Developing a Biblical Sophia Christology
I. Introduction and Purpose
Evidence of the association between Jesus Christ and the Jewish concept of “Divine Wisdom” or “Sophia” (sofia) can be found in the earliest traditions of the Christian Church in the Gospels and Pauline epistles. However, each Gospel tradition reveals a slightly different perspective and relationship between Jesus and Divine Wisdom. Given the varying perspectives on the relationship between Jesus and Wisdom as presented in the Gospels, Christians must ask whether Jesus is to be primarily understood as a prominent prophet of Sophia, an incarnation of Sophia, or as Sophia Incarnate and apply the theological implications that arise from such conclusions accordingly. In this essay I will briefly examine five texts from Matthew and Luke and demonstrate that Luke/Q portray Jesus as a prophet of Wisdom, while Matthew portrays Jesus as incarnating Wisdom in a direct and powerful way, and, in light of these texts, I will examine two in adequate approaches to Sophia-Christology in order to develop a third, more balanced Biblical Sophia-Christology for the Church today.
II. Background to the Wisdom Tradition
Roots of the Wisdom tradition can be found in post-exilic Jewish circles, in apocalyptic literature, and in the writings of Qumran. Wisdom writings can be observed in both protocanonical texts such as Proverbs and Job, and in deuterocanonical texts including Sirach, Esdras, and the Wisdom of Solomon. In these Jewish texts, Divine Wisdom is personified as a female figure that is sometimes referred to as “Lady Wisdom.” Lady Wisdom is portrayed as a teacher, bride, sister, savior, mother, and beloved, who actively invites men to accept her. Philo referred to Sophia as “the daughter of God” and many scholars believe that Sophia was deliberately contrasted with the pagan goddess Isis, while at the same time taking on many of the characteristics attributed of Isis. It is has been pointed out that Sophia was meant to be a poetic reference to the Law/Torah of God, rather then a real or separate person within the Jewish tradition. However, in early Christian tradition, Sophia was often extended and understood to refer to Jesus Christ himself. According to RH Fuller, “the evidence suggests that it was on Hellenistic Jewish soil that the concept of wisdom was first exploited for christological use.”
Historically, the Wisdom/Sophia tradition moved into two differing directions within early Christianity. One stream was that of the Gnostic tradition and the other was that espoused by St. Paul and the Gospel writers, which led to the theology of the early Church Fathers. Among the Gospel authors however, there are some differences in use and frequency of the term “Sophia.” R. Brown points out, “personified wisdom language appears in the Synoptic tradition on a few occasions, but there is nothing to match the massive number of echoes in John” (210). The Johannine tradition of the “Logos,” which was used as an equivalent term to “Sophia” by John, is more prevalent in John’s Gospel than in the Synoptic traditions.
The early Christian Church seems to have embraced the Wisdom Tradition as relating to Jesus in a way that is nearly lost today. The early Church accepted as canonical and authoritative Wisdom texts such as Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon (as Roman Catholics still do) and viewed many of those texts as referring to Jesus directly. In particular, the Byzantine Church seems to have upheld the Wisdom Tradition in equating Christ with Sophia more explicitly then many of the Western Churches. An example of this can be seen in the famous and beautiful “Hagia Sophia” (Holy Wisdom) Church in Istanbul, Turkey that is dedicated to Jesus Christ.
III. The Wisdom Tradition in 20th and 21st Century Feminism
Surprisingly, Feminist scholars have had rather mixed reactions to incorporating Sophia Christology into their theology. Some feel that the Wisdom Tradition, in its Jewish roots, was primarily written for elite men of Jewish society and does not accurately incorporate Feminist ideals. Others believe that Sophia Christology has many benefits for Feminist Christianity in portraying a more approachable and feminine view of God and Jesus Christ. Theologian E.S. Fiorenza explains:
Feminist theology must rearticulate the symbols, images,
and names of Divine Sophia in the context of our own experiences
and theological struggles in such a way that the ossified and
absolutized masculine language about G*d and Christ is radically questioned and undermined and the Western cultural sex/gender
system is radically deconstructed (162).
Therefore, according to many Feminists, developing a Sophia-Christology is dependent upon the ability to define and use Sophia on their own terms.
Of primary import to the question about the Wisdom Tradition and Sophia-Christology, and part of what I want to address in this paper, is the question of just how far we can or even should take the connection between Wisdom/Sophia and Jesus Christ given the canonical Gospel accounts. If Jesus and Sophia are closely related theologically, what does this imply about the person of Jesus?
