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Sirach (Ecclesiasticus)

The Oxford Companion to the Bible What is This? Provides authoritative interpretive entries on Biblical people, places, beliefs, events, and secular influences.

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    Sirach (Ecclesiasticus)

    One of the earliest of the deuterocanonical/apocryphal books (see Apocrypha, article on Jewish Apocrypha), Sirach is the most extensive portion of Israelite wisdom literature preserved in the Bible. Modeled in great part on Proverbs, Sirach is a compilation of materials that include moral and ethical maxims, folk proverbs, psalms of praise and lament, theological reflections, homiletic exhortations, and pointed observations about Jewish life and religious mores in the second century BCE. It is one of the longest books of the Bible.

    Authorship and Unity.

    Sirach is one of the rare books of the Hebrew Bible that was actually written by the author to whom the book is ascribed. In 50.27, he identifies himself as “Jesus (Hebr. yēšûaʿ), son of Eleazar, son of (Hebr. ben) Sira (Grk. S[e]irach)”; hence, the name Ben Sira, or Sirach, which is found in the title of the book in Greek. Since the extant Hebrew manuscripts begin with 3.6b, we do not know what title the book had in Hebrew. The Latin title, Ecclesiasticus, probably means “the ecclesiastical (or church) [book],” because it was used so widely in the Christian liturgy.

    After the introduction (1.1–10), the book opens (1.11–30) with a carefully crafted twenty‐two‐line nonalphabetic poem (there are twenty‐two letters in the Hebrew alphabet) on the fear of the Lord as the foundation and source of true wisdom and closes, like Proverbs (31.10–31), with an elegant alphabetic acrostic poem (51.13–30) in which Ben Sira tells how he prayed for wisdom and sought after her (here, as elsewhere in the Bible, wisdom is personified as a woman; see Wisdom), not for himself alone but also to impart her to others who came to him. This major inclusion (1.11–30 and 51.13–30) clearly suggests that all the material between the two poems is by the same author. From his youth, Ben Sira had been a pious and devoted student of the Law and of the traditions of Israel, and he became a professional scribe, a vocation he extols in 38.34–39.11. According to 50.27 (Greek text), he lived in Jerusalem, but like many other educated persons of his day he traveled widely (34.12; cf. 39.4) and acquired “much cleverness” (34.11). Ben Sira was also willing to learn the wisdom of other nations (cf. 39.2–4). He composed his book not for personal gain (cf. 51.25) but “for all who seek instruction” (33.18). He ran a school or academy (cf. 51.23) for young men; this fact accounts for the male orientation found throughout the book (see below, Contents and Theology).

    Date and Authenticity.

    The book was written originally in Hebrew, as Ben Sira's grandson states explicitly in the foreword to his Greek translation. But the Hebrew text, apart from some quotations in rabbinic literature, had been lost for centuries. Between 1896 and 1900, four fragmentary Hebrew manuscripts (called A, B, C, and D), which could be dated from the tenth to the twelfth centuries CE, were recovered from the Geniza (storage room) of the Qaraite synagogue in Old Cairo. A fifth manuscript (E) was discovered in 1931, a sixth (F) in 1982, and more leaves of manuscripts B and C in 1958 and 1960. Several scholars have questioned the authenticity of the Geniza text because of the presence of some retroversions from Syriac and Greek. But the common scholarly opinion favors authenticity. Further Hebrew fragments, found at Qumran and dating from the second half of the first century BCE and the first half of the first century CE, and at Masada (first half of the first century BCE) have corroborated the substantial authenticity of the Hebrew text found in the six Geniza manuscripts. Nonetheless, since these manuscripts do contain some retroversions from Syriac and probably a few from Greek, one must take into account all the principal witnesses before deciding on the best form of a text. About two‐thirds of the book is now extant in Hebrew.

