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Book of Proverbs

The Book of Proverbs is one of the books of the Ketuvim of the Tanakh, and thus also one of the books of the Old Testament.

Title

The original Hebrew title of the book of Proverbs is "Míshlê Shlomoh" ("Proverbs of Solomon"). When translated into Greek and Latin, the title took on different forms. In the Greek Septuagint (LXX) the title became "paroimai paroimiae" ("Proverbs"). In the Latin vulgate the title was "proverbial", from which the English title of Proverbs is derived.

Authorship

The authorship of Proverbs has long been a matter of dispute. Solomon’s name appears in Proverbs 1:1, "The proverbs of Solomon the son of David, King of Israel", although this does not necessarily mean that he was the author. There are references to Agur and Lemuel as authors distinct from Solomon that are missing in the Greek Septuagint, which regarded King Solomon as the author of the whole Book of Proverbs. Although medieval scholars had in the Vulgate a more faithful rendering of 30:1 and 31:1, in their eyes the words "Agur" and "Lemuel" were but symbolical names of Solomon. Solomon is often mentioned as someone who has extensive wisdom in the Bible as well as in extra-biblical literature. However, at the time of composition, it was often the custom to place the name of the King or someone of prominence in writings in order to honour them, or to give those writings more prestige. In 1 Kings 4:29-34, 3000 proverbs and over 1000 songs are said to have come from Solomon and it is also said that people came from all over to hear the wisdom of Solomon. The general assumption is that Solomon was a part of the authorship to some extent, but that the book was not solely his work. Not only are the names "Agur" and "Lemuel" linked to other sections of the book, there are elements of disunity within the book that suggest more than one author. Some of the authorship is attributed to "Men of Hezekiah", though it is stated that they simply transcribed the proverbs rather than writing them of their own accord.

In terms of the text itself there are at least eight specific instances where authorship is mentioned:

Solomon
10:1 Solomon
25:1 Solomon (as copied by Hezekiah’s men)
30:1 Agur son of Jakeh
31:1 Lemuel (or his mother)
31:10-31? unknown author?

As for the eighth section there are many scholars who consider the poem at the end of the book vs. 10-31 as written by an unknown author. The attributions of authorship are as follows in accordance with the scriptures above; Solomon, Solomon, Wise Men, Wise Men, Solomon (as copied by Hezekiah’s men), Agur son of Jakeh, Lemuel (or his mother), and the unknown author. With this possibility it is speculated that the sections written by the Wise Men were studied by Solomon and added in and that they influenced his writing. With this possibility it is likely that there would be similarities in the section written by Solomon as well as the sections by the Wise Men. Studies of word usage have indicated that the highest percentage of commonalities are between the three Solomon sections. The next most common are the Wise Men sections, showing that they could have influenced Solomon’s writing, and the least commonalities were with the Agur, Lemuel, and the unknown author. A majority of critical scholars, including James L. Crenshaw, Roland E. Murphy and L.G. Perdue, hold to the belief that much of Proverbs was brought together from a time well after Solomon. However, many well respected theologians continue to attribute most of the book to Solomon, including J. I. Packer, John Piper, John F. MacArthur, and Albert Mohler.

Date of writing

Dates for the writing of the book are also unclear. Due to the suggested authorship of Solomon and the collaboration of Hezekiah's men, there are some dates that can be worked with. However, there are not enough to give specific timing to the completion of the book though it could have been as late as third century BC.

Influences

There have been suggestions that there is a crossover of some Egyptian nature in the proverbs from The Instructions of Amenemopet.

Proverbs as wisdom literature

The book of Proverbs is referred to as wisdom literature along with several other books: the book of Job, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon, along with several apocryphal books.

Setting

It is difficult to pin the provenance of Proverbs down. Several suggestions have been made.

  • Family

In the society of ancient Israel, the family played an important role in the upbringing and education of children. Some internal evidence hints to the use of Proverbs in a family setting; the phrase "my son" appears some 20 times throughout the book. The role of the mother is also listed some 10 times.

  • Court

The name of Solomon stands in the title of the book, thus suggesting a royal setting. Throughout the Old Testament, wisdom is connected with the court.

  • School

It is possible practical and reflective wisdom was transmitted in a house of learning or instruction.

What is the central theme of the book?

The central theme to the book of Proverbs can be linked to Proverbs 1:7 "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; Fools despise wisdom and instruction." This theme of centrality of the knowledge of God runs through the entirety of the book. The instructions that are given, although they are for everyday circumstances, allude to humankind’s uprightness before God. The thought pattern that the reverence and respect for God in all circumstances brings true knowledge is encouraged in this book. The book centers on the willingness to learn as important. God’s people were brought into the belief that God’s law is something that is part of life and is a duty, and this required obedience. Proverbs calls this kind of obedience the love of the Lord. This obligation, which is similar to the knowledge of God that they had from the prophetic books, involves reverence, gratitude, and commitment to do the will of God in every circumstance. The main goal of Proverbs is to define clearly what it means to be fully devoted to God’s will and seeing his will accomplished in this world.

Messianic interpretations in Christianity

There are found in Proverbs, and other wisdom literature, references to Wisdom as a personification. These have long been taken by Christian exegetes as references to Christ, who is called the wisdom of God by Paul the Apostle. The first time Wisdom is personified is at Prov 1.20. In all these passages Wisdom is spoken of as a woman because the Hebrew word for “wisdom” is itself feminine; thus there is no problem associated feminine-personified Wisdom with the male Messiah.

The King James Bible reads, in reference to wisdom, that "The LORD possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old." The LORD possessed wisdom and it, or she, was with him from the beginning. She was with him to create what has been created. However some apparently claim that Prov 8:22 was a crucial verse in the Arian controversies of the fourth century. The RSV reads “The LORD created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old.” Proverbs 8 has long been taken to refer to Christ, so whether or not the Hebrew qanah should be taken as created or as possessed was used in the debate over the eternity of Christ. Both these meanings are used in the Old Testament, but created is never the sole possible meaning. Kidner goes on to point out that it is absurd to think that God would need to create Wisdom, implying there was a time when he lacked Wisdom. Also, “Prov 8 starts from the indisputable commonplace that God existed before the start of time and ascribes the same precedence to wisdom.” The remainder of Prov 8 shows Wisdom taking a role in creation, and contrasts Wisdom with created things. It is therefore best to take qanah to mean “possessed”; and Wisdom not as a creature.

It has been noted that Col 1:15-16 is dependent on this chapter of Proverbs. The parallels in the roles of Christ and Wisdom lend credence to understanding qanah as possessed rather than created. We are told that Wisdom was, before the Lord made even a particle of matter (verse 26) or gave order to creation (verse 29); Wisdom participated in the creation story. This strongly parallels the role of Christ in Colossians, where he is the “first-born of all creation” and in him were all things created. To add to the identification of Wisdom with Christ, we find that Wisdom was identified with the Greek concept of logos, which was in turn identified with Christ.

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