Lady Wisdom as the Created Co-Creator in Syriac Proverbs/ Alan Moss

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The characteristics of Wisdom in the Syriac translation of the Bible

may be explored by comparing the Syriac text with the two recognised

sources, Hebrew and Greek. In the main, Syriac Wisdom is very similar

to Hebrew Wisdom and many of the Greek innovations are not employed.

She was made before the universe to work with God and to be close to

humans.  In Syriac her role in creation is more evidently in parallel

God’s own constructive activity. Canonical Wisdom in Syriac may be

understood as a distinct biblical portrait, not as a collage of


The poem where Personified Wisdom describes her unique relationship

with the creator God is one of the best-known passages in the book of

Proverbs. In Hebrew Proverbs 8:22-31, Wisdom explains where her

authority comes from and why she is to be trusted. She was created

before anything else and was by the side of God at every stage of

creation. For this reason speaking Wisdom can claim a hearing. In the

history of the reception of Proverbs, this text gained importance

through its use in Christology. [1] We are unable in this study to

detail the evidence of the reception of Lady Wisdom in Syriac

Christianity. We intend only to focus on some aspects of the

vocabulary and structure of a text that has been canonical for

important Christian churches over many centuries. Our method is one of

intertextual comparison. It is generally agreed that Syriac Proverbs

shares features of the standard Hebrew Massoretic Text and features of

the Septuagint. Assuming the dependence of Syriac Proverbs on Greek

Proverbs, the extent of that dependence is debated, and no doubt

varies from passage to passage. Richard J. Clifford writes that the

Syriac translator rendered the Massoretic Text into transparent

Syriac, using the Septuagint as a help to understand the MT. [2] Jan

Joosten sees a somewhat greater dependence of the Syriac on the Greek,

and asks if Syriac Proverbs could not be better understood as a

collage of Hebrew Proverbs and Greek Proverbs. [3] Our method of

comparing the Syriac with the Hebrew and Greek seems well founded in

the actual process of composition. We will compare the Syriac with the

Hebrew and Greek in order to discover in this way some of the enduring

features of Syriac Wisdom. It is not our direct aim to examine the

translator’s intent or the translation technique. Before beginning to

read the three texts, however, we will sketch in broadest strokes the

historical background to the appearance of the Syriac bible and Syriac


Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic. Aramaic is the language of the Church

and of Judaism that spread eastward to the edge of the Roman Empire,

and even to India and China. Syriac was spoken in the early centuries

of the Christian era in the principality of Edessa, corresponding to

the present-day northern Syria and Iraqand southern Turkey. References

in early literature to the growth of the church east of Syria suggest

that Christianity reached Edessa some time before 200 AD. Fourth

century legends attribute the introduction of Christianity to Addai

(Thaddeus), an Aramaic speaking Christian from Syro-Palestine. In the

legend, Addai healed and converted King Abgar. If there is anything in

this tradition, Addai’s visit may have taken place between A.D. 190

and 211. [4]

The translation of the Bible into Syriac (the Peshitta) may be dated

in the second or third century and by the fifth or sixth century this

translation would have reached its permanent form. It is unclear

whether Syriac Proverbs was the work of Christians or Jews. An

interesting suggestion is that Syriac Proverbs was translated from

within a Jewish community that was in the process of adopting

Christianity. [5]

Wisdom in Hebrew Prov 8:22-31

In the terms of Richard J. Clifford, Hebrew Wisdom’s unique role at

time of the world’s creation is expressed in two complementary

cosmogonies, vv. 22-26 and vv. 27-31. Vv. 22-26 emphasise the birth of

Wisdom before all else, and vv. 27-31 present Wisdom’s being with

Yahweh during the creation of the universe. [6] The first section is

as follows:

NRSV Proverbs 8:22 The LORD created me at the beginning of his work,

the first of his acts of long ago.

23 Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.

24 When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no

springs abounding with water.

25 Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth,

26 when he had not yet made earth and fields, or the world’s first bits of soil.

This text describes Wisdom’s temporal priority through a series of

negatives.  Yahweh honours Wisdom by making her before anything else.

There were no cosmic waters (v. 24), no pillars of the earth

(mountains and hills, v. 25), and no habitable surface of the earth

(v. 26). Four Hebrew verbs are used to describe Wisdom’s origin,

“created”, “set up”, and a repeated “brought forth”. [7]

The second cosmogony in Hebrew (vv. 27-31) describes Wisdom’s presence

at creation in positive terms. [8]

27 When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle

on the face of the deep,

28 when he made firm the skies above, when he established the

fountains of the deep,

29 when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not

transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the


30 then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his

delight, rejoicing before him always,

31 rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.

After the description of Wisdom’s presence throughout creation in vv.

