Volume 46 - Issue 3

Ben Sira’s Canon Conscious Interpretive Strategies: His Narrative History and Realization of the Jewish Scriptures

By Peter Beckman


This paper will outline the canon-conscious worldview of Ben Sira, highlight the major contents of his authoritative corpus of Jewish Writings, and describe his hermeneutical strategies. Ben Sira’s interpretive methods include (1) his reading the Jewish Scriptures as a coherent religious message and (2) his realization and application of these texts to and within his believing community. This scripturally authoritative worldview understands that the Jewish Scriptures are not locked away in the past, but rather it believes that they can and ought to be realized in the present believing community who models and participates in its story.

Our modern Bibles consist of a bound together book format (i.e., codex) of numerous texts into one unified manuscript. This binding format makes it seem natural for the narrative from Genesis to Revelation to be read as a cohesive unit. Before the advent of the codex book format in the first and second centuries AD, the individual books of the Old Testament were not bound together; instead of one book, there were numerous different scrolls preserved by the believing people.1 How were the Scriptures read by the people of God in the years that preceded the advent of the Christian Messiah which was followed by the bringing together of the various scrolls into a unified book? Were the different stories read individually or were they part of a greater narrative? The hermeneutical and interpretive tendencies of Ben Sira and his grandson help to answer these questions.

Ben Sira’s interpretive methods include (1) reading the Jewish Scriptures as a coherent religious message and (2) applying these texts to and within his believing community. This article will describe Ben Sira’s canon-conscious worldview that contains an authoritative corpus of scriptural texts and certain hermeneutical strategies. This textually authoritative worldview understands that the Jewish Scriptures are not locked away in the past as documents that only speak to previous persons and communities, but rather it holds that they can and ought to be realized in the present believing community. Early Christians employed this canonically unified interpretive tradition within Second Temple Judaism in their interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures in light of the paschal mystery of the death and resurrection of the Messiah.

1. The Relevance and Status of Sirach within the Christian Tradition

Within the Christian tradition, the nature of Sirach’s authority has been identified in various ways. In the East, Athanasius (ca. 367), the Synod of Laodicea (ca. 360), Amphilochius of Iconium (ca. 395), Jerome (ca. 390–393) and Gregory Nazianzus (ca. 390) do not include Sirach in the Old Testament canon but include it in a list of other non-canonical books “appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness.”2 In the West, Augustine (ca. 397) and the Third Council of Carthage (397) include Sirach within the canonical books of the Old Testament itself. The Latin Vulgate and subsequent Roman Catholic tradition followed this trajectory.3 Like some thinkers in the East, the churches of the Reformation never identified Sirach as scriptural in the same sense as the thirty-nine books of the Old Testament. Nevertheless, in the Lutheran and Anglican traditions, it was and is still maintained as part of regular lectionary readings.4 Early Lutheran and Anglican Bible editions such as the Lutherbibel (1531), the Froschauer Zürich Bible (1531), and the King James Version (1611) included Sirach along with other apocryphal books in a separate section after the scriptural books of the Old Testament. Although the Apocrypha was not Scripture, Bibles without the Apocrypha were considered deficient. Likewise, some reading plans, such as the Lutheran Calendarium of the Elector’s Bible (1736), and the Anglican Lectionary in the Book of Common Prayer (1662) included Sirach in their regular Bible reading plans. Doctrinal statements, theologians, and popular piety made use of this book as a witness to the practical piety and lived out virtue found in the Scriptures.5 Historically speaking Sirach was and is part of the heritage of the undivided Christian Church and provides a valuable example of a pre-Christian interpretive witness of the Old Testament narrative.

2. The History and Textual Status of Sirach

Jesus (i.e. Joshua), son of Eleazar, son of Sirach of Jerusalem—or simply Ben Sira—wrote the book of Sirach in Hebrew sometime between 195 and 175 BC (Sir 50:27).6 It was later translated into Greek by his grandson 65–70 years later in Egypt (Sir Prologue).7 Both texts are prime examples of Second Temple Jews applying Old Testament themes to their religious contexts and communities.8

While originally written in Hebrew, there is not one complete Hebrew manuscript of Sirach. There is only about 3/4 of the Hebrew text extant.9 The Greek translation, which is the oldest complete edition of the text, appears to be essentially a faithful contextualization of the original Hebrew version (i.e., the Vorlage) along with a brief introduction and conclusion by the translator.10 We recognize that there are differences between these versions, but for the sake of the passages examined in this study, the ongoing assumption is that the Greek recension essentially translates the thought existent in the previous Hebrew Vorlage unless otherwise noted.11

3. Ben Sira’s Worldview of Authoritative Texts

The word canon does not appear in the actual text of Ben Sira. The reality is that the word canon comes from a later theological period; nevertheless, this does not mean that there was not a similar concept or worldview utilized by Ben Sira. While Ben Sira did not use the term canon, he affirmed the concept of an authoritative corpus of texts that he believed were of divine origin and normative for his community. As we will see, his method of approaching the Jewish scriptures was remarkably like the interpretive methods of early Christianity.12

