Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus, Son of Sirach

Michael D. Coogan

in The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Augmented Third Edition, New Revised Standard Version

Published in print February 2007 | ISBN: 9780195288803
Published online April 2009 |
Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus, Son of Sirach

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The names by which this book is known reflect something of its origin and history. Sirach is the name of the author, Jesus son of Eleazar son of Sirach ( 50.27 ), in Hebrew, Yeshua ben El‐azar ben Sira. Although the book was highly regarded in rabbinic literature and is cited in the Talmud, it was not included in the canon of Jewish scripture. The early Christian church, however, did consider it canonical. Although originally it was titled “The Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach” in Greek and Old Latin manuscripts, many manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate referred to it as “Ecclesiasticus,” that is, “the Church's book.” The Protestant reformers, in keeping with their practice of limiting the Christian Old Testament to the books deemed canonical in the Hebrew scriptures, relegated it to the Apocrypha.

Because the book was not canonical in Judaism, the original Hebrew text was lost to the western world from about 400 to 1900; the book survived in Greek, Latin, Syriac, and other translations. Since about 1900 fragmentary copies of the Hebrew, dating from antiquity to the Middle Ages, have been discovered in various places: Qumran, Masada, and the Geniza (i.e., storage room) of a medieval Cairo synagogue; these finds have enabled the recovery about two thirds of the original Hebrew. The translation here is one of a critically established text, using both Hebrew and other witnesses to the original. The reader will occasionally find a slightly different verse numbering from that in traditional renderings, since the NRSV follows the numbering of the critical text edited by J. Ziegler.

Ben Sira composed his work in Jerusalem sometime before 180 bce (see his description in 50.1–24 of Simon II, high priest from 219–196). Thus he wrote before the persecution of the Jews by Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the ensuing Maccabean revolt (168–164). Sometime after 132 (see the Prologue) his grandson translated the original Hebrew into Greek. The grandson rightly stresses Ben Sira's profound knowledge of Hebrew traditions, designated in the Prologue as “the Law and the Prophets and the other books”—already the three‐fold division of the Hebrew Bible was in formation.

The book consists of three major blocks of teaching: 1.1–23.27; 24.1–42.14; and 42.15–50.24 . In its current form these are preceded by the Prologue and followed by concluding comments and additions ( 50.25–51.30 ). Each of the first two collections begins with a poem in praise of Wisdom ( 1.1–30; 24.1–34 ); the third collection consists entirely of hymns of praise, of the creator ( 42.15–43.33 ), of Israel's ancestors ( 44.1–49.16 ), and of the high priest Simon ( 50.1–24 ).

Like the book of Proverbs, Sirach stresses characteristic wisdom teachings: prudent speech, wealth and poverty, honesty, diligence, choice of friends, sin and death, retribution, and wisdom itself. Unlike the proverbs in the book of Proverbs chs 10–22 , in Sirach individual proverbs are incorporated into smooth‐flowing poems of some length (often 22 lines in accordance with the number of letters of the Hebrew alphabet). The doctrine is surprisingly traditional, almost as if the books of Job and Ecclesiastes had never been written. Ben Sira is not unaware of the problem of suffering ( 2.1–6; 11.14; 40.1–10 ), but he firmly believes in the justice of divine retribution. God will reward all according to their deserts ( 15.11–16.23 ). There is no intimation of a future life with God in the Hebrew text as one begins to find in some Jewish literature of the Hellenistic age (e.g., 2 Macc 7.9; Wis 5.15–16 ); rather, all go to Sheol, the traditional abode of the dead ( 14.12–19; 38.16–23 ). This is the usual view of the Hebrew Bible, where immortality is understood only in terms of one's progeny and good name ( 44.13–15 ).

Earlier biblical wisdom literature lacks explicit references to Israel's sacred history and covenantal traditions. Sirach, in contrast, reprises biblical history in the “Hymn in Honor of Our Ancestors” (chs 44–49 ), and clearly identifies the figure of Wisdom with the Torah or law ( 24.23 ). Unlike earlier wisdom writings, Sirach is immersed in the environment of worship and sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem ( 35.1–12; 50.1–24 ). Nevertheless, the book clearly belongs to the genre of wisdom literature, with its stress on the lessons of experience and on the “fear of the Lord” ( 1.11–30; 25.10–11; 40.25–27 ).

Ben Sira describes his profession as a “scribe,” or scholar of the sacred writings ( 39.1–11 ) and invites students to his school ( 51.23 ). The work's original addressees were young men preparing for leading roles in the Jewish community. This is evident in many aspects of the book, including its treatment of women. The vivid portrayal of Wisdom as a sublime woman, sometimes with erotic overtones (e.g., 14.20–27; 15.2 ; and especially the Hebrew version of 51.13–30 ), seems particularly designed to capture the imagination of Ben Sira's young male students. Ben Sira's teachings about actual women are androcentric at best, as in his advice concerning marriage ( 26.13–18; 36.26–31 ); at times he expresses an untempered misogyny (e.g., 42.13–14 ).

Sirach's teachings are not arranged in a logical sequence. Reading straight through the book from beginning to end, therefore, is not necessarily the best approach. Good places to start reading Sirach are the two pivotal poems on personified Wisdom ( 1.1–30; 24.1–34 ; each introduces a major collection of instructional material) and the hymn of praise to Israel's ancestors ( 44.1–49.16 ).

Chapter.  28156 words. 

Subjects: Religious Studies ; Biblical Studies

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