Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 17 (2017) - Review

Sneed, Mark R., The Social World of the Sages: An Introduction to Israelite and Jewish Wisdom Literature (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015). Pp. 450. Paperback. US$44.00. ISBN 978-1451470369.

In The Social World of the Sages Mark Sneed has provided two services to the scholarly community. First, he has given us a sociological introduction to Hebrew wisdom that situates it broadly within the cultural milieu of the ANE. Second, for the “growing minority” of scholars who are dissatisfied with the intellectual alienation of the wisdom tradition from the rest of the Hebrew Bible (HB), Sneed has provided an introduction that argues compellingly for a more integrated understanding of wisdom within the thought world of the HB. Sneed's underlying thesis is that the wisdom books (like all books of the HB) came from the hands of scribes, and thus represent one mode of literature that was studied and produced by them. To support this thesis, the bulk of the book is devoted to sketching the socio-historical contexts of the sages rather than surveying specific texts.

In the first chapter, Sneed sets out the question “Who were the Hebrew sages and what did they do?” (p. 1). Much of the chapter is a descriptive catalogue of types of wisdom and types of sages. Already beginning to challenge the consensus views, Sneed argues that “sage” is not as clearly defined a category as “prophet” or “priest” (p. 1–2). He defines wisdom as “an ability, gift, or skill. In a nutshell it is intelligence, especially a high cognitive ability” (p. 3), but also notes that the term can describe a lifestyle, i.e., Lebenskunst (p. 19–20). Accordingly, Sneed makes it clear that wisdom has her hand in every sphere of society, and his sages include parents, elders, judges, kings, courtiers, magicians, and wise scribes. Not all scribes were wise scribes, according to Sneed, but those who were, e.g., Ben Sira, were the scholars of ancient Israel and the authors of the wisdom literature.

In chapters 3–5 Sneed situates Israelite wisdom and scribalism (chapter 5) within the broader world of the ANE (chapters 3–4). In accord with his broader scholarly agenda, Sneed is concerned to make a case that wisdom was simply one mode of literature in which scribes were trained and not a particular philosophy or theological school (p. 182).[1] “Israelite apprentice scribes would have never just studied the wisdom literature in their training. They would have had to work with a number of genres, both administrative and scholarly” (p. 182). Since the concrete evidence on scribalism in ancient Israel is admittedly scarce (p. 179), Sneed depends on analogy with the larger body of evidence available from the ANE in order to reconstruct a possible course of study for young Israelite scribes (p. 180–81). To this end, chapter 3 details Sumerian, Akkadian, and Egyptian scribalism, focusing on roles in society, the curricula of schools, and the national literatures while chapter 4 focuses on scribalism in the “Western Periphery,” i.e., Syria-Palestine. While he keeps the discussion accessible and brisk, Sneed's argument is quite rigorous moving through a huge amount of evidence and material and engaging a number of hotly contested debates such as the extent of literacy in ancient Israel (p. 152–53) and the presence and structure of schools (p. 153–56).

In chapter 6, Sneed argues that what are commonly called genres in Biblical Studies (e.g., apocalyptic, history, prophecy, wisdom) are more properly termed “modes” of literature (p. 190). Each mode of literature contains many genres (e.g., aphorism, riddle, narrative). Drawing on genre theory, Sneed confronts the majority opinion that wisdom represents “a distinct worldview within the Hebrew Bible” (p. 206–14). It rather reflects the particular concerns of its mode, which are different from the concerns of legal, historical, or prophetic material and intended to inculcate different values (p. 215). In chapter 7, Sneed presents a basic introduction to Hebrew poetry and applies the categories of Greek rhetoric to the HB. Sneed argues that it is not merely the content of wisdom literature but also its very form that seeks to educate its students.

In chapter 8, Sneed describes “the honor culture grid” that he believes best explains the social worldview of the Israelite scribes (p. 262). Although he recognizes that some anthropologists are cautious about applying this grid to biblical texts, he argues with many examples and parallels that it is the best way to understand Israelite society as depicted in the HB (p. 259–62). Sneed is to be commended for providing an unusually thorough analysis of the honor-shame cultural grid, including discussing categories such as power, prestige, the corporate and the individual, limited good, patron-client relationships, eudemonism, and core/means values. He concludes that wisdom is a means value, i.e., it is desirable for its ability to bring one honor, which is the core value the sages seek (p. 283). This particular sociological approach leads to an overall cynical take on the sages and their worldview. Sneed argues that they are chauvinistic (p. 293), eudemonistic and individualistic (p. 279). Thus he elevates the social and material spheres above theology and ethics. His readings will no doubt be problematic to many interpreters and compelling to others. For my part I found them at once thought provoking and too simplistic. If these same scribes were engaging actively in other modes of Israelite literature (e.g., prophetic), then how do the ethics and theology of those texts inform wisdom? What are the common assumptions that tie Israelite thought together? My own answers to these questions suggest that the sociological lens, while indispensable, is of limited rather than comprehensive value in approaching the wisdom literature.

Chapters 9–13 survey Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Ben Sira and Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom Psalms and DSS wisdom. These chapters address many important topics, but fail to provide a clear picture of each text, much less particularly fresh readings. Indicative of this is the disappearance of the summary/conclusion sections that were a mainstay of the first 8 chapters. Sneed's work would be more helpful, and indeed compelling, if he had integrated the discussions of the specific wisdom texts into the broader argument about scribalism and the role of wisdom in Israelite society. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the entire book lacks a conclusion. As it stands, after 396 pages the book simply ends with a paragraph about the presentation of the afterlife in 4QInstruction. One helpful approach Sneed could have adopted would have been to confine his survey of each chapter specifically to the social world he described in chapter 8, thus providing a series of helpful essays, e.g., “the social world of Job” or “the social world of Ben Sira.” While his book sketches the historical-cultural world of the scribes it succeeds marvelously, but when it becomes an uneven survey of texts it is less helpful and one might long for a more traditional approach to the theology, themes, structure, and introductory issues.

Sneed offers a descriptive introduction that is approachable by the non-specialist or beginning student without abandoning rigor, technical arguments, or scholarly engagement. Sneed writes clearly with an easy-to-follow style, he uses the simplest transliteration techniques possible for Hebrew, there are good visual aids (charts, iconography), and he doesn't assume even a cursory knowledge of the HB or its scholarship. Moreover, the large font size, generous spacing, and use of endnotes make this almost 400-page tome far less daunting than it appears. This would be a brilliant introduction for a seminary or advanced undergraduate course and could serve a graduate course if paired with the right supplements. Though there are many points that demand to be contested or nuanced, Sneed's work deserves attention because he has effectively described the social context and worldview of the sages such that many long-held consensus views about wisdom are challenged.

Alexander T. Kirk, Training Leaders International

[1] Mark R. Sneed (ed.), Was There a Wisdom Tradition?: New Prospects in Israelite Wisdom Studies (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2015); and “Was There a Wisdom Tradition?” CBQ 73 (2011), 50–71. reference