This is where Ben Sira is a valuable resource, because it can be demonstrated that he acknowledges and interprets a corpus of authoritative writings. While an understanding of a biblical canon, such as that of the later Masoretic Text, was not yet present (or at least universally adhered to) in Second Temple Judaism, it is evident to any reader that Sirach was immersed in the Jewish Scriptures and contained a “canon-consciousness.” He believed that there was a body of sacred literature that was a normative guide to the community’s faith and practice.13 For Ben Sira “the Scriptural canon shapes [his] religious consciousness and informs how key concepts are understood and presented.”14

In the current historical study of Sirach, there are maximalist and minimalist claims of the influence of earlier Jewish Writings upon his thought. Scholars have rightly cautioned against assuming that Ben Sira’s use of Jewish scriptural vocabulary signifies that he is alluding to a specific biblical passage. It is not clear that we can distinguish between common wisdom vocabulary used by Ben Sira in a worshiping and academic Jewish environment and a direct reference to a previous passage.15 While Ben Sira was generally familiar with a proto-Masoretic Text, because we do not know what textual version of a Jewish scriptural book he used, we cannot know with certainty what passage he was referring to.16 Maximalist readings assume that Ben Sira had the complete Torah (essentially assumed to be equivalent to the Masoretic Text) and commented upon it in his writings.17 Other authors take a more middle of the road approach and believe that Ben Sira is commenting on canonical themes and did have a form of the Jewish Scriptures in mind when he wrote about certain passages, but are cautious to claim that he is commenting on a specific passage.18 This study generally assumes the third view. We will now identify Ben Sira’s references to various groupings of Scripture.

4. An Authoritative Corpus in Ben Sira

When we read through Sirach, we see that the author makes references to various stories, teachings, and documents contained in the Hebrew Scriptures. He assumed that his audience was familiar with these writings and understood them to be of divine origin and authoritative. We will see here that he makes specific reference to many of the books associated with the sections of the Torah, Prophets, and Writings.

4.1. Ben Sira’s Reference to the Torah

Scholars have identified Ben Sira’s scriptural corpus as some unified form of at least the Torah and Prophets.19 Ben Sira frequently mentions the term Law to refer to divine commandments generally (Sir 32:24; 33:2; 41:8).20 Nevertheless, throughout his book he at times refers to νόμος to indicate a specific writing that he considered to be divine Scripture:

All these things are the book of the covenant of the Most High God, the law that Moses commanded as an inheritance for the congregation of Jacob [νόμον ὃν ἐνετείλατο ἡμῖν Μωυσῆς κληρονομίαν συναγωγαῖς Ιακωβ]. (Sir 24:23)

While Ben Sira elsewhere refers generally to the Mosaic covenant linked to a law of the Most High (Sir 42:2; 44:20), here he makes explicit that this law is linked to an explicit book. This book is some early version of the Hebrew Pentateuch. This reliance on a version of the Mosaic Torah is strengthened by the fact that Sirach 24:23 appears to be an almost verbatim citation of LXX Deuteronomy 33:4.21 While one cannot know the exact text-form used by Ben Sira, this indicates that there was a written form of the Mosaic Torah/Law that was regarded as scriptural or authoritative for the children of Israel.22

The belief in a specific corpus of divine Scriptures discernible as the Law of the Most High appears evident in Ben Sira’s later comments. In his admonition to wise men, he exhorts them to examine various bodies of literature. In the process, he outlines various collections which include the Law of the Most High, the wisdom of the ancients, and prophecies.

But the one who gave his soul freely and ponders on the law of the Most High [ἐν νόμῳ ὑψίστου] will seek out the wisdom of all the ancients and be occupied in prophecies [ἐν προφητείαις]. He will preserve the tale of renowned men and will enter along with the turnings of parables. He will seek out the secrets of proverbs, and he will be conversant with obscure parables. (Sir 39:1–3)

In this passage, Ben Sira clearly distinguishes between different groups of writings. The Law of the Most High appears to be a distinct literary entity.23 It is not clear if the other collections of prophecies, discourses, and parables refer to specific documents. Some commentators believe that in this passage, Ben Sira merely lists Jewish literature in general and does not reference here an authoritative corpus of writings for the believing community.24 This does not make the best sense of the data because the Law, Prophets, and Writings that Ben Sira mentions, are uniquely derived from God.25 He does not imbue other sources of knowledge, such as foreign medicine (Sir 38:1–15), or the discourse of notable men (39:2), as coming directly from God. As we will see, in other contexts Ben Sira will continue to outline these writings as authoritative and from God. In conclusion, we see here that Ben Sira identifies the Law as Scripture for his community.

