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The Social World of the Sages

The Social World of the Sages: An Introduction to Israelite and Jewish Wisdom Literature

Mark R. Sneed
Copyright Date: 2015
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  • Book Info
    The Social World of the Sages
    Book Description:

    The notion of a distinct “wisdom tradition” in ancient Israel has a long history—but does it have a basis in the evidence? Mark R. Sneed argues for a redefinition of the wisdom literature as a loosely cohering collection of books aimed at educating scribal apprentices in moral instruction and the art of living. He presents archaeological and literary data illustrating scribal culture and pedagogy in the ancient Near East and draws a portrait of Israel’s scribal culture, on the basis of which he argues that Israel’s wisdom literature was meant to complement, not to compete with, other modes of literature in the Hebrew Bible. The result is a surprising new picture of the authors and tradents of the wisdom materials alongside the rich mixture of other traditions in ancient Israel, a presentation carried out with regard to Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Sirach, Wisdom, and the wisdom writings in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Features include informational sidebars, photos, diagrams, and maps illustrating archaeological discoveries.

    eISBN: 978-1-4514-7987-4
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Acknowledgements and Dedication
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Maps, Illustrations, Figures and Sidebars
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  6. 1 The Nature of Wisdom and Its Practitioners
    (pp. 1-30)

    Who were the Hebrew sages and what did they do? This is a simple enough question, but it is not easy to answer. Unlike the prophets and priests, the category of sages does not designate a homogenous group of people with clearly defined boundaries. In fact, there were many types of sages who served in ancient Israel. Part of the problem is that the feature that defines and unites this group, wisdom, is an ability shared by the masses at large. And so there is wisdom of a very general sort but also a technical version of it. In other...

  7. 2 The World and Worldview of the Wise An Anthropological Approach
    (pp. 31-66)

    You will not understand the Israelite wisdom literature if you do not know at least the basics of the broader Israelite culture. Culture is the unique way humans have adapted to their environment, versus animals that rely largely on instinct (see Haviland 2002, 32-53). Each particular culture creatively responds to its environment in order to promote the wellbeing of its citizens and to organize social behavior so that the society can flourish and the needs of its individuals can be met. A society’s culture serves to create rules and customs that enable life to become predictable for its members. A...

  8. 3 Scribalism in Egypt and Mesopotamia
    (pp. 67-110)

    As was discussed in the introductory chapter, the scribe could be a kind of sage in ancient Israel, though certainly not the only type. In this chapter, we want to profile the scribes in their broader ancient Near Eastern context, particularly in Mesopotamia and Egypt. We will investigate the various roles scribes served, the type of training they received, and literature they studied.

    The very first writing can be dated to 3100 B.C.E. in the city of Uruk in Sumer (Michalowski 1995, 2281). It was economic and administrative in nature. The earliest documentation concerns ration lists and the allocation of...

  9. 4 Western Periphery Scribalism
    (pp. 111-146)

    The scribes of Syro-Palestine were a component of the larger transnational polity known as the Western Periphery (WP) (of Mesopotamia). “Syria” and “Palestine” are actually artificial terms that do not conform to geographical or political entities (Lemche 1995, 1195). We have already mentioned that “Palestine” comes from the word “Philistine,” but this ethnicity only occupied a small section of Southwestern Palestine. “Syria” actually comes from the name “Assyria,” and so Syria actually occupied Northern Assyria, though the Assyrians never fully dominated this area. Syro-Palestinian scribalism largely constitutes an extension of Mesopotamian scribalism, including its literature. This is because of frequent...

  10. 5 Israelite Scribalism and the Place of Wisdom Literature within It
    (pp. 147-182)

    In this chapter, we finally situate the scribes who composed the biblical wisdom literature within their own particular social and historical contexts. We will first discuss literacy in Canaan, then the critical importance of the emergence of the alphabet there during the second millennium. Next we will examine some of the epigraphic and textual evidence for Israelite scribalism in the Iron Age. Then we will examine the various roles Israelite and Jewish scribes assumed during the Iron Age and postexilic period. Drawing on comparative epigraphic and archaeological evidence, we will finally speculate on the place of wisdom literature in a...

  11. 6 The Wisdom Corpus as a Mode of Literature
    (pp. 183-216)

    We ended the last chapter by speculating on the place of wisdom literature in the Israelite scribal curriculum. In this chapter we want to focus on the nature of this corpus. This will involve looking at the conventions that distinguish it from the other modes of literature in the Hebrew Bible but also how this mode interacts and relates to the other modes. But first a brief introduction to genre theory is necessary.¹

    Genres are basically templates formed in the minds of people that enable them to recognize types or kinds of literature that share what can be called a...

