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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

Sirach (Ecclesiasticus)

Dianne Bergant

About the Book

Over the years the book of Sirach has been known by different names: “The Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sira”; “The Book of Sirach” (Sirach is a shortened form of the Greek Sirachides, grandson of Sira); “Ecclesiasticus” (from the Latin for book of the church, a designation that probably stems from its frequent use as a catechetical aid in the early centuries of the Western Church).

Sirach is the only biblical book that identifies its author ( 50, 27 ), refers to its translator (a grandson of the Ben Sira), and dates its translation (“the thirty‐eighth year of the reign of King Euergetes,” sometime after 132 BC—information found in the foreword). Although the prophetic books claim not only to have originated from specific prophets and to locate the ministry of those prophets during the reigns of specific kings (for example, Hos 1, 1; Is 1, 1; Jer 1, 2f; etc.), the references there are to prophetic activity and not to the books that bear the names of the prophets. Here we have a clear reference to literary activity.

The foreword also provides us with some interesting information about the composition of the biblical canon (the official list of inspired books). Three times the grandson of Ben Sira speaks of “the law, the prophets, and the later authors” (or “the rest of the books”). This reference tells us that by the second century BC the Jewish community already had what has come to be known as a tripartite (three‐part) Bible. Scholars believe that the first two parts (the Law and the Prophets) most likely included the books as we have them today. The third part (the Writings) was probably quite fluid until well into the Christian era.

Like the book of Wisdom, Sirach belongs to the collection called deuterocanonical by Roman Catholics or apocryphal by Protestants (see Wisdom, RG 272 ). The foreword, which is considered historical introduction and not inspired instruction, recounts the translator's arrival in Egypt, where he discovered that the Jews’ “valuable teaching” had been translated from Hebrew into Greek, the language of the day. This inspired him to undertake the translation of his own grandfather's teachings. The Hebrew version from which he worked seems to have dropped out of sight until copies of it were found in 1896.

It is not clear why the Jews did not accept Sirach as canonical. Some commentators offer a twofold reason: (1) Ben Sira was interested in the Temple and the cult (concerns of a first‐century AD group called Sadducees); and (2) he did not seem to believe in the resurrection of the body (a position held by a rival religious group of the first century called the Pharisees). Therefore the Pharisaic rabbis who decided on the canon rejected Sirach. Whatever the case may have been, its absence from the Jewish list explains its exclusion from the Protestant canon.

The manner in which the high priest Simon is described ( 50, 1–21 ) leads one to conclude that he had only recently died. This would locate the writing of the original Hebrew version of Sirach sometime during the first quarter of the second century (200–175 BC). The description of Simon's priestly performance suggests that the author was quite familiar with the Jerusalem ritual. Perhaps he was even a resident of the city. Many commentators believe that Jerusalem was in fact the place of the book's composition.

The book appears to be a collection of proverbs organized in such a way as to resemble short essays. While there is no explicit arrangement in the book itself, one can divide the material both thematically and according to literary form. Chapters 1 through 43 principally deal with moral instruction, a characteristic that Sirach has in common with the rest of the wisdom literature. This first section can be further subdivided into two parts, each of which is introduced by a poem praising wisdom (see 1, 1–29 and 24, 1–31 ). The entire first section ends with a poem extolling God's activity in nature ( 42, 15–43, 35 ). The poems that acclaim time‐honored heroes of Israel ( 44, 1–49, 16 ) and the high priest Simon ( 50, 1–24 ) are followed by a kind of epilogue, which contains a denunciation of some of the traditional enemies of Israel and a subscription identifying the author ( 50, 25–29 ). The book closes with two appendices: a psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance from danger ( 51, 1–12 ); and a personal testimony in the form of an acrostic poem ( 51, 13–30; see Psalms, RG 245 ).