4.2. Ben Sira’s Reference to the Prophets

Ben Sira displays his knowledge of prophetic history generally and appears to refer to a specific collection of Twelve Prophets. In his narrative history, he refers to the three major prophets in the same order found in the Hebrew canon, from Isaiah (Sir 48:22), to Jeremiah (49:6), to Ezekiel (49:8), culminating with a reference to the Twelve Prophets (49:10).26 Ben Sira meticulously only uses the title prophet to refer to characters from the conquest of the land until the exile, indicating that he has a specific concept in mind.27 These prophets are not merely sages, but speak for God and see visions (46:13, 16). He also references the Twelve Prophets in a similar form to that found in the later Masoretic Text: “And also the Twelve Prophets [וגם שנים עשר הנביאם]” (49:10; author’s trans.).28 The use of the title “the Twelve Prophets” is likely an assumed recognizable entity. Ben Sira seems to be familiar with the twelve books as a grouping of prophetic writings.29 In conclusion, we see that he is familiar with a prophetic history like that found in the Jewish Scriptures and regards them as instructive for his community.

4.3. Ben Sira’s Reference to the Writings in his Narrative History of Israel

Ben Sira does not explicitly describe a collection of books which would later be called the Writings; however, in his narrative history of Israel, he refers to most of the sequentially portrayed characters of the Writings. He tells the story of the Jewish Scriptures not by referring to books but by referring to religious themes that connect them. Within his narrative history of Israel, Ben Sira outlines his knowledge of a version of an earlier Hebrew version of the Pentateuch by speaking of the fathers from Noah, to Abraham, to Aaron, and Moses (Sir 44:16–45:26).30 Ben Sira does not identify the Pentateuch as a book, but rather refers to its contents as associated with the covenants. He distinguishes, not between books, but between covenants made with primeval persons, the patriarchs, Moses, and David. His categorization of Scripture is thematic.31 After the covenantal section, Ben Sira follows the Deuteronomistic History (as opposed to the Chronicler) and outlines the history of kings and prophets from Joshua to Zerubbabel whom he highlights as prophets or engaging in prophecy (Sir 46:1–49:13).32 While the exact textual form of the Hebrew Vorlage he used cannot be verified, in his Praise of the Fathers’ narrative, Ben Sira alludes textually to an essentially thematic and narratively similar textual tradition to the Pentateuch, Prophets, and some of the writings contained in the Hebrew Jewish Scriptures.33 He does not explicitly comment on some of the other books of the Writings such as Ruth, Song of Songs, Ezra, Chronicles, Daniel, or Esther; nonetheless, he shows a remarkable knowledge of the essential Deuteronomistic and Prophetic History.34 Ben Sira possesses knowledge of the narrative history of Israel in a form remarkably similar to that of the later Jewish Masoretic Text. His comments on the Scripture’s many narrative parts indicate that he believed that there was a body of sacred literature normative to the faith and practice of his people.35

4.4. Canon Consciousness in Ben Sira’s Grandson’s Interpretive Remarks

In the Greek version of Sirach, Ben Sira’s grandson writes a prologue where he communicates his concept of the Jewish Scriptures. While it is arguable that there may not have been a clear tripartite division of the Jewish Scriptures in mind in Hebrew Ben Sira, his grandson clearly understands that the Hebrew Scriptures are divisible into three separate sections.36

Many and great things to us through the law and the prophets and the others [διὰ τοῦ νόμου καὶ τῶν προφητῶν καὶ τῶν ἄλλων] who followed after them. (Sir Prologue)

Likewise, the prologue clarifies that Sirach was written as a result of Ben Sira’s reflection on the Law, Prophets, and other books to help those who read to live according to the Law:

My grandfather, Joshua [i.e. Jesus], having given himself over much time to reading the law and the prophets and the other books of our ancestors [τοῦ νόμου καὶ τῶν προφητῶν καὶ τῶν ἄλλων πατρίων βιβλίων], and after obtaining sufficient skill in these, was himself also prompted to write something of the things pertaining to instruction and wisdom, so that those eager to learn, having become acquainted with these things also, might make much more progress on account of the divine law of life. (Sir Prologue)

The prologue highlights that by its time (and incidentally early in Christianity) there existed within some movements of Judaism a fluid tripartite understanding of Scripture. While there were three general collections, the exact contents of each of them were still fluid.37 While most groups agreed on most of the books contained in these collections, there remained a lack of consensus concerning certain books such as Esther or Ecclesiastes. While Ben Sira does not delineate a comprehensive canon list in Hebrew Sirach, by the time of the Greek version the teaching sage does refer to some explicit groupings of scriptural writings.

5. Ben Sira’s Canonically Informed Interpretive Strategies

In the previous section, we demonstrated that Ben Sira possessed a corpus of authoritative writings that proceeded from a divine origin. We will show here that Ben Sira and his grandson interpreted these diverse ancient documents as together forming a coherent message that informed and shaped their present religious communities.

5.1. Ben Sira’s Hermeneutical Interpretation of Hebrew Scriptures as a Coherent Religious Message

Most modern readers are exposed to the books of the Jewish Scriptures or the Old Testament as a unified document. This internal thematic and theological coherence is assumed by the binding together of various texts by different authors into one book. As we will see, this internal unity was not always historically evident and was not assumed by all Second Temple Jews. This is where the importance of Ben Sira as a historical figure emerges because he believed that the Jewish Scriptures could be read as a part of a unified narrative emphasizing themes that ought to be emulated by later members of his believing community.

