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A Good Time for Wisdom!

We are living in a time of virtually unparalleled crisis, and it is forcing us not only to cope with tragedy — either our own or that of so many millions of others — but also to make sense of it and figure it out.  It is easy to come up with simple Pollyanna views that don’t take seriously the trauma, and to cite religious mantras that try to make it sound like it is all right, when in fact it is not.  And the reality is, most people very much *don’t* want to go down the rabbit hole of deep reflection.

I certainly, absolutely, do not think this is a time for despair and complete despondency.  But I do think it is a time for thoughtful reflection, on the state of the world, on our values and priorities as a human race, a nation, a locality, and individuals.  Being in isolation for a couple of months can certainly provide us some opportunity to think about our world, our lives, our own goals and objectives, our sense of what we want to be doing with our lives (Is all the busy-ness really necessary and important to us? Do we really want to spend masses of time engaged in numbing and brainless “entertainment,” what would we really like to do with the hours we have in a week, when we are *not* forced into isolation?), and, well, the meaning of it all.  Not just the meaning of all the pain and suffering, but the meaning of existence.  Our existence.

The Bible is obviously a large and extraordinarily multi-faceted book.   It is a book worth reading and reflecting on, whether or not one is personally a believer.  I myself am no, but I cherish the Bible and am deeply moved by parts of it.  And no part of it is more important in situations like this than those that reflect on the meaning of life.   In particular there are the books in the Hebrew Bible that scholars have called “Wisdom” literature, the books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, the last of which is my favorite, not just of the Wisdom books but of all the books of the Old Testament.

I want to do a couple of posts on Wisdom literature in general and the book of Ecclesiastes in particular, before returning to my thread on the Johannine writings and community.   Here is how I explain the Wisdom literature broadly in my textbook, The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction.


Introduction to the Wisdom Literature

I can begin by providing a working definition of the books known collectively as “Wisdom.”   These are books that focus on understanding the world and on how best to live, based on an intelligent assessment of life, rather than on divine revelation to Israel.

To understand the foci of these books, it might be useful to summarize some of the distinctive features of the historical and prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible (that is, virtually all the other books!)  These feature, in broad terms, apply to books as wide ranging as Exodus, Joshua, 2 Samuel, Amos, and Ezekiel – in fact, just about all of the books we have considered so far (even, to a limited extent, the poetry and most of the short stories).   These are some of the major concerns of all that (historical and prophettic) literature:

  • God’s actions, both in the world generally and among his own people in particular
  • The history of Israel as the people of God
  • The covenant, or covenants, God has made with his people
  • The Torah, or direction/instruction he has given them (through Moses)
  • Divine revelation, where God reveals himself directly to chosen humans
  • National concerns, that is, an intense interest in the people of Israel specifically
  • Communal orientation: it is the whole people of Israel, ultimately, who are of paramount concern, even if individuals are also important within that collective

We will see that the books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes are very different from one another; but one thing that binds them together is that they lack almost completely these various concerns of the historical and prophetic writings.  These books simply are not interested in God’s historical acts, the history of the people of Israel, the covenant God has made with them, the Torah – and all the rest.   These books have a different orientation and focus, that include the following (these are broad generalizations, but they should serve to give the idea of how this literature differs from the other):

  • Universal needs, desires, and lives, rather than national. Here the nation of Israel, its history, its governance, its accomplishments, its missteps, and its punishments are not in view; the concern instead is with what it means to be human and with people in general, not just with the people of Israel.
  • Observation rather than revelation. The writer closely observes the world to see how it works, and he does not acquire his understanding from a divine revelation that has been given.
  • Individual rather than communal focus. The Wisdom literature focuses on the individual person, rather than his or her community.  How can you, as an individual, understand the meaning of life or how to live it?
  • Multi-cultural rather than Israelite. Wisdom traditions can be found in many cultures, both ancient and modern – and in many instances these traditions are very similar to one another, cross-culturally; there is nothing specifically Israelite at the heart and core of the Wisdom Traditions of the Hebrew Bible (apart from the fact that even these books acknowledge the lordship of Yahweh; but there is little in them about Israel per se).

Of the Wisdom books found in the Hebrew Bible, one, the book of Proverbs may be considered a representative of what we might call “positive wisdom.”  This is the more typical form of wisdom, both within Judaism and cross-culturally.   Positive wisdom attempts to describe the general orderliness of the world and to explain how people should live in accordance with it.  Job and Ecclesiastes have a contrary emphasis, and can be labeled “skeptical wisdom.”  These are writings that lament the world’s lack of order or the impossibility of understanding the world, and they try to explain how best to cope with life in light of this impossibility.


