A Word from the Wise: The History of the Book of Sirach Is Complicated, but It Holds the Wisdom of the Ages

By Camille, Alice | U.S. Catholic, September 2011 | Go to article overview

A Word from the Wise: The History of the Book of Sirach Is Complicated, but It Holds the Wisdom of the Ages


Camille, Alice, U.S. Catholic


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THE BELL TOWER OF OLD ST. MARY'S CHURCH IN SAN Francisco bears a warning familiar to passersby: "Son, observe the time, and fly from evil." When I worked there, tourists came in off the street to challenge me about this scripture. "I looked up Ecclesiastes 4:23 just like it says on the tower, and that verse is not there," was the common complaint.

I would sigh and then explain that in the Catholic Bible, there's a book called Ecclesiasticus, also known as Sirach. The Latin word ekklesia means assembly. Ecclesiasticus describes wisdom teachings "used in the assembly." The quotation on the clock was taken from the book of Ecclesiasticus.

The church tower had been erected in the mid-19th century, when the Douay translation of the Bible was in use.

The verse in a contemporary translation of Sirach is a bland shadow of itself and slightly off numerically: "Use your time well; guard yourself from evil." (New American Bible, Sirach 4:20.)

Most tourists worth their Kodachrome had exited after I'd explained all this. If still standing, they were confounded that such a simple matter as looking up a Bible quote could be so complicated.

SIRACH IS COMPLICATED IN MANY WAYS: HISTORICALLY, ecumenically, and politically. Yet it s also remarkably straightforward. The man who wrote it was not the least interested in mystical realities or hidden cosmic truths. Among the longest biblical books, its 51 chapters outline practical duties to family, society, and God. That we know who wrote it makes it even more unusual in a Bible filled with anonymous or pseudonymous works.

"Jesus, son of Eleazar, son of Sira," as he calls himself, was a sage living around 180 B.C. A well-traveled man when Greek culture was persuasively infiltrating Palestine, Ben Sira prided himself as a conservative. Jews didn't need the new Greek ideas, he insisted. Judaism had its own philosophical tradition, every bit as sophisticated and satisfying. To prove it, Ben Sira established an academy for young men in Jerusalem to ensure that the next generation would appreciate the richness of Hebrew thought.

That much is clear. The story gets cloudy when the original Hebrew manuscript of what we might call Ben Sira's class notes gets lost and isn't rediscovered until 1896. In the meantime, all that's known is a Greek translation of "the Wisdom of the Son of Sirach" by his grandson in 132 B.C. in Egypt--according to the book's foreward. Ben Sira's grandson also added a few things to keep his grandfather's legacy up to date which reflect the grandson's contemporary interest in afterlife--a topic that held no interest for the original sage.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT IS THAT A LATIN TRANSLATION of Ecclesiasticus is made from the Greek, and until the 20th century it's the only version known. This affected Sirach's status in the Bible: Ancient books made it into the canon most readily when written in Hebrew and traceable to sources in Palestine.

Works known only in Greek or apparently originating outside of Israel were given "deuterocanonical" status--still regarded as inspired texts but not appearing in the Jewish Scripture. Such books were later rejected by Martin Luther and the Reformed churches.

Ben Sira's work was therefore marginalized as a secondary sort of scripture--until 1896, when a Hebrew fragment of Sirach was discovered dating to an earlier period. Up to 1983 six partial manuscripts have come to light. Scholars now have just more than two thirds of the original Hebrew text available for study. …

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