On a historical level, we must recognize that in different times in history readers might not have seen this coherence between different books. With perhaps the exception of Chronicles and some comments in other later books, it is not immediately clear that many of the Jewish scriptural texts, if read as separate books by individual authors, must be read as parts of a unified plot that share a coherent theology.38 Various groups within Second Temple Judaism disagreed about the extent of the scriptural corpus. Some groups read the Pentateuch alone as the authoritative writing for their community.39 This was further complicated by the textual reality of books being read separately because they were not bound together in a codex. The earliest known forms of the Jewish Scriptures where the various books were bound together into one codex were the Old Greek translations. These first only included the Pentateuch but later by the second century AD included all the books of the Jewish Scriptures translated into Greek and bound together as a unit. The diversity of Second Temple Jewish understandings concerning a community’s religious texts is where Sirach stands as an important precedent for early Christianity. Ben Sira possesses a list of scripturally authoritative texts which he interprets as a coherent message relevant to his religious audience. This method of understanding the Jewish Scriptures as unified authoritative texts appears to be practiced by early Christianity.

Ben Sira’s understanding of history, unlike modern history that tends to be concerned with dates, events, wars, and politics, is principally dominated by and concerned with God’s acts in history and the religious behavior of his worshipers.40 Particularly in his Praise of the Fathers section (chs. 44–50), Ben Sira retells the epic of Israel as a story that highlights certain laudable philosophical and ethical concepts.41 Rather than engaging in secular history, readers are confronted by Ben Sira’s religious worldview of members of the people of God who faithfully embody God’s wisdom and virtue.42 In this section he tells the story of Israel, highlighting the characteristics of persons who embody faithful covenant worshipers and leaders. He concludes with the Hebrew Vorlage’s chronological ending of Zerubbabel and Nehemiah’s reconstruction of the temple (49:12–13).43 Breaking his chronological order, he mentions Adam and Enoch as faithful persons (49:14–15) and then turns his attention to the current situation of the High Priest Simon worshiping with the people in Jerusalem (ch. 50).44 History is understood in terms of praise; all the events from creation to the return from exile culminate in the doxology of God.45

Ben Sira read various Jewish books, most of which would be included in the later Old Testament, as part of a unified narrative of the story of Israel. Despite his recognition that there were multiple authors of the various books that made up the Hebrew Scriptures, he believed that they together formed one narrative of the people of God. This story was not merely a historical novelty, but he believed it had present implications for the life of the present people of God who likewise worship God and receive mercy and blessing from him (Sir 50:22–24).

5.2. Ben Sira’s Hermeneutical Realization of the Jewish Scriptures
in His Current Religious Community

Ben Sira’s practice of re-reading and re-appropriating earlier texts for his current faith setting is of particular interest to Early Christianity. What is significant in Sirach is that the author does not claim that his writings are the result of an apocalyptic vision or divine prophecy.46 He believes that he, as a covenant member of the Jewish people (and possibly a priest or scribe),47 can read previous texts and apply them to his religious community’s situation. Ben Sira adapts the older Scriptures and makes them relevant to Jews living in the Hellenistic age.48 Previously inked Scriptures are not historically detached or un-applicable to the later believing community. Scripture functions as a hermeneutical lens by which later lives can be understood and formed. Scripture is not understood in isolation to modern reality but finds representation in present believing individuals and circumstances.49 The spiritual story finds realization in the life, worship, and practices of the present believing Jewish community (Sir 50:19–24).

This practice of understanding the salvation history of the people and events of the Jewish Scriptures as culminating and being made real in the present community of believers is widely appropriated by early Christianity. Hebrews retells the story of members of the people of God from Abel to the prophets who embodied faith to encourage the Christian community who likewise needed to express faith (Heb 11:1–12:1). Similarly, Jesus is pictured as the culmination of the royal lineage of the people of God (Matt 1:1–18; Luke 3:23–38). Clement of Rome narrates the history of Israel by outlining the characters who embodied envy and jealousy and those who embodied humility to exhort his followers to engage in holy conduct (1 Clement chs. 4–5). Like these writers, Ben Sira does not believe that the Jewish Scriptures are locked into the past as documents that only speak to previous persons and communities; rather, he realizes and appropriates them in his current believing community.

6. Conclusion

In this study we introduced the book of Sirach and its historic use in the greater Christian tradition where it was placed either in the Deuterocanonical Old Testament or in the section of the Apocrypha in various Bibles. We outlined the basic history of the Hebrew version and its derived Greek translation. The book itself claims to have been written as a summary and application of the Jewish Scriptures for practicing Second Temple Jews. We then examined the Scriptures that Sirach used. Sirach references the sections of the Law, Prophets, and Writings as well as the stories and figures contained in them. While Sirach does not contain an exhaustive list of the books or the forms of the books that he used, the Jewish Scriptures he read and taught from were remarkably like the later Masoretic Text.

