The Wisdom of Ben Sirach, also known as Ecclesiasticus, is one of the gems of Holy Scripture, but largely unknown to Protestants. It was composed in Hebrew and translated into Greek in the second century before Christ. It is among the last books of the Old Testament.
Alice C. Linsley
Jesus and the Apostles James, Peter and Paul quote from the Book of Ben Sirach and references to this book appear in the writings of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Scholars agree that Jesus was directly quoting Sirach 51:27 in Matthew 11:29, where we read: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
There are several allusions to the Wisdom of Sirach in the New Testament. These include the Magnificat of the Blessed Theotokos in Luke 1:52, which follows Sirach 10:14; the description of the seed in Mark 4:5,16-17, which follows Sirach 40:15, and also Christ's statement about knowing a man by his fruits in Matthew 7:16,20, which follows Sirach 27:6. James 1:19: “…let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak and slow to wrath…” follows Sirach 5:11.
St. Jerome quotes from Sirach. He knew the book as it was written in Hebrew and Sirach informed Jerome’s Latin translation of the Old Testament (Vulgate).
Ben Sirach’s stress on righteous living, meditation on Scripture, and the illumination of the Holy Spirit are not uniquely Jewish. These are stressed by the Church, which probably explains why St. Cyprian named the book Ecclesiasticus, meaning “Churchman.” As a priest and bishop, St. Cyprian identified with Rabbi Ben Sirach’s concern that the people of God should grow in holiness (theosis).
It is evident from its use by these early authorities that Sirach was regarded as an important book and it was adopted early into the Christian canon, though the book was not read in the synagogues. The early Church recognized that the book had many Messianic references and that it presented a balanced approach to holiness, spiritual maturity and salvation.
St. Paul’s writings are the earliest Christian epistles in the Christian canon. It appears that Paul thought of the wisdom tradition of Judaism as a religious philosophical conversation. He appears uninterested in the debate of the philosopher-theologians, be they Greek or Jewish. He wrote, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ.” For the Apostle Paul, Christ crucified and risen was the sum of Divine Wisdom. He writes, “It is by Him that you exist in Christ Jesus, who for us was made wisdom from God.” (I Corinthians 1:30)
“Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross should be made of no effect. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (I Corinthians 1:17, 18)
Weaving Two Traditions
People often say “I read the Bible, but I don’t understand it.” They innately know that the Bible is important and should be read, but they have not invited the Holy Spirit to illuminate their reading. This is why it is important to pray for wisdom before reading the Bible. Without the Spirit’s guidance we are likely to misunderstand and misrepresent what is meant in Scripture. People who insist on using Bible verses as ammunition against those with whom they disagree are not under the Spirit’s guidance.
There are four approaches to wisdom in Judaism and in the Old Testament: Torah; the Spirit (charismatic); Apocalyptic, and Qumran. The first two are the most ancient approaches and carry the greatest authority. The Apocalyptic and Qumran traditions had their greatest following during the century in which our Lord lived among us. Only one copy of Sirach was found among the Dead Sea scrolls (compared to 24 copies of Genesis and 25 copies of 1 Enoch). The apocalyptic tradition speaks of dramatic events that exemplify God’s power in the cosmos. In this genre of literature, we find descriptions of the heavens burning up like a scroll that curls in the fiery furnace. In the Qumran tradition wisdom is the Spirit-revealed knowledge of the hidden meaning of the Torah. We find elements of this tradition in Mark’s Gospel.
The Torah tradition predates Moses and reflects the Nilo-Palestinian veneration of written texts (scrolls). In this tradition, no changes were permitted to the writings. They were to be preserved for all generations unchanged. It was the ruler’s responsibility to see that the sacred tradition of the fathers (horim) was not corrupted. The righteous ruler was a wise ruler. David was known to be wise and he prayed that his son Solomon would also be wise (1 Ch.22:12-13). Solomon became the prototypical wise king. He quotes the old proverbs by which a young man will learn to order his life according to God’s ways.
The Torah approach is reflected in Sirach’s statements which link wisdom and Torah. “All this [Wisdom] 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.” (Sirach 24:23 and 45:5) In this view, Wisdom indwells the Torah or Torah embodies Wisdom. The rabbis taught that study and observance of the Torah leads to Wisdom, which in turn leads to blessedness (theosis/sanctification) and salvation.
