Thursday, November 29, 2007

Jewish "Wisdom Tale"

Jewish “Wisdom Tale”:
and Vindication of the Suffering Righteous Man

by Ioanes Rakhmat

In Resurrection, Immortality, and Eternal Life in Intertestamental Judaism[1] Nickelsburg has analysed form-critically various Jewish stories about persecution and exaltation/vindication of the righteous man, detailing their structure, components and function. All of these stories are classified into the “wisdom tale” genre. Early stages in the development of this genre can be seen in the Story of Ahikar (dated as early as the fifth century BCE),[2] the Story of Joseph and his brothers (Genesis 37-42), the Book of Esther, Daniel chapters 3 and 6, and the Story of Susanna. Further development of the genre is found in Wisdom of Solomon 2, 4-5; 2 Maccabees 7 and 9; 3 Maccabees, as well as in other texts (such as Enoch 46, 62-63, 104, 108; Daniel 12; the Assumption of Moses 9,10; 2 Baruch 49-51; 4 Ezra 7; and various canonical psalms of individual lament and thanksgiving). In the process of the development, the Isaianic exaltation materials (Isaiah 13; 14; 52-53:2) contributed to the expansion of the earlier tradition, especially as that seen in Wisdom 2, 4-5, Enoch 62-63, 2 Maccabees 9 and 1 Maccabees 6.

The Story of Ahikar

The Story of Ahikar is the earliest example of either biblical or apocryphal literature, “one of the best known and most widely disseminated tales in the ancient Mediterranean world.”[3] With it, we are as near to the first form of an ancient Near Eastern book as we are ever likely to be. As a folktale from the ancient Near Eastern world, the Ahikar story influenced a number of biblical psalms and several sapiential books, such as Proverbs, Sirach, Daniel, Tobit, Jubilees and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs.

Ahikar was an historical figure, a scholar and a councillor at the royal court of the Assyrian king Esarhaddon in the early seventh century BCE. The so-called Story of Ahikar purports to tell how Ahikar, growing elderly, persuaded king Esarhaddon to accept Ahikar’s nephew and adopted son, Nadin, as his replacement at the court. Later, however, Nadin maneuvered matters in such a way that he could accuse his uncle of plotting against the king, and the result was Ahikar’s being condemned to death. Ahikar escapes execution because the executioner owes him a favor. In place of Ahikar, the executioner kills a slave and then takes Ahikar into hiding to await a more favorable time. That time comes when Ahikar is able to prevent the overthrow of the king. With his vindication, Ahikar is restored to his position of influence and power, while Nadin is severely punished. His horrible death is graphically described: “Nadin ... swelled up immediately and became like a blown-out bladder. And his limbs swelled and his legs and his feet and his side, and he was torn and his belly burst asunder and his entrails were scattered, and he perished, and he died.”[4]

After pointing out that in the Book of Tobit (especially 1:18-22; 14:10) the figure Ahikar as found in the Story of Ahikar was adopted into Judaism, Crossan asserts that “the Story of Ahikar, with its sequential elements of Situation, Accusation, Condemnation, Deliverance, and Restoration, is the generic model for a whole set of stories about pious Jews wrongly accused but eventually vindicated, especially in a Diaspora setting and a court location.”[5] Crossan even posits the story of Nadin’s death as a literary constituent in the Lukan version of the death of Judas (Acts 1:18-20). Noting that the Story of Ahikar consists of two parts, that is, “a story of vindicated innocence and a collection of wise sayings integrated into it in various ways in different manuscripts”, he further contends that it “shows how a collection of wise sayings and a story of vindicated innocence belong to the same tradition.” And Crossan then concludes: “it is not surprising that, just as some in the early Christian wisdom tradition were interested in collecting Jesus’ wise sayings, others were interested in Jesus’ passion-resurrection modeled on those court tales of vindicated innocence.”[6]

Nickelsburg, however, is of the opinion that it is the account in Wisdom, chapter 2 and chapters 4-5, that is the generic model of the wisdom tale; and, through form-critical analysis of the content of these chapters, Nickelsburg has detailed the structure and components of this genre.

