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The Sophia Polygon
By Clark Wilson

When we last saw Clark he was sitting at the bookstore table sipping coffee and pondering the Divine Feminine. Clark was struck by the contrasts attributed to Sophia. Normal rules of space, time, and theological gravity seemed to Clark to flicker and change near Sophia; Clark refferred to this as ....The Sophia Polygon.

Where shall we enter the polygon? Let's start with Wisdom among the Jews, in the Old Testament and Deuterocanonical books (also known as the "Apocrypha"). My main sources here (aside from Scripture) is the general introduction in R.B.Y. Scott, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, Anchor Bible, and "Introduction to the Wisdom Books" in The New Jerusalem Bible. The Jews divide their Scripture (which we call the Old Testament) into three major parts: the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. A Hebrew name for the Jewish Scripture is "Tanakh," a name formed from the first letter of the Hebrew words for Law (Torah), Prophets (Nevi'im), and Writings (Kethuvim). And in Jeremiah 18:18, Jeremiah's opponents say, "the priest's giving of instruction [torah] must not cease, nor the wise man's counsel, nor the prophet's message," and these three facets of Judaism map to the three parts of the Tanakh. The "Wisdom books" include Proverbs, Ecclesiastes (also known as Qoheleth), and Job. Tradition also includes the Psalms and the Song of Songs in the wisdom books. Scott concludes that "the wise men and their writings were a kind of 'third force' in the religious and social life of the people of the Old Testament." (p. xvi) He also notes that wisdom writings occurred all through the middle east, not just among the Jews; but that the Jewish wisdom tradition took on a distinctive character all its own. The Hebrew word for wisdom is of course hokmah.

(There is no truth to the rumor that Dan Brown's next book will unveil a worldwide, multi-millenial conspiracy based on the fact that the Japanese pilots strafing and bombing Pearl Harbor in 1941 inexplicably kept screaming out the name of the first part of the Hebrew scriptures -- "Torah! Torah! Torah!")

Between the Hebrew canon of Scripture (the Old Testamant, the Tenakh) and the New Testament (Christian writings), other holy writings coalesced, both in Hebrew and Greek. The Church included some of these in its overall canon; they are called the Deuterocanonical books or the Apocrypha. (The Protestants decided these books should not be in the canon and you won't find them in Protestant Bibles. Within the next year or so we Orthodox will be publishing our own English translation of the Old Testament and it will include these books as an organic part.) Among these works there are wisdom books -- The Book of Wisdom (also known as The Wisdom of Solomon) and Ecclesiasticus (also known as Ben Sira or Ben Sirach).

So the Hebrew wisdom tradition includes on the one hand the eye-rollingly bland aphorisms of Proverbs (e.g., "Go watch an ant, you loafer! Observe her behavior and become wise!" 6:6), and on the other it contains the silent-screaming darkness of Job and Ecclesiastes (e.g., "I came to hate life, because it depressed me that all man's activities under the sun are only a vapor and a clutching at the wind." 2:17). Where in all this is our quarry, Sophia?

In the opening chapters of Proverbs, Wisdom is several times personified, and always as feminine. "Wisdom calls aloud in the streets, she raises her voice in the public squares; she calls out at the street corners, she delivers her message at the city gates. 'You simple people, how much longer will you cling to your simple ways? How much longer will mockers revel in the their mocking and fools go on hating knowledge?'" (Pr 1:20-22 NJB) "Blessed are those who have discovered wisdom, those who have acquired understanding! Gaining her is more rewarding than silver, her yield is more valuable than goald. ... In her right hand is length of days; in her left hand, riches and honor." (Pr 3:13-16 NJB)

