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Biblical Wisdom Literature

Biblical Wisdom Literature

Course No.  6260
Course No.  6260
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Course Overview

About This Course

36 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

In the history of wisdom literature, few traditions match the solace and profundity found in the teachings of the Bible. For centuries, people have taken comfort and insight from the familiar yet eternally resonant writings of the Bible's wisdom literature. Through their inspirational teachings, the sages of the biblical wisdom tradition offer time-honored advice about some of life's most difficult questions: What is the reward of virtue? What is the best way to raise one's children? How can we best deal with the uncertainty of life?

  • "There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens." (book of Qoheleth)
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In the history of wisdom literature, few traditions match the solace and profundity found in the teachings of the Bible. For centuries, people have taken comfort and insight from the familiar yet eternally resonant writings of the Bible's wisdom literature. Through their inspirational teachings, the sages of the biblical wisdom tradition offer time-honored advice about some of life's most difficult questions: What is the reward of virtue? What is the best way to raise one's children? How can we best deal with the uncertainty of life?

  • "There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens." (book of Qoheleth)
  • "How much better to get wisdom than gold, to choose understanding rather than silver!" (book of Proverbs)
  • "A faithful friend is beyond price. No sum can balance his worth." (book of Sirach)
  • "Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Beatitudes of Jesus)

For countless people, these ancient writings have offered consolation and insight into the very meaning of existence.

And yet, few of us realize that these great teachings are part of a larger tradition—a rich and complex body of writings that have influenced theologians, philosophers, and everyday men and women for millennia. The insights offered in this tradition and their efforts to integrate faith and reason, revelation and human wisdom rival those of the renowned philosophical schools of ancient Greece.

In Biblical Wisdom Literature, award-winning professor Father Joseph Koterski takes you deep inside this tradition. In 36 thought-provoking lectures, you explore enlightening teachings that have inspired the world and that continue to speak to life's most important questions.

Throughout the course, you benefit from Father Koterski's ecumenical perspective, as he presents these teachings within the Jewish and Christian traditions and compares the varying versions of these texts. He places each book in its historical and cultural context but also examines its place in today's world, describing how these teachings can be applied to everyday dilemmas.

The result is an enriching journey that is as rewarding for members of the Jewish and Christian faiths as it is to those who simply wonder: What do these writings have to say about the great philosophical problems people seek to understand?

From the Trials of Job to the Teachings of Jesus

The course begins with the well-known story of Job from the Jewish Bible, in which a righteous man struggles to understand why he suffers loss, illness, and despair. Father Koterski uses this story to probe one of the most compelling themes of the biblical wisdom tradition: What is the cause of suffering? Should we interpret suffering as a punishment for wrongdoing? Or is it sometimes a test, designed to shape our character?

The book of Job contends with some of the most enduring questions of theology and philosophy—questions that echo and re-echo throughout the stories of the Bible and the philosophy of the ancient world. But through this course, you also explore many other crucial themes:

  • In the book of Proverbs, you ponder the value and nature of wisdom itself and encounter sayings and tales that offer a moral exhortation to live according to God's covenant.
  • In the book of Qoheleth, you find a pithy, sometimes skeptical meditation on the ultimate meaning of this life, qualified by a faith in divine providence.
  • In the book of Sirach, you encounter wisdom teachings similar to those found in Proverbs—with advice on friendship, fidelity to God's law, and the nature of sin—as well as a perspective on God's role in history.
  • With the Song of Songs, you watch as the meaning of love unfolds on many levels—literal, spiritual, and allegorical—in a sublime piece of poetry.
  • In the book of Daniel, you encounter a new avenue to wisdom—prophetic insights revealed through the divine revelation of dreams.
  • In the Wisdom of Solomon, you contemplate the place of wisdom both in the highest courts of the land and in daily life.

In the final unit, you return to the theme of suffering in the figure of Jesus Christ, who through his teachings, death, and resurrection permits us to reconsider Job's meditation on suffering from a distinctly Christian perspective—one in which Jesus's ordeal appears as a means of redemption through sacrifice.

