Catholic Encyclopedia – Book of Wisdom


One of the deutero-canonical writings of the Old Testament, placed in the Vulgate between the Canticle of Canticles and Ecclesiasticus.


The oldest headings ascribe the book to Solomon, the representative of Hebrew wisdom. In the Syriac translation, the title is “the Book of the Great Wisdom of Solomon”; and in the Old Latin Version, the heading reads “Sapientia Salomonis”. The earliest Greek manuscripts – the Vaticanus, the Sinaiticus, the Alexandrinus – have a similar inscription, and the Eastern and the Western Fathers of the first three centuries generally speak of “the Wisdom of Solomon” when quoting that inspired writing, although some of them use in this connection such honorific designations as he theia Sophia (the Divine Wisdom), Panaretos Sophia (All Virtuous Wisdom). In the Vulgate, the title is “Liber Sapientiae”, “the Book of Wisdom”. In non-Catholic Versions, the ordinary heading is “the Wisdom of Solomon”, in contradistinction to Ecclesiasticus, which is usually entitled “the Wisdom of Jesus, the Son of Sirach”.


The book contains two general parts, the first nine chapters treating of Wisdom under its more speculative aspect, and the last ten chapters dealing with Wisdom from an historical standpoint. The following is the author’s train of thought in the speculative part, chapters 1 to 9. Addressing himself to kings, the writer teaches that ungodliness is alien to Wisdom and courts punishment and death (i), and he sets forth and refutes the arguments which the wicked advance to the contrary: according to him, the frame of mind of the ungodly is contrary to man’s immortal destiny; their present life is only in appearance happier than that of the righteous; and their ultimate fate is an unquestionable proof of the folly of their course (2 to 5). He thereupon exhorts kings to seek Wisdom, which is more needful to them than to ordinary mortals (6:1-21), and describes his own happy experience in the quest and possession of that Wisdom which is the Splendour of God and is bestowed by Him on earnest suppliants (6:22-8). He subjoins the prayer (9) by which he has himself begged that Wisdom and God’s Holy Spirit might be sent down to him from heaven, and which concludes with the reflection that men of old were guided by Wisdom – a reflection which forms a natural transition to the review of Israel’s ancient history, which constitutes the second part of his work. The author’s line of thought in this historical part (9 to 14) may also easily be pointed out. He commends God’s wisdom (1) for its dealings with the patriarchs from Adam to Moses (10-11:4); (2) for its just, and also merciful, conduct towards the idolatrous inhabitants of Egypt and Chanaan (11:5-12i); (3) in its contrast with the utter foolishness and consequent immorality of idolatry under its various forms (13, 14); finally (4), for its discriminating protection over Israel during the plagues of Egypt, and at the crossing of the Red Sea, a protection which has been extended to all times and places.

Unity and integrity

Most contemporary scholars admit the unity of the Book of Wisdom. The whole work is pervaded by one and the same general purpose, viz., that of giving a solemn warning against the folly of ungodliness. Its two principal parts are intimately bound by a natural transition (9:18), which has in no way the appearance of an editorial insertion. Its subdivisions, which might, at first sight, be regarded as foreign to the primitive plan of the author, are, when closely examined, seen to be part and parcel of that plan: this is the case, for instance, with the section relative to the origin and the consequences of idolatry (xiii, xiv), inasmuch as this section is consciously prepared by the writer’s treatment of God’s wisdom in its dealings with the idolatrous inhabitants of Egypt and Chanaan, in the immediately preceding subdivision (11:5 thru chapter 12). Not only is there no break observable in the carrying-out of the plan, but favourite expressions, turns of speech, and single words are found in all the sections of the work, and furnish a further proof that the Book of Wisdom is no mere compilation, but a literary unit.

The integrity of the book is no less certain than its unity. Every impartial examiner of the work can readily see that nothing in it suggests that the book has come down to us otherwise than in its primitive form. Like Ecclesiasticus, Wisdom has indeed no inscription similar to those which open the Books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes; but plainly, in the case of Wisdom, as in the case of Ecclesiasticus, this absence is no necessary sign that the work is fragmentary at the beginning. Nor can the Book of Wisdom be rightly considered as mutilated at the end, for its last present verse forms a proper close to the work as planned by the author. As regards the few passages of Wisdom which certain critics have treated as later Christian interpolations (ii, 24; iii, 13; iv, 1; xiv, 7), it is plain that were these passages such as they are claimed, their presence would not vitiate the substantial integrity of the work, and further, that closely examined, they yield a sense perfectly consistent with the author’s Jewish frame of mind.

