Sophia | Wisdom

Sophia | Wisdom
Sophia | Wisdom

1. Sophia | Wisdom

Sophia (σοφία, wisdom) is a central idea in Hellenistic philosophy and religion, Platonism, Gnosticism and Christian theology.

Originally carrying a meaning of cleverness, skill, the later meaning of the term, close to the meaning of Phronēsis (wisdom, intelligence), was significantly shaped by the term Philosophy (love of wisdom) as used by Plato.

In the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church, the feminine personification of divine wisdom as Holy Wisdom (Ἁγία Σοφία, Hagia Sophia)

can refer either to Jesus Christ the Word of God (as in the dedication of the church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople) or to the Holy Spirit.

2. Greek and Hellenistic tradition

The Ancient Greek word Sophia (σοφία) is the abstract noun of σοφός (Sophos), which variously translates to clever, skilful, intelligent, wise.

These words share the same Proto-Indo-European root as the Latin verb Sapere (lit. ”to taste; discern”), whence Sapientia.

The noun σοφία as skill in handicraft and art is Homeric and in Pindar is used to describe both Hēphaistos and Athena.

Before Plato, the term for sound judgment, intelligence, practical wisdom and so on, such qualities as are ascribed to the 7 Sages of Greece, was Phronēsis (φρόνησις), from phrēn (φρήν, lit. ”mind”), while Sophia referred to technical skill.

The term Philosophia (φιλοσοφία, lit. ”love of wisdom”) was primarily used after the time of Plato, following his teacher Socrates, though it has been said that Pythagoras was the first to call himself a philosopher.

This understanding of Philosophia permeates Plato's dialogues, especially the Republic:

In that work, the leaders of the proposed Utopia are to be Philosopher Kings: rulers who are lovers of wisdom.

According to Plato in Apology, Socrates himself was dubbed the wisest (σοφώτατος) man of Greece by the Pythian Oracle.

Socrates defends this verdict in Apology to the effect that he, at least, knows that he knows nothing.

Socratic scepticism is contrasted with the approach of the sophists, who are attacked in Gorgias for relying merely on eloquence.

Cicero in De Oratore later criticized Plato for his separation of wisdom from eloquence.

Sophia is named as one of the 4 cardinal virtues (in place of phronēsis) in Plato's Protagoras.

Philo, a Hellenized Jew writing in Alexandria, attempted to harmonize Platonic philosophy and Jewish scripture:

Also influenced by Stoic philosophical concepts, he used the term Logos (λόγος) for the role and function of Wisdom,

a concept later adapted by the author of the Gospel of John in the opening verses and applied to Jesus as the Word (Logos) of God the Father.

In Gnosticism, Sophia is a feminine figure, analogous to the Soul, but also simultaneously one of the emanations of the Monad.

Gnostics held that she was the syzygy (emanation) of Jesus (i.e. the Bride of Christ) and was the Holy Spirit of the Trinity.

3. Christian theology

Christian theology received the Old Testament personification of Divine Wisdom (Septuagint Sophia, Vulgate Sapientia).

The connection of Divine Wisdom to the concept of the Logos resulted in the interpretation of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) as an aspect of Christ the Logos.

The expression Ἁγία Σοφία itself is not found in the New Testament, even though passages in the Pauline epistles equate Christ with the wisdom of God (θεοῦ σοφία, Theo-Sophia).

The clearest form of the identification of Divine Wisdom with Christ comes in 1 Corinthians 1:17–2:13.

In 1 Cor. 2:7, Paul speaks of the Wisdom of God as a mystery which was ordained before the world unto our glory.


Following 1 Corinthians, the Church Fathers named Christ as Wisdom of God.

Therefore, when rebutting claims about Christ's ignorance, Gregory of Nazianzus insisted that, inasmuch as he was divine, Christ knew everything:

How can he be ignorant of anything that is,

when he is Wisdom, the maker of the worlds, who brings all things to fulfilment and recreates all things, who is the end of all that has come into being?

