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Divine Wisdom

Another passage from my chapter 2, on divine beings in Judaism


If you read enough scholarly literature, you will quickly see that scholars tend to use some technical terms for no good reason, other than the fact that they are the technical terms scholars use. This is true even when scholar could talk in language that normal human beings normally use. When I was in graduate school we used to ask, wryly, why we should use a perfectly good English term when we had an obscure Latin or German term we would serve the purpose instead? But there are some rare terms that simply don’t have satisfactory, simple words that adequately express the same thing, and the word “hypostasis” (plural: hypostases) is one of them. Possibly the closest thing to a more common term meaning roughly the same thing would be “personification” – but even that doesn’t quite get it, and it too isn’t a word you normally hear in line at the grocery store.

The term hypostasis comes from the Greek, where it can refer to the essence or substance of something. In the context in which I’m using the term, it refers to a feature or attribute of God that comes to take on its own distinct existence apart from God. Imagine, for example, that you think that God is wise. That means he has wisdom. But that means that wisdom is something that God “has” – i.e., it is something independently of God that he happens to have possession of. If that’s the case, then one could imagine “Wisdom” as a being apart from God; and since it is God’s Wisdom then it is a kind of divine being alongside God that is also within God as part of his essence, a part of who he is.

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Visions of Mary
Jesus as the Messiah



  1. Avatar
    stephena  March 26, 2013

    Sometimes personification is just personification. Especially for ancient men. I would think this kind of over-thinking would be very dangerous in ancient Israel, especially with so many tribes around them in which Wisdom was LITERALLY a woman goddess or demigoddess who stood beside God. Surely, you would concur that someone who went too far in personifying Wisdom or Justice or even “The Word” in Israel – before and during Jesus of Nazareth’s time – would have been sternly spoken to by the Priestly class. When this concept hit the Greek air, however, the results are obvious in the Gospel of John and elsewhere. It became (mis)understood exactly how you are describing it here.

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    hwl  March 26, 2013

    As you are well aware, some evangelical apologists are keen to mine the OT for verses that are claimed to support the doctrine of the Trinity, and the activities of the pre-existent Son. In your recent posts, you have cited a number of OT passages that suggest divine beings beside God. In your book, do you plan address why none of these passages a) in their historical context, could refer to the pre-existent Son
    b) were read by pre-Christian Jews in this manner?
    Did NT authors and Patristic authors identify OT passages as referring to the pre-existent Son, or the Holy Spirit in the Trinitarian sense? This is worth addressing in your book.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 27, 2013

      Yes, some early Christians read them this way, and no, no pre-Christian Jews did. Nor did they mean this in their original contexts. I’ll be dealing with the issue to some extent.

      • Avatar
        stephena  March 29, 2013

        I’m glad to hear this, too, since had the same concerns as hwl, since the past few posts seem to be backing up fundamentalist (not to mention Nicene) claims of the full divinity of Christ.

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    toddfrederick  March 26, 2013

    I have many thoughts about what you wrote here, such as, what is “Wisdom” anyway? However, The other thought that came to me as I read this is that it seems that the ancient writers (and contemporary scholars) seem to refer to God as some kind of a tangible being which exists in space and time along with a host of other beings in space and time, such as Wisdom and Angels and the others among the “Heavenly Hosts.”. Yet I have read that God is Spirit that moves as it wills…as a wind (ruach…pnumous). (sorry…don’t know the correct Hebrew and Greek terms, most likely)

    Are these Jewish writers and contemporary scholars referring to God and Wisdom and Angels, etc. as tangible beings living in time and soace, or something else? I ask this as one of the “normal human beings” who would be reading your book 😀

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 27, 2013

      Yes, I think most Jews thought of God, and the hypostases, as in *some* sense tangible beings (who could be seen and heard, e.g.,)

      • Avatar
        toddfrederick  March 28, 2013

        I agree. Now days I don’t think of God (etc) is a tangible being, but such is what I got when reading scripture, especially relating to what was written about God “living” in the temple’s Holy of Holies.

