How Do You Solve A Problem Like Sophia?

I’ve written some brief thoughts on the question of the biblical and apocryphal imagery of Sophia.

The image of Wisdom (Sophia) in Proverbs and elsewhere needs to be understood in terms of the broader picture within she occurs. The entire book of Proverbs is about the relationship between the royal son and wisdom, framed in terms of the quest for a good wife. The book juxtaposes the way of folly, of the foolish woman who leads to destruction, with Lady Wisdom and the noble wife, who should be desired and sought. The book ends with the portrait of the noble wife, Lady Wisdom as royal consort. The prince’s relationship with Wisdom is presented as erotic in character, comparable to the relationship between a man and wife (a theme even more pronounced in Wisdom 8:2ff.).

More here.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in 1 Corinthians, Bible, Controversies, Creation, Doctrine of God, NT, NT Theology, OT, OT Theology, Passing the Salt Shaker, Proverbs, Scripture, The Triune God, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to How Do You Solve A Problem Like Sophia?

  1. Philipp says:

    Hi Alastair,

    Interesting thoughts. Forgive me for commenting on a post not your own, but I wonder if there is any way for non-contributors to leave comments on ‘Passing the Salt Shaker’. The reason why I ask is that Jem Bloomfield (as ‘Quiteirregular’) cited Origen incorrectly in a post related to your own, where he asserts that Origen ‘cheerfully uses [feminine pronuns] of Christ’ in De principiis, in the lines ‘”we understand her to be the Word of God” and “on this account she is called the Word”.’ The first of these phrases (drawn from the ANF translation) is accurate enough, but misleading, and the second supplies a pronoun absent in the Latin, which runs (I supply my own translation, with the Latin of the last clause): ‘in this way it must be understood that she ( eam) is the word of God, inasmuch as she herself (ipsa) reveals to all others, that is to all creation, the rationale (rationem–perhaps ‘logos’ or a related word in the lost original?) of the mysteries and secret things, which are contained at any rate within the wisdom of God: and on this account (she/it) is called the Word, because (she/it) is interpreter of the secrets of his mind ( et per hoc Verbum dicitur, quia sit tanquam arcanorum mentis interpres.)”

    Of course, as I’m sure you know, Latin and Greek both use pronouns primarily in accordance with the grammatical gender of the nouns to which they refer; Origen (and Rufinus) simply had to use the feminine eam or its Greek equivalent to refer to the feminine word sapientia/sophia; there is nothing ‘cheerful’–and nothing theologically significant–about it, unlike (say) in some Syriac authors, where the fact that the word for Spirit is feminine (etymologically; later authors change it to the masculine, presumably in accordance with Greek usage–Syriac has no neuter) leads them to develop a distinctly feminine imagery for the Spirit. The other pronoun is unexpressed, and therefore even less significant.

    Anyway, I hope that this might contribute to your discussion in some way; if it is unwelcome here, please feel free to delete it!

    • ,That is helpful. Thanks, Philipp!

      We decided against having comments on the site itself, for various reasons, but thoughts are always welcome here. In keeping with the etiquette of the blog, I won’t be able to post again until at least one other person has commented. However, if they do so before we move on to a different topic, I will post your remark.

      • Philipp says:

        I should also note, as I did not, that the passage, like much of De Principiis, is only extant in Rufinus’ Latin translation (at least, the Patrologia Graeca only gives the Latin text–perhaps a Greek text has since been discovered, but that seems unlikely); that complicates things, but the syntax is likely to have been similar in the original, too.

    • William Fehringer says:

      To Philipp’s point, you could consider the standard text from the requiem mass.

      libera animas omnium fidelium
      defunctorum de poenis inferni
      et de profundo lacu.
      Libera eas de ore leonis,
      ne absorbeat eas tartarus,

      Does the feminine pronoun eas mean we’re only asking Jesus to save the women?

      • quinnjones2 says:

        Just a thought – ‘eas’ refers back to ‘animas’ f.plu.(souls/spirits) Animus and anima now have overlapping meanings, but the root meaning of ‘animus’ was mind/intellect, so it looks as though we are asking for all souls to be saved, male and female 🙂 I just checked here: Latin Roots: Anima, Animus – Vocabulary Lesson Plans, but I’m sure it would be worth getting another opinion.

