Shuck and Jive

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Getting Wise with the Wisdom Woman: Sophia and Creation

Sophia and her 3 Daughters, Faith, Hope & Charity/Love
- from a Russian Icon


You of the whirling wings,
circling, encompassing energy of God:
you quicken the world in your clasp.

One wing soars in heaven,
one wing sweeps the earth,
and the third flies all around us.

Praise to Sophia!
Let all the earth praise her!

-Hildegard of Bingen

Sophia is the Greek word for wisdom. She is personified in Proverbs and in the deuterocanonical/apochryphal works of Ecclesiasticus and the Wisdom of Solomon among others.

Sophia has an important role in creation mythology. This is from Proverbs 8:22-31

22The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.
23Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
24When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
25Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth—
26when he had not yet made earth and fields,
or the world’s first bits of soil.
27When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
28when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
29when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
30 then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
31rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.

This is from Ecclesiasticus 24:1-24:34:

24Wisdom praises herself,
and tells of her glory in the midst of her people.
2In the assembly of the Most High she opens her mouth,
and in the presence of his hosts she tells of her glory:
3‘I came forth from the mouth of the Most High,
and covered the earth like a mist.
4I dwelt in the highest heavens,
and my throne was in a pillar of cloud.
5Alone I compassed the vault of heaven
and traversed the depths of the abyss.
6Over waves of the sea, over all the earth,
and over every people and nation I have held sway.
7Among all these I sought a resting-place;
in whose territory should I abide?

8‘Then the Creator of all things gave me a command,
and my Creator chose the place for my tent.
He said, “Make your dwelling in Jacob,
and in Israel receive your inheritance.”
9Before the ages, in the beginning, he created me,
and for all the ages I shall not cease to be.
10In the holy tent I ministered before him,
and so I was established in Zion.
11Thus in the beloved city he gave me a resting-place,
and in Jerusalem was my domain.
12I took root in an honoured people,
in the portion of the Lord, his heritage.

13‘I grew tall like a cedar in Lebanon,
and like a cypress on the heights of Hermon.
14I grew tall like a palm tree in En-gedi,
and like rose-bushes in Jericho;
like a fair olive tree in the field,
and like a plane tree beside water I grew tall.
15Like cassia and camel’s thorn I gave forth perfume,
and like choice myrrh I spread my fragrance,
like galbanum, onycha, and stacte,
and like the odour of incense in the tent.
16Like a terebinth I spread out my branches,
and my branches are glorious and graceful.
17Like the vine I bud forth delights,
and my blossoms become glorious and abundant fruit.

19‘Come to me, you who desire me,
and eat your fill of my fruits.
20For the memory of me is sweeter than honey,
and the possession of me sweeter than the honeycomb.
21Those who eat of me will hunger for more,
and those who drink of me will thirst for more.
22Whoever obeys me will not be put to shame,
and those who work with me will not sin.’

23All this is the book of the covenant of the Most High God,
the law that Moses commanded us
as an inheritance for the congregations of Jacob.
25It overflows, like the Pishon, with wisdom,
and like the Tigris at the time of the first fruits.
26It runs over, like the Euphrates, with understanding,
and like the Jordan at harvest time.
27It pours forth instruction like the Nile,
like the Gihon at the time of vintage.
28The first man did not know wisdom fully,
nor will the last one fathom her.
29For her thoughts are more abundant than the sea,
and her counsel deeper than the great abyss.

30As for me, I was like a canal from a river,
like a water channel into a garden.
31I said, ‘I will water my garden
and drench my flower-beds.’
And lo, my canal became a river,
and my river a sea.
32I will again make instruction shine forth like the dawn,
and I will make it clear from far away.
33I will again pour out teaching like prophecy,
and leave it to all future generations.
34Observe that I have not laboured for myself alone,
but for all who seek wisdom.

Who is Sophia? This is from Kathleen O'Connor's book, The Wisdom Literature:

Who is this Wisdom Woman, this alluring figure of poetry? Is she merely a literary fiction drawn to contrast a life of wisdom with a life of folly? Is she a personification of the order and harmony in creation? Is she a personification of an attribute of God? Or, is she a divine being, a way of speaking of God in metaphorical language? In the texts about her, there are many indications, connotative rather than denotative, allusive rather than descriptive, that the Wisdom Woman is more than a cipher for the human virtue of wisdom. She is herself God. Much of what is said about her can only be said of God. She existed before the creation of the world and she participated in its formation as a major artisan ([Proverbs] 8:30). She is a tree of life and in her hand she holds life itself (Prov 3:16, 18). Through her, kings reign, princes rule, and rulers decree what is just (Prov 8:15). She pours out her spirit upon her followers and reveals her words to the ones who seek her (1:23). These are activities of God. They are divine prerogatives, activities to benefit humankind which God alone performs. (pp. 82-83)

Sophia certainly has divine characteristics. In I Corinthians 1:24, Paul describes Christ as the wisdom (Sophia) of God. I wonder if Jesus or the early Gospel writers who interpreted Jesus were thinking of Sophia's feast when Jesus offered bread and wine to his followers? Check out Proverbs 9:1-6:

9Wisdom has built her house,
she has hewn her seven pillars.
2She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine,
she has also set her table.
3She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls
from the highest places in the town,
4‘You that are simple, turn in here!’
To those without sense she says,
5‘Come, eat of my bread
and drink of the wine I have mixed.
6Lay aside immaturity, and live,
and walk in the way of insight.’

We will return to Sophia when we speak further about God and Jesus. For other interesting views about Sophia, go to Esoteric Mystery School, or the Catholic Network for Women's Equality, or the The Benedictine Sisters of Mount St. Scholastica, or read an article from Christian Century, or go to Voices of Sophia.

In the meantime, I will close with this prayer to Sophia:

Great Light,
Hidden within this darkness,
Unlimited Fire,
Brilliant Emanation,
Sapientia Dei,
Beauty and wonder
that fills me like water to a sponge,
Holy Spirit,
Rising Dawn,
Lily of the Valleys,
Tree of Life,
You Are Beautiful!

To Wisdom!



  1. A Presbyterian pastor praying to a non-existent goddess of mythology. You have really strayed from the path!
    Does Holston Presbytery accept this as part of your statement of faith? I'd be interested to know.

  2. Imagine that--a Presbyterian pastor quoting from the Bible. The nerve of him!

    If Sophia is a "non-existent goddess of mythology", then what does that say about the book of Proverbs that indicates that God created Sophia "at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago", and that Sophia was with God at every step of creation?

    Seriously, though, the Wisdom tradition is an interesting part of the Bible that often gets ignored.

  3. What you have turned the Hebrew word 'sophia' into is not what was originally meant.

    And anything prayed to other than God is idolatry...or is that a part of the Bible you also want to change?

  4. And what did Sophia originally mean? Much of what John wrote is a detailed and well-documented discussion of what Sophia meant. If you have reason to believe that the information he has provided is wrong, then by all means enlighten us. As one quote that John provided pointed out, "Wisdom Woman is more than a cipher for the human virtue of wisdom. She is herself God. Much of what is said about her can only be said of God. She existed before the creation of the world and she participated in its formation as a major artisan."

    If Sophia is divine, if Sophia is herself God, then the accusation of "idolotry" and a "non-existent goddess of mythology" would seem to be unsubstantiated. To take the Bible seriously is take Sophia seriously.

  5. John,

    I notice that you haven't answered any of the questions that I have posed to you in your post asserting derivation from ANE cosmogonies. I hope you will devote a few moments to pen down a response as part of the "teaching ministry" that this blog represents. (And not simply leave it to the endless rebuttings of Mystical Seeker or another of your adoring fans.)

    As for this "Sophia" divine being, I don't think the text allows for us to understand Woman Wisdom as a goddess or even an allusion to the Lord Jesus Christ, the second person of the Holy Trinity. There are a number of compelling reasons for this conclusion:

    1) The teaching of moral skill, not the presentation of a theological or cosmogenic argument, is the purpose of Proverbs. The very first time we encounter Wisdom/Sophia in Proverbs (1:20 et seq.), it is clearly a personification of the wisdom or moral skill that is the teaching intention of the collection of proverbs (1:2). This is demonstrated, similarly, in Ecclesiastes 2:12, where the author "turns to see" wisdom. Ra'ah, the word there employed, is deeply connected to the perception of visual phenomena. Does Qoheleth "see" wisdom? Or is this figurative language? Clearly the genre demands that we interpret characters we meet as metonymic figures. We are no more to believe that the author has in mind a being named Wisdom than we are to imagine that the author also points to specific individuals in each section of Proverbs.

    2) That Sophia is a personification of the attribute of wisdom is further demonstrated in the immediate context of the Prov. 8 passage. Chapters 6-9 contrast Woman Wisdom and Woman Folly / The Adulteress. They are two differing ways of life, as evidenced throughout Proverbs (1:15,19,31; 2:8-20; 4:10-19; 5:21; 6:23; 7:24-27; 8:13,20; 9:6,15; et passim). One way of living leads to death, yet its enticements are figuratively represented by the adulteress' bed. The other way leads to a full and rewarding life, figuratively represented as a banquet table and well-built home. (Again, I'm struck by your willful disregard of genre. You deny the resurrection as a myth, even though it is framed as a credible historical account of eyewitness testimony. Yet you take poetry and skew it into didactic. The only determining constant in the equation that I see is your bias against orthodox Christianity. Your prejudices are driving your exegesis - or should we both be honest and call it eisegesis?)

    3) The assertion that Sophia is a "divine being" is a particular absurdity that is fueled by anti-biblical ideology rather than sound exegetical and hermeneutical principles. If Wisdom (chokmah - a feminine singular absolute noun) is supposed to be a divine being, then what precludes us from ascribing the same objective personality to Prudence (8:12) or to Woman Folly (9:13-18)? Is Prudence (also a feminine singular absolute noun) Wisdom's live-in lesbian lover?!?

