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date: 27 June 2022

Ben Sirafree

Ben Sirafree

  • Benjamin G. Wright III

Summary

The book of Ben Sira is a wisdom text dating from the early 2nd century bce. It provides important evidence for Jewish wisdom traditions and teachers as well as Jewish scribes in this period. It was translated in Greek by the author’s grandson, and that version became the primary one, later becoming part of the Christian scriptural tradition. Fragmentary manuscripts of the Hebrew text were found in the Cairo Genizah and among the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Subjects

  • Jewish Studies

The Wisdom of Ben Sira is a Jewish wisdom book written in the early part of the 2nd century bce by a Jewish scribe/sage from Jerusalem named Joshua ben (i.e., “son of”) Sira, who is better known from the Greek form of his name, Jesus son of Sira. Written in Hebrew, the work was not included in the Jewish canon of scripture, and the Hebrew text fell into obscurity. A translator, who in a prologue identifies himself as the author’s grandson, rendered the book into Greek in the latter part of the 2nd century bce, and the Greek text became the work’s primary version. Important translations into Latin (2nd century ce) and Syriac (late 3rd–4th century ce) assist in understanding the work’s complex textual history.

The book is generally known by one of three titles: (1) the Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sira or the Wisdom of Ben Sira or some close variant, which is found in several language traditions; (2) Sirach, which usually refers to the Greek translation and is often used to distinguish the book from its author Ben Sira; or (3) Ecclesiasticus, which is found in Vulgate manuscripts and means “the church’s book.” Though not included in the Jewish canon of scripture, it became part of the Christian Old Testament; Martin Luther thought it non-canonical but valuable to read, and he relegated it to a section he called “Apocrypha.”

Date

Important information about the date of the work comes from the prologue to the Greek translation, composed by the grandson/translator, who calls his grandfather Iēsous, who, “since he had given himself increasingly both to the reading of the Law and the Prophets and the other ancestral books and since he had acquired considerable proficiency in them,” wrote “something pertaining to education and wisdom” (ll.7–12). The grandson relates that he arrived in Egypt in the “thirty-eighth year of Euergetes the king” (l.27), who must be Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II Physcon (170–163, 145–116 bce). Thus, he would have come to Egypt in 132 bce. He notes that he “stayed a while” before discovering “an exemplar of no little education” (l.29–30), which prompted him to translate his grandfather’s book into Greek. He likely completed the work somewhere near the time of Ptolemy’s death, around 117 bce. Working back from grandson to grandfather, a date for Ben Sira’s floruit in the 180s bce seems probable. Such a date finds confirmation in the book itself. In chapter 50, Ben Sira praises the high priest Simon II (219–196 bce) under whose priesthood he lived and after whose death he probably compiled his book. Moreover, Ben Sira shows no awareness of the events that occurred under the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV that triggered the Hasmonean Revolt. Thus, the most likely date of the book’s composition was somewhere between 195 bce and approximately 180 bce.

Textual Transmission

For many years, modern scholars knew nothing of the Hebrew of Ben Sira except through some citations and allusions to it in rabbinic literature and in several citations in the work of Saadia Gaon (10th century). In 1896, however, Solomon Schechter identified a leaf of the Hebrew of Ben Sira among manuscripts brought to Cambridge University by Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson from a synagogue genizah (a storage area for old Hebrew manuscripts) in Fustat (Old Cairo), Egypt (Cambridge Or. 1102).1 Ultimately six fragmentary manuscripts of Ben Sira came to light from the Cairo Genizah, designated A–F, of which five contain running text of the book, and one, Ms C, is an anthology of Ben Sira’s proverbs. These date from the 10th–12th centuries ce. In 1964, a large fragment (Mas 1h) dating from the first part of the 1st century bce containing material from 39:27–44:16 was discovered at Masada; two small fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls, 2Q18, preserve about thirty letters from 6:14–15, 20–31, and date from the second half of the 1st century bce. Parts of 51:13–20, 30b, are extant in the Psalms scroll from Qumran Cave 11 (11QPsa) dating from the first part of the 1st century ce.2 In recent years, new leaves from Mss C and D from the Genizah have been identified.3 As of the mid-2010s, about 70 percent of the book survives in Hebrew, although all scholars recognize that the texts preserved in the Hebrew manuscripts, even in the early Masada scroll, have suffered from scribal errors, interventions, and textual corruptions.

