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The Cambridge Companion to Biblical Wisdom and Literature

21 April 2023

Katherine Southwood on the current state of a biblical debate

THIS is a large volume of some 23 essays concerning wisdom literature, broadly understood. This is evident from the choice of contributors, who represent a range of scholars with intellectual diversity and diversity in terms of career progression (although most contributing authors are well-established, senior academics). The essays are written in a style that is self-consciously attempting to be clear enough for a general reader to engage with, and, therefore, accessible, while also offering the possibility of greater depth of engagement for specialised readers.

For the most part, the essays achieve this aim. While there are some footnotes, they are not densely packed, as one might find in a detailed monograph-length treatment of a specialist topic. Likewise, where there is engagement with material in primary languages for biblical scholarship (e.g. Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic), transliterations and translations are given, so that readers do not have to struggle with unfamiliar scripts. In addition, each of the essays comes with a list of ten or so carefully selected suggestions for further reading.

The essays are divided into four parts: I The Context of Wisdom Literature; II Wisdom Literature in the Hebrew Bible; III Wisdom Literature beyond the Hebrew Bible; and IV Themes in Wisdom Literature. The first part of the volume is particularly engaging. Contributors are well aware that the genre category “wisdom literature” has, rather like the category apocalyptic before it, undergone intense critique in scholarship recently, to the extent that Will Kynes (a contributor for part two of the volume) published a monograph in 2019 inviting readers to consider An Obituary for “Wisdom Literature”: The birth, death, and intertextual reintegration of a biblical corpus.

This disputed genre category was the topic of recent discussion at the November annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, wherein a panel was convened, asking “Is Wisdom Literature Dead?”. I attended the discussion, as did many of the contributors and editors of this volume, and noted the ongoing level of interest in the topic. Evidence of this was the very high attendance of scholars listening to and engaging with the discussions in the panel.

A large part of the problem in these tangled debates is the lack of clarity which has emerged in scholarship when referring to the genre “wisdom literature”. This has led to the increasing necessity of a proliferation of definitions and theoretical claims before any meaningful discussions can occur. Many of the essays demonstrate a sophisticated grasp of these complex and swiftly mutating debates.

Part I is particularly useful here. Indeed, Suzanna R. Millar’s essay is exceptionally good in terms of meeting the debates head-on. Millar demonstrates how multiple and overlapping genres combine and interact in complex ways in each work of so-called wisdom literature. As she claims, each book “incorporates a variety of these genres, which interact as parts within a whole. Different books combine different genres in different proportions and different ways.” Millar demonstrates that genres are not merely heuristic tools, but are designed to communicate. She makes this case by focusing on communicative clusters and their usage (instructions, reasoning, praise, and complaints) and shows how texts use and sometimes intentionally misuse genre to communicate.

This large “companion” volume is an excellent resource for critically thinking non-specialists. It grapples with a key area of debate in current scholarship by joining the centuries-old reflections on what it means to be human in relation to God, creation, and each other.

Dr Katherine Southwood is Associate Professor in the Old Testament in the Faculty of Theology and Religion in the University of Oxford, and a Fellow and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford.


The Cambridge Companion to Biblical Wisdom and Literature
Katharine J. Dell, Suzanna R. Millar, and Arthur Jan Keefer, editors
Cambridge University Press £34.99
Church Times Bookshop £31.49

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