Shallow Similarities, Deep Differences – by Annelise
In Proverbs 8 we hear a speech in the voice of Wisdom, who is portrayed as a desirable and life-bringing woman. Wisdom speaks here about how she was created before the universe; how creation was made through her, and the way she delights in its order and beauty. She is seen all through creation as the path of good things for those who choose her.
This character of Wisdom has frequent parallels in other ancient Jewish sources, besides Proverbs. These describe wisdom and, with a similar image, the ‘word of God’ as a tool through which He upholds and interacts with created beings. The people who developed this picture had a careful sense of respect for God, wanting their followers to know that although He holds creation close, and is known within it, He is not to be mistaken for a created thing. They portrayed His actions in the world as created things: a tool in His hand, a humble viceroy and delighting servant. In the Aramaic commentary translations, they even went so far as to describe God’s word as the tangible agent of His actions in the world, rather than saying directly that He did it. They didn’t want any blurring or confusion to enter people’s minds when it came to the relationship between visible creation and its invisible Creator, who can be known deeply by heart but not comprehended in the slightest by mind.
There is some conceptual link with the Greek philosophical idea of a logos, and it is clear that when the Christian scriptures (written in Greek) portray their messiah as the ‘logos of God’, they are drawing on these Jewish concepts of chochmah, wisdom (from the Hebrew wisdom writings) and memra, God’s word (from the Targums and rabbinic literature).
Christian missionaries to the Jewish community jump on this fact, saying that their concept of God’s ‘eternally begotten son’, the ‘image of the invisible God’ who is seen to be both ‘God’ and ‘with God’, is not foreign to Judaism at all but is a natural parallel to the chochmah and memra imagery. And yet the beliefs of those who portray multiple relationships ‘within God’ involve serious new developments on these themes.
We need only turn to a key moment in the establishment of Christian orthodoxy to illustrate the problem. One of the verses that the Church Fathers were pressed to interpret is Proverbs 8:22, where wisdom describes how she was created first. They particularly needed to address the Arian claim, which said that Jesus was not God but was still lord of the world as the first created being. To orthdox Christianity, this is a heresy as serious as idolatry. A number of Christian teachers taught in their commentaries on Proverbs 8:22 that Wisdom had always existed, eternally with God, but that this verse only described a kind of ‘second phase': the ‘incarnation of Wisdom’ into the cosmos as the beginning of all things.
This interpretation is clearly a new addition to the earlier Jewish concept, and one not supported by the imagery that it was first taken from. The missionaries need to acknowledge that their claims of an authoritative Jewish parallel to Christian theology are simply empty and misrepresented. As well as hijacking an idea that seems at first to have deliberately avoided incarnational theology, especially in the Targums, these missionaries are actually speaking about something new; they reinvent traditional Jewish imagery to say something that the scriptures and the rabbis never said at all.
So often in their speech and prayers, Christians speak about God and then in the same breath they speak about Jesus as another reality. Is this the resonance of true scripture tugging at the seams of Christian theology?
We should let light shine from the lesson of the church commentators, who unconsciously acknowledged a good starting point. That is, every time we can relate to wisdom in any discrete, finite, or tangible sense, we are looking at the created servant described in Proverbs 8:22. Not someone to be worshiped, but a path for our hearts as we find God Himself. Never would a Torah-careful Jew pray to wisdom as its own entity; they would pray simply to God, who knows and holds our hearts along the path of His wisdom and His good ways.