What is wisdom? Even humble attempts to explore the concept—for example, by asking one’s friends to define it—will reveal quite a variety of interpretations. However, all of them will revolve around understanding the way things are, knowing the way they work, making the right decisions, and advising others what the right thing to do is. Webster’s dictionary contains six definitions of the word: “accumulated philosophical or scientific learning,” “ability to discern inner qualities and relationships,” “good sense,” “generally accepted belief,” “a wise attitude, belief, or course of action,” and “the teachings of the ancient wise men” (Merriam-Webster’s, 2008, p. 1437). In different contexts, the word is connected to knowledge, insight, and judgment. Oxford dictionary (2010) offers three definitions: “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment; the quality of being wise,” “the fact of being based on sensible or wise thinking,” and “the body of knowledge and experience that develops within a specified society or period” (p. 2036). It cannot pass unnoticed that the word has strong positive connotations.
Concerning wisdom as the quality of a person, it has been regarded as a virtue by many religions. In fact, in Hinduism and Buddhism, achieving enlightenment, which can be regarded as the ultimate degree of wisdom, is the goal of all spiritual practices developed by those religions. For Christians, being wise is important, too. However, the exploration of this concept from the Christian perspective should not be limited to dictionary definitions, and analysis of Scripture is required to gain insight into what is meant by wisdom. To address the initial biblical (i.e. original Christian) understanding of wisdom, three examples from the Old Testament and three examples from the New Testament will be examined and compared.
The Old Testament uses different words that can be translated into English as “wisdom;” however, the one that is used the most is “chokhmah” (Shapiro, 1971). The word is strongly connected to knowledge and can be defined as proficient knowledge or being very well-learned and educated in a particular subject or in general. Until today, the word can be found in Hebrew titles for rabbis who have dedicated many years of their lives to studying Scripture and are recognized as experts in it. However, the word can refer to skillfulness, too (which is the case for its English counterpart as well). Another word in the Old Testament that can be translated as “wisdom” is “Binah”; in some contexts, however, it is translated as “understanding” to avoid confusion with “chokhmah” because they are used in the same verses. This suggests that the original text differentiates between the meanings of the two worlds, and they are not synonyms, although both can mean “wisdom” in certain contexts. One more Hebrew word for “wisdom” that can be found in the Old Testament is “sakhal;” it primarily refers to a person’s behavior that helps him or her manage practical affairs successfully and avoid trouble. Therefore, it can be referred to as wisdom, too, and possible synonyms for the word are caution, discretion, prudence, and circumspection.
To examine the specific features of the words’ meanings, it is necessary to turn to particular verses in which they are used. A verse that demonstrates one of the aspects of the word “chokhmah” is Exodus 28:3 (New International Version) that reads, “Tell all the skilled workers to whom I have given wisdom in such matters that they are to make garments for Aaron, for his consecration, so he may serve me as a priest.” Wisdom in this context refers to a certain set of knowledge and skills that allow a certain degree of proficiency in performing particular tasks.
There is also a verse that demonstrates the difference between “chokhmah” (wisdom) and “Binah” (in this context, understanding): “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10, New International Version). This verse reveals a specific difference between various aspects of wisdom in terms of the Christian understanding of God. Finally, a verse that shows an example of the use of the word “sakhal” is Joshua 1:8 (New International Version): “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.” The idea of succeeding in life is closely connected in this context to discretion and prudence and conveyed by the use of the word “sakhal.”
Although only three verses were shown above, more than three distinct visions of wisdom have been presented. In the case of “chokhmah,” wisdom can refer both to proficient knowledge and skillfulness. The former is theoretical, and the latter is practical; however, what they have in common, is that “chokhmah” is something one should learn and try to master. From this perspective, wisdom is an achievement; it requires substantial effort. If someone is granted “chokhmah,” this can rather be seen as a miraculous event because most people need to work hard to achieve it, albeit a skill or a body of knowledge. Therefore, this notion, which is the leader in the Old Testament in terms of being translated into English as “wisdom,” means knowing how to do something better than others and being capable of more meaningful judgments based on the expertise one has earned. It is noteworthy that, from this perspective, one cannot be born wise; wisdom is rather a quality on which one should work.
