The origins of wisdom are hotly disputed. The basic disagreement is over the respective importance of 'folk' and 'court' wisdom. Folk wisdom would mean the kind of reflection on life and its meaning that goes on in all communities everywhere, and which in traditional cultures is often transmitted by local 'wise men/women'. In a sense, no doubt, all 'wisdom' (indeed, all human ideas of whatever kind) must ultimately go back to such a setting. But some scholars think that the wisdom we encounter in the Hebrew Bible, though it may appear to spring from the 'folk', actually reflects a more developed form of the phenomenon, which had its home especially in the royal courts of the ancient Near East (see the discussion in Whybray 1974). The proverbs in the book of Proverbs may seem like commonplace sayings, but their careful poetic form reveals them to be the products of a sophisticated type of 'wisdom' which was linked, in the ancient world, to professional counsellors at the courts of kings. One interesting corollary of this, if it is true, might be that the 'secular' aspects of wisdom should be stressed more strongly than scholars are apt to do in more 'theological' accounts of the genre. After all, royal counsellors were the sort of people the Hebrew prophets regarded as being 'wise in their own eyes', but not in the sight of God (e.g. Isa. 5:21), and thus as lacking in the 'fear of the Lord'. However, courtly wisdom in other cultures (especially Egypt) could be quite religious in content (see Schmid 1966); so the 'religious versus secular' problem in interpreting Old Testament wisdom probably cannot be resolved by theories concerning its social background, any more than by an analysis of its 'message'.
A further complication is that there are those who would link wisdom closely to the Israelite educational system, arguing that the literate and literary classes who wrote wisdom books were probably those engaged in educating young professional Israelites as scribes (Lemaire 1992). In some cases the aim might be to produce royal counsellors, but well-trained scribes would enter the civil service, of which the king's own counsellors formed only the very upper echelons: there were plenty of other officials in more modest grades. A good deal is known about the education system in ancient Egypt, which was closely connected to the civil service (Brunner 1957), and the Hebrew material can be fitted into a similar pattern; though all the evidence is circumstantial, since no biblical author (before Ben Sira) refers to a school or a civil service. None the less, Hebrew wisdom could have a 'learned' origin. What is agreed by all, including defenders of the 'folk wisdom' theory, is that wisdom teachers were not religious officials, and did not draw on national traditions about what the national God had done or said; and this is equally true of the parallels in other ancient Near Eastern cultures.
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