The "Interludes": An Opportunity to Pause and Reflect

Interspersed throughout these lectures, Father Koterski provides moments to reflect on these teachings through his consideration of another source of biblical wisdom—the wisdom psalms. Through these "interlude" lectures, you experience the wisdom tradition in a more personal way, through the study of a selection of psalms that underscore key themes covered in each unit.

For example, after exploring the book of Qoheleth, with its concern about life's absurdities and calamities, you'll reflect on Psalm 49, which helps put these uncertainties into a divine perspective:

"Why should I fear in times of trouble, when the iniquity of those who cheat me surrounds me,
those who trust in their wealth and boast of the abundance of their riches?
Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life..."

Through these interludes, you also consider the act of prayer itself. Father Koterski shows how these psalms serve as a versatile tool for personal meditation, and he offers practical advice on how to develop a habit of prayer. For those who are not part of a prayerful faith tradition, Father Koterski provides a glimpse into the benefits and rewards of this spiritual practice.

Explore a Treasure Trove of Literary Riches

As you delve into this tradition, you also encounter a feast of literary treasures. Father Koterski provides generous excerpts from the original works, showcasing the remarkable depth, richness, and diversity of these writings. Consider, for example, one of the most famous poems of the biblical tradition, the renowned Song of Songs, with its lyrical, moving representation of a love that is both spiritual and sensual:

"My beloved is white and ruddy, the chiefest among ten thousand.
His head is as the most fine gold, his locks are bushy, and black as a raven.
His eyes are as the eyes of doves by the rivers of waters, washed with milk, and fitly set.
His cheeks are as a bed of spices, as sweet flowers: his lips like lilies, dropping sweet smelling myrrh...
This is my beloved, and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem."

In addition to the beautiful lyricism found here and in the psalms, you also encounter a wide range of literary genres, including

  • the engaging dialogue format of drama, exemplified in the many debates that make up the book of Job;
  • the pithy, thought-provoking proverbs found throughout the tradition, which rely on rhetorical concision to aid the reader in cultivating wisdom;
  • the riddle-like, often paradoxical form of the parable, employed in the teachings of Jesus Christ to help demonstrate the mystery of God's wisdom; and
  • some of the first examples of biography in the Bible, as seen in the book of Sirach, which recounts the workings of divine providence in the lives of Israel's great leaders.

Profound Insights from an Expert Scholar

In Biblical Wisdom Literature, you encounter a rare opportunity to study an important but often overlooked tradition of wisdom teaching. And there's no better guide than Father Koterski. Intellectually incisive yet engaging and accessible, he offers both the expertise of a philosophy and theology scholar and the insights of an ordained priest who has experienced the power of these teachings in everyday life.

Join Father Koterski for this journey into Biblical Wisdom Literature and delve deeply into profound teachings that have shaped the faith of millions for centuries and still apply to our lives today.