The second word, “Binah,” is translated as “wisdom” in some contexts, but not in the context presented above. It is a different aspect of being wise that is not equal to “chokhmah,” and the verse from the Book of Proverbs illustrates the difference. This verse shows the way of a Christian’s cognition of God. First, the fear of death and supernatural forces that humans cannot control prompts them to study the word of God—“[t]he fears of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom”—and this training further allows gaining insight into the God’s intention for creation—“knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10, New International Version).
In this context, wisdom is not merely knowledge and skills one acquires during his or her life but the enlightenment he or she achieves as a result of this hard learning process. Therefore, “Binah” can be regarded as the next step in developing wisdom; upon accumulating a body of knowledge, one manages to comprehend it profoundly, and this is how the wisdom of a new level is achieved. The differentiation can be confusing, but it should not be disregarded that the English language has different definitions for the word “wisdom,” too (see Introduction). To illustrate this gradation, one can refer to the idea that a smart person is one who knows a lot (or a skillful person is one who can do something better than others), while a wise person is one who understands what he or she knows (or brings meaningfulness to the skill in which he or she is proficient).
Finally, the concept of “sakhal” is beyond this gradation. It refers to wisdom as the ability to be practical and to achieve benefits. At the same time, “sakhal” does not necessarily refer to selfishness; instead, it suggests that it is the wisest strategy for a person to adopt behaviors that will ultimately prevent the person from harming himself or herself. By using the term that is associated with success, the Bible suggests that the life of a Christian is not necessarily a series of sacrifices or a period of never-ceasing suffering. On the contrary: if a person is committed to certain moral values, it will bring him or her prosperity and success, and this is why it is wise for Christians to follow the word of God because the reward will come not only after death but before it, too: living the life of a committed believer is hard in this regard but wise from the perspective of a Christian. It is prudent to live according to the way God wants humans to live—not only because going to heaven or hell will depend on the compliance with God’s commandments but also because rewards for the period of one’s earthly life exist, and the verse seems to support this idea.
In the New Testament, the variations in meanings are somewhat less confusing for the concept of wisdom, and what is translated into English as “wisdom” is the word “Sophia” in most cases (Schroer, 2000). This word is still present in English—not only as a popular female name but also as root in such words as sophisticated or philosophy (the latter means love for wisdom). However, a closer examination reveals that there are Greek words used in different parts of the New Testament that can be associated with the notion of wisdom, too, and two prominent ones are “Epignosis” and “sunesis.” The former word’s root refers to knowledge and can be seen in such English words as “cognition” and “recognize;” however, it should be acknowledged that “gnosis” is not knowledge as such but something that can be described as primary knowledge, i.e. achieved by empirical or organoleptic methods—by trying or sensing—or revealed to someone by supreme forces.
It is not something that someone tells a person; it is something a person gets to know through experience. The prefix of the word “Epignosis” suggests that it is something above knowledge and can designate “true knowledge” (as opposed to superficial knowledge) or a higher level of knowing something, e.g. by intuition. However, the meanings may vary in different contexts. The other word—“sunesis”—can be translated as “understanding”, i.e. gaining insight into the knowledge one possesses. “Sunesis” refers to the result of reasoning and examining facts and designates the transition of mind from knowing what things are to understanding the way they work.
Many verses in the New Testament use the word “Sophia;” a major one is Mark 6:2 which reads, “What’s this wisdom that has been given him [Jesus]? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing?” (New International Version). This verse refers to Jesus Christ’s teaching in the synagogue and people’s reaction to it. It shows that wisdom (“Sophia”) is something evident in one’s words: what he or she says and perhaps how it is said. A verse that uses the word “Epignosis” is Romans 1:28, and it is translated as “knowledge” there, although it can be understood as wisdom, too; the verse reads, “Furthermore, just as they [people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness] did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind so that they do what ought not to be done” (New International Version). It should be noted that, according to the definition of “epignosis,” this knowledge had been granted to people but refused or neglected, and this led them to shameful deeds. Finally, the word “sunesis” is used in Luke 2:47 that reads, “Everyone who heard him [Jesus] was amazed at his understanding and his answers” (New International Version). It means that the listeners of Jesus Christ’s teachings noted not only his “Sophia” but also his insight into issues of which he spoke, and this is what “sunesis”—translated as “understanding” in this version—designates.