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    Wilusa  March 27, 2013

    The fact that this aspect(?) of the Old Testament God had a feminine-form name and was referred to using the feminine pronoun…I realize this itself just reflects the “accident” of the word for “wisdom” being feminine. But might it have had some influence on Christian exaltation of the Virgin Mary? In *practice*, Catholicism treats her almost as a goddess, and I can’t see any other way that might have evolved from Judaism. (I have encountered a theory that devotion to Mary and her supposed mother Anne stemmed from Persephone/Demeter, with mother Demeter being the more important of those two…)

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    deacon_adolfo  March 27, 2013

    I wonder if ‘wisdom’, described in the feminine in Greek may have emerged from the anthropomorphic representation of Yahu’s spouse which was venerated in Canaan around 1,400 BCE? Could the spouse of Yahu be that anthropomorphic image of wisdom that could have been assimilated into the developing ethos of the self identity of early Israel? Even up to the 4th century BCE a form of Yahu and his spouse was acknowledged by some within the outlying Jewish military garrisons in Egypt and if some of the earliest Greek translations of Jewish scripture emerged in Egypt, could it be speculated that the feminine portrayals of wisdom in those translations may be vestiges of the Canaanite cult of Yahu? Perhaps academics use the feminine Greek as a convenient way excuse assimilated ideas from the past. But wait, did’nt the feminine eat the fruit first?

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    Xeronimo74  March 27, 2013

    Bart, could you please explain what this is actually supposed to mean: ‘an aspect of God that is a distinct being from God that nonetheless is itself God’? How can X be a distinct being from Y but nonetheless be Y? That sounds like a contradiction, or at least incoherence, to me?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 27, 2013

      Well, I tried to explain that with regard to Wisdom. It is God’s wisdom, so it is an aspect of God’s being. But it is distinct from God since it is something that he “has.” But since it’s his Wisdom, it’s divine. Yeah, we don’t usually thnk in this way.

      • Avatar
        Xeronimo74  March 28, 2013

        But isn’t there a subtle but important difference between someone/something ‘being divine’ and ‘being God’? The latter seems to refer to actually being this very specific entity/being (in its entirety!) while the former merely sounds like an attribute (x is divine because it is a *part* of God)?

        A bit like the difference between ‘being human’ and ‘being Joe’?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  March 28, 2013

          I have a feeling you wouldn’t enjoy the fourth and fifth century debates over the sense in which Jesus is really God but is different from God the Father.

          • Avatar
            Xeronimo74  March 28, 2013

            Oh, I actually might have enjoyed them a lot. Especially since those statements can’t be proven to be true in a logical and rational way. I’ve debated quite a lot of Trinitarians (ok, only on the Internet but still 😉 ) and in the end it’s always about redefining words, giving them multiple meanings to be used at convenience, creating new, sophisticated-sounded but ill-defined words, etc.

  7. Avatar
    Xeronimo74  March 27, 2013

    Also this: “And then, once Wisdom was created, God created the heavens and the earth. ” > So God created his own Wisdom? Does that mean that God wasn’t wise (or ‘did not have Wisdom’) before he created it?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 27, 2013

      Well, he generated his own wisdom.

      • Avatar
        Xeronimo74  March 28, 2013

        But that would imply a before and after, no? A time when God didn’t have wisdom yet and a time when he finally got it. If he had had this wisdom from the start then he wouldn’t have needed to create it …

  8. Robertus
    Robertus  March 27, 2013

    Isn’t this merely a poetic way to speak about God and his wisdom without using the ever more holy and transcendent name of God. Maybe ‘hupostasis’ is overly philosophical and anachronistic here.

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    manya  March 27, 2013

    In your explanation of the way you are using ‘hypostasis’ here, you say: “…it refers to a feature or attribute of God that comes to take on its own distinct existence apart from God.”

    Wouldn’t it be an interesting exercise to consider certain other attributes of God (as we learn from the scripture that he does possess)…such as God’s anger, or God’s jealousy or God’s judgment in the same manner? What would the “being” of anger do in cooperative work with God? Slaughter whole populations? What would the “being” of jealousy work — a mediated divorce from Israel? And judgment — ahh…the “being” of judgment. Plenty of work to be done there. And when evaluation of the outcomes is done, what would it say about the god proper (the one from which these attributes have separated as beings but still remain within)? Is the god proper delegating accountability to its “attributes?” Or is accountability entirely inapplicable? Another “human” idea with which to define and manipulate images of god?

    Why is “wisdom” (and logos) the only so-called attribute(s) that has/have come to such a view/usage? Or have I missed some others?

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    RonaldTaska  March 27, 2013

    So, does this mean that “Logos” in the first chapter of the Gospel of John does not actually refer to Jesus existing eternally?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  March 27, 2013

      It refers to the Logos being with God from the beginning. That Logos eventually became Jesus. But Jesus didn’t come into existence until the Logos became a human.