    The date when Ben Sira composed the book can be calculated on the basis of information provided in the foreword. The grandson writes that he “came to Egypt in the thirty‐eighth year of the reign of Euergetes and stayed for some time.” The year would be 132 BCE, in the reign of Ptolemy VII Physcon Euergetes who began his rule in 170 BCE as co‐regent with his brother Ptolemy VI. If we allow sufficient time between grandson and grandfather, we arrive at a date ca. 180 BCE for the composition of the book. This date receives support from the book itself. In 50.1–21, Ben Sira writes a lengthy panegyric on Simeon II, who was high priest from 219–196 BCE. This poem gives the impression that Simeon had been dead for several years. The Greek translation was published in Egypt some time after 117 BCE. The Greek is the most important witness to the text whenever the Hebrew is not extant.


    Although written in Hebrew and published in Jerusalem even before the book of Daniel, Sirach was excluded from the Jewish canon despite the fact that it was employed in the ancient synagogue services. The probable reason is that the Pharisees who defined the Jewish canon near the end of the first century CE disliked some of Ben Sira's theology (e.g., his denial of retribution in the afterlife), which resembled the teachings of the Sadducees. Nevertheless, Sirach was often cited by the later rabbis, some of whom even introduced quotations from it with the words “(as) it is written,” a phrase that was used exclusively for quotations from scripture. The church from as early as the second and third centuries (e.g., Didache, Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Tertullian) accepted into its canon Sirach and all the other deuterocanonical books found in the Septuagint. In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther decided in favor of the Jewish canon of the Hebrew Bible; other Protestants followed his lead in rejecting the canonicity of the deuterocanonical books. Like the Orthodox churches, the Roman Catholic church, however, has retained the older Christian canon, which was formally defined at the Council of Trent in 1546.

    Contents and Theology.

    Being a typical work of Hebrew wisdom, Sirach offers advice and gnomic sayings on a wide variety of topics of concern to the Jewish community. Like Proverbs, Sirach generally manifests no discernible order of subject matter, nor is there any obvious coherence. The only exception is found in chaps. 44–50, which in Hebrew manuscript B are entitled appropriately “Praise of the Ancestors of Old”; the opening line of this section is the well‐known “Let us now praise famous men” (KJV). Unlike Proverbs, however, Sirach consists of larger units, generally from ten lines (or bicola) to the classic twenty‐two‐ and twenty‐three‐line lengths (e.g., 1.11–30; 6.18–37; 21.1–21; 29.1–20; 38.24–34; 49.1–16 [the closing poem on Israel's great ancestors]; 51.13–30). Ben Sira learned the twenty‐two‐ and twenty‐three‐line poetic convention from such compositions as Proverbs 2; 6.20–7.6; 7.7–27; 31.10–31; Psalms 9–10; 25; 33; 34; 94; 145; Lamentations 5.

    In addition to several major poems extolling wisdom and the Lord as source of wisdom (1.1–10, 11–30; 4.11–19; 6.18–37; 16.24–17.23; 19.20–30; 24.1–31; 37.16–26; 39.12–35; 42.15–43.33), Ben Sira offers aphorisms and comments on such subjects as humility (3.17–24; 4.8; 7.16–17; 10.26–28), charity (3.30–4.6, 8–10; 7.32–36; 12.1–7; 29.8–13), pride, folly, and other sins (3.26–28; 10.6–18; 16.5–23; 20.2–31; 21.1–22.2), virtues and vices of the tongue (5.6–6.1; 19.5–17; 20.5–8, 13, 16–20, 24–31; 22.6, 27–23.4, 7–15; 27.4–7; 28.12–26), anger, malice, and vengeance (27.22–28.11). He also gives practical advice on such topics as one's attitude and behavior regarding parents (3.1–16; 7.27–28), children (7.23–25; 16.1–4; 30.1–13; 41.5–10), friends and associates (6.5–17; 11.29–34; 12.8–13.23; 22.19–26; 27.16–21; 37.1–15), wealth (11.10–11, 14, 18–19, 23–28; 13.15–14.10; 31.1–11), poverty (10.30–11.6, 14; 13.18–14.2; 25.2–3), enjoying life (14.11–19), loans (29.1–7, 14–20); health and physicians (30.14–20; 38.1–15), death (38.16–23), table etiquette (31.12–32.13; 37.27–31), shame (41.14–42.1d).

