ancient seers to predict events that would for them have been the far future, but which actually lay in the time of the real writers.

The other excellent point is that genres that today seem utterly distinct were nothing like as separate in ancient times. Annette Yoshiko Reed speaks of “ the shared scribal and/or priestly settings that shaped many of the texts that scholars have typically sorted into the categories of ‘Wisdom’ and ‘Apocalyptic’.” These are after all strictly modern categories that may or may not have sense to ancient writers – as indeed was “Prophetic.” An “apocalyptic”-inclined writer might easily, on other occasions, turn out “Wisdom” texts with not the slightest sense of dissonance. Union rules on the matter were pretty lax.


Other books I have used here include John Day, Robert P. Gordon, and H. G. M. Williamson, eds., Wisdom in Ancient Israel (Cambridge University Press, 1998), including the essay by B. A. Mastin on “Wisdom and Daniel.” Also Benjamin G. Wright and Lawrence M. Wills, eds., Conflicted Boundaries in Wisdom and Apocalypticism (Society of Biblical Literature, 2005); Leo G. Perdue, “Mantic Sages in the Ancient Near East, Israel, Early Judaism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls,” in Kristin de Troyer and Armin Lange, eds., Prophecy after the Prophets? (Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 2009); and John J. Collins, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Apocalyptic Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), especially Matthew Goff, “Wisdom and Apocalypticism.”


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