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Sophia (Wisdom) in the Bible and Other Christian Texts
Intriguing information from The Secret Revelation of John
by Shirley Paulson, PhD
Detail from Icon of Divine Wisdom (Sophia) from St George Church in Vologda (16th century). Unknown photographer, via Wikimedia Commons. Click image to view larger version.
The ancient text, the Secret Revelation of John, is one of those writings found in the Nag Hammadi collection in 1945, and scholars are just now grappling with the depth and scope of this remarkable writing.
The topic I want to address today is the character of Sophia. In a way, I think the book ought to be named for her because she plays a bigger role than John or anyone else. But her role is also quite enigmatic. We could even say, tragic. Or, perhaps, healing. Let’s see what you think.
Who or what is Sophia?
Second-century readers of the text (or those to whom it was read) would have been familiar with Sophia from her long history in Hebrew scriptures and frequent references to her among Christ people as well. To be clear, sophia is a Greek word usually translated in English as ‘wisdom.’ At least in some form, Sophia may be known as far back as the Hebrew Wisdom writings, where ‘wisdom’ (chokmah in Hebrew) appears in Proverbs in a personified context. ‘Lady Wisdom,’as she was sometimes known, is not really a divine attribute of God or a distinct goddess on her own, even though she appears to take on the function of God or express God’s active involvement in the world.
Wisdom is so highly valued in the Secret Revelation of John, she is part of the original order of the divine creation established for the purpose of glorifying the invisible Spirit. This picture of Sophia (Wisdom) fits with the Jewish writings showing that personified Sophia was present when God created the world, and that she is able to assure humanity of the continued existence of this order.
But, what happened?! In the Secret Revelation of John, she does the most un-wise thing imaginable! She contradicts the will of the Infinite Spirit and wants to beget an offspring without her male partner’s consideration. This act is contrary to the order of creation where male and female agree on the idea of creation together.
Not surprisingly, her offspring is a grotesque creature who ends up creating havoc and anguish for all humanity. Maybe we can understand that evil came into the world through willful disobedience, arrogance, or ignorance, but from Wisdom?
Lack of wisdom on the part of Wisdom/Sophia?
The word seems to lose its meaning, but nonetheless, Sophia (Wisdom) remains a key character in the story of the Secret Revelation of John. Who is she?
In the New Testament, Sophia’s relationship with Jesus fluctuates. Sometimes Jesus appears as if he is Sophia’s son and final prophet. In other passages, Sophia is the primary source of Jesus’s revelation and wisdom. In fact, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is presented as Wisdom herself.
In the Secret Revelation of John, Sophia expresses God’s active involvement in the world; as a consort of Infinite Spirit, she is like a bride or wife; she acts as the agent in both creation and reconciliation; and she renews all things; she was present when God created the order of the world, so she is able to reassure humanity of the continued existence of this order.
Is Wisdom unwise? Is Wisdom wise? Scholars have pondered this conundrum ever since Sophia was discovered in similar stories in other Nag Hammadi texts.
Here’s my conclusion, in a nutshell. And I should make clear that I am only speaking about Sophia in the Secret Revelation of John here. Sophia’s story appears a bit differently in other texts.
From the way Sophia is presented, I think only Sophia (that which is wise) could solve the greatest problem besetting the world. “Where did evil come from?” Starting from the place of the divine order, Sophia illustrates the meaning and means by which evil operates in order that people can find the wisdom to resist it. It isn’t too much of a stretch to understand this possibility when we consider the example of Jesus
who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. (Phil 2:6-8)
Sophia, a savior
Sophia, who was often equated and compared with Jesus, takes on the role of savior by emulating the human condition and showing the way out. Wisdom is ideally prepared to save humanity from its sinful ways precisely because she is wise enough and experienced enough to understand all the tempting ways of the devil.
Sophia humbly repents, and shows us how we, too, must turn from identifying ourselves with the lower creation. She reminds us that we are originally the “image and likeness of God” — as promised in Genesis 1. She knows, because she was present when God created the world.
In the Secret Revelation of John we learn about a saving Sophia who teaches us God’s active involvement in the world and assures humanity of the continued existence of God’s order.
Thank you, Shirley. Many moons ago, when I still Michael Willett, I wrote my dissertation on Wisdom Christology in the Fourth Gospel (1985, pub 1992). I’m grateful that you’ve pointed up one trajectory of Sophia in the early writings.