The Wisdom of Ben Sira

Editor’s introduction: This article was written by the remarkable man that Charles Coulombe has just memorialized on this site. If some copyright has been unintentionally violated by our posting the article here, we will take it down if notified by the holder. The original internet source of the piece is here.

Although it does not appear to be why Mr. Rothovius wrote the article, there is an obvious apologetical value to his piece. The book of Ecclesiasticus is one of the so-called Deuterocanonicals, rejected by Protestants as “apocryphal,” yet held by the Catholic Church (and Orthodox communions) to be inspired and canonical, therefore it may be found in the Douay-Rheims Bible.

A LITTLE over just one hundred years ago, in the spring of 1896, two unusual Victorian ladies — twin sisters, in fact — through a combination of persistence and luck, made one of the most significant discoveries up to that time, in the field of Biblical research. “Unusual” is perhaps not the right word to apply to the pair, for a surprising number of Victorian-era women were anything but the submissive doormats that current ideology makes them out to have been; still, Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson would have stood out from the ordinary run of people, in any epoch of time or society.

Not too much information is locatable about them. They appear to have been born in Scotland, to a prominent family that gave them a classical education, and got them married to wealthy husbands who let them pursue their intellectual interests without interference, while also providing the necessary funding.

High among those interests was searching for original manuscripts of Biblical and related writings, a pursuit that had acquired a tone of fierce competition among scholars over the course of the Nineteenth Century, as the Middle East became more accessible to Western researchers. By the 1890’s, when the Scottish twin ladies became serious participants in this hunt, most of the finds were mere fragments, retrieved by peasants and hole-in-the-wall dealers in antiquities, from scrap heaps and excavation sites. It was getting harder to find anything that was reasonably complete or really important,

A few decades later there would come the great discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi gnostic manuscripts, but anything like that was no longer thought at all likely, in that closing decade of Victoria’s reign.

Thus when Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Gibson returned in May 1896 to the university town of Cambridge in England, where they were then residing, from a three-month foray into Egypt, Palestine and the Sinai Desert — enduring hardships of travel few modern tourists would survive — they counted themselves fortunate in having come back with a 5th Century fragment of the Gospels and a heap of scattered remnants of Hebrew texts, mostly from the genizah (storage room) of the seven-centuries-old Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo.

Sorting out this heap in the home they shared, which had the Scottish name of Castlebrae, the twin sisters identified most of the fragments as texts of the Hebrew Old Testament. The rest they assumed to be from the Talmud or other post-Biblical writings, and invited their friend Solomon Schechter, the Cambridge University expert on the Talmud, to come and examine them. He did so and quickly confirmed the Talmudic provenance of the remaining fragments — all but one scrap.

That vastly excited him. It was, he declared, from the original Hebrew text of the 39th chapter of the Book of the Wisdom of Ben Sira — “Ecclesiasticus”, i.e. the Church Book, as it was titled in the English translations of the Apocryphal section of the Old Testament. No Hebrew text of the book had survived, it was known only from Latin and Greek versions that the translators had relied on. But now this fragment raised the possibility that at least part of the Hebrew text of Ben Sira could be retrieved from the Cairo synagogue’s genizah, if that was where it had come from. The sisters were sure of it — and then just six weeks later came startling confirmation.

Professor A.H. Sayce, the renowned Oxford scholar, reported that he had just purchased from a Cairo dealer nine leaves in good condition, of Ben Sira in the original Hebrew. The section followed that of the fragment the sisters had obtained, and obviously had also come from the synagogue genizah. Schecter decided that an all-out effort had to be made to acquire for Cambridge the genizah’s entire contents. For decades the synagogue had been gaining a steady income by selling bits and pieces at a time to the antiquities dealers. In the process, irreplaceable material was being lost, crumbled, or falling into hands that did not appreciate its value.

With funds from the university library and scholar friends, Schechter went to Cairo in December 1896 to lay siege to the synagogue’s chief rabbi. It took weeks of persuading, but finally Shechter was able to acquire all that remained in the genizah — a total of 140,000 fragments, that filled thirty large bags.

