What does it mean to be wise?

When we think of Jesus or Paul, we think about them in Christian categories. Certainly, when it comes to Jesus, we think of categories like “saviour”, “healer”, “son of God”, and the like. But if we could go back to the first century and ask somebody “what type of person is that?”, they would likely say “that’s a philosopher.” Let me explain what I mean.

The word “philosophy” is two Greek words: philos, which means “friend or love”, and sophia, which means “wisdom”. So, philosophy is literally the love of wisdom; and, as I’m sure you’ve worked out, the philosopher was the lover of wisdom. Philosophers were a standard feature of the ancient world and could be found everywhere, travelling from city to city teaching, well, philosophy. Their mission, as they saw it, was to help people to embrace wisdom. Their reason for doing so was that they believed that it was only through embracing wisdom that a person could be truly set free.

Plato believed that by living in accordance with these principles, a person would live a truly happy life.

Now, to properly understand who these people were, we first need to set aside assumptions that we might have about philosophy. Many of us think of philosophy as merely abstract concepts, ideas that don’t have a lot of practical application – at least in a more immediate, pragmatic sense. But for these teachers, philosophy was incredibly practical. Properly understood, wisdom is the “ability to think and act utilising knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense and insight.” In other words, it is the practical application of knowledge. For ancient figures like Socrates, you did not truly know something unless it transformed the way you behaved. A philosopher’s task was to inculcate wisdom into their hearers so they might live differently.

Given the extent of change that a teacher sought to bring about, we might expect that their teaching involved more than a quick course or a few lectures. In fact, the study of philosophy was a lifetime commitment. A philosopher would gather young students (“disciples”, from the Latin discipulus, meaning “student”) who would follow them as they travelled. They would sit at their instructor’s feet for years, learning ideas and concepts from this exemplar of wisdom. But then they would practise what they learned. The students would be challenged to exercise these ideas in their daily lives so that they, too, might one day be seen as a “lover of wisdom”.

But what was this wisdom? Put simply, it was the proper way to live. From the philosopher’s perspective, the problem with humans is that they live their lives with a wrong understanding of what it means to be human. According to Plato, for example, humans suffer in life on account of the four key vices: foolishness concerning truth, fear of things outside of our control (the gods, sickness, fate, death, etc), intemperance or lack of self-control, and injustice towards others. His goal, therefore, and the goal of those who came after him, was to instil in his hearers the four cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, self-control and justice. He believed that by living in accordance with these principles, a person would live a truly happy life.

All of it starts at the feet of Jesus and the teachings of his apostles, primarily Paul.

Now, you might be saying, “Sure, but Jesus and Paul are Jewish. What does a Greek such as Plato have to do with them?” Well, let’s consider the Pharisees for a moment. Who were they? From the point of view of Jesus, they were his rival teachers, and for Paul, well, we know the connection there. A Pharisee was a teacher of the law. In real terms, that meant a teacher of principles for living. As far as the Pharisees were concerned, the problem with humans (especially those Gentiles) is that they are ignorant of the righteous requirements of God. Their lives are a mess because they have turned their back on God and are corrupted by sin. Therefore, the Pharisee’s task was to demonstrate and teach people how to live in a way that pleases God – a life guided and aligned with his wisdom. Only in this way can a person live the true life for which they were created. In other words, Pharisees (to put it simplistically) were philosophers by another name.

Returning then to where we began. From this very brief comparison, we can see how someone in the ancient world might assume that Jesus and Paul were just philosophers – teachers showing others how to live lives in conformity with truth and lives that are the most fulfilled. Of course, this is not to oversimplify their ministries. There were obviously many more facets of what these men did beyond just their roles as teachers. But it is important to recognise how their teaching ministries were understood, not just by others but also by themselves. They were teachers of wisdom. In the case of Jesus, he was the living embodiment of God’s wisdom (1 Cor 1:30), so to look at his life is to see wisdom itself. Paul, as an apostle of Jesus, was a teacher of this same wisdom and an exemplar of what it looks like worked out in a sinful-but-being-sanctified vessel.

So, what does it mean to be wise? Well, many, many things. But all of it starts at the feet of Jesus and the teachings of his apostles, primarily Paul. And from there, it’s a journey of learning, imitation and practise.

Adam White is Head of Biblical Studies and Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Alphacrucis College.