IN MY NEXT POST I will say a bit by way of introduction to the book of Ecclesiastes.

What Is The Meaning of Life? The Book of Ecclesiastes
Easter Reflection 2020



  1. epicurus
    epicurus  April 15, 2020

    Isolation to me means I can finally get to all those books on my shelf I haven’t had time to read.

  2. Avatar
    clerrance2005  April 15, 2020

    Prof Ehrman,
    Some scholars hold the view that aspects of the Hebrew Bible may have been influenced by ancient Mesopotamian text (Epic of Gilgamesh). Stories like the Creation story, The Great Flood, aspects of Ecclesiastes, aspects of Nebuchadnezzar etc.

    What is your thought on this please?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 17, 2020

      I think it is absolutely right!

      • Avatar
        Reptile  May 20, 2020

        Along these lines, I have wondered about the possible influence of Zoroastrian beiiefs on Jewish concepts beginning with the Babylonian captivity and Persian era. Was not a dualistic conflict between good and evil personified by one God and a Devil-like persona central to the belief system? Not quite the same as judeo-Christian beliefs, but sounds like it has parallels. I am thinking Book of Job.
        Also as the state religion of the Persians I think, Jewish writers were surely familiar with Zoroastrian beliefs.

        Just a thought beyond the true limits of my knowledge.

        • Bart
          Bart  May 22, 2020

          Yes, I deal with the question in my book on heaven and Hell. I end up arguing that the Jewish view was probably not much influenced by Persia. (I would say a bit more definitively that Job was not, since it does not have a dualistic view; “Satan” there is one of God’s advisors, not his arch-enemy)

  3. Avatar
    Mike_Burtner  April 15, 2020

    When I was experiencing my own personal ‘de-conversion’, decades ago, I found great comfort in these ‘wisdom books’. I also found value in the books of Timothy, as I felt they spoke to me in the way a caring father might speak to his own son, even if I thought he was laying it on a bit thick and is maybe coming up with a few things on-the-fly.
    It helped me realize the the Bible was, in my nascent opinion at the time, a collection of writings by well-intended people, using an ongoing narrative to reinforce current, topical narratives to guide and instruct less-educated folks. It is neither a cosmic mandate nor a conspiracy – just a set of writings that have value that persists through multiple copies and iterations, just like any other valuable content. People must find value in Batman comics; they keep printing them. I often wonder if people will debate the existence of the historical Batman 1,000 years from now. But I guarantee they will know who he was, and what he stood for. Those values reflect our time, and what is important to us. That will surely mean something to the people studying our culture in the future.

  4. Avatar
    fishician  April 15, 2020

    I chuckle when I hear people quote Proverbs as a source of parenting wisdom; have these people ever read about David’s and Solomon’s family life?! No thanks, I’ll get my parenting advice somewhere else.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 17, 2020

      Yeah, haven’t connected the dots I suppose. But hey, spare the rod and ….

  5. Avatar
    AstaKask  April 15, 2020

    Have you read Havamal – the old Viking wisdom literature? I recommend it.

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    veritas  April 15, 2020

    When I used to attend church and engage in worldly affairs with others, some would always stress their unbelief in human behaviour and the evil and suffering caused/committed willingly as such.. I would just look at them and asked them to read, Ecclesiastes 8; 11-13.( I was not very good at paraphrasing the Bible). A lot of believers are not usually familiar with the book of Ecclesiastes and would write the verses down and then approach me a week or so later, and express how relevant the scripture was to the evil of the world. Especially verse 11, I truly believed it was the answer, even today.

    • Avatar
      Niceguy  April 20, 2020

      It’s all in the John KNOX Bible: Machabees, Ecclesiastes. . .DEATH JUDGEMENT HEAVEN HELL(AND PURGATORY)

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    lderochi  April 15, 2020

    I love Ecclesiastes, looking forward to it. When I was a young Jr. High Schooler at a very conservative church camp, the camp leader encouraged us campers to spend the daily 2 hour (!) private bible study to pick a book that you weren’t already familiar with, and really dig into it. I picked Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs completely at random. Oops. I don’t think that’s what he had in mind. And thus began my long road to depart from that denomination. Took a while, but that was the start.

  8. Avatar
    Kavsor  April 16, 2020

    Professor Ehrman, synoptic gospels say that Simon of Cyrene carried the cross for Jesus but John specifically says that Jesus
    carried his own cross. My question is if it is historically accurate that the crosses or poles ( stauros) were carried to the crucifixtion site each time or were they left standing there permanently as a warning sign? I read somewhere that criminals had to carry the crossbars to the site but the poles were driven into the ground permanently. I wonder what leverage did they have to compel a person
    sentenced to death to carry the woodwork needed in order to kill him?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 17, 2020

      We don’t know. We don’t have a single source that tells us!

