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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Ben Sira and Biblical Tradition.

1.

One of the hallmarks of the biblical wisdom tradition, as found in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job, is the lack of reference to the distinctive traditions of Israel. The concern is with humanity as such, not with the special status of one people. Sirach, in contrast, pays considerable attention to Israel and its Scriptures. The grandson, in the preface, says that Sirach ‘devoted himself especially to the reading of the Law and the Prophets and the other books of our ancestors’, and implies that he envisaged his own book as comparable to the ancestral writings. This interest in the Scriptures cannot be explained simply by the spirit of the times. Ecclesiastes may be close to Sirach in date, but makes no mention of the law and the prophets. Sirach, however, says that all wisdom is ‘the book of the covenant of the Most High God, the law that Moses commanded us’ ( 24:23 ) and he describes the sage as ‘one who devotes himself to the study of the law of the Most High…and is concerned with prophecies’ ( 39:1–2 ). It has been claimed that he cites or alludes to all the books of the HB except Ruth, Ezra, Esther, and Daniel (Skehan and DiLella 1987: 41). This claim is misleading, however. Most of the allusions occur in the Praise of the Fathers. Elsewhere there are frequent allusions to Proverbs and to Genesis, and several to Deuteronomy. But many of the alleged allusions are loose, and may be coincidental. For example, when Sirach writes ‘The rich speaks and all are silent, his wisdom they extol to the clouds’ ( 13:23 ), an allusion to Job 29:21 is often suggested: ‘They listened to me, and waited, and kept silence for my counsel.’ But the saying is a truism, and the allusion is accordingly doubtful. Despite Sirach's reverence for the law, his teaching remains in the form of wisdom instruction. It is neither legal proclamation nor legal interpretation. He subsumes the law under the rubric of wisdom, as its supreme example. He does not subsume wisdom under the law. Moreover, he ignores certain sections of the law, particularly the cultic and dietary laws of Leviticus. Not all biblical laws are equally useful as illustrations of wisdom, and there remain other avenues to wisdom besides the law of Moses.

2.

The extent to which Sirach drew on non-biblical, non-Jewish sources is also controversial. The maximal view (Middendorp 1973 ) finds over 100 passages where Ben Sira betrays dependence on Greek sources, but here again there is difficulty in distinguishing between imprecise allusion and coincidental commonplace. Many commentators grant an allusion to Homer's Iliad 6.146–9 at Sir 14:18 : both passages use the figure of leaves on a tree to express the transience of human life. Even if the allusion be granted, however, we can no more conclude that Sirach had read Homer than that someone who ponders ‘to be or not to be’ has read Shakespeare. The strongest evidence for Sirach's use of non-Jewish sources concerns the sayings of Theognis and the late Egyptian wisdom book of Phibis, preserved in Papyrus Insinger (J. T. Sanders 1983 ). In both cases, the material bears a strong resemblance to traditional Jewish wisdom. There is also evidence of Stoic influence in the notions of complementary opposites ( 33:14–15 ), teleology ( 39:21 ), and in the striking affirmation about God that ‘He is the all’ ( 43:27 ). There may be an echo of Epicurean teaching in 41:1–4 . Sirach certainly shows no aversion to foreign wisdom, but he seems to have favoured Hellenistic material that resembled Jewish traditions and conversely pays little attention to the most distinctive aspects of Judaism such as the levitical laws.

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