Wisdom of Solomon
2, 4-5

Historical Context

While Jewish tradition attributes the work known as the Wisdom of Solomon to “wise” king Solomon, it seems to have been written by a representative of the persecuted Jewish community in Alexandria, Egypt, sometime between 30 BCE and 41 CE. In a recent study, David Winston points out that Roman control of Egypt which began in 30 BCE under Augustus serves as the terminus post quem (30 BCE) for the composition of the Wisdom of Solomon, with its terminus ante quem lying somewhere between 37 and 41 CE, that is, during the reign of Gaius Caligula.[7]
Hans Hübner in Die Weisheit Salomons agrees with Winston’s dating of the book.[8] Winston suggests that the address to the rulers of the four corners (or: the four ends) of the earth (6:1) and the reference in 14:17 to the remoteness of their dwelling (“they lived at a distance”) indicate the Augustan rule over Egypt.[9] He proceeds to note that the intensity of the hatred toward some Egyptians found in the Wisdom of Solomon can only reflect the persecution of the Jewish community in Alexandria at the hands of Greeks who were aided and abetted by native Egyptians in the Augustan age. [10] The persecuted righteous man in Wisdom 2:12-20 can therefore be identified with Israel (see 2:18 and 18:13),[11] that is, Israelites who lived in Alexandria and were being persecuted in the fourth quarter of the first century BCE.

Literary Structure

Nickelsburg divides the story in Wisdom chapters 2, 4-5 into two main scenes. Scene one depicts the persecution of the righteous man (2:12-20) who, as noted above, can be identified with Israel (see 2:18 and 18:13). His persecutors are the unnamed wealthy (5:8). The exhortation that kings and judges should not behave as do the ungodly (chapter 6) implies that the persecutors or foes of the righteous man (5:17-23) are kings or other rulers. As noted above, these are most likely Greeks and native Egyptians in Alexandria, in the period after Roman rule began there. After the death of the unrighteous persecutors is pointed to as a future event (“they will become dishonored corpses”, and “the memory of them will perish”; see 4:18c-19), scene two consists of the confrontation between the righteous man, now “numbered among the children of God” (5:5), that is, after his death, and his persecutors (4:20-5:14).

Scene one begins with a conspiracy by the ungodly (the antagonists) against the righteous man (the protagonist):

Let us lie in wait for the righteous man (2:12a).

The protagonist’s actions that provoke the antagonists both to accuse and to take action against the former are stated as:

because he is inconvenient to us
and opposes our actions;
he reproaches us for sins against the law,
and accuses us of sins against our training.
He professes to have knowledge of God,
and calls himself child (or servant) of the Lord, ...
he avoids our ways as unclean; ...
and boasts that God is his father. (2:12-16)

The righteous then begins to suffer the ordeal which leads to his shameful death; this ordeal appears to be the testing of the validity of the claims and accusations made by the righteous man:

Let us see if his words are true,
and let us test what will happen at the end of his life;
for if the righteous man is God’s child, he will help him,
and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries.
Let us test him with insult and torture,
so that we may find out how gentle he is,
and make trial of his forbearance.
Let us condemn him to a shameful death ... (2:17-20)

The word “condemn” (katadikazein) in the last line has a legal connotation; it suggests that the enemies of the innocent man have in mind a formal legal condemnation through a formal trial leading to the death sentence.

Although he experiences physical death (2:20-3:6), apparently as proof of the truth of his foes’ opinion that he is a fraud, the righteous man nevertheless is rescued and exalted by God in the supramundane sphere (5:1, 2b).

In scene two, it is the theme of the divine rescue and vindication of the righteous man which becomes the focus. Also, the enemies of the righteous man are portrayed as “shaken with dreadful fear” (5:2), “speaking to one another in repentance” and in “groaning” (5:3) when they encounter the righteous man now exalted in the heavenly court and “standing with great confidence in the presence of those who have oppressed” him (5:1a,b). In a reversal of the persecutors’ expectation, the righteous man is now “saved” (5:2b) and even acclaimed by his persecutors as “numbered among the children of God” and “among the saints” (5:5). Those who acted as persecutors in the mundane sphere now, in the heavenly court and in the presence of the vindicated righteous man, must admit their wrongdoing and face judgment and punishment: “They will come with dread when their sins are reckoned up, and their lawless deeds will convict them to their face” (4:20; 5:9-14). Clearly, scene two is the reversal of scene one.

