The book of Sirach is a Second Temple Jewish wisdom text that has many similarities to biblical wisdom books, such as Proverbs. It also shares features with several of the wisdom texts found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, especially 4QInstruction.

Name of the Book.

In modernity the book goes by three names that reflect its three primary language traditions: The Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sira (Hebrew, although “Jesus” is actually a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew name Joshua; sometimes simply Ben Sira); Sirach (Greek); or Ecclesiasticus (Latin; to be distinguished from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes). The first two titles derive from the name of the author; the last means in Latin “of or belonging to the church,” that is, the church's book.

In Hebrew, the book's original language, no single title survives. Manuscript B from the Cairo Genizah (tenth century C.E.; see below) preserves two apparent titles at the end of the text, where titles were often found in antiquity. They are: divrei šimōn ben yešuaʿ šeniqraʾ ben sira, “The Words of Simon son of Joshua who is called Ben Sira” and ḥokmat šimōn ben yešuaʿ ben elazar ben siraʾ “The Wisdom of Simon son of Joshua son of Eleazar son of Sira.” In rabbinic literature it is often simply referred to as Seper ben Sira, “The Book of Ben Sira.” Finally, Jerome (late fourth–early fifth century), who claims to know the book in Hebrew, reports its title as mišlē, “Parables” (Preface to the Books of Solomon). In the Syriac translation, the title is ḥekmata de bar siraʾ “The wisdom of Bar Sira.” (“Bar” is the Syriac equivalent of Hebrew “Ben,” “son of.”) In the Greek tradition, the most common title in the manuscripts is sofia iēsou huiou s(e)irach, “Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach,” often Sirach for short. In English the “ch” represents the Greek letter chi, which is used to transliterate the Hebrew aleph, the last letter of siraʾ. Today the letter is generally not pronounced, but it seems to have retained its consonantal value in antiquity. By the time of Jerome, the book was already called Ecclesiasticus, having been included in the Old Latin translations of the Bible that he knew.

Canonical Status.

Sirach has experienced a checkered history as far as its inclusion in the Jewish and Christian canons is concerned. The Greek translation of the original Hebrew was included among the other translations that make up the corpus usually called the Septuagint. The original version in Hebrew never made it into the Jewish canon, although it seems likely that it held a place of significance in some quarters of Judaism in the first centuries B.C.E and C.E., since two fragmentary manuscripts were found at Qumran and Masada (see below). What those Jews who used the book thought of it we do not know. Even after the Jewish canon became fixed, rabbinic authorities continued to cite Ben Sira, even though it was not considered a book that “defiles the hands,” that is, it was not considered to be canonical. Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1, for instance, reports a saying of Rabbi Akiba (late first–early second century C.E.) that anyone who reads the ḥiṣōnīm (“outside books”) has no place in the world to come. In the Talmud, B. Sanhedrin 100b, which begins as a commentary on the Mishnah, reports that R. Joseph understood Akiba to be prohibiting the reading of “the book of Ben Sira.” Abaye, on the other hand, wonders why this would be so, since Ben Sira and the rabbis say some of the same things, and he thinks it acceptable to expound the good things in the book. This dispute captures well the rabbis' ambivalence about the book.

The early Christian church for the most part adopted the Septuagint as its scriptures, and this included Sirach, which is found in all the major codices of the Christian Old Testament, a circumstance that probably points to its scriptural status. This tradition became normative in the Roman Catholic Church, as exemplified in Augustine's statement that all of the Septuagint books were equally authoritative, and today Sirach is classified as deuterocanonical. In the sixteenth century, Sirach was part of the Old Testament canon listed at the Council of Trent. In contemporary Roman Catholic Bibles, Sirach/Ecclesiasticus appears with the Wisdom books in this order: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Qoheleth, Song of Songs, Wisdom of Solomon, and Ecclesiasticus. Despite its high status in the West, Jerome did not think Sirach canonical and relegated it to a group he called “apocrypha,” along with Wisdom of Solomon, Judith, Tobit, 1–2 Maccabees, and Shepherd of Hermas (Prologue to the Books of Kings). In the Eastern Christian churches (usually referred to as Orthodox churches), which in general follow the tradition of the Septuagint, Sirach is part of the Old Testament. The Ethiopian Christian church's Old Testament also includes Sirach.

The Wisdom of Ben Sira does not belong to the Protestant Old Testament. At the time of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther argued that books of the Christian Old Testament should be the same as those contained in the Hebrew Bible. Thus, he demoted the deuterocanonical works to apocryphal status, and in his German translation he placed them between the Old and New Testaments with the qualifier, “Apocrypha, that is, books which are not held equal to the Sacred Scriptures, but nevertheless are useful and good to read.”

Authorship.

The Wisdom of Ben Sira is unusual in early Jewish literature, because the author writes in his own name, which appears to have been Joshua son of Eleazar son of Sira, although the data from the different sources are not consistent. The Hebrew contains two notices of the author's name: 50:27 that reads in Ms B, “Simon son of Joshua son of Eleazar son of Sira”—as if Simon were the author's name—and in the subscription to Ms B, which has two names, “Simon son of Joshua who is called son of Sira” and “Simon son of Joshua son of Eleazar son of Sira.” Presumably the subscription depends on the name in 50:27. Most scholars argue that the name Simon should be discounted, since the Greek text of 50:27 does not have that name and the translator, who claims to be the author's grandson, calls his grandfather Jesus in his prologue to the translation. The Greek of 50:27 differs from the Hebrew in one other respect. It has the author's name as Jesus son of Sirach, Eleazar the Jerusalemite, with Eleazar in apposition to Jesus as if they are alternative names for the author. The various superscriptions in the Greek manuscripts and the title heading at chapter 51 all follow the first form of the name in 50:27, giving it as “Jesus son of Sirach.”

Date and Historical Context.

Scholars largely agree about the range of possible dates for the book's composition, which can be determined by using several pieces of evidence to triangulate on a time frame. The firmest piece of information comes from the author's grandson. In his prologue, he says, “For in the thirty-eighth year, in the reign of Euergetes the king, when I had arrived in Egypt and stayed a while…” (NETS). Two Ptolemies actually bore the title Euergetes: Ptolemy III Euergetes I (reigned 246–221 B.C.E.) and Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II Physcon (reigned 170–116, including a seven-year hiatus when Ptolemy VI Philometer exiled Ptolemy VIII). The earlier Ptolemy reigned for only twenty-five years, and other corroborating evidence rules him out as the Euergetes of the prologue. If one then takes Ptolemy VIII's accession date of 170 and counts thirty-eight years, one arrives at approximately 132 B.C.E. for the grandson's arrival in Egypt. When the grandson says that he “stayed a while,” he employs the Greek participle sugchronisas, which can have the connotation “to be contemporaneous with,” and some scholars understand the term to mean that the grandson was in Egypt through the end of Euergetes' reign. Thus the translation was made somewhere around 116 B.C.E. If we move backward from the grandson's arrival date approximately forty or so years, presuming that the grandson was an adult when he went to Egypt, we arrive at a date in the 180s B.C.E. for his grandfather, Ben Sira.

Other internal evidence confirms this general time-frame. In chapter 50 Ben Sira eulogizes the high priest in Jerusalem, whom he calls “Simon son of Johanan” (Greek = Onias). Of the two Simons who served as high priests, most scholars agree that Ben Sira is referring to Simon II, whose dates are uncertain but range from about 220 B.C.E. to sometime in the 190s or 180s. VanderKam (2004), however, maintains that this Simon is not Simon II but Simon I. If Skehan and Di Lella (1987) are correct in (1) reading Ben Sira's description of the Temple ritual in 50:5–17 as Ben Sira's eyewitness account and (2) understanding the phrases “in his life” and “in his time” (50:1) as indications that the high priest was already dead, then the high priest must be Simon II, and Ben Sira must have written sometime after his death. Additionally, Ben Sira makes no reference to the events of the Maccabean revolt in the 160s B.C.E., which probably indicates that the book was completed before that time. This silence coheres with the other evidence and points to a time around 180 B.C.E for the composition of the book.

During Ben Sira's lifetime, Jerusalem and its surrounding territory played a crucial role in the relations between the Ptolemaic kings in Egypt and the Seleucid kings in Syria. The descendents of two of Alexander the Great's main generals saw this region as critical to their economic, political, and military stability. For most of the third century B.C.E., Palestine was under the control of Ptolemaic Egypt, and papyrological and literary sources present a good picture of the relationship between the ruling state and its colony. The Ptolemies administered the region throughout the third century as any other imperial province. They farmed out taxes to local strong men, exploited the area's economic possibilities, and maintained a military presence to deter Seleucid incursions.

The reign of Ptolemy IV Philopater (221–203 B.C.E.), however, inaugurated a protracted period of political and military instability. The Seleucid king, Antiochus III, had resolved to wrest control of Coele-Syria, which included Palestine, from Ptolemy. After some initial success, Antiochus's forces were defeated at Raphia in 217 B.C.E., which reversed his previous gains. After Ptolemy's death, his young son, Ptolemy V Epiphanes, succeeded him. Conditions seemed right for another attempt, and this time Antiochus gained lasting control of Coele-Syria in 199 B.C.E. After Antiochus's victory, the Jewish historian Josephus (late first century C.E.) says that many Jews went over to his side voluntarily, and as a result Antiochus regarded them favorably. He helped to restore Jerusalem, which had apparently been damaged in the fighting, furnished sacrifices for the Temple, allowed the Jews to live by their “ancestral laws,” and relieved them of certain taxes and levies (Josephus, Ant. 12.138–144). During this volatile period, Simon II, the high priest in office, seems to have been on the pro-Seleucid side. In fact, included in Ben Sira's eulogy on Simon we find praise for the high priest's repair of the Temple and the city walls and his consideration of the welfare of the city and people (50:2–4), all of which could reflect this period.

Not long after his victory over Ptolemy, Antiochus took on the Romans, but to disastrous effect. He suffered a decisive defeat at Magnesia in 190 B.C.E. and signed a treaty at Apamea in 188 that left Coele-Syria in his possession but also saddled him with a large

Sirach

Antiochus III (r. 223–187 B.C.E.).

LOUVRE, PARIS, FRANCE/THE BRIDGEMAN ART LIBRARY INTERNATIONAL

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financial indemnity imposed by Rome. After his death a year later, his son Seleucus IV Philopater (187–175 B.C.E.) succeeded him. In the meantime, after Simon II's death, his son Onias III held the high priestly office until his assassination in 175. Some scholars have argued that the weakening of the Seleucids after Magnesia and the heavy financial burden imposed as a result may have pushed Onias back into the Ptolemaic camp before his death, which in any case would likely have been after the writing of Sirach. But it was in this military and political environment that Ben Sira lived and taught. Somewhat surprisingly, Ben Sira makes no overt references to these contemporary circumstances—even his comments about Simon II are not unambiguous in this regard. No scholarly unanimity prevails about which passages in the book reveal Ben Sira's thoughts on the politics of his day.

One effect of Palestine's continuous domination by these two Hellenistic kingdoms was that Jews, especially those like Ben Sira who occupied an elite stratum of Jerusalem society, were exposed to a broad spectrum of cultural influences. Indeed, scholars have claimed that Sirach demonstrates dependence on Egyptian wisdom texts, such as the Instruction of Phibis (in Papyrus Insinger) and the Satire on the Trades, the Greek elegiac poetry of Theognis, and certain forms of popular Stoicism, for example. Some have seen in Ben Sira's proverb about trees sprouting and shedding leaves in 14:18 a reflection of Homer's Iliad (6.146–149). Exactly what specific cultural influences affected Ben Sira is not always easy to tell, but the book itself suggests that his world was cosmopolitan enough that a wise man was expected to travel. Indeed, 34:12–13 and 39:4 suggest that Ben Sira himself had traveled and that the experience had enhanced his wisdom. Middendorp (1973) has gone so far as to argue that Ben Sira intended his book to function like a Hellenistic school text, and he identifies approximately one hundred passages that he thinks demonstrate the influence of Greek literature on Ben Sira. Sanders (1983), however, has pointed to the methodological difficulties with Middendorp's arguments, and Middendorp's claim must be seen as an overstatement of the case at best.

The book also seems to reflect certain inner-Jewish tensions in Jerusalem during this period. By the late third to early second century B.C.E., the Jewish high priest had become the primary political representative of the Jewish Temple-state. With the demise of the Israelite/Judean kingship, high priests had filled the leadership vacuum and had accumulated political power in addition to their already considerable religious power and status. Ben Sira appears to be content with this situation. On the one hand, his assessment of Israelite kings and kingship is decidedly ambivalent. Although he refers to a covenant with David (45:25), he restricts it significantly, noting that it “passes only from son to son,” virtually ignoring the eternal nature of the covenant that the Deuteronomistic History attaches to it (cf. 2 Sam 7:4–17). In his section on David in the Praise of the Ancestors (chapters 44–50), Ben Sira avoids using the word covenant and refers to a “statute of kingship” that God established with David. Ben Sira is much more openly critical of David's son and successor, Solomon (47:18–21), whom he portrays as violating the laws of the king found in Deuteronomy 17:14–20. On the other hand, he ascribes royal characteristics to the three most prominent priests in his praise: Aaron, Phinehas, and Simon II. In the same verse that Ben Sira seems to limit the Davidic covenant, he makes a contrasting comment that the heritage of Aaron is to all his descendants, which comes in the immediate context of Ben Sira's discussion of Aaron, who is given an “eternal statute” of the priesthood, and Phinehas, with whom God makes a “covenant of friendship,” resulting in his descendants having “the dignity of the priesthood forever” (45:24).

Moreover, several other passages in the book hint at inner-Jewish disagreement over just who deserves to be in positions of power and control over the priesthood and thus over the central institutions of the Jewish Temple-state. Within only a few decades after Ben Sira, we see controversies over the Temple rituals contributing to one Jewish group (probably Essenes) removing itself from the mainstream of Jewish life and settling near the Wadi Qumran by the Dead Sea. Yet, even earlier there is evidence of an acrimonious dispute about the legitimacy of the priesthood in Jerusalem. Scholars have identified critical voices roughly contemporary with Ben Sira in works such as the “Book of the Watchers” (1 En. 6–36), the “Astronomical Book” (1 En. 72–82), and the Aramaic Levi Document, whose authors advocate a calendrical system based on the sun to determine feasts and festivals and criticize the behavior of those priests in power, particularly their marriage practices. Ben Sira, who served as a scribal retainer for those in Jerusalem, offers unequivocal support for the priests who administered the sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple (e.g., 7:29–31). Some scholars have understood passages like 3:22–24 and 34:1–8 in Sirach as being directed against those who opposed the Jerusalem establishment and the mechanisms by which they claimed their authority.

By all accounts, Ben Sira was a scribe/sage who served in the employ of the aristocratic priestly class in Jerusalem. His book reveals his in-between social status. On one side, he operates a “school” (51:23), if “school” indicates a setting of formal pedagogy in which Ben Sira apprentices scribes for careers like his own. So, he cautions his charges to be careful how they interact with the rich, because one mistake could result in their downfall (cf. 8:1–2). On the other side, the scribe/sage ranks above tradespersons, craftspersons, and farmers, because they do not have the leisure time for the study required of the sage (38:24–34B). In Ben Sira's eyes the scribe/sage is the guardian of a long tradition, which in the Second Temple period had encompassed the Law and its interpretation. Indeed, in 38:34C–39:11 he applies the language of prophetic inspiration to the work of the scribe/sage (see also 24:30–34). Within the body of Ben Sira's instruction, we see a variety of possible social roles played by the scribe/sage. He could become a judge or perhaps an ambassador (4:7; 7:6; 39:4), for example. Furthermore, the scribe/sage might be expected to sit on councils, expound God's law, counsel rulers, and garner public praise (21:7; 23:14; 39:4, 9–11). Some scholars have contended that Ben Sira was a priest, but the evidence in the book does not seem to warrant a firm conclusion. By Ben Sira's time, the profession of the scribe/sage had taken on a series of cultural, social, legal, and religious functions, some of which overlapped with the priesthood and which the priests might well have delegated to it.

Perhaps the most remarkable observation about the book's author is that despite the fact that he lived in very troubled and turbulent times, scholars have had to read between the lines of his work to see reflections of the political and cultural situation and his reactions to them. In many respects, Ben Sira produced a work that drew on the broader ethos and values of traditional ancient Near Eastern wisdom and that takes its form. Yet, no work of this sort remains isolated from its times, and certainly Sirach is no exception, even if the specific details are harder to pin down.

Textual and Literary History.

The textual history of Sirach is perhaps the most complex of all the books of the Bible. Although the book was originally written in Hebrew, until modern times its main languages of transmission were the Greek translation and later Latin and Syriac translations. Like other books that were not received into the Jewish canon, the Hebrew of Ben Sira gradually fell into obscurity, despite the citations that survive in rabbinic literature.

Until late in the nineteenth century, no Hebrew manuscripts of the book were known. In 1896, two women travelers, Mrs. Agnes Lewis and Mrs. Margaret Gibson, brought a fragment of a Hebrew manuscript from the genizah (literally “treasury,” a storeroom for old manuscripts) of a Karaite synagogue in Cairo, Egypt to Solomon Schechter, Reader in Talmudic Hebrew at Cambridge University, who recognized it as containing what he called “a piece of the original Hebrew of the book of Ecclesiasticus” (private letter to Mrs. Lewis and Gibson dated May 5, 1896). Apparently the Hebrew had reemerged among Karaite Jews in the late eighth century as part of a chance discovery of Hebrew manuscripts in the area of the Dead Sea. Initially five fragmentary medieval manuscripts, designated A–E, dating from the tenth through the twelfth centuries, were discovered among the Cairo Genizah materials. In 1982, Scheiber published another section of text, which he identified as part of MS D. Ultimately Di Lella (1988) identified this as a new manuscript, designated MS F. Three additional and important manuscripts later came to light in the Judean Desert finds of the mid-twentieth century. A small fragment, about thirty-five letters, came out of Qumran cave 2 (2Q18, first century B.C.E.), and Yadin (1965) found a more extensive manuscript fragment (early first century B.C.E.) during the excavations at Masada, both written in stichometry, or poetic lines. Finally, portions of chapter 51 are preserved in the large Psalms Scroll from cave 11 (11QPsa, first half of the first century C.E.) where the chapter, which is an alphabetic acrostic, was written as an independent psalm. Currently, about two-thirds of the Hebrew survives. The following chart identifies the passages now extant in Hebrew:

It is difficult to offer any general characterization of the Hebrew manuscripts. For half a century after the discovery of the Genizah manuscripts, scholars periodically challenged their authenticity. With the discovery of the Masada manuscript, Yadin was able to show that the Masada text, even though this oldest of Hebrew manuscripts already shows evidence of some textual difficulties, confirmed the essential authenticity of the Genizah manuscripts. Although the Hebrew manuscripts contain many corruptions, mistakes, and glosses, the consensus of scholars today is that beneath all these difficulties the extant Hebrew manuscripts reflect the original Hebrew of the book.

The textual history of Ben Sira is also complicated, both in the original Hebrew and in the daughter translations. Within a little more than a century of its composition the Hebrew text had already undergone modifications. In general, scholars identify two different forms of the Hebrew text, designated HI (or HTI, HbI) and HII (or HTII, HbII). HI is the oldest form of the Hebrew, and it represents Ben Sira's Hebrew that served as the basis for the grandson's translation. During the course of the transmission history of HI, it was revised and expanded with doublets and additional proverbs that constitute a second form of the text, HII. This expansion did not take place as a one-time activity, nor was it systematic. The Hebrew manuscripts show that expansion took place over time and was ongoing. Thus, one cannot reconstruct a single HII text from the manuscripts, none of which preserve all of the HII expansions.

Similarly the Greek exists in two forms: the Greek translation that the grandson produced in Egypt, GI (or GkI) based on HI, and an expanded form, GII (or GkII) that translates HII. Because it is a complete text and it is a translation of an older form of the Hebrew than any single extant manuscript, GI remains the primary foundation for any study of the text of Ben Sira. GII most likely represents an ongoing activity of bringing the Greek text into line with the expanding Hebrew text of the book. It was not a new translation of the book, but a revision that used GI as its base. For the most part, it is present in Ziegler's Origenic and Lucianic manuscript groups in his Göttingen Septuagint critical edition (1965). Thus, not all of the GII material is contained in any one manuscript, and the expanded material does not map onto the expanded Hebrew texts as they are available in the manuscripts. Like the Hebrew, the Greek tradition has suffered in the course of its transmission, and Ziegler frequently has to resort to textual emendations and conjectures in order to resolve the difficulties. Finally, every Greek manuscript of the book preserves a textual displacement, which was caused by several pages of a manuscript being mistakenly transposed in antiquity, where 30:25—33:13A come after 33:13B—36:16A. Thus, all the extant Greek manuscripts ultimately stem from the first manuscript that contained this transposition. The Hebrew manuscripts preserve the proper order, and most translations and editions of Sirach use the correct order, often with the transposed chapter and verse numbers in parentheses.

In addition to the Hebrew and Greek, any textual study of Ben Sira needs to take into account the Old Latin and Syriac translations. The Old Latin probably was made in the second century. It was based on a GII tradition and so is an important witness to GII. Since Old Latin preserves the proper chapter order, it must have been made from a Greek exemplar different from the one that was the exemplar of all known Greek manuscripts. The Old Latin preserves, by some counts, over 110 additional bicola (pairs of poetic lines), 75 of which are only found in the Old Latin. Because Jerome decided not to translate the Old Latin of Sirach, since he did not consider it canonical, he incorporated it directly into the Vulgate. The earliest Latin translation of Sirach did not include the grandson's prologue to the Greek translation. It also lacked the Praise of the Ancestors and so joined chapter 51 directly to chapter 43. Later Latin manuscripts of the Vulgate contain both of these sections, however.

Two complete forms of Sirach survive in Syriac. The first, the Peshitta version, was based on a Hebrew text that had characteristics of both HI and HII. The Peshitta of Ben Sira transmits seventy of the additional cola and some shorter readings found in GII manuscripts. In addition, the Syriac has seventy-four cola and several shorter readings that are unique to it. Unfortunately, no critical edition of the Peshitta of Sirach has been produced as yet, but it is scheduled to appear as one of the Leiden Peshitta project's volumes.

The origins of the translation have been a matter of dispute. Winter (1977) contended that certain features of the translation, such as an avoidance of sacrifice, recommended poverty, and vegetarianism, point to an Ebionite Christian translation in the third–fourth centuries, followed by an orthodox revision at the end of the fourth century. Owens (1989) and van Peursen (2007) have been the most vigorous critics of this view, and they have demonstrated convincingly its inadequacies. Owens, on the basis of citations in the Syriac Christian father Aphrahat (mid-fourth century), maintains that an orthodox Christian made the translation. Although scholars have long recognized the importance of the Peshitta version, much work on it remains to be done.

In the seventh century a certain Paul, bishop of Tella, rendered the entire Christian Old Testament, including Sirach, into Syriac, using as a base text the fifth column of the famous Hexapla constructed by Origen (late second–mid-third century)—hence its name, the Syrohexapla. This translation tells more about the state of the Greek text at this point, however, but since it was made from a GII-type text, it also indirectly witnesses to HII.

Structure and Contents.

The basic building block of Ben Sira's teaching is the mašal (proverb), which generally comprises two lines of poetic text. Ben Sira often combines these bicola into larger poems that treat the usual themes of ancient Near Eastern wisdom, such as friends, women, speech, wealth, and business. Like other types of wisdom that he knew, Ben Sira also treats subjects like death and the pervasive nature of injustice in addition to more speculative matters, which now belong to science, such as the elements of God's creation and their behavior. Other than the proverb, Ben Sira employs a diverse array of literary forms and types, including woes, which are often found in the prophets, autobiographical poems, hymns of praise, and prayers.

The sources of Ben Sira's wisdom are primarily three-fold. First, as a sage he is part of a long tradition of ancient wisdom, and he makes frequent references to sages and their teaching as fonts of instruction (cf. 3:29; 6:34–36; 8:8; 9:14). Second, the observation of the natural world forms a rich source of wisdom instruction. At the beginning of a long poem on the wonders of nature and their testimony to God's majesty, Ben Sira emphasizes that he has observed these things first hand (42:15). In other places, the world around the sage frequently offers up examples for his teaching. Of course, many of these are traditional, but this fact reinforces rather than minimizes the importance of the created order as a source of instruction. So, for example, the atoning value of almsgiving is compared to water that extinguishes a fire (3:30), and the wickedness of an enemy is likened to the effects of corrosion on copper (12:10).

Finally, Ben Sira draws on the ancient Israelite literary heritage. His grandson in the prologue to the Greek translation refers three times to his grandfather's knowledge of the Law, the Prophets and the others that followed them/other books of our ancestors/the rest of the books. Contrary to some claims, these categories do not prove the existence of a tri-partite Jewish canon at the time of Ben Sira. Although he certainly knew books that were later included in the Jewish canon, he cites none explicitly, making the enterprise of identifying which works he used a difficult one. He does refer to the “Law of the Most High” (e.g. 19:17; 23:23; 38:34; 42:2), and in 24:23 he connects the “book of the covenant of the Most High God” with “the law of Moses.” Exactly what Israelite books beyond the Pentateuch were authoritative (in a canonical sense) for Ben Sira is not completely clear, however. Moreover, the way that Ben Sira utilizes earlier Jewish texts, even those from the Pentateuch, does not always allow us to know their exact mechanism of transmission—whether they were written or oral, for instance. As a rule, Ben Sira incorporates into his work material that we now find in the Hebrew Bible, not citing passages explicitly, but adapting and interpreting them for his own pedagogical purposes. Two contrasting examples will make the point. In the Praise of the Ancestors, Ben Sira spends two verses on Noah (44:17–18), and his interpretation of this ancient patriarch fits into the larger themes of the Praise. In these verses the language of his presentation is close to and depends on the language of the Noah story as it is found in Genesis. Yet, in 16:7 where he seems to be referring to events also narrated in Genesis 6:1–4 (and other Second Temple texts, such as 1 En.), his comments bear no resemblance to the language of Genesis.

Two major and interrelated themes, wisdom and fear of the Lord, run through the book, and they frame all the other wisdom topics. Ben Sira sets them out in the very first chapter. Wisdom is both a characteristic of God and one of God's creations. Thus, in some cases we can speak of wisdom with a small “w,” and at other times Wisdom must be written with a capital “W.” In the first instance, wisdom communicates the sense of knowing how to do things or of practical insight, and it has much in common with intelligence or knowledge (cf. 21:11–28). In the latter sense, Ben Sira portrays Wisdom as a female figure, created by God and given to human beings, a portrayal that is similar to other ancient wisdom traditions. For Ben Sira, Wisdom has both universal and particular aspects. Thus, God created Wisdom and “poured her out upon all his works, upon all the living according to his gift” (1:10). At the same time, however, God also apportioned Wisdom to those that “fear” God (1:14–27). To fear God is more than responding to the Creator in awe and respect; fearing the Lord is grounded in keeping the commandments that God gave to Israel—that is, it is particular to Israel. Thus, “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (1:14), and the one who desires wisdom should “keep the commandments, and the Lord will lavish her upon you. For the fear of the Lord is wisdom and discipline” (1:26–27A).

Indeed, in the famous self-praise of Wisdom in chapter 24, both aspects appear as well. Wisdom, who was present at creation (cf. Prov 8:22–31), spread across the earth and “over every people and nation I held sway” (24:6). Yet, Ben Sira also connects her intimately with the Temple in Jerusalem and the Law of Moses. Wisdom “took root” (cf. 1:6) in Jerusalem by order of her Creator, serving as a priest in the Temple. She says, “In the holy tent I ministered before him” (v. 10). Then in verse 23 Ben Sira claims, “All this [the activity of wisdom] is the book of the covenant of the Most High God, the law that Moses commanded us.” Wisdom has become embodied in the Torah and is accessible to those who fear God, that is, who keep the commandments given there. These two tendencies, the universal and particular, are held in tension throughout the book.

Sirach has no overall literary structure on which scholars agree. Some scholars can find no discernible structure at all in the book, while others, such as Segal (1958) and Wolfgang Roth (1980), have offered detailed structural outlines. Chapter 24, Wisdom's self-praise, sits in the center, dividing the book roughly in half and is the culmination of the various wisdom poems that populate chapters 1–23. The focus on Woman Wisdom decreases dramatically after chapter 24.

The Praise of the Ancestors is a self-contained section, whose form is unique in ancient Jewish literature and which in Genizah MS B bears the title “Praise of the Ancestors of Old.” Many Greek, Latin, and Syriac manuscripts have the title “Praise of the Ancestors.” The extent and function of this section has long been a topic of scholarly discussion. Some have argued that chapter 50 is not integral to the Praise, serving as a sort of appendix to it, whereas others see it as the culmination of the entire Praise. As to function, the major positions are those of Mack (1985), who characterizes the section as a “charter text,” which focuses on the offices held by each figure, and Lee (1986), who argues that the section is an extended encomium of the high priest Simon II. Maertens (1956) had suggested earlier that the Praise resembled the late Latin form “On Famous Men,” but when examined in detail, the Latin biographies do not serve well as analogues to Ben Sira's Praise. Despite lack of any agreement about overall structure, scholars have agreed on the delineation of many smaller subsections within the larger work, particularly since a good number have obvious beginnings and endings indicated by the use of techniques such as inclusio (see the outline below).

One subject that deserves short comment is Ben Sira's treatment of women. The topic of relationships with women is standard wisdom fare, but Ben Sira's comments will seem particularly negative to the contemporary reader. Comments like the one found in 42:14, “Better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good” (speaking of daughters), seem to go beyond the bounds of the usual in wisdom literature. Trenchard (1982) has argued that even the positive valuations of women in Sirach are only positive from the man's point of view, and he concludes that overall the book reveals “a personal negative bias against women.” Camp (1991), however, contends that such negative views should be seen in the overarching context of an honor/shame society in which men accrue honor by being in control of those things that are “defining attributes” of their lives, these attributes being “socially determined signs of value and power.” Thus, a man's control of his women brings honor, and lack of control, defined by the various dangerous behaviors that Ben Sira enumerates, brings shame. When it comes to women, Ben Sira betrays a high level of anxiety about the ability of women to affect a man's social honor.

The outline given here sets out the larger sections into which Sirach can be divided. Individual scholars sometimes have slightly different subdivisions within these larger groups (cf., for example, Skehan and Di Lella; Crenshaw 1997).

The Prologue (to the Greek translation)

Interpretation.

Sirach contains instruction given by a scribe/sage who trained young men for scribal careers. These students needed to navigate treacherous social waters in order to serve the wealthy aristocratic elites, most likely the priests, and at the same time to accrue and maintain social honor and status. Ben Sira's instruction, then, was meant to equip them for success in that enterprise. He grounded his teaching in a theological framework that understood God as the ruler of the universe, the creator of an orderly cosmos in which all things accomplished what God had ordained for them. Furthermore, Ben Sira framed the scribe/sage as a kind of successor to the prophets who, through his study of the Torah, has inspired insight into and access to the primordial Wisdom who was with God at creation (24:30–34; 39:5–6). This kind of an orderly world provided stability and comfort for men like Ben Sira, who in his book reveals a high level of anxiety about the precarious social position he occupied. Thus, we find combined in Sirach speculative wisdom about the nature and workings of the universe together with practical ethical teaching about topics such as how to behave at a banquet. Because of his access to Wisdom, the scribe/sage is the person most suited to be in a position to fear the Lord, since he is best equipped to know, understand, and fulfill the commandments. From this perspective, Sirach can be read as a grand ideological statement about the central and privileged place that the scribe should occupy among God's people.

The book's later interpretation in Jewish tradition is hard to gauge. The community at Qumran apparently read it, judging from the copies in caves 2 and 11 and at Masada, but it does not seem to have had any significant impact on the community's own literary efforts, although some Qumran wisdom texts, like 4QInstruction, display similarities to some of Ben Sira's teaching. The rabbinic citations of Ben Sira rely almost exclusively on the practical proverbs, suggesting that the book was seen as a source of ethical teaching. Cecil Roth (1952) has even argued that in the first few centuries C.E., the Praise of the Ancestors and especially the praise of Simon II influenced the development of the Avodah, part of the synagogue Day of Atonement liturgy. The preservation in the Middle Ages by the Karaites says little about what they thought of the book, but by virtue of the fact that it was not a work revered by mainstream Judaism, it would have been attractive to them.

Through its Greek translation, Sirach was influential in early Christianity, but it is not cited by name in the New Testament. Scholars have differing assessments of its influence there. Some think that Sirach provides a general background to terms and conceptions found in Jesus' teaching and in earliest Christianity. Those who see more extensive New Testament dependence on Sirach, find it mostly in Matthew, Luke, some of Paul's letters, and the Epistle of James. In many cases, the thought of a passage in the New Testament resembles one from Sirach, but literary dependence is difficult to judge. The situation can be illustrated by an example from James 1:19: “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” The idea resembles Sirach 5:11: “Be quick in your hearing, and with long-suffering utter a reply” (NETS). The thought is similar, but the language is completely different. Rather than being dependent on Sirach, James more likely has inherited wisdom teachings about the use of speech, a common wisdom theme, which he has adapted to his instruction. Among the Apostolic Fathers, Didache 4:5 and Barnabas 19:9 look very much like Sirach 4:31 and are perhaps borrowed from it directly. By the time of the late second century, Clement of Alexandria quotes Ben Sira over two dozen times, often with the same formula that he uses elsewhere for scripture, twice calling the book “The wisdom of Jesus.” As happens elsewhere in patristic literature he also attributes some quotations from Sirach to “Solomon.” By the third century and later, patristic writers frequently refer to Sirach as scripture, and Augustine (fourth century) includes “Ecclesiasticus” among the books of the Old Testament.

Reception History.

Outside of its ethical teaching, Sirach seems to have had rather limited influence in both Judaism and Christianity. The book and its author do not appear in Christian art or other visual representations of biblical stories or figures. One medieval Jewish text, however, the so-called Alphabet of Ben Sira, does bear the name of the author of the ancient wisdom book. The Alphabet's author is anonymous and certainly was not Joshua ben Eleazar ben Sira. The text dates from between 700 and 1000 and comprises two separate sets of proverbs, one set of twenty-two in Aramaic and a second set of twenty-two in Hebrew, accompanied by haggadic commentary on each. Some of the proverbs appear to be taken from talmudic proverbs attributed to Ben Sira. The commentary attending the Hebrew proverbs relates several legends about the life of the work's purported author, and it represents the continuing influence of the book into the Middle Ages for at least some Jews. Its most important feature is the telling of a haggadic story about Adam's first wife, Lilith, who flees Eden rather than be compelled to subject herself to him. She is thought to cause infants who are not protected by an amulet to become ill.

[See also CANON, subentry HEBREW BIBLE; DEAD SEA SCROLLS; GENESIS; PESHITTA AND OTHER SYRIAC VERSIONS; SEPTUAGINT AND OTHER ANCIENT GREEK TRANSLATIONS; and VULGATE AND OTHER ANCIENT LATIN TRANSLATIONS.]

Bibliography

  • Argall, Randal A. 1 Enoch and Sirach: A Comparative Literary and Conceptual Analysis of the Themes of Revelation, Creation, and Judgment. Society of Biblical Literature Early Judaism and Its Literature 8. Atlanta: Scholars, 1995. An important study of common themes in Ben Sira and 1 Enoch that raises important questions about the relationship between wisdom and apocalyptic in the Second Temple period.
  • Beentjes, Pancratius C. The Book of Ben Sira in Hebrew. Supplements to Vetus Testamentum 68. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1997. A synoptic edition of all the surviving Hebrew manuscripts of Ben Sira. They are first given according to the particular form of each and then in a side-by-side synopsis where they stand in parallel.
  • Beentjes, Pancratius C., ed. The Book of Ben Sira in Modern Research. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 255. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1997. A collection of articles from the First International Ben Sira conference held in Soesterburg, The Netherlands in 1996.
  • Calduch-Benages, Nuria, Joan Ferrer, and Jan Liesen. Wisdom of the Scribe: Diplomatic Edition of the Syriac Version of the Book of Ben Sira according to Codex Ambrosianus, with Translations in Spanish and English. Estella, Spain: Editorial Verbo Divino, 2003. An edition of the Syriac of Ben Sira from an important codex with an extensive introduction on the Syriac translation of Ben Sira.
  • Camp, Claudia V. “Understanding a Patriarchy: Women in Second Century Jerusalem through the Eyes of Ben Sira.” In “Women Like This”: New Perspectives on Jewish Women in the Greco-Roman World, edited by Amy-Jill Levine, 1–39. Society of Biblical Literature Early Judaism and Its Literature 1. Atlanta: Scholars, 1991. An analysis of Ben Sira's view of women from the anthropological categories of honor and shame and their function in Second Temple Jerusalem.
  • Collins, John J. Jewish Wisdom in the Hellenistic Age. Old Testament Library. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1997. A study of Wisdom literature in the Hellenistic period of which about one half is spent on Ben Sira and the wisdom texts from Qumran.
  • Crenshaw, James. “Sirach.” In The New Interpreter's Bible, edited by Leander E. Keck et al., 5:603–868. Nashville: Abingdon, 1997. A translation of and commentary on Ben Sira.
  • Di Lella, Alexander A. “The Newly Discovered Sixth Manuscript of Ben Sira from the Cairo Geniza.” Biblica 69 (1988): 226–238. Identification and edition of Manuscript F.
  • Egger-Wenzel, Renate, ed. Ben Sira's God: Proceedings of the International Ben Sira Conference Durham—Ushaw College 2001. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 321. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2002. A collection of studies on Ben Sira on a variety of topics.
  • Egger-Wenzel, Renate. “Ein neues Sira-Fragment des MS C” [“A new Sira fragment of MS C”]. Biblische Notizen 138 (2008): 107–114. An improved text from the original published by S. Elizur in Hebrew in the journal Tarbiz.
  • Horsley, Richard A., and Patrick Tiller. “Ben Sira and the Sociology of the Second Temple.” In Second Temple Studies III: Studies in Politics, Class and Material Culture, edited by P. R. Davies and J. M. Halligan, 74–107. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament: Supplement Series 340. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic, 2002. The authors describe the social context of Ben Sira and other scribes/sages who operated in third–second century B.C.E. Jerusalem.
  • Lee, Thomas R. Studies in the Form of Sirach 44–50. Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series 75. Atlanta: Scholars, 1986. The study concludes that the Praise of the Ancestors was modeled on the form of praise of ancient figures called the encomium.
  • Mack, Burton L. Wisdom and the Hebrew Epic: Ben Sira's Hymn in Praise of the Fathers. Chicago Studies in the History of Judaism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. An extended study of the Praise of the Ancestors in which the author contends that the Praise is a “mythic etiology of Second Temple Judaism” that focuses on the covenants that provide support for the priesthood.
  • Maertens, Thierry. L'Éloge des pères (Ecclesiastique XLIV–L) [The praise of the fathers (Ecclesiasticus 44–50). Bruges, Belgium: Abbaye de Saint-André, 1956. Argues that the Praise of the Ancestors finds its best analogy in the popular Roman genre of “On Famous Men.”
  • Marböck, Johannes. Weisheit im Wandel: Untersuchungen zur Weisheitstheologie bei Ben Sira [Wisdom in Transition: Studies on Wisdom Theology in Ben Sira]. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 272. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1999. The author examines “the structure of wisdom thinking in Ben Sira” with an eye toward clarifying Ben Sira's relationship to Hellenistic culture. He concludes that Ben Sira held Judaism in the highest position but that he needed to articulate his Judaism in Hellenistic terms.
  • Middendorp, Th. Die Stellung Jesu Ben Siras zwischen Judentum und Hellenismus [The place of Jesus Ben Sira between Judaism and Hellenism]. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1973. This study contends that Ben Sira was extensively influenced by Greek literature and that through his use of these texts he tried to fuse Jewish and Hellenic tradition.
  • Owens, Robert J. “The Early Syriac Text of Ben Sira in the Demonstrations of Aphrahat.” Journal of Semitic Studies 34 (1989): 39–75. Argues against Winter and contends that the Syriac translation of Ben Sira was done by an orthodox Christian.
  • Perdue, Leo G. The Sword and the Stylus: An Introduction to Wisdom in the Age of Empires. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2008. A general study of how wisdom texts in the ancient Near East were shaped by their social and historical circumstances. It includes a long chapter on Ben Sira.
  • Pietersma, Albert, and Benjamin G. Wright. A New English Translation of the Septuagint. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. The most up-to-date English translation of the Septuagint, which includes Sirach.
  • Reiterer, Friedrich Vinzenz. Bibliographie zu Ben Sira [Bibliography to Ben Sira]. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 266. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1998. A bibliography of publications on the book of Ben Sira that runs through 1998.
  • Roth, Cecil. “Ecclesiasticus in the Synagogue Service.” Journal of Biblical Literature 71 (1952): 171–178. The author argues that Ben Sira chapter 50 influenced the Day of Atonement 'Avodah.
  • Roth, Wolfgang. “The Gnomic-Discursive Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sirach.” Semeia 17 (1980): 59–79. This study sets out a detailed structure for Ben Sira arguing that the book began as chapters 1–23 and 51 and that later sections augmented these ultimately to comprise the book as we have it.
  • Sanders, Jack T. Ben Sira and Demotic Wisdom. Society of Biblical Literature Monograph Series 28. Chico, Cal.: Scholars, 1983. An important study of the influence on Ben Sira of Ptolemaic period Egyptian wisdom texts and the way that he employs these sources.
  • Scheiber, A. “A New Leaf of the Fourth Manuscript of the Ben Sira from the Geniza.” Magyar Könyvszemle 98 (1982): 179–185. The original publication of what Di Lella later identified as MS F.
  • Segal, M. H. Sēper ben Sira haššalēm [The Complete Book of Ben Sira]. Jerusalem: Bialik, 1958. A full-length textual commentary on Ben Sira in modern Hebrew.
  • Skehan, Patrick W., and Alexander A. Di Lella. The Wisdom of Ben Sira. Anchor Bible 39. New York: Doubleday, 1987. One of the most important commentaries on Ben Sira.
  • Trenchard, Warren C. Ben Sira's View of Women: A Literary Analysis. Brown Judaic Studies 38. Chico, Calif.: Scholars, 1982. An important study of how Ben Sira viewed women with extensive and detailed discussion of each pericope on women.
  • VanderKam, James C. From Joshua to Caiaphas: High Priests after the Exile. Minneapolis: Fortress; Assen, Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 2004. A major study of the high priests from after the Exile until the time of Jesus, including Simon II. The author argues that Simon I was actually the object of Ben Sira's praise in chapter 50.
  • Van Peursen, Wido. Language and Interpretation in the Syriac Text of Ben Sira: A Comparative Linguistic and Literary Study. Monographs of the Peshitta Institute Leiden 16. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007. A traditional philological analysis, incorporating matters of text-historical interest and translation technique, which features in combination the results of a computational linguistic analysis of phrases, clauses, and texts.
  • Winter, M. M. “The Origins of Ben Sira in Syriac.” Vetus Testamentum 27 (1977): 237–253; 494–507. The author locates the Syriac translation of Ben Sira among Ebionite Christians.
  • Wright, Benjamin G. No Small Difference: Sirach's Relationship to its Hebrew Parent Text. Society of Biblical Literature Septuagint and Cognate Studies 26. Atlanta: Scholars, 1989. Examines aspects of translation technique in Sirach and concludes that little confidence can be placed in reconstructions of the Hebrew text based on the Greek translation.
  • Wright, Benjamin G. “Putting the Puzzle Together: Some Suggestions about the Social Location of the Wisdom of Ben Sira.” In Conflicted Boundaries in Wisdom and Apocalypticism edited by Benjamin G. Wright III and Lawrence M. Wills, 89–112. Society of Biblical Literature Symposium Series 35. Atlanta: SBL, 2005. The article contends that some passages in Ben Sira were directed at those who produced apocalyptic texts like the “Book of the Watchers,” the “Astronomical Book” or the Aramaic Levi Document.
  • Yadin, Yigael. The Ben Sira Scroll from Masada. Jerusalem: The Israel Exploration Society and the Shrine of the Book, 1965. The initial publication of the Masada scroll.
  • Ziegler, Joseph. Sapientia Iesu Filii Sirach [The Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach]. Septuaginta: Vetus Testamentum Graecum Auctoritate Academiae Litterarum Gottingensis editum XII.2. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1965. The major critical edition of the Greek text (both GI and GII).

Benjamin G. Wright III