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Longest of the deuterocanonical books of Holy Writ

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Ecclesiasticus (abbrev. Ecclus.), the longest of the deuterocanonical books of Holy Writ, and the last of the Sapiential writings in the Vulgate of the Old Testament.


The usual title of the book in Greek MSS. and Fathers is Sophia Iesou huiou Seirach, “the Wisdom of Jesus, the son of Sirach”, or simply Sophia Seirach “the Wisdom of Sirach”. It is manifestly connected with, and possibly derived from, the following subscription which appears at the end of recently-discovered Hebrew fragments of Ecclesiasticus: “Wisdom [Hókhmae] of Simeon, the son of Yeshàa, the son of Eleazar, the son of Sïrae”. Indeed, its full form would naturally lead one to regard it as a direct rendering of the Hebrew heading: HB Hókhmath Yeshàa bén Sirae”, were it not that St. Jerome, in his prologue to the Solomonic writings, states that the Hebrew title of Ecclesiasticus was GRK “” (Paraboloe) of Jesus of Sirach. Perhaps in the original Hebrew the book bore different titles at different times: in point of fact, the simple name, GRK “Wisdom “, is applied to it in the Talmud, while Rabbinic writers commonly quote Ecclesiasticus as Bén Sirae. Among the other Greek names which are given to Ecclesiasticus in patristic literature, may be mentioned the simple title of Sophia, “Wisdom”, and the honorary designation he panapetos sophia, “all-virtuous Wisdom”.

As might well be expected, Latin writers have applied to Ecclesiasticus titles which are derived from its Greek names, such as “Sapientia Sirach” (Rufinus); “Jesu, filii Sirach” (Junilius), “Sapientia Jesu” (Codex Claromontanus); “Liber Sapientiae” (Roman Missal). It can hardly be doubted, however, that the heading “Parabolae Salomonis”, which is prefixed at times in the Roman Breviary to sections from Ecclesiasticus, is to be traced back to the Hebrew title spoken of by St. Jerome in his prologue to the Solomonic writings. Be this as it may, the book is most commonly designated in the Latin Church as “Ecclesiasticus”, itself a Greek word with a Latin ending. This last title—not to be confounded with “Ecclesiastes” (Eccl.)—is the one used by the Council of Trent in its solemn decree concerning the books to be regarded as sacred and canonical. It points out the very special esteem in which this didactic work was formerly held for the purpose of general reading and instruction in church meetings: this book alone, of all the deuterocanonical writings, which are also called Ecclesiastical by Rufinus, has preserved by way of pre-eminence the name of Ecclesiasticus (Liber), that is “a church reading-book”.


The Book of Ecclesiasticus is preceded by a prologue which professes to be the work of the Greek translator of the original Hebrew and the genuineness of which is undoubted. In this preface to his translation, the writer describes, among other things, his frame of mind in undertaking the hard task of rendering the Hebrew text into Greek. He was deeply impressed by the wisdom of the sayings contained in the book, and therefore wished, by means of a translation, to place those valuable teachings within the reach of anyone desiring to avail himself of them for living in more perfect accord with the law of God. This was a most worthy object, and there is no doubt that in setting it before himself the translator of Ecclesiasticus had well realized the general character of the contents of that sacred writing. The fundamental thought of the author of Ecclesiasticus is that of wisdom as understood and inculcated in inspired Hebrew literature; for the contents of this book, however varied they may appear in other respects, admit of being naturally grouped under the general heading of “Wisdom”. Viewed from this standpoint, which is indeed universally regarded as the author’s own standpoint, the contents of Ecclesiasticus may be divided into two great parts: chs. i-xlii, 14; and xlii, 15-1, 26. The sayings, which chiefly make up the first part, tend directly to inculcate the fear of God and the fulfilment of His commands, wherein consists true wisdom. This they do by pointing out, in a concrete manner, how the truly wise man shall conduct himself in the manifold relationships of practical life. They afford a most varied fund of thoughtful rules for self-guidance “in joy and sorrow, in prosperity and adversity, in sickness and health, in struggle and temptation, in social life, in intercourse with friends and enemies, with high and low, rich and poor, with the good and the wicked, the wise and the foolish, in trade, business, and one’s ordinary calling, above all, in one’s own house and family in connection with the training of children, the treatment of men-servants and maid-servants, and the way in which a man ought to behave towards his own wife and women generally” (Schürer). Together with these maxims, which resemble closely both in matter and form the Proverbs of Solomon, the first part of Ecclesiasticus includes several more or less long descriptions of the origin and excellence of wisdom (cf. i; iv, 12-22; vi, 18-37; xiv, 22-xv, 11; xxiv). The contents of the second part of the book are of a decidedly more uniform character, but contribute no less effectively to the setting forth of the general topic of Ecclesiasticus. They first describe at length the Divine wisdom so wonderfully displayed in the realm of nature (xlii, 15-xliii), and next illustrate the practice of wisdom in the various walks of life, as made known by the history of Israel’s worthies, from Enoch down to the high priest Simon, the writer’s holy contemporary (xliv-1, 26). At the close of the book (I, 27-29), there is first, a short conclusion containing the author’s subscription and the express declaration of his general purpose; and next, an appendix (li) in which the writer returns thanks to God for His benefits, and especially for the gift of wisdom, and to which are subjoined in the Hebrew text recently discovered, a second subscription and the following pious ejaculation: “Blessed be the name of Yahweh from this time forth and for evermore.”