The “Wisdom Tale” Genre and Mark’s Passion Narrative

Nickelsburg’s subsequent study of the theme of the wisdom tale genre has demonstrated that the structure and formal components of the passion narrative in the Gospel of Mark systematically parallel those of the wisdom tale, as outlined above. The following components common to this genre are found in the Markan passion narrative:[13]

Provocation (Mark 11:15-17; 14:3-9);
Conspiracy (11:18; 12:12, 13; 14:1-2, 10-11);
Trial and Accusation (14:53-64; 15:1-15);
Reaction (14:63; 15:5; cf. 2 Maccabees 7:12);
Assistance (15:9-14; cf. Daniel 6:14; Genesis 37:22, 26);
Condemnation (14:64; 15:15);
Investiture, Acclamation (15:16-20, 26, 39; cf. Wisdom 5:5);
Ordeal (15:29-30 [14:57-59]; 15:31-32; 15:36);
Prayer: Jesus’ “cry of dereliction” (15:34; cf. Psalm 22:1 and Susanna’s “cry with a loud voice” in Susanna 42-43);
Death (15:37);
Vindication: the curtain of the temple torn in two, from top to bottom, vindicating Jesus’ words against the Temple (15:38; also 14:28; 16:7);
Exaltation: Jesus will be seen as both the risen Lord and the exalted Son of Man at the Parousia or in Galilee (Mark 14:62; and 14:28 par. 16:7. By contrast, in Wisdom 5:1-2 the vindication of the righteous one takes place only in the heavenly court).

These parallels in structure, components and sequence between Mark’s passion narrative and the genre of the wisdom tale have caused Nickelsburg to conclude that Mark is indebted to the wisdom tale, and that Mark’s deviations from the genre and the peculiarities of his use of it may indicate, on the one hand, his own distinctive purpose in the passion narrative, and, on the other hand, new insights into the question of Mark’s redaction of a pre-Markan passion narrative.[14]

For Crossan, however, the genre of the wisdom tale makes better sense if it is compared with the Cross Gospel rather than to the Markan gospel.[15] Crossan notes that, as with the suffering innocent in the wisdom tale, Jesus in the Cross Gospel is vindicated in the sight of his enemies, with the result that they are forced to concede the truth before a neutral authority. Crossan also notes that Pilate confesses in Gospel of Peter 11:46, as, for example, Darius does in Daniel 6:26-27. Against Crossan, however, it can be pointed out that the vindication of the suffering righteous in the wisdom tale takes place in the supramundane court (as, for example, in Wisdom 5:1-5), whereas the vindication of Jesus in the gospels occurs by divine intervention in earthly life.

Adela Yarbro Collins has rightly remarked both that Nickelsburg’s analysis tends to be abstract so that major differences between the stories are neglected and that, because of his concentration on the plot of the wisdom tale, he pays little attention to other significant features of this genre.[16] For instance, Collins notes that Nickelsburg applies the narrative component “Rescue” both to stories in which the righteous person is rescued from death here and now and to stories in which the vindication takes place after death.[17] Collins puts forth two other objections to Nickelsburg’s analysis. Firstly, the gospel passion narrative is not the same kind of text as passages such as Wisdom 2 and 5; the latter must be classed as a protreptic or exhortatory discourse, or as diatribe, a type of popular moral speech.[18] Secondly, although the wisdom tale has a narrative form as does the passion narrative, nevertheless, the most important element in the latter, namely a full account of the death of the righteous sufferer, is not a feature of the wisdom tale. (There are only four verses in Wisdom, viz. Wisdom 2:17-20, which have a relationship with the death of the innocent sufferer.) Collins should be judged correct in stating that the wisdom tale genre lacks a “death narrative” because of the predominantly protreptic quality. Therefore, it is inadequate to classify the gospel passion narratives in the genre of the wisdom tale; in determining the correct classification, alternative literary models are needed. Relying heavily on Dormeyer’s Die Passion Jesu als Verhaltensmodell,[19] Collins suggests that Greek and Roman stories of the noble deaths of famous men and Hellenistic martyrs provide the more precise generic matrix for the gospel passion narratives.


[1] Nickelsburg, Jr., Resurrection. Nickelsburg employs the term “intertestamental” to refer to the period between 200 BCE and 100 CE in which a large number of non-Christian, Jewish writings were produced (p. 9 n.1).

