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Sirach

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The Book of Sirach, otherwise known as the Book of the All-Virtuous Wisdom of Yeshua ben Sira, or Ecclesiasticus/Liber Ecclesiasticus ("church book"), but on no account to be confused with Ecclesiastes, is a book in some versions of the Old Testament. Specifically, it is a canonical text for Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and all points east, but is not part of the Protestant Bible or Jewish scriptures.[1]

Unlike the rest of the Bible, it has its author's name included in the text in a little introduction, that person being Joshua ben Sirach or Ben Sira, a Jewish scribe who apparently wrote it in the early 2nd century BCE in Jerusalem or Alexandria.

Contents[edit]

It basically comprises a bunch of advice, similar to the Book of Proverbs. A lot of it isn't terribly nice advice, focusing on how women are evil:

Keep a close watch over your daughter if she is determined to have her own way. If you don't, she may make a fool of you in front of your enemies. You will be a constant joke to everyone in town, a public disgrace. Make sure that her room has no windows or any place where she can look out to the entrance of the house. Don't let her show off her beauty in front of men, or spend her time talking with the women. Women hurt other women just as moths damage clothing. A man's wickedness is better than a woman's goodness; women bring shame and disgrace. (42:11-14, Good News Bible[2])
Do not surrender your dignity to any woman. Keep away from other men's wives or they will trap you. Don't keep company with female musicians; they will trick you. Don't look too intently at a virgin, or you may find yourself forced to pay a bride price. (9:2-5)
Even aside from that, a lot is prudish and kind of dumb:
Don't fall into the habit of coarse, profane talk; it is sinful. You might forget yourself while in the company of important people and make a fool of yourself with some foul word that comes to you naturally. Think how your parents would feel! You would curse the day you were born and wish you were dead! If you fall into the habit of using offensive language, you will never break yourself of it as long as you live. (23:13-15)
Other claims may be just common sense, but that doesn't mean it's any more valuable:
Never give a hungry person any cause for resentment or anger. (4:2)

Even its admirers concede, "The reader faced with Sirach may get very frustrated by trying to read it too quickly, looking for an all-encompassing intent."[3]

Authorship[edit]

It is generally attributed to Joshua (or Jesus) Ben Sira (or Ben Sirach), son of Eleazar.[3] Although it's doubtful that much of it was original, he seems to have been the guy to assemble it into a single text. He was reportedly a Jewish scribe and teacher from Jerusalem, who may have later lived in Alexandria and composed it there. Authorship is dated something like 200 to 175 BCE.[1]

Ben Sira's grandson seemingly translated it into Greek and added a prologue in 132 BCE. This tells how Ben Sira devoted his life to reading the Law and Prophets and then writing down all his wisdom in a big book. His grandson apologises for the deficiencies of his Greek and makes the startling admission:
What was originally written in Hebrew does not always have exactly the same sense when it is translated into another language. That is true not only of this book, but even of the Law itself, the Prophets, and the other books. The translations differ quite a bit from the original.[4]

The Greek translation was included in the Septuagint, the text of the Old Testament used by the wider, Greek-speaking Jewish diaspora in the Classical era. The Book of Sirach survived via the Septuagint, but there are also Hebrew manuscripts including early texts in the Dead Sea Scrolls and from Masada from the 1st century CE, as well as much later Hebrew manuscripts found in cupboards.[1]

Canonicity[edit]

It isn't included in the formal Jewish canon, supposedly either because it was written too late, at a time when things were already largely (but not entirely) finalised, or because Jewish authorities only wanted books written by proper prophets, not just random dudes with lots of opinions.[1]

It isn't in most Protestant Bibles, not even the King James Version, so you have to make do with uglier translations. Anglicans and Lutherans reckon it's OK to read for good advice, but don't include it in their canons.

The Roman Catholic church had long accepted it and formally affirmed its status in 1546 at the Council of Trent.

Amazingly accurate and prophetic[edit]

Some Christians have gotten a little bit carried away and claim that the book is extraordinarily prophetic and insightful and contains truths only discovered by scientists hundreds of years later. This includes advice on building in earthquake zones: "A wooden beam bonded firmly into a building will not be torn loose by an earthquake." (22:16) The text also affirms the virtues of drinking in moderation, which some scientists now appear to accept although it is still controversial: "Wine is like life to men, if you drink it in moderation." (31:27)[5][6]

There are also claims that it prefigures the New Testament; in such cases there is the possibility of direct textual influence rather than uncanny prophecy.[5]

References[edit]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 See the Wikipedia article on Sirach.
  2. Sirach 42, Good News Bible, Bible Gateway
  3. 3.0 3.1 Introduction to the Old Testament: Sirach, Mark Giszczak, Catholic News Agency
  4. Foreword to Sirach book one, Good News Translation, Bible Gateway
  5. 5.0 5.1 The Amazing Book of Sirach, Margaret Finley, Catholic Magazine, July 02, 2001
  6. Alcohol: Weighing risks and potential benefits, Mayo Clinic, Nov 6, 2018