      • Avatar
        JuliaErgane  April 21, 2020

        If you believe the crucifixion story is true, there were actually two types of crosses which could have been used: the so-called Tau-cross which we see in most Western art, and the Chi-cross (X). The X’s were permanently installed, which made a lot of sense if there was one place of execution. Personally, I believe these are what can be called “foundational mythic” stories”, so the ones which they could imagine would give the most pain and suffering would be the preferred cross, ie. the Tau. Historically, I see the other. Neither is a nice way to be executed.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 22, 2020

          No, not a nice way to go? But I don’t know of any evidence of the two types of crosses or that they were permanently installed. (If you know of any sources of information — other than people simply saying that it was that way — let me know!)

  9. Avatar
    godspell  April 16, 2020

    Just looking at America alone, we have survived a Revolution, a Civil War, a Depression where young people had to ride freight cars in the hundreds of thousands to find work, two world wars (the second one being literally for the fate of civilization), a Cold War that could have ended in a literal Apocalypse (no need for God to get involved), a battle for civil rights that was both bloody and inspiring, and let’s not forget Disco. And in 1918, the H1N1 flu killed tens of millions around the world–nearly a million in the U.S. And let’s not forget polio, which struck at will, touching even a U.S. President. What’s changed, in many ways, is our ability to accept that we can’t control everything. We got complacent. We thought we were above Nature. So we’re more afraid, now that we have learned, once more, that is never true.

    What’s happening now is bad, on many levels, but even with the qualifier, ‘unparalleled’ is a bit much. It has all happened before, and one thing history has to teach us is that we are not alone in our misery and our doubts.

    That being said, a little wisdom now would be good, yeah.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 17, 2020

      I’m not saying it’s the only bad thing that has happened. But it is certainly unparalleled in *our* lifetimes. AT least my 64-year life time. And I would argue in my mom’s 93-year lifetime. But I absolutely don’t minimize the others, at all. Spanish flu is the obvious analogy — both epidemic and economic disaster. This one almost certainly one match the deaths; as to the economic disaster: we’ll see.

      • Avatar
        godspell  April 19, 2020

        Born 1961, and though I was largely unaware of what was happening in my natal decade at the time, I’d say that was on a different level. Vietnam, the battle for civil rights in the south (and riots in northern cities), several major assassinations, unrest all over the planet. The 60’s were a deeply unsettled time we’re nostalgic about now because of the music and fashions. Faith in the government was badly eroded under Johnson and Nixon.

        I know you didn’t mean nobody else ever had it bad. But again, history gives us perspective, teaches us that no matter how bad we think it is now, you don’t have to go back very far to find something worse. The problem may be that we have it too easy, Just staying home most of the time feels like like punishment. There have been many pandemics–this is the first one we can talk to anyone anywhere without leaving our rooms. Or read. Mind you, those people in the Decameron are having a lot more fun than I am. But they’re in a lot more danger too.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 20, 2020

          Yup, I get your point. Unprecedented doesn’t mean worse — it means there’s been nothing like it in our lifestimes (even mine, a whopping 6 years older! 🙂 )

  10. Avatar
    moose  April 16, 2020

    Mr. Ehrman.
    I would like to ask you about something strange i Deuteronomy 32:8-9:
    «When the Most High(Elyon) gave the nations their inheritance(…), the LORD’s(Yahweh’s) portion is his people»
    One interpretation of this text is that the Most High is above Yahweh, and that the Most High only gives Yahweh a portion. The reason is that the text uses two different concepts of God – Elyon and Yahweh.

    The Septuagint:
    LXX: “When the Most High(ύψιστος) divided the nations(….) And his people Jacob became the portion of the Lord(κύριος)”
    Once again we see a distinction, here between the Most High and the Lord.
    The difference between the Father and the Son seems to have been transferred to the New Testament
    The Most High – ὕψιστος (G5310)
    The Lord – κύριος (G2962)

    Luke 8:28 «What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High(ύψιστος)(G5310) God?»
    Matt 7:21 Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord(κύριος)(G2962), Lord(κύριος),’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

    As we see, the NT uses the same designations for the Father and the Son as we find in Deuteronomy 32: 8-9.
    Do you think this is a coincidence?