Ben Sira’s commentary is a witness of a Second Temple Jew who read the Hebrew Scriptures as a cohesive unit, as a theological canon. His treatment of the Jewish Scriptures is a witness of a coherent unified reading of a corpus of Jewish Scriptures remarkably similar to that found in the later Hebrew Masoretic Text. He believes that these diverse texts can be read as a narrative that continues on and is realized in the life of his worshiping community who models and participates in it. Similar methods of interpreting the Jewish Scriptures were later employed by early Christianity.

The way that Ben Sira used the Jewish Scriptures was and is an interpretive model for us Christians. We Christians find a valuable witness in Sirach of a pre-Christian thinker who believed in a corpus of Jewish Scriptures remarkably like the Christian Old Testament. In contrast with some modern skeptical scholarship, Sirach proves that there were some Jews in the second century BC who possessed a canon conscious understanding of Jewish Scripture like that of early Christians. His interpretive method teaches us modern Christians how we can read the Bible. Like Ben Sira who taught, applied, and made relevant ancient Jewish Scriptures to his religious community, modern Christian teachers can apply the Old Testament to their current religious contexts. Ben Sira’s unified reading of Scripture is also instructive. Modern historical methods tend to study each historical book of the Old Testament individually in its unique context; as a result, sometimes the coherent unified message of the various books is obscured. Frequently the necessary detailed diachronic historical reading of each book is not followed by a synchronic sequential reading of the books together as part of a greater narrative. Believers can follow Ben Sira’s example when we read the various texts of the story of Israel as a unified narrative and message that culminates in our worship and glorification of God.

[1] Tomas Bokedal, The Formation and Significance of the Christian Biblical Canon: A Study in Text, Ritual and Interpretation (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 125–27.

[2] Athanasius of Alexandria, Festal Letter 39 (NPNF1 4:552); cf. Jerome, Prologus Galeatus. See also Daniel Harrington, “The Old Testament Apocrypha in the Early Church and Today,” in The Canon Debate, ed. Lee Martin Mcdonald and James Sanders (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002), 199; Elias Oikonomos, “The Significance of the Deuterocanonical Writings in the Orthodox Church,” in The Apocrypha in Ecumenical Perspective, ed. Siegfried Meurer (Reading, UK: United Bible Societies, 1992), 20–22; Edmon Gallagher and John Meade, The Biblical Canon Lists from Early Christianity: Texts and Analysis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 198–203. For a comparison of various early canon lists, see Gallagher and Meade, The Biblical Canon Lists.

[3] Breviarium Hipponense 36; Augustine, Christian Instruction,–13.29. Gallagher and Meade, The Biblical Canon Lists, 223–30; Hans Peter Rüger, “Le siracide: un livre à la frontière du canon,” in Le canon de l’Ancien Testament: sa formation et son histoire, ed. Jean-Daniel Kaestli and Otto Wermelinger (Genève: Labor et fides, 1984), 56; Harrington, “The Old Testament Apocrypha,” 198–99.

[4] Article 6 of the Anglican 39 Articles states that the Apocrypha (including Sirach) should be read “for example of life and instruction of manners”; Article 35’s Book of Homilies cites the Apocrypha about eighty times. While the Reformed tradition always was less favorable to the use of the Apocrypha, only in the 19th century was the Apocrypha more commonly removed from Bibles as more economically affordable and “pocket sized” editions were mass produced. Bruce Metzger, Introduction to the Apocrypha (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1957), 181–204; Gordon Campbell, Bible: The Story of the King James Version, 1611–2011 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 157–58.

[5] David Chyträus, Sententiae Iesv Syracidae: Qvae Svnt Vera Et Sacra Christianorum Ethica: Illustratae explicatione (Wittenberg: Johannes Crato, 1573); Valerius Herberger, Erklärung des Haus- und Zucht-Buchs Jesus Sirach (Frauenstadt: Leidenfrost, 1739); Eve-Marie Becker, “Jesus Sirach und das Luthertum des 16. Jahrhunderts: Über Inhalt und Funktion eines schlesischen Katechismus von 1561,” in Ben Sira’s God: Proceedings of the International Ben Sira Conference Durham Ushaw College 2001, ed. Renate Egger-Wenzel, BZAW 321 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2002), 353–55; Klaus Fricke, “Apocrypha in the Lutheran Bible,” in The Apocrypha in Ecumenical Perspective, ed. Siegfried Meurer (Reading, UK: United Bible Societies, 1991), 58–67; Ernst Koch, “Die Himmlische Philosophie des heiligen Geistes. Zur Bedeutung alttestamentlicher Spruchweisheit im Luthertum des 16. und 17. Jahrhunderts,” TLZ 115 (1990): 705–20; William Daubney, The Use of the Apocrypha in the Christian Church (C. J. Clay, 1900).

[6] Marko Marttila, Foreign Nations in the Wisdom of Ben Sira: A Jewish Sage between Opposition and Assimilation, DCLS 13 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2012), 3–4; Alexander Di Lella and Patrick Skehan, The Wisdom of Ben Sira, AB 39 (New York: Doubleday, 1987), 550; Bradley Gregory, Like an Everlasting Signet Ring: Generosity in the Book of Sirach, DCLS 2 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2010), 7.