[2] The complete Ahikar Story survives in four versions: Syriac A, Syriac B, Arabic and Armenian. The first and only authority for the original text of the story of Ahikar is the fragmentary Aramaic papyrus, discovered at Elephantine by Dr. Rubensohn in the excavation of 1906-1908. The MS is unfortunately imperfect, was written somewhere between 420- 400 BCE or between 550-450 BCE. For an English translation of the four versions, see J. Rendel Harris, Agnes Smith Lewis, and F. C. Conybeare, “The Story of Ahikar” in R. H. Charles (ed.), The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in English (with introduction and critical and explanatory notes) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 19131, 1978) 2.715-784.

[3] James H. Charlesworth (ed.), The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. 2 vols. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983-1985) 2.479.

[4] See Harris et al., “The Story of Ahikar”, 776.

[5] Who Killed Jesus?, 74f., 192-95; Historical Jesus, 383-85.

[6] Who Killed Jesus?, 74f., 192-95; cf. Historical Jesus, 384.

[7] David Winston, The Wisdom of Solomon. A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 43; Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 19812 [19791]) 20-25. See especially Winston’s commentary on Wisdom 6:1,3; 14:16,17,20; 17:16; 19:13-17; and on Wisdom 3:18; 5:16-23. Winston faults Nickelsburg who dates the Wisdom of Solomon to the first century BCE, and the latter also notes that the tradition preserved in it antedated the book, therefore a date in the second century BCE can be assigned to it (Nickelsburg, Resurrection, 70, 78). Samuel Holmes set its terminus a quo between 70-50 BCE, and terminus ad quem between 5 BCE–5 CE (see R. H. Charles, Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, 520f.).

[8] Hans Hübner, Die Weisheit Salomons. Liber Sapientiae Salomonis (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1999) 17-19.

[9] Winston, Wisdom, 21.

[10] Winston, Wisdom, 23.

[11] Winston, Wisdom, 24 n.35.

[12] Nickelsburg, Resurrection , 59 n.34.

[13] Nickelsburg, “The Genre and Function of the Markan Passion Narrative,” 153-84; cf. Table One (Generic Components: Stories of Persecution and Vindication) in this article (pp. 158f), and Table II (The Wisdom Tale) in Resurrection, 56f.

[14] For a summary of studies (until 1976) on a pre-Markan passion narrative, see John R. Donahue’s introduction of The Passion in Mark: Studies on Mark 14-16 (ed. Werner H. Kelber; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976) 8-16 [1-20]. However, Raymond E. Brown recently cautions that attempts at determining the contents of a pre-Markan passion narrative are “self-defeating” because of the sharp differences they have produced to the effect that “no theory will ever get wide or enduring acceptance.” (Brown, Death of Messiah, 1.23; see also 2.1492-1524 in which we find (as the Appendix IX) the article of Prof. Marion L. Soards (first published in Biblebhashyam 11 [1985] 144-69), “The Question of a PreMarcan Passion Narrative.” Soards’ article has been reviewed by F. Neirynck in Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 70 (1994) 407ff. Brown’s point “is not so consoling” for Crossan who is proposing a pre-Petrine source, the Cross Gospel, in the Gospel of Peter. Crossan complains and simultaneously utters his hope, “What chance does an extracanonical source have if an intracanonical one has never achieved a glimmer of consensus? Maybe, however, the Cross Gospel is the very pre-Markan source.” (Crossan, Birth of Christianity, 505).

[15] Birth of Christianity, 505.

[16] Adela Yarbro Collins, “The Genre”, 4-5 [3-28].

[17]Against Lothar Ruppert who states, “Wie die endzeitliche Verherrlichung des bzw. bedrängten Gerechten gedacht wurde [vgl. Weish 5,1-7], ob als Auferstehung oder Entrückung, ist für das Motive nicht konstitutiv, und daher belanglos.” (Der leidende Gerechte, 191).

[18] Collins, “The Genre”, 23 n.14. On diatribe, see further Stanley K. Stowers, The Diatribe and Paul’s Letter to the Romans (SBL Dissertation Series 57; Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1981) esp. 48, 75-78. See also David E. Aune, The New Testament and Its Literary Environment (ed. Wayne A. Meeks; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987) 200-202, 208, 219-220; idem, “The Diatribe” in David E. Aune (ed.), Greco-Roman Literature, 71-83.

[19] Detlev Dormeyer, Die Passion Jesu als Verhaltensmodell: Literarische und theologische Analyse der Traditions-und Redaktionsgeschichte der Markuspassion (Neutestamenliche Abhandlungen Neue Folge 11; Münster: Aschendorff, 1974).