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
(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
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.