[7] Benjamin Wright, No Small Difference: Sirach’s Relationship to Its Hebrew Parent Text, SBLSCS 26 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989), 1. The prologue only states that it was translated in Egypt, while most people assume it was in Alexandria, this is not conclusively know since Jewish communities also were in Memphis and other cities, see James Aitken, “The Literary Attainment of the Translator of Greek Sirach,” in The Texts and Versions of the Book of Ben Sira, ed. Jean-Sébastien Rey and Jan Joosten, JSJSup 150 (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 98–99.

[8] John Snaith, Ecclesiasticus, CBC (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974), 1.

[9] Núria Calduch-Benages, “Ben Sira y el canon de las escrituras,” Greg 78 (1997): 361.

[10] Studies in the grandson’s Greek recension have demonstrated that in his translation he was primarily interested in accurately translating the Sirach Vorlage before him into the understandable Greek of his day. Various features of the recension, such as a greater fluidity and natural style in the prologue as well as Hebraisms maintained in the translation, indicate that the translator was interested in not creating a new work but in faithfully making his grandfather’s work accessible to Greek speakers. See Aitken, “The Literary Attainment,” 108; Benjamin Wright, “Translation Greek in Sirach in Light of the Grandson’s Prologue,” in The Texts and Versions of Ben Sira, ed. Jean-Sébastien Rey and Jan Joosten (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 75–94.

[11] We recognize that there are major differences between both versions, but for the topic of this study we do not think that the results are dramatically different. If there appears to be any unique contribution provided in the Greek recension this will be noted. This is a necessary assumption because for many of the passages we examine in this study there is no known extant Hebrew manuscript. The best available scholarly Hebrew edition of Sirach, which is used in the study, is Pancratius Beentjes, The Book of Ben Sira in Hebrew: A Text Edition of All Extant Hebrew Manuscripts and a Synopsis of All Parallel Hebrew Ben Sira Texts, VTSup 68 (Leiden: Brill, 1997). English LXX citations (LES) are from Ken M. Penner, Rick Brannan, Israel Loken, Michael Aubrey, and Isaiah Hoogendyk, eds., The Lexham English Septuagint (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012). Greek citations are from the standard Greek critical edition Joseph Ziegler, ed., Sapientia Iesu Filii Sirach (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1965).

[12] Early Christian groups viewed various books as divine Scripture; these were authoritative books that they believed were given to them under God’s supervision. This belief that there were divine Scriptures was shared with many Second Temple Jewish groups that shared the conviction that there were certain books that were Scripture (Matt 19:3–9). The belief that there was scripture signified that there was an implicit category of non-scripture. The loosely agreed upon list/collection of scriptural books was later easily recognized as a canon by later communities that were forced to answer these questions. These were later called the Old Testament and New Testament across various Christian communities. James VanderKam, The Dead Sea Scrolls and The Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 52–54; Michael Kruger, The Question of Canon: Challenging The Status Quo in the New Testament Debate (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013), 27–46; Bokedal, The Formation and Significance, 70–79.

[13] Gerald Sheppard, Wisdom as a Hermeneutical Construct: A Study in the Sapientializing of the Old Testament, BZAW 151 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1980), 109–10; Jack Sanders, Wisdom and Torah Traditions in Ben Sira and Demotic Wisdom, SBLMS 28 (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1983), 26.

[14] Alon Goshen-Gottstein, “Ben Sira’s Praise of the Fathers: A Canon-Conscious Reading,” in Ben Sira’s God: Proceedings of the International Ben Sira Conference Durham Ushaw College 2001, ed. Renate Egger-Wenzel, BZAW 321 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2002), 243.

[15] Wright, No Small Difference, 123–24. John Snaith, “Biblical Quotations in the Hebrew of Ecclesiasticus,” JTS 18 (1967): 11–12.

[16] Benjamin Wright, “The Use and Interpretation of Biblical Tradition in Ben Sira’s Praise of the Ancestors,” in Studies in the Book of Ben Sira: Papers of the Third International Conference on the Deuterocanonical Books, Shime’on Centre, Pápa, Hungary, 18–20 May 2006, ed. Géza Xeravits, JSJSup 127 (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 189. Andrew Schmidt, “Wisdom, Cosmos, and Cultus in the Book of Sirach” (PhD diss., Catholic University of America, 2017), 245–47.

[17] Marc Jolley, “The Function of Torah in Sirach” (PhD diss., The Southern Baptist Seminary, 1993), 10.

[18] Burton Mack, Wisdom and the Hebrew Epic: Ben Sira’s Hymn in Praise of the Fathers, CSJH (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), 80–81, 112–13.

[19] Jean-Louis Ska, “L’éloge des pères dans le siracide et le canon de l’ancien testament,” in Treasures of Wisdom: Studies in Ben Sira and the Book of Wisdom, ed. N. Calduch-Benages and J. Vermeylen, BETL 143 (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1999), 181; Timothy Lim, “A Theory of the Majority Canon,” ExpTim 124 (2013): 369.

