Review of Old Testament Wisdom Literature by Bartholomew and O’Dowd

I’d like to thank Adrianna Wright for sending me a copy of Old Testament Wisdom Literature: A Theological Introduction. The authors Craig G. Bartholomew and Ryan P. O’Dowd have produced a fine, thoroughly theological volume investigating the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. There are many commendable things about this volume. It is a most attractive book, and the writing is engaging and down-to-earth. The contents represent evangelical scholarship at its finest. The authors are not afraid to allow the wisdom literature to take them to challenging places, but they are excellent guides for students and lay readers who journey with them.

Much ground is covered in this book. The first chapter introduces the concept of wisdom in the Old Testament, and the second chapter broadens the scope to that of the ancient world. Before diving into the wisdom books (chapters 4-9), the authors spend a chapter discussing poetry, its form and function. As the chapter title suggests, “The Poetry of Wisdom and the Wisdom of Poetry,” the authors emphasize the importance of poetry for our contemporary context: “Our modern age has tended to prefer facts and reason to imagination. Such an emphasis can misrepresent, underestimate, flatten and distort reality. . . . Poetry, in fact, is at its best an ethical way of preserving the mystery, ambiguity, power, tragedy and sublimity of our world” (69).

Each of the three wisdom books from the Old Testament are covered in two chapters. The first chapter provides a big picture of the book while the second chapter zooms in on a particular section of the book where wisdom is particularly prominent. Chapter 10 addresses the subject of wisdom from a Christian perspective, inquiring as to how we understand Jesus as the Wisdom of God (see Colossians 2:2-3). The chapter begins with an eye to the historical development of wisdom in Second Temple Judaism, and then progresses to a canonical survey of the New Testament and wisdom.

Chapter 11 synthesizes the wisdom corpus, outlining its most basic contours and most significant emphases. In particular, they outline a “character-consequence” nexus that I find much more suitable than the reductive “act-consequence” nexus. The authors also explore the perineal problem of Old Testament Theology, namely how to integrate the wisdom literature into a discipline whose structure is characteristically biased toward history. The role of the wisdom tradition in the theology of the church is the matter taken up in chapter 12 and is a suitable conclusion to the book. Each chapter concludes with a recommended reading list, often sub-catagorized based on the difficulty of the recommended literature. There is both an author and Scripture index (including Apocryphal literature), and the editors wisely choose to use footnotes and not endnotes–hooray!

While this has thus far been a very positive review, I did find myself at odds with the authors on a number of points. I will only mention two here. First, I think they get Qohelet wrong (though I am glad they recognize the “Solomonic Guise” and do not try to maintain the hopeless case of Solomonic authorship). They outline well the challenge of interpreting this book, and I am pleased to see them adopt an explicitly dialogical approach to this work. This aspect will prove challenging to those in more conservative evangelical circles, which is why I say this is evangelical scholarship at its finest! However, their take on the narrative dynamics of Qohelet’s character does not persuade me. They argue that Qohelet starts out wrong because his epistemology is wrong–he doesn’t begin with the fear of Yahweh. Perhaps, but the carpe diem passages which represent for them the maturation of Qohelet’s wisdom are spread out throughout the book, and I do not as yet see any appreciable growth to them as the book progresses. Moreover, they place the carpe diem texts in “contradictory juxtaposition” to Qohelet’s hebel statements. Again, I am pleased to see language like “contradictory juxtaposition” in Evangelical Old Testament literature, but I disagree here. I would rather describe the relationship between the carpe diem texts and the hebel judgements as a “dialectical tension.” This is a matter of “both-and” not “either-or.”

My second point of contention is more deeply seated. The authors adopt a very polemical view of Israelite wisdom in the context of the ancient world. “While Israel’s poetic and wisdom writings look very much like those of her neighbors, the places where they differ are most important” (44). This assumption is pervasive in the book, and it is not particularly helpful. For example, I mentioned above that they view the carpe diem passages in Ecclesiastes as preferable to Qohelet’s hebel statements. It is, for them, the pinnacle of the theology of Ecclesiastes. What they don’t mention, however, is that this carpe diem notion is not unique to Qohelet, but can be found throughout the ancient Near East from Egypt to Mesopotamia. How do they reconcile the fact that the most significant aspect of Qohelet’s theology (to their minds) is a part of that which is not unique to Israel’s wisdom theology? Or, in their first chapter of the book of Job, they refer to George Steiner who said he could never imagine anyone, even Shakespeare, writing the speeches of God in Job. “There is something quite beyond human insight in them” (165). But what happens if we find literature in the ancient world that looks remarkably like the God speeches in Job, and if this literature is not Israelite? Will they lose their association with the divine because they evidence greater human and specifically non-Israelite involvement? This flirts with a God-of-the-Gaps  approach to inspiration that I find very problematic. Every culture has its own take on wisdom, and every culture is unique in some way or another. I simply cannot accept that God is encountered in Israel’s wisdom tradition most where that tradition is sui generous. This makes a mockery of wisdom’s association with creation (see Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament, 64-67).

I think this book would be helpful in conservative and/or Evangelical Christian university and seminary classrooms. It will push many in evangelical circles, and some on the other hand may feel held back. The tone is rather conversational, which adds length to the book. It makes the book engaging, but also longer than necessary if one is simply interested in the primary sources. More moderate to mainline institutions may prefer a less Evangelical more dense volume like Leo Perdue’s Wisdom and Creation: The Theology of Wisdom Literature and Wisdom Literature: A Theological History.

Disclaimer: I was not coerced or otherwise manipulated by IVP to offer the review above. It represents my genuine opinions.

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