Ben Sira has a complex history of transmission. Both the Hebrew and the Greek underwent augmentation with additional proverbs, which scholars have labeled “HII” and “GII.” The exact relationship between these expanded versions is still debated. It is clear that Ben Sira’s Hebrew text (HI) underwent revision and that GII is comprised of the grandson’s translation (GI) and some version of the expanded HII. The Latin, which was translated from Greek, and Syriac, which was translated from Hebrew, also transmit additional proverbs, some of which are unique to themselves. Some scholars envision a process of recension, while others argue that the process was more haphazard than systematic.4 Moreover, every Greek manuscript of Ben Sira has a textual dislocation in which 30:25–33:13a and 33:13b–36:16a have been reversed in order. The Hebrew, Latin, and Syriac traditions preserve the correct order of the text. Although Ben Sira appears in the Vulgate, Jerome did not translate the book because he did not consider it canonical, and thus, the Vulgate text represents the Old Latin translation. Both the Latin and the Syriac were translated from a GII type of text.

Ben Sira’s Wisdom

Like other ancient Hebrew wisdom texts, such as the biblical Proverbs, Ben Sira’s wisdom is characterized by the use of the mashal, which can be translated as “proverb,” “saying,” “aphorism,” or “maxim.” These proverbs are comprised of two, or sometimes three, cola or stichoi, which are combined into larger poems characterized by the usual features of Hebrew poetic parallelism. These poems are made up of subunits or smaller poems. Frequently, Ben Sira constructs poems or units with twenty-two bicola, matching the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. So, for example, chapter 20 opens with two poems, each having eleven bicola. Within his book, Ben Sira utilizes various literary genres such as the prayer of petition (36:1–22), the prophetic “woe” (2:12–14), the hymn of praise (42:15–43:33), and the aretalogy (24:1–23). Chapters 44–50, which are introduced with the title “Praise of the Ancestors” (Greek) or “Praise of the Ancestors of Old” (Hebrew), constitute a distinct section of the work, and these chapters have been compared to the Greek encomium.5 In them Ben Sira praises a series of ancient Israelite heroes and reaches a finale with his praise of his contemporary Simon II.

The book of Ben Sira exhibits no clear or unambiguous structure, although chapter 1 opens with a poem on wisdom; chapter 24, an aretalogy in which Wisdom, personified as a woman, praises herself, is placed is the middle of the work and serves as something of a centrepiece; and chapter 51 closes the work with an account of the sage’s search for wisdom. Ben Sira treats topics of traditional and practical sapiential teaching, such as speech, women, and money, but he also speculates about matters that the modern world relegates to science, such as the makeup of the universe, which Ben Sira understands to be constructed of pairs of opposites (42:24). Three interrelated themes—fear of the Lord, fulfilment of the commandments, and the acquisition of wisdom—run throughout the book and occur in conjunction as early as the opening chapter. Perhaps Ben Sira’s greatest contribution comes in chapter 24, where he claims that Wisdom (a personified figure), who encompassed all of creation (vv. 3–6), was sent by God to dwell in Israel (v. 8) and ministered to God in the Temple (v. 10), has become embodied in the Jewish Torah. Thus, Wisdom is accessible to anyone who will fulfil the Torah: “All this is the book of the covenant of the Most High God, the law that Moses commanded us as an inheritance for the congregations of Jacob” (v. 23).