[20] In the Greek Recension this is referred to by νόμος (i.e., Sir 2:16) and in available Hebrew Manuscripts as תורה (15:1; 32:24).

[21] Compare with “a law, which Moses commanded you, an inheritance of the congregations of Jacob [νόμον, ὃν ἐνετείλατο ἡμῖν Μωυσῆς, κληρονομίαν συναγωγαῖς Ιακωβ]” (LXX Deut 33:4). See Sheppard, Wisdom as a Hermeneutical Construct, 101.

[22] Sheppard, Wisdom as a Hermeneutical Construct, 68–69, 106; Mack, Wisdom and the Hebrew Epic, 112.

[23] Mack, Wisdom and the Hebrew Epic, 109.

[24] Francis Borchardt, “Prologue of Sirach (Ben Sira) and The Question of Canon,” in Sacra Scriptura: How “Non-Canonical” Texts Functioned in Early Judaism and Early Christianity, ed. James H. Charlesworth, Blake Jurgens, and Lee Martin Mcdonald, JCTC 20 (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 64; Armin Lange, “The Law, the Prophets, and the Other Books of the Fathers,” in Studies in the Book of Ben Sira: Papers of the Third International Conference on Deuterocanonical Books, ed. Géza G. Xeravits and József Zsengeller, JSJSup 127 (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 67, 70.

[25] The Law is a book from God (Sir 24:23; 39:1), and the Prophets are exclusively figures who precede the return from the exile who speak for God and see visions (46:13, 16). Prophets are those who pray (see Gen 20:7). Goshen-Gottstein, “Ben Sira’s Praise of the Fathers,” 254.

[26] Ska, “L’éloge des pères,” 182.

[27] Ska, “L’éloge des pères,” 184.

[28] This differs slightly from the Greek version which states “and the bones of the Twelve Prophets [καὶ τῶν δώδεκα προφητῶν τὰ ὀστᾶ].”

[29] Sid Leiman, The Canonization of Hebrew Scripture: The Talmudic and Midrashic Evidence, TCAAS 47 (Hamden, CN: Archon Books, 1976), 27; Jeremy Corley, “Canonical Assimilation in Ben Sira’s Portrayal of Joshua and Samuel,” in Rewriting Biblical History: Essays on Chronicles and Ben Sira in Honor of Pancratius C. Beentjes, ed. Jeremy Corley and Harm van Grol, DCLS 7 (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2011), 69–70. The collection of individual oracles into a recognizable list imbued them with a sense of authority. A list delineated the right way to read them as Scripture. Michael Floyd, “New Form Criticism and Beyond: The Historicity of Prophetic Literature Revisited,” in The Book of the Twelve and the New Form Criticism, ed. Mark Boda, Colin Toffelmire, and Michael Floyd, ANEM 10 (Atlanta: SBL Press, 2015), 27–31.

[30] Corley, “Canonical Assimilation,” 186.

[31] Corley, “Canonical Assimilation,” 188.

[32] Corley, “Canonical Assimilation,” 189–90. Many of the books, such as Joshua or Samuel, which were later identified as part of the writings, were at the time of Ben Sira identified as prophets. Corley, “Canonical Assimilation,” 69–70. Ben Sira embodies some themes similar to those in Chronicles such as the high liturgical importance of David, see Mack, Wisdom and the Hebrew Epic, 118.

[33] Craig Evans, “The Scriptures of Jesus and His Earliest Followers,” in The Canon Debate, ed. Lee Martin McDonald and James Sanders (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002), 187; Rüger, “Le siracide: un livre à la frontière du canon,” 60–64. Sirach makes no explicit reference to the wisdom books such as Proverbs or Ecclesiastes but its textual format of bicolon stanzas show that it likely was inspired by these writings.

[34] Ska, “L’éloge des pères,” 189–92; Leiman, The Canonization of Hebrew Scripture, 29.

[35] Sheppard, Wisdom as a Hermeneutical Construct, 110. Ben Sira’s lack of explanation to convince his audience of the authenticity of the writings he refers to, indicates that there was a sizable population of Second Temple Jews who by the earlier part of the 2nd Century BC possessed a corpus of scriptural writings remarkably similar to that later espoused in the Hebrew Canon.

[36] Leiman, The Canonization of Hebrew Scripture, 29.

[37] Leiman, The Canonization of Hebrew Scripture, 29; Lim, “A Theory of the Majority Canon,” 369. The Law and Prophets are given recognizable titles whereas what would later be included in the Writings are merely called the others without a specific title. This indicates that this identification of this division as a commonly held concept was perhaps a more recent development that was gradually spreading. Roger Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church and Its Background in Early Judaism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 165.

[38] Some introductory remarks of canonical interpretive trajectory are in the Hebrew Texts themselves. F. F. Bruce, “The Earliest Old Testament Interpretation,” in The Witness of Tradition: Papers Read at the Joint British-Dutch Old Testament Conference Held at Woudschoten, 1970, ed. Martinus A. Beek, Oudtestamentische Studiën 17 (Leiden: Brill, 1972), 37–52; Robert I. Vasholz, The Old Testament Canon in the Old Testament Church: The Internal Rationale for Old Testament Canonicity, ANETS 7 (Lewiston, NY: Mellen, 1990).

