Translating and publishing grandfather’s wisdom – Sirach

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

The wisdom of Jesus ben Sira1 comes down to us in a Greek edition translated by his grandson, who revered his grandfather’s wisdom as a guide to life. It is another of those books whose authority and inspiration is disputed among Christians.

It is often known as Ecclesiasticus (not to be confused with the undisputedly canonical book of Ecclesiastes), a word which essentially means “the church’s book”. It’s a fairly clear indication that its popularity among the early Christians was significantly greater than its use in the Jewish community it came from. He writes a couple of decades before the ongoing pace of Hellenisation forced the Maccabean crisis.2

The book falls into two main sections. The first, and longest, presents the wisdom ben Sira has accumulated and meditated on over the years, loosely organised by themes. It stands in the tradition of practical wisdom for the art of living. The majority of readings in the lectionary come from this section.

The second section3 concerns “the works of the Lord”. Starting with the works of creation, ben Sira moves quickly into a rehearsal of Israel’s history through some of its most famous characters. This may also provide the passage of Sirach with which most people are familiar from memorial services: in the Authorised Version it begins: “Let us now praise famous men …”.4

One feature of the book is the way it holds together what some people may think are different strands of Judaism; practical wisdom and law, priestly and prophetic ministries. Ben Sira’s account of famous ancestors ends with a eulogy of the high priest Simon, which both shows that the temple was under fairly continuous building work, and offers a sense of how much the temple ritual engaged the emotions of devout Jews like himself and his grandfather. The passages that occur in the lectionary largely reflect this solid Jewish piety.5

There is one other passage (Ecclesiasticus 24) worth noting. It is provided as the reading for the 2nd Sunday of Christmas. It reflects the same tradition we saw when looking at the book of Wisdom. The language Jewish piety used of the wisdom of God, Christians quickly adapted for Jesus as the word and wisdom of God. It’s a pity the lectionary doesn’t use the second half of that chapter in conjunction with the summer reading of John in Year B. There are clear echoes in John’s writing about Jesus as the Bread of Life which present him as even greater than Wisdom.

[Wisdom says:]
Those who eat of me will hunger for more,
and those who drink of me will thirst for more.

[Jesus says:]
Whoever comes to me will never be hungry,
and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

Comparing Sir 24:21 with John 6:35


Notes

  1. Although the book is commonly referred to as Sirach (abbreviated Sir) the author is normally referred to by his Hebrew name, ben Sira (ben meaning “son of”) as I shall do here.
  2. See the post on the books of the Maccabees.
  3. Rather confusingly for English readers, the second section appears to begin mid-chapter at 42:15.
  4. This begins at 44:1. The lectionary uses it as a reading for the Saints and Martyrs of England.
  5. These readings are Year A, 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Proper 2, and Year C, Proper 17, the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, and Proper 25, the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time.