27-29, vv. 30-31 tell us of the relationship between Wisdom and

Yahweh. The description of Wisdom’s cooperation with Yahweh the

creator in terms of  “master-worker” in v. 30 is a disputed reading of

a difficult Hebrew term. “Child” and “sage” are alternative images. If

Wisdom is a sage, then as a trusted counsellor, she shares delightful

confidences and reminiscences with Yahweh, just because she, uniquely,

saw the world coming into existence. [9] However, if we understand

Wisdom as a child or nursling, this would continue the imagery of

gestation and birth in vv. 24-25. The NRSV reading, “master-worker”,

follows the Greek interpretation, as we shall see. Finally, in this

passage we may observe the parallel established between Wisdom

delighting in Yahweh in v. 30 and Wisdom delighting in Yahweh’s

creation, the human race, in v. 31. In short, in Hebrew, Wisdom,

brought into existence before all else is, to say the least, a

privileged witness to God’s creative activity. However, a role of

active cooperation through advice or constructive activity may be


Greek Wisdom in Prov 8:22-31 LXX (italics added)

8:22 (Brenton LXX in English) The Lord made me the beginning of his

ways for his works.

23 He established me before time [was] in the beginning, before he

made the earth:

24 even before he made the depths; before the fountains of water came forth:

25 before the mountains were settled, and before all hills, he begets me.

26 The Lord made countries and uninhabited [tracks], and the highest

inhabited parts of the world.

27 When he prepared the heaven, I was present with him; and when he

prepared his throne upon the winds:

28 and when he strengthened the clouds above; and when he secured the

fountains of the earth:

29 and when he strengthened the foundations of the earth:

30 I was by him, suiting [myself to him], I was that wherein he took

delight; and daily I rejoiced in his presence continually.

31 For he rejoiced when he had completed the world, and rejoiced among

the children of men. [10]

Having introduced Wisdom in Hebrew, we will, before turning our

attention to Syriac Wisdom, note some of Greek Wisdom’s special

features. The differences between Septuagint Proverbs and the Hebrew

Massoretic Text are explained by some authors more in terms of the

different Hebrew text used by the translator, and by others in terms

of the translator’s creativity. [11] This translation may be said to

be a faithful but a creative translation of a Hebrew text somewhat

different from the Massoretic Text. It is usually set in the context

of Greek speaking Alexandria in the second century BCE. [12] In the

view of David-Marc d’Hamonville, nowhere is the Greek translator more

innovative than in the Wisdom passage of 8:22-31, which is described

as an original and studied literary composition with philosophical and

theological import. [13] Max Küchler, too, has studied the special

features of Greek Wisdom. [14] He demonstrates that the Greek author

highlights the role of God in creation and this author tends to make

Wisdom God’s exclusive possession. We may observe some details. The

text is structured with the two mentions of “The Lord made” in vv. 22

and 26, whereas the subject “Lord” is explicit only once in Hebrew. At

the outset, God “creates” Wisdom, and any hint of God’s acquiring a

pre-existing entity is avoided. For similar reasons, there is in Greek

a switch from active verbs to passive verbs in v. 25. “I was brought

forth” in Hebrew becomes in Greek “he begets me”, and the prior

mention of “I (Wisdom) was brought forth” in v. 25 Hebrew is

altogether omitted in Greek. In Hebrew, we read that Wisdom was the

first of God’s works (v. 22). In Greek, Wisdom was made “for his

works”, so giving Wisdom’s appearance a divine finality. The

mythological imagery in Hebrew v. 29 evokes a primitive god of the

sea:  “When He assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might

not transgress his command”. This sentence, perhaps considered to

impinge on Jewish monotheism, is dropped in Greek. Wisdom’s role in v.

30 is evoked in Greek in a musical image of harmony, not through the

image of the child or the sage. As regards the Greek reading,

d’Hamonville suggests that the term harmozousa may be understood in

two ways. In the active sense, Wisdom establishes harmony in the

universe, and this sense is expressed in “master-worker”. In the

passive sense of the term, Wisdom is in full accord, which is

understood in  “suiting myself [to him]” in the Brenton translation

above. [15] Of particular interest is the change in v. 31. In Hebrew,

Wisdom delights in the created world and in human beings. However, in

Greek, it is God who takes pleasure in the accomplishment of (his)

creative work and it is God who takes pleasure in human beings.

Küchler argues that Greek Wisdom does retain her playful merriment and

unquenchable vital affability, but she is withdrawn from humans.

Wisdom is in the sphere of the divine, not of humanity. [16] After

noting the Greek innovations, we can only wonder if the Syriac text

will appear as a literal translation of the Hebrew or more as a

collage of Greek and Hebrew, as mentioned at the outset.

Syriac Wisdom

Prov 8:27-31 Syriac (Lansa, italics added) [17]

22. The Lord created me (brny) as the first of his creations (bryth),

before all of his works.

