The best description is in the Wisdom of Solomon, written in Greek at about 100-50 BCE in Alexandria, Egypt:
Wisdom shines bright and never fades; she is easily discerned by those who love her, and by those who seek her she is found.She is quick to make herself known to those who desire knowledge of her; the man who rises early in search of her will not grow weary in the quest, for he will find her seated at his door.
An earlier description of Wisdom occurs in the Book of Proverbs: “there from the beginning, ages ago, I was set up, before the beginning of the earth.” The English feminist historian Asphodel Long has noted that Wisdom is always female, and compares her to other ancient near eastern manifestations of the Divine Feminine including the Egyptian goddess Isis, widely worshiped in the Roman world, the earlier Semitic goddess, Astarte (Ishtar); the Hellenistic goddesses, Rhea and Athene; and the earlier Hebrew goddess, Asherah.
In the early centuries of the development of the Christian church, the meaning of Sophia as Wisdom was the subject of much controversy. In the second century CE, Gnostics developed elaborate mythologies of Sophia, but these were rejected by the mainstream Christian tradition. Most early Christian writers followed the lead of Philo of Alexandria and identified Sophia with the Logos and thus, following the New Testament, with the Divine in Jesus Christ. Subsequently, for nearly a thousand years, the ancient undertanding of Wisdom as a manifestation of the Divine Feminine disappeared, although modern historians have identified the theme of wisdom in the visions of a number of mystics: the sixth-century Roman philosopher, Boethius and his vision of Lady Philosophiae; the twelfth-century German nun, Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) and her extraordinary visions, one of which echoes the imagery of Boethius; the Spanish-born Sufi, Ibn al-Arabi (1165-1240) and his visions of Nizam; and the Italian poet, Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) and his muse, the young Beatrice, in The Divine Comedy.
However it is in the writings of the German Christian (nominally Lutheran) mystic, Jacob Boehme (1575-1624), that we find the beginnings of the modern understanding of Sophia. Boehme drew on the earlier Jewish Kabbalistic and Hermetic mystical traditions as well as his own introspection to produce his unique and complex theological synthesis. His imagery of Sophia as being the eternal reflection of God reminds one of the Kabbalistic perception of the Shekhinah, originally the presence of God. His notion of the seven fountain spirits forming Eternal Nature, the material counterpart of the Virgin Wisdom, has parallels in the earlier ideas of the Swiss spiritual alchemist, Paracelsus (1490-1541).
Thus the understanding of Sophia found in seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe in the writings of mystics such as John Pordage (1607-1683) and Jane Lead (1623-1704), and theologian-mystics such as Johann Georg Gichtel (1638-1710) and Gottfried Arnold (1666-1714), can be traced back to Boehme. Their contemporaries and some later historians assumed these mystics to be pupils of Boehme, but this, it seems to me, is a misunderstanding. I prefer to see these mystics as individuals who acknowledged the writings of an earlier ‘kindred spirit’, but nonetheless had a spiritual understanding based on their own individual introspection and contemplation. The American historian, Arthur Versluis, has described this as the Protestant theosophic tradition, which, it should be noted, has nothing to do with the better known Theosophical Society of the late nineteenth century.
In the late eighteenth century, Sophia in the Boehmean theosophic tradition continued to influence philosophers and theologians. In the mid 1780s the French Martinist philosopher Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin (1743-1803) was introduced to Boehme’s works, as can be seen in Saint-Martin’s later books, particularly Le Ministere de l’Homme-esprit (1802). In Germany, the Boehmean notion of Sophia as divine wisdom finds its expression, alongside Christian Kabbalism and the emerging naturphilosophie, in the works of Friedrich Christoph Oetinger (1702-1782), and then in the writers of the German Romantic movement, such as Novalis and Holderlin. The little-known Swiss visionary, Johann Jacob Wirz (1778-1858) began to receive visions of Sophia as divine wisdom in 1823, these forming the basis of the beliefs of the Nazarene community. Wirz’s posthumously published writings use stories and parables and have been compared to the visionary narratives of Sufism. Continuing our chronological survey, we come to the Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900) whose visions of Sophia inspired a continuation of the Sophia tradition well into the twentieth century.
copyright John Noyce 2005