The Reason for Writing

The hellenization of the Near East had already taken hold among the educated upper classes by the time Ben Sira put his teachings into writing (see Wisdom, RG 272 ). Many Jews must have wondered whether their ancient traditions could match the comprehension and depth of Greek thought. Being a well‐traveled man ( 34, 11 ), Ben Sira would have witnessed the decline in fervor that overtook his coreligionists. Being an observant Jew, he would have been greatly troubled by this. It seems clear that his object in writing was to show the Jews of his day that real wisdom was to be found in the traditions of Israel and not in the godless Greek philosophy of the day. He intended his work to be a comprehensive authoritative reference wherein could be found guidance and instruction for every circumstance of life.

Ben Sira exhorted his readers to study the ancient traditions to find there the kind of direction needed to cope with their new and challenging situation ( 2, 10 ). He warned against trying to live according to the standards of both Judaism and Hellenism ( 2, 12 ), and he condemned those who chose the latter over the former ( 2, 13f ). Using a traditional wisdom figure of speech (those who fear the Lord), he identified the wise as those who were faithful to the religion of Israel ( 2, 15–17 ). While the content of most of his wisdom teaching is quite conventional, the way Ben Sira blended it with Israel's history, and its legal and cultic traditions is distinctive. Earlier wisdom writing showed little interest in specifically Israelite matters. Ben Sira claimed that true wisdom resides in Israel ( 24, 1–21 ), and later he used history to support this claim ( 44, 1–49, 16 ). He identified Wisdom with the Law of Moses ( 24, 22 ), and in that way he accorded the Law of Moses a place of honor above the traditions of other cultures. Unlike other wisdom teachers, he demonstrated a profound concern for the cult and the role of the priesthood ( 46, 6–20; 47, 12f; 50, 1–21 ). All of this was, no doubt, Ben Sira's way of arguing in favor of fidelity to Judaism.

If we are correct in determining the date of the translation, the final form of this book probably appeared after the Maccabean revolt but before the writing of the Wisdom of Solomon. Such historical reconstruction will help us to see how Israel's response to Hellenism varied with time. Ben Sira did not make accommodations to the process of hellenization to the extent that the author of Wisdom did. If “traditionalist” means maintaining unchanged the answers of the past because they alone are adequate to meet the problems of the present, then Ben Sira can be called “traditionalist” in his response to Hellenism.

Wisdom Teaching

In many ways the teaching of Ben Sira resembles that of the book of Proverbs. Its primary focus is moral guidance. The book lends itself to being an instructional manual containing maxims, many of which are grouped according to topic. The result is a series of short essays addressing topics such as duties toward God, toward one's parents, and toward rulers. There are instructions on how to train children, how to choose friends, and how to guard one's speech. There are warnings against excess, sloth, and foolishness. Whatever one needs to succeed in life, while at the same time remaining faithful to the traditions of the elders, is addressed in the instructional section of this book.

Sirach is also like Proverbs in its celebration of the glories of personified Wisdom (chapters 1 and 24 ). It is distinctive, however, in the way it takes this characterization a step further than did the earlier work. Here we see Wisdom searching for a place to dwell and finally pitching her tent in Jerusalem. Allusions to this poetic characterization can be found in the prologue to the Gospel of John where the Word, present with God from the beginning and involved in the creation of all things, “pitched his tent among us” (Jn 1, 1–14 ).

Ben Sira's poems describing the role of divine wisdom in creation ( 16, 22–17, 18; 39, 12–35; 42, 15–43, 35 ) are really commentaries on the opening chapters of Genesis. The rather technical way he developed his thought shows us the extent to which Ben Sira was influenced by the scientific knowledge of his day.

This book contains some of the harshest statements about women found anywhere in the Bible. Proverbs may have warned the naive youth to beware of wily and seductive women, but this author seems to speak disparagingly against women in general. Ben Sira is the one who blames woman for sin and death ( 25, 23 ). It is further apparent that he expected wives to be subservient to their husbands, for he seems to advocate punishment, even including divorce, if they refuse to obey ( 25, 24f ). Perhaps the worst example of this misogyny is found in the description of the unwed daughter ( 42, 9–14 ). The author clearly considers her a liability, and his concern is exclusively with the reputation of the father.