/Orationes, 30.15/

Irenaeus represents another, minor patristic tradition which identified the Spirit of God, and not Christ himself, as Wisdom (in Adversus haereses).

He could appeal to Paul's teaching about Wisdom being one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:8).

However, the majority applied to Christ the name of Wisdom.

Constantine the Great set a pattern for Eastern Christians by dedicating a church to Christ as the personification of Divine Wisdom.

In Constantinople, under Justinian I, the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) was rebuilt, consecrated in 538, and became a model for many other Byzantine churches.

In the Latin Church, however, the Word or Logos came through more clearly than the Wisdom of God as a central, high title of Christ.

In the theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Holy Wisdom is understood as the Divine Logos who became incarnate as Jesus; this belief being sometimes also expressed in some Eastern Orthodox icons.

In the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church, the exclamation Sophia! or in English Wisdom! will be proclaimed by the deacon or priest at certain moments, especially before the reading of scripture, to draw the congregation's attention to sacred teaching.

There is a hagiographical tradition, dating to the late 6th century, of a Saint Sophia and her 3 daughters: Faith, Hope and Charity.

This has been taken as the veneration of allegorical figures from an early time, and the group of saints has become popular in Russian Orthodox iconography as such.

The veneration of the 3 saints named for the 3 theological virtues probably arose in the 6th century.

In Russian Orthodox mysticism, Sophia became increasingly indistinguishable from the person of the Theotokos (rather than Christ), to the point of the implication of the Theotokos as a 4th person of the Trinity.

Such interpretations became popular in the late 19th to early 20th centuries, forwarded by authors such as Vladimir Solovyov, Pavel Florensky, Nikolai Berdyaev, and Sergei Bulgakov.

4. Personification

Sophia is not a goddess in classical Greek tradition; Greek goddesses associated with wisdom are Metis and Athena (Latin Minerva).

By the Roman Empire, it became common to depict the cardinal virtues and other abstract ideals as female allegories.

Thus, in the Library of Celsus in Ephesus, built in the 2nd century, there are 4 statues of female allegories, depicting:

  1. wisdom (Sophia),
  2. knowledge (Episteme),
  3. intelligence (Ennoia)
  4. excellence (Arete).

In the same period, Sophia assumes aspects of a goddess or angelic power in Gnosticism.

In Christian iconography, Holy Wisdom or Hagia Sophia was depicted as a female allegory from the Medieval period.

In Western (Latin) tradition, she appears as a crowned virgin; in Russian Orthodox tradition, she has a more supernatural aspect of a crowned woman with wings in a glowing red colour.

The virgin martyrs Faith, Hope and Charity with their mother Sophia are depicted as 3 small girls standing in front of their mother in widow's dress.

Allegory of Wisdom and Strength is a painting by Paolo Veronese, created circa 1565 in Venice:

It is a large-scale allegorical painting depicting Divine Wisdom personified on the left and Hercules, representing Strength and earthly concerns, on the right.

5. Modern reception

A goddess Sophia was introduced into Anthroposophy by its founder, Rudolf Steiner, in his book The Goddess: From Natura to Divine Sophia and a later compilation of his writings titled Isis Mary Sophia.

Sophia also figures prominently in Theosophy, a spiritual movement which Anthroposophy was closely related to.

Helena Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy, described it in her essay What is Theosophy? as an esoteric Wisdom Doctrine, and said:

Theosophy is, then, the archaic Wisdom-Religion, the esoteric doctrine once known in every ancient country having claims to civilization.

This Wisdom all the old writings show us as an emanation of the Divine Principle;

and the clear comprehension of it is typified in such names as the Indian Buddha, the Babylonian Nebo, the Thoth of Memphis, the Hermes of Greece,

in the appellations, also, of some goddesses - Metis, Neitha, Athena, the Gnostic Sophia, and finally -the Vedas, from the word to know.

There is a monumental sculpture of Holy Wisdom depicted as a goddess in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria (the city itself is named after Saint Sofia Church). The sculpture was erected in 2000 to replace a statue of Lenin.