Ecclesiasticus

ECCLESIASTICUS ĭ kle’ zĭ as’ tə kəs (̓Εκκλησιαστικός). The longest and one of the most important books of the Apocrypha, known also by the title The Wisdom of Jesus and the The Son of Sirach (Σοφία ̓Ιησου̂ υἱου̂ Σιράχ), occasionally abbreviated to “The Wisdom of Sirach” (Σοφία Σιράχ) or simply “Sirach” (cf. the occasional Latin form, Siracides).

The title “Ecclesiasticus” (“of the Church”) was given to the book as early as the 3rd century, probably in recognition of the superior worth of the book for reading in the Church among those writings that did not hold canonical status (i.e., which were not a part of the Hebrew Old Testament). The early Church Fathers referred to the book as the “most excellent” or (literally) “all virtuous” Wisdom (Πανάρετος Σοφία). However, the title “Ecclesiasticus” may also have been given to the book because it was early placed alongside the book Ecclesiastes, and a similar title was deemed suitable.

Outline

Author.

The generalizing title “Ecclesiasticus” obscures the fact that the author of the book is known to have been Jesus the Son of Sirach (as the alternate title correctly recognizes). In this writing alone, among the Apoc., does the author include his name in the actual text. He writes, “Instruction in understanding and knowledge I have written in this book, Jesus the son of Sirach, son of Eleazar, of Jerusalem, who out of his heart poured forth wisdom” (Sirach 50:27). There is considerable textual difficulty concerning the names mentioned, and particularly noteworthy is the fact that the Heb. text apparently ascribes the book to “Simon the son of Jeshua, son of Eleazar, son of Sira.” This same ascription (but in two forms, one omitting reference to Eleazar) occurs in the colophon of the MS. Probably the Heb. ascription of the book to Simon is the result of the importation of Simon’s name from 50:1 and is to be regarded as erroneous. The Gr. MSS are unanimous in their ascription of the book to “Jesus the son of Sirach” both in 50:27 and in the colophon. More important than this, however, is the reference to the author of the book contained in the prologue written by the Gr. tr. of the book who was also the grandson of the author. The tr. narrates in the prologue that his grandfather Jesus, having devoted himself to the arduous study of the Scriptures, was led to produce the book which he has tr.

Who was this “Jeshua son of Sira” (to use the Aram. forms of the names)? Nothing is known of him beyond what can be deduced from the book that he authored. Due to the length of the book along with the comparatively generous number of personal references that it contains, one knows a fair amount about the author. Ben Sira, as the author may be called, seems almost certainly to have been a scribe, that is to say, a professional student of the Scriptures. This is evident not only from what the tr. indicates concerning his grandfather’s serious study of the Scriptures, but also from the contents of the book. In particular, Ben Sira’s glowing description of the calling of a scribe (38:24-39:11) could be seen as a veiled autobiographical sketch of his own life work of which the present book is but an embodiment.

But the calling of a scribe was not simply to study, but to practice and esp. to teach (cf. Ezra 7:10). Ben Sira was also a teacher. This would have been clear from the character of the book alone—obviously the product of a heart concerned with and experienced in teaching—were there no references to it contained in the book. The author exhorts, “Draw near to me, you who are untaught, and lodge in my school” (Sirach 51:23). From this (and the following vv.) it may be inferred that Ben Sira in his later years maintained an academy, prob. in Jerusalem. The reference is literally “house of instruction,” the Heb. of which (בֵּת הַמִּדְרָשׁ) thereafter became the standard expression used for the rabbinic schools (cf. also 51:29 of the Heb. text, which refers to a group of disciples). It seems safe to affirm that in his life, as in his books, he labored “for all who seek instruction” (33:17).

Ben Sira had no narrow background. In his closing prayer he reviews his pilgrimage to wisdom and understanding. He refers to travels undertaken in his youth (51:13), which recalls an earlier mention of how an educated man gains understanding particularly by travel experience, as he himself could personally testify (34:9-12). It may even be that he traveled as an adviser on diplomatic missions, which as he suggests was at times the duty of the scribe (39:4).

Along with his thorough knowledge of the Scriptures, Ben Sira reveals in his writing a great wealth of knowledge, which may be called “worldly wisdom,” i.e., that wisdom common to the sages of antiquity. One may suggest that he was not only widely traveled, but also wellread (parallels to Euripides, Theognis, and Aesop have been seen).

In terms of religious stance (see below), Ben Sira is most often described as a precursor of the Sadducees. Whereas his book does reveal some of the traits of the later Sadducees, it is quite appropriate also to see the book as propounding the classical ideals of Pharisaism. In the discussion of the actual teaching of the book, more information will be found concerning the religious viewpoint of Jeshua Ben Sira.

