Ben Sira

by John Thomas Lowe
(Woodruff, S.C.)

Ben Sira
Ben Sira, also known as Shimon ben Yeshua ben Eliezer ben Sira or Yeshua Ben Sirach (2nd century BCE), was a Hellenistic Jewish scribe, sage, and allegorist from Seleucid-controlled Jerusalem of the Second Temple period. He is the author of Sirach, also known as the "Book of Ecclesiasticus."
He wrote his work in Hebrew, possibly in Alexandria in Egypt in the Ptolemaic Kingdom 180–175 BCE, where he is thought to have established a school.
While Ben Sira is sometimes claimed to be a contemporary of Simeon the Just, it is more likely that his contemporary was High Priest Simon II (219–199 BCE) due to confusion with his father, Yeshua.'
The Alphabet of Sirach, a medieval text, was falsely attributed to him.
In the *Koine Greek text of the Book of Sirach, the author's father is called "Jesus, the son of *Sirach of Jerusalem.” Jesus is the Anglicized form of the Greek name Ἰησοῦς, the equivalent of the Aramaic borrowed from late Biblical Hebrew Yeshuaʽ, derived from the older Masoretic Hebrew Yehoshuaʽ.
*Koine Greek, also known as Alexandrian dialect, typical *Attic, Hellenistic or Biblical Greek, was the common supra-regional form of Greek spoken and written during the Hellenistic period, the Roman Empire, and the early Byzantine Empire. It evolved from the spread of Greek following the conquests of Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.C. It served as the lingua franca of much of the Mediterranean region and the Middle East during the following centuries. It was based mainly on
*Attic and related Ionic speech forms, with various admixtures brought about through dialect leveling with other varieties. The copy owned by Saadia Gaon, the prominent rabbi, Jewish philosopher, and exegete of the 10th century, had the reading "Shimʽon, son of Yeshuaʽ, son of Elʽazar ben Siraʼ"; and a similar reading occurs in the Hebrew manuscript B.
*Sirach is the Greek form of the family name Sira. It adds the letter Chi, like that in Hakel-dama-ch in Acts 1:19.

In the Greek version, though not according to the Syriac, the author traveled extensively (xxxiv. 11; 34) and was frequently in danger of death (xxxiv; 34 verse 12). In the hymn of chapter li (51), he 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 calumnies to which he was exposed in the presence of a certain king, supposed to be one of the Ptolemaic dynasties, 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, especially in the "Books of Wisdom."
Little is known about his grandson, who claims in the text to be the translator of Sirach into Greek. He did the translation years later after the original was written.
The Prologue in the Greek text, attributed to him, is considered the earliest witness to a canon of the books of the prophets.
The grandson states that he came to Egypt in the thirty-eighth year of the reign of Euergetes. Ptolemy VIII (eighth), Physcon, must be intended; he ascended the throne in 170 BCE, together with his brother Philometor, but he soon became sole ruler of Cyrene, and from 146 to 117 BCE, held sway over all Egypt. He dated his reign from the year he received the crown (i.e., from 170 BCE). The translator must therefore have gone to Egypt in 132 BCE.

