Wisdom of Solomon: The Righteous One

We’re in a great section of the Office lectionary as we got into both the Wisdom of Solomon and Colossians today. The Wisdom reading sparked a thought I wanted to share…

Some of my early work on the New Testament revolved around the notion that, when we turn to the gospels, the remembrances of Jesus there are not—could not be—flat historical narratives no matter how much modern academics wish they could be. Instead, I contend, we do not read the gospels rightly if we are not at least aware of the ways that Early Christian worship and devotion connected to the way that the early Church remembered Jesus and wrote his story. They understood him—rightly—to be the promised one of whom the Law and Prophets spoke. As a result, when they thought of him and when they looked at Scripture, they saw a profound congruence; as a result, when it came time to put stylus to wax and record these memories for later generations, what they wrote and the languages, images, and specificities with which they wrote were profoundly shaped by the Scripture that pointed to him. Indeed, my first master’s thesis was on the use of the Psalms in the Markan Passion narrative; I argued that the Church’s liturgical practice was an important aspect of how that central story was shaped at its earliest recoverable level. (no—you can’t read it: it sucked. The idea was good, by the execution was poor…)

I’m trying to be careful here in how I phrase this. What I’m saying is that the Scriptures shaped their remembrance due to an essential congruence. What I would reject is the notion that Scriptures were applied to him outside of any such historical congruence. That is, I don’t think the gospels were written to fulfill the Scriptures regardless of whether the “historical Jesus” so acted…(which is what some scholars would have you believe).

The Wisdom of Solomon passage from today speaks wisely on a number of levels. Here it is in the NRSV:

But the ungodly by their words and deeds summoned death; considering him a friend, they pined away and made a covenant with him, because they are fit to belong to his company. For they reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves, “Short and sorrowful is our life, and there is no remedy when a life comes to its end, and no one has been known to return from Hades. For we were born by mere chance, and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been, for the breath in our nostrils is smoke, and reason is a spark kindled by the beating of our hearts; when it is extinguished, the body will turn to ashes, and the spirit will dissolve like empty air. Our name will be forgotten in time, and no one will remember our works; our life will pass away like the traces of a cloud, and be scattered like mist that is chased by the rays of the sun and overcome by its heat. For our allotted time is the passing of a shadow, and there is no return from our death, because it is sealed up and no one turns back. “Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that exist, and make use of the creation to the full as in youth. Let us take our fill of costly wine and perfumes, and let no flower of spring pass us by. Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wither. Let none of us fail to share in our revelry; everywhere let us leave signs of enjoyment, because this is our portion, and this our lot. Let us oppress the righteous poor man; let us not spare the widow or regard the gray hairs of the aged. But let our might be our law of right, for what is weak proves itself to be useless. “Let us lie in wait for the righteous man, because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our training. He professes to have knowledge of God, and calls himself a child of the Lord. He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us, because his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange. We are considered by him as something base, and he avoids our ways as unclean; he calls the last end of the righteous happy, and boasts that God is his father. Let us see if his words are true, and let us test what will happen at the end of his life; for if the righteous man is God’s child, he will help him, and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries. Let us test him with insult and torture, so that we may find out how gentle he is, and make trial of his forbearance. Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for, according to what he says, he will be protected.” Thus they reasoned, but they were led astray, for their wickedness blinded them, and they did not know the secret purposes of God, nor hoped for the wages of holiness, nor discerned the prize for blameless souls; for God created us for incorruption, and made us in the image of his own eternity, but through the devil’s envy death entered the world, and those who belong to his company experience it. (Wisdom 1:16-2:24)

There’s an unfortunate tendency of many modern people to think of ancients as unsophisticated because they’re not, well, “modern.” The literary framing of this belies any such notion… The focus on the unrighteous gives us access to their logic; showing us the righteous man through the eyes of the unrighteous is a fascinating technique that allows the writer to both expose a fallible thought process and to depict how the righteous man appears to the external world.

First off, this passage speaks so deeply to me because of a discussion M and I were having around the radio. We’ve both been struck by the number of songs on Top 40 radio are “grounded” philosophically in a reckless hedonism. If there were any question about it, this bit from the Wisdom of Solomon reminds us that the logic of these modern “artists” is as old as the hills… It rang as true in the Hellenistic age when Wisdom was composed as it does now.

Second, in this ageless description of the conflict between righteous and the unrighteous, the Church saw in the generic image of “the righteous man” a clear congruence with a certain specific righteous man. I can’t read this passage without lining it up with the passion of Christ as recorded in the gospels. And, indeed, that’s not an accident. I don’t see any way that the gospel writers could have written their account without this and the “passion psalms” spinning around in their heads. Likewise, we can’t do the gospels full justice if we don’t have these same points of reference floating around in our heads.