Schechter spent most of the rest of his life sorting out those fragments, and many finds of importance were made among them. None, however, was as significant as the discovery of enough pieces of the Ben Sira text, to put together seven more leaves, amounting in all — along with the earlier finds — to about two-thirds of the entire book. That this was an accurate medieval copy of the original Hebrew, dating from the 2nd Century B.C., was confirmed 70 years later, when the Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin found in the ruins of Masada leather fragments on which were inscribed seven columns of the Ben Sira text, written in the 1st Century B.C. These were identical with the Hebrew of the text recovered from the Cairo genizah. Two Ben Sira fragments found in the Dead Sea scrolls, and also dated to the 1st Century B.C., are likewise textually identical.

The rabbinical tradition that the Wisdom of Ben Sira was written by a sage of Jerusalem about 180 B.C. thus stands vindicated, but the book itself remains strangely unknown to the vast majority of both the Jewish and Christian communions. It was never accepted into the Jewish canon of the Old Testament, even though it is frequently quoted in the Talmud — and the author, Yeshua ben Eleazar ben Sira, cites every book except Daniel in the canonical Old Testament. St. Jerome in the 5th Century AD, translating that canon into the low Latin or Vulgate version which was the standard Bible of the Middle Ages, included two of the apocryphal books — Tobit and Judith — but not Ben Sira’s. Nevertheless it got included, in a translation by some one else, in the Vulgate Old Testament as it was finally put together about 600 AD, and remains to this day in the Roman Catholic Bible, as well as in those of the Ethiopian and Coptic churches.

Readings from it, under the title of the Book of Sirach — the Greek variant of Sira — appear in the Catholic liturgy several times in the course of the year, though the average parishioner would be hard put to it to identify the book or its author, beyond the mere name. The average Protestant has probably never even heard of it, though it was included — as noted above — as “Ecclesiasticus” in the Authorized (King James version) English Bible of 1610, and in Martin Luther’s German Bible some decades earlier. Gradually however it was dropped, along with the other Apocryphal books, from Protestant Bibles. (They are however all included in the New English Bible that was produced in 1971 by a consortium of the major Protestant denominations, but are practically never read from, in church services.)

What is probably needed is for someone to publish the Wisdom of Ben Sira as a separate book in its own right — it’s long enough, 51 chapters in all — so as to bring its eminently practical insights and observations on the conduct of everyday life, into the hands of people who will read and apply it as a handbook still every bit as useful as it was over 2100 years ago.

Hidden away as it has continued to be, in the Apocryphal limbo between the Old and New Testaments, it will never get any wide readership and acquaintance with its down-to-earth wisdom. And that’s a real loss, for wherever one opens its pages, some common but often neglected truths stand out on them, like dandelions in full bloom on a green lawn. Many of them have become familiar phrases in our language, with their source forgotten. How many, for instance, realize that James Agee took the ironic title of his film epic of Depression-era Southern sharecroppers, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”, from the first line of Ben Sira’s 44th chapter?

I have no room here to cite more than a mere sampling of the riches of good common sense with which all of Ben Sira’s book is strewn.

Be quick to listen, but take time to answer. . . .don’t argue with long-winded people. . . . don’t be too clever for your work. . . . when the rich stagger, their friends help them, but when the poor fall, their friends disown them. . . . better a slippery floor than a slippery tongue . . . . fools laugh loudly, the wise smile quietly. . . . start an argument and find a man’s faults. . . . fools make a joke of the worst vices. . . . birds of a feather roost together. . . . . give no one power over yourself, if by any means you can avoid it. . .. omens and dreams are all futile. . . .don’t bother consulting cowards about war, merchants about bargains, or casual workers about finishing a job. . . look after your parents in their old age; even if their minds fail, make allowances. . . .

He is, to be sure, rather hard on women, whom he sees as largely setters of traps for unwary men, but that was the fault of the culture he lived within.

But don’t just take my word for the depth of Ben Sira’s wisdom. Get hold of a Bible that contains it, stick a bookmark in his pages, and turn to them whenever the TV gets too silly to stand.

  • Carl Phillips

    Interesting discussion on the history of one of the least known books of the bible