Wisdom of Ben Sira

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Among the earliest of the deuterocanonical books of the OT, the Wisdom of Ben Sira, also known as the Book of Sirach, contains the most comprehensive sample of wisdom literature preserved in the Bible. This literature also includes the Books of Job, Proverbs, Qoheleth or Ecclesiastes, the Wisdom of Solomon, and several so-called Wisdom Psalms. The book offers moral, cultic, and ethical aphorisms, folk proverbs, psalms of praise and lament, theological and philosophical thoughts, homiletic urging, and pointed comments about life and customs of the day. Hence it has been popular with both Jews and Christians, leaving its impact on the proverbial literature of the West. The following points will be treated: author, date of composition, and canonicity; nature of the book and contents; and history of the text.

Author, Date of Composition, and Canonicity. The Wisdom of Ben Sira is one of the few books of the OT to give the name of its author: "yēšûa [Greek: 'Iεσους, Jesus], son of Eleazar, son of sîrā [Greek: Σειραχ, Sirach]," in Sir 50.27. Hence, the author is commonly known today as Ben (son of) Sira. The Latin title of the book is ecclesiasticus. Ben Sira, a devoted student of the OT (see the prologue of the book) and a professional scribe, i.e., wise man (cf. 38.2439.11), says of himself, "Not for myself only have I labored, but for all who seek instruction" (33.18; see also 50.27). He lived in Jerusalem [as 50.27 of the Greek text tells us] but traveled widely, gaining much experience (34.1012). He taught in what may be called an academy or school (51.23) where he imparted wisdom to young men, as we see from his frequent use of the Hebrew term běnî, "my son" at the beginning of many of his aphorisms. Ben Sira wrote his book in Hebrew c. 180 b.c.; his grandson translated it into Greek sometime between 132 and 117 and then published it after 117 b.c. [see A. A. Di Lella in Skehan and Di Lella, The Wisdom of Ben Sira (AB 39, 134135)]. Though it was written in Hebrew and certainly had a Palestinian origin and was employed in the ancient synagogue liturgy, the Deuterocanonical Wisdom of Ben Sira was omitted from the Jewish (hence also from the Protestant) Canon, most likely because of the sectarianism of the Pharisees who defined this canon c. a.d. 95.

Nature of the Book and Contents. The Wisdom of Ben Sira is a collection of poems praising Wisdom as well as a kind of handbook of moral theology. It shows us what pious Jews of the 2nd century b.c. believed and how they should behave. Since there is no particular order in the book (except for ch. 4450, a section in Cairo Geniza Hebrew MS B [see below] entitled "Praise of the Ancestors of Old"), only a topical outline, with some unavoidable overlapping of certain subjects, can convey an adequate impression of its contents and scope.

