A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Andrew Micaiah Matthews
Will Kynes is an Associate professor at Samford University in the Department of Biblical and Religious studies, where he has been teaching for just over a year. He received a Bachelor of Arts in English and a minor in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia in 2003, A Master of Divinity in Biblical and Theological Studies at Southern Seminary in 2007; and a Magister Litterarum (Master of Letters) from the University of St. Andrews in 2008 where he studied under Mark Elliott and Nathan MacDonald. He pursued and earned a PhD at the University of Cambridge under the supervision of Katharine Dell. His thesis, My Psalm Has Turned into Weeping: The Dialogical Intertextuality of Allusions to the Psalms in Job, which was later published by de Gruyter, explores allusions to the Psalms within the book of Job and questions whether these may contribute to understanding the message of Job.
Kynes has worked at a number of different institutions. He was an affiliate lecturer for his alma mater the University of Cambridge in 2011 and a research associate for the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics around the same time. He worked as a research fellow and a lecturer in the Old Testament for the University of Oxford from 2011 to 2013. In 2013 he returned to the states to work at Whitworth University, where he remained until this past year. He was an assistant professor for three years and was promoted to an associate professor for his last three years at the institution, where he taught in the theology department.
Kynes has done most of his research in the areas of wisdom and suffering and has written and edited numerous articles and books. Most prominent among these are the series of intertextual books on Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes, which he co-edited with his PhD supervisor, Katherine Dell; My Psalm Has Turned into Weeping, mentioned above, which won the Manfred Lautenschläger Award for Theological Promise; and An Obituary for “Wisdom Literature”, in present review. He is currently writing The Meaning Between: An Introduction to Biblical Intertextuality.
In An Obituary for “Wisdom Literature,” Kynes seeks to explore the confusion surrounding the term “Wisdom Literature,” commonly associated with the biblical books of Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, and offer an alternate method of approaching the so-called wisdom texts of Scripture.
Will Kynes divides his book into three sections. In the first, he performs a metacritical analysis of the category of wisdom literature, attempting to determine from where it came and whether it is still a useful term. In the second part, Kynes examines the different categories that wisdom describes, such as genre, concept, and schools. Finally, in part three, he puts forward his preferred method of using “wisdom” to understand Scripture by putting aside the category of “wisdom literature” and attempting to read the texts as a mixture of genres.
The first part of Kynes’s work, “Historical Metacriticism,” opens with a medical metaphor of Wisdom Literature’s ailments. Kynes begins with the symptoms of wisdom’s illness, meaning the issues that scholars have found with this genre category (26). Among these are that wisdom literature does not allow for diversity, the Ancient Near Eastern parallels are not as helpful as they seem, the attempt to associate wisdom texts with education in the Ancient Near East are based on speculation, and Wisdom influence is so widespread that it is better to understand it as a “shared cultural context” of the biblical authors (26–7). Kynes next examines the “Patient History,” or the historical interest in the category of wisdom literature, which started in the nineteenth century and was reignited with the discovery of the parallels in the Egyptian Instruction of Amenemope (30). From this point, interest in the influence of wisdom on the rest of the Scriptures waxed and waned mainly due to the difficulty of defining what is and is not wisdom. Kynes points to the recent work of Mark Sneed who argues that wisdom literature should be seen as a complement to other literature rather than a tradition in and of itself, yet Kynes does not find this to be an entirely helpful remedy to the problem and puts the blame on the continued difficulties with the wisdom category rather than on Sneed’s efforts (39). Other scholars likewise fail to fix the issues present with defining the wisdom category, leading Kynes to conclude that it is the category itself and not its definition that is the issue. He gives examples of the Psalms, Qumran texts, ANE texts, and pan-Deuteronomism to show further the hardship of defining what is and is not wisdom literature. He concludes his first chapter by prescribing a “treatment” for wisdom, declaring that the genre of wisdom is a scholarly construct and suggesting a metacritical evaluation of the category itself to see how it has affected the interpretation of Scripture (58).
