Ben Sira

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Books of the

Hebrew Bible

The Wisdom of Ben Sira (or The Wisdom of Jesus son of Sirach or merely Sirach), also called Ecclesiasticus (not to be confused with Ecclesiastes) is an apocryphal book written in Hebrew c. 180–175 B.C.E., attributed to Yeshua/Jesus ben Sira (born c. 170). Although it was not accepted into the Tanakh (the Jewish biblical canon), The Wisdom of Ben Sira is occasionally quoted in the Talmud and works of rabbinic literature. It is included in the Septuagint and is accepted as part of the biblical canon by Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, but not by most Protestants.

From its original Hebrew, The Wisdom of Ben Sira was translated into Greek by Jesus ben Sira's grandson, who added a preface. Subsequently, the Greek Church Fathers called it The All-Virtuous Wisdom. The Latin Church Fathers, beginning with Cyprian (Testimonia, ii. 1; iii. 1, 35, 51, 95, et passim), termed it Ecclesiasticus, because it was frequently read in churches, and was thus called liber ecclesiasticus (Latin and Latinized Greek for "church book"). Today it is more frequently known as Ben Sira, or simply Sirach. (The title Ben Sirach should be avoided because it is a mix of the Hebrew and Greek titles. In addition, the Wisdom of Ben Sira should not be confused with another, different medieval work called The Alphabet of Ben-Sira.)

Canonical status

The Wisdom of Ben Sira is accepted as part of the Christian biblical canons by Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and most of Oriental Orthodox. The Anglican Church do not accept it as canonical but only should be read, "for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth not apply them to establish any doctrine."[1] Similarly, the Lutheran Churches include it in their lectionaries, and as a book proper for reading, devotion, and prayer. Its influence on early Christianity is evident, as it was explicitly cited in the Epistle of James, the Didache (iv. 5), and the Epistle of Barnabas (xix. 9). Clement of Alexandria and Origen quote from it repeatedly, as from a γραφή, or holy book.[2] The Catalogue of Cheltenham, Pope Damasus I, the Councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397), Pope Innocent I, the second Council of Carthage (419), and Augustine all regarded it as canonical, although the Council of Laodicea, of Jerome, and of Rufinus of Aquileia, ranked it instead as an ecclesiastical book. It was finally definitively declared canonical in 1546 during the fourth session of the Council of Trent.[2]

The book is not part of the Jewish canon established at the hypothetical Council of Jamnia, perhaps due to its late authorship,[3] although it is not clear that the canon was completely "closed" at the time of Ben Sira.[4] Others have suggested that Ben Sira's self-identification as the author precluded it from attaining canonical status, which was reserved for works that were attributed (or could be attributed) to the prophets,[5] or that it was denied entry to the canon as a rabbinical counter-reaction to its embrace by the nascent Christian community.[6]

However, some Jews in the diaspora considered the book scripture. For instance, it was included in the canon of the Jewish Septuagint, the second century B.C.E. Greek version of the Jewish scriptures used by Diaspora Jews, through which it became part of the Catholic canon. The multiplicity of manuscript fragments uncovered in the Cairo Genizah evidence its authoritative status among Egyptian Jewry until the Middle Ages.[7]

Because it was excluded from the Jewish canon, The Wisdom of Ben Sira was excised from the Protestant canon following the Reformation.


The author is named in the Greek text (l. 27), "Jesus the son of Sirach of Jerusalem." The copy owned by Saadia Gaon had the reading "Shim`on, son of Yeshua`, son of El`azar ben Sira;" and a similar reading occurs in the Hebrew manuscript. By interchanging the positions of the names "Shim`on" and "Yeshua`," the same reading is obtained as in the other manuscripts. The correctness of the name "Shim`on" is confirmed by the Syriac version, which has "Yeshua`, son of Shim`on, surnamed Bar Asira." The discrepancy between the two readings "Bar Asira" and "Bar Sira" is a noteworthy one, "Asira" ("prisoner") being a popular etymology of "Sira." The evidence seems to show that the author's name was Yeshua, son of Shimon, son of Eleazar ben Sira. ("Jesus" is the Anglicized form of the Greek name Ιησους, the equivalent of Syriac Yeshua` and Masoretic Hebrew Yehoshua`.)

The surname Sira means "the thorn" in Aramaic. The Greek form, Sirach, adds the letter chi, similar to Hakeldamach in Acts 1:19.

According to the Greek version, though not according to the Syriac, the author traveled extensively (xxxiv. 11) and was frequently in danger of death (ib. verse 12). In the book, Sira speaks of the perils of all sorts from which God had delivered him, although this is probably only a poetic theme in imitation of the Psalms. The tribulations to which he was exposed in the presence of a certain king, supposed to be one of the Ptolemaic dynasty, are mentioned only in the Greek version, being ignored both in the Syriac and in the Hebrew text. The only fact known with certainty, drawn from the text itself, is that Ben Sira was a scholar, and a scribe thoroughly versed in the Law, and especially in the "Books of Wisdom."


The Prologue to Ben Sira is generally considered the earliest witness to a canon of the books of the prophets. Thus the date of the text is the subject of intense scrutiny.

The Greek translator states in his preface that he was the grandson of the author, and that he came to Egypt in the thirty-eighth year of the reign of "Euergetes." The epithet was borne by only two of the Ptolemies, of whom Ptolemy III Euergetes reigned only twenty-five years (247-222 B.C.E.) thus Ptolemy VIII Euergetes must be intended; he ascended the throne in the year 170 B.C.E., together with his brother Philometor; but he soon became sole ruler of Cyrene, and from 146 to 117, held sway over all Egypt, although he dated his reign from the year in which he received the crown (i.e., from 170 B.C.E.). The translator must, therefore, have gone to Egypt in 132 B.C.E.

If the average length of two generations be reckoned, Ben Sira's date must fall in the first third of the second century. Ben Sira contains a eulogy of "Simon the High Priest, the son of Onias, who in his life repaired the House" (50:1). Most scholars agree that it seems to have formed the original ending of the text, and that the second High Priest Simon (d. 196 B.C.E.) was intended. Struggles between Simon's successors occupied the years 175–172 B.C.E. and are not discussed. Nor is the persecution of the Jews by Antiochus IV Epiphanes in 168.

Ben Sira's grandson was in Egypt, translating and editing after the usurping Hasmonean line had definitively ousted Simon's heirs in long struggles and was finally in control of the High Priesthood in Jerusalem. Comparing the Hebrew and Greek versions show that he altered the prayer for Simon and broadened its application ("may He entrust to us his mercy"), in order to avoid having a work centered praising God’s covenanted faithfulness close on an unanswered prayer (Guillaume).

Texts and manuscripts

The Greek translation of Ben Sira is found in many codices of the Septuagint.

In the early twentieth century, several substantial Hebrew texts of Ben Sira, copied in the eleventh and twelfth centuries C.E., were found in the Cairo genizah (a synagogue storage room for damaged manuscripts). Although none of these manuscripts is complete, together they provide the text for about two-thirds of the book of Ben Sira.

In the 1940s and 1950s, three copies of portions of Ben Sira were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. The largest scroll was discovered at Masada, the famous Jewish fortress destroyed in 73 C.E. The earliest of these scrolls has been dated to shortly after 100 B.C.E., approximately 100 years after Ben Sira was first composed. These early Hebrew texts are in substantial agreement with the Hebrew texts discovered in Cairo, although there are numerous minor discrepancies. With these findings, scholars are now more confident that the Cairo texts are reliable witnesses to the Hebrew original.


Illustration from Ben Sira, c. 1751.

The Book of Ben Sira is a collection of ethical teachings. Thus Ecclesiasticus closely resembles Proverbs, except that, unlike the latter, it is the work of a single author, not an anthology of maxims drawn from various sources. Some have denied Ben Sira the authorship of the apothegms, and have regarded him as a compiler.

The teachings are applicable to all conditions of life: To parents and children, to husbands and wives, to the young, to masters, to friends, to the rich, and to the poor. Many of them are rules of courtesy and politeness; and a still greater number contain advice and instruction as to the duties of a person toward oneself and others, especially the poor, as well as toward society and the state, and most of all toward God. These precepts are arranged in verses, which are grouped according to their outward form. The sections are preceded by eulogies of wisdom that serve as introductions and mark the divisions into which the collection falls.

Wisdom, in Ben Sira's view, is synonymous with the fear of God, and is sometimes identified in his mind with adherence to the Mosaic law. The maxims are expressed in exact formulas, and are illustrated by striking images. They show a profound knowledge of the human heart, the disillusionment of experience, a fraternal sympathy with the poor and the oppressed, and an unconquerable distrust of women.

As in Ecclesiastes, two opposing tendencies are at work in the author: the faith and the morality of olden times, which are stronger than all argument, and an Epicureanism of modern date. Occasionally Ben Sira digresses to attack theories that he considers dangerous; for example, that a person has no freedom of will, and that God is indifferent to the actions of humankind and does not reward virtue. Some of the refutations of these views are developed at considerable length.