View Less
36 Lectures
  • 1
    Introduction to Biblical Wisdom Literature
    Why do bad things happen to good people? Is there meaning in the suffering of life? As an introduction to your consideration of biblical wisdom literature, begin to ponder these crucial questions through the story of Job and preview your journey into this rich tradition. x
  • 2
    The Place of Proverbs in the Bible
    In the book of Proverbs, encounter one of the oldest biblical wisdom books. After considering the various literary forms in this book, take a closer look at the text by examining the story of a youth's encounter with the Lady Wisdom and the Lady Folly. x
  • 3
    Collections of Proverbs
    Continue your consideration of the book of Proverbs by exploring the series of proverbs that follow the book's opening story. This lecture also provides insights into the book's historical context and its debt to Egyptian wisdom traditions. x
  • 4
    The Poems of the Book of Proverbs
    Proverbs not only offers sage advice on how to live a good life; it also contains some of the most beautiful poetry in the Bible. Here, examine two of these lovely poetic texts: an acrostic poem about the ideal spouse and a poem about the personified figure of Wisdom. x
  • 5
    The Relation of Proverbs to Covenant
    A key theme in biblical history is the idea of covenant: the solemn agreement made between God and his chosen people. Examine this biblical motif and see how a proper interpretation of the book of Proverbs provides a moral exhortation to live according to God's wisdom. x
  • 6
    Interlude—Some Wisdom Psalms
    In this first interlude, consider the place of wisdom psalms within the larger structure of the book of Psalms. The lecture also delineates the distinctive characteristics of Hebrew poetry and suggests ways to use these psalms as part of prayerful meditation. x
  • 7
    Job and the Suffering of the Innocent
    Remarkably rich and complex, the book of Job offers a distinctly philosophical approach to the problem of suffering of innocent people. Begin your exploration of this wisdom story by examining its structure and considering its complex mix of drama and poetry. x
  • 8
    Job—The First Cycle of Conversations
    In a close analysis of the first section of the book of Job, encounter the angelic council where God allows Satan to test Job and the response to these sufferings by Job's three friends. The scene raises a compelling question: Has Job done something to deserve his sufferings? x
  • 9
    Job—Deepening the Conversation
    As you continue your exploration of the first cycle of speeches, gain deeper insight into the logical error made by Job's friends. Job's insistence of his own innocence leads to the conclusion that there must be other reasons for suffering besides divine retribution. x
  • 10
    Job—Second and Third Conversation Cycles
    Does Job's resistance to his friends' arguments suggest moral blindness on his part or a rightful belief that his suffering is out of proportion to his actions? A close reading uncovers textual problems that suggest that the answer may be more complex than a simple dialogue can convey. x
  • 11
    Job—The Wisdom Poem and the Conclusion
    Here, encounter a sharp shift in style in the book of Job as the text moves from dramatic dialogue to wisdom poetry. Analyzing this poem and the laments that follow, consider how Job serves as a pattern for spiritual discernment in times of trouble. x
  • 12
    Job—Elihu's Defense of God's Honor
    The book of Job concludes with two dramatic episodes: the entrance of Elihu, a young man who upbraids Job for not admitting to God's justice, and the dramatic appearance of God in the form of a whirlwind. x
  • 13
    Job—Reflections on the Book as a Whole
    In this final lecture on the book of Job, examine the dramatic conclusion of this wisdom tale and explore how the lessons it teaches about the justice of God's ways compare with views of such modern thinkers as Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and C. S. Lewis. x
  • 14
    Interlude—Prayer in Times of Suffering
    After reflecting on the book of Job, return to Psalms to reflect on the significance of praying for compassion and wisdom in the face of suffering. The lecture also includes some practical suggestions for how to pray using the psalms. x
  • 15
    Qoheleth—The Inadequacy of Human Wisdom
    Often known by its Greek title as Ecclesiastes, the book of Qoheleth is one of the shortest books in the biblical wisdom tradition. In this lecture, see how this book, unlike the coherent narrative of Job, presents wide-ranging musings on a variety of topics. x
  • 16
    Qoheleth—Skepticism about Easy Answers
    Like Job, the author of Qoheleth faces a fundamental problem: Do a person's virtues and vices garner their due rewards in this life? A close examination of the text reveals that there are no easy answers to this question. x
  • 17
    Qoheleth—Keeping Faith during Confusion
    When confronted with life's uncertainties, how can one continue to forge ahead? This final lecture on the book of Qoheleth suggests the limits of man's ability to comprehend the ultimate meaning of life and offers practical advice on how to persevere in faith and hope. x
  • 18
    Interlude—Wisdom Psalms for Uncertainty
    After considering Qoheleth's weighty musings on the possibility of attaining wisdom, turn once again to the psalms. During this interlude, reflect on the topics of prayer and faith when reason seems to have lost its way or is blocked by uncertainty. x
  • 19
    Sirach—A Traditional Approach to Wisdom