  12. 7 The Poetics, Axiology, and Rhetoric of Wisdom Literature
    (pp. 217-258)

    In the prolog to the book of Proverbs (1:6), we see a dimension to wisdom that goes beyond the moral and ethical (axiology):

    To comprehend an aphorism and an enigma,

    the words of the wise and their riddles.

    This verse points to a more exclusive definition of wisdom for the sages. It is not just a particular lifestyle that any Israelite could adopt. To be wise one must learn the aesthetics of their literature: “the words of the wise.” This means wisdom, as understood by the sages, is not just the content of their teaching but simultaneously the medium or...

  13. 8 Social World of the Sages
    (pp. 259-296)

    The social world of the ancient Israelites was quite a bit different from our own in the Western industrialized countries. In the last two decades, New Testament scholars have begun to use a grid to better understand that social world (for a recent review, see Esler 2012, 35-76). It is known as the Pan-Mediterranean honor culture. Anthropologists have studied certain subcultures of the modern Mediterranean world which display features of a very old culture that has persisted for millennia and have mapped out its elements. New Testament scholars and classicists have then used this grid to interpret archaeological artifacts and...

  14. 9 The Book of Proverbs
    (pp. 297-318)

    We have already indirectly referred to the structure of the book of Proverbs when we discussed the superscriptions to the book (1:1; 10:1; 22:17; 24:23; 25:1; 30:1; 31:1). These superscriptions represent “seams” that demonstrate that the book is essentially an anthology of collections that once had independent existences. They divide the book into six parts, which can, in turn, be divided into two broad types of Egyptian genres that we have already referred to: sentences (10:1-22:16; chs. 25-29) and instruction (chs. 1-9; 22:17-24:22; chs. 30-31); exceptions include the speeches of Woman Wisdom (1:20-33; ch. 8); numerical poems (6:6-15; 30:11-31), and...

  15. 10 The Book of Job
    (pp. 319-340)

    The book of Job is unique among the canonical wisdom books because it contains a narrative frame (1:1-2:13; 42:7-17) that is in the form of a story with fairy tale-like features. In fact, many scholars find the story in conflict with the body of the book, which consists essentially of poetic dialog between Job and his three friends (and Elihu) and finally God (3:1-42:6) (e.g., Clines 1995, 135-36). They would rather divide the two sections and treat them separately. Some emphasize that the frame assumes the doctrine of retribution and that Job is restored what he lost in the end...

  16. 11 Ecclesiastes
    (pp. 341-358)

    We have already touched on this issue and will repeat it briefly. The book of Ecclesiastes, like the book of Job, has a frame-narrative that encapsulates it: 1:1-11 or 1:1-2, if the poem in vv. 3-11 is viewed as coming from Qohelet, and 12:8-14, which is often divided into vv. 8-11 (or vv. 8-12), from the hand of the frame-narrator, and vv. 12-14 (or vv. 13-14) from the hand of a pious glossator. The hand of the narrator appears in the body of the book in 7:27, with Qohelet referred to in the third person—at the very center of...

  17. 12 Sirach and Sapientia
    (pp. 359-378)

    The two books discussed in this chapter are not found in the Protestant Old Testament or Hebrew (Masoretic) canon. They come from the Septuagint and are part of the Catholic canon and are usually designated as apocryphal (“hidden away” from public view) books by Protestants. But all scholars agree that these books are a continuation of the wisdom tradition. Both are focused on the topic of wisdom and both contain stereotypical wisdom genres. Both books are also very late, with Ben Sira (Sirach) dating to the second century B.C.E. and Sapientia (Wisdom of Solomon) usually dated to the first century...

  18. 13 Wisdom Psalms and the Dead Sea Scroll Wisdom Literature
    (pp. 379-396)

    We are not entering disputed territory when considering certain psalms that have been classified as “wisdom psalms.” James Crenshaw, for example, is quite skeptical about the category:

    My own research in the Psalter leads me to question the very category of wisdom psalms. True, a few psalms treat the same topics that invigorate the author of the book of Job (Psalms 37, 49, 73) and reflect on life’s brevity like Ecclesiastes (39), but these subjects probably exercised the minds of all thoughtful people. I do not see any profit in attributing such psalms to the sages when we know so...

  19. Works Consulted
    (pp. 397-422)
  20. Index of Scripture Passages
    (pp. 423-438)
  21. Index of Names and Subjects
    (pp. 439-450)
  22. Back Matter
    (pp. 451-451)