Wisdom in Classical and Biblical Tradition

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Michael C. Legaspi
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     328 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Wisdom in Classical and Biblical Tradition by Michael Legaspi is a stimulating exploration of a basic human question—that of wisdom—which is cross-cultural and fascinates an array of people, non-academic and academic alike. Due to its vast scope and multiple connotations, the concept of wisdom is difficult to comprehend. Therefore Legaspi begins his ambitious study with a reflection on its meaning and how the ancient “classical” and “biblical” traditions can be brought into meaningful dialogue with each other. Legaspi defines wisdom as a holistic “program for human flourishing” with four dimensions: metaphysical, cosmic, political/social, and ethical/personal. These dimensions constitute an “authoritative account of reality.”

The categories of “classical” and “biblical” have a dynamic relationship and affinity to each other. According to Legaspi, the two traditions do not stand together or in opposition, their relationship instead being construed dialectically. Legaspi states that in doing this, the task of the scholar is “to try to hear in a fresh way some of the voices that animated the ancient conversation” (x). Similarly, the concept of wisdom does not belong to either tradition, the pursuit and cultivation of wisdom being shared by both “Athens” and “Jerusalem,” as the traditions came to be characterized in late antiquity and beyond.

The introduction is followed by chapters that form a dialogue between the two traditions. The conversation begins in chapter 1 with a study of heroic wisdom in the Homeric corpus. Legaspi’s exploration underlines the ways in which the epic points to an understanding of wisdom that values character, intellect, and piety. Next are selected texts of the Hebrew Bible: Genesis 1–3, Proverbs, and Qohelet. Legaspi argues that in these sources, wisdom is to be distinguished from knowledge: while human knowledge remains limited, wisdom stands for a holistic form of human understanding.

Chapter 3 is dedicated to the book of Job, in which wisdom is contested along with the differing viewpoints of Job and his friends, or the frame narrative and the dialogues. Particular attention is paid to piety, “the determination to hold one’s place within the order” (108), as a component of wisdom in the book of Job. Chapter 4 examines Socrates as he is portrayed in selected Platonic dialogues—the pursuit of wisdom and the life of virtue entail the use of rational discourse. Yet, they also involve integrity and piety, one’s loyalty to and respect for the gods.

Chapter 5 begins with a discussion on how Jews were recognized as philosophers by ancient Greeks. Legaspi argues that this development is “a natural reflex of Platonic and Aristotelian conceptions of wisdom” (166). He observes that, according to these philosophical traditions, wisdom is to be understood holistically as involving both virtue and knowledge. The focus in the next chapter shifts onto the Jews themselves with an analysis of Jewish wisdom in the late Second Temple era. The treatment focuses on Aristobulus and the Wisdom of Solomon, but observations are also made on the Letter of Aristeas and Sirach. In these Hellenistic texts, Greek wisdom discourse meets Jewish scriptures and way of life.

The wisdom landscape of the first Christians is mapped in chapter 7, which analyzes evidence of the gospels and the letters of the New Testament. While the texts seem to draw on previous wisdom traditions (“classical” and “biblical”), Legaspi demonstrates that they also attest to a type of “antiwisdom,” as they emphatically reject aspects of wisdom. For the concluding chapter, Legaspi returns to the four elements of wisdom and their manifestation in the selected texts, the functionality of the binary pair of “classical” and “biblical,” and the modern legacy of ancient wisdom traditions under scrutiny.

Wisdom in Classical and Biblical Tradition succeeds in illustrating several facets of wisdom, a concept that is notoriously difficult to define. Legaspi’s definition of wisdom as “a program for life” is refreshing and opens new avenues for research, instead of being mired with the perennial—and non-productive—question of defining wisdom as a genre or category of literature.

Any book of this breadth is selective regarding the primary and secondary sources with which it engages. In this case, the bibliography is cross-disciplinary, but at nine pages remains limited and omits many recent studies on wisdom in Jewish antiquity. As for the ancient textual sources, the term “classical” is used narrowly referring to the works of Homer, Plato, and Aristotle. “Biblical” is understood more dynamically, entailing some Hellenistic Jewish texts as well. Still, many sources that would have brought further colors and nuances to the discussion on Jewish wisdom discourse—the Dead Sea Scrolls, the corpora of Philo and Josephus, the so-called pseudepigrapha—are excluded, resulting in a canon-oriented concept of the tradition designated as “biblical.”

Overall, Legaspi insightfully demonstrates the need to move beyond stereotypical representations of “classical” and “biblical” traditions. He convincingly argues that while this binary division has often involved making distinctions between reason and faith or secular and religious, none of the materials discussed in his book actually follow such neat distinctions.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Elisa Uusimäki is Researcher at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies.

Date of Review: 
February 19, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael C. Legaspi is Associate Professor of Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies at Penn State University, and the author of The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies.


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