The Wisdom of Ben Sira derives its title from the author, "Yeshua Jesus, son of Eleazar, son of Sira" (50:27). This seems to be the earliest title of the book. The designation "Liber Ecclesiasticus," meaning "Church Book," appended to some Greek and Latin manuscripts, is perhaps due to the extensive use the church made of this book in presenting moral teaching to catechumens and the faithful. The title "Sirach" comes from the Greek form of the author's name.
The author, a sage who lived in Jerusalem, was thoroughly imbued with love for the wisdom tradition and the Law, priesthood, Temple, and divine worship. As a wise and experienced observer of life, he addressed himself to his contemporaries with the motive of helping them to maintain religious faith and integrity through the study of the books sacred to the Jewish tradition.
The book contains numerous well-crafted maxims, grouped by affinity and dealing with various subjects such as the individual, the family, and the community in their relations with one another and God. It treats friendship, education, poverty and wealth, laws, religious worship, and many (being of a large but indefinite number) other matters that reflect the religious and social customs of the time.
Written in Hebrew in the early years of the second century B.C., the book was finished by ca. (preceding a date or amount) circa "he was born (ca. around) 1400."
The author's grandson translated the text into Greek after 117 B.C. He also wrote a foreword that contains valuable information about the book, its author, and himself as a translator. Until the close of the nineteenth century, the Wisdom of Ben Sira was known to Christians in translations, of which the Greek rendering was the most important. From it, the Latin version was made. Between 1896 and 1900, again in 1931, and several times since 1956, incomplete manuscripts were discovered so that more than two-thirds of the book in Hebrew is available; these Hebrew texts agree substantially with the Greek. One such text, from Masada, is pre-Christian in date. The New American Bible provides a critical translation based on the evidence of all the ancient texts.
Though not included in the Jewish Bible after the first century A.D., nor accepted by Protestants, the Catholic Church has recognized the Wisdom of Ben Sira as inspired and established. The Foreword, though not properly part of the book, is always included with it because of its antiquity and importance.
The contents of the Wisdom of Ben Sira are discursive (moving from topic to topic without order: RAMBLING; not easily divided into separate parts. Chapters 1–43 deal primarily with moral instruction; 44:1–50:24 contain a eulogy of the heroes of Israel. There are two appendixes where the author expresses his gratitude to God (51:1–12) and invites the unschooled to acquire true wisdom (51:13–30).

Jesus ben Sira
The Jewish sage and author Jesus ben Sira (born ca. 170 B.C.), or Sirach, is the reputed author of the wisdom book commonly called Ecclesiasticus.
According to the Hebrew text of Ecclesiasticus, the author's full name was Simeon ben Jeshua ben Elazar ben Sira. However, the Greek text and most Christian sources refer to him as Jesus, the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Joshua. In the Prologue to his Greek version, Jesus Ben Sira's grandson dates his translation from the Hebrew into Greek at a time calculated to be 132-131 B.C. From this, it is thought that the original Hebrew text was written about four decades earlier, making it the oldest book of the Apocrypha. The volume was called Hokhmat Ben Sira (The Wisdom of Ben Sira). In Greek, the work is known as Ecclesiasticus (The Preacher). It is similar in form and content to the Hebrew Book of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.
The Wisdom of Ben Sira is divided into eight sections, each of which begins with a poem of praise to wisdom and the wise. The last portion, chapters 44-49 and headed "Praise to the Patriarchs of the World," extols the biblical heroes. In contrast, the ensuing chapter (50) is devoted to Simeon, son of Jochanon, Simon the Just (ca. 3d century B.C.). The book's last chapter (51) appears to be a sort of epilogue that contains several psalms and hymns of thanks to God, who had saved the author from death, evidently from some plot or false charge. The book ends with an exhortation to love and acquire wisdom.
Jesus Ben Sira lived in Jerusalem and belonged to the intellectual aristocracy during most of his life. The object of his book was to teach people to live wisely, intelligently, and morally. The author's accent is on moderation in all aspects of life. He also offers advice on a person's attitude toward the rich and the poor, the righteous and the wicked, the wise and the foolish, the creditor and the borrower, the sick and the physician. Like the Book of Proverbs, this work stresses that fear of the Lord is the beginning and end of wisdom. Accordingly, the highest wisdom is to obey the Divine Will and the Torah, Jewish doctrine, and Law.
The Wisdom of Ben Sira is included in the Old Testament Apocrypha, though in the Septuagint, it is part of the Canon. Unlike other books of the Apocrypha, "Ben Sira," a famous work, exerted a considerable influence on subsequent Jewish literature and medieval moralist works. Many of Jesus Ben Sira's aphorisms (sayings) found their way into the Talmud; his sayings are also quoted in the New Testament. The original Hebrew version of this work was preserved for a more extended period than the other Apocrypha books—until about the time of Saadia ben Joseph (died 942). It was lost for centuries, but in 1897 Professor Solomon Schechter discovered some fragments of the work in the storeroom of the Old Cairo Synagogue. Almost two-thirds of the original was eventually recovered.

The Wisdom of Ben Sira: How Jewish?
Despite its pious content (especially when seen against Kohelet), the book of Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus) was not canonized and today has been marginalized. Ben Sira held a prominent place in earlier Jewish (even rabbinic) communities. This was not always the case.

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