    The longest of the Bible's wisdom books, Sirach (also called Ecclesiasticus) portrays suffering as a way to test character and teach moral lessons. Here, preview the book's structure and consider its place within the variety of traditions that have held these writings sacred. x
  • 20
    Sirach on the Cultivation of Virtue
    While it shares with Job and Qoheleth a sense of the need for faith in the face of uncertainties, Sirach echoes Proverbs in recommending the cultivation of virtue. This lecture explores this book's teachings on topics such as fidelity to Torah, friendship, fear of God, sin, and vice. x
  • 21
    Sirach's Wisdom Poetry
    The book of Sirach includes a wisdom poem that is distinctive for its explicit connection between wisdom and the observance of Torah. Examine the structure and content of this wisdom poem and compare it with other instances seen in Proverbs and Job and by the prophet Baruch. x
  • 22
    Sirach on Divine Providence within History
    The final portion of the book of Sirach includes two notable excerpts: a lovely hymn praising the glory of God in nature and a lengthy meditation on the history of salvation. As you analyze these passages, contemplate the importance of memory and gratitude in prayer. x
  • 23
    The Song of Songs—Love as the Answer
    The Song of Songs, also called the Canticle of Canticles, is a series of poems recording a great story of the separation and reuniting of lovers. This lecture provides a general overview of this resonant love story and discusses its historical context. x
  • 24
    The Song of Songs—Levels of Meaning
    What is the meaning of the beautiful verses of the Song of Songs? Is it the account of an earthly love between man and woman? Or an allegory about the relationship between God and his people? Explore the meanings both Jewish and Christian readers have found in this famous literary work. x
  • 25
    Interlude—Wisdom Psalms on Perseverance
    After exploring the wide range of emotions in the Song of Songs, return to the treasury of the Psalms to consider a number of texts that are especially relevant for moments when perseverance is needed to counter delay and discouragement. x
  • 26
    Daniel—Wisdom through Dream Visions
    Although it is often classed among the prophetic books of the Bible, the book of Daniel also offers a contemplation of wisdom through its representation of the meaning of dreams. Here, consider this book's historical context and analyze some of Daniel's early dream visions. x
  • 27
    Daniel—God's Providential Plan for History
    The latter portions of the book of Daniel concern eschatology, or theological reflections on the end times. Conclude your consideration of this book by examining its commentary on the various stages of the world's history as part of God's providential plan. x
  • 28
    The Wisdom of Solomon on Divine Justice
    Although attributed to King Solomon, the Wisdom of Solomon is believed to have been written long after his death. In this lecture, learn about the unique circumstances of its authorship and examine how its opening section posits the choice between virtue and vice. x
  • 29
    The Wisdom of Solomon on Death
    In this lecture, return to the problem of suffering and explore this book's teachings about the meaning of the death of innocents. Consider the book's treatment of God's covenant with mankind, as well as a theme that will gain equal importance, the idea of the immortality of the soul. x
  • 30
    The Wisdom of Solomon on Prayer
    Examine the extended poem in which Solomon exhorts kings of the world to cultivate wisdom in order to rise to the challenges of their office and offers a lesson on how to pray for wisdom. x
  • 31
    The Wisdom of Solomon on Divine Providence
    As in Sirach, the final section of the Wisdom of Solomon examines how God actively intervenes in history. Examine this theme and other distinctive elements of the book, such as its parallels with the philosophical tradition of natural law ethics and allusions to the soul's immortality. x
  • 32
    Interlude—A Wisdom Psalm on Torah
    Many psalms reflect a key concern of the Bible's wisdom literature: an exploration of God's covenant with his chosen people as expressed in Torah. Here, contemplate the importance of prayer for conforming oneself to the covenant that God initiated. x
  • 33
    Jesus as Wisdom Teacher
    In Christian belief, Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God who took on human nature for the sake of mankind's salvation from sin and death. This lecture provides an overview of this doctrine and presents Jesus as a teacher who both continues and reinvigorates the wisdom tradition. x
  • 34
    Jesus and the Wisdom Stories in the Gospels
    Jesus was renowned for presenting his wisdom teachings in the form of parables: dense, often paradoxical stories that convey hidden truths. Here, focus on representative examples, including the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. x
  • 35
    Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount
    As the paradigmatic instance of Jesus as Wisdom Teacher, the Sermon on the Mount both echoes the earlier wisdom tradition and adds new inspiration. Explore this remarkable text, giving close attention to Jesus's famed Beatitudes as statements of traditional wisdom thought. x
  • 36
    Overview of Biblical Wisdom Literature
    What does "wisdom" mean? As you review the tradition, focus on three ways to view the meaning of wisdom as it is revealed throughout these writings: wisdom as divinely inspired; wisdom as derived from the natural world; and wisdom as achieved through human nature. x