    4) The claim that Wisdom is a divine figure because Wisdom usurps divine prerogatives is flawed. Wisdom is indeed figured as a giver of life - even a tree of life (3:16-18). However, the same is said of the Torah of God - not because it is a divine being but because it leads us to the God. Similarly, Proverbs claims that the fruit of a righteous man (11:30), desire fulfilled (13:12), and a gentle tongue (15:4) are trees of life; but are they divine beings? Proverbs 4:13 & 6:23 both say that instruction is a means to life - not life itself. Wisdom's place in rulership is not divine - unless we are also to ascribe divinity to wine which can affect the rule of kings (Prov. 31:4-7).

    5) Wisdom is a communicable attribute of God, not a separate divine being. While this should be obvious, an example may clarify the meaning. Prov. 3:19 has Wisdom "co-creating" the cosmos. However, in excellent Hebrew poetic style, a synonymous parallelism is made with 3:20 where it is Knowledge (da'at - a masculine singular absolute noun) that is doing the creating. If we were to maintain a consistent hermeneutic with the Sophia crowd, we would need to add a male deity named Knowledge /Da'at/ Aesthesis to an ever enlarging pantheon. Not only is this ludicrous, it goes against everything that secular scholars (such as those in the Jesus Seminar) hold as true concerning the origins of Proverbs. A comprehensive discussion is found in Wisdom and the Book of Proverbs: An Israelite Goddess Redefined by Bernard Lang (New York: Pilgrim Pr, 1986), who – though arguing for an 8th century BCE composition – acknowledges that the consensus holds the final date to be during the rigorously monotheistic, post-exilic period. It is one thing to say that God is love (1 John 4:8). It is quite another to say that Love is God. So it is with wisdom.

    6) Wisdom is not God, a god, a member of the Holy Trinity, or any other divine referent. While I believe that the above statments have already carried the argument, it seems right to take one last look at the particular allegations of those who claim that Jesus is Sophia or – at least – Sophia’s Prophet. The clearest evidence that Sophia is not God is found in Proverbs 8:22, where Wisdom is created. The same is held true in Ecclesiasticus 1:4, though somehow John omitted that reference. God is not created. Jesus is not created because he is the eternally begotten Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity. The Spirit is not created because he is the eternally proceeding third person of the Holy Trinity. This is basic Trinitarian theology as found in the Athanasian Creed. Only non-Christians such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons deny the eternity of the persons of the Trinity. Christians – especially ordained Presbyterian ministers who know better by virtue of that legendary Princeton theological education – do not deny the basics of Trinitarian dogma because to do so means that we have lost the God whom Jesus Christ reveals, the only true and living God. To deny the Holy Trinity is to fall into gross idolatry, which the Scriptures call spiritual adultery.

    John, I am begging you to stop running after false gods and false Christs. Not only are you in peril, but so also those whom you teach and are mislead by your confusion. This is not sound Christian teaching, much less Presbyterian!

    I’m praying for you.


  6. From biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann's book Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian imagination, comes these comments on Proverbs:

    Christian readers may pay particular attention to the poetry of Proverbs 8:22-31. This text speaks of "wisdom" as the "ordering power" of creation whereby creation is permitted to function in abundant, life-giving ways. This text is significantly related to the creation traditions of Genesis 1 (see Landes 1974; Yee 1992). There are in this text several words-notably what the NRSV translates as "created" (qnn) in verse 22 and "master worker" ('mon) in verse 30 that are particularly difficult. These difficulties, however, do not detract from the primary lyrical claim that "wisdom" as an agent of YHWH the Creator has definitely determined the shape of creation.

    This text is of special interest because it is widely thought that the themes voiced here are taken up, albeit in a transposed way, in the poetic opening of the Gospel of John (John 1:1-3) (O'Day 1995, 519). In transposition into Christian affirmation, wisdom as the "ordreing force" of the creation has become the "logos", the logic of creation that pervades the world, and that has "become flesh" in Jesus of Nazareth. It is clera that the claim voiced in John 1 has moved well beyond the affirmation of Proverbs 8. It is equally clear, however, that the statement of John 1 is understandable precisely with reference to Proverbs 8.
    (page 315).

    I think that the special role that Sophia plays in creation is especially interesting to me, because of my particular interest in God's role as a creative agent in the world. Coincidentally, I just got my current issue of Creative Transformation, a magazine put out by process theologians.)

  7. "She is herself God."

    You find that nowhere in the Bible. So, you are making up a goddess for yourself and that's what takes you into heresy.

    The sadness is, you are also going to damage and take other souls with you on your personal journey of faithlessness. It's not you I'll pray for; it's the sheep under your care.

  8. Its not surprising that "modern" Christianity has ignored Wisdom in the literary form of Sophia.