Until quite recently the original language of the Book of Ecclesiasticus was a matter of considerable doubt among scholars. They, of course, knew that the Greek translator’s prologue states that the work was originally written in “Hebrew”, hebraisti, but they were in doubt as to the precise signification of this term, which might mean either Hebrew proper or Aramaic. They were likewise aware that St. Jerome, in his preface to the Solomonic writings, speaks of a Hebrew original as in existence in his day, but it still might be doubted whether it was truly a Hebrew text, or not rather a Syriac or Aramaic translation in Hebrew characters. Again, in their eyes, the citation of the book by rabbinical writers, sometimes in Hebrew, sometimes in Aramaic, did not appear decisive, since it was not certain that they came from a Hebrew original. And this was their view also with regard to the quotations, this time in classical Hebrew, by the Bagdad gaon Saadia of the tenth century of our era, that is of the period after which all documentary traces of a Hebrew text of Ecclesiasticus practically disappear from the Christian world. Still, most critics were of the mind that the primitive language of the book was Hebrew, not Aramaic. Their chief argument for this was that the Greek version contains certain errors; for example, xxiv, 37 (in Gr., verse 27), “light” for Nile” (YAR); xxv, 22 (Gr., verse 15), “head” for “poison” (RSH); xlvi, 21 (Gr., verse 18), “Tyrians” for “enemies” (TSRYM); etc.; these are best accounted for by supposing that the translator misunderstood a Hebrew original before him. And so the matter stood until the year 1896, which marks the beginning of an entirely new period in the history of the original text of Ecclesiasticus. Since that time, much documentary evidence has come to light, and it tends to show that the book was originally written in Hebrew. The first fragments of a Hebrew text of Ecclesiasticus (xxxix, 15-xl, 6) were brought from the East to Cambridge, England, by Mrs. A. S. Lewis; they were identified in May, 1896, and published in “The Expositor” (July, 1896) by S. Schechter, reader in Talmudic at Cambridge University. About the same time, in a box of fragments acquired from the Cairo genizzah through Professor Sayce for the Bodleian Library, Oxford, nine leaves apparently of the same MS. (now called B) and containing xl, 9-xlix, 11, were found by A. E. Cowley and Ad. Neubauer, who also soon published them (Oxford, 1897). Next followed the identification by Professor Schechter, first, of seven leaves of the same Codex (B), containing xxx, 11-xxxi, 11; xxxii, lb-xxxiii, 3; xxxv, 11-xxxvi, 21; xxxvii, 30-xxxviii, 28b; xlix, 14c-li, 30; and next, of four leaves of a different MS. (called A), and presenting iii, 6e-vii, 31a; xi, 36d-xvi, 26. These eleven leaves had been discovered by Dr. Schechter in the fragments brought by him from the Cairo genizzah; and it is among matter obtained from the same source by the British Museum, that G. Margoliouth found and published, in 1899, four pages of the MS. B, containing xxxi, 12-xxxii, la; xxxvi, 21-xxxvii, 29. Early in 1900, I. Lévi published two pages from a third MS. (C), xxxvi, 29a-xxxviii, la, that is, a passage already contained in Codex B; and two from a fourth MS. (D), presenting in a defective manner, vi, 18-vii, 27b, that is, a section already found in Codex A. Early in 1900, too, E. N. Adler published four pages of MS. A, viz. vii, 29-xii, 1; and S. Schechter, four pages of MS. C, consisting of mere excerpts from iv, 28b-v, 15c; xxv, 1 lb-xxvi, 2a. Lastly, two pages of MS. D were discovered by Dr. M. S. Gaster, and contain a few verses of chaps. xviii, xix, xx, xxvii, some of which already appear in MSS. B and C. Thus by the middle of the year 1900, more than one-half of a Hebrew text of Ecclesiasticus had been identified and published by scholars. (In the foregoing indications of the newly-discovered fragments of the Hebrew, the chapters and verses given are according to the numbering in the Latin Vulgate.)

