January 16, 2015

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Old Testament: Sirach has some dubious wisdom

John F. Fink(Fifty-second in a series of columns)

The Book of Sirach has something in common with the Book of Wisdom that I will write about next week: both were not ultimately accepted by the Jews as canonical. It’s not clear why Sirach wasn’t accepted. For a long time, it was thought that it was written in Greek and not Hebrew. Copies of a Hebrew version were only discovered starting in 1896.

More likely, it was kept out of the later versions of the Jewish Scriptures because the author of Sirach had views that agreed with the Sadducees and it was the Pharisees who decided on the Jewish canon late in the first century.

Sirach was the name of the grandfather of the author, Jesus Ben Sira. The translation was done by his grandson, who also wrote a foreword in which he explained why he thought it important to translate the book and preserve his grandfather’s wisdom.

It was written between 200 and 175 B.C., a period of time when Greek culture had permeated the entire Middle East and many Jews had abandoned their traditions, as we saw when I wrote about the Books of Maccabees.

Ben Sira, therefore, was writing to the Jews of his day to convince them that real wisdom was not to be found in the pagan philosophy of the Greeks but in Israel’s traditions. He meant to write a comprehensive book of instruction and guidance for every circumstance of life.

The result was a collection of proverbs written as a series of essays. It resembles the Book of Proverbs more than any other book of the Bible.

Modern women won’t think much of some of Ben Sira’s teachings. If they want to protest any book of the Bible, this is the one. Ben Sira blamed women for sin and death: “In woman was sin’s beginning, and because of her we all die” (Sir 25:24).

He not only expected women to be submissive to their husbands, but advocated punishment, including divorce, if they did not obey: “Be not indulgent to an erring wife. If she walks not by your side, cut her away from you” (Sir 25:25-26).

Like the Sadducees of Jesus’ time, Ben Sira rejected any idea of life after death. He counseled moderation in grief when someone dies—one or two days—and then, “Turn not your thoughts to him again; cease to recall him; think rather of the end. Recall him not, for there is no hope of his return; it will not help him, but will do you harm” (Sir 38:20-21).

Despite some of this dubious wisdom, parts of the Book of Sirach have influenced both Judaism and Christianity. A scroll of Sirach was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, evidence that it was considered Scripture by the Jews of Qumran.

Scholars find parallels between directives in Sirach and those in the Letter of James. Early Christian theologians such as Cyprian, Jerome and Clement of Alexandria quoted Sirach, and passages continue to be used extensively in our liturgies. Ben Sira continues to exhort us to maintain our traditional religious values in a godless culture. †

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