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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Sirach

Somewhat confusingly, this work regularly goes under three different names: Ecclesiasticus (Latin), Sirach (Greek), and Ben Sira (Hebrew). For once among the apocryphal books, we know the author's name, Jesus ben Eleazar ben Sira. Two slightly different Greek versions circulated in the Church, and over the last century a number of Hebrew fragments have been discovered at Qumran, Masada, and in the Cairo Geniza, covering over two-thirds of the original Hebrew text. The correspondence between the Greek and Hebrew texts is not always very precise, however (see Wright 1989). The Syriac translation depends on the Hebrew, while those in other languages are from the Greek. The original Greek translator was the author's own grandson, who tells us in the prologue that he came to Egypt in the thirty-eighth year of Ptolemy Euergetes (i.e. 132 BCE) and translated the book there. The Hebrew original is thought to have been written sometime between the death of the high priest Simon ben Onias in 196 and the Maccabean crisis after 170 BCE.

The book belongs to the genre of wisdom literature, but though it contains many aphoristic proverbs similar to those in the biblical book of Proverbs, as well as a passage praising Wisdom (ch. 24) that depends on Proverbs 8, it is rather more reflective in style. As in modern self-help manuals, there is much advice on how to conduct one's family life, friendships, and professional life, and on psychology, health, and spirituality. There is a strong emphasis on ethics and community, and on religion as philosophy: the connection between Wisdom as synonymous with Torah and reverence for God is stated many times (e.g. 1: 1, 14, 28; 15: 1; 24: 23).

One interesting feature is the book's attitude to the heroes of canonical Scripture in the Praise of the Ancestors (chs. 44–50; see Goshen-Gottstein, in Egger-Wenzel 2002: 235–67). Ben Sira's remarks concerning Enoch, Joseph, Shem, Seth, and Adam (49: 14–16) foreshadow their importance in pseudepigraphical literature. The roles of the priests Aaron and Phineas are enhanced, but Ezra is omitted (cf. 1 Esdras). For Ben Sira, the righteous kings are David, Josiah, and Hezekiah, but Solomon's many wives defiled the Davidic line (47: 20). The list of famous men reaches a climax in 50: 1–21, where the Hasmonaean high priest, Simon son of Onias, receives extravagant praise for fortifying the Temple and Jerusalem, deeds for which Josiah and Hezekiah are also commended (Aitken 2000). Himmelfarb (2000) notes the lack of nostalgia for kingship in Ben Sira; instead, Simon represents the apogee of both royalty and priesthood, though he is not depicted as an eschatological messiah figure (Xeravits 2001). Sir. 17: 27–8 seems to indicate that Ben Sira did not believe in an afterlife, and, like the book of Proverbs, he teaches that one receives the consequences for one's actions in this life (e.g. 27: 25–7): there is no final judgement to right wrongs and reward virtue.

Ben Sira's negative attitude towards women has frequently been noted, particularly in contrast to the female personification of Wisdom in his book (Trenchard 1982; Coggins 1998: 85–91). The androcentric bias is undeniable, but since Ben Sira was writing as a man for the education of other men, in an age when misogyny was the norm, this is not so surprising. Other reflections of his society are found in the different types of skill displayed by the physician, the scribe, and the artisan (ch. 38), though the student of Torah surpasses them all (38: 34–39: 11; Rollston 2001).

Unlike other apocryphal books, Ben Sira is sometimes quoted in the Talmuds and later rabbinic literature, though usually only the proverbs are cited. Rabbinic opinion on the status of the book varied markedly, from considering it virtually part of Scripture to warning that it endangers the soul (see Levene, in Egger-Wenzel 2002: 305–20).

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