Language and authorship

In view of the ancient heading: “the Wisdom of Solomon”;, some scholars have surmised that the Book of Wisdom was composed in Hebrew, like the other works ascribed to Solomon by their title (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Canticle of Canticles). To substantiate this position they have appealed to the Hebraisms of the work; to its parallelisms, a distinct feature of Hebrew poetry; to its constant use of simple connecting particles (kai, de, gar, oti, etc.), the usual articulations of Hebrew sentences; to Greek expressions traceable, as they thought, to wrong renderings from a Hebrew original, etc. Ingenious as these arguments may appear, they prove no more than that the author of the Book of Wisdom was a Hebrew, writing Greek with a distinctly Jewish cast of mind. As far back as Saint Jerome (Praef. in libros Salomonis), it has been felt that not Hebrew but Greek was the original language of the Book of Wisdom, and this verdict is so powerfully confirmed by the literary features of the entire Greek text, that one may well wonder that the theory of an ancient Hebrew original, or of any original other than Greek, should have ever been seriously maintained.

Of course the fact that the entire Book of Wisdom was composed in Greek rules out its Solomonic authorship. It is indeed true that ecclesiastical writers of the first centuries commonly assumed this authorship on the basis of the title of the book, apparently confirmed by those passages (ix, 7, 8, 12; cf. vii, 1, 5; viii, 13, 14, etc.) where the one speaking is clearly King Solomon. But this view of the matter never was unanimous in the Early Christian Church, and in the course of time a middle position between its total affirmation and its total rejection was suggested. The Book of Wisdom, it was said, is Solomon’s inasmuch as it is based on Solomonic works which are now lost, but which were known to and utilized by a hellenistic Jew centuries after Solomon’s death. This middle view is but a weak attempt at saving something of the full Solomonic authorship affirmed in earlier ages. “It is a supposition which has no positive arguments in its favour, and which, in itself, is improbable, since it assumes the existence of Solomonic writings of which there is no trace, and which would have been known only to the writer of the Book of Wisdom”. At the present day, it is freely admitted that Solomon is not the writer of the Book of Wisdom, “which has been ascribed to him because its author, through a literary fiction, speaks as if he were the Son of David”. Besides Solomon, the writer to whom the authorship of the work has been oftenest ascribed is Philo, chiefly on the ground of a general agreement in respect to doctrines, between the author of Wisdom and Philo, the celebrated Jewish philosopher of Alexandria (died about 40 AD). The truth of the matter is that the doctrinal differences between the Book of Wisdom and Philo’s writings are such as to preclude a common authorship. Philo’s allegorical treatment of Scriptural narratives is utterly foreign to the frame of mind of the writer of the Book of Wisdom. His view of the origin of idolatry conflicts on several points with that of the author of the Book of Wisdom. Above all, his description of Divine wisdom bespeaks as to conception, style, and manner of presentation, a later stage of Alexandrian thought than that found in Wisdom. The authorship of the work has been at times ascribed to Zorobabel, as though this Jewish leader could have written in Greek; to the Alexandrian Aristobulus (second century BC), as though this courtier could have inveighed against kings after the manner of the Book of Wisdom (vi, 1; etc.); and finally, to Apollo (cf. Acts 18:24), as though this was not a mere supposition contrary to the presence of the book in the Alexandrian Canon. All these variations as to authorship prove that the author’s name is really unknown.

Place and date of composition

Whoever examines attentively the Book of Wisdom can readily see that its unknown author was not a Palestinian Jew, but an Alexandrian Jew. Monotheistic as the writer is throughout his work, he evinces an acquaintance with Greek thought and philosophical terms (he calls God “the Author of beauty”: 13:3; styles Providence pronoia: 14:3; 17:2; speaks of oule amorphos, “the formless material” of the universe, after Plato’s manner: 11:17; numbers four cardinal virtues in accordance with Aristotle’s school: 8:7; etc.), which is superior to anything found in Palestine. His remarkably good Greek, his political allusions, the local colouring of details, his rebuke of distinctly Egyptian idolatry, etc., point to Alexandria, as to the great centre of mixed Jewish and heathen population, where the author felt called upon to address his eloquent warning against the splendid and debasing Polytheism and Epicurean indifference by which too many of his fellow Jews had been gradually and deeply influenced. And this inference from internal data is confirmed by the fact that the Book of Wisdom is found not in the Palestinian, but in the Alexandrian, Canon of the Old Testament. Had the work originated in Palestine, its powerful arraignment of idolatry and its exalted teaching concerning the future life would have naturally secured for it a placed within the Canon of the Jews of Palestine. But, as it was composed in Alexandria, its worth was fully appreciated and its sacred character recognized only by the fellow-countrymen of the author.

It is more difficult to ascertain the date than the place of composition of the Book of Wisdom. It is universally admitted that when the writer describes a period of moral degradation and persecution under unrighteous rulers who are threatened with heavy judgment, he has in view the time of either Ptolemy IV Philopator (221-204 B.C.), or Ptolemy VII Physicon (145-117 B.C.), for it is only under these depraved princes that the Egyptian Jews had to endure persecution. But it is confessedly difficult to decide which of these two monarchs the author of Wisdom had actually in view. It is even possible that the work “was published after the demise of those princes, for otherwise it would have but increased their tyrannical rage”.