    • Avatar
      moose  April 16, 2020

      Think of Yahweh leading the Israelites out of Egypt and into the Promised Land, as «the light» and «the road», when reading John 10:27-29:
      «27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me:
      28 And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.
      29 My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand.»

      «My Father, which gave them me»(John) – Deuteronomy stipulates that “the Most High, El, gave to the nations their inheritance” and that “Yahweh’s portion is his people, Jacob and his allotted heritage” (32:8-9)

    • Bart
      Bart  April 17, 2020

      I don’t think these authors of Hebrew poetry had the same view of divinity as the early Christians, no. The key is to understand how Hebrew poetry uses synonymous parallelism, in which the second line of a couplet repeats the idea of hte first line using different terms. It is a ubiquitous poetic device in all teh poetic sections of the Bible. The second line is not differentiating itself from the first, but reaffirming the same thing in different terms.

      • Avatar
        moose  April 17, 2020

        Thank you for your answer, Mr. Ehrman. I totally agree that the authors of the OT didn’t have the same view as the Christians. But the real question here is how the Christians interpreted the OT. There is a great difference between a writer’s intentional opinion, and the reader’s interpreted opinion. Or worse, religious people’s quest for an underlying meaning in the text. We know they used Pesher and Midrash techniques in their quest.
        There are too many parallels between the miracles of Jesus and that of Yahweh in the OT that it can be coincidental.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 19, 2020

          Even in the Old Testament God could empower his spokespersons to do amazing miracles (think Moses; Elijah). The earliest Christians maintained God had empowered Jesus to do miracles, so that he was his spokesperson. And many of his miracles in fact *do* replicate those done by Moses and Elijah….

      • Avatar
        moose  April 18, 2020

        Can the Holy Spirit be read into the Book of Exodus?

        John: «When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father», «he will teach you all things», «When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment»

        Exodus 23:20 “See, I am sending an angel ahead of you(…) Pay attention to him and listen to what he says. Do not rebel against him; he will not forgive your rebellion, since my Name is in him. 22 If you listen carefully to what he says and do all that I say, I will be an enemy to your enemies(…) 25 Worship the Lord your God, and his blessing will be on your food and water. I will take away sickness from among you, 26 and none will miscarry or be barren in your land. I will give you a full life span.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 19, 2020

          Sure, the Holy Spirit can be read into any of the books of the OT. And often has been!

  11. Avatar
    turbopro  April 16, 2020

    Great stuff!

    I’ve been meaning to read the wisdom literature for years, but just could not bring myself to it. Maybe I shall after your mini-series.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 17, 2020

      Ecclesiastes will take an hour, max. A good hour spend. And Job? Amazing.

  12. Avatar
    Gary  April 16, 2020

    The Bible has been the cause of massive persecution, suffering, and mass murder. It may contain some fascinating stories and even a few pearls of wisdom, but for a recovering ex-fundamentalist Christian like yourself to say that he “cherishes it” is disturbing to say the least.

    I see no difference between someone “cherishing” the Bible and someone cherishing Mein Kampf. Both books preach hate. Both books preach fanaticism (follow me and abandon all else, even your family), anti-Semitism (New Testament), racial purity and ethnic cleansing (Old Testament).

    Please choose your words carefully, Dr. Ehrman. Every time you say something like this, my Christian relatives and their pastor proclaim that “Bart Ehrman is coming back to Jesus”.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 17, 2020

      Oh, I always try to choose my words carefully. Anyone who thinks I’m re-converting isn’t reading my words very carefully! I do cherish the Bible. I also cherish hundreds of other books (and artists), none of which I “believe” and many of which I think have been used for very bad purposes as well as good.

      • Avatar
        Gary  April 19, 2020

        During this terrifying health crisis, I would encourage people seeking wisdom to read a good science book. I believe that the primary reason why a significant minority of Americans are out on the streets protesting the advice of scientists and medical experts regarding quarantining is that they have spent much more time obtaining their wisdom from the Bible than they have science books.

        Cherish science, dear readers. Science is our salvation from this crisis, not ancient texts.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 20, 2020

          I certainly wouldn’t turn to a biblical author for guidance for a vaccine! But our amazing scientific advances do no help us in trying to make moral *sense* of what is happening.

          • Avatar
            Gary  April 20, 2020

            Are you seriously recommending that people turn to the Bible to make moral sense of the coronavirus pandemic??

            My goodness, Bart.

            In normal times, the Bible is certainly an interesting source of information regarding ancient Jewish philosophical concepts. I don’t dispute that. But encouraging your readers to obtain morality lessons from the misogynistic, anti-gay, anti-semitic, genocide and ethnic cleansing endorsing Bible during a deadly pandemic?? Come on.

