The Wisdom of Solomon is a unique biblical book. It was one of the last books of the Old Testament to be produced and it was the only one written in Greek (about 50 BC). The author was probably a Greek-speaking Jew who lived in Egypt, where there was a large Jewish community at the time.
The book was written in honour of King Solomon, who was famous for his great wisdom. It draws on Greek philosophy and ideas to explain that true wisdom comes only from God. The work was also designed to appeal to politicians and so, it explains the benefits of wisdom for those in authority (Wisdom 1:1; 6:9).
From the very beginning of Christianity, the second chapter of the book of Wisdom was considered a prophecy of the death of Christ. In this passage, the writer describes how a godless group of people become the enemies of a righteous man.
The righteous man is described as “a child of the Lord” who “boasts that God is his father”. His preaching and blameless life make his enemies “lie in wait” for him. His opponents say:
“Let us see if his words are true, and let us test what will happen at the end of his life; for if the righteous man is God’s child, he will help him, and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries. Let us test him with insult and torture, so that we may find out how gentle he is, and make trial of his forbearance. Let us condemn him to a shameful death, for, according to what he says, he will be protected.” (2:17-20)
On one level, the text refers to how righteous people in general can be and are mistreated. However, it’s not hard to see how the words were later understood to have a double meaning – and to also point to the final sufferings of Christ. Jesus himself explained that in the Old Testament, “it is written that the Son of Man must be much ill-used and despised.” (Mark 9:12). Perhaps this passage is one of those that he had in mind.
This chapter, with its description of the insults given to a male child of God at “the end of his life”, finds an echo in the shouting of those who were present at the crucifixion. The brutal scourging of Christ was certainly “torture”, while his condemnation to be crucified definitely ticks the box of “a shameful death” (Matthew 27:11-44).
This terracotta scene of Christ being condemned to that “shameful death” is found within the cloister of the Shrine of St Augustine in Ramsgate. It’s the First Station of the Cross in the traditional series of 14 (see also the Eighth Station). Dating to 1893, it was produced by the Belgian artist Alois de Beule in the Gothic Revival style.
In the centre, Christ raises his eyes to heaven while the death sentence is passed. The scene is especially interesting as it focuses on the reactions of those around him. Pontius Pilate, sat on the judgement seat, attempts to ‘wash his hands’ of responsibility for the death. To his left, his wife tries to warn him against the decision. On the right, however, various Jewish leaders usher him onwards to his doom.
Where to find this work of art
Shrine of St Augustine, Ramsgate
Read the relevant passage
On a similar theme
- From the Old Testament: The Death of the Messiah is also prophesied in Psalm 22.
- From the New Testament: Pontius Pilate condemned Christ to a painful death on the cross, then had him scourged before his crucifixion.