Date.

The author of Ecclesiasticus is known (not true for the other books of the Apoc.) and also the nearly exact date of the book is known—again something rare for the writings of the Apoc. The evidence comes from the prologue supplied by the tr. This tr., whose name is unknown but who was the grandson of the author, says that he emigrated to Egypt in the thirty-eighth year of the reign of Euergetes. Two Egyp. kings bore the surname “Euergetes,” Ptolemy III and Ptolemy VII, but the former reigned some twenty-five years, whereas the latter reigned no less than fifty-three years. Obviously, the Euergetes referred to by the tr. must be Ptolemy VII, whose reign began in 170 b.c., thereby putting the date of the tr’s. emigration at about 132 b.c. This being the case the date of the book is most prob. to be put in the early decades of the 2nd cent. b.c. Since the book reveals no knowledge whatsoever of the catastrophic events that occurred in 168 b.c. at the instigation of Antiochus IV, such a conclusion is confirmed, and the scholarly estimates of the date of the book almost all fall between 200 and 180 b.c.


Place and language.

Other matters for Ecclesiasticus are known with certainty (more than for any other book of the Apoc.). Ben Sira tells that he lived in Jerusalem (50:27), and it was doubtless there also that he maintained his academy and ultimately committed his teaching to writing. Although it is not specifically stated in the prologue, Ben Sira’s grandson prob. came to Egypt from Pal. Perhaps he brought the book with him, which he later felt compelled to tr.

It is certain that Ben Sira wrote his masterpiece in Heb. The unnamed tr. asks the readers’ indulgence for the imperfections of his work, adding a sentiment common to trs.: “For what was originally expressed in Hebrew does not have exactly the same sense when tr. into another language.” He further remarks that the law, the prophets, and “the rest of the books” in Gr. all exhibit the same type of inevitable discrepancies with the original. The task of Ben Sira’s grandson, then, is exactly parallel to the work accomplished by the trs. of the LXX in making available Heb. writings to a Greek-speaking public.

Prior to 1896, scholars knew Ecclesiasticus only through the Gr. and Syr. VSS, which served as the basis for later trs. However, in that year and succeeding years, significant portions of the Heb. text were identified among the materials excavated from the Cairo Geniza. More recently, fragments of the Heb. text have been discovered at Qumran. The net result is that today approximately two-thirds of the entire book in its original language has been acquired. Considerable debate has centered around the question of the authenticity of this Heb. text and a number of important scholars have argued that it is merely a retranslation of the Gr. VS. Whereas clearly it is a very corrupt text, this Heb. seems prob. to be representative of the original product of Ben Sira. Even the opponents of the authenticity of the recovered text, however, allow that Ben Sira must originally have written his work in Heb.

Purpose.

Ben Sira’s purpose is immediately apparent upon a perusal of Ecclesiasticus. Like the great wisdom writer who authored Proverbs, Ben Sira seeks to provide his reader with instruction in wisdom by the compilation of various epigrams and sayings designed to inculcate righteousness, or obedience to the law. Indeed Ben Sira somewhat immodestly regards himself as standing at the end of a long line of writers who upheld the teachings of the law. Thus he writes: “I was the last on watch; I was like one who gleans after the grape-gatherers; by the blessing of the Lord I excelled, and like a grape-gatherer I filled my wine press” (33:16; cf. 24:33). Ben Sira’s book serves as a complete guide to right thinking and right conduct. There is perhaps a subsidiary motive in the author’s mind as he emphasizes in one of the climactic sections of his book that Wisdom has made her dwelling place in Israel (24:8-12) and as he equates Wisdom with the law of Moses (24:23). In all of this, Ben Sira may be speaking to his brethren who were weakening under the constant temptations of Hellenism. He exhorts that they should not be ashamed “of the law of the Most High” (42:1ff.). Throughout the book the exhortations to the standards of conduct set by the law may be taken as countering an opposite tendency provoked by the Hellenizing influences of the day. This still remains secondary, for what argument there may be against Hellenism remains always tacit. Ben Sira’s purpose is better taken as that which is so readily apparent from the content of the book. This is summed up beautifully by the tr. in his prologue when he writes that “by becoming conversant with this [book] also, those who love learning should make even greater progress in living according to the law.”

Content.

There is virtually no organization in the contents of Ecclesiasticus and no progression of thought is apparent in the book. A few proverbs and sayings will often cluster around a common subject, but beyond this rather natural occurrence, the materials are set in no particular structure. Instead, as in the case of the Book of Proverbs, the author allows himself to dart from subject to subject in a seemingly haphazard fashion. It has been suggested that the contents of the book may well consist of the notes that were used by Ben Sira in teaching at his academy.