  • I. Wisdom and the Wise Man (1.143.33): "The beginning of wisdom is to fear the Lord," 1.141.130; 4.1119; 6.1837; 16.2417.23; 19.2030; 24.131; 25.36, 1011; 37.1626.
  • A. Praise of Wisdom's Author: 39.1235; 42.1543.33.
  • B. Service of God and True Glory for Human Beings: 2.118; 7.2931; 10.1911,6;17.2418.14; 23.27; 32.1433.15; 34.1435.26.
  • C. Prayer for God's People: 36.122.
  • D. Autobiographical References: 24.3034; 33.1618; 34.1213; most of the conclusion of the book, 50.2551.30.
  • E. The Wise: 3.29; 14.2015.10; 20.131; 21.1124; 38.2439.11.
  • 1. Wisdom applied to spiritual and personal life.
  • a. Humility3.1724; 4.8; 7.1617; 10. 2628.
  • b. Charity3.304.6, 810; 7.3236; 12.17; 29.813.
  • c. Virtues and vices of the tongue5.96.1; 7.13; 19.517; 20.58, 13, 1620, 2431; 22.6, 2723.4, 715; 27.47; 28.1226.
  • d. Pride, folly, sin (in general)3.2628; 10.618; 11.6; 16.523; 20.231; 21.122.2, 18; 25.2; 27.1215, 28; 33.5; 35.2224; 41.10.
  • e. Anger, malice, vengeance1.2224; 27.2228.11.
  • f. Evil desire6.24; 18.3019.4; 23.56, 1626.
  • g. Other virtues and vices4.2031; 5.18; 7.115; 8.119; 9.1110.5, 29; 11.722; 15.1120; 18.1529; 25.1, 711; 27.821; 34.18.
  • 2. Wisdom applied to practical life.
  • a. Parents3.116; 7.2728; 23.14; 41.17.
  • b. Children7.2325; 16.14; 22.34;25.7; 30.113; 41.510.
  • c. Women (including wife and daughters)7.19, 24-26; 9.19; 19.24;22.35; 23. 2226; 25.1, 8, 1326.18, 20-27; 28.15; 33.20; 36.2631; 40.19, 23; 42.6, 914.
  • d. Friends and associates6.517; 7.18; 9.10; 11.2934; 12.813.23; 22.1926; 27.1621; 33.6; 36.2325; 37.115.
  • e. Wealth10.3031; 11.1011, 14, 1819, 2328; 13.1514.10; 25.23; 26.2827.3; 31.111.
  • f. Poverty10.3011.6, 14; 13.1814.2;25.23.
  • g. Enjoyment of life14.1119.
  • h. Loans29.17, 1420.
  • i. Frugality29.2128.
  • j. Health and doctors30.1420; 38.115.
  • k. Death38.1623; 41.14.
  • l. Joy and pleasure30.2127; 40.127.
  • m. Table manners and self-control31.1232.13; 37.2731.
  • n. Household management7.2022; 33.1933.
  • o. The value of travel34.912. p. Begging40.2830. q. The lasting treasure of a good name41.1113.
  • r. The right and wrong kinds of shame41.1442.8.
  • II. Praise of the Ancestors (44.150.21): "Now will I praise those godly people, our ancestors" (44.1).
  • III. Conclusion (50.2251.30).
  • A. Epilogue: 50.2229.
  • B. Song of Praise: 51.112.
  • C. Alphabetic Canticle: 51.1330.

From this outline one can see that Ben Sira discusses virtually every significant topic regarding religious and secular wisdom as well as the behavior expected of the faithful Jew. Some of the sage's observations and aphorisms may appear to today's reader as utterly pragmatic or self-serving rather than as spiritually enlightening:

Moderate eating ensures sound slumber and a clear mind next day on rising. The distress of sleeplessness and of nausea and colic are with the glutton! If you have eaten too much, get up to vomit and you will have relief. (Sir 31.2021)

But Ben Sira's statements are in keeping with what we read in other Wisdom authors. And for him this advice is practical wisdom both for the glutton and for the one who unintentionally eats too much. For other examples of such advice see Sir 9.19; 42.911; and Prv 23.2935.

History of the Text. For centuries, the original Hebrew text of Ben Sira had been lost. Knowledge of the book came chiefly from two ancient versions translated directly from the Hebrew: the Greek (or the septuagint) and the Syriac peshitta from which all other versions were made. Then, from 1896 to 1900 and again in 1931, 1958, and 1960, portions of five different MSS (A, B, C, D, and E), containing more than two-thirds of the Hebrew text of the Wisdom of Ben Sira, were found among the vast materials recovered from the geniza of the Karaite Synagogue in Old Cairo. In 1965 Y. Yadin published a fragmentary scroll that had been recovered from the ruins of Masada. In 1982 a sixth MS was discovered by A. Scheiber who had been examining the Cambridge collections of Geniza fragments; he mistakenly called it a leaf of MS D. Later the leaf was correctly identified and published by A. A. Di Lella (Bib 69 [1988] 226238), who named it MS F. Despite the misgivings of a few scholars (e.g., D. S. Margoliouth, C. C. Torrey, and H. L. Ginsberg), the Geniza MSSdating from the 9th to the 12th centuryoffer a text that is substantially genuine, even though it is disfigured by glosses, scribal errors, and occasional retranslations from the Peshitta. Among other reasons, because a lst-century b.c. Hebrew fragment of Sir6.2031 found among the dead sea scrolls of cave 2Q and the Masada scroll, also of the same date, basically match the wording of Geniza MSS A and B, respectively, some scholars believe that the basic text of the Geniza MSS was derived from exemplars that also date from the beginning of the Christian Era; for detailed evidence, see Di Lella in Skehan and Di Lella, The Wisdom of Ben Sira, ch. 8. The Greek version poses its own problems because there are two texts: the primary, represented by the uncials and many cursives; and the secondary, represented by Codex 248 but also by other cursives. The 248 texttypereflected also in the Old Latin version and the Syro-Hexaplarhas some 150 distichs not found in the primary text; see R. Smend, Die Weisheit des Jesus Ben Sira erklärt, 1xiicxviii for further information.

