Wright, Wisdom, and the Return from Exile to Zion

In ‘Paul and the Faithfulness of God’, N.T. Wright spends a good number of pages developing his return-from-exile theme. There’s a lot to this and I think most of it is spot-on. Some time ago, however, I read an interesting blog post, where the author noted a lack of textual support for one of Wright’s claims – namely, that in Ben Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon, the mode of YHWH’s return to Zion was that of Wisdom (let’s call this the Wisdom Return Thesis – WRT). What I want to do is look closely at Wright’s claim from a textual standpoint as well as from more of a meta-level, since he grounds a good deal of WRT in its prevelance in second-temple literature, and these two books in particular. What is Wright’s specific claim? On page 655, he lays it out  clearly:

All this, as I say, seems to taking place before ever Paul put pen to paper. But it is in letters that it emerges as already fully formed. It explodes into life, claiming to be the newly revealed form of ancient Jewish monotheism. It is in particular exodus-theology, which means a rich and dense combination of themes: sacrifice, redemption from slavery, the fresh revelation of YHWH’s name, the giving of Torah, the personal presence of the divine glory in the pillar of cloud and fire and then in the newly constructed tabernacle. And it is return-to-Zion theology, not as a separate idea but as a necessary post-exilic form of the exodus-hope as in Ezekiel or Isaiah 40-66, Zachariah or Malachi: YHWH would return to the temple, as he came down to Egypt to rescue his people, as he consented to dwell in the tabernacle even after Israel’s sin. And the theme of YHWH’s return itself opens up to reveal the strand which most recent interpreters have seen is important for New Testament christology without understanding why, or what it meant. The one place in all the Second Temple literature where someone tried to suggest that Israel’s God had perhaps returned to the temple after all was Ben Sirach 24. And their the mode of return was a figure of Wisdom. Wisdom have been sent from on high to ‘tabernacle’ on the holy mount, and there to be known through Torah. As the Wisdom of Solomon saw so clearly, it was the divine ‘wisdom’, responsible for the exodus itself, that was to be invoked by Israel’s king as the key requirement for his promised worldwide rule.

Wright hangs a good deal on this – he later argues (in the context of an exegesis of Galatians and Romans, respectively) that Paul is ‘echoing the wisdom traditions’, (p. 657) and that Paul draws ‘the language of “wisdom”‘ (p. 660). He notes ‘remarkable’ (p. 660) parallels between Romans and the Wisdom of Solomon, and finds ‘so many Pauline echoes’ (p. 661) that it would be tedious to list them all. The question I see is this: given the weight that Wright puts on all of this, if the traditions and texts to which he’s referring don’t do the work he wants them to do, how much of his WRT still stands? I think it’s fair to say very little still stands, and a consequence of this (if it is in fact the case) is that the precedence for his overarching return-from-exile-to-Zion theme is much weaker than Wright supposes.

So, to the texts of Ben Sirach 24. The post I linked above does a good job drawing out some of the deficiencies in Wright here: in Ben Sirach 24, Wisdom simply plays no part in the return to Zion. Surely Wisdom plays an important role in the overall book (Wisdom will overflow, and make a tent in Jacob, and Israel will receive its full inheritance – verse 8 – and anyone who eats of her fruit and obeys her will not be put to shame – verse 22), but there is no mention of Wisdom returning to Zion, or of YHWH returning in the mode of Wisdom. The entry for Ben Sirach in the ‘Oxford Companion to the Bible’ states (p. 698):

The theology of Sirach is essentially Deuteronomic; hence, it is traditional and conservative. He reflect the teachings of earlier biblical books on such subjects as God, the election of Israel, retribution, morality, kindness to the poor and disadvantaged, the centrality of the fear of the Lord. The expression “fear of the Lord/God” occurs about sixty times in Sirach, and the term “wisdom” about fifty-five times. In 1.1-2.18 there is a detailed treatise on wisdom as the fear of the Lord. The fundamental thesis of Sirach is that wisdom, which is identified with the Law (chap. 24), is bestowed only on one who fears the Lord (19.20). (emphasis mine)

What about the Wisdom of Solomon? I’m unable to find the support for the WRT here – while Solomon is put forward frequently as an ideal kind of ruler, he’s not put forward as the eschatological king but rather put forward as from whom the rulers of the earth should learn how to govern. The entry in the ‘Oxford Companion to the Bible’, (p. 805) notes:

The “autobiography” of the idealized Solomon, whose life was a search for Lady Wisdom, describes the plan of action necessary for Israel’s future leaders…the author believed that Israel’s role as God’s chosen people was as important as ever and guaranteed by divine protection (19.22). The Wisdom of Solomon preserves the carefully planned appeal of a learned and imaginative Jewish teacher to his cultured students to cultivate loyalty to their revealed faith in an environment threatening their religious identity. Only fidelity to their received revelation wins eternal life with God (1.15; 15.3).

What I think this shows is that Wisdom, in these texts, is cast as a prescriptive/programmatic vision of the future leaders of Israel (and the people of God – Christians) instead of as a key agent in the return to Zion. This shows that Wright’s WRT is on somewhat shakier ground. Of course, none of this is to deny the importance of Wisdom for New Testament christology – Wisdom christology practically bleeds off the New Testament. But what it does show that if we identify Jesus with Wisdom, but Wisdom doesn’t figure in the return-from-exile-to-Zion theme, then Jesus’ identification with Wisdom is less likely to figure in the eschatological terms that Wright wants him to figure in.  But weight doesn’t need to put where it won’t hold – much more solid ground can be found for the return-from-exile-to-Zion theme.

In ‘How God Became Jesus’, (pp. 54-61) Michael Bird provides just such solid ground, by identifying Jesus with YHWH within the context of the return-to-Zion while avoiding grounding this identification in Wisdom terms: Jesus’s identification with YHWH figures in terms like various healings, exorcisms, forgiveness – all things which serve to identify Jesus as YHWH, the embodiment of God and the Son of David, who inaugurates God’s kingdom. Wisdom does in fact figure here, but in a less central role – Jesus is an agent of divine Wisdom and one who brings Wisdom into the world. I don’t really see Wright disagreeing with any of this, and since none of it requires Wright’s WRT, I’m led to believe that Wright is reading his own narrative into texts where it isn’t necessarily there.

In sum – Wright’s WRT is fairly shaky, and this bodes poorly for his overall conception of Wisdom-christology, since so much of his thesis is grounded on its viability in 2TJ texts and traditions, which, as we’ve seen, simply don’t do the work Wright wants them to do. However, we can still have a perfectly Wright-ian christology without recourse to dubious frameworks that require, in places, fairly serious contortions and squinting.


5 thoughts on “Wright, Wisdom, and the Return from Exile to Zion

  1. Rod Lampard February 28, 2016 / 5:27 pm

    Contortions bad. Squinting, not so much. 🙂 One either loves Wright, or likes him, but struggles with the adoration shown to him.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joshua February 28, 2016 / 5:29 pm

      I saw Larry Hurtado just post on this same topic – obviously his opinion is far weightier than mine – and was pretty intruiged. He really seems to not think much of the return to ziom thesis, as Wright constructs it.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Joshua February 28, 2016 / 5:33 pm

      I posted it on Facebook, but in case you didn’t catch it -https://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/2016/02/18/yhwhs-return-of-zion/

      Liked by 1 person

      • Rod Lampard February 28, 2016 / 5:38 pm

        Didn’t see it. Thanks for the link, I’ll check it out.


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