The Book of Ben Sira, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia 1994.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
Chief among the Second Temple period wisdom texts before the discovery of the Qumran scrolls was the Book of Ben Sira. This work was preserved in Greek as part of the Apocrypha of the Septuagint—the Greek Bible. Ben Sira is also known as Ecclesiasticus, not to be confused with the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes, Kohelet in Hebrew. When the manuscripts from the Cairo genizah began to reach Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, manuscripts of a Hebrew version of Ben Sira were found among the fragments. These texts sparked a vigorous debate. While many scholars maintained that they were indeed manuscripts representing the original Hebrew text of Ben Sira, others considered them no more than a medieval Hebrew translation from the Greek or from a Latin translation based on the Greek.
This debate was conclusively settled with the discovery of fragments of Ben Sira in cave 2 at Qumran, a portion of the book cited in the Psalms Scroll, and an independent manuscript of Ben Sira, preserving substantial portions of the last part of the book (chapters 38–44), at Masada. These manuscripts showed beyond a doubt that the medieval texts were for the most part descended from the original Hebrew, even though they showed signs of some revision and textual variation. Now, after combining the ancient and medieval fragments of this book, we can be fairly certain that the vast majority of it is now in our hands in a Hebrew text.
Early rabbinic tradition prohibited the reading of the Book of Ben Sira, presumably as part of a public ritual. Indeed, rabbinic teaching forbade the reading of any noncanonical apocryphal books. This ban derived from the Rabbis’ effort to assert the exclusive sanctity and canonicity of the biblical books. Yet since rabbinic literature quotes some verses from Ben Sira in Hebrew or Aramaic, this book obviously influenced the rabbis and was at least partially known to them.
Fascination with this book in the Middle Ages led to the composition of various pseudepigraphical Ben Sira texts, such as the Alphabet of Ben Sira, all of which are essentially aggadic works. These texts have no real connection with the original book but were composed by authors who knew of the sage and his reputation and sought to fill the void caused by the virtual loss of the book to the Jewish community.
The prologue to the Greek translation of the book explicitly states that the author, named Joshua (or according to some manuscripts Simeon) ben Sira, composed the book in Hebrew in the Land of Israel in about 180 B.C.E. and that his grandson subsequently translated it into Greek in about 130 B.C.E. These dates have been universally accepted as accurate by scholars.
From the book, we can gather that the author functioned as a wisdom teacher in pre-Maccabean Jerusalem and ran a school to which young students came. Much of the text was no doubt composed for or based upon the lessons he gave those students.
Ben Sira is essentially a wisdom anthology, much of it composed in the style of the biblical Book of Proverbs. It provides practical advice on interpersonal relations, especially concerning the family, the raising of children, the conduct of business, and a variety of ethical teachings. A typical passage is Ben Sira 42-1–5, from the Ben Sira Scroll from Masada-[B]ut regarding these do not be ashamed,
and do not respect persons so that you end up sinning-
Regarding the Torah of the Exalted and the law,
and regarding judgment to convict the evildoer.
Regarding reckoning with a partner or a fellow traveler,
and regarding dividing an inheritance or property.
Regarding the dust on the scales or balance,
and regarding the shaving of measures and weights.
Regarding a purchase whether large or small,[and regarding] the price of a purchase from a merchant.
Here the text suggests that an individual must stand up for principles, ensuring that God’s law be observed, and that honesty and integrity reign. At the same time, the text clearly instructs readers not to allow themselves to be mistreated in commercial situations.
Much has been written about Ben Sira’s attitude toward women. In my view, the book reflects the cautions and experiences of a man of ancient Palestine and should not be judged too harshly. Regarding the experience of raising a daughter, another passage preserved in the Ben Sira Scroll from Masada cautions (Ben Sira 42-9–11)-[A daughter] to a father is a decep[tive] treasure, [and worry over her will pre]vent sleep.
In her youth lest she be despised,
and when she get older lest she be [forgot]ten.
In her virginity lest she be defiled,
and when she is a wife [lest] she be accused of adultery.
In her father’s house lest she become pregnant,
and when [she] is married, [lest she remain ba]r[ren.[My son,] watch carefully over a daughter, [le]st she [make for you a bad reputation].
This advice also reveals much about the contemporary situation of urban Jews, whose traditional Jewish values were seriously threatened as the process of Hellenism took its toll.
The wisdom that the book proffers is said to come from God, who created everything and rules over the cosmos (Ben Sira 39-16)-
All things are the works of the Lord for they are very good,
and whatever He commands will be done in His time.
To Ben Sira, God is omnipotent and all His actions are for the good. Elsewhere in the book, we are told that God rewards the righteous and punishes the guilty.
As is the case with much of the wisdom tradition in Judaism, wisdom is here identified with the Torah. In this passage (Ben Sira 24-8–12), the speaker is wisdom personified-
Then the Creator of all things gave me a commandment,
and the One who created me assigned a place for my tent.
And He said, “Make your dwelling in Jacob,
and in Israel receive your inheritance.”
From eternity in the beginning He created me,
and for eternity I shall not cease to exist ….
So I took root in an honored people,
in the portion of the Lord Who is their inheritance.
Here we learn that wisdom, the Torah, created by God before the world itself, is eternal. Indeed, Ben Sira is the first author to identify wisdom with the Torah, a notion that later became standard and permeates rabbinic literature. This concept identifies the Torah, God’s revelation, as the expression of divine wisdom, predating even creation.
The author argues strongly for the need to observe God’s commandments and to resist the rising trend of foreign influence, which he strongly opposes. Hellenism by this time was increasingly affecting the Jews of Palestine. Ben Sira favors observance of the sacrificial obligations but opposes meaningless sacrifice unaccompanied by true ethical and moral behavior. In the liturgical poem found toward the end of the book, he champions the priestly House of Zadok and its exclusive rights to the high priesthood.
The author praises all of Israel’s biblical heroes, concluding with the high priest Simeon II, who served in his own day. He describes Simeon in language that conjures up the mishnaic description of the high priest on the Day of Atonement (Yoma 7-4) and a fourth- or fifth-century Jewish ritual poem incorporated in the High Holiday liturgy. This section reveals how the author conceived of the biblical canon, for it alludes to all the books of the Hebrew Scriptures except Daniel and Esther. Perhaps the canonical status of these books was still under debate in his time. Probably only part of the Book of Daniel was then in circulation.
Considering that these various manuscripts and versions of the text were found among the Qumran collection, it is somewhat surprising that Ben Sira had little influence on the Qumran sectarian texts or, for that matter, on the sectarian ideology. We might have expected to see it quoted and alluded to—but it is not even mentioned.