Bibliography: General. d. s. margoliouth, The Origin of the 'Original Hebrew' of Ecclesiasticus (London 1899). i. lÉvi, L'Ecclésiastique, ou la Sagesse de Jésus, fils de Sira, 2 v. (Paris 18981901). r. smend, Die Weisheit des Jesus Sirach erklärt (Berlin 1906). n. peters, Das Buch Jesus Sirach oder Ecclesiasticus (Exegetisches Handbuch zum Alten Testament 25, Münster 1913). g. h. box and w. o. e. oesterley, "The Book of Sirach," The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, ed. r. h. charles (Oxford 1913) 1:268517. c. c. torrey, "The Hebrew of the Geniza Sirach," Alexander Marx Jubilee Volume, ed. s. lieberman (New York 1950) 585602. h. l. ginsberg, "The Original Hebrew of Ben Sira 12.1014," Journal of Biblical Literature 74 (1955) 9395. l. f. hartman, "Sirach in Hebrew and in Greek," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 23 (1961) 443451. a. a. di lella, The Hebrew Text of Sirach: A Text-Critical and Historical Study (The Hague 1965), with complete bibliography to 1963. h. duesberg and i. fransen, Ecclesiastico (La Sacra Bibbia, ed. g. rinaldi; Turin 1966). d. barthÉlemy and o. rickenbacher, Konkordanz zum hebräischen Sirach (Göttingen 1973). p. w. skehan and a. a. di lella, The Wisdom of Ben Sira (AB 39; New York 1987). a. a. di lella, "Wisdom of Ben-Sira," ABD 6 (New York 1992) 931945. Idem, "The Wisdom of Ben Sira: Resources and Recent Research," Currents in Research: Biblical Studies 4 (1996) 161181. p. c. beentjes, ed., The Book of Ben Sira in Modern Research: Proceedings of the First International Ben Sira Conference, 2831 July, Soesterberg, Netherlands (BZAW 255; Berlin/New York 1997). n. calduch-benages and j. vermeylen, eds., Treasures of Wisdom: Studies in Ben Sira and the Book of Wisdom (Festschrift M. Gilbert) (BETL 143; Louvain 1999). Editions. Facsmiles of the Fragments Hitherto Recovered of the Book of Ecclesiasticus in Hebrew (Oxford-Cambridge 1901). r. smend, Die Weisheit des Jesus Sirach, hebräisch und deutsch (Berlin 1906), still the most reliable ed. of the fragments available at that time. m. h. segal, Sēper ben- Sîrā ha-[symbol omitted]ālēm (2d ed. Jerusalem, Israel 1958). m. baillet et al., Les 'Petites grottes' de Qumrân (Discoveries in the Judean Desert 3; 1962) 7577 and pl. XV. Biblia Sacra iuxta latinam vulgatam versionem, 12: Sapientia Salomonis, Liber Hiesu filii Sirach (Rome 1964). a. a. di lella, "The Recently Identified Leaves of Sirach in Hebrew," Biblica 45 (1964) 153167, the 1958 and 1960 fragments. y. yadin, The Ben Sira Scroll from Masada with Introduction, Emendations and Commentary (Jerusalem 1965). j. a. sanders, The Psalms Scroll of Qumrân Cave 11 (11QPsa [containing Sir 51, 1320, 30b]) (DJD 4; Oxford 1965). f. vattioni, Ecclesiastico: Testo ebraico con apparato critico e versioni greca, latina e siriaca (Pubblicazioni del Seminario di Semitistica, Testi 1; Naples, 1968). z. ben hayyim (ed.), The Book of Ben Sira: Text, Concordance and an Analysis of the Vocabulary (Jerusalem 1973). j. ziegler, Sapientia Iesu Filii Sirach (2d ed.; Septuaginta 12/2; Göttingen 1980). a. a. di lella, "The Newly Discovered Sixth Manuscript of Ben Sira from the Cairo Geniza," Bib 69 (1988) 226238. p. c. beentjes, The Book of Ben Sira in Hebrew: A Text Edition of All Extant Hebrew Manuscripts and a Synopsis of All Parallel Hebrew Ben Sira Texts (VTSup 68; Leiden/New York/Cologne 1997).

[a. a. di lella]

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