In addition to the divisions found toward the end of the book, however, a number of writers have found a major division in the main portion of the book, although the latter seems at first glance to consist only of random collections of proverbs and wisdom sayings. The division has been made largely on the basis of the long poem on wisdom, which begins in 24:1. Since this is parallel to the long discourse that opens the book (1:1-20), and these two are by far the longest poems on wisdom, it has been suggested that the second opens a second volume of the same work. (It should be noted that the Book of Proverbs also begins with a long treatise on wisdom [chs. 1-9].) To some extent this conjecture may find support in the remarks that follow the second poem on wisdom. Ben Sira likens his work to the watering of a garden, but he says, “my canal became a river, and my river became a sea” (24:31), perhaps implying that his work grew to unexpected proportions. He continues, “I will again make instruction shine forth like the dawn” (24:32) and “I will again pour out teaching like prophecy” (24:33), affirmations that may well refer to a renewed activity of composition.

Perhaps a simple outline is best for a book of this nature, and the following may be suggested:

Prologue (usually not given v. enumeration)

a. Instruction in wisdom, part one (1:1-23:27)

b. Instruction in wisdom, part two (24:1-42:14)

c. The glory of God in His works (42:15-43:33)

d. The glory of God in His servants (44:1-50:21)

e. Concluding remarks (50:22-29)

f. Thanksgiving hymn (51:1-12)

g. On the pursuit of wisdom (51:13-30)

Bypassing the tr’s. prologue one may devote some comments to the contents of the two main sections, which, although essentially undistinguishable, are discussed separately for the sake of convenience.

The opening poem on wisdom can be regarded as setting the tone of the whole book and not merely that of the first section alone. Ben Sira writes, “All wisdom comes from the Lord and is with him for ever” (1:1). He proceeds to argue eloquently that because this is true, wisdom can mean only one thing for man: the fear of the Lord. To fear the Lord is not only the beginning of wisdom (cf. Prov 1:7) and its root, but also its perfection and crown. To fear the Lord is to keep His commandments; therein lies wisdom (Ecclus. 1:26f.). A large proportion of the remaining teaching of the book grows out of this basic premise. In addition to the traditional Jewish piety that derives from this reverence for the law, Ben Sira includes considerable proverbial wisdom that bears no special relation to the law.


Significant religious teaching is found in the following emphases of the first section. Ben Sira speaks clearly of the sovereignty of the Lord. Everything, both good and bad, comes from the Lord (11:14). Despair and rejoicing should be minimized because the Lord can easily turn the tables (11:21ff.). Moreover, death is inevitable (14:17ff.). The right attitude is to bow before the sovereignty of God and accept what He brings (2:4). At the same time, a man cannot say that the Lord is responsible for his sinning, for as Ben Sira writes, “If you will, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice” (15:15). The greatness of the Lord defies expression (18:1ff.), and His work of creation is both great and good (16:26-17:14). Man, however, is insignificant, like a grain of sand or a drop of water by comparison (18:18ff.).




The remaining sections of the book, which are quite different in nature from the preceding, have already been described above and need not be elaborated upon.

Theological teaching and importance.

It must first be made clear that not only is Ecclesiasticus not a theological treatise, but it also does not systematize or in any other way set in order, or even attempt to harmonize its theological teaching. Whereas it contains no small amount of such teaching, that teaching is largely incidental to the immediate purpose of the author, and often the exhortations of the book presuppose rather than delineate the underlying theological truth.

Ecclesiasticus stands solidly in the mainstream of orthodox Judaism. Ben Sira’s God is the God of the Torah, the Creator who is transcendent in His glory, whose sovereignty rules the universe, and whose holiness and righteousness are absolute. God has entered into covenant relationship with Israel, esp. endowing her with wisdom in the form of the law. In this identification of wisdom with the law (ch. 24), Ben Sira makes an apparently original contribution to traditional Judaism. There is no question in Ecclesiasticus concerning the specially privileged position of Israel, and Ben Sira can make his voice heard in strongly nationalistic tones (cf. 36:1ff.). Nonetheless, the emphasis in his book is clearly upon personal piety. The individual man who possesses wisdom is the man who heeds the commandments of the law. In all of this, Ben Sira reflects his thorough acquaintance with and dependence upon not only the Torah, but also the prophets and, particularly, the Psalms.