Through these moralistic chapters runs the prayer of Israel imploring God to gather together his scattered children, to bring to fulfillment the predictions of the Prophets, and to have mercy upon his Temple and his people. The book concludes with a justification of God, whose wisdom and greatness are said to be revealed in all God's works as well as in the history of Israel. These chapters are completed by the author's signature, and are followed by two hymns, the latter apparently a sort of alphabetical acrostic.


In the Jewish liturgy

Although excluded from the Jewish canon, Ben Sira was used as the basis for two important parts of the Jewish liturgy. In the Mahzor (High Holy day prayer book), a medieval Jewish poet used Ben Sira as the basis for a poem, KeOhel HaNimtah, in the Yom Kippur musaf ("additional") service. Recent scholarship indicates that it formed the basis of the most important of all Jewish prayers, the Amidah. Ben Sira apparently provides the vocabulary and framework for many of the Amidah's blessings. Many rabbis quoted Ben Sira as an authoritative work during the three centuries before the shift of the Sanhedrin to Yavneh (Jamnia).

In the New Testament

Some people claim that there are several allusions to the book of Sirach in the New Testament. These include The magnificat in Luke 1:52 following Sirach 10:14, the description of the seed in Mark 4:5,16-17 following Sirach 40:15, and Christ's statement in 7:16,20 following Sirach 27:6.[8]

The distinguished patristic scholar Henry Chadwick has claimed that in Matthew 11:28 Jesus was directly quoting Sirach 51:27.[9]


  1. Canon VI. Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for salvation. The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. Church Society. Retrieved April 3, 2015.
  2. 2.0 2.1 "Sirach, The Wisdom of Jesus the Son of". Jewish Encyclopedia. Retrieved April 3, 2015.
  3. Laurie Manhardt,, Come and See Wisdom: Wisdom of the Bible (Emmaus Road Publishing, 2009, ISBN 978-1931018555), 173.
  4. Jean Louis Ska, The Exegesis of the Pentateuch: Exegetical Studies and Basic Questions (Mohr Siebeck Tubingen, 2009, ISBN 3161499050), 184–195.
  5. Otto Mulder, Simon the High Priest in Sirach 50 (Koninkliijke Brill, 2003, ISBN 9004123164), 3. ("The highly esteemed book of Ben Sira is not sacred Scripture [because] 'the author was known to have lived in comparatively recent times, in an age when, with the death of the last prophets, the holy spirit had departed from Israel.").
  6. Daniel P. Sulmasy, The Rebirth of the Clinic: An Introduction to Spirituality in Health Care (Georgetown University Press, 2006, ISBN 978-1589010956) 45.
  7. Daniel J. Harrington, Invitation to the Apocrypha (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999, ISBN 0802846335), 90.
  8., Deuterocanonical books in the New Testament. Retrieved February 1, 2008.
  9. Henry Chadwick, The Church in Ancient Society: From Galilee to Gregory the Great (Oxford University Press, 2003), 28.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Beentjes, Pancratius C. The Book of Ben Sira in Modern Research: Proceedings of the First International Ben Sira Conference, 28-31 July 1996, Soesterberg, Netherlands. Walter De Gruyter Inc, 1997. ISBN 978-3110156737
  • Beentjes, Pancratius C. 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. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1997. ISBN 9004107673
  • Chadwick, Henry. The Church in Ancient Society: From Galilee to Gregory the Great (Oxford History of the Christian Church). Oxford University Press, 2003. ISBN 978-0199265770
  • Harrington, Daniel J. Invitation to the Apocrypha. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999. ISBN 0802846335
  • Manhardt, Laurie. Come and See Wisdom: Wisdom of the Bible. Emmaus Road Publishing, 2009. ISBN 978-1931018555
  • Mulder, Otto. Simon the High Priest in Sirach 50. Koninkliijke Brill, 2003. ISBN 9004123164
  • Oesterley, W.O.E. The Wisdom of Ben Sira 1916. Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2004. ISBN 978-1417980628
  • Sanders, Jack, T. Ben Sira and Demotic Wisdom. Society of Biblical Literature, 1983. ISBN 978-0891305866
  • Ska, Jean Louis. The Exegesis of the Pentateuch: Exegetical Studies and Basic Questions. Mohr Siebeck Tubingen, 2009. ISBN 3161499050
  • Skehan, Patrick W. & Alexander A. Di Lella. Wisdom of Ben Sira. Anchor Bible, 1987. ISBN 978-0385135177
  • Sulmasy, Daniel P. The Rebirth of the Clinic: An Introduction to Spirituality in Health Care. Georgetown University Press, 2006. ISBN 978-1589010956
  • Trenchard, Warren C. Ben Sira's View of Women: A Literary Analysis. Scholars Pr., 1982. ISBN 978-0891305934

External links

All links retrieved September 27, 2023.


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