23. I was established (i.e., he established me, ‘tqnny) from

everlasting, from the beginning, before he made the earth.

24. When there were no depths, I was brought forth; when there were no

fountains abounding with water.

25. Before the mountains were settled (ntqnw), before the hills were

formed was I conceived.

26. While as yet he had not made the earth nor the valleys nor the

best soil of the world.

27. When he established (mtqn) the heavens, I was there; when he set a

circle upon the face of the deep.

28. When made firm the clouds above; when he strengthened the

fountains of the deep.

29. When he gave to the sea its bounds, that the waters should not

transgress his commandment; when he laid down the foundations of the


30. I together with him was establishing them (mtqn’); and daily I was

his delight, rejoicing always before him,

31. Rejoicing in his habitable earth; and my delights were with the sons of men.

As in Greek, Syriac Wisdom is unambiguously a creation of the Lord,

not God’s acquisition. In v. 22 Syriac the verb br’, create, sharpens

the sense of the Hebrew, as does the Greek. Indeed Syriac reiterates

the point of Wisdom being the first creature by translating  “his

acts” in v. 22 as “his creation” (bryth), using a derivative of

“create” in v. 22.

The Syriac translator evidently has no problem with Hebrew

mythological language of God restraining the tempestuous primeval

waters in vv. 27b and 29a. What is important is not the mythology, but

that Wisdom was there: “When he gave to the sea its bounds, that the

waters should not transgress his commandment…I [was] with him” (vv.

27, 30). The Syriac term in v. 30 translated above as, “was

establishing them”, merits some comment. Wisdom’s role is that of

God’s working partner. Wisdom is not the child, nor the sage. In the

context of the previous description of God’s creative activity, the

Syriac translator envisages Wisdom’s creative activity as parallel to

that of God.  Lansa’s translation is correct. As is evident from the

italic insertions above, verbs of the same root (tqn) are used for the

Creator fashioning the mountains in v. 25, for the Creator fashioning

the heavens in v. 27a, and for Wisdom’s role beside God in v. 30. In

v. 31 the Syriac translator renders the Hebrew, not the Greek:

“and daily I was his delight, rejoicing always before him,

Rejoicing in his habitable earth; and my delights were with the sons

of men.” (8:30b-31, Syriac).

Syriac Wisdom rejoices at the completion of creation, she is close to

humans and rejoices in humans.

Finally, we must mention a trait of Syriac Wisdom in v. 31. Lansa

translates v. 31b as “and my delights were with the sons of men”. The

Syriac is made to parallel the Hebrew, as the context requires. The

Syriac term (mshtbh’) has a range of meanings. [18] This is the third

time it is used of Wisdom. At the beginning of chapter 8, we read:

“She cries at the gates, at the entrance to the city; she ‘cries

aloud’” (mshtbh’). In 1:20 we read: “Wisdom ‘is glorified’ (mshtbh’)

in the market places” (Lansa). Does this verb suggest that Wisdom

glories or boasts (the meaning in 1 Kgs 20:11), or Wisdom is

praiseworthy (2 Sam 14:25), or cries out (Prov 8:3), or is praised

(Matt 6:2)? [19] Lansa may well be right. Wisdom glories or delights

in the sons of men, as the Hebrew has it. However, if we detect even

an overtone of the praise of Wisdom in this text, we cannot but recall

that other woman in Proverbs who achieves renown. This woman is the

ideal human woman or wife. In the book’s final poem we read:

Comeliness is deceitful and beauty is vain

but a woman who reverences the Lord shall be praised.

Give her the fruit of her hands,

And let her own works praise (nshbhwnh) [20] her in the gate.

(31:30-31, Syriac, Lansa)

Who then is Syriac Wisdom? Our analysis of this passage would support

Clifford’s contention about the translation process for Syriac

Proverbs mentioned at the outset. Syriac Wisdom has the main traits of

Hebrew Wisdom, and difficult points are clarified with the help of the

Greek. The notion of creation is perhaps somewhat more extended than

demanded by textual obscurity in the Hebrew. The word collage,

however, does not seem to indicate sufficiently the limits imposed on

use of Greek. Like Hebrew Wisdom, Syriac Wisdom’s portrait is sketched

in a robust Semitic idiom. She is brought into existence by God before

the creation so as to have a role in creation. She is, like Greek

Wisdom, herself explicitly God’s creation. God made her in order to be

at work at God’s side in the fashioning of the universe. More

evidently than in Hebrew or Greek, she and God fashion the universe

together. She enjoys a relation of joyful intimacy with the creator

and with humans. There is some suggestion that Syriac Wisdom achieves

glory or praise. If so, Wisdom’s praise and renown mingle with those

of that other woman who in Proverbs is the Divine Wisdom’s human face.