One possible radical Feminist response to this question can be observed in the Sophia-Christ icon by Robert Lentz on the cover of this essay. In this icon the iconographer demonstrates the Feminist view that Jesus is Sophia in a very literal way, e.g. the two are one and the same. I will examine and respond to this approach in my conclusion and then suggest a Biblical Sophia-Christology for the Church today.
IV. Wisdom’s Oracle of Doom
Therefore, also the wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation.
Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, so that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly I tell you, all this will come upon this generation.
The primary and most important difference between these two passages is the first part of the first sentence. In Luke, it is the “sophia” of God who sends the prophets to Israel and proclaims judgment, while in the Matthew, the “sophia of God” is replaced with the personal pronoun “I” (egw), implying that it is Jesus who sends the prophets to Israel and proclaims judgment. E.S. Fiorenza explains that the Lukan version demonstrates the belief that Jesus’ fate is the same as all of Sophia’s prophets and simply reflects “Sophialogy” (140).
M.J. Suggs, on the other hand, explains that several theories exist for understanding the phrase “the wisdom of God” as used by Luke. One possibility is that Jesus is quoting Sophia but not correlating himself with Sophia. Another option is that Q itself, which Luke is using as his source, identifies Jesus with sophia. Suggs believes this is unlikely since Q likely viewed Jesus simply as one of Sophia’s last messengers. Suggs believes the most probably theory is that Jesus is simply quoting a lost Jewish source where it was given as an oracle of personified wisdom.
Contrary to both Suggs and Fiorenza, I believe it is likely that Matthew simply correlates Jesus with sophia in an explicit way because for this author, the two are equivalent in authority. This passage appears to be evidence of and reflects the later development of Wisdom Christology in Matthew that moves beyond Jesus as simply Sophia’s prophet, and into viewing Jesus as the incarnation of Sophia.
V. Wisdom’s Invitation
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.
These verses closely parallel the invitation of Sophia in Sirach 24:19: “Come to me, you who desire me, and eat your fill of my fruits” and Sirach 51:23: “Draw near to me, you who are uneducated, and lodge in the house of instruction.” It also parallels the description of Sophia’s ‘yoke’ in Sirach 6:24-25, 28-30:
Put your feet into her fetters, and your shoulders and carry her, and do not fret under her bonds. For at last you will find the rest she gives, and she will be changed into joy for you. Then her fetters will become for you a strong defense, and her collar a glorious robe. Her yoke is a golden ornament, and her bonds a purple robe.
Tomas Arvedson suggests that this call of Wisdom in Sirach is in contrast to the call of the pagan goddess Isis. The author is expressing the idea that the yoke of Isis will lead only to slavery, but the yoke of Sophia leads to love and liberty. It has also been suggested that a number of the traits Sophia has accrued in these passages have been borrowed from Isis. “Like Isis, Sophia is a divine savior figure who promises universal salvation.” Suggs also takes up T.W. Manson’s position that the “yoke” being spoken of in Sirach is likely the yoke of the Law/Torah.
What is essential to our study, however, is to determine what the Gospel writer intended by putting the words and invitation of Sophia as Jesus’ own words. I tend to agree with Suggs who believes that while Jesus does not totally displace the Torah, it does put Jesus “in place” of the Torah in a significant way. This is because Jesus has the authority to speak as Sophia and offers a similar invitation and promise to those who would take his yoke upon them.
VI. Wisdom’s Children and Deeds
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.
For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Nevertheless, wisdom is vindicated by all her children.
The most significant difference between these two passages is that Matthew refers to the “deeds” (ergwn) of wisdom and Luke refers to the “children” (teknwn) of wisdom as being vindicated. Suggs’ view is that the “children” of wisdom are meant to be understood as Jesus and John the Baptist. They both belong to the line of wisdom’s prophets but are in a unique position within that line. “Jesus and John stand as the eschatological envoys of Wisdom. Their position in relation to the eschaton gives them special status: John is Elijah, Jesus is the Son of Man.” Also of note is that in Proverbs 8:32, Wisdom speaks to her children, “And now my children, listen to me: happy are those who keep my ways.” Jesus and John the Baptist are examples of Wisdom’s children who listen and keep her ways according to Luke.
E.S. Fiorenza takes a slightly different interpretation of this passage and concludes that “wisdom’s children” include the entire nation of Israel as her children. “The Sophia-God of Jesus recognizes all Israelites as her children. She is justified, ‘made just’ in and by all of them.” However, Fiorenza also concedes that among those children, Jesus and John the Baptist are seen as the most prominent.