Lecture Titles

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Joseph Koterski, S.J.
Ph.D. Joseph Koterski, S.J.
Fordham University

A member of the Society of Jesus, Father Joseph Koterski is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University, where he specializes in the history of medieval philosophy and natural law ethics. Before taking his position at Fordham University, Father Koterski taught at the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. He earned his doctorate in Philosophy from St. Louis University, after receiving an H.A.B. in Classics from Xavier University. As a priest ordained in 1992, Father Koterski brings an added dimension of insight to his study of theology and biblical texts. He earned his Master of Divinity and License of Sacred Theology from the Weston School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Father Koterski is a veteran Great Courses instructor and a respected teacher and scholar. At Fordham, he has been recognized for his teaching skills and was awarded the Dean's Award for Outstanding Undergraduate Teaching and the Graduate Teacher of the Year Award. He serves as the editor-in-chief of the International Philosophical Quarterly and is coeditor of the Fordham University Press Series in Moral Philosophy and Moral Theology.

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Reviews

Rated 3.8 out of 5 by 31 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent Course This is my 2nd course from this professor. I did the audio because I enjoy listening to the lectures while at the gym, or even at home. What I particularly enjoy about this professor, and this series, is it is packed with learning. His presentations are understandable, and he not only enjoys the subject, he gives a natural warmth. I'm not quite done with this series yet, but I am hopeful Great Courses will bring this professor back. December 10, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Great course I am really enjoying this course! The professor is great and very knowledgeable. Can't wait to finish it, I know it will help me reread this bible books will clearer understanding and see them in a new light December 9, 2014
Rated 2 out of 5 by Disappointed - Wanted More and Got Less. I was disappointed. I wanted to learn more about what is in the Bible and the story behind the words in everyday life when they were written along with what I am missing in these pages, and finally to have a better understanding so I can learn and live a better life through Gods Words. I wanted to be better able to link what is of concern in my life to Biblical doctrine for better guidance and wisdom. I didn't learn much. The Professor rambles, drifts off of the Biblical subject on various tangents and seems to like using "$20 words" to impress himself and his audience when regular straight forward words would be less distracting and more to the point like the Words of Jesus in the Bible. The Professor shows why his style of teaching isn't working in organized religions and in classrooms, and killing interest. It was painful to endure all these CD's and I was so glad when the last one was finally done playing. Wasted Money. October 5, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent guide to this section of the Bible It probably is worth saying, given the numerous non-believing commentators on the Bible today, that Professor Koterski is a Jesuit priest and therefore a believer who is completely comfortable with these texts and obviously loves them deeply. He also has had a broad non-religious education, something I have found almost universal in Jesuits. For example, he remarks that Candide is a satire on the religious beliefs of Leibniz, suggests watching Babette's Feast as an illustration of one of the texts, and takes an enlightening detour into Dante's Divine Comedy. A feature I appreciated greatly is the smoothness with which he keeps you oriented in the present lecture as well as past and future lectures. There's an enormous amount of material here! I found it helpful to have more than one Bible (Koterski quotes from several). I already owned a King James Version, a Geneva Bible, and the early and recent translations from the Jewish Publication Society. I had to buy the Oxford Bible with the Apochrypa, as Prostestant and Jewish Bibles do not contain that material (e.g., Ben Sirach), which is the subject of some of the lectures. I am now wondering why those two groups spurned these books, as they are quite wonderful. One thing puzzles me: the cover of the course guide and the CD cases have pictures of a crucifix. A very large part of the material covered is from the Hebrew Bible, and some people will find the crucifix offensive. This is a small quibble, as the pictures can easily be ignored. After all, you get this course to listen to it, and it is well worth the time. September 20, 2014
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