Book Notice: An Obituary for Wisdom Literature

Will Kynes. An Obituary for “Wisdom Literature”: The Birth, Death, and Intertextual Reintegration of a Biblical Corpus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. 352 pages. $80.00 (hardcover).

In An Obituary for “Wisdom Literature,” Will Kynes, Associate Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Samford University, pronounces the genre “Wisdom Literature” dead. While modern readers have generally considered the books of Job, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs as belonging to that genre, Kynes shows that the books have been classified according to different types of literature throughout history and argues that Wisdom Literature is not, in fact, a fitting category. He argues that Johann Bruch created the genre in 1851 to classify the books within the philosophical framework of his time, which was both universalistic and humanistic (90). He asserts that because Bruch fit Wisdom Literature to his philosophy, the Wisdom category has crippled biblical scholarship since its creation (101). Kynes works through Job, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs with an emergence theory of genre which likens it to constellations where interactions between a variety of texts illuminate the analyzed text to uncover the genre from the bottom up (113). The intertextual approach, he argues, provides a more accurate portrait of genre than the traditional method (144). Kynes concludes by defining wisdom as a broad concept “based on the role of the concept and the diverse traits associated with it in the variety of texts in which they appear, and not necessarily united in a singular distinct worldview” (252). In other words, Wisdom as a concept is the word ḥokmah’s semantic range, not an entire worldview (18).

The book best serves scholars or readers with at least a master’s level of education. Seminary students who learned that genre is fluid may not find their studies significantly affected by Kynes’s work. Similarly, the problem of the Wisdom genre will not be a novel idea for many readers. The value of the book comes from Kynes’s diligent research to recover the origin of the genre and the presuppositions that influenced its conception, as well as his explanation and application of the emergence theory of genre. Scholars will find Kynes’s handling of Job, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs insightful, and appreciate his demonstration of the benefits of the emergence theory of genre. He commendably resists simply classifying these books as sui generis and makes a strong case for conceiving of wisdom as a concept rather than a worldview.

Two difficulties remain in eliminating the label “Wisdom Literature”: the history of referring to Job, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs as Wisdom Literature, and the desire to keep these books together as a unit. First, the history of scholarship on Wisdom Literature may require that the category remain for common reference (12). Second, Kynes notes that readers’ perception of shared subject matter has led to these books to be grouped together as a unit (251), which provides students of Scripture with a simple way to converse about them (12). It is unclear how scholars will resolve these difficulties even if Wisdom Literature were eliminated as a category, but An Obituary for “Wisdom Literature” provides a weighty contribution to these ongoing discussions.

CBS book notices provide brief descriptive summaries and assessments of new publications in biblical studies and biblical theology. The present book notice was written by Ross Harmon, a Ph.D. student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.


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