1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Ecclesiasticus

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ECCLESIASTICUS (abbreviated to Ecclus.), the alternative title given in the English Bible to the apocryphal book otherwise called “The Wisdom of Jesus the son of Sirach.” The Latin word ecclesiasticus is, properly speaking, not a name, but an epithet meaning “churchly,” so that it would serve as a designation of any book which was read in church or received ecclesiastical sanction, but in practice Ecclesiasticus has become a by-name for the Wisdom of Sirach. The true name of the book appears in the authorities in a variety of forms, the variation affecting both the author’s name and the description of his book. The writer’s full name is given in l. 27 (Heb. text) as “Simeon the son of Jeshua (i.e. Jesus) the son of Eleazar the son of Sira.” In the Greek text this name appears as “Jesus son of Sirach Eleazar” (probably a corruption of the Hebrew reading), and the epithet “of Jerusalem” is added, the translator himself being resident in Egypt. The whole name is shortened sometimes to “Son of Sira,” Ben Sira in Hebrew, Bar Sira in Aramaic, and sometimes (as in the title prefixed in the Greek cod. B) to Sirach. The work is variously described as the Words (Heb. text), the Book (Talmud), the Proverbs (Jerome), or the Wisdom of the son of Sira (or Sirach).

Of the date of the book we have only one certain indication. It was translated by a person who says that he “came into Egypt in the 38th year of Euergetes the king” (Ptolemy VII.), i.e. in 132 B.C., and that he executed the work some time later. The translator believed that the writer of the original was his own grandfather (or ancestor, πάππος). It is therefore reasonable to suppose that the book was composed not later than the first half of the 2nd century B.C., or (if we give the looser meaning to πάππος) even before the beginning of the century. Arguments for a pre-Maccabean date may be derived (a) from the fact that the book contains apparently no reference to the Maccabean struggles, (b) from the eulogy of the priestly house of Zadok which fell into disrepute during these wars for independence.

In the Jewish Church Ecclesiasticus hovered on the border of the canon; in the Christian Church it crossed and recrossed the border. The book contains much which attracted and also much which repelled Jewish feeling, and it appears that it was necessary to pronounce against its canonicity. In the Talmud (Sanhedrin 100 b) Rabbi Joseph says that it is forbidden to read (i.e. in the synagogue) the book of ben Sira, and further that “if our masters had not hidden the book (i.e. declared it uncanonical), we might interpret the good things which are in it” (Schechter, J. Q. Review, iii. 691-692). In the Christian Church it was largely used by Clement of Alexandria (c. A.D. 200) and by St Augustine. The lists of the Hebrew canon, however, given by Melito (c. A.D. 180) and by Origen (c. A.D. 230) rightly exclude Ecclesiasticus, and Jerome (c. A.D. 390-400) writes: “Let the Church read these two volumes (Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus) for the instruction of the people, not for establishing the authority of the dogmas of the Church” (Praefatio in libros Salomonis). In the chief MS. of the Septuagint, cod. B, Ecclesiasticus comes between Wisdom and Esther, no distinction being drawn between canonical and uncanonical. In the Vulgate it immediately precedes Isaiah. The council of Trent declared this book and the rest of the books reckoned in the Thirty-nine Articles as apocryphal to be canonical.

The text of the book raises intricate problems which are still far from solution. The original Hebrew (rediscovered in fragments and published between 1896 and 1900) has come down to us in a mutilated and corrupt form. The beginning as far as iii. 7 is lost. There is a gap from xvi. 26 to xxx. 11. There are marginal readings which show that two different recensions existed once in Hebrew. The Greek version exists in two forms—(a) that preserved in cod. B and in the other uncial MSS., (b) that preserved in the cursive codex 248 (Holmes and Parsons). The former has a somewhat briefer text, the latter agrees more closely with the Hebrew text. The majority of Greek cursives agree generally with the Latin Vulgate, and offer the fuller text in a corrupt form. The Syriac (Peshitta) version is paraphrastic, but on the whole it follows the Hebrew text. Owing to the mutilation of the Hebrew by the accidents of time the Greek version retains its place as the chief authority for the text, and references by chapter and verse are usually made to it.

Bickell and D. S. Margoliouth have supposed that the Hebrew text preserved in the fragments is not original, but a retranslation from the Greek or the Syriac or both. This view has not commended itself to the majority of scholars, but there is at least a residuum of truth in it. The Hebrew text, as we have it, has a history of progressive corruption behind it, and its readings can often be emended from the Septuagint, e.g. xxxvii. 11 (read ומירא על for the meaningless ומרר אל). The Hebrew marginal readings occasionally seem to be translations from the Greek or Syriac, e.g. xxxviii. 4 (ברא שמים for ἒκτισεν φάρμακα). More frequently, however, strange readings of the Greek and Syriac are to be explained as corruptions of our present Hebrew. Substantially our Hebrew must be pronounced original.

The restoration of a satisfactory text is beyond our hopes. Even before the Christian era the book existed in two recensions, for we cannot doubt, after reading the Greek translator’s preface, that the translator amplified and paraphrased the text before him. It is probable that at least one considerable omission must be laid to his charge, for the hymn preserved in the Hebrew text after ch. li. 12 is almost certainly original. Ancient translators allowed themselves much liberty in their work, and Ecclesiasticus possessed no reputation for canonicity in the 2nd century B.C. to serve as a protection for its text. Much, however, may be done towards improving two of the recensions which now lie before us. The incomplete Hebrew text exists in four different MSS., and the study of the peculiarities of these had already proved fruitful. The Syriac text, made without doubt from the Hebrew, though often paraphrastic is often suggestive. The Greek translation, made within a century or half-century of the writing of the book, must possess great value for the criticism of the Hebrew text. The work of restoring true Hebrew readings may proceed with more confidence now that we have considerable portions of the Hebrew text to serve as a model. For the restoration of the Greek text we have, besides many Greek MSS., uncial and cursive, the old Latin, the Syro-Hexaplar, the Armenian, Sahidic and Ethiopic versions, as well as a considerable number of quotations in the Greek and Latin Fathers. Each of the two recensions of the Greek must, however, be separately studied, before any restoration of the original Greek text can be attempted.