The Spirit tradition reflects the Jews living in the Diaspora where they were influenced by Greek philosophy. In this tradition, which is linguistically removed from the ancient Hebrew or Afro-Asiatic roots, there must be some range of interpretation in order to preserve meaning of the Hebrew text in the Greek language. In this task, the elders were wise to seek the illumination of the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit approach is evident in Sirach’s statements which link wisdom to the Spirit: Wisdom “came forth from the mouth of the Most High and covered the earth like a mist.” (Sirach 24:3) Here we have an allusion to Genesis 1:1 which speaks of the Spirit (ruach – breath) of God going forth to put in order the chaotic deep. Likewise, in Job 33:4, “the breath of Shaddai” speaks of the Spirit. In Job 32:8, Elihu declares that it is the spirit in a man, the breath of Shaddai, that gives him wisdom.
Wisdom is often personified. Wisdom tells us that she “came forth from the mouth of the Most High” as the first-born before all creatures. Wisdom is personified as a female who seeks a place to rest upon the earth and finds that place among the people of Jacob (Sirach 24:8) In this view, wisdom is associated with the Spirit’s presence and guidance. Loving Wisdom leads to blessedness (theosis/sanctification) and salvation. Those who despise Wisdom are cursed.
A Balanced Approach
Sirach reflects both Torah and Spirit in a unique way that appealed to the early Church Fathers and to the Orthodox. The Fathers and the Orthodox recognize that Scripture reading in worship, and Bible study under the illumination of the Holy Spirit, is essential to holy living. Both the Bible and the Holy Spirit are necessary if we are to know and love the Divine Three-in-One more fully.
Though Sirach draws on both approaches, he does not set them at odds. It is not a case or either Torah or Spirit. Instead, both approaches are tools to enable us to reach the ultimate goal of union with God.
Ben Sirach contains many Messianic references and this is another reason the book was adopted by the Church very early. Consider these verses: “The Lord took away his sins, and exalted his power [qeren/horn] forever; he gave him the covenant of kings and a throne of glory in Israel.” (Sirach 47:11) The same word appears in reference to Jesus as a direct descendant of David: “and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David.” (Luke 1:69)
Wisdom is explicitly said to be eternal: “From eternity, in the beginning, he created me, and for eternity I shall not cease to exist.” (Sirach 24:9) This statement is similar to Christ’s being the Word, and the “first-born of all creation”. (Col 1:15b) At Sirach 24:19, Wisdom tells her listeners to “Come to me”, which is echoed in Christ’s saying “Come to me” in Matthew 11:28. Like Jesus the Messiah, Wisdom also keeps souls from sin (Sirach 24:22).
Jews Disagree on Ben Sirach
For at least three centuries before the Council of Jamnia (Yavne) in A.D. 90, many rabbis quoted Sirach as an authoritative work. After Jesus’ death and resurrection the book became suspect among the Jews because of its use by Christian apologists and evangelists.
The Jerusalem Talmud (c. 300 B.C.) lists the book of Ben Sirach as one of the “outside books” (sefarim ha-chitzonim) and Rabbi Akiba warned against those who read the outside books. Reading Homer and other such writings did not pose as great a threat as did reading Sirach because none claimed that these were divinely inspired writings.
In the Babylonian Talmud (c. 100 B.C.) "uncanonical books" are called "the books of the Sadducees." Yeshua Ben Sirach was a Sadducee and Ben Sira's wisdom is frequently quoted in the Babylonian Talmud. Yad Ramah (an early medieval source in the Babylonian Talmud) implies that Ben Sira was once an inside or canonical book which was later removed by the rabbis.
Rabbi Yosef attempted to ban most of Sirach, but other rabbis argued with him (Sanhedrin 100b), showing that Jewish tradition contains the same ideas which he disputes in Ben Sira. However, others say that Rabbi Yosef only forbade the public reading of Sirach.
Sirach is the basis for two parts of the Jewish liturgy. Recent scholarship indicates that the vocabulary and the framework of the Amidah 19 blessings draw heavily on Sirach. The Amidah is the central prayer of the synagogue liturgy. Observant Jews recite the Amidah morning, noon and night in a typical weekday service.
Related reading: Cornelis Bennema, The Strands of Wisdom in Intertestamental Judaism; The Ruach of God, The Chiastic Center of Ecclesiasticus; Seats of Wisdom