      • Avatar
        Xeronimo74  March 28, 2013

        Speaking of the Logos: if the Logos IS God then what sense does it make to say that ‘the Logos was with God’, assuming the word ‘God’ is referring to exactly the same concept in both instances? Isn’t that like saying ‘God was with God’? What is that supposed to mean then?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  March 28, 2013

          Yup, God the Logos was with God the Father! And there was only one God. Welcome to the Christological debates!

          • Avatar
            Xeronimo74  March 28, 2013

            But that’s not what John 1:1 says. The text claims that ‘The Word’ was with ‘God’. Not with ‘God the Father’.

            And that same word ‘God’ is used in the claim: ‘The Word’ was ‘God’. Now if we assume that the word ‘God’ refers to exactly the same concept/being in those two instances then the logical conclusion is that ‘God was with God’. But what is that supposed to mean? And why would one want to say something like that in the first place?

            The Trinity is a highly illogical and irrational concept that simply can’t be defended without having to resort to all kinds of semantic tricks.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  March 29, 2013

            I guess I would say that logic and rationality are both culturally constructed, and different people in different times and places see different things as logical and reasonable…

          • Avatar
            Xeronimo74  March 30, 2013

            But logical (and mathematical) truths don’t dependent on culture and setting. Either a conclusion is logically valid/sound or it is not! Those are objective and universal truths that actually even a god would have to submit to. Even a god, for example, could not claim that one apple and one more apple are three apples without lying.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  March 30, 2013

            I’m getting the sense that you’re not a post-modernist….

  11. Avatar
    deacon_adolfo  March 28, 2013

    Perhaps when we attempt to perceive “G-d and ‘wisdom’ as some sort of “hypostasis” we create an interesting dilemma since wisdom can be embraced and understood by human intellect, yet the human capacity to understand the notion of G-d, diety or whatever, (since we can only dress Him / Her / It, in second hand clothing) is beyond human intellectual capacity. Wisdom has its limits yet G-d is limitless. Can the limited and limitless exits in hypostasis? Any attribute we give to G-d has the potential to become anthropomorphic. This includes ‘wisdom’ which is not universal but merely subjective according to the view of the individual or group. Unless, of course ‘wisdom’ includes all possibilities and itself becomes limitless I don’t don’t see how our perception of wisdom can be truly be in hypostasis with G-d.

  12. Avatar
    deacon_adolfo  March 28, 2013

    Wisdom can only be an anthropomorphic perception of an aspect of G-d that our pusillanimous human mind can perceive. If wisdom is truly hypostatic, the word wisdom itself and another idea or image we can associate with it is nothing more than anthropomorphic. “I AM” is all encompassing, thus transcending every concept and idea, even logos.

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    Ron  March 29, 2013

    There’s an interesting discussion of Pallas Athene (goddess of wisdom) given by Plato in Cratylus (407B) http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/cratylus.html) where Socrates refers to her as theou noesis, “mind of God.” He also differentiates the other appellation Pallas. The second asteroid discovered (02 Pallas) in 1802 is the embodiment of Athene primarily, born straight from the head of Zeus. As the virgin patroness of Athens, Paul, while there on one of his proselytizing trips (Acts 17:16,22, 28-29), draws the comparison forward.

    There are other goddesses (feminine hostesses of the Lord) within the council that share a similar nature, of whom as well have their embodiments in certain asteroids, e.g., 881 Athene, 93 Minerva (the Roman equivalent of Athene), 9 Metis, etc. The last mentioned, Metis, the first wife of Zeus, was actually pregnant with Athene, but Zeus swallowed her up – hence, her birth from his forehead. The purpose in mentioning all of these is that they represent different aspects of wisdom and are not to be neglected in assessing their interactions with us.

  14. Avatar
    Judi  June 19, 2016

    Mr Ehrman , could it be just one more aspect like the Verses ‘2 Samuel 24:1 the lords anger moved , incited David to take a census
    1 Chronicles 21:1 Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take the census” Is Gods anger of the feminine nature or aspect.
    As I do remember Paul speaking of a few of his own teacher cavorting with females, saying “Turn a mans flesh over to Satan , to save the mans soul:

    • Bart
      Bart  June 20, 2016

      Sorry, I”m not sure what you’re asking! But the second passage is 1 Corinthians 5.

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