Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 11 (2011) - Review

Crenshaw, James L., Old Testament Wisdom: An Introduction (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2010). Pp. xviii+308. Softcover. US$29.95. ISBN 978-0-664-23459-1.

In its third edition, James Crenshaw's Old Testament Wisdom will reach a fourth decade of readers. Crenshaw has largely left intact the shape and text of the chapters, though, as he indicates in his preface, this edition includes several new features. The works cited section has been updated to include recent research. He has also added a chapter on the acquisition of knowledge, a section on wisdom literature at Qumran, a discussion of how the Gospels depict Jesus' use of Job and Ecclesiastes in his teachings, a renewed treatment of “wisdom psalms,” and a discussion of wisdom literature from Emar and Ugarit in ancient Syria.

The book ensconces Crenshaw as one of the leading wisdom scholars of our age. In a long and distinguished career he has given us a clear example of a way to conduct research that honors both critical and theological commitments.

The introduction and first two chapters present wisdom both from a conceptual perspective and from within Crenshaw's view of the development of the ancient wisdom tradition. These chapters take us back to Crenshaw's earliest work in the late 1960s where he labored diligently to protect wisdom as a distinct genre, clearly set apart from law, history, prophets, and cult. For Crenshaw, “wisdom is the reasoned search for specific ways to assure well being and the implementation of those discoveries in daily existence” (p. 16); in the language of the wisdom literature, the goal is to impart “life.”

Crenshaw assumes the evolutionary development of Israelite religion, postulating that an independent social class of wisdom scribes emerged and compiled the wisdom documents we have today. With his sophisticated literary perspective, he argues that passages like Job 28 and 42 as well as the epilogues in Ecclesiastes were additions to previously established texts. While these are well-received theories today, Crenshaw follows others in the risk of being too confident in the results of the short-lived critical disciplines. For one, Crenshaw must assume that he is able to piece together literary development of texts with scant manuscript evidence to work with. He also has to assume a remarkable level of insight into the abilities and intentions of the ancient writers, often knowing better than they, how a text fits or does not fit into a literary context.

Chapters 3 through 7 present introductory studies of Israel's ancient wisdom texts. Though brief, these chapters in no way detract from the richness in these biblical texts. Crenshaw uses his own perspectives to navigate the most debated issues in scholarship yet without overwhelming the reader with forced opinions.

According to Crenshaw, Proverbs aims to impart knowledge of universal order. Armed with this knowledge, readers are empowered to pursue the well-lived life. Proverbs is the most optimistic wisdom literature, though it has many sections that show an awareness of the limits of human knowledge, the corruptness of human nature, and the freedom of the divine will. Contrary to the beliefs of many scholars today, Crenshaw believes that the book rejects the modern distinction between secular and sacred and thus also refuses to accept the common idea that early, secular wisdom was later infused with the piety of Israel's post-exilic history. All wisdom is written from a distinctly religious perspective.

In contrast to the optimism in Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes represent Israel's crisis literature. Job is portrayed as wisdom in search of divine presence—a search propelled by two overriding questions: “Does disinterested piety exist and what explains innocent suffering?” (p. 103). Crenshaw also offers his readers helpful connections between the many genres in the book (narrative, lament, dirge, and debate) and suggests ways in which they help us to appropriate the book as wisdom for today.

The chapter on Ecclesiastes bears witness to the extraordinary expertise Crenshaw has gained in his many years as a scholar. For him, Ecclesiastes is pessimistic complaint literature, responding to the naïve assumptions of traditional wisdom. He believes that the opinions of the two epilogists (Eccl 12:9–14) have been added to Qohelet's previously independent text, resulting in a final text that encourages a healthy skepticism. His arguments, now well known across the discipline, are nuanced here to answer new questions that have arisen in modern scholarship.

In chapter 6, Crenshaw makes use of the most recent insights we have into to the date and provenance of Sirach in order to provide a convincing account for how the two traditions of law and wisdom came together in this text as they did: along with the piety and mercy in the Torah and the universal sense of reality in the wisdom school, Ben Sira borrows forms of debate in Qohelet and perspectives in Hellenism to create a new portrait of faith relevant for Israel in his day. In this world where Israel's doubts are mounting, “theology prevailed over the experiential tradition,” and Ben Sira leaves readers with the sure expectation of a day of future mercy (p. 176).

Chapter 7 treats the Wisdom of Solomon (Wisdom), wisdom in Psalms, and wisdom in other apocryphal and rabbinic literature. In all of these texts, wisdom plays a transitional role in the emergence of Christianity, connecting the mediating nature of Greek logos with Hebrew wisdom, and thus providing for a way to bridge the felt gap between mortals and God. According to Crenshaw, Logos, born in the God man Jesus, is the final step in this bridge, allowing for God's full revelation of wisdom to humanity.

A new addition, Chapter 8 captures the wisdom literature's depiction of the human pursuit of the knowledge of God. Here Crenshaw exhibits the great extent of his learning as he ably tackles the complicated relationship between wisdom, revelation, nature, conscience, and natural theology as they have emerged in the history of ideas. Whereas the mood of the Enlightenment encouraged a comprehensive pursuit of knowledge, the wisdom literature is essentially able to anticipate its eventual failure, reminding us of the limits of human experience and knowledge. Wisdom thus has ethical lessons for our epistemology, leading us to adopt a humble perspective of “mutual giving and receiving” in the pursuit of knowledge. Crenshaw concludes this remarkable chapter: “I for one am eternally grateful that Israel's sages did not abandon reason for faith but tried to the best of their ability to actualize a reciprocating touch that even Michelangelo did not envision when depicting the origin of humankind” (p. 225).

Chapter 9 offers a theological summary of “Wisdom's Legacy,” which, Crenshaw suggests, consists of three lessons: (1) a skepticism of doubting thoughts amidst an affirming faith, (2) an alternative to the overly optimistic structures of the Yahwistic worldview, and (3) an ability to cope with the realities of faithful religion in the midst of an increasingly complex world.

The final chapter gives a brief comparison of Israelite wisdom with its Egyptian and Mesopotamian neighbors.

Typical of Crenshaw's writing the book is eloquent and clear though, in an increasingly technological age, one wonders how texts like this will be received by undergraduates of the future. We can hope that it reinvigorates a love for language and good writing that takes time both to compose and to savor.

There are only a few minor faults that I can add to the brief criticism of historical method above. Crenshaw's chapter on Ecclesiastes typifies a minor weakness in his overall methodology. Perhaps so convinced by his own view, he fails to represent fully the arguments for reading Ecclesiastes as a whole as well as perspectives on the rhetoric and irony in Qohelet's individualistic and pessimistic tone. He also takes for granted the rather simple caricature of Deuteronomy (and Torah) as a tradition grounded in the absolute causality between deed and reward, despite the clear signs we get in Deuteronomy that Israel was not chosen for its greatness or merits (7:6–8; 9:6–8). (On the contrary, Israel's election in the past and rescue from a future day of apostasy are both grounded in Yahweh's free determination to love whomever he wills [30:1–20]). This caricature of course allows Crenshaw to separate wisdom, law and prophecy into their often overly neat categories. He needs to say more in answer to scholars who argue that a shared worldview exists between wisdom and law.

These of course hardly detract from a time-tested masterpiece. The book is essential to everyone with even the remotest of interests in the wisdom literature.

Ryan P. O'Dowd, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY