Ecclesiasticus

“Like one who kills a son before his father’s eyes
is the person who offers a sacrifice from the property of the poor.
The bread of the needy is the life of the poor;
whoever deprives them of it is a murderer.
To take away a neighbour’s living is to commit murder;
to deprive an employee of wages is to shed blood” (Sirach 34:24-27).Three years before Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation by nailing his Ninety-Five Theses to a church door in the German city of Wittenberg, in Cuba a Spanish priest named Bartolomé de Las Casas preached a Pentecost sermon (1514), quoting Sirach’s hard-hitting words. He used these words to denounce the harsh treatment of the island’s native population by the Spanish conquerors of the Americas. From that time, Las Casas became a sharp critic of the cruelties inflicted by the Spanish in the New World, and is remembered today as a defender of the human rights of the vulnerable.

The Hebrew book is often known as the “Wisdom of Ben Sira,” though a longer name is given after the last verse (Sirach 51:30) in a medieval manuscript: “Wisdom of Simeon son of Jeshua son of Eleazar son of Sira.” Two important early Greek manuscripts (Sinaiticus and Alexandrinus) entitle the book “Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach,” but the name is frequently shortened to Sirach. In the Latin tradition the work is known as “Liber Ecclesiasticus” (= the church book), and this name may indicate that the book was regarded as canonical in the Latin Church but not in Jewish tradition. It is known by the name Ecclesiasticus in the King James Version and other English versions. The book is generally regarded as a unity, but additional verses were inserted by some Greek scribes (e.g., Sirach 1:5).

Canonicity

The book was composed in Hebrew, as is evident from the 1st-century BCE manuscript found at Masada by the Dead Sea containing much of Sirach 39—44. Because the rabbis did not consider it canonical, the full Hebrew text fell out of use. However, six medieval manuscripts survive from the Cairo Genizah, preserving about two thirds of the text, often in fragmentary form. Because parts of the Hebrew text are lost, most modern translations of the book (e.g., New Revised Standard Version) are based on the Greek text. Other important versions of the book survive in Syriac and Latin, and the book was considered canonical by many church fathers (e.g., Cyprian, Ambrose, Augustine, and John Chrysostom).

Almost twice as long as the Book of Proverbs, the Book of Sirach is similar in its blending of theological teaching and practical wisdom. The female personification of wisdom (Sirach 24) develops the ideas of Proverbs 8. Unlike the Book of Proverbs, Sirach includes a long section praising Israelite ancestors from the Genesis patriarchs to Nehemiah, and concluding with a celebration of a recent high priest named Simeon (Sirach 44:1—50:24). Whereas the Book of Proverbs ends with an alphabetic poem praising the capable woman (Proverbs 31:10-31), the Book of Sirach finishes with an alphabetic poem describing his love of Wisdom, personified as a female figure.

Date and authorship

Unlike the Book of Proverbs, the date of Sirach can be pinpointed fairly accurately. The book was composed by a Jerusalem sage around 180 BCE. The description of the high priest Simeon (Sirach 50:1-21) is often regarded as the tribute of an eye-witness to his patron. The author was close to the temple circles, regarding the high priest as inheriting not only religious authority from Aaron but also civil power from David. If we follow the Greek tradition, the author’s name was Jesus son of Sirach (= Jeshua ben Sira). The Greek prologue indicates that the book was translated into Greek in the late 2nd century BCE, after the grandson of the original author had moved to Egypt (perhaps Alexandria).

Questions of interpretation

Although excluded from the Jewish and Protestant biblical canon as apocryphal, the Book of Sirach is regarded as canonical or deuterocanonical by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. Aside from canonical considerations, the book is an important Jewish wisdom text from the pre-Christian era, later than Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes) and roughly contemporary with a major Dead Sea wisdom composition (4QInstruction). In a complex synthesis, the author combines theologies of wisdom and law, prophecy and temple, creation and history. While remaining staunchly Jewish, he is not afraid to borrow selected themes from Greek philosophy and Egyptian wisdom writings. Sirach combines a concern for the proper honouring of the priesthood with an emphasis on almsgiving to the poor and needy (Sirach 7:29-35). In the author’s social system, dependent on ideas of honour and shame, friendship plays a significant role, though less important than family. The book offers readers a valuable window into the beliefs and social life of the people of Jerusalem in the early 2nd century BCE.

View of the afterlife

The Hebrew author follows previous Israelite tradition by rejecting any idea of future resurrection (Sirach 17:27-28; 38:21), though this notion emerges later in the 2nd century BCE in Daniel 12 and 2 Maccabees 7. Whereas the Hebrew text of Sirach 7:17 refers to the decay of the human body after burial: “Humble yourself to the utmost, for the expectation of mortals is worms,” the Greek version refers to judgment after death: “Humble yourself to the utmost, for the punishment of the ungodly is fire and worms.”

View of women

Many western readers today are dismayed by Sirach’s negative statements about women. In his advice to beware of an evil wife he alludes to Eve, seen as a kind of Pandora figure: “From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die” (Sirach 25:24; also 1 Timothy 2:14). While the context for his patriarchal attitude is probably his educational work for the male priests of the Jerusalem temple, another factor influencing him is the exclusion of women from many aspects of Greek civic life. When Ben Sira praises a good wife, her goodness is considered in terms of her benefit to her husband (Sirach 26:1-4; also Proverbs 31:11-12).

New Testament parallels

Several teachings in the gospels have parallels in the Book of Sirach. Jesus’ parable of the unforgiving debtor (Matthew 18:21-35) conveys the message of Sirach 28:3-4: “Does anyone harbor anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord? If one has no mercy toward another like himself, can he then seek pardon for his own sins?” Jesus’ invitation to his disciples, “Take my yoke upon you, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29) is like the sage’s appeal to carry Wisdom’s yoke: “Bend your shoulders and carry her. For at last you will find the rest she gives” (Sirach 6:25-28).

Within Luke’s Gospel, the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:16-21) develops Ben Sira’s observation on the rich man: “When he says, ‘I have found rest, and now I shall feast on my goods!’ he does not know how long it will be until he leaves them to others and dies” (Sirach 11:19). Jesus’ parable of the widow who persistently seeks justice (Luke 18:1-8) echoes Sirach 35:15-17: “The Lord is the judge, and with him there is no partiality. He will not ignore the supplication of the orphan, or the widow when she pours out her complaint.”

The prologue of John’s Gospel echoes Sirach 24. The gospel speaks of the Word as the divine utterance (John 1:1), just as Wisdom declares: “I came forth from the mouth of the Most High” (Sirach 24:3). Later in Ben Sira’s poem, Wisdom’s quest for a home was resolved by settling in Israel: “My Creator chose the place for my tent. He said, ‘Make your dwelling in Jacob’” (Sirach 24:8). In John’s Gospel the divine Word (similar to Wisdom) settled within human flesh: “The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us” (John 1:14).

Reception history

Although not viewed as canonical by the rabbis, they quoted a number of sayings from Ben Sira. For instance, Mishnah Abot 4:4 cites Sirach 7:17, ascribed to Levitas of Yavneh. Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 100b has a long discussion, quoting Ben Sira verses such as Sirach 6:6: “Let those who seek your peace be many; reveal your counsel [only] to one out of a thousand.” Among the church fathers, John Chrysostom makes about 300 citations from the Greek version, while Augustine quotes about 300 passages from the Latin text. A translation of the book appears in Luther’s German Bible (1534) and in the Authorised Version or King James Version (1611), though relegated to a section called the apocrypha. British village memorials to those who fell in World War I are often inscribed with a phrase drawn from the Authorised Version (King James Version) of Sirach 44:14: “Their name liveth for evermore.”

Further reading

Balla, Ibolya. Ben Sira on Family, Gender, and Sexuality. DCLS 8. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2011.
Coggins, R. J. Sirach. Guides to Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998.
Collins, John J. Jewish Wisdom in the Hellenistic Age. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997.
Corley, Jeremy. Sirach. New Collegeville Bible Commentary. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2013.
Harrington, Daniel J. Jesus Ben Sira of Jerusalem: A Biblical Guide to Living Wisely. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2005.
Skehan, Patrick W., and Alexander A. Di Lella. The Wisdom of Ben Sira. AB 39. New York: Doubleday, 1987.
www. bensira. org [Hebrew manuscripts and English translation]