Ben Sira the Scribe

Joshua ben Sira lived at a moment of great change in Jewish history. He witnessed the transition from Ptolemaic to Seleucid hegemony over Judea that took place around 200 bce. The sapiential character of the book makes learning any details about Ben Sira and his life difficult, but the work provides a helpful picture of the Jewish scribe and scholar in Second Temple Judaea. Ben Sira belonged to a literate class of scribes and scholars who likely made up the bureaucracy that supported the elite rulers of Judaea, primarily the priestly class.6 He was also engaged in training students to take their places in this retainer class. In several passages (e.g., 24:30–34; 34:9–13; and 51:1–12), Ben Sira uses an autobiographical “I” to construct an ideal sage that his students should emulate in order to acquire wisdom and to negotiate their lives vis-à-vis both their social superiors and those who lived below them on the social ladder.7 On the one hand, he admonishes his charges to be cautious with the rich and powerful (8:1–2), who have power over them, and on the other, he encourages his students to give support to the poor with almsgiving, which “atones for sins” (3:30). In 38:24–39:11, Ben Sira encapsulates the scribal occupation. Although without farmers and artisans “a city will not be inhabited” (38:32), they do not have the leisure time necessary to devote to the study of “the Law of the Most High” (38:34). The scribe, by contrast, examines and ponders the sapiential tradition; he advises rulers and nobles; he prays to God, who fills him with “a spirit of understanding” (39:1–6). As a result, the scribe’s memory will persist among the people, and his high reputation will last.

Ben Sira knew the literary traditions of ancient Israel well, having been educated in its wisdom traditions as well as texts that would later become part of the Jewish scriptures. The embodiment of Wisdom in the Torah represents an attempt to bring together the traditions of the Israelite sages with the increasing importance of a national literature. While in certain respects Ben Sira’s teaching reflects older Israelite traditions—for instance, he does not have a concept of an afterlife beyond the dead descending to Sheol—he also has absorbed new ways of thinking that were current in the Hellenistic world; he probably had some awareness of popular Stoic ideas (although not Stoic philosophy per se), as for example, in his account of creation in 16:24–17:24 and in his praise of Wisdom in chapter 24. Moreover, he likely knew and used some Greek literature. In one place, Ben Sira cites a Homeric proverb (14:18//Iliad 6.148–149), and he seems to have been familiar with the gnomic poet Theognis’s thoughts on friendship (e.g., 6:10//Theognis 115–116, 643–644; 6:11–12//Theognis 299, 697–698; 6:13//Theognis 575; 6:15//Theognis 77–78).8

In addition to Ben Sira’s knowledge of a Homeric proverb and Theognis, his book also reveals a wider acquaintance and involvement with the Hellenistic world and Hellenistic ideas. In this light, his remark in 39:1 about seeking wisdom from “all the ancients” points to a more encompassing vista for his search for wisdom than simply Israelite traditions. His first-person remarks about travel in 34:9–12 together with 39:4 commend its benefits for the wise person. Finally, his comments about physicians (38:1–8) and banquets (32:1–13) indicate some familiarity with Hellenistic medicine and banqueting. Thus, Ben Sira receives and interprets the Hebrew literary and sapiential tradition at the same time that he is open to the world of Hellenistic ideas and institutions that he can employ for his pedagogical and literary goals within an explicitly Jewish framework.

Primary Texts

  • Beentjes, Pancratius C. The Book of Ben Sira in Hebrew. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2003.
  • Segal, M. Z. Sēper ben-Sîrā’ haššālēm. 3rd. ed. Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 1972.
  • Skehan, Patrick W., and Alexander A. Di Lella. The Wisdom of Ben Sira. Anchor Bible 39. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1987.
  • Smend, Rudolph. Die Weisheit des Jesus Sirach erklärt. Berlin: Georg Reimer, 1906.
  • Wright, Benjamin G. “Sirach: To the Reader and Translation.” In A New English Translation of the Septuagint and the Other Greek Translations Traditionally Included under That Title. Edited by Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G Wright, 715–762. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
  • Ziegler, Joseph. Septuaginta: Vetus Testamentum Graecum Auctoritate Academiae Scientiarum Gottingensis editum. XII/2 Sapientia Iesu Filii Sirach. 2d rev. ed. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1980.

