Sunday, February 4, 2024

The Challenge of the Proverb

Proverbs are traditional pithy sayings that briefly and memorably express some general truth about life in the world. Proverbs are distillations of community wisdom whose ideas have been hammered out of common human experience. One might think of it as a bit of homely wisdom that originates around some nameless person’s kitchen table and becomes part of community lore by oral transmission. It is a universal form emerging through the ages in various cultural contexts and languages. The Book of Proverbs in Hebrew Bible is an anthology of many such sayings.

            Here are a few American proverbs that I have learned somewhere along the way: “A stitch in time saves nine”; “The early bird gets the worm”; “Actions speak louder than words”; “Birds of a feather flock together”; “Better late than never.” One I quote to myself all the time is “Haste makes waste.” I am certain that the reader recognizes most, if not all, of these, and can easily add more to my short list.

The New Testament also has a few proverbs, but they are not necessarily traditional oral sayings that emerge out of the life of a people. In some cases, identifiable writers compose proverbs, such as George Bernard Shaw, Robert Frost, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Herman Melville, and others.1 Here are a few of the proverbs in the New Testament: Luke 4:23, Acts 17:28, Acts 26:14, 1 Cor 15:33, Titus 1:12. To these I would add Mark 2:21-22, Gal 6:7 (compare Prov 22:8). One must argue, however, for the position that these proverbs are traditional rather than having a known origin in a given author. Some of them come from ancient Greek poets. Other proverbs in the New Testament come from Hebrew Bible: Prov 11:31=I Pet 4:18; Prov 3:11-12=Heb 12:5-6; Prov 22:8 (Septuagint)=2 Cor 9:7; Prov 25:21=Rom 12:20.

Here are two traditional proverbs preserved in Luke 12:54-55. Luke has narrated them in a prose form: “He said to the crowds, ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It’s going to rain’: and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’: and so it happens.”

Notice that both proverbs are not attributed to Jesus, but in the text of Luke’s gospel they are attributed to Luke’s character, Jesus, who in turn attributes the sayings to the crowds. In their present form they are neither pithy nor memorable, however. In a proverbial form they would have been orally repeated, I suppose, as something like: “Clouds in the west, rain comes on apace.” “South winds gust, heat scorches us.” So far as I know, however, these proverbs are not preserved in the literature in memorable forms. They are only preserved in these prose forms.

Matt 16:2-3 is similar to Luke 12:54-55:

[Jesus] answered them, “When it is evening, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red.’ And in the morning, ‘It will be stormy today, for the sky is red and threatening.”2

Again, in the context Matthew’s Jesus takes it to be a traditional proverb by attributing it to the Pharisees and Sadducees as a group (Matt 16:1).

These verses are, however, a suspected interpolation into the text of Matthew.3 At least three modern translations of the Bible treat the saying as an interpolation and accordingly follow the lead of those ancient manuscripts that do not have the saying in the Gospel of Matthew (The Complete Bible. An American Translation; the translation of James Moffatt; and The Revised English Bible).

If there are traditional proverbs in the Bible (and there appear to be), it poses a problem for those who place such a high value on the biblical text by referring to it as “the Word of God.” Such an idea completely overlooks the human inspiration for proverbs and raises the question: Why should the traditional words of a given people, hammered out of their common sense and human experience, be regarded as divine words? The people that I know who use the expression, “the Bible is the Word of God,” do not regard that expression as metaphorical, rather they seem to regard it as literal.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University


2Compare the modern proverb thought to be derived from Matt 16:2-3: “Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning. Red sky at night, sailors delight.”

3See Funk, Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels (Macmillan, 1993), 205, 344. For the reason see Bruce Metzgar, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (2nd ed; United Bible Society, 2000), 33.

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