The author holds a thoroughly traditional view of retribution ( 4, 11–19; 7, 1–3; 16, 1–21; 21, 1–10 ). The possibility of rewards or punishments after death does not seem to have been considered by this wisdom teacher ( 14, 15–19 ). He counsels mourning at the death of another, but he admonishes his reader to moderation even in the acceptable expression of grief. The reason why the display should be temperate is that the dead are dead, and nothing can be changed by uncontrolled sorrow ( 38, 1–23 ).

While this view of life and death may have been in agreement with earlier notions of retribution, it was clearly not universally held in Israel at this time. Hope of reward after death for fidelity during persecution is found in other writings of this period (for example, Dn 12, 1–3; 2 Mc 7, 9.23.29 ). Although Ben Sira probably lived before the Maccabean revolt (events surrounding this period are recorded in the other books mentioned above), his grandson‐translator certainly lived after the rebellion, and he upheld Ben Sira's traditional view.

Ben Sira's adherence to the traditional notion of retribution and its consequent rejection of any notion of life after death, coupled with his support of the priesthood and interest in the cult, have prompted many interpreters to regard him as a Proto‐Sadducee. Although Sadducees as a group probably did not yet exist until after the Maccabean revolt, many of the theological views found in this book were eventually adopted by this aristocratic priestly party.

The Influence of Sirach

Since the New Testament writers seem to have preferred the Alexandrian Bible, it is not surprising that the influence of Sirach can be detected in some of their writings. The Letter of James is a clear example of this. Both books address questions of pride (Sir 10, 7; Jas 4, 6 ) and humility (Sir 3, 18; Jas 1, 9 ), of rich and poor (Sir 10, 19–24; Jas 2, 1–6 ), and of true wisdom (Sir 19, 17–21; Jas 3, 13–17 ), to name but a few examples. There are also obvious parallels between directives found in Sirach and those found in the Gospels. This includes teaching on magnanimity (Sir 29, 12; Mt 6, 19 ) and forgiveness (Sir 28, 2; Mk 11, 25 ) and against placing false hopes in possessions (Sir 11, 18f; Lk 12, 16–21 ).

While the canonical status of Sirach was and remains a question for debate, from the time of its appearance it has exerted significant influence in both the Jewish and the Christian communities. Over the years it has served as a kind of handbook of practical ethics, and its teachings can be found in the liturgical texts of both religious groups. The discovery at Qumran of a scroll of Ben Sira is evidence that the book was widely known before the turn of the era. It also appears in copies of liturgical scrolls that were read in synagogues around the tenth century AD. Finally, the book is also quoted at least once in the Talmud. The early church theologians Cyprian (third century AD) and Jerome (fourth century AD) attest to Christian use of the book. Clement of Alexandria (second century AD) quotes it so often that his citations have come to be considered an authoritative version of the text. This controversial book continues to exercise its influence even today. Passages from Sirach are used as lectionary readings. For many, perhaps most, Catholics, the liturgical celebration is their primary exposure to the Bible. Within this context the teachings of Ben Sira continue to exhort hearers to fidelity to the tradition and to upright moral living.

It is interesting to note that in response to the Vatican document Decree on the Training of Priests (16), moral theologians are reexamining the moral instructions found in Scripture. They do not turn there in search of ageless answers to contemporary questions but in an attempt to discover how moral decisions were made in the past. Biblical specialists provide them with insights into the manner in which writers, especially the teachers of wisdom, brought the time‐honored religious tradition to bear on new situations. The book of Sirach, with its essaylike instruction, remains a source of information in this area. It opens a window into a community struggling with its identity as it finds itself at the crossroads of traditional religion and contemporary culture. Sirach and Wisdom provide us with two ways of responding to this challenge. While we may not be able to follow their specific advice, we can learn from their example ways of reinterpreting the tradition creatively, while at the same time remaining loyal to its revelatory message.

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