As I used to tell my students when I taught NT and preaching (paraphrasing Augustine, of course), the single best way to be a better interpreter of Scripture is to read more Scripture. Today’s reading not only underscores that point but also underscores our need to read the Apocrypha, most particularly the Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach/Ecclesiasticus, and the Ezra/Esdras additions. While Jerome and generations of Protestants my look down their nose at them, these books were Scripture as far as the Early Church was concerned (and as much of the current Church still is!).

10 Replies to “Wisdom of Solomon: The Righteous One”

  1. As I see things, there is a literary trope of “the righteous” (often associated with “the poor”) and “the righteous one” that is a standard topos in biblical wisdom and wisdom-inspired texts like the psalms. It was written generically, to have broad applicability, with reference to the situation of the author and his community. As the Church was trying to make sense of Jesus and the scandal of a crucified messiah, they perceived these texts (rightly) as having a particular resonance with Jesus. They found within the generic trope a specific application which connected to their understanding of prophecy fulfillment and helped communicate the identity and purpose of Jesus.

    I’m aware that there are scholarly debates that try and make a great deal of hay out of this interpretive process or that try and isolate it and make it central or exclusive of others; I see it as one strand among many that informs a New Testament conception of Christology that then forms part of the Church’s understanding of Christology.

    So—I see the NT adoption of OT/prior language about the “righteous/righteous one” as inevitable, actual, and useful, but not exclusive for understanding NT christologies.

    Is that overly nunaced? I have a sense you’re asking with reference to particular debates, and it’s moments like this that I feel very disconnected with the current academic literature…

  2. I have for a long time been arguing for ‘ho diakios’ as Christological designation — not in the formal sense of ‘a pre-existing title with defined content which means Jesus fulfilled this prophecy or that expectation’ but as an epithet that both characterises its bearer and situates [him] in an intelligible theological trajectory. I’d argue that much the same thing applies to ‘ho chistos’, except that ‘Anointed One’ catches on and quickly becomes a virtual synonym for ‘Jesus’.

    But if we allow that ‘the Righteous One’ was something of a free-floating epithet that some people applied to Jesus (as I would argue that ‘the Anointed One’ was, as epithets like ‘the Great’ still are — how do we know to whom ‘the Great’ will be applied, and by whom?) then the number of NT texts that seem to allude to him as ‘ho dikaios’ is actually rather striking.

    Plus, it sheds a different light on the use of Hab 2:4.

    Richard Hays has written about this — sceptically — in Conversion of the Imagination; I think there’s more to it than Richard allows. It’s an example of what I call ‘subdominant christologies’, complexes of characterisation that the NT (and some apostolic) writers applied to Jesus, but which never became Top Hits in the conciliar dogmatic deliberations.

  3. AKMA, that makes sense to me. You’re right that it doesn’t get picked up in any of the arguments, but I’d suspect that’s for the same reason that the Creeds don’t talk about the words and works of Jesus–it was entirely non-controversial.

    I only consider it borderline controversial now because Burton Mack and other academic Arians will attempt to highlight any sort of non-eschatological wisdom figure as the “real” source of the Jesus Movement to the denigration of classic Christology.

  4. Very interesting. I’ve never seen this passage before.

    For me, lately, the single most valuable thing about “reading more Scripture” is that it’s a sure and certain antidote to proof-texting, from whatever point of view it happens to be coming. It might be the only antidote, in fact….

  5. You are right AKMA – it’s in the BCP Daily Office Year 1 lectionary on Good Friday; there’s a choice there between Genesis (the binding of Isaac) and Wisdom. It also appears – again as a choice, this time between Wisdom and Jeremiah – in the RCL Eucharistic lectionary for Proper 20B.

    Those are the two other times I could find it.

    It’s interesting, actually, that it appears both times as a choice; I wonder if they do this generally, or often, when it comes to the Apocrypha? Maybe I’ll take a look at that; I’d bet the RCL might go this way….

  6. Both the RCL and BCP tend to offer alternatives when the Apocrypha appears. For the RCL this makes sense because some of the founding churches that signed on to it don’t recognize the Apocrypha as Scripture; the BCP has no such excuse.

  7. Man alive, I thought for sure it was in the lectionary more prominently. Maybe I just read it so often in teaching about James and Matthew. I can scarcely read it aloud (granted I’m deplorably susceptible to poignancy), the resonances are so powerful with the Passion and with the experience of simple, earnest, steadfast disciples to this day. (I note that the righteous one doesn’t pat him/herself on the back for being ‘prophetic’).

    Thank you for checking, bls and Derek. Maybe what we need is a compelling musical setting to get this into the church’s choral consciousness.

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