History of the term
The vagueness that surrounds the definition is in part a result of the term’s history: these books, or some of them, have been known as “wisdom” or “sapiential” works for many centuries, and the description has sometimes in the past also covered the Song of Songs and the Book of Psalms as a whole; in effect, it has served as a catch-all for works that were neither historical nor prophetic in character, and which have been perceived to offer, in one way or another, moral instruction or an exploration of theological and philosophical ideas. An early definition along these lines can be found in an encyclopedia entry for the term “sapiental” from 1728.
An alternative tradition?
The 19th century saw a growing interest in these works as a counterpart to philosophical traditions elsewhere in the ancient world, but also the beginnings of a perception that they themselves represented a particular tradition within Israel. As scholars in the course of the 20th century laid an increasing emphasis on concepts like salvation history and covenant, seeing them as central to early Jewish religion, or even as defining it, the biblical wisdom books appeared increasingly isolated: Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes show little or no interest in history, and only Proverbs was understood to have any concern with covenant. A strong tendency developed within scholarship, therefore, to see these books as representatives of an alternative ideology, and this in turn led some commentators to discount even those links with other biblical literature that had previously been accepted.
This approach was reinforced by the realisation in the 1920s that material in Proverbs 22:17-23:11 seemed to have been drawn from an Egyptian work, the Instruction of Amenemope, and scholars increasingly sought parallels between the wisdom books and other foreign texts. Egyptologists at the time understood works like Amenemope to have been designed for use in schools, and this chimed with the didactic tone of Proverbs in particular. It became common, therefore, to see the wisdom books as products of a tradition that was rooted in the education of administrators, who adopted an outlook that was internationalist, and who belonged to a class that, in effect, transcended national particularisms. This seemed to provide a satisfactory way to explain both the links with foreign literature, and the failure of the wisdom books to conform to expectations about Jewish literature.
Although still maintained in some quarters, this general understanding has lost traction in biblical studies over the last thirty years, partly because it proved impossible to sustain some of the claims that were involved, but largely, perhaps, because the belief that there must be some single idea at the core of the Jewish religion was itself largely discredited, making it much easier to accept the possibility that there might have been diverse writers who could explore a variety of different issues while remaining within the same cultural and religious tradition. Correspondingly, there has been much recent debate about the existence of a “wisdom tradition” as such, and even about the value of continuing to speak of “wisdom literature”.
What do these books really have in common?
Discussion of this last issue has hinged on a basic question that goes back to the history of the expression. If “wisdom literature” has traditionally been defined negatively, to include those books that do not fall into categories like “historical” or “prophetic”, can we now use it in a more positive way to describe these books in terms of features that they do, in fact, share in common? To put it another way, is there anything that makes something “wisdom literature” other than the fact that it is not some other type of literature? It is proving difficult to find descriptions, on either a formal/generic level or in terms of ideas, that can both embrace all the “wisdom books” and offer enough precision to be useful.
On wisdom literature generally:
Weeks, Stuart. An Introduction to the Study of Wisdom Literature. T&T Clark Approaches to Biblical Studies. New York; London: T&T Clark, 2010.
On the debate over the terms:
Kynes, Will. “The Nineteenth-Century Beginnings of ‘Wisdom Literature’ and its Twenty-First Century End?” Pages 83-108 in Perspectives on Israelite Wisdom. Proceedings of the Oxford Old Testament Seminar. Edited by John Jarick. London; New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2016.
Sneed, Mark R., ed. Was There a Wisdom Tradition? New Prospects in Israelite Wisdom Studies. AIL 23. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2015.
Weeks, Stuart. “Is ‘Wisdom Literature’ a Useful Category?” Pages 3-23 in Tracing Sapiential Traditions in Ancient Judaism. Edited by Hindy Najman, Jean-Sébastien Rey, and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar. Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism 174. Leiden: Brill: 2016.