Post Author: Rev. Ashley Updegraff
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
A new year can be a time for new beginnings, but we are also still in the season of Christmas, perhaps with these very words about beginning from the Gospel of John fresh in our hearts. With these opening statements, John is painting a very clear picture: the Word has been with God from the very beginning, and is made of the same stuff as God, unable to be fully separated. John’s use of the Greek word logos, or Word, is so familiar that we don’t question it. But what if there was another option? What if there was a different Greek word that pointed to a similar force—with God at the beginning and made of the same stuff as God? And what if that word were feminine in nature? What if the word was sophia, or Wisdom?
Wisdom, throughout the entirety of Scripture, is personified as a woman. The Hebrew word for wisdom is chokmâh, which is grammatically feminine, as is the Greek word for wisdom, sophia. Most of what we know of Sophia (or Wisdom) comes from the book of Proverbs. In the eighth chapter of Proverbs, we get an image of this feminine-wisdom force. She is a prophet—one who cries out. She is righteousness and strength and justice. She enables kings to reign and rulers to decree what is just. She bestows goodness on those who follow her. And She was in the beginning with God, before the world was created. She is the delight of God. She is life itself. Elizabeth Johnson, in her book She Who Is, says “whoever loves Sophia receives what in other scriptural texts is given by God alone…Sophia’s activity is none other than the activity of God, with the same effects and attributes being credited indiscriminately to either.”1
Proverbs paints an incredibly powerful picture of Sophia, or Wisdom. Several books in the apocrypha also include writings about Sophia. Much of the apocryphal literature echoes what we learn of Sophia in Proverbs, but reading from Wisdom, Baruch, and Sirach will deepen and expand Wisdom’s presence and understanding. For instance, in Sirach 24:1-12, Wisdom tells of her glory: “I came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and covered the earth like a mist. I dwelt in the highest heavens, and my throne was in a pillar of cloud…then the Creator of all things gave me a command, and my Creator chose the place for my tent. He said, ‘make a dwelling in Jacob, and in Israel receive your inheritance.’”
Sophia doesn’t make a lot of appearances in the New Testament, with one major exception: in the person of Jesus. Jesus is the embodiment of divine wisdom. Jesus is Sophia—no longer personified as a woman, but in-the-flesh. Johnson says “as the trajectory of wisdom Christology shows, Jesus was so closely associated with Sophia that by the end of the first century he is presented not only as a wisdom teacher, not only as a child and envoy of Sophia, but ultimately even as an embodiment of Sophia herself.”2 Other scholars, such as James Dunn and Raymond Brown, judge that “Jesus is the exhaustive embodiment of divine wisdom,” and “in John, Jesus is personified Wisdom,” respectively.3
Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, is very clear that Wisdom shows up in the person of Jesus. In 1 Corinthians 1:22-25, he writes:
For Jews ask for signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
There, in verse 24, Paul uses the Greek sophia, making the text read “Christ the power of God and the Sophia of God.” This helps us to see just how inextricably Jesus and Sophia are linked. Jesus is the divine embodiment of Sophia. They are one and the same; both with God from the beginning, both made of the same stuff of God, both sent to “tent” among God’s people.
So why does John’s prologue favor logos, and not sophia?
It’s a complicated mixture of sexism, reason, and Gnosticism. By the time John’s Gospel was written, sometime between 90 and 100 CE, the early church had started shifting toward more patriarchal structures and mindsets. Lifting up the feminine Sophia as very part of Jesus wasn’t in keeping with their new direction. Or perhaps the author of John’s Gospel wanted the grammatical gender to match Jesus’s gender, so chose logos (masculine) over sophia (feminine). The largest reason, though, is Gnosticism. Gnosticism was a sect of Christianity that emerged after Jesus’s death. Among other things, gnostics down-played the humanity of Jesus and elevated his divinity. They found ways to get around his suffering and death, and instead lifted up knowledge as the key to salvation—the knowledge of Jesus. They were, understandably, very keen on Sophia, or Wisdom. In an effort to distance themselves from this heretical sect, orthodox Christianity left Sophia behind, avoiding her at all costs. Cole, Ronan, and Taussig, in their compendium on Wisdom, Wisdom’s Feast: Sophia in Study and Celebration, describe it like this: “what was a natural and imaginative development of the figure of Sophia in the early churches seems to have been intimidated, caricatured, and stunted by the gnostic controversy.”4
Yet there was a time—after the death of Jesus but before patriarchy and Gnosticism in the church took root—when Jesus was seen as both Logos and Sophia, together. Both Word and Wisdom, together. Origen, in the 2nd Century, stated “we believe that the very Word of the Father, the Wisdom of God himself, was enclosed within the limits of that man who appeared in Judea; nay more, that God’s Wisdom entered a woman’s womb, was born as an infant, and wailed like crying children.”5
How would things be different if we had kept this marriage of Word and Wisdom, masculine and feminine, all within the divine? All within Jesus? How might women and young girls see themselves as truly made in the image of God, because the feminine rests within God? How would things be different if John’s prologue read like this:
“In the beginning was Sophia, and Sophia was with God, and Sophia was God. She was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through her, and without her not one thing came into being…what has come into being in her was life, and the life was the light of all people…and Sophia became flesh and lived among us…
May these wonderings take us into another new beginning.
1 Johnson, Elizabeth. She Who Is. The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2018. Page 95.
2 Ibid, Page 99.
4 Cole Susan, Ronan, Marian, and Taussig, Hal. Wisdom’s Feast: Sophia in Study and Celebration. The Apocryphile Press, 2015. Page 45.
5 Ibid, Page 103.
Rev. Ashley Updegraff is an ordained pastor in the ELCA, and currently serves a congregation in the Minneapolis area. She knows that life is messy, but she also knows that God shows up in the mess. Reminding herself and others of this truth is her full-time job. She also mothers her big blended family, loves adventures with her husband, Aaron, and reads whenever she can. She writes at flailingintodancing.wordpress.com.
Image by: Mirta Toldedo
Used with permission