Kynes’s second chapter delves with more depth into his assertion that the category of wisdom was invented in the modern age by examining how these books were treated throughout history. In the patristic age, many divisions of Scripture were offered, but none of them was particularly clear as to which books belonged in each category, and so is largely unhelpful to Kynes’s discussion. Likewise, any Hebrew divisions of genre—apart from Torah, Prophets, Writings—are unclear, and any scholarly mention of the category of wisdom in this age must start first with the assumption that the category exists (66–7). In the Greek order, the closest evidence Kynes finds of a wisdom genre is those texts associated with Solomon, yet even this association is not closely related to the modern understanding of wisdom, not least because Job is excluded and Song of Songs is included (71–2). Kynes concludes that there are some shared characteristics between the books that were noticed by the Jews and early Christians, but not to the extent that they were put in their own wisdom category (75).
The author next seeks to discover where it was that the wisdom genre found its origin, if not even indirectly with the Hebrews or early Christians. By looking at other scholars’ mentions of a source for the wisdom genre, Kynes discovers that Johann Friedrich Bruch is the common denominator in all of them and makes his Weisheits-Lehre der Hebräer the focus for his research (85). Kynes explores Bruch’s works and traces them to those who influenced Bruch and finds that he and his influencers were impacted by the philosophical pull of the day (87). Bruch, following the philosophical bent of those before him, presents Weisheits-Lehre der Hebräer as an investigation of the “philosophy” of the Hebrews, and even states that he is writing to philosophers along with theologians (95). Kynes reviews the contents of Bruch’s work and judges that Bruch though he was influenced by others, was the first to draw together a full argument for the wisdom genre (98). He then considers possible implications of this newfound origin of wisdom, deciding that the detriments of the wisdom genre outweigh the merits and that it is time for a new approach to understanding the meaning of the wisdom texts (104).
In the second part of Obituary, “Genre Methodology,” Kynes begins by offering a new approach to genre. He defines genre as, “simply a group of texts gathered together due to some perceived significant affinity between them.” but continues to explain how they interact with texts in a more complex manner than this simple definition suggests (107). Kynes rejects the traditional taxonomic approach to genre but admits that we cannot remove genre altogether without losing our ability to interpret Scripture (109). Rather than using genre merely to classify texts, Kynes wishes to use genre to understand relationships between texts, since, he explains, genres arise from the text with the observations of the readers. The author expands on this statement, by asserting that the observations of similarities between texts does not constitute a genre without “something else” being blended with it to give it significance (119). This “something else” comes from the culture’s understanding of what the genre is. Kynes also emphasizes that there are different perspectives that can be taken with genre that will affect its use and which have affected the way the wisdom genre has been understood (132). From here, Kynes suggests his multidimensional approach to genre. This will allow interpreters to see more than one genre in each book, be more objective in interpretation, and consider change over time.
Having proposed a new way to view and use genre, in his last section, “The Reintegration of Wisdom Literature,” Kynes dives into interpretation of each of the three so-called wisdom texts, beginning with Job. Labeling Job as wisdom literature has prevented scholars from seeing connections between Job and other texts of Scripture, it makes the message of the book theologically abstract rather than practical, and it limits the hermeneutical implications because it is always thought of within the fence of wisdom literature. Kynes acknowledges that the book is difficult to classify and points to seven different categorizations that have been given it in early canonical lists as well as several parallels that have been drawn between Job and various categories of ANE texts. These troubles with categorizing Job demonstrate that Job is a book made of multiple genres. It contains contributions from the genres of lament, lawsuit, metaprophecy, and apocalypse. These many genres have persuaded some to label the book with a “meta-genre” to explain the large number of genres contained within (173).
As with Job, scholars struggle with interpreting Ecclesiastes. Throughout history, the teacher has been viewed as a wise man directing readers to the Torah and a foolish man taking pleasure in the world or an ascetic denying all worldly pleasure (182). Many of the same issues that arise with reading Job as wisdom literature apply to Ecclesiastes as well: it results in separation from other texts outside of the wisdom tradition, it forms the message of the book into one of theological abstraction, and it limits the hermeneutical message of the book. Yet, Ecclesiastes has also been classified in multiple genres before modernity. It was included in the Megilloth, poetry, and Solomonic collection, and was associated with the genres of torah, history, prophecy, and apocalypse. Kynes specifies several literary features of Ecclesiastes in order to demonstrate how the text has affinities across Scripture and literary history (208). He concludes, “Ecclesiastes is eclectic … in its expression, drawing on ideas and genres from across the Hebrew Bible, and likely from the ancient world in which it was written.” (217).
