In Michelangelo’s famous Sistine Chapel painting, Wisdom (Sophia) nestles in the crook of Jehovah’s left arm during Creation

The connection between the Goddess Isis and the Goddess Wisdom (Sophia in Greek; Chokmah in Hebrew) is an interesting one. In fact, some scholars think that the figure of Sophia was patterned after Isis. And they may well be right.

So first, let’s have a look at Sophia, especially as portrayed during the Hellenistic period, the time following Alexander’s death to the rise of Rome. This is a period when the religion of Isis was strongly spreading throughout the Mediterranean world.

Alex Grey’s powerful Sophia

It was during this time that most scholars believe the Book of Wisdom was written. The Book of Wisdom is one of the books of the Old Testament that is canonical to Roman Catholics and non-canonical to Protestants and Jews (though it may have been canonical earlier in Judaism). It is most likely that the Book of Wisdom was written in Greek, though it is stylistically patterned on Hebrew verse.

One of the interesting—and important—things that the book does is to personify Wisdom. In Hebrew, Chokmah is a feminine word and so Wisdom, when personified, is a Divine She. In Greek, the language of the Book of Wisdom, this Divine She is Sophia. Though monotheists may disagree, I feel quite comfortable referring to Sophia as a Goddess, and so I shall.

Raphael’s Sophia from the Vatican; note the two multi-breasted Goddess images on Her throne. These images of Artemis of Ephesus were identified as Isis by Raphael’s time.

In the Book of Wisdom, Sophia is seen to be very much like the Shekinah, the Presence of God. It is She Who “fashions all things.” She is Present from the beginning with God. If you wish to read more about Wisdom, here’s a link to the text. The best reading starts at about 6:12.

So now we’ve met Sophia. Where does She meet Isis?

For most scholars, the meeting comes in Isis’ influence on the way in which Sophia is portrayed, particularly in the Book of Wisdom. They generally agree that the writer of the Book of Wisdom shows other influences of Hellenism in the work. Given the ubiquity of Isis at the time, it would have been strange had Her portrayal not influenced the portrayal of Sophia. Many of the attributes and epithets of Sophia were also attributes of Isis. Scholar W.L. Knox went so far as to say that Sophia was the Jewish answer to the popularity of Isis:

Young Jews, seeking advancement under the Ptolemaic dynasty, might find it hard to resist the attractions of Isis. The personified Wisdom is the answer of orthodox Judaism: the source of order in creation and conduct is not Isis, but the Wisdom of God.

W. L. Knox “Divine Wisdom,” JTS 38 (1937) 230-37

Another place scholars look for the influence of Isis on Sophia is in the structure and content of the famous Isis aretalogies—the praises of the Goddess in which the Goddess speaks for Herself (I am this, I did that…). Some have made a case for the structure of the Book of Wisdom paralleling the structure of a number of the Isis aretalogies and they list parallels in the epithets of Isis and Sophia. As is natural in scholarly circles, there are criticisms of these approaches as well.

A Sophia icon

In an article in the Harvard Theological Review (“Isis & Sophia,” Vol. 75, No. 1, 1982), John Kloppenborg contends that the reason Sophia is so strongly personified in the Book of Wisdom is because of the challenge to Judaism presented by Isis. In his view, it’s not so much that the Book of Wisdom writer directly borrowed things from the myths, aretalogies, or hymns of Isis, but rather that the writer felt the need to counter the Isiac qualities so prevalent in the culture with corresponding Sophic qualities. He believes the attributes of Sophia in the Book of Wisdom were especially chosen to take on, one-to-one, the attributes for which Isis was so well known at the time.

For example, the Book of Wisdom presents itself as advice to kings; as the Goddess Throne, Isis was intimately associated with the kingship. In the Book of Wisdom, Sophia functions as a Savior, just as Isis so famously does during this time. In older Jewish tradition, while Sophia is a life-giver and a wise counselor, She is not a Savior. Now—perhaps due to the influence of the Isis religion—She is.

Thalia Took’s lovely Sophia

Kloppenborg also notes the correlation of Isis’ cosmic power in the aretalogies, in Plutarch, and in Egyptian tradition with Sophia’s cosmic rule and regulation in the Book of Wisdom. Sophia’s guidance of Noah’s ark counters Isis’ role as Euploia, guide of ships and sailors. In the Book of Wisdom, Sophia is the spouse of God and of the king—just as Isis is spouse of a God and mother of the king. Sophia protects the “righteous man,” grants the ability to rule, and has “knowledge of all holy things.” Isis gives to “all who are righteous” great blessings (Hymns of Isidorus). As the Goddess Throne, She grants the right to rule, and She was always, always been the Lady of Knowledge.

Kloppenborg significantly argues that the correspondences between Isis and Sophia gave the Jews of Alexandria a way to talk with their Pagan neighbors. Outside of the Book of Wisdom, for instance, we know of Jewish philosophers who specifically compared their religion’s Mysteries with those of Orpheus and Isis.

This approach makes a great deal of good sense to me. At the time, Isis was THE Goddess for many people that it’s no wonder that She would serve as the model for the Hebrew Goddess Wisdom as well. Further, it is no wonder that Isis had and has a specific, strong, and eternal connection with the Goddess of Wisdom. Isis was always a Wisdom Goddess Herself. The Turin papyrus says of Her:

Isis was a woman wise in speech, her heart more cunning than the millions of men, her utterance was more excellent than the millions of gods, she was more perceptive than millions of glorified spirits. She was not ignorant of anything in heaven or earth. . .

Turin Papyrus

One of Isis’ Egyptian epithets is Rekhiet, the Wise Woman. She is also called Rekhit, Knowledge or Wisdom Itself. Many hundreds of years later, Plutarch continues to understand Isis as a Wisdom Goddess. He writes to his friend Klea, a priestess of Isis, that the search for Truth about the Gods shows a longing for the Divine and

…is a task well-pleasing to that goddess whom you worship, a goddess exceptionally wise and a lover of wisdom, to whom, as her name at least seems to indicate, knowledge and understanding are in the highest degree appropriate.

Plutarch, On Isis & Osiris, paragraph 2

Many of the names of Isis from the later Invocation of Isis in the Oxyrhynchus papyri show Her clear identity as a Goddess of Wisdom as well. So, anyone writing about a Wisdom Goddess and living in that culture would naturally look to Isis as a model. The writer of the Book of Wisdom seems to have done so, as did the Gnostics who wrote about their own Sophia—and Whom we haven’t even touched on here. But we can leave that story for another day.

Isis the Wise, teaching Hermes and Moses, a painting by the Renaissance painter Pinturicchio from the Borgia family apartments