As far as man’s moral ability is concerned, Ben Sira acknowledges the existence of an evil inclination (yeṩer ha-ra’) within man, yet insists that it is possible for man to keep the law (15:15). The sovereignty of God and the free will of man stand in tension through the whole of the book. Man inevitably sins, and consequently every individual is deserving of punishment (8:5). Salvation, however, is possible for man because the Lord is merciful and forgives the sins of those who turn to Him (2:11; 5:7; 17:24).

A number of the theological emphases of Ecclesiasticus have been regarded as reflecting, anachronistically, a Sadducean viewpoint. In his book, Ben Sira reveals a great love for the priesthood, the Temple, and the sacred rituals performed there. When reviewing the history of God’s work through the famous men of Israel, Ben Sira gives more than a proportionate amount of space to those entrusted with the priesthood. Aaron, with whom the priestly lineage begins, is given a glowing tribute that takes more space than that given to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses combined (45:6ff.). Similarly, Phinehas the son of Eleazar is given a prominent place among the great of Israel because of his importance for the priesthood (45:23f.). Most impressive in many ways, however, is the praise showered upon the high priest Simon, son of Onias, whom Ben Sira describes in his priestly functions on the Day of Atonement with the vividness of an admiring eyewitness (50:1ff.). Similarly, the Temple is of great significance for Ben Sira (cf. 24:10; 36:13f.) as are also the religious festivals of Israel (33:7ff.).

Further, Ecclesiasticus contains no hint of the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. Rewards and retribution are experienced in this life only. Sheol (Hades) is the abode of the dead where nothing occurs (cf. 17:27; 41:4; 14:16)—in the Gr. VS of Ecclesiasticus this view is modified somewhat (see 19:19, fn. where a Gr. interpolation speaks of “the fruit of the tree of immortality”). The only “immortality” acknowledged by Ben Sira is found in the memory of a name of good repute (cf. 44:8ff.). Since the attention of Ecclesiasticus is constantly focused on the present life, when the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer—a paradoxical situation for this viewpoint—Ben Sira counsels that circumstances may change quickly and thus it is not prudent to make such judgments prior to the death of the persons in question (11:21-28). The problem, however, remains, and many passages indicate that Ben Sira was not unaware of it.

This conservatism of Ben Sira in these viewpoints, reflected also in his conception of the aristocratic scribe (38:24ff.) and in his penchant for Biblical phraseology throughout the book, has been taken as indicative of a Sadducean orientation. Whereas one does not properly speak of Sadducees before the post-Maccabean age it is clear that Ben Sira does anticipate certain of their characteristic doctrines. It is, however, an oversimplification simply to categorize Ben Sira as a proto-Sadducee. In his book, he carefully counterbalances his emphasis on Temple ritual with forceful assertions of the necessity of personal righteousness. He can speak like the prophets in this regard: “The Most High is not pleased with the offerings of the ungodly; and he is not propitiated for sins by a multitude of sacrifices” (34:19; cf. 35:6ff.). Ben Sira exhibits an interest in the prophetic tradition at least equal to, if not greater than, his interest in the priestly tradition. In his “praise of great men” he seems to stress that it is prophetism that serves as the significant linking factor in the history of Israel (cf. 46:1; 47:1; 48:1, 8, 13). These facts when combined with the orthodox theology of Ecclesiasticus, make it possible to view Ben Sira as the forerunner of Pharisaic Judaism. Certainly, the juristic nature of the traditional wisdom with which Ben Sira expounds and supplements the law anticipates and parallels the oral tradition handed down in rabbinic Judaism, which was later to be codified in written form in the Mishnah.

The particular significance of Ecclesiasticus lies in its position in the literary history of Israel. The last, and in many ways the greatest of the wisdom books, it presents the culmination of the wisdom tradition. At the same time, it stands immediately prior to, and in many ways as the clear precursor of, both Sadducean and Pharisaic Judaism.

Mention must be made of one other important fact about Ecclesiasticus. Within the prologue, important information is found concerning the state of the OT canon in the 2nd cent. b.c. The tr. once speaks of his grandfather who devoted himself to the reading of “the law and the prophets and the other books of our fathers” and a little later again refers to “the law itself, the prophecies, and the rest of the books,” suggesting that by 132 b.c., the OT canon had already taken its threefold division (cf. Luke 24:44). Within Ecclesiasticus are intimations of a threefold division of canonical writings (e.g. 39:1, “law,” “wisdom,” and “prophecies”; cf. 44:3-5), and in his praise of famous men (chs. 44-49), Ben Sira follows closely the order of their appearance in books of the Heb. Bible, although there are some strange omissions in the list (esp. Daniel and Ezra).

Canonicity.