But then we catch sight of our quarry: "In wisdom Yahweh laid the earth's foundations, in understanding, he spread out the heavens. Through his knowledge the depths were cleft open, and the clouds distill the dew." (Pr 3:19-20 NJB) More conventional advice follows, and then the beginning of chapter 8 re-establishes the feminine persona of wisdom: "On the heights overlooking the road, at the crossways she takes her stand." (Pr 8:2 NJB) And "'I, Wisdom, share house with Discretion, I am mistress of the art of thought." (Pr 8:12) And, finally, paydirt: "'Yahweh created me, first-fruits of his fashioning, before the oldest of his works. From everlasting, I was firmly set, from the beginning before the earth came into being. The deep was not, when I was born, nor were the springs with their abounding waters. Before the mountains were settled, before the hills, I came to birth; before he had made the earth, the country side, and the first elements of the world. When he fixed the heavens firm, I was there, when he drew a circle on the surface of the deep, when he thickened the clouds above, when the sources of the deep began to swell, when he assigned the sea its boundaries -- and the waters will not encroach on the shore -- when he traced the foundations of the earth, I was beside the master craftsman, delighting him day after day, ever at play in his presence, at play everywhere on this earth, delighting to be with the children of men. ... [W]hoever finds me finds life, and obtains the favour of Yahweh; but whoever misses me harms himself, all who hate me are in love with death.'" (Pr 8:22-36 NJB)

So, what have we got here? Do we have a valid sighting of the divine feminine? My own impression is that there is heavy divine here but only light feminine. We have the full poetic recitation of creation events but little seems feminine beyond the pronoun. We certainly do not have an image of a bride, or of a womb, or of birthgiving, or of breast feeding, or of creating or growing something in or from her own substance, or of gestation, or of nurturing.

One of the prime ways I read Scripture is to stare at it and become aware of things that seem odd or out of balance or omitted. Doing this helps me attend to the text even if it is a very familiar text. Sometimes it even helps me understand things. And it's just plain fun in its own right.

After I stared at this passage for a while I was struck, and confused, by the theme of delight and play in verses 30-31. Wisdom so far in Proverbs has been anything but playful. And here we are at this majestic, awe-inspiring event, the creation of the entire universe, and Wisdom is delighting God, and playing, and delighting in humanity. Of course one questions the word "play" -- it could mean light "playing" over the suface of the water, yes? I consulted five or six translations. The two words they use in English are "rejoice" and "play." Scott, in his translation, makes it very clear: "I was his daily joy, constantly making merry in his presence, rejoicing in the habitable world and delighting in the human race." So I'll just have to accept the playfulness and delight and let them rattle around inside my head.

Another facet of the passage produced an itch in my mind. The passage seems to relate a giant civil engineering project, for which Wisdom was a spectator. She does not seem to contribute to the project in any way. Yet she seems important -- God created her before he created anything else, and she was present at the creation of everything else. Is her contribution precisely the playing and delighting?

Again I consulted several English translations. This time they conflict. Verse 30 squirms around like mercury when you try to pick it up. NJB has "I was beside the master craftsman, delighting him day after day." NAB has "Then I was beside him as his craftsman, and I was his delight day by day." REB has "Then I was at his side each day, his darling and delight." NRSV has "Then I was beside him, like a master worker, and I was daily his delight." NJKV has "Then I was beside Him as a master craftsman, and I was daily His delight." NIV has "Then I was the craftsman at his side. I was filled with delight day after day." JPS: "I was with him as a confidant, a source of delight every day." The majority reading seems to be that Wisdom helped God make things.

The other zinger verse here is verse 22. NJB "Yahweh created me, first-fruits of his fashioning." NIV "The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works." NAB "The Lord begot me, the firstborn of his ways." REB "The Lord created me the first of his works." NRSV "The Lord created me at the beginning of his work." NJKV "The Lord possessed me at the beginning of His way." JPS: "The Lord created me at the beginning of his course."

NKJV looks out of step here, yes? But that reading is exactly the one that R.B.Y. Scott adopts: "The most usual meaning of qanah is 'acquire, possess what has been acquired' (e.g., Gen xlvii 22, of the acquisition of real estate; Isa i 3, of the ownership of an animal). This is clearly the meaning intended in the twelve other passages in Proverbs where the word is used, and it is the meaning given it also here by Vulg., Aq., Symm., Theod. and SyroHex., among the ancient versions. Three other versions (LXX, Syr., Targ.), however, take qanah here to have its less usual meaning 'create,' as in Deut xxxii 6; Ps cxxxix 13; and (probably) Gen xiv 19,22. A related meaning 'engender, give birth to' is found apparently in Gen iv 1." (p. 71) Each of these three meanings is used by at least one of the translations I quoted.