In the Matthean version, however, wisdom is justified by her “deeds.” Suggs suggests that these deeds refer to Jesus’ own miraculous works and deeds as the “Messiah.” Evidence for this is demonstrated by the fact that Matthew introduces this section with reference to Jesus’ “deeds” in verses 2-5 in response to John the Baptist’s question regarding whether Jesus is the Messiah, and then following this section Matthew reminds us in verse 20 that “mighty deeds of power” have been performed by Jesus in his reproach of the city. Matthew is making a very explicit connection between Sophia and Jesus, exclusive of John the Baptist or other Jewish “children” of Wisdom as implied by Luke.
VII. The Jerusalem Lament
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those
who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing. See, your house is left to you, desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’
(The Lukan version is nearly identical to the Matthew version in this passage.)
Many scholars do not believe this passage is an authentic saying of Jesus because it can only be seen as the words of a Divine Being. Suggs points out that there are eight references in the Old Testament to God’s “wings” which are seen as protection to God’s people (66). This passage is remarkable in that it closely parallels 2 Esdras 1:28, 30, 32a:
Thus says the Lord Almighty: Have I not entreated you as a father entreats his sons or a mother her daughters or a nurse her children…I gathered you as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings. But now, what shall I do to you? I sent you my servants the prophets, but you have taken and killed and torn their bodies in pieces…
In a similar way, Baruch 4:12 describes the desolation of the city because the people have turned away from God’s law. In all these cases, it is the rejection of Wisdom that is occurring. E.S. Fiorenza points out that the lament of Jesus is not anti-Semitic, in that it is not referring to all of Israel or the Jewish nation as a whole, but is spoken only against the governing and ruling authorities of the city. 
Suggs mentions that the speaker in the Q text of this passage was likely Sophia, but Matthew is able to transfer this lament and judgment as Jesus’ own words because for Matthew, Jesus is the incarnate of Wisdom. Jesus is rejected just as God’s law is rejected. As John 1:11 describes, both Jesus and Wisdom long for acceptance but are always rejected by their own. As the incarnate of Wisdom, Jesus is also able to speak with the sorrow of God in his ardent desire to protect and gather his children to himself and hide them under his wings. As Thomas Arvedson says, “the picture of the bird with its young is thoroughly appropriate in the mouth of the maternal Sophia.”
VIII. The Revelation to Babes
At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
(The Lukan version, verse 10:22, adds the phrase, “who the Son is” and “who the Father is” in place of “the Son” and “the Father.”)
This text parallels the liturgical form of prayer found in Sirach 51, a Wisdom Hymn, in its introduction in verse 1: “I give you thanks O Lord and king, and praise you O God my Savior.” Additionally, this passage reflects the words regarding wisdom in Isaiah 29:14b: “The wisdom of their wise shall perish, and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden” and finds its parallel in St. Paul’s writing in the first letter to the Corinthians 1:18-20, “Has God not made foolish the wisdom of the world?” Suggs suggests a further correlation to the Wisdom text of 4 Ezra 8:51-52, 61-62 because this passage refers to God revealing wisdom to only a few, the “elect” (87). For Matthew, it seems, the elect and the “infants” or “babes” are equivalent; both gain a special revelation revealed to them by God, which is hidden from the world’s traditional wisdom. Additionally, verses 28-30 of Matthew are also found in the Gospel of Thomas. Finally, “these things” appears to refer to the end times and it’s signs, the “eschatological secrets.”
E.S. Fiorenza makes an important point when she says that Matt. 11:27 is an exclusivist passage and every part of it…
can be traced back to Jewish Wisdom traditions. Just as Wisdom has received everything from G*d, so Jesus has received everything from God. Just as Wisdom is only known by G*d and is the only who knows G*d, so Jesus has all Wisdom; he is even Wisdom herself. Just as Divine Sophia gives her Wisdom as a gift, so also Jesus reveals Wisdom to all those to whom he wants to reveal himself. Hence it could be concluded that here Jesus replaces Sophia (143-44).
This passage clearly reflects the belief that Jesus and Wisdom are inextricably linked. According to Matthew, Jesus himself is identified with Sophia, an incarnate of Divine Wisdom because he alone knows the Father directly.
VIII. Towards a Biblical Sophia-Christology
Having examined some of the Biblical evidence demonstrating how Wisdom is identified with Jesus as both a prophet of Sophia and the incarnation of Sophia, we will now turn our attention to what a Sophia-Christology for today should entail. What are the implications and theological conclusions we can now draw? Is it possible to take the connection between Jesus and Sophia too literally? Or too far? First I will examine two forms of Sophia-Christology that are inadequate in their application of Jesus and Wisdom and then I will offer a third alternative which I believe to be a balanced and Biblical understanding of Sophia-Christology.