As might naturally be anticipated, and indeed it was desirable that it should so happen, the publication of these various fragments gave rise to a controversy as to the originality of the text therein exhibited. At a very early stage in that publication, scholars easily noticed that although the Hebrew language of the fragments was apparently classical, it nevertheless contained readings which might lead one to suspect its actual dependence on the Greek and Syriac versions of Ecclesiasticus. Whence it manifestly imported to determine whether, and if so, to what extent, the Hebrew fragments reproduced an original text of the book, or on the contrary, simply presented a late retranslation of Ecclesiasticus into Hebrew by means of the versions just named. Both Dr. G. Bickell and Professor D. S. Margoliouth, that is, the two men who but shortly before the discovery of the Hebrew fragments of Ecclesiasticus had attempted to retranslate small parts of the book into Hebrew, declared themselves openly against the originality of the newly found Hebrew text. It may indeed be admitted that the efforts naturally entailed by their own work of retranslation had especially fitted Margoliouth and Bickell for noticing and appreciating those features which even now appear to many scholars to tell in favor of a certain connection of the Hebrew text with the Greek and Syriac versions. It remains true, however, that, with the exception of Israel Lévi and perhaps a few others, the most prominent Biblical and Talmudic scholars of the day are of the mind that the Hebrew fragments present an original text. They think that the arguments and inferences most vigorously urged by Professor D. S. Margoliouth in favor of his view have been disposed of through a comparison of the fragments published in 1899 and 1900 with those that had appeared at an earlier date, and through a close study of nearly all the facts now available. They readily admit in the MSS. thus far recovered, scribal faults, doublets, Arabisms, apparent traces of dependence on extant versions, etc. But to their minds all such defects do not disprove the originality of the Hebrew text, inasmuch as they can, and indeed in a large number of cases must, be accounted for by the very late character of the copies now in our possession. The Hebrew fragments of Ecclesiasticus belong, at the earliest, to the tenth, or even the eleventh, century of our era, and by that late date all kinds of errors could naturally be expected to have crept into the original language of the book, because the Jewish copyists of the work did not regard it as canonical. At the same time, these defects do not disfigure altogether the manner of Hebrew in which Ecclesiasticus was primitively written. The language of the fragments is manifestly not rabbinic, but classical Hebrew; and this conclusion is decidedly borne out by a comparison of their text with that of the quotations from Ecclesiasticus, both in the Talmud and in the Saadia, which have already been referred to. Again, the Hebrew of the newly found fragments, although classical, is yet one of a distinctly late type, and it supplies considerable material for lexicographic research. Finally, the comparatively large number of the Hebrew MSS. recently discovered in only one place (Cairo) points to the fact that the work in its primitive form was often transcribed in ancient times, and thus affords hope that other copies, more or less complete, of the original text may be discovered at some future date. To render their study convenient, all the extant fragments have been brought together in a splendid edition, “Facsimiles of the Fragments hitherto recovered of the Book of Ecclesiasticus in Hebrew” (Oxford and Cambridge, 1901). The metrical and strophic structure of parts of the newly discovered text has been particularly investigated by H. Grimme and N. Schlögl, whose success in the matter is, to say the least, indifferent; and by Jos. Knabenbauer, S.J., in a less venturesome way, and hence with more satisfactory results.


It was, of course, from a Hebrew text incomparably better than the one we now possess that the grandson of the author of Ecclesiasticus rendered the book into Greek. This translator was a Palestinian Jew, who came to Egypt at a certain time, and desