Barber gives a conclusion which he reached years ago – and I agree with him today, especially since it effects my exegesis paper project. I remember reading F.F. Bruce, on the subject of canonical texts who noted that our text is canon in of itself… Anyway, I digress into a subject which I am not yet prepared to address. Dr. Barber, however, is:
1. The myth that the Palestinian canon was closed by 100 C. E.
2. The notion, even held by Jerome, that the divergent readings of the Christian LXX could simply be chalked up to Hellenizations. Scholars now recognize that the varying readings of the LXX and the MT have their origins in different Hebrew Vorlage.
3. (Closely related to 2): That the MT reading represents a more ancient textual tradition than that of the LXX.
4. The idea that the criterion used by the rabbis to determine the canonical status of the Biblical books was based on solid historical evidence. (In fact, anti-Christian prejudices shaped in their determination.)
5. That when the fathers speak of “canonical” books they always referred to the exhaustive list of books they consider part of Scripture. Indeed, there was not even a neatly divided list of protocanonical and deuterocanoical books – many included Esther in the category of disputed books.
The original Hebrew text of the apocryphal book of Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus) lies at the very heart of the story of the discovery of the Cairo Genizah and the subsequent dispersal of its contents to the libraries of Europe and the United States. Indeed, the discovery of the Genizah may be dated to 1865, the year when Jacob Saphir visited the repository in the Ben Ezra synagogue in Fustat, as reported in his book Even Sapir (Lyk, 1866). However, it was not until 1896 that the effort to recover and acquire Genizah manuscripts began in earnest, for this was the year when the twin sisters Agnes Smith Lewis and Margaret Dunlop Gibson returned from a trip to Cairo with a number of leaves from the Genizah that they had succeeded in purchasing. When they showed these leaves to Solomon Schechter at Cambridge University, he quickly recognised among them the remains of the Hebrew Ben Sira. Schechter’s discovery touched off a bitter rivalry between himself and Adolf Neubauer of Oxford University, the object of which was the identification of further fragments of this book. It was in the course of this rivalry that Schechter traveled to Cairo and secured permission to transfer the bulk of the contents of the Genizah to Cambridge University Library (for further details see Reif 1997 and Jefferson 2009).
One interesting finding concerning a BL fragment from Ben-Sira is worth mentioning. This fragment was already identified by Margaliouth (JQR 12, 1899) and then described and transcribed in the Appendix of Margaliouth Catalog (vol. 1, 273-277). Still, no microfilm of this fragment is available at the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts in Jerusalem, and it seems that since Margaliouth nobody really examined the original. Even in the latest edition of Ben-Sira Fragments (Beentjes, Leiden, 1997), the fragment is mentioned only as [British Museum], without a shelfmark. Well, the fragment is now displayed as Or. 5518, to the great joy, we hope, of all interested researchers
Sirach is a beautiful book, timely, inspired, given and often ignored because it was discarded by the Jews after the destruction of the Temple and later still by Christians, first by Melito of Sardis. Yet, it endures to give us ancient wisdom for a modern world. While others simply only to regulate it as ‘Apocrypha’ it is by far more valuable than most of the self-help books on the shelves today. Further, it was used in early debates and should be used today for Christology.
(24) A hard heart will be afflicted at the end, and whoever loves danger will perish by it.
The Hebrew adds to this verse,
But he that loves the good things shall walk in them
(25) A hard heart will be weighed down by troubles, and the sinner will add sin to sins.
Paul can be found to echo this thought in his Roman letter,
But because you are stubborn and refuse to turn from your sin, you are storing up terrible punishment for yourself. For a day of anger is coming, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. He will judge everyone according to what they have done. (Romams 2:5-6 NLT)
This passage in Sirach concerns the heart of the man, which may be humble and given to God, or arrogant and given in to sin. Like the previous section of contrast, Sirach brings to us the contrast of the heart and the end of each one. Like Paul several centuries later, Sirach knew that the end of the arrogant heart, the heart which stood before God instead of kneeling, would end with no remedy, but the heart that was humble, will have a good future.
(26) The arrogant man is not healed by his punishment, for a plant of wickedness has taken root in him.
Contrast this with John’s statement in the Apocalypse that New Jerusalem would have ‘healing for the nations’ (Revelation 22.2). We may, however, go as far to point out that the ‘man’ in question is not he ignorant man – unlearned of God – but the man who knows of God and yet refuses to give heed unto Him. Here, Sirach tells us that a remedy for that man’s soul cannot be found.
(27) The mind of the intelligent man will ponder a parable, and an attentive ear is the wise man’s desire.
This brings to mind the discourse of Christ with the Apostles using parables. Many times in the Gospels, we find recorded parables, but only for those with ears to hear, and we can somewhat easily connect the Wise Man with Christ who is the Wisdom of God (1st Corinthians 1.24).
(28) Water extinguishes a blazing fire: and almsgiving atones for sin.
This verse inaugurates what many will assume to be the end of any talk of inspiration of Sirach; however, Jesus Himself considered almsgiving (charity) as method of righteousness (Luke 11.41). Briefly, we see Daniel counseling the King of Babylon (Dan. 4.27) to consider mercy to the poor as a means of cleansing iniquities. The Psalmist (Psalms 41.1-2) tells us that those that consider the poor will be delivered by God in their time of troubles while our Lord in several places speaks of the evils of not being charitable. The most prominent example is that of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16.19-31) who if we will read we see not a condemnation based on religious reasons, or one of immorality, but one of passing the beggar by every day, giving the excess of the table to the dogs. The Rich Man was not sent to the grave in torments because of his wealth or his lack of religious righteousness, but because he failed to take care of the poor.
When Christ is speaking about the hypocrisies of the Pharisees, he says,
Then the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees make the outside of the cup and dish clean, but your inward part is full of greed and wickedness. Foolish ones! Did not He who made the outside make the inside also? But rather give alms of such things as you have; then indeed all things are clean to you. (Luke 11:39-41 NKJV)
The French theologian Godet says,
Do you think it is enough to wash your hands before eating? There is a surer means. Let some poor man partake of your meats and wines.
And we hear from Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, and disciple of the Apostle John:
From Polycarp’s Epistle to the Philippians, ch. 10,
Stand fast, therefore, in these things, and follow the example of the Lord, being firm and unchangeable in the faith, loving the brotherhood, and being attached to one another, joined together in the truth, exhibiting the meekness of the Lord in your intercourse with one another, and despising no one. When you can do good , defer it not, because “alms delivers from death.” [Tobit 4:10, 12:9] Be all of you subject one to another, having your conduct blameless among the Gentiles, that ye may both receive praise for your good works, and the Lord may not be blasphemed through you. But owe to him by whom the name of the Lord is blasphemed! Teach, therefore, sobriety to all, and manifest it also in your own conduct.
Polycarp quotes another often hidden book, Tobit, directly, but the idea is the same. Charity comes by and produces righteousness. By the waters of baptism is the fires of hell quenched, just as mercy to the poor will bring forgiveness for our trespasses.
(29) Whoever repays favors gives thought to the future; at the moment of his falling he will find support.
Finally, words from John Chrysostom
Let us then travel along all these ways; for if we give ourselves wholly to these employments, if on them we spend our time, not only shall we wash off our bygone transgressions, but shall gain very great profit for the future. For we shall not allow the devil to assault us with leisure either for slothful living, or for pernicious curiosity, since by these among other means, and in consequence of these, he leads us to foolish questions and hurtful disputations, from seeing us at leisure, and idle, and taking no forethought for excellency of living. But let us block up this approach against him, let us watch, let us be sober, that having in this short time toiled a little, we may obtain eternal goods in endless ages, by the grace and lovingkindness of our Lord Jesus Christ; (Chrysostom on John 7)
Sirach – Ben Sira – is focused a great deal on the Law, and if we take this passage in light of this, we come to understand that Sirach sought students that would study the Law. We understand that he instructs his students to study the Law, and to learn every wit of it, but to refrain from going into the realms beyond the Law so that it is God that reveals His mysteries to us, and not we who reveals the mysteries to God.
It is possible that Sirach was part of the upper-class, which would have been expected given first his ability to write and teach. Further, he had students which he was instructing. In this portion, contrary to his position in life, Sirach is instructing humility, almost to the level of poverty.
(17) My child, conduct your affairs in gentleness and you will be loved by those whom the Lord accepts.
‘Lord’ is not in the original, which literally reads, ‘a giver of gifts’. One translation suggests,
Walk in your wealth humbly and you will be loved more than he who gives gifts
No matter the translation, the sense is still the same – real honor comes from real humility. This entire passage is devoted to giving a sense of humility to students, no doubt of the Law, before they can actually learn from God.
(18) The greater you are, the more you must humble yourself; so you will find grace in the sight of the Lord.
In Philippians 2.3, the Apostle Paul admonishes that congregation to think more highly of others than they do ourselves. It is a common New Testament theme which was shared with other Jewish sects of the time. Perhaps this verse is a personal experience from Sirach, or a warning to the Sadducees in power. If this is a political verse – and it can be taken as such – the author could be warning those in power, perhaps even the Maccabeans, to not follow the same route that others in the past have.
(19a) Many are lofty and of repute, but to the meek he reveals his mysteries
This verse is wanting in the Greek and the Hebrew and most likely a variant of the following verse:
(19) For great is the might of the Lord; he is glorified by the humble.
The Hebrew reads:
For many are the mercies of God, and he reveals his secret to the humble.
(20) Seek not what is too difficult for you, nor investigate what is beyond your strength.
I note Proverbs 25.2:
It is God’s privilege to conceal things and the king’s privilege to discover them. (Pro 25:2 NLT)
Can this be seen as a contradiction?
Paul calls this ‘the measure of faith’ (Romans 12.3) while others call it ‘knowing our place’. Sirach is counseling his students that they must not seek to be more than what God has ordained them to be – this is not to say that they cease from trying to grow in the Lord. Let the minister be a minister and the administrator the administrator.
I am drawn to the Pauline use of the word mystery when he is speaking to the New Testament church, and wondering if there is a connection between the thought here which is revealed to the humble, and the generally not well to do. Mystery for Paul would mean that those, such as the humble, know the answer, perhaps
(21) Reflect upon what has been commanded you, for you do not need what is hidden.
(22) Do not meddle in what is beyond your tasks, for matters too great for human understanding have been shown you.
The Hebrew here reads,
Meditate upon that which you are able to understand, and meddle not with that which is hid
(See Deut 29.29; Ps 131.1; Jer 45.5)
(23) For their speculations has led many astray, and evil suppositions have caused their minds to slip and fall.
This passage from Sirach seems to be a midrash on the fifth commandment,
“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the LORD your God gives you. Exodus 20:12 NASB
“Honor your father and mother. Then you will live a long, full life in the land the LORD your God is giving you. Exodus 20:12 NLT
It provides us, no doubt, with an example of the Jewish family, and the view that a merited following of the Law brings salvation.
(1) Listen to me, O children, for I am your father; and act accordingly, that you may be safe.
The Greek σωθῆτε which is translated as ‘safe’ here is found twice in the New Testament (John 5.34, Acts 2.40), both times with the meaning of ‘saved’ as Christians have developed. Although it is a stretch to have Sirach use it the same direct (Christian) way, we do find a general idea of temporal salvation in act of honoring one’s father and mother. If we apply this passage in light of Cyprian’s (“No one can have God as Father who does not have the Church as Mother” (Cyprian, De unit. 6: PL 4, 519) then it this passage becomes an instruction for the Christian.
We may first read it as Sirach’s words, referring to our natural parents, and then with the words of Paul who called God our Father and the Church our Mother.
For Sirach, the phrase ‘may be safe’ refers to the promise, that is if you would honor your father and mother, then your life would be long upon the earth.
We find much the same thought in the Apostle Paul,
Children, obey your parents because you belong to the Lord, for this is the right thing to do. “Honor your father and mother.” This is the first commandment with a promise: If you honor your father and mother, “things will go well for you, and you will have a long life on the earth.” (Ephesians 6:1-3 NLT)
The surviving Greek MSS has this verse as corrupt, however, the Syriac and the Latin preserve this verse.
(2) For the Lord honored the father above the children, and strengthened the judgment of the mother over her sons.
(3) Whoever honors his father atones for his sins,
The thought that deeds can ‘cancel’ sins is not foreign to Jewish thought:
By lovingkindness and truth iniquity is atoned for, And by the fear of the LORD one keeps away from evil. Proverbs 16.6 NASB
Unfailing love and faithfulness make atonement for sin. By fearing the LORD, people avoid evil. Proverbs 16:6 NLT
See also Daniel 4.27.
The Gospel, however, teaches
“So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.'” Luke 17:10 NASB
God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. (Ephesians 2:8-9 NLT)
What must be remembered by later Christian thought the Law is seen as a temporary measure which removes nothing, but under Grace, all sins are removed. At any rate, Sirach stresses atonement by repentance later in the work. (5.5-6, 34.26, 35.3)
(4) and whoever glorifies his mother is like one who lays up treasure.
(5) Whoever honors his father will be gladdened by his own children, and when he prays he will be heard.
(6) Whoever glorifies his father will have long life, and whoever obeys the Lord will give rest to his mother;
(7) He who fears the Lord will honor his father; he will serve his parents as his masters.
The words in the italics appear in the Latin.
(8) Honor your parents by word and deed, that a blessing from him may come upon you.
Several translations have ‘father and mother’ while others simply have ‘father’. Following the Latin, parentes, I would choose parents. (Deligere parentes prima naturae lex. – Valerius Maximus, Facta et Dicta Memorabilia 5.4.7)
(9) For a father’s blessing established the houses of the children, but a mother’s curse uproots their foundations.
(10) Do not glorify yourself by dishonoring your father, for your father’s dishonor is no glory to you.
(11) For a man’s glory comes from honoring his father, and it is a disgrace for children not to respect their mother.
(12) O son, help your father in his old age, and do not grieve him as long as he lives;
(13) even if his understanding fails, be considerate and in your youth not despise him.
(14) For kindness to a father will not be forgotten, and against your sins it will be credited to you;
(15) in the day of your affliction it will be remembered in your favor; as frost in fair weather, your sins will melt away.
(16) Whoever forsakes his father is like a blasphemer, and whoever angers his mother is cursed by the Lord.
Sirach stresses not just the father, but the mother as well, asserting the importance of the mother to the child. We may, again, see this as an insight into the Jewish family of the 2nd century B.C., or as the proper family of any era; however, we may also see it as a key to understanding Paul’s vision of the Church (the New Jerusalem) as the mother of us all, and the importance placed by Paul upon the Church.