The Sophia-Christology that has been offered by some of the more radical Feminists as portrayed by the Christ-Sophia icon by Robert Lentz on the cover of this essay misunderstands Sophia-Christology. Looking closely at the icon we notice some important details. First, the words surrounding the figure’s head are Hebrew and read, “I Am Who I am,”or “Yahweh,” which is the traditional Hebraic name for God. The Greek lettering on the right and left hand side, “IS CS,” stands for “Jesus Christ.” Looking at the face of the figure, it is clear she is a woman, a biological female. Given the clear naming of this individual as Jesus and as God, the message being given is that Jesus, as God, in his identification with Sophia, can be literally transformed and portrayed as a woman.
Sophia also holds in her hands the Venus of Willendorf; a statuette of an extremely ancient pagan “Earth Mother” or “Mother Goddess” that dates back to approximately 24,000-22,000 BCE. Sophia points to herself as if to say, “I am she.” The message is that Sophia, as a female, “daughter of God,” and Divine Mother is akin to the Mother Goddess. In other words, because of Jesus’ explicit Divine connection with Sophia, God’s feminine attributes, through Jesus-Sophia, have been brought to the fore and we now have a basis by which to worship God, not only as God the Father and God the Son, but also as Goddess Sophia.
The icon and its message are problematic in several ways. This icon and the Sophia-Christology it represents misunderstand the point behind the meaning of Christ as Wisdom. The first problem is that it takes the concept of the grammatical gender of the words “Sophia” (and the Hebrew “hokmah”) and applies them directly to natural gender, since both terms are “feminine.” But even Philo, who refers to Sophia as “the daughter of God,” recognized this distinction and explained that Sophia is also properly called “Father” as well.  Additionally, the recognition that Jesus is the incarnate of Sophia, or even as the Johannine tradition would hold, as “Sophia Incarnate,” does not entail the creation of a new persona of God in which God can now be recognized as a Goddess. According to the New Testament witness, it is Sophia that describes and foreshadows Christ as the Son of God, not Christ who is descriptive of Sophia. This is an important distinction. Sophia is a poetic aspect, attribute, and description of the Divine, but is not a literal separate person or being or “goddess.” As RH Fuller explains, “The material involved gives no hint of Wisdom as an independent entity that has somehow ‘incarnated herself’ in Jesus.”
Another extreme in Sophia-Christology, and one which has been the primary approach of the Church for most of its history, has been to essentially ignore the theological implications of the connection made between Christ and Sophia. In an attempt to make clear distinctions between orthodoxy and heresy/Gnosticism, the Church nearly dropped its original sense of Jesus as the incarnate of Sophia and all that this Christology implies. In fact, the Church has generally focused on the masculine attributes of God and has emphasized God and Jesus’ maleness. To this day, one of the primary arguments against women serving in the priesthood is that Jesus was/is a male and therefore females cannot accurately represent Christ at the altar by virtue of their biological sex. (Strangely this argument is not taken to its logical conclusion in excluding those who are not biologically qualified in terms of their race as a Jewish/Palestinian men or any another other biological physical attribute such as age, appearance, handicap, etc.) For the most part, the Church has not sought to make significant theological ties to Jesus and Sophia or develop a relevant Sophia-Christology accessible to Christians today. In doing so, we have neglected an important Scriptural and early Christian tradition and are left with an incomplete portrayal of Christ.
In order to take the connection and implications of Sophia-Christology seriously, we need to re-look at the descriptions of Wisdom in the Wisdom texts that the Gospel writers would have been familiar with. In the descriptions of Sophia the authors of these texts go to great lengths to describe Sophia in exclusively female and feminine terms. Sophia is never a neutral image, and even in her personification she is intentionally portrayed as a woman in every instance.
In Proverbs Sophia is contrasted with a female prostitute who seeks to seduce and charm men in characteristically feminine ways as she cries out to men at the entrance of town (Proverbs 7, 8). Sophia promises to love those who love her (Prov. 8:18). She draws men to herself and has laid out a banquet table and sent her servant-girls to call men to come to her and drink her wine (Prov 9:2-5). She is described as having beauty (Wis 8:2) and as worthy as a bride (Wis 8:2). She is also described as a sister and as a mother who teaches her children (Prov 8:32).