Text and versions

The original text of the Book of Wisdom is preserved in five uncial manuscripts (the Vaticanus, the Sinaiticus, the Alexandrinus, the Ephremiticus, and the Venetus) and in ten cursives (two of which are incomplete). Its most accurate form is found in the Vaticanus (fourth century), the Venetus (eighth or ninth century), and the cursive 68. The principal critical works on the Greek text are those of Reusch, Fritsche, Deane, Sweete, and Cornely-Zorell. Foremost among the ancient versions stands the Vulgate, which presents the Old Latin Version somewhat revised by Saint Jerome. It is in general a close and accurate rendering of the original Greek, with occasional additions, a few of which probably point to primitive readings no longer extant in the Greek. The Syriac Version is less faithful, and the Armenian more literal, than the Vulgate. Among the modern versions, the German translation of Siegfried in Kautzsch’s “Apocryphen und Pseudepigraphen des A.T.”, and the French version of the AbbĂ© Crampon, deserve a special mention.

Doctrine of the book

As might well be expected, the doctrinal teachings of this deutero-canonical writing are, in substance, those of the other inspired books of the Old Testament. The Book of Wisdom knows of only one God, the God of the universe, and the Yahweh of the Hebrews. This one God is “He who is” (xiii, 1), and His holiness is utterly opposed to moral evil (i, 1-3). He is the absolute master of the world [xi, 22 (23)], which He has created out of “formless matter” [xi, 18 (17)], a Platonic expression which in no way affirms the eternity of matter, but points back to the chaotic condition described in Genesis 1:2. A living God, He made man after His image, creating him for immortality (ii, 23), so that death entered the world only through the envy of the Devil (ii, 24). His Providence (pronoia) extends to all things, great and small [vi, 8 (7); xi, 26 (25); etc.], taking a fatherly care of all things (xiv, 3), and in particular, of His chosen people (xix, 20, sqq.). He makes Himself known to men through His wonderful works (xiii, 1-5), and exercises His mercy towards them all [xi, 24 (23), xii, 16; xv, 1], His very enemies included (xii, 8 sqq.).

The central idea of the book is “Wisdom”, which appears in the work under two principal aspects. In its relation to man, Wisdom is here, as in the other Sapiential Books, the perfection of knowledge showing itself in action. It is particularly described as resident only in righteous men (i, 4, 5), as a principle soliciting man’s will (vi, 14, sqq.), as within God’s gift (vii, 15; viii, 3, 4), and as bestowed by Him on earnest suppliants (viii, 21-ix). Through its power, man triumphs over evil (vii, 30), and through its possession, one may secure for himself the promises of both the present and the future life (viii, 16, 13). Wisdom is to be prized above all things (vii, 8-11; viii, 6-9), and whoever despises it is doomed to unhappiness (iii, 11). In direct relation to God, Wisdom is personified, and her nature, attributes, and operation are no less than Divine. She is with God from eternity, the partner of His throne, and the sharer of His thoughts (viii, 3; ix, 4, 9). She is an emanation from His glory (vii, 25), the brightness of His everlasting light and the mirror of His power and goodness (vii, 26). Wisdom is one, and yet can do everything; although immutable, she makes all things new (vii, 27), with an activity greater than any motion (vii, 23). When God formed the world, Wisdom was present (ix, 9), and she gives to men all the virtues which they need in every station and condition of life (vii, 27; viii, 21; x, 1, 21; xi). Wisdom is also identified with the “Word” of God (ix, 1; etc.), and is represented as immanent with the “Holy Spirit”, to whom a Divine nature and Divine operations are likewise ascribed (i, 5-7; vii, 22, 23; ix, 17). Exalted doctrines such as these stand in a vital connection with the New Testament revelation of the mystery of the Blessed Trinity; while other passages of the Book of Wisdom (ii, 13, 16-18; xviii, 14-16) find their fulfilment in Christ, the Incarnate “Word”, and “the Wisdom of God”. In other aspects too, notably with regard to its eschatological teaching (iii-v), the Book of Wisdom presents a wonderful preparation to the New Testament Revelation. The New Testament writers appear perfectly familiar with this deutero-canonical writing (cf. Matthew 27:42-43, with Wisdom 2:13-18; Romans 11:34, with Wisdom 9:13; Ephesians 6:13-17, with Wisdom 5:18-19; Hebrews 1:3, with Wisdom 7:26; etc. It is true that to justify their rejection of the Book of Wisdom from the Canon, many Protestants have claimed that in 8:19-20, its author admits the error of the pre-existence of the human soul. But this incriminated passage, when viewed in the light of its context, yields a perfectly orthodox sense.

MLA Citation

  • Francis Gigot. “Book of Wisdom”. Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume 15, 1912. CatholicSaints.Info. 10 October 2010. Web. 20 September 2017. <>