Unlike the previous two books, Proverbs settles more happily into the genre of wisdom literature (it labels itself as a book concerning wisdom), but Kynes sees the same issues arising that were found in the other two books. Though wisdom is certainly prominent in the book, to focus only on this genre does not allow interpreters to fully understand the text. The book of Proverbs also is found among other groupings in the ancient world, and even within the Scriptures, there are different types of wisdom that are emphasized. Kynes reviews the different aspects of wisdom found in 1 Kings. Kynes’s goal is for interpreters to view Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job, and all the biblical texts without the constraints of a specific genre. These texts can and should be understood as encompassing multiple genres and styles to convey their messages.
Kynes concludes with an obituary for the wisdom literature tradition, believing that the category existed only because of presuppositions that the category existed (247). He acknowledges that there is much more research to be done on the interpretation of the wisdom texts, but he has provided in the last few chapters a start to understanding the texts intertextually. It is only now that wisdom literature has been laid to rest that the wisdom texts of Scripture will truly be understood for what they are (254).
One of Kynes’s great strengths is his excellent writing. Each sentence of the book was carefully crafted into the exact construction he desired, and it is a delight to read his work. His book is also filled with colorful metaphors. In the first chapter, Kynes follows the title of the book to describe wisdom literature as a sick and dying man. He gives the symptoms of wisdom’s illness, the patient history, a diagnosis of wisdom’s condition, failed treatments, and more as an explanation for what he sees as the issue with wisdom literature. He continues with the obituary language throughout his work, referring to wisdom literature’s ancestry and birth, just as one might find in an actual obituary. When he begins to address his preferred intertextual approach, he again draws on a metaphor, this time of constellations. These colorful images are certainly not necessary to the argument, since he explains his views clearly enough without them, but they add a measure of joy to the reading of what could otherwise be a somewhat dry discussion of the wisdom texts.
Also of great benefit in Kynes’s work is his effort to discover the origin of wisdom literature in chapter three. He is not content with simply establishing that it was not apparent in any works throughout church history or in the ancient world but seeks to discover the exact origin of what is so commonly assumed in scholarship today. Kynes admits that the modern invention of the category does not necessarily make it illegitimate, but stresses that it is important to know on what basis it was created. He argues very convincingly that Bruch was the first to make the connections and label the three books as wisdom literature.
Kynes is certainly right in stating that there is more to the wisdom texts than wisdom. He brings up several categories for interpreters to consider, and his work will no doubt spur others on to a better understanding of the texts. He is likewise correct in claiming that the wisdom literature category has put restrictions on the text. While he doesn’t wish to say that wisdom is a poor label for the books, he does posit that this category has limited the books to being compared only with each other. I do, however, question whether it is right to abandon this label altogether. Kynes states, “The Wisdom Literature category is dead.” (244). But must it be dead, or could it be kept alive with a warning to watch what it eats and exercise more? I would argue that the category of Wisdom Literature is a useful way of labeling these three books which have so much in common, provided the category is not used in the restrictive way that Kynes opposes. Perhaps Wisdom Literature is not all dead but only mostly dead.
Apart from this small dispute and a couple of typographical errors, there is very little with which to contend in Kynes’s work. The book is largely an analysis and criticism of scholarship, and, as such, is very scholarly itself. I would not recommend this book to a popular audience or recommend that it be used in an undergraduate-level course, but for masters or doctoral students, it is a very beneficial read. Kynes’s work is clear and his arguments strong. This book was a delight to read.
Andrew Micaiah Matthews is a PhD student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Buy the books
AN OBITUARY FOR "WISDOM LITERATURE": THE BIRTH, DEATH, AND INTERTEXTUAL REINTEGRATION OF A BIBLICAL CORPUS, by Will Kynes