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Bible Q

Why are The Words of the Wise (Proverbs 22:17-23:10) based on the ancient Egyptian Instruction of Amenemope?

An undisputed fact

It has been known since 1923 that Proverbs 22:17-23:10 is based on passages from an ancient Egyptian wisdom text, the Instruction of Amenemope.

This undisputed fact is found in all reliable Bible commentaries. For example:

Erdmann’s Commentary on the Bible (2003)

The source Egyptian text is usually dated circa 1300-1100 BCE, a dating confirmed by both physical fragments of the text – including a pottery fragment and wax tablets in the Cairo Museum – and by other reliable textual methods. The first translations appeared in German in the 1920s, and a full English translation was published by M. Lichtheim, University of California Press, in 1976.

Given that the origin of Proverbs 22:17-23:10 is undisputed, this then raises the problem of why a Jewish writer would re-purpose a very well known Egyptian wisdom text?


Dating Proverbs

Normally if someone was going to ask ‘why’ an author or editor did something, the process would start by identifying the author. Since in this case that is obviously not going to be possible the next best thing would be to at least try and fix the culture of the author (simple, Jewish) and then look for a location (Palestine or exile?) and a date range. But the first major problem with our ‘why’ question is that we don’t really know for sure when any part of Proverbs was written, nor when this compendium reached the forms in which it became part of the Hebrew Masoretic text or Greek Septuagint.

The most obvious historical marker in the book is Proverbs 25:1 “These also are proverbs of Solomon which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied.” …which, if the book of Proverbs is mainly in oldest-to-newest order, would then indicate that the Jewish writer who repurposed Amenemope into ‘The Words of the Wise’ did so prior to 687 BCE (the death of king Hezekiah).

The problem with that assumption would be that Proverbs as we have it today is almost certainly not in oldest-to-newest order, so we can’t say that Proverbs 25:1 puts a time stamp on everything prior to Proverbs 25 as pre-687BCE. All we can say is that there is some general consensus among scholars that Proverbs 10:1-22:16 and 25-29 form two ‘Solomonic’ collections (without actually literally being written King Solomon or during his lifetime) but the dates of chapters 1-9 and 22:17-24:33 are an open question.

Most academic commentaries on Proverbs include introductory sections on ‘date’ with as much degree of consensus as anyone could reasonably expect, given the age and genre of the text. Older commentaries up to the 1960s generally dated Proverbs as post-exilic, i.e. after Nehemiah. However as knowledge of pre-Babylonian, and pre-Assyiran, sources increased in the second half of the 20th Century more commentators turned the clock back to Proverbs as being substantially pre-exilic, which points us back to the scribal revivals under Josiah, and before him Hezekiah. While nobody from a textual critical analysis could make any claims that any of the proverbs are actually by King Solomon himself, surprisingly some of the material in Proverbs could indeed be as old as the two kingdoms period, though edited later.


Does a rewriting of Amenemope belong in Proverbs?

Anyway, the question about dating does not greatly advance the original question, ‘why?’. Particularly as our dating question here would be not be ‘when did the final form of Proverbs settle?’, but instead:

(1) when did a Jewish writer adapt Amenemope as ‘The Words of the Wise’?


(2) when did Jewish scribes decide that this adaptation was so good that it belonged in the Proverbs  that we know which begins with the following preface:

1:1 The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel:

To know wisdom and instruction,
    to understand words of insight,
to receive instruction in wise dealing,
    in righteousness, justice, and equity;
to give prudence to the simple,
    knowledge and discretion to the youth—
Let the wise hear and increase in learning,
    and the one who understands obtain guidance,
to understand a proverb and a saying,
    the words of the wise and their riddles.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
    fools despise wisdom and instruction. (Proverbs 1:1-7 ESV)

That preface signals the book as a compendium, an anthology, something akin to a medieval Christian ‘Book of Hours’  rather than a through-composed work which starts with the “The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (Ecclesiastes 1:1), or “The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s.” (Song 1:1)

So as a compendium of useful and approved proverbs, fit for a king, there is no particular reason why Amenemope – in a form heavily rewritten for monotheistic Jewish readers – could not be included as the words of an anonymous ‘wise man’.

The anonymity of the ‘wise man’ is evident when compared with the oracle of King Lemuel’s mother (Proverbs 31:1). The anonymity, and unwillingness to ascribe the section to Solomon himself, may indicate that the authors (and also any later compilers) were aware that readers of their day would recognise the Egyptian origins of part of the text.


Is this a problem for some 21st Century readers?

The problem for some 21st Century readers (if it is a problem) might be that when Proverbs is put side by side with the original in either the Lichtheim translation or later Brunner translation, the Words of the Wise (Proverbs 22:17-23:10) do not seem to be in any way refuting the Egyptian Instruction of Amenemope. This is not self-evidently a case such as Isaiah and other prophets when they sometimes make mocking use of Assyrian and Babylonian material in judgements against those nations and their gods. The prophets are often visibly polemic in their use, and refutation, of pagan material. That use is a tradition of irony and sarcasm in the prophets that goes back at least as early as Elijah’s mocking in 1 Kings 18:25-27 against the ideas and words of the prophets of Baal. But this use by Proverbs of Amenemope is not like that.