      • William Fehringer says:

        That’s right. eas refers back to animas, which meant the whole soul; thinking, moving, feeling, and appetitive parts. Anima was used to translate psyche from the greek. Animus was used to describe the rational part.

  2. quinnjones2 says:

    Interesting! In the German language, too, there are some discrepancies between the grammatical gender of a noun and the actual meaning of the noun – for instance my sister pointed out to me once that one of the German words for ‘womb’ is ‘der Mutterleib’ (masculine!)

    • William Fehringer says:

      Grammatical gender is only occasionally related to the sex of a thing. A ball in Latin (pila) is feminine and in German (das Ball) it is neuter. A hand in Latin (manus) looks to the slightly trained eye masculine but is in fact feminine, but in Greek it looks and is masculine. Professions like poeta, nauta, and agricola look feminine but are masculine. If we were developing a grammar according to our modern mathematical sense, we could say that the words have a strange property apart from the case endings that generally line up with those endings but sometimes diverge. We could call it instead of gender +1, -1, and 0.

  3. quinnjones2 says:

    Alastair – I will re-read and reflect on your Sophia blog – I find it really intriguing.
    William – This is fascinating! Translation work is complicated and I take my hat off to those who translate the scriptures.I don’t know Greek or Hebrew myself. By the way, German ‘Ball’ is masculine, but I think it might be a loan word, and as loan words are usually neuter (Taxi, Baby, Telefon etc.) it would not surprise me if neuter is sometimes used for ‘Ball’ – however, ‘Kugel’ is feminine. Grammatical gender in German is sometimes not related to the gender of a person, for instance when the suffixes ‘-chen’ and ‘-lein’ are used, as in Maedchen* (girl|), but German does have the specifically feminine suffix ‘ -in’ for some professions (Ingenieurin, Politikerin etc) When I taught German to adults the gender of non-human/animal objects was sometimes a topic of conversation and one businessman commented to me wryly that he still hadn’t worked out why cheese was ‘male’ and pineapples were ‘female’!*
    *I have yet to find the Umlauts on this computer!

    • William Fehringer says:

      It’s been a long time since I’ve done German, though I’m surprised I misremembered Ball. I also looked once into native american grammar, i.e., Delaware and was intrigued to find they had a distinction for living versus non-living things in their word endings such that rocks could either be living or non-living rocks.

    • mnpetersen37 says:

      Umlauts are actually small superscript e’s. The English practice of writing out e’s rather than as superscript, is actually older, and is still reflected in some German names: Goethe, for instance.

      My wife and I have been singing and playing some of Telemann’s pieces, from Telemann’s original printing. He sometimes uses an umlaut, but sometimes writes out the e’s, for instance, here, in the second measure of the third line, “über” is written “ueber”.

      So just do the English thing, and write out e’s. German printing presses ruined the thorn, eth, and yogh, and they deserve the payback. 😛

      • quinnjones2 says:

        I can relax about the Umlauts, then 🙂 When I first retired I didn’t want to look at another Umlaut for a while. Some children put them wherever they fancied – on the wrong letters, sideways…I got fed up with correcting them!
        I just tried out the Telemann tune on the piano.It’s not familiar to me, but learnable, I think.

      • Matt Petersen says:

        Check out the clef on the Recorder part.

        Also, don’t be confused by the three flats: Two of them are “e’s”. 😛

  4. quinnjones2 says:

    Hi Alastair,
    I have now re-read your piece. Having somehow got through all these years without having even heard of Sophiology, I found it informative and illuminating. I have never heard the Holy Spirit referred to as ‘she’ and in fact some at our church use the pronoun ‘he’ when referring to the Spirit. I realise that I have, on occasions, referred to the Spirit as ‘it’, which sounded strange, even to me, as I said it. Though I found it interesting to read about Sophiology, I seem, generally, to have settled for Romans 8:9 : ‘The Spirit of God’, ‘The Spirit of Christ’.

    • Yes, masculine pronouns are arguably used in John 16. However, it isn’t absolutely clear one way or another. Perhaps the most notable thing about the way that the Spirit is referred to is that the Spirit is generally spoken of without personal pronouns. That is the approach that I generally follow.

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