    In various sections of the book, he writes at length about women (3.2–6; 7.19, 24–26; 9.1–9; 19.2–4; 22.3–5; 23.22–26; 25.1, 8, 13–26.18; 28.15; 33.20; 36.26–31; 40.19, 23; 42.6, 9–14). He deals with woman as daughter, wife, mother, adulteress, or prostitute, and much of what he says is offensive to the contemporary western reader. But in the society for which he wrote, Ben Sira would not have been considered an extremist; rather, he was a typical Jewish male of the period, who lived in a patriarchal society in which women had few rights as free and autonomous human beings. A female was subject to either her father or her husband. In Exodus 20.17, a wife is even listed with a husband's property. It must be remembered that Ben Sira was writing only for young Jewish men in a male‐centered society; it was not his intention to instruct women. It is in this context that his (often deplorable) statements about women are to be evaluated.

    The theology of Sirach is essentially Deuteronomic; hence, it is traditional and conservative. He reflects the teachings of earlier biblical books on such subjects as God, the election of Israel, retribution, morality, kindness to the poor and disadvantaged, the centrality of fear of the Lord. The expression “fear of the Lord/God” occurs about sixty times in Sirach, and the term “wisdom” about fifty‐five times. In 1.1–2.18 there is a detailed treatise on wisdom as fear of the Lord. The fundamental thesis of Sirach is that wisdom, which is identified with the Law (chap. 24), is bestowed only on one who fears the Lord (19.20). God grants wisdom to those who love him (1.10), that is, those who “keep the commandments” (1.26). Fear of the Lord, which is “the beginning of wisdom” (1.14; cf. Prov. 9.10), “gives gladness and joy and long life” (1.12). Fear of the Lord and wisdom make life meaningful and worthwhile (34.14–20). Sinners or fools—the terms are synonyms for Ben Sira—can never attain wisdom (15.7–8).

    The doctrine of God reflects earlier biblical traditions. God is one and the same from all eternity (42.21). He created all things by simply uttering his almighty word (39.17–18; cf. Gen. 1.3–24). He knows all things, even the deepest mysteries of the universe, and sees all things even before they occur (15.18–19; 23.19–20; 39.19–20; 42.18–20). God is merciful not only to his chosen people but to other nations as well (18.13; cf. 17.29). Believers may address God as Father (23.1, 4; 51.10), confident that he will listen to their prayer. Ben Sira denies that God is responsible in any way for human sin (15.11–13, 20; cf. Exod. 11.10; 2 Sam. 24.1–10). Virtue and vice result from human free choice (15.14–17). But the origin of sin according to Genesis 3.1–6 is also alluded to in Sirach (25.24). Since human beings are free, there is hope even for sinners, for they can turn away from sin and repent (17.25–26, 29).

    Ben Sira teaches the traditional doctrine of retribution: reward for fidelity to the Law (1.20; 34.14–20) or punishment for infidelity (9.12; 11.24,26, 27–28) takes place in one's lifetime here on earth; after death saint and sinner alike are thought to go to Sheol, the nether world, where they share a dark, listless, dismal survival separated from the Lord (17.27–28). The grandson's Greek translation, however, makes definite allusions to retribution in the afterlife (7.17b; 48.11bc), and a later recension, called Greek II, makes even more allusions (cf. 2.9c; 16.22c; 19.19) as do the still later Latin and Syriac versions. One survives in one's children (30.4–5) and in one's good name (41.11–13). Prayer, being the language of faith, is found in several places in Sirach (22.27–23.6; 36.1–22; 39.12–35; 42.15–43.33; 51.1–12). Respect for the priests and the offering of sacrifices are enjoined (7.29–31), but these are useless if one is guilty of injustice (34.21–27). Observance of the Law, especially with regard to charity, is the best form of sacrifice and worship (35.1–5). The sacrifices of the wicked who oppress the poor are not acceptable to God (35.14–15). Ben Sira speaks emphatically of the need to practice social justice and to assist the weak and the defenseless (3.30–31; 4.2–6, 8–10); he derived this teaching from Exod. 22.22; Deut. 24.17–22; Lev. 19.9–10; Job 29.11–16; Prov. 14.13; Amos 5.10–15.

    Alexander A. Di Lella, O.F.M.

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