Thursday, March 15, 2012

Exalt Sophia!

Exalt Sophia; she will exalt you! Embrace her; she will honor you!  Proverbs 4:8
When I was a teenager, I had a notebook in which I had a collection of the pictures of great people. Whenever I found a picture of a great person in a newspaper or magazine, I would cut it out and paste it in my book of great people. On the front page I had a verse from the Book of Proverbs (4:8). I had the verse in Malayalam and it read njaanathe uyarthuka; athu ninne uyarthum. In English it means: Exalt wisdom; it will exalt you! All the great people I had in my book were those who exalted wisdom.
Recently I found that this proverb is much more meaningful and beautiful in the original language in which it was written: Greek. There it reads: Exalt Sophia; she will exalt you, and embrace her, she will honor you. Wisdom is personified here with the concrete form of a woman. Here wisdom is not an it but a she. When the proverb was translated to English and then to Malayalam, it was stripped of its poetic beauty. A beautiful poetic proverb became a very prosaic one.
The proverb is exhorting us to get into a love relationship with Sophia. We need to fall in love with wisdom just like a young man falls in love with a young woman. Exalt her and embrace her, and let Sophia fill your world.
Sophia was the word for wisdom in Greek, and it was in feminine gender. Many words that are classified as neuter gender in languages like English and Malayalam are classified as Masculine or feminine in languages like Greek.
In ancient Greece, there were people who claimed to be sophists. By the term sophist, they meant someone in custody of Sophia. They claimed that they possessed Sophia or that Sophia was in their custody. This is the context of Socrates claiming to be a philosopher. He said he was not in custody of Sophia but merely a lover of Sophia. He laughed at those who claimed to be sophists. Socrates asserted that no one can claim the custody of Sophia; one can only love her. The word philosopher means lover of Sophia.
There is an interesting story about Socrates. One day an oracle in Delphi told Socrates that he was the wisest man (sophist) on earth. Socrates laughed at it and said that it cannot be true. In order to prove that the oracle was wrong, he went in search of a person who was wiser than him.  He travelled around the country and met people who claimed to be sophists. Finally after meeting many of them, he came back to the oracle and admitted that the oracle was absolutely right. Socrates said: All those people claim that Sophia is in their custody, but she is not. I know that Sophia is not in my custody. So of course I am wiser than them.
Another proverb equates Sophia to the tree of life in the Garden of Eden (3: 18). Neglecting Sophia, the tree of life, Adam and Eve chose the knowledge of good and evil. Once they made this choice, they couldn’t choose Sophia. The tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil looked very attractive to Adam and Eve, but they didn’t realize that it was a deceptive beauty.
Proverbs chapter 7 gives a graphic description of this deceptive beauty. She is like a prostitute with seductive words. She finds a boy with no sense and with her persistent coaxing she overcomes him. He follows her, like an ox on its way to the slaughterhouse, like a madman on his way to the stocks, until an arrow pierces him to the liver, like the bird that dashes into the net without realizing that its life is at stake.  She has done so many to death, and the strongest have all been her victims. Her house is the way to Sheol, the descent to the courts of death. (26-27)
Proverbs chapter 8 gives a description of the beauty of Sophia.  I, Sophia, dwell together with prudence; I possess knowledge and discretion. (13)  I walk in the way of righteousness, along the paths of justice, (20)  The LORD brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old; (22) For those who find me find life and receive favor from the LORD. (35)
If Sophia is a tree of life, the Knowledge of Good and Evil is a tree of death. Sophia is the one who is truly beautiful; the Knowledge of Good and Evil looks beautiful outside but really ugly. Sophia is the one all people need to love and exalt and embrace. The Knowledge of Good and Evil is a prostitute all people need to avoid.
James’ epistle compares heavenly wisdom with earthly knowledge.  James 3: 13-18
“Anyone who is wise or understanding among you should from a good life give evidence of deeds done in the gentleness of wisdom. But if at heart you have the bitterness of jealousy, or selfish ambition, do not be boastful or hide the truth with lies; this is not the wisdom that comes from above, but earthly, human and devilish. Wherever there are jealousy and ambition, there are also disharmony and wickedness of every kind; whereas the wisdom that comes down from above is essentially something pure; it is also peaceable, kindly and considerate; it is full of mercy and shows itself by doing good; nor is there any trace of partiality or hypocrisy in it. The peace sown by peacemakers brings a harvest of justice.”

Sophia was seen in the Jewish tradition as a personification of the law of God that sustains the world. She was pictured not only as a worthy bride but also as a sister (Pro 7:4) and as a mother (8:32). Besides the Book of Proverbs, The Wisdom of Solomon and the Book of Ben Sirach were also authoritative and canonical in the early Christian church, and they continue to be canonical in the Orthodox and Catholic churches. All these books exalt Sophia.
Luke says that it is Sophia who sends prophets and Apostles (Luke 11: 49). Luke also speaks about the children of Sophia who vindicate her (7:35). Matthew goes one step further and presents Jesus as an incarnation of Sophia. According to Matthew, it is Jesus who sends prophets and Apostles Mat. 23: 34. The words of invitation of Sophia in the Book of Sirach (6:24-30) is repeated in Matthew as Jesus’ own words: Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for you souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.  Matthew (12:42) refers to the Queen of the South who came to listen to Solomon's wisdom, and then claims that Jesus was greater than Solomon probably in the sense that Jesus was the very incarnation of wisdom. Paul calls Jesus the Sophia from God (I Cor. 1: 30). We declare God’s Sophia (2:7).

When Jesus was seen as an incarnation of Sophia, a mismatch of gender was noticed. Sophia is feminine, but Jesus was of course masculine. How can a woman incarnate to become a man? This difficulty was slowly resolved by changing the gender of Sophia. All the attributes of Sophia were transferred over to the Son of God (Logos) as we find in John’s Gospel and in the later epistles attributed to Paul.
For Further Reading:
 A Biblical Sophia Christology

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