            If you want to give recommendations regarding good sources of information regarding morality, I would suggest referring your readers to a secular humanist site, not the Christian Bible (or the Jewish Bible, or the Muslim “bible”, or the Hindu “bible”). Your opinion carries a lot of weight, Bart. Whether you like it or not you are a significant representative of the atheist/agnostic/non-supernaturalist movement, a movement which is fighting an uphill battle against the deadly beliefs and superstitions imposed on our culture by organized religion.

            Please do NOT encourage people to read the Bible to find their morality!

  13. Avatar
    Stephen  April 16, 2020

    Re: Heaven and Hell

    As you’re probably aware in the last few years the evangelical world has been roiled a bit by a new movement which coalesced under the moniker “Rethinking Hell” advocating an annihilationist perspective on divine punishment in the afterlife. Just out of curiosity I was wondering if you have been approached by anyone in this group for interviews and such since the publication of your book? (I can see where they might have mixed emotions about your work since in other aspects of the faith they seem quite traditional.)


    • Bart
      Bart  April 17, 2020

      No, but I’m publishing a piece on the Daily Beast dealing broadly with this issue.

  14. Robert
    Robert  April 16, 2020

    Just in case anyone is looking for a recommendation, my all-time favorite wisdom book: Jonah.

    Of course, it pretends to be one of the 12 minor prophets, but it’s really wisdom literature, and it is freakin’ hilarious.

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  April 18, 2020

      Jonah is hilarious? I’m going to have to re-read it now that you said that.

  15. Avatar
    Ashitindi  April 16, 2020

    I was listening to one of your debate on suffering. You said the book of Ecclesiastes has no after life. But your opposer told you to read the last verses of the book which it talks about recognizing God and after life. But you said those last verse are later addiction. May you please Cralify a little, and does it has to do with old Testament textual critism.?. Sorry my english mighty be broken one. I speak Swahili

    • Bart
      Bart  April 17, 2020

      Your English is great! I dated a young woman in college who spoke Swahili and she tried to teach me some. But it never got too far, either with the language or our relationship…. It’s a long story, but many books of the Bible have later editorial additions to them that more or less reverse their teaching because the later editor wasn’t comfortable with what it said. That happens, for example, at the end of Amos — and in Ecclesiastes.

  16. stevedemarco
    stevedemarco  April 17, 2020

    So your favorite wisdom book from the Old Testament is Ecclesiastes, what was your favorite wisdom book When you were a Christian? Have you always liked the book Ecclesiastes or when did you start taking notice of it?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 17, 2020

      I suppose as a child I never read any of the Wisdom books! Too bad. I would have lived more wisely!!

  17. Avatar
    thebigskyguy  April 17, 2020

    I considered spending this time of isolation in thought and contemplation…. but opted for jig saw puzzles instead.

  18. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  April 18, 2020

    When I still went to church the pastor ridiculed NASA efforts to identify near-earth objects that might collide with us, and the efforts made to discover how potential impacting objects might be deflected. He felt he knew the ending. It was all in the Bible. No need to worry about asteroid impacts. And probably if he’d heard anything about possible global pandemics he would have shrugged that off as well. In fact, he kept telling people that they’d all be whisked away into the clouds before anything bad could happen. No suffering in any global cataclysm for the saved! I have no idea how he’s coping with current events.
    The fact of the matter seems to be that humanity has no special place in nature. The Earth wasn’t made for us, or for any other creature. Everything is subject to change without notice. No guarantees. Any state of affairs is temporary, control is largely an illusion. I guess we should value anything good we can find. That’s pretty much what I get from Ecclesiastes. Vanity, vanity, all is vanity seems to be a great summary of what life is. Still, it does not have to be joyless.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 19, 2020

      This is why we don’t want fundamentalists heading up our crisis response teams….

  19. Avatar
    Niceguy  April 19, 2020

    “Personal beauty is a better recommendation than any letter of reference”.
    What does it suggest to you why there is NO PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION of Jesus Christ in the Bible?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 19, 2020

      OK, let me ask this. How many physcial descriptions of *ANYONE* do we have from the ancient world. For example: Aristotle? 🙂 We have a few of course: Socrates e.g. But it wasn’t normally what people spent their time writing about. when it came to Jesus, there almost certainly couldn’t have been one, since the peole writing the Gospels would have had no idea. They were living decades later in different parts of the world and didn’t know a soul who had ever seen Jesus. And just like now, when people talk about Jesus, it’s not what people were talking about.
      From Christian materials the only physical description I can think of of anyone is in a late second century legendary work that describes Paul.

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