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The Wisdom of Ben Sira, (or The Wisdom of Yeshua Ben Sira or merely Sirach), called Ecclesiasticus (not to be confused with Ecclesiastes) by Christians, is a book written circa 180–175 BCE. The author, Yeshua ben Sira, was a Jew who had been living in Jerusalem, who may in fact have established his school and written his work in Alexandria (Guillaume). His work was written in Hebrew, nevertheless, and translated into Greek by his grandson in Egypt, who added a preface.
The Greek Church Fathers called it also "The All-Virtuous Wisdom". The Latin Church Fathers, beginning with Cyprian (Testimonia, ii. 1; iii. 1, 35, 51, 95, et passim), termed it Ecclesiasticus because it was frequently read in churches, and was thus called liber ecclesiasticus (Latin and Latinised Greek for "church book"). Today it is more frequently known as Ben Sira or simply Sirach.
Although it was not accepted into the Tanakh, the Jewish biblical canon, The Wisdom of Ben Sira is quoted, though infrequently, in the Talmud, and works of rabbinic literature. It is included in the Septuagint and is accepted as part of the biblical canon by Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, but not by most Protestants.
The author is called in the Greek text (l. 27) "Jesus the son of Sirach of Jerusalem." The copy owned by Saadia Gaon had the reading "Shim`on, son of Yeshua`, son of El`azar ben Sira"; and a similar reading occurs in the Hebrew manuscript B. By interchanging the positions of the names "Shim`on" and "Yeshua`," the same reading is obtained as in the other manuscripts. The correctness of the name "Shim`on" is confirmed by the Syriac version, which has "Yeshua`, son of Shim`on, surnamed Bar Asira." The discrepancy between the two readings "Bar Asira" and "Bar Sira" is a noteworthy one, "Asira" ("prisoner") being a popular etymology of "Sira." The evidence seems to show that the author's name was Yeshua, son of Shimon, son of Eleazar ben Sira. ("Jesus" is the Anglicized form of "Yeshua`". The Greek name Ιησους is used for both Yeshua` and Yehoshua`.)
The surname Sira means "the thorn" in Aramaic. The Greek form, Sirach, adds the letter chi similar to Hakeldamach in Acts 1:19.
According to the Greek version, though not according to the Syriac, the author traveled extensively (xxxiv. 11) and was frequently in danger of death (ib. verse 12). In the hymn of chapter li. he speaks of the perils of all sorts from which God had delivered him, although this is probably only a poetic theme in imitation of the Psalms. The calumnies to which he was exposed in the presence of a certain king, supposed to be one of the Ptolemaic dynasty, are mentioned only in the Greek version, being ignored both in the Syriac and in the Hebrew text. The only fact known with certainty, drawn from the text itself, is that Ben Sira was a scholar, and a scribe thoroughly versed in the Law, and especially in the "Books of Wisdom."
The Prologue to Ben Sira is generally considered the earliest witness to a canon of the books of the prophets. Thus the date of the text as we have it is the subject of intense scrutiny (Guillaume)
The Greek translator states in his preface that he was the grandson of the author, and that he came to Egypt in the thirty-eighth year of the reign of "Euergetes". The epithet was borne by only two of the Ptolemies, of whom Ptolemy III Euergetes reigned only twenty-five years (247-222 B.C.) thus Ptolemy VIII Euergetes must be intended; he ascended the throne in the year 170 BCE, together with his brother Philometor; but he soon became sole ruler of Cyrene, and from 146 to 117 held sway over all Egypt, although he dated his reign from the year in which he received the crown (i.e., from 170). The translator must, therefore, have gone to Egypt in 132.
If the average length of two generations be reckoned, Ben Sira's date must fall in the first third of the second century. Ben Sira contains a eulogy of "Simon the High Priest, the son of Onias, who in his life repaired the House" (50:1). Most scholars agree that it seems to have formed the original ending of the text, and that the second High Priest Simon (died 196 BCE) was intended. Struggles between Simon's successors occupied the years 175–172 BCE and are not alluded to. Nor is the persecution of the Jews by Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 168.
Ben Sira's grandson was in Egypt, translating and editing after the usurping Hasmonean line had definitively ousted Simon's heirs in long struggles and was finally in control of the High Priesthood in Jerusalem. Comparing the Hebrew and Greek versions shows that he altered the prayer for Simon and broadened its application ("my He entrust to us his mercy"), in order to avoid having a work centred praising God’s covenanted faithfulness close on an unanswered prayer (Guillaume).
The Book of Ben Sira is a collection of ethical teachings. Thus Ecclesiasticus closely resembles Proverbs, except that, unlike the latter, it is the work of a single author, not an anthology of maxims drawn from various sources. Some have denied Ben Sira the authorship of the apothegms, and have regarded him as a compiler.
The teachings are applicable to all conditions of life: to parents and children, to husbands and wives, to the young, to masters, to friends, to the rich, and to the poor. Many of them are rules of courtesy and politeness; and a still greater number contain advice and instruction as to the duties of man toward himself and others, especially the poor, as well as toward society and the state, and most of all toward God. These precepts are arranged in verses, which are grouped according to their outward form. The sections are preceded by eulogies of wisdom which serve as introductions and mark the divisions into which the collection falls.
Wisdom, in Ben Sira's view, is synonymous with the fear of God, and sometimes is identified in his mind with adherence to the Mosaic law. The maxims are expressed in exact formulas, and are illustrated by striking images. They show a profound knowledge of the human heart, the disillusionment of experience, a fraternal sympathy with the poor and the oppressed, and an unconquerable distrust of women.
As in Ecclesiastes, two opposing tendencies war in the author: the faith and the morality of olden times, which are stronger than all argument, and an Epicureanism of modern date. Occasionally Ben Sira digresses to attack theories which he considers dangerous; for example, that man has no freedom of will, and that God is indifferent to the actions of mankind and does not reward virtue. Some of the refutations of these views are developed at considerable length.
Through these moralistic chapters runs the prayer of Israel imploring God to gather together his scattered children, to bring to fulfilment the predictions of the Prophets, and to have mercy upon his Temple and his people. The book concludes with a justification of God, whose wisdom and greatness are said to be revealed in all God's works as well as in the history of Israel. These chapters are completed by the author's signature, and are followed by two hymns, the latter apparently a sort of alphabetical acrostic.
Influence in the Jewish liturgy Edit
Ben Sira was used as the basis for two important parts of the Jewish liturgy. In the Mahzor (High Holy day prayer book), a medieval Jewish poet used Ben Sirach as the basis for a poem, KeOhel HaNimtah, in the Yom Kippur musaf ("additional") service. Recent scholarship indicates that it formed the basis of the most important of all Jewish prayers, the Amidah. Ben Sira apparently provides the vocabulary and framework for many of the Amidah's blessings. Many rabbis quoted Ben Sira as an authoritative work during the 3 centuries before the advent of Yavneh.
- The Book of Sirach Full text from http://St-Takla.org (also available in Arabic)
- Philippe Guillaume, "New Light on the Nebiim from Alexandria: A Chronography to Replace the Deuteronomistic History": sections 3 – 5: full notes and bibliography
- Amidah, entry in the Encyclopedia Judaica, Keter Publishing
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