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Was some of Proverbs copied from the Instruction of Amenemope?

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The book of Proverbs was principally written by King Solomon, David’s son, around 900 BC. God blessed Solomon with great wisdom, to the point that he was well-known by rulers of other countries (1 Kings 4:30–32). In addition to Proverbs, Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes, which explores the futility of life without God; and Song of Solomon, a story of love and chastity between a man and a maiden. The Instruction of Amenemope was written in ancient Egypt and is a collection of wise sayings and general principles for living. Old Testament and literary scholars have long debated whether or not Proverbs is related to the Instruction of Amenemope and, if so, to what extent.

Proverbs 22:17–24:22 is the third collection in the book of Proverbs and is labeled “Words of the Wise.” Like the first section (Proverbs 1–9), it uses flowing poems addressed from a father to a son (Proverbs 1:8; 23:19), unlike the short, general statements of the second section (Proverbs 10:1–22:16). The third collection can be divided according to its four subjects: introduction (22:17–23:11), teaching children to obey (23:12–24:2), adversity (24:3–12), and evildoers (24:13–22). This portion of Proverbs is similar in form and content to the Instruction of Amenemope, and that has led some to assume a connection between the two.

In 1888 a British archaeologist purchased an Egyptian papyrus for the British Museum. It was left untranslated until the study of all things Egyptian flared after World War II. In 1976 the first relatively accurate translation was published. Amenemope, husband of Tawosre, is described as a controller of Karnak, who collected grain taxes for the Pharaoh. The Instruction of Amenemope is a list of thirty wise sayings for his son, Hor-em-maakher, teaching him how to live to receive blessings from the Egyptian god of justice and truth, Maat. Although some of the text is undecipherable, three themes are evident: tranquility, honesty, and the power of destiny and fate (i.e., the will of god). It is unclear if Amenemope was the actual author or an unknown scribe using a pen name. He is thought to have lived no earlier than 1539 BC.

The papyrus in the British Museum is twelve feet long, ten inches high, and broken into twenty-seven pages. It is dated somewhere between 950 and 650 BC., but, while it is the most complete text, it is not the only remnant and certainly not the oldest. The Cairo Museum has a potsherd with a few lines of the Instruction of Amenemope from chapters 1 and 2 and a writing board (wax tablet) with passages from chapters 24, 25, and 26. A writing board with the prologue sits in the Louvre in Paris. Moscow has another writing board containing passages from chapters 4 and 5. And the title “Wisdom of Amenemope” is written on the wall of the Medinet Habu, the mortuary temple of Ramesses III. Given the artifacts’ ages and the literary composition style, the original is thought to have been written before 1000 BC.

The text of the Instruction of Amenemope consists of an introduction and thirty chapters of “wise sayings.” Recurring themes are don’t be greedy or cheat the poor, stay out of conflict and let the gods handle it, do good deeds so people will honor you, don’t fraternize with others of lower or greater station in life, don’t envy or show favoritism to the rich and powerful, honor and care for your elders and the poor, and don’t reveal a confidence.

The debate raging for the last hundred years or so is over the exact nature of the relationship between Proverbs 22:17–24:22 and the Instruction of Amenemope. Some scholars say that the Hebrew text was influenced by the Egyptian text; others say the opposite is true, that Amenemope’s writing was influenced by Solomon’s; still others say the connection between Proverbs and the Instruction of Amenemope is coincidental.

There are three possible explanations of the parallels between Proverbs and the Instruction of Amenemope:

1. Solomon discovered the Instruction of Amenemope and altered it to reference the God of the Israelites.
2. The dating of the artifacts is wrong, and the Egyptian text was copied from Solomon’s original.
3. Both texts were written independently, and the parallels are either the result of common source material (based on an older, lost Semitic text) or the fact that similar purpose and form (wisdom literature was quite popular in the ancient world) naturally leads to similar subject matter and expression.

Here is one example of a similarity between Proverbs and the Instruction of Amenemope:

“Do not rob the poor because he is poor,
Or crush the afflicted at the gate” (Proverbs 22:22, NASB).

“Guard yourself from robbing the poor
From being violent to the weak” (Amenemope iv, 4–5).

Obviously, these two passages contain similar thoughts. But, just as obviously, there is no direct copying involved. Also, it doesn’t follow that one author must have borrowed from the other. Isn’t it possible that two people, writing rules of wisdom, would both touch on the necessity of justice for the downtrodden?

Another example:

“For wealth certainly makes itself wings
Like an eagle that flies toward the heavens” (Proverbs 23:5, NASB).

“They [dishonest riches] make themselves wings like geese,
And fly to heaven” (Amenemope x, 5)

Again, we can see that no direct copying took place, although the two passages deal with a common theme and both use a simile related to birds. One difference is that, in context, Solomon is speaking of a general desire for increased wealth, while Amenemope is speaking specifically of ill-gotten gains. As for the bird-based simile, such a figure of speech seems to have been common in the Near East, as it is found in other ancient writings, too. The use of a bird in flight to illustrate the transitory nature of things is also used in Hosea 9:11.

Here is a more problematic example:

“Have I not written to you excellent things
Of counsels and knowledge?” (Proverbs 22:20, NASB).

“See for yourself these thirty chapters
They are pleasant, they educate” (Amenemope xxvii, 7–8).

At first glance, there does not seem to be a parallel here, but, in the original Hebrew, the word translated “excellent things” (also found in the KJV) is shaliysh, which can mean “a third of a measure,” “a three-piece musical instrument,” or “an official like a shield carrier or officer.” In sixteen of the twenty occurrences in the Bible, the word refers to a noble position, in one a musical instrument, and in two a unit of measure. Only here does the meaning slide from “noble officer” to “excellent thing.”

It is possible that our modern Hebrew text contains a slight transcription error, and the word is not shaliysh (“nobleman”) but shloshim—“thirty.” The Orthodox Jewish Bible agrees, translating the verse, “Have not I written to thee shloshim (thirty sayings)?” The NIV and the ESV follow this line of thought and also use “thirty sayings.”

If Proverbs 22:20 refers to “thirty” sayings, then there would seem to be a connection to the mention in the Instruction of Amenemope of its “thirty” chapters. Some translations, such as the NIV, divide Proverbs 22:17 — 24:22 into thirty parts. Some scholars consider Proverbs 22:20 to not be original to Solomon but was inadvertently included as that portion of the book was copied from Amenemope’s text. Others speculate that King Solomon employed an Egyptian scribe who was familiar with the wording of the Instruction of Amenemope, and that scribe inserted a mention of “thirty” sayings as he wrote out the book of Proverbs. But it’s just as likely that Solomon simply used a common literary device referring to “thirty” sayings or that he wrote figuratively of “noble” sayings (not “thirty”), in which case the translation “excellent things” is sound.

Most of the parallels between the Proverbs and the Instruction of Amenemope can be attributed to the inherent commonalities among literary works of the same genre. Did Solomon modify portions of the Instruction of Amenemope for his own use? It’s possible. According to Ecclesiastes 12:9, Solomon “pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs,” which could mean he was a compiler of proverbs from many different cultures. This does not invalidate any portion of Proverbs. All wisdom ultimately comes from God, and Solomon was still guided by the Holy Spirit when he referenced, modified, and edited other sources in his writing.

For a scholarly examination of the issues surrounding the Proverbs and the Instruction of Amenemope, see John Ruffle’s article in the Tyndale Bulletin #28.

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Was some of Proverbs copied from the Instruction of Amenemope?
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This page last updated: January 4, 2022