[21]   While we acknowledge the sources of Syriac Wisdom in Hebrew and

Greek, we may finally dwell on the finished portrait, as Syriac

readers have done. Lady Wisdom is the God’s created co-creator.

One can only wonder what was the impact of the Proverbs’ Wisdom

imagery on the religious imagination of Syriac Christianity? In

another context, Sebastian Brock refers to “the drenching power of

symbolism for Syriac spirituality and its breathtaking pursuit of

biblical imagery.” [22] It seems that the invitation to Wisdom’s feast

(Prov 9:1-6) could be applied to the pursuit of the reception of

Wisdom in the Syriac Christian writers.


[1] David-Marc d’Hamonville, La Bible d’Alexandrie: Les Proverbes. La

Bible d’Alexandrie, ed. Marguerite Harl, Gilles Dorival, and Olivier

Munnich. Paris: Cerf, 2000. See p. 208 on 8.22 LXX.

[2] Clifford, Richard J. “Observations on the Text and Versions of

Proverbs.” Wisdom You Are My Sister: Studies in Honor of Roland E.

Murphy on the Occasion of his Eightieth Birthday, ed. Michael L Barré

(Washington: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1997) 47-61,

here p. 59.

[3] Jan Joosten, “La Peshitta de l’ancien testament dans la recherche

récente.” Revue d’histoire et de philosophie religieuses 76, 4 (1996)

385-395, see p. 392.

[4] For the story of the Church’s movement east from Antioch and for

the introduction of Christianity to Edesssa, see W. Stewart

McCullough, A Short History of Syriac Christianity to the Rise of

Islam (Chico, CA: Scholars Press) 3-35.

[5] Joosten, “La Peshitta,” 390.

[6] Richard J. Clifford, Proverbs: A Commentary (Old Testament

Library; Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999)


[7] The verb qnh translated “create” in the NRSV 8:22 may be

understood as “acquire” or “beget”. Whatever the intended original

meaning (see Clifford, Proverbs, 96) I would note that throughout

Proverbs qnh is used for acquiring wisdom (4:7, 16:16, 17:16, 23:23).

[8] See Clifford, Proverbs, 96.

[9] See William McKane, Proverbs: A New Approach (Old Testament

Library. London: SCM, 1970) 358. See also Clifford, Proverbs, 99-101.

[10] C.L.Brenton, Lancelot. The Septuagint with Apocrypha: Greek and

English (Hendrickson, 6th printing, 1997) 795.

[11] Clifford, “Observations,” 50-51.

[12] For this question, see d’Hamonville, Bible d’Alexandrie, 24-25.

[13] d’Hamonville, Bible d’Alexandrie, 89.

[14] Max Küchler,”Gott und seine Weisheit in der Septuaginta (Ijob 28;

Spr 8),” Monotheismus und Christologie: Zur Gottesfrage im

Hellenistischen Judentum und im Urchristentum (ed. Hans-Josef Klauck,

118-143. Freiburg.Basel.Wien: Herder, 1994) 118-43.

[15] D’Hamonville, Bible d’Alexandrie, 210. On the grounds of the

grammatical and metaphorical context, this author argues for the

passive sense (“étant bien accordé”) rather than the active sense

(“mettant en accord”). He also cites the contexts of musical

instruments the term has in the Greek bible.

[16] Küchler, “Gott und seiner Weisheit”, 139.

[17] The Syriac translation here is from Holy Bible From the Ancient

Eastern  Text: George M.Lansa’s Translations From the Aramaic of the

Peshitta. San Francisco: Harper & Row, nd.

[18] sbh, Ethpa’al.

[19] ed R. Payne Smith, Thesaurus Syriacus, Hildesheim : Georg Olms,

1999, first published

Oxford : Clarendon Press, 1879-1901. See vol 2, 4023-24.

[20] The word is the active form (Pa’el) of the verb sbh used of Wisdom.

[21] Thomas P McCreesh, “Wisdom as Wife: Proverbs 31:10-31.” RB 92,

no. 1 (1985): 25-46. See p. 46: “The poem’s marked concentration of

attention on the wife and on all that she does, the development of

various themes emphasising her virtues as well as her practical

prudence and ingenuity, and the remarkable similarities between the

portrait of the wife and the various descriptions of Wisdom indicate

that the poem in chapter 31 is the book’s final, masterful portrait of


[22] S. Brock, Holy Women of the Syrian Orient, trans. Sebastian Brock

and Susan Ashbrook Harvey, (Uni. California Press, 1987) 11.

Alan Moss cfc teaches Old Testament and Judaism at McAuley campus. His

research has been in the area of the Wisdom Literature, especially

Proverbs. He is interested in the reception of Proverbs and in the

early translations. He is currently writing the Sheffield “Readings”

commentary on Proverbs.

Lady Wisdom as the Created Co-Creator in Syriac Proverbs


Alan Moss