Not only is Sophia always portrayed explicitly as a woman, there are also many bold theological proclamations about her position and relationship to God with descriptions often equivalent to Divinity itself. In the Wisdom texts Sophia is described as having come forth from the mouth of God (Sir 24:3), created at the beginning before the earth was made (Prov 8:22-23), is ever at God’s side (Prov 1:18), was active in creation (Wis 9:9), is a mediator of creation (Wis 8:5-6), a ruler over kings who is all powerful and permeates the cosmos (Wis 7:23, 27; 8:1,5), leads people to life and immortality (Wis 6:18-19), resides in heaven as the glory of God (Wis 7:25-26), shares the very throne of God (Wis 9:3), is the vine and stream of water (Sir 24:17,28) who offers living water (Sir 24:18,20) to mankind, is a savior to humanity (Wis 9:18, 10:21, 10:9), makes her dwelling/tabernacle in Jacob (Sir 24:8) and will never cease to be (Sir 24:9). “In short, Divine Wisdom lives symbiotically with God (Wisd. 8:3f). ”
It is easy to see, given these descriptions that match so closely the description we have of Jesus and the Divine, why the early Church and Gospel authors of Matthew and John so readily identified Jesus with Sophia as being the incarnation of Sophia and Sophia Incarnate. It is possible that some of the theological shifts that occurred from the Jesus of history to the Christ of faith can be drawn back to the understanding and identification of Jesus with God’s Divine Wisdom, Sophia. At any rate, it is clear that the Church must take this identification of Christ with Sophia seriously, along with its theological implications.
So what are the implications of Sophia-Christology for Christians and our view of God and Jesus Christ today? It is clear that the proper theological response is not to simply shift gender language in a literal way in order to identify God or Jesus as a “woman.” Rather, what we learn from this close association between God and Jesus with the feminine attributes of Sophia is that biological sex and gender are not essential attributes of God or Jesus. The fact that God can be described in feminine and female ways demonstrates that God is above and beyond human “maleness” or “femaleness.” God is not a male or a female, and because human language always falls short of describing God, God can be described in either feminine or masculine terms. It is just as misguided to focus on God and Jesus’ “maleness” as it is to focus on their “femaleness” as portrayed in the Sophia icon. From this identification of Jesus with Sophia we are also able to affirm that the point behind the Incarnation is not that Jesus has become a male as opposed to a female, but that he became a man, a human, anqrwpoV.
One of the appropriate incorporations of a Biblically based Sophia-Christology is that Jesus need no longer be identified in strictly male and masculine terms and descriptions. Just as all language about God is more poetic than literally descriptive, so Sophia language about God is mainly poetic. However, because Jesus is Divine Wisdom incarnate, he is one with God and neither God nor Jesus are restrained, in any theological sense, by “maleness” or masculinity. Silvia Schroer argues that “the discourse of personified Wisdom seeks to integrate masculine and feminine elements into the image of G*d.” A proper Sophia-Christology, then, illuminates the fact that Jesus is for all and a representative of all people, and that all of us, when we live in unity with God’s Holy Spirit, become “icons” of Christ, male and female alike.
Brown, Raymond. An Introduction to New Testament Christology. Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1994.
Fiorenza, Elizabeth Schussler. Jesus: Miriam’s Child Sophia’s Prophet: Critical Issues in Feminist Christology. New York: Continuum Publishing, 1994.
Fuller, Reginald Horace. The Foundations of New Testament Christology. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1965.
Fuller, Reginald Horace. Who is This Christ? Gospel Christology and Contemporary Faith. Fortress Press, 1983.
Metzger, Bruce, and Murphy, Roland, eds. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Suggs, M. Jack. Wisdom, Christology, and Law in Matthew’s Gospel. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970.
 Fiorenza, 133.
 See Suggs, 101 and Fiorenza, 136.
 Fuller, “The Foundations of New Testament Christology,” p. 72.
 Please see Suggs, 18-24 for a full treatment of these theories.
 Suggs, p. 19.
 Suggs, p.100.
 Suggs, p. 101.
 Fiorenza, p. 136.
 Suggs, p. 103.
 Suggs, p. 35.
 Ibid, p. 55.
 Fiorenza, p. 140.
 Ibid, p. 141.
 Suggs, p. 56.
 See Suggs, 66.
 Fiorenza, p. 142.
 Suggs, p. 67.
 Ibid, p. 67.
 Suggs, p. 89.
 Fiorenza, p. 137.
 Fuller, “Who is This Christ,” p.56.
 Raymond Brown identifies the following citations of the personification of Wisdom: Sir 1:1-18; 4:11-19; 6:18-31; 14:20-15:10; 24:1-31; 51:13-30; Wis 7-9; Baruch 3:9-38, pg. 207.
 Fiorenza, p. 136.