Translating and publishing grandfather's wisdom – Sirach

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.

The gift of Wisdom

The Book of Wisdom, or the Wisdom of Solomon, is another of those books whose place in the bible is disputed. Like several of the uncontroversially canonical wisdom books, it links itself with the proverbially wise king, Solomon. Unlike them it was written very late, probably a few decades before the time of Jesus. This means that it also offers evidence of the sorts of beliefs that were important to some groups of Jews at the turn of the eras.

Continue reading “The gift of Wisdom”

Cultural imperialism and the rebel alliance: 1 & 2 Maccabees

Some historical events leave a deep footprint. Alexander the Great’s conquest of much of the world, as known to the people of the Mediterranean at the time, was one such event. While the political empire he established fragmented quickly among his squabbling heirs, the linguistic and cultural empire – an accidental by-product of his victories – lasted centuries longer. Greek became the common language of the ancient Mediterranean world, and Greece’s culture, education and philosophy became the ones to admire.

For some time this was also the case in Jerusalem, many of whose leaders aspired to the Hellenistic city state model. The writer of First Maccabees attributes this primarily to the beginning of the second century BC. He sees it as yet another example of religious and cultural compromise. The leaders seeking cultural assimilation are backed up by the forces and laws of the king, Antiochus Epiphanes, who seems also to have had some delusions of grandeur. The Greek East was much quicker to treat kings or emperors as divine than the Roman West.

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Ripping yarns – Tobit, Judith and Esther

As I mentioned early in this series, I am including the deuterocanonical books / apocrypha in their traditional Greek and Latin Bible order. (The main post discussing this distinction is here.) Today’s post considers a cluster of short stories grouped towards the end of the historical books.

No readings occur in the Sunday Lectionary from the two deuterocanonical books of Tobit and Judith, and only one from the undisputedly canonical book of Esther. It is worth mentioning them together, as they illustrate the kind of short story, told with a historical framework, which show popular stories in their literary versions getting into the Bible. A basic familiarity with them can help us understand the culture in which Jesus and his first followers grew up.

Continue reading “Ripping yarns – Tobit, Judith and Esther”