Ecclesiasticus was among the books that found their way into the LXX, and thus gained currency, particularly in the Early Church. It was never accepted as canonical by the Jews, although it was often quoted, and it exercised considerable influence on the later rabbinic lit. A number of parallels to Ecclesiasticus in the NT, esp. in Matthew and James (see APOT I, p. 294f.), also testify to the early influence of the book. The patristic writers often quote from Ecclesiasticus, and on occasion refer to the book as “Scripture,” but in these early centuries, although the book seems to have enjoyed a quasi-canonical status, it did not receive technical recognition of canonicity until Augustine and certain church councils of the late 4th and early 5th cent. formally accepted the book as canonical. Jerome, however, clearly set Ecclesiasticus apart from the canonical books (i.e. those of the Heb. canon). The book became an established part of the Roman Catholic canon following the decision taken at the Council of Trent in the 16th cent. Protestants, although highly esteeming Ecclesiasticus, receive it only as a book of the Apoc.

Text.

The textual evidence for Ecclesiasticus constitutes a fascinating and difficult puzzle for scholars. There are three primary witnesses to the text: the Gr. of the LXX (tr. by Ben Sira’s grandson), the Syr. of the Peshitta (made originally from the Heb. rather than the LXX), and the fragmentary Heb. MSS (about two-thirds of the book extant) from the magnificent finds of the Cairo Geniza. There are a number of secondary witnesses in the form of trs. (Old Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic, Arabic, Armenian, Georgian, and Old Slavonic) that for the most part derive from the LXX, but which may occasionally show the influence of other primary witnesses. Not only is there question concerning the relationship of the three primary witnesses, but there is also question concerning the history of various textual representatives within each of the three recensions. Among the Gr. MSS, great divergencies in text are discovered (transpositions, interpolations, and omissions). Basically, the Gr. MSS have been separated into two categories, some going back to an earlier (original?) Heb. text, and others apparently to a later recension of the Heb. text. The Syriac Peshitta seems also to have been influenced by the hypothetical later Heb. recension. Perhaps most confusing of all, however, are the five Cairo Heb. MSS that date from about the 11th or 12th cent. These MSS reveal numerous secondary readings in common with the second group of Gr. MSS and the Syr. Do these secondary readings indicate that these Heb. MSS depend to some extent upon the hypothetical Heb. recension that seems to have influenced certain of the Gr. MSS, or are they “retroversions”—retranslations into Heb. of certain readings of the Gr. or Syr. witnesses? Whereas the latter explanation has been increasingly popular, there seems to be a new turning to the former (see Di Lella and Rüger). It is striking that the fragments of Ecclesiasticus found at Qumran seem to bear a text form similar to that of the Cairo MS(A). If a relationship to Qumran could be ascertained, the reliability of the Cairo MSS would be established. The difficulty in solving the textual problem posed by Ecclesiasticus is thus compounded by what appears to be the various signs of reciprocal influence among the three primary witnesses.

The text of the major LXX witnesses is available in the standard printed editions of the LXX. The Heb. is available in a reconstruction by M. S. Segal (see Bibliography). The modern Eng. VSS usually follow an eclectic text, indicating more important variants in accompanying notes.

Bibliography

G. H. Box and W. O. E. Oesterley in R. H. Charles, APOT, I (1913), 268-517; W. O. E. Oesterley, The Books of the Apocrypha (1915), 321-348; E. J. Goodspeed, The Story of the Apocrypha (1939), 20-30; R. H. Pfeiffer, History of New Testament Times with an Introduction to the Apocrypha (1949), 352-408; M. S. Segal, Sepher Ben-Sira Ha-shalem (1953); H. J. Cadbury, “The Grandson of Ben Sira,” HTR, XLVIII (1955), 219-225; B. M. Metzger, An Introduction to the Apocrypha (1957), 75-88; A. H. Forster, “The Date of Ecclesiasticus,” AThR, XLI (1959), 1-9; J. T. Milik, Ten Years of Discovery in the Wilderness of Judaea (1959), 31f.; L. H. Brockington, A. Critical Introduction to the Apocrypha (1961), 71-84; L. F. Hartman, “Sirach in Hebrew and in Greek,” CBQ, XXIII (1961), 443-451; J. G. Snaith, “The Importance of Ecclesiasticus (The Wisdom of Ben Sira),” ExpT, LXXV (1963-1964), 66-69; O. Eissfeldt, The nodetitle: An Introduction (1965), 595-599; A. A. Di Lella, The Hebrew Text of Sirach (1966); R. K. Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament (1969), 1231-1237; H. P. Rüger, Text und Textform im hebräischen Sirach (1970).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

e-kle-zi-as’-ti-kus.

See SIRACH.

See also

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