The Apocryphal Book of Sirach and its Influence on Early Christianity

Jesus Ben Sirach, 1860 woodcut by Julius Schnorr von Karolsfeld, from Wikipedia.

One of the apocryphal books I think is particularly interesting is the book called “The Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sirach.” It has also gone by a couple of other names, such as simply Sirach, Ben Sira, or Ecclesiasticus. It is a sequel of sorts to the wisdom literature in the Old Testament, such as Proverbs (which Ben Sira obviously drew heavily from and modeled his work after) and Ecclesiastes.

The Background of Sirach: The author of the book was a Jewish sage named Yeshua ben Sira, and the book itself is a compilation and translation of his work into Greek by his grandson. Ben Sira was probably active around 196-175 BC, meaning that his work reflects the period shortly before the Maccabean crisis in Judea. The translation was probably produced between 132-115 BC. The Book of Sirach may have served as a curriculum of sorts for Jewish students to learn traditional wisdom rooted in Jewish piety during a time when there was pressure to conform to encroaching Greek culture and values.

Sirach’s Influence on the New Testament: There are some very clear echoes of this book that show up in New Testament teaching, with the books of Matthew and James making plentiful references or allusions to it. For example, Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6-7) has some clear echoes: not babbling in prayer = Sirach 7:14; forgiving others so God will forgive you = Sirach 28:2; and storing up heavenly treasure through almsgiving = Sirach 29:7-13.

In the first chapter of James, the language of how God will never tempt anyone draws on Sirach 15:11-20. The instruction to be “quick to listen and slow to speak” may come from Sirach 5:11. It’s clear that this book of Jewish wisdom was highly influential for Christ and his apostles. Even if they never explicitly cite it as a source, it reflects the kind of Jewish ethical teaching that was commonly valued in their day.

Sirach is also important as an example of how the Jewish conception of Wisdom as a personified figure (first introduced in Proverbs 8) continued to develop in the time between the Old and New Testaments, to the point where it was almost divinized (see Sirach 24). Ben Sira mentions God sustaining creation by his word and his wisdom — concepts later taken up in the New Testament and applied to Jesus, similarly to the concept of the Logos developed by Philo (another Jewish philosopher) and then utilized in John’s Gospel.

Worthwhile Content in Sirach: Ben Sira offers many insightful and pithy reflections on various aspects of life, especially on subjects like friendship, navigating the social ladder, managing one’s household, education and trade, moderation and health, justice and ethics, and of course religious piety.

Among some of the standout quotes for me were: “Fight to the death for truth, and the Lord God will fight for you” (4:28); “Let those who are friendly with you be many, but let your advisers be one in a thousand” (6:6); “A slip on the pavement is better than a slip of the tongue” (20:18); and “Wine and music gladden the heart, but the love of friends is better than either” (40:20).

Among his advice that remains surprisingly relevant for modern readers, Ben Sira offers excellent perspective on being willing to receive help from doctors and medicines, knowing that God put those on this earth for our benefit, while also praying for healing (38:1-15). Also great is his advice to give charitably to all those in need “for the commandment’s sake” instead of worrying about being duped (29:7-13). And one proverb that was hilariously sassy: “Do not make fun of one who is ill-bred, or your ancestors may be insulted” (8:4)!

Items of Critique: Not everything Ben Sira says is to be commended, though. He encourages beating unruly slaves (yikes!), and there are a number of intensely misogynistic passages (25:13-26; 26:10-12; 42:9-14). We could do without such opinions as “The birth of a daughter is a loss” (22:3), and “Better is the wickedness of a man than a woman who does good; it is woman who brings shame and disgrace” (42:14).

While I’m tempted to chalk this up to Ben Sira being a man of his times, some of these sayings are just obviously harsh. In his excellent introduction to the Apocrypha (p. 196), David deSilva mentions that this negativity toward women played a role in later Jewish and Christian interpreters downplaying the book’s authority as a sacred writing, or at least seeking to find its worth in its other passages.

We should not be surprised, then, at Sirach’s exclusion from canonical status among several parts of the Christian tradition. A few important church fathers argued for its canonicity, including St. Augustine of Hippo, but many others including St. Athanasius and St. Jerome excluded it from the canon while still encouraging its use for devotional reading.

In many parts of the early church, Sirach was treated a bit like an ancient version of 12 Rules for Life. It was one philosopher’s advice on pursuing the good life, popular as a devotional read among younger disciples, but not widely held as equal to the canonical books.

If you have an interest in exploring the kinds of Jewish literature that Jesus, his apostles, and the early church almost certainly read from or were at least familiar with, Sirach is one of the apocryphal books I’d say is most worth a full read.

For an overview of the Apocrypha as a whole, check out my previous post, The Apocrypha in a Nutshell.

Categories: Apocrypha & Church Fathers, Historical Theology

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