We don’t know that the version the Jewish author had was entirely the same as the Egyptian original that has come down to us, e.g. as found in Lichtheim’s translation. However there is enough similarity to assume that the version of Amenemope which we have bears some resemblance to the version the Jewish author had, and from that we can attempt to note some things that the Jewish author rejected and changed.

This still doesn’t tell us why the Jewish author(s) adapted the work into a Jewish version? Perhaps they found Amenemope valuable. Perhaps they redacted it from a version already circulating which they felt ‘too Egyptian’. We have no way of even making educated guesses.

But then perhaps the question is ‘why not?’


Why not?

The real question within the opening question, for some, may be a different issue entirely: Namely, why is it problematic that in a compendium of Jewish proverbs, one chapter, or even several chapters, would be adapted from material selected from neighbouring countries?

What is the problem? Does anyone think that the Jews in the monarchic period did not encounter other literature? The historical record of 1 & 2 Kings show that they did. The history books of the divided kingdom period show that throughout the Israelite monarchy the land was a crossroads for neighbouring cultures North, East and South. So why is it problematic to find wisdom literature of non-Jewish origin adapted and repurposed by Jewish writers?

To take one large example: it is generally agreed that the Book of Job, which is clearly written for Jews by Jewish authors, draws on a much old non-Jewish ‘everyman’ figure. Very few people would argue that Job appeared out a void with no relation to other Ancient Near East sources. The surface non-Jewishness of Job is one of the main elements in the story, and the Jewish authors have gone to considerable trouble to avoid revealing anachronisms by deliberately not mentioning the Law of Moses and Judaism – though content, grammar and vocabulary give away the Jewishness of the book. So Job is a considerably larger part of the Old Testament with some non-Jewish back story than a chapter-sized portion of Proverbs.

Egypt was never far from the Israelites during the monarchic period, even when Assyria and Babylon were at their zenith. We know that a large Jewish community existed in Egypt before Johanan and his party (including a forced Jeremiah) fled from the Babylonian invasion to Egypt. Egyptian military dominance in Palestine ebbs and flows from Joseph to Alexander, so it is unlikely that the Jewish diaspora in Egypt did not transmit Egyptian documents to Palestine.  The Words of the Wise (Proverbs 22:17-23:10) may well have originated among the early diaspora in Egypt rather than being imported in Egyptian and translated into Hebrew in Palestine.


Compare Paul’s use of Greek authors

Fundamentally for Christian readers, the primary importance of Proverbs lies in the authority conferred on the book by the 8 quotes in the New Testament. But it doesn’t make the book of Proverbs any less useful or valid to know that it has its own history.

Like us, like Paul, like our Lord Jesus himself, the authors of Proverbs did not live in a bubble that excluded them from any contact with other cultures. Paul makes several uses of classical Greek authors in his writings. The most famous are the uses when actually preaching to Greeks at the Areopagus – where the principle quote is from Aratus :

22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man,[c] 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28 for

“‘In him we live and move and have our being’ (probably from Epimenides of Crete)

as even some of your own poets have said,

“‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ (from Aratus, Phaenomena 5)

29 Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

Paul has arguably used Aratus out of context, since Aratus is talking about Zeus, not Yahweh, but then this fits with Paul’s agenda in the entire speech – that the religious instincts of the Greeks are groping in the dark after the Living God.

Paul’s mainly accurate, and wholly positive, use of Greek authors contrasts with Paul’s refutation of certain Jewish apocryphal texts when they occur in answering letters from the churches. So for Paul the issue was not whether a source was Greek or Jewish, but whether it contained truth.

So this positive use of Aratus by Paul is a better comparison with the positive use of Amenemope than the combative negative use of a text.


So why in Proverbs?

That brings us back to the why in Proverbs? Ultimately we aren’t going to get a better answer to that question than the one the Jewish author gives:

It is unlikely that the Jewish autor of Proverbs 22 is using the text to evangelize to to Egyptians. Going forward several hundred years there are several Helenistic era Jewish Alexandrian texts that do exactly that – appealing to Egyptians to convert as Paul did to Greeks using Aratus. But no commentator has advanced that as a reason for Proverbs 22.

It seems more likely the Jewish re-purposer of Amenemope as the ‘Words of the Wise Man’ in Proverbs is not fighting with his source text, nor using it to preach to Egyptians, but simply seeing some value in it, and adapting it to Jewish concerns. In doing so, he is extending the largely common-sense wisdom of the original into a text directed to “trust in the LORD”. And there we see his own explanation of his ‘why’:

17 Incline your ear, and hear the words of the wise,
    and apply your heart to my knowledge,
18 for it will be pleasant if you keep them within you,
    if all of them are ready on your lips.
19 That your trust may be in the Lord,
   I have made them known to you today, even to you.
   (Proverbs 22:17-19 ESV)





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