Just who is Wisdom? Well, if you know a little bit about icons, that seems like an easy question. Wisdom or Sophia in icons is a representation of Jesus. Simple and brief, isn’t it? Hah! You should be so lucky. If it were that easy, I would not have to write all of this.
Actually the matter of just who Wisdom is, though simple on the surface, is a very complicated matter indeed. And knowing that Sophia — that is, Wisdom — in icons is a representation of Jesus, is just the very tip of the iceberg. And the rest of the iceberg is what I am going to talk about today. So prepare yourself as I take you on a strange journey. I will try to keep it a bit shorter than Tolstoy’s War and Peace. It might be best to start — well — to start at the beginning:
In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God and God/god was the Logos.
You probably recognize that as the beginning of the Gospel called “of John.” We don’t really know who wrote it, but there it is. I have used the original Greek term Logos, usually translated into English as “the Word,” and I have been a little ambiguous about the end of the sentence, with my “God/god.” You will see why I use Logos in a moment. I use “God/god” because the Greek is itself a little ambiguous. In English we use upper and lower case letters, which creates a distinction not found in the original Greek. So if we present it like this, we get a better idea of what the original says:
IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE LOGOS AND THE LOGOS WAS WITH GOD AND GOD WAS THE LOGOS. So is the Logos “God,” or is the Logos more “god” in the adjectival sense, or as some have it, “The Word was divine”? The answer is that this ambiguity is inherent in the text, and we find that same ambiguity again and again In the New Testament and in early Christian writings in general. But if we go a little farther in the first chapter of “John,” we get a very good clue as to who this Logos is:
All things were made by him….
So whoever this Logos was, “John” thought that he made everything that exists, or to follow the Greek a little more literally, “All things were made through [dia] him….” That accounts for why, in many old Russian icons of the Creation of the World, the creating is being done by a figure that is obviously Jesus rather than God the Father. Jesus is shown as the creator of the world and all things in it. Now where did this notion come from? Partly from the Old Testament, and partly from early Christian speculation.
We have already seen that it is basic iconographic knowledge that Wisdom is Jesus. And we see that in “John,” Jesus as Logos or “the Word” is the immediate creator of all things. So the next step in all this is to realize that the Logos, the “Word of God,” is also the Wisdom figure found in the Old Testament, iconographically speaking. For example in Proverbs 8:22-27, in which Wisdom speaks:
“The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was. When there were no depths, I was brought forth; when there were no fountains abounding with water. Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth: While as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the highest part of the dust of the world. When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth:“
That depicts the existence of Wisdom with God before the Creation. As “John” says, “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God….” The Logos or Word is Wisdom, and in icons, Wisdom is Jesus. As Psalm 33:6 says,
By the Word of the Lord were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth.
It should be obvious at this point that the “Word of the Lord” as used here came to be understood as a “person,” an emanation that comes forth from God as a spoken word comes forth out of the mouth. Again, iconographically speaking, that Word is the Logos, and the Logos is Wisdom.
This concept of the emanation of Wisdom was not at all new. You may recall that in Greek mythology, Athena, Goddess of Wisdom ( Η θεά της σοφίας – “The Goddess of Sophia/Wisdom”), was born from the forehead of Zeus.
Now the trouble comes, historically speaking, when one begins to try to define and explain all of this, when one tries to take away the fuzziness of the concept and make it very clear — because as a theological notion, it was not clear at all.
We get a little closer to understanding that if we look at the beginning of the New Testament book called Hebrews:
God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high: Being made so much better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they. For unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee? And again, I will be to him a Father, and he shall be to me a Son? And again, when he bringeth in the firstbegotten into the world, he saith, And let all the angels of God worship him.
We see from this that the writer of Hebrews, like the writer of “John,” believed that there was a figure by/through whom God “made the worlds,” and this figure was also considered the “Son of God.” Now here we get into treacherous waters, because in Old Testament usage, the term “Son of God” could mean more than one thing; it could mean a divinely anointed king; it could mean an angel. But to the author of Hebrews, it meant a figure who is the “image” of God.
To put it all very simply, at this time a notion was current in segments of Judaism that God was a “hidden” figure who did not deal with the world directly. To deal with the world, he did it through an emanation, a visible intermediary whom he used to create the world. Philo of Alexandria called that visible intermediary the Logos — the “Word” of God. So there we have the critical clue that enables us to understand what “John” meant by speaking of the Logos through whom God created the world. Now Philo would have said, like “John,” that the Logos was also “God” in a sense, but in a secondary rather than a primary sense. In fact Philo in trying to explain the matter, went so far as to call this Logos a deuteros theos, a “second god”:
No mortal thing could have been formed on the similitude of the supreme Father of the universe, but only after the pattern of the Second God, who is the Word of the Supreme Being…. (Philo, Questions and Answers on Genesis 2:62)
So for early Christians such as “John” and the writer of Hebrews, Jesus — Wisdom — the Word — the Logos — was God in a sense; not the hidden God, but a visible emanation of the Hidden God. For those early Christians who believed that Jesus was a divine and pre-existent figure (not all did), Jesus was this “second God,” though they did not express it that way. Now this second divine figure did not necessary imply polytheism, because he was a manifestation of the “hidden” God who acted as visible intermediary with the created world and with humankind. This led to a lot of problems when, in the 300s, Christianity was adopted as a Roman “State” religion and people began to make attempts to to precisely define what had previously been a very “fuzzy” relationship between the “hidden” God and his visible emanation. That is because pre-Nicene Christianity varied in its views of Jesus and his relation to God.