Bibliography

  • Beentjes, Pancratius C. The Book of Ben Sira in Modern Research. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1997.
  • Camp, Claudia V. Ben Sira and the Men Who Handle Books: Gender and the Rise of Canon-Consciousness. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Phoenix, 2013.
  • Collins, John J. Jewish Wisdom in the Hellenistic Age. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1997.
  • Corley, Jeremy. “Searching for Structure and Redaction in Ben Sira: An Investigation of Beginnings and Endings.” In The Wisdom of Ben Sira: Studies on Tradition, Redaction, and Theology. Edited by Angelo Passaro and Giuseppe Bellia. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2008.
  • Horley, Richard A., and Patrick Tiller. “Ben Sira and the Sociology of the Second Temple.” In Second Temple Studies III: Studies on Politics, Class, and Material Culture. Edited by P. R. Davies and J. M. Halligan, 74–107. Sheffield, U.K.: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002.
  • Kearns, Conleth. The Expanded Text of Ecclesiasticus. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2011.
  • Labendz, J. R. “The Book of Ben Sira in Rabbinic Literature.” Association for Jewish Studies Review 30 (2006): 347–392.
  • Marböck, J. Weisheit im Wandel: Untersuchungen zur Weisheitstheologie bei Ben Sira. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1999.
  • Reiterer, Friedrich Vinzenz. Bibliographie zu Ben Sira. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1998.
  • Rey, Jean-Sébastien, and Jan Joosten, eds. The Texts and Versions of the Book of Ben Sira: Transmission and Interpretation. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011.
  • Reymond, Eric D. Innovation in Hebrew Poetry: Parallelism and the Poems of Sirach. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004.
  • Segal, M. H. “The Evolution of the Hebrew Text of Ben Sira.” Jewish Quarterly Review 25 (1934–1935): 91–149.
  • Wright, Benjamin G. III. No Small Difference: Sirach’s Relationship to Its Hebrew Parent Text. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989.
  • Wright, Benjamin G. III. “Sirach.” In The T&T Clark Companion to the Septuagint. Edited by James Aitken, 410–424. London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015.
  • Xeravits, Géza, and Józef Zsengellér. Studies in the Book of Ben Sira: Papers of the Third International Conference on the Deuterocanonical Books. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2008.

Notes

  • 1. Solomon Schechter and Charles Taylor, The Wisdom of Ben Sira: Portions of the Book of Ecclesiasticus from Hebrew Manuscripts in the Cairo Genizah Collection Presented to the University of Cambridge by the Editors (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1899), v–vi.

  • 2. Yigael Yadin, The Ben Sira Scroll from Masada (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1965); M. Baillet, J. T. Milik, and R. de Vaux, Les “Petites Grottes” de Qumran, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1962), 75–77; and J. A. Sanders, The Psalms Scroll of Qumran Cave 11 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1965), 79–85.

  • 3. Shulamit Elizur, “Two New Leaves of the Hebrew Version of Ben Sira,” Dead Sea Discoveries 17 (2010): 13–29; and Shulamit Elizur and Michael Rand, “A New Fragment of the Book of Ben Sira,” Dead Sea Discoveries 18 (2011): 200–205.

  • 4. Jason Gile, “The Additions to Ben Sira and the Book’s Multiform Textual Witness,” in The Texts and Versions of the Book of Ben Sira: Transmission and Interpretation, ed. Jean-Sébastien Rey and Jan Joosten (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011), 237–256.

  • 5. Burton L. Mack, Wisdom and the Hebrew Epic: Ben Sira’s Hymn in Praise of the Fathers (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 128–137; and Thomas R. Lee, Studies on the Form of Sirach 44–50 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986).

  • 6. Richard A. Horsley, Scribes, Visionaries, and the Politics of Second Temple Judea (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2007), 53–70.

  • 7. Benjamin G. Wright III, “Ben Sira on the Sage as Exemplar,” in Praise Israel for Wisdom and Instruction: Essays on Ben Sira and Wisdom, the Letter of Aristeas and the Septuagint, ed. Benjamin G. Wright III (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2008), 165–182.

  • 8. Th. Middendorp, Die Stellung Jesu Ben Siras zwischen Judentum und Hellenismus (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1973); Jack T. Sanders, Ben Sira and Demotic Wisdom (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1983); Benjamin G. Wright III, “Ben Sira and Hellenistic Literature in Greek,” in Tracing Sapiential Traditions in Ancient Judaism, ed. Hindy Najman, Jean-Sébastien Rey, and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2016), 71–88.