[39] For instance, the Samaritans only accepted the Pentateuch and rejected the books of the Prophets and Writings as Scripture. J. Coggins, Samaritan and Jews: The Origins of Samaritanism Reconsidered (Oxford: Blackwell, 1975), 148–53. The Sadducees likewise appear to have only accepted the Pentateuch and rejected the other books as well as oral tradition, see Bart Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 5th ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 61. N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 211. Different communities also possessed versions of the Jewish Scriptures that had different Hebrew language text forms. There were also multiple Hebrew forms of certain books that coexisted in Second Temple Judaism: these included Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Job, and likely Esther. For those communities that used Greek, there were major differences between Greek Daniel, Esther, and 3 Kingdoms and their Hebrew counterparts. John Wevers, “The Interpretative Character and Significance of the Septuagint Version,” in Hebrew Bible, Old Testament: The History of Its Interpretation: From the Beginnings to the Middle Ages (until 1300), ed. Magne Saebo (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1996), 87–88; Shemaryahu Talmon, “Aspects of the Textual Transmission of the Bible in the Light of Qumran Manuscripts,” in Qumran and the History of the Biblical Text, ed. Frank Moore Cross and Shemaryahu Talmon (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1975), 226–63; Emanuel Tov, “The Nature of the Large-Scale Difference Between the LXX and MT S T V, Compared with Similar Evidence in Other Sources.,” in The Earliest Text of the Hebrew Bible: The Relationship Between the Masoretic Text and Hebrew Base of the Septuagint Reconsidered, ed. Adrian Schenker, SBLSCS 52 (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 121–44; Emanuel Tov, “Reflections on the Many Forms of Hebrew Scripture in Light of the LXX and 4QReworked Pentateuch,” in Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, Qumran, Septuagint: Collected Essays, Volume 3, VTSup 167 (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 3–19; Bruce Waltke, “Aims of Old Testament Textual Criticism,” WTJ 51 (1989): 102–7.

[40] Goshen-Gottstein, “Ben Sira’s Praise of the Fathers,” 237.

[41] Mack, Wisdom and the Hebrew Epic, 114.

[42] The Praise of the Fathers is a series of examples [Beispielreihe] who actualized laudable virtues. See similar forms in 1 Maccabees 2:51–60; 3 Maccabees 2:3–8; 4 Maccabees 16:15–23; 18:9–19. Jeremy Corley, Ben Sira’s Teaching on Friendship, BJS 316 (Providence, RI: Brown Judaic Studies, 2002), 22; W. Baumgartner, “Die literarischen Gattungen in der Weisheit des Jesus Sirach,” ZAW 34 (1914): 164; Samuel Adams, Wisdom in Transition: Act and Consequence in Second Temple Instructions, JSJSup 125 (Leiden: Brill, 2008), 159; Mark Sneed, The Social World of the Sages: An Introduction to Israelite and Jewish Wisdom Literature (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 184; Sheppard, Wisdom as a Hermeneutical Construct, 13; Thomas Lee, Studies in the Form of Sirach 44–50, SBLDS 75 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986), 32–33, 242; Renzo Petraglio, Il libro che contamina le mani: Ben Sirac rilegge il libro e la storia d’Israele, Theo 4 (Palermo: Augustinus, 1993), 17–18; Robert Siebeneck, “May Their Bones Return to Life!—Sirach’s Praise of the Fathers,” CBQ 21 (1959): 414.

[43] The centrality of covenant in his interpretive system is seen in Sirach 11:20; 39:8; 44:12, 18, 20; see Goshen-Gottstein, “Ben Sira’s Praise of the Fathers,” 245–49.

[44] God’s provision of a faithful priest like Simon acts as a visible guarantee of God’s faithfulness. Edmond Jacob, “L’histoire d’Israel vue par Ben Sira,” in Mélanges bibliques rédigés en l’honneur de Andre Robert, TICP 4 (Paris: Bloud & Gay, 1957), 294.

[45] Goshen-Gottstein, “Ben Sira’s Praise of the Fathers,” 237.

[46] This is unlike some other Second Temple Works such as 1 Enoch or the Testaments of the Patriarchs.

[47] Many scholars believe that Ben Sira was interested in cultic terminology because he was actually a priest (Sir 7:29–31). Some think on the other hand that he was a temple scribe (38:24). See Saul Olyan, “Ben Sira’s Relationship to the Priesthood,” HTR 80 (1987): 263; Greg Goering, Wisdom’s Root Revealed: Ben Sira and the Election of Israel, JSJSup 139 (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 126.

[48] Di Lella and Skehan, The Wisdom of Ben Sira, 40.

[49] Goshen-Gottstein, “Ben Sira’s Praise of the Fathers,” 261.

Peter Beckman

Peter Beckman is a PhD candidate in the faculty of theology at Saint Paul University in Ottawa, Ontario.

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