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Trench's Synonyms of the New Testament


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sophia (Strong's #4678) Wisdom

phronesis (Strong's #5428) Prudence

gnosis (Strong's #1108) Knowledge

epignosis (Strong's #1922)

Sophia, phronesis, and gnosis are used together in the Septuagint in Daniel 1:4; Daniel 1:17, where they all are ascribed to God. Phronesis is not used in the New Testament in this sense. Sophia and gnosis are used in Romans 9:33, and phronesis and sophia are used in the Septuagint in Proverbs 3:19 and in Jeremiah 10:12. There have been various attempts to assign each of these words its own meaning, and though these attempts differ from one another, they commonly recognize sophia as the highest and most noble of these terms. Clement of Alexandria referred to it as "knowledge of divine and human matters" and elsewhere added (as did the Stoics before him) "also of their causes." Augustine made this distinction between sophia and gnosis:"These are usually distinguished so that wisdom [sophia] pertains to the understanding of eternal matters, but knowledge [gnosis] to those things which we experience through the senses of the body."

Philo made a similar distinction between sophia and phronesis. He defined phronesis as the "mean between craftiness and folly." According to Philo, "wisdom [sophia] pertains to the service toward God, knowledge [phronesis] to the management of human life." The following statement from Cicero confirms this as a standard distinction:

The chief of all virtues is that wisdom which the Greeks call sophian; for we understand knowledge, which the Greeks term phronesin, as something else, as the science of what is to be sought and what is to be shunned; that wisdom which I call "the chief is the science of divine and human causes.

In making this distinction, Cicero followed Aristotle, who was careful to emphasize the practical character of phronesis and who contrasted it sharply with synesis (Strong's #4907), the critical faculty. One acts, the other judges. Aristotle described phronesis in this way: "It is the true character functioning through reason concerning what is good and evil for man." Elsewhere Aristotle said: "It is the virtue of thought by which people are able to deliberate concerning the good and the evil related to happiness." Aristo the Peripatetic wrote: "The virtue which contemplates what should and should not be done is called phronesis." It is plain from these references and quotations that the church fathers based their distinctions between these words on the works of heathen philosophers, widening and deepening the meaning of the words, as inevitably is the case when the ethical and philosophical terms of a lower viewpoint are assumed into the service of a higher one.

In Scripture sophia is ascribed only to God or to good men, though it is used in an ironic sense by adding "of this world" ( 1 Corinthians 1:20), "of this age" ( 1 Corinthians 2:6), or similar words ( 2 Corinthians 1:12). None of the children of this world are called sophoi without this tacit or expressed irony ( Luke 10:21). They are never more than those "professing to be wise" ( Romans 1:22). If sophia includes striving after the best ends as well as using the best meansmental excellence in its highest and fullest sensethen wisdom cannot be separated from goodness. Long ago Plato noted: "All knowledge [epistemme] separated from justice and the rest of virtue appears to be knavery and not wisdom [sophia]." Socrates of Xenophon refused to separate or even to distinguish by definition sophia from sophrosyne (Strong's #4997), diakaiosyne (Strong's #1343), or any other virtue. The true antithesis to sophos (Strong's #4680) is anoetos, not asynetos (Strong's #801). Although the asynetos may only be intellectually deficient, the anoetos always has a moral fault beneath the intellectual. The nous (Strong's #3563), the highest knowing power in man and the faculty that apprehends divine things, is the ultimate seat of the error. Anoia always refers to foolishness that is related to and that derives from wickedness. Sophia refers to the wisdom that is related to goodness, or to goodness itself as seen from one viewpoint, as the wisdom only the good can possess. Ammon, a modern German rationalist, helpfully defines the sophos or sapiens (wise) as one who is "trained in the knowledge of the best and of the proper means for attaining it."

Phronesis is a middle term between sophia and gnosis, since it refers to the right use and application of the phren (Strong's #5424).Phronesis may be related to sophia ( Proverbs 10:23), though it also may be related to panourgia. Phronesis involves the skillful adaptation of means to achieve desired ends, though it does not indicate whether the ends themselves are good. Phronesis always is used in the New Testament to refer to a praiseworthy prudence. Phronesis does not refer to wisdom itself, nor does phronimos (Strong's #5429) refer to the wise. Augustine correctly objected to the use of sapientissimus (very wise) in his Latin Version for phronimotatos in Genesis 3:1 : "Through the misuse of a term wisdom [sapientia] refers to something evil." Frequently the same objection has been raised against the Authorized Version's translations "wise [phronimoi] as serpents" ( Matthew 10:16) and "wiser [phronimoteroi] than the children of light" ( Luke 16:8).

Bengel made the following distinction between sophia and gnosis:

It is certain that when these terms are ascribed to God, they differ only in their objects; cf. Romans 11:33. When they are attributed to the faithful, sophia extends further in length, width, depth, and height than gnosis.Gnosis is like a vision, while sophia is like a vision with refinement. Gnosis concerns things to be done, and sophia concerns eternal matters; therefore it is not stated that sophia must vanish ( 1 Corinthians 13:8).

In comparing epignosis with gnosis, the epi (Strong's #1909) must be regarded as an intensive use of a preposition that gives the compound word a greater strength than the simple word alone possesses, as is true of the words epipotheo and epimeleomai (Strong's #1959). Correspondingly, if gnosis is the Latin cognitio (knowledge) and the German Kenntniss (knowledge), then epignosis is a "greater and more accurate knowledge" (Grotius) and Erkenntniss is a "deeper and more intimate knowledge and acquaintance."

Epignosis is not "recognition" in the Platonic sense of reminiscence as distinguished from cognition, as Jerome (on Ephesians 4:13) and some moderns have argued. Paul exchanged ginosko (Strong's #1097), which expresses present and fragmentary knowledge, for epignosomai (Strong's #1921), when he wished to refer to future knowledge that is intuitive and perfect ( 1 Corinthians 13:12). It is difficult to see how this distinction, which the Authorized translators made no attempt to maintain, could have been preserved in an English translation. Bengel, however, preserved the distinction by using nosco (know) and pernoscam (know thoroughly). According to Culverwell,

Epignosis and gnosis differ. Epignosis is the complete comprehension after the first knowledge [gnosin] of a matter. It is bringing me better acquainted with a thing I knew before; a more exact viewing of an object that I saw before afar off. That little portion of knowledge which we had here shall be much improved, our eye shall be raised to see the same things more strongly and dearly.

All Paul's uses of epignosis justify and bear out this distinction. This same intensive use of epignosis is confirmed by similar passages in the New Testament and in the Septuagint. It also was recognized by the Greek fathers. Thus Chrysostom stated: "You knew [egnote], but it is necessary to know thoroughly [epignonai]."

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Bibliography Information
Trench, Richard C. Entry for 'Wisdom'. Synonyms of the New Testament. 1854.

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