The uncertainty of the text has affected both English versions unfavourably. The Authorized Version, following the corrupt cursives, is often wrong. The Revised Version, on the other hand, in following the uncial MSS. sometimes departs from the Hebrew, while the Authorized Version with the cursives agrees with it. Thus the Revised Version (with codd. א*, A, B, C) omits the whole of iii. 19, which the Authorized Version retains, but for the clause, “Mysteries are revealed unto the meek,” the Authorized Version has the support of the Hebrew, Syriac and cod. 248. Sometimes both versions go astray in places in which the Hebrew text recommends itself as original by its vigour; e.g. in vii. 26, where the Hebrew is,

Hast thou a wife? abominate her not.
Hast thou a hated wife? trust not in her.

Again in ch. xxxviii. the Hebrew text in at least two interesting passages shows its superiority over the text which underlies both English versions.

Hebrew. Revised Version (similarly
Authorized Version
).
ver. 1. Acquaint thyself with a physician before thou have need of him. Honour a physician according to thy need of him with the honours due unto him.
ver. 15. He that sinneth against his Maker will behave himself proudly against a physician. He that sinneth before his Maker, let him fall into the hands of the physician.

In the second instance, while the Hebrew says that the man who rebels against his Heavenly Benefactor will a fortiori rebel against a human benefactor, the Greek text gives a cynical turn to the verse, “Let the man who rebels against his true benefactor be punished through the tender mercies of a quack.” The Hebrew text is probably superior also in xliv. 1, the opening words of the eulogy of the Fathers: “Let me now praise favoured men,” i.e. men in whom God’s grace was shown. The Hebrew phrase is “men of grace,” as in v. 10. The Greek text of v. 1, “famous men,” seems to be nothing but a loose paraphrase, suggested by v. 2, “The Lord manifested in them great glory.”

In character and contents Ecclesiasticus resembles the book of Proverbs. It consists mainly of maxims which may be described in turn as moral, utilitarian and secular. Occasionally the author attacks prevalent religious opinions, e.g. the denial of free-will (xv. 11-20), or the assertion of God’s indifference towards men’s actions (xxxv. 12-19). Occasionally, again, Ben Sira touches the highest themes, and speaks of the nature of God: “He is All” (xliii. 27); “He is One from everlasting” (xlii. 21, Heb. text); “The mercy of the Lord is upon all flesh” (xviii. 13). Though the book is imitative and secondary in character it contains several passages of force and beauty, e.g. ch. ii. (how to fear the Lord); xv. 11-20 (on free-will); xxiv. 1-22 (the song of wisdom); xlii. 15-25 (praise of the works of the Lord); xliv. 1-15 (the well-known praise of famous men). Many detached sayings scattered throughout the book show a depth of insight, or a practical shrewdness, or again a power of concise speech, which stamps them on the memory. A few examples out of many may be cited. “Call no man blessed before his death” (xi. 28); “He that toucheth pitch shall be defiled” (xiii. 1); “He hath not given any man licence to sin” (xv. 20); “Man cherisheth anger against man; and doth he seek healing from the Lord?” (xxviii. 3); “Mercy is seasonable ... as clouds of rain” (xxxv. 20); “All things are double one against another: and he hath made nothing imperfect” (xlii. 24, the motto of Butler’s Analogy); “Work your work before the time cometh, and in his time he will give you your reward” (li. 30). In spite, however, of the words just quoted it cannot be said that Ben Sira preaches a hopeful religion. Though he prays, “Renew thy signs, and repeat thy wonders ... Fill Sion with thy majesty and thy Temple with thy glory” (xxxvi. 6, 14 [19], Heb. text), he does not look for a Messiah. Of the resurrection of the dead or of the immortality of the soul there is no word, not even in xli. 1-4, where the author exhorts men not to fear death. Like the Psalmist (Ps. lxxxviii. 10, 11) he asks, “Who shall give praise to the Most High in the grave?” In his maxims of life he shows a somewhat frigid and narrow mind. He is a pessimist as regards women; “From a woman was the beginning of sin; and because of her we all die” (xxv. 24). He does not believe in home-spun wisdom; “How shall he become wise that holdeth the plough?” (xxxviii. 25). Artificers are not expected to pray like the wise man; “In the handywork of their craft is their prayer” (v. 34). Merchants are expected to cheat; “Sin will thrust itself in between buying and selling” (xxvii. 2).

Bibliography.—The literature of Ecclesiaticus has grown very considerably since the discovery of the first Hebrew fragment in 1896. A useful summary of it is found at the end of Israel Levi’s article, “Sirach,” in the Jewish Encyclopedia. Eberhard Nestle’s article in Hastings’s Dictionary of the Bible is important for its bibliographical information as well as in other respects. A complete edition of the Hebrew fragments in collotype facsimile was published jointly by the Oxford and Cambridge Presses in 1901. J. H. A. Hart’s edition of cod. 248 throws much light on some of the problems of this book. It contains a fresh collation of all the chief authorities (Heb., Syr., Syr.-Hex., Lat. and Gr.) for the text, together with a complete textual commentary.

The account given in the Synopsis attributed to Athanasius (Migne, P.G., iv. 375-384) has an interest of its own. The beginning is given in the Authorized Version as “A prologue made by an uncertain author.”

(W. E. B.)