Jesus ben Sira

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Jesus ben Sira

The Jewish sage and author Jesus ben Sira (born ca. 170 B.C.), or Sirach, is the reputed author of the wisdom book commonly called Ecclesiasticus.

According to the Hebrew text of Ecclesiasticus, the author's full name was Simeon ben Jeshua ben Elazar ben Sira. The Greek text, however, and most of the Christian sources refer to him as Jesus, the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Joshua. In the prologue to his Greek version, Jesus Ben Sira's grandson dates his translation from the Hebrew into Greek at a time calculated to be 132-131 B.C. From this it is surmised that the original Hebrew text was written about 4 decades earlier, making it the oldest book of the Apocrypha. In Hebrew the volume was called Hokhmat Ben Sira (The Wisdom of Ben Sira). In Greek the work is known as Ecclesiasticus (The Preacher). It is similar in form and content to the Hebrew Book of Proverbs and to Ecclesiastes.

The Wisdom of Ben Sira is divided into eight sections, each of which begins with a poem of praise to wisdom and the wise. The last portion, consisting of chapters 44-49 and headed "Praise to the Patriarchs of the World," extols the biblical heroes, while the ensuing chapter (50) is devoted to Simeon, son of Jochanon, probably Simon the Just (ca. 3d century B.C.). The final chapter of the book (51) appears to be a sort of epilogue that contains several psalms and hymns of thanks to God, who had saved the author from death, evidently from some plot or false charge. The book ends with an exhortation to love and acquire wisdom.

Jesus Ben Sira apparently lived in Jerusalem during most of his life and belonged to the intellectual aristocracy. The object of his book was to teach people to live wisely, intelligently, and morally. The author's accent is on moderation in all aspects of life. He also offers advice on a person's attitude toward the rich and the poor, the righteous and the wicked, the wise and the foolish, the creditor and the borrower, the sick and the physician. Like the Book of Proverbs, this work stresses that fear of the Lord is the beginning and end of wisdom. The highest wisdom is, accordingly, to obey the Divine Will and the Torah, Jewish doctrine and law.

The Wisdom of Ben Sira is included in the Old Testament Apocrypha, though in the Septuagint it is part of the Canon. Unlike other books of the Apocrypha, "Ben Sira," a popular work, exerted a considerable influence on subsequent Jewish literature and on medieval moralist works. Many of Jesus Ben Sira's aphorisms found their way into the Talmud; his sayings are also quoted in the New Testament. The original Hebrew version of this work was preserved for a longer period than the other Apocrypha books—until about the time of Saadia ben Joseph (died 942). It was lost for centuries, but in 1897 Professor Solomon Schechter discovered a number of fragments of the work in the storeroom of the Old Cairo Synagogue. Almost two-thirds of the original was eventually recovered.

Further Reading

An English version of "The Wisdom of Ben Sira," along with commentary, is available in R. H. Charles, ed., Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, vol. 1 (1913). The brief sketch of Jesus ben Sira in Meyer Waxman, A History of Jewish Literature, vols. 1 and 4 (1960), provides helpful background and orientation. □