An important aspect of the use of the word “Sophia” in the New Testament is that it is presented as a quality of a person that can be recognized from hearing the person speak. There is a persisting question in the analysis of the concept of wisdom: how can one who is not wise recognize wisdom? If wisdom is understood as a particularly high level of perceiving and understanding things, how can one who is not on this level make judgments as per whether certain statements are wise or not? However, the Bible shows that people called some other people wise (and they still do); does it mean that those people implied that there were wise, too (since a wise person only can tell a wise person from non-wise)? Different answers can be given, but the mechanism of recognizing someone as a wise person seems to be driven by the power of impression: when one hears a statement that makes things connect in his or her head in a meaningful way, this person feels impressed and can say that the statement is wise or that the one from whom he or she heard the statement is wise. This is what seems to have happened to the listeners of Jesus Christ’s teaching when they said “What’s this wisdom that has been given him” (Mark 6:2, New International Version). In this context, wisdom is something that causes amazement in the listeners.
Concerning the word “epignosis,” Jesus Christ uses it to designate a specific internal feeling of God and the translation of this feeling and faith into knowledge. Therefore, wisdom from this perspective can be regarded as a form of transformed knowledge: one is wise if he or she knows God and knows what God wants him or her to do, and those who lose this knowledge or suppress it engage in shameful activities. Both “Sophia” and “Epignosis” are something that develops in a person as a result of either experience or divine revelation. When it is said that “many who heard him [Jesus] were amazed” (Mark 6:2, New International Version), what is meant is that they doubted that such wisdom could have developed from experience and that it could be of divine origin. When Jesus Christ says that there are people who suppressed their “Epignosis” of God, what he means is that this knowledge had been in them already but they somehow drifted away from it. Therefore, wisdom as the knowledge of God may not necessarily be something achieved as a result of experience but something granted by God to humans as part of creating them in His image.
Finally, the meaning of the word “sunesis” is similar to that of “Sophia” but it is more specific in a way. The listeners of Jesus Christ’s teachings were amazed not at how much he knew but at his vision and interpretation of things. In this context, wisdom can be interpreted as the ability to answer questions in a way that makes sense to many people and brings them insight. It is noteworthy that Jesus Christ was just a child at the time to which Luke refers; therefore, “sunesis” cannot mean accumulated knowledge of life that is usually attributed to experienced people; instead, it is something that even a child can display in case his or her perspective and speech are appealing to the listeners and make them enlightened. When Jesus Christ’s mother tells him that she had been looking for him and was worried, he replies, “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49, New International Version); it can be interpreted as the recognition of the temple as exactly the place in which a person’s wisdom, whether “Sophia” or “sunesis,” is to be displayed.
In both Testaments, the understandings of wisdom can be generally divided into two groups: wisdom that comes from experience and wisdom that does not. In the former sense, “chokhmah” and “Sophia” are something that can be achieved by a person in case he or she learns a lot or manages to make sense of his or her experiences. Unlike “Sophia,” “chokhmah” also designates skillfulness and knowing how to do something. Interestingly, the meanings of the three words chosen from the New Testament seem to overlook the concept of skillfulness; a skillful person can possess wisdom, high knowledge, and understanding, but skillfulness itself is not something that makes him or her wise. Also, the New Testament’s words do not seem to reflect the Old Testament’s concept of “sakhal,” i.e. practical wisdom and ability to achieve success.
However, both Testaments recognize the difference between knowing and understanding (Deen & Caldwell, 2003). Although “chokhmah” is the most frequently used word for wisdom in the Old Testament, it seems to refer more to knowledge than understanding, and understanding is described by the word “Binah.” Similarly, in the New Testament, “sunesis” is different from “epignosis,” but the most frequently used word for wisdom in the New Testament—”Sophia”—unlike “chokhmah,” seems to encompass both. Finally, it is noteworthy that, in both Testaments, the notion of wisdom is connected to divine revelation in some contexts, i.e. wise people may be wise not from experience but from being granted wisdom, either from birth or from revelation.
Deen, E., & Caldwell, E. (2003). Wisdom from women in the Bible. San Francisco, CA: Harper.
Merriam-Webster’s collegiate dictionary (11th ed.). (2008). Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster.
Oxford dictionary of English (3rd ed.). (2010). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Schroer, S. (2000). Wisdom has built her house: Studies on the figure of Sophia in the Bible. New York, NY: Liturgical Press.
Shapiro, D. S. (1971). Wisdom and knowledge of God in Biblical and Talmudic thought. Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, 12(2), 70-89.