The reason this verb is important is that the passage has been linked to Christ, and the Arians used this passage and 1 Corinthians 1:24 ("... Christ [is] the power of God and the wisdom of God") to argue that Christ was created (i.e., not co-eternal with God, not of one substance with God, made not begotten). It has also been used by people -- Sophiologists! -- who see here a person (a hypostasis) of some kind, but not Christ, and not a fourth person of the Trinity.

What we Orthodox believe is the meaning of this passage? Bishop KALLISTOS in his excellent essay "How to Read the Bible" (Orthodox Study Bible pp. 762-770) gives general guidelines. "[F]our key characteristics which mark the Orthodox 'Scriptural mind' may be distinguished. First, our reading of Scripture is obedient. Second, it is ecclesial, in union with the Church. Third, it is Christ-centered. Fourth, it is personal." I urge you to read and apply the entire essay. But for today, in this article that has arrived at the Sophianic passages in Proverbs, I will call your attention to the second principle, that our reading should be ecclesial.

"We interpret Scripture through and in the Church. If it is the Church that tells us what is Scripture, equally it is the Church that tells us how Scripture is to be understood. . . . The decisive criterion of our understanding of what Scripture means is the mind of the Church. To discover this 'mind of the church,' where do we begin? A first step is to see how Scripture is used in worship. How in particular are biblical lessons chosen for reading at the different feasts? A second step is to consult the writings of the Church Fathers, especially St. John Chrysostom. How do they analyze and apply the text of Scripture? An ecclesial manner of reading is in this way both liturgical and patristic." Bishop KALLISTOS then goes on to give an example of s uch interpretation by listing five readings from the Feast of the Annunciation and from Holy Saturday Vespers. The fifth of these readings is Proverbs 8:22-30. The third reading for those feasts is Proverbs 9:1-11, also about Wisdom. Of the two Proverbs readings he says, "[The Theotokos] provides the humanity or house which Christ the Wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24) takes as His dwelling; alternatively, she is herself to be regarded as God's Wisdom." The full texts of those services should be available in the Festal Menaion and Lenten Triodion (both available from the parish bookstore), in an individual booklet (available at the bookstore), or online.

So where are we now in our investigation of the divine feminine in Orthodox Christianity? We are no longer comparing Orthodoxy with other faiths but are now working inside Orthodoxy alone. We have focused on Sophia (Wisdom) and we have seen hints of ways in which Sophia is woven into the fabric of Orthodox worship, church-building, and theology. We have learned that Wisdom writings are an important component of the Old Testament and the intertestimental (deuterocanonical) books. We have introduced ourselves to the enigmatic Scripture passage that lies at the epicenter of Sophia-think and its reverberations through orthodoxy and heresy. And finally we have returned from the misty beginnings of Christianity to the here and now as we see that this very passage appears in our services today, associated with our beloved Theotokos.

Clark stretched at the computer and adjusted his drugstore reading glasses. So why did Constantine name the church Hagia Sophia? How and when and where were those various feast days associated with Sophia? If Christ is the Wisdom of God, how do we think about the feminine imagery? Why does R.B.Y. Scott have three initials and a last name? Can we use this article series as an excuse to get a picture of Sophia Loren published in the Evangelist? Why were Bulgakov's writings at one point officially condemned as heterodoxy? What unexpected good things might yet coalesce in The Sophia Polygon?

Notes: "How to Read the Bible" is available as a Conciliar Press booklet in the booklet racks at St. Luke's, and it can also easily be found on the internet by searching for its title.

To follow the advice of Bishop KALLISTOS to obtain the patristic writings on particular Scripture verses one can consult the excellent series Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, from InterVarsity Press. Unfortunately I don't have the volume that includes Proverbs.

Bible translation key:

JPS: Jewish Publication Society (Jewish)

NJB: New Jerusalem Bible (Roman Catholic)

NAB: New American Bible (Roman Catholic)

REB: Revised English Bible (Liturgical)

NRSV: New Revised Standard Bible (Liturgical)

NJKV: New King James Version (Protestant)

NIV: New International Version (Protestant)

The ones I have denoted as "Protestant" do not, so far as I know, include the Deuterocanonical books in any edition. By "Liturgical" I mean mainly Anglican and Roman Catholic. Some editions of these include the Deuterocanonical books and some don't. The Roman Catholic ones always include them.

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