Should we could consider Jesus’ parables and sayings as the New Testament equivalent of wisdom literature, and, if so, in what ways we should understand what Jesus says to be different from the books of the Old Testament that we commonly label “Wisdom Literature”?
First, I want to defend the idea that Jesus frequently teaches in a style and function that we can (and should) define as “wisdom.” I will use the definition that Proverbs gives of wisdom literature to get us going: “Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance, to understand a proverb and a saying, the words of the wise and their riddles” (Prov. 1:5-6). Solomon here gives us a pretty wide stylistic definition for wisdom literature, but the essential thing, I think, is that wisdom literature is advice on how to live wisely–that is, how to live skillfully (the basic meaning of the Hebrew word chokmah).
Solomon defines such skillful living in the very next verse: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov. 1:7). I would also point out that the style of wisdom literature in Proverbs does not exactly match what we see in the book of Job, which functions in a more speculative manner. In other words, we don’t really get advice on living from Job, but it causes us to think about the way in which God has wisely ordained the world to work. So, in summary, “wisdom literature” is very broad indeed, but it deals with either (1) instructional wisdom for skillful living, or (2) speculative wisdom that tackles life’s big questions.
Because of all of this, I don’t think that there should be any problem with labeling much of what Jesus says as wisdom. His parables often act as riddles, and his “kingdom ethic” clearly gives us advice about skillful living (e.g., those who exalt themselves do not live skillfully and will be humbled, but those who humble themselves do live skillfully and will be exalted, etc…). I think that we can easily call what Jesus does (in some places, at least) as his own “wisdom,” different from other genres of law, narrative, poetry, and epistle, and so I would be interested if anyone has any further objections to why we couldn’t differentiate the genres this way.
But let’s get back to the original question: what is the essential difference between what Jesus teaches and what we find in the Old Testament Wisdom Literature? In my mind, the essential difference is that the Old Testament writers taught the wisdom that they had sought out and learned; Jesus, on the other hand, is himself the definition of the wisdom that he taught (cf. 1 Cor. 1:30).
I have really been wrestling since Wednesday with what that might mean, and I would like to suggest the following explanation. Let’s say that a group of people wanted to measure everything they did by a standard of whether I, Jacob Gerber, would do it. (God forbid that anyone ever makes this kind of WWJD bracelets!) So, they would try to match exactly my courage as well as my fear, my love as well as my conceitedness, etc… How would they go about determining that exact balance? Certainly, they would have to look at me and at my life.
But let’s ask another question: How do I know how to live according to Jacob-ness? Is it an external, objective quality that I have simply mastered, or do I simply live according to Jacob naturally? In other words, am I simply the best at being Jacob, or do I define what it is to be Jacob? I think the answer is clearly the latter.
In the same way, when we say that Christ is our wisdom, we are not simply saying that Christ is the wisest of all that have ever lived, as though wisdom is a quality outside of him that he happened to master. Rather, he defines what it is to be wise. So, it is somewhat misleading to say that Jesus teaches wisdom if we think along the lines of the way in which Solomon and the other wisdom writers of the Old Testament taught wisdom. Rather, we are almost saying that Jesus teaches himself, and, in a sense, Solomon and the gang were trying to teach the personality of Jesus (even if they didn’t really know who he would be) in what they wrote.
Perhaps this is what Jesus meant when he told the crowds, “The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here” (Luke 11:31).
So, when we study wisdom literature (in the Old Testament or in what Jesus teaches), we are trying to learn and imitate his personality. We are trying to become like Jesus, because to become like Jesus is to become wise. And here is why seeking wisdom is important: this sort of wisdom transcends our ideas of personal holiness, because wisdom is a much broader category than morality, although it certainly encompasses it. Generally, when we think of morality, we reduce everything either to terms of niceness or of boldness for the truth. Wisdom, however, shows us not only when to encourage children with perfect tenderness to come to us and when to drive people out of temples with whips, but also when we should ask our antagonists pointed questions and when we should stand silent in the face of our accusers.
Therefore be wise, just as your Savior in heaven is wise.