For many early pre-Nicene Christians, Jesus was God, but in a secondary or subordinate sense. Obviously, they reasoned, given that he was the “Son” of the “hidden” God, the “hidden” God existed before him, as a Father exists before a son. If one reads, for example, the Gospel called “of Mark,” one can come away with a thoroughly adoptionist view of Jesus. By that is meant that Jesus was simply a man — not pre-existent — whom God adopted as his Son at the time of his baptism. In Mark’s baptism of Jesus, the voice of God is heard:
And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
If, however, one reads accounts such as the Gospel “of John” and Hebrews, one comes away with a so-called “high” view of Jesus in which he is, in some sense, God, but not precisely the same as the “hidden,” invisible God. He is an emanation who is the visible image of that invisible God. In pre-Nicene times, one could could get away with a plainly subordinationist view of Jesus as in a sense the “same” as God because he is a visible emanation of God. In “John” Jesus gives a long discourse (John 5:17-47) in which he describes himself as quite subordinate to the will of the Father, and a visible manifestation of the invisible God:
And the Father himself, which hath sent me, hath borne witness of me. Ye have neither heard his voice at any time, nor seen his shape.
This is continued in the dialogue with Philip in “John” 14:
If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also: and from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him. Philip saith unto him, Lord, show us the Father, and it sufficeth us. Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Show us the Father? Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works. Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me: or else believe me for the very works’ sake. Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father. And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.
That expresses a thoroughly subordinationist view in which Jesus as “Son” is the visible emanation and tool among humankind of the “Father.” Aside from the adoptionists, that “fuzzy” view of the relationship between God and his divine emanation, Jesus, was quite common in early Christianity. But with the creedal definitions of the 4th century, things changed.
The “official” and “orthodox” view gradually became that Jesus, along with God and the “Holy Spirit” formed a kind of Trinity (a word not found in the New Testament) in which each “person” was God and equal to the other persons, yet somehow not precisely the same as the other persons. That is thus the view we find in Russian Orthodox iconography. But as we have seen, the matter in its historical entirety is far more complex.
I mention this not to advocate one doctrinal view over another, because my interests are not doctrinal, but rather historical and iconographic. But knowing that subordinationism was a common view of early Christians allows us to better see how the “one size fits all” Trinitarian view of the Nicene Creed and later “orthodox” definitions of God rather quickly created a multitude of “heretics” where before such views were just a part of the variations to be found in the “fuzzier” Christianity of the early Christians.
There is much more to be said on this matter, for example how Jesus was fitted by early Christian doctrine into the “Angel of the Lord” appearances of the Old Testament, and why the Old Testament figure Joshua (Joshua is the same name as Jesus, in fact Eastern Orthodoxy calls Joshua “Jesus, son of Nun”) is depicted with precisely the same features given Jesus himself in iconography. But those are topics for another time, because discussing varying views of God in early Christianity quickly becomes wearying.
For further reading on this matter, I recommend a book by Margaret Barker: The Great Angel; a Study of Israel’s Second God.
Of course the minimum one needs to know for Russian and Greek iconography is that Jesus, the Word or Logos, Wisdom, and the Angel of Great Counsel are all one and the same in Eastern Orthodox doctrine, even though iconographically the representations may differ. Again, as long as this posting is, I have barely touched on all that can be said on this topic. But let’s finish with a quick look at an icon showing Sophia, Wisdom of God:
Focus on what looks to be a red-faced, winged angel sitting on a throne in the center of the image.
That angel is “Sophia, Wisdom of God.” It is a representation of Jesus as Holy Wisdom. If you look just above Sophia, you will see the conventional figure of Jesus. But what we are seeing in this icon is not two persons, but rather Jesus in his conventional aspect and Jesus in his aspect of Holy Wisdom, or as this icon title calls him, “Sophia, Wisdom and Word of God.” You will also note that this icon type, with Mary approaching on one side and John the Baptist (“John the Forerunner” in Eastern Orthodoxy) is a variant of the “Deisis” type.
There are more detailed icons of Sophia, in fact one could write a book just on icons of Sophia alone. But that should suffice for today.