Monday, August 27, 2018

Apocrypha-lypso (6)

The Old Testament is home to more than a few really long books.

Jeremiah (33,000+ words), Genesis, Psalms and Ezekiel stand out from the crowd. Exodus, Isaiah and Numbers form a second tier. At just shy of 20,000 words, Luke is the longest NT book, well down the list. And as far as apocryphal writings go, Ecclesiasticus weighs in at a staggering 26,741 words, longer than all but five canonical books.

“When words are many, transgression is not lacking,” wrote King Solomon. We rightly make an exception to that rule when we know a writer was carried along by the Holy Spirit.

The question is, was Joshua ben Sira “carried along”, or was he just unusually verbose?

6. Ecclesiasticus (a.k.a. the Wisdom of Sirach or the Book of the All-Virtuous Wisdom of Joshua ben Sira)

A book of proverbial wisdom appreciated and quoted by the church fathers, Ecclesiasticus is one of the best-attested apocryphal writings. You can read it in the New Revised Standard version right here, but only if you have LOTS of time on your hands.

Unlike in most apocryphal literature, the writer of Ecclesiasticus identifies himself. The date of its writing is well established (very early second century B.C.), as is the fact that it was originally written in Hebrew and later translated into Greek in Egypt by the author’s grandson. The book contains a great deal of devout meditation and (mostly) sound advice likely patterned after the biblical book of Proverbs.

The term “commentary” might even be an apt description when we consider that ben Sira touches on many subjects introduced by Solomon in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes and expands on them considerably. While he does not reference specific portions of scripture, any reader familiar with the word of God will quickly recognize where his themes come from.

“Something Pertaining to Education and Wisdom”

The Greek prologue to Ecclesiasticus penned by ben Sira’s grandson is of interest. He writes:
“... my grandfather, since he had given himself increasingly both to the reading of the Law and the Prophets and the other ancestral books and since he had acquired considerable proficiency in them, he too was led to compose something pertaining to education and wisdom in order that lovers of learning, when they come under their sway as well, might gain much more by living by the law.”
Without reading too much into this, it sounds as if “the Law and the Prophets” had clearly-defined parameters for the Jew as early as the mid-second century B.C. The writer of the prologue makes no claim that his grandfather’s work is anything but an instruction guide for lovers of learning composed after the pattern of the books with which he had become acquainted. And the text of Ecclesiasticus bears this out: lines like “the word of the Lord came to me”, which we find regularly in the prophetic texts, are notably absent.

The Wisdom of ben Sira

Don’t get me wrong. Despite its length (think 6,325 Rules for Life), there is plenty of good stuff here:
“Do not babble in the assembly of the elders, and do not repeat yourself when you pray.” (7:14)
I mean, who can argue with that? Succinct, and perpetually relevant. Or this:
“Do you have daughters? Be concerned for their chastity, and do not show yourself too indulgent with them. Give a daughter in marriage, and you complete a great task; but give her to a sensible man.” (7:24-25)
If all ben Sira’s pronouncements were on this level, my estimate of his intelligence and perception would be high indeed. This sound bit of advice is probably the very earliest iteration of the Pence Rule:
“Never dine with another man’s wife, or revel with her at wine; or your heart may turn aside to her, and in blood you may be plunged into destruction.” (9:9)
Amen. Aimee Byrd might disagree, but let’s just say the principle has held up long enough and saved enough men (not to mention women) sufficient grief that it ought to merit our careful consideration.

Transgression is Not Lacking

However, where ben Sira stops commenting on Solomon and presumes to offer his own opinion, the results are occasionally theologically dubious. Consider this brief assertion about the judgment of God:
“For kindness to a father will not be forgotten, and will be credited to you against your sins; in the day of your distress it will be remembered in your favor; like frost in fair weather, your sins will melt away (3:14-15).”
The idea of sins being balanced against credits, either in this life or at the judgment, is commonly held today but found nowhere in the word of God. Later, however, ben Sira appears to contradict himself:
“Do not commit a sin twice; not even for one will you go unpunished. Do not say, ‘He will consider the great number of my gifts, and when I make an offering to the Most High God, he will accept it.’ ” (7:8-9)
Avoiding being frivolous about sinning is commendable, but it’s difficult to make the argument from scripture that every single sin eventually gets punished, especially when you consider that ben Sira may have been a proto-Sadducee: he does not even hint at a belief in resurrection anywhere in Ecclesiasticus’s 51 chapters.

Solomon vs. ben Sira

Ben Sira’s portrayal of wisdom is also not completely in line with Solomon’s:
“Listen, my child, and accept my judgment; do not reject my counsel. Put your feet into her [wisdom’s] fetters, and your neck into her collar. Bend your shoulders and carry her, and do not fret under her bonds.” (6:23-25)
Solomon enthuses about the positive aspects of wisdom, and ben Sira largely follows suit. Here, however, being wise is portrayed as a burden to be borne rather than a blessing. Ben Sira’s gloomier take on learning is not necessarily false, as any wise man who has suffered for sharing his wisdom with a scoffer or a fool may confirm, but it’s not really the way wisdom is presented to us in scripture.

The wisdom in Ecclesiasticus is for the most part very pre-Christian. An example:
“Give to the devout, but do not help the sinner. Do good to the humble, but do not give to the ungodly; hold back their bread, and do not give it to them, for by means of it they might subdue you; then you will receive twice as much evil for all the good you have done to them.” (12:4-5)
It’s certainly a pragmatic bit of counsel, but a quick comparison with the Sermon on the Mount shows it falls well short of “love your enemies”.

Another gem:
“Give, and take, and indulge yourself, because in Hades one cannot look for luxury.” (14:16)
Well, yes, I suppose, but this sounds uncomfortably close to “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”

Structure and Content

As a long list of mostly short sayings, Ecclesiasticus is almost completely structure-free. Attempts to divide the 51 chapters logically or thematically generally fail to impress, though there are occasional extended considerations of particular topics, such as the six-and-a-half chapter ode to famous men found in chapters 44-49, which takes in everyone from Enoch to Jeshua and Zerubbabel.

Overall, ben Sira’s favorite formulation is “do not”, a phrase which occurs 239 times in 43 chapters, or almost six times a chapter (hitting a high of 27 in chapter 7). Today, we might call that “negative ministry”.

As might be expected in a book of this length, ben Sira is painfully wordy. For example, in 31:12-18, he takes seven verses to warn us about dining with kings. Solomon gets the job done in three, which explains why there are only 31 chapters in Proverbs. There is some real value in verbal economy, not least that pithy sayings are more memorable and more likely to provoke meditation than endless “Hebrew-splaining”.

By Way of Evaluation

It’s easy to see why Ecclesiasticus has survived the centuries: it is mostly made up of good advice. For a pre-Christian self-help manual, it does a pretty good job of comprehensively addressing life’s major issues and of pointing the reader toward God and good behavior. Many worse books have been written, and the questionable bits are few and far between.

What Ecclesiasticus is not is either original or canonical, the latter with good reason: it says much ABOUT scripture, but it does not pretend to BE scripture. There is no new message from God to be found here, just a careful and extensive record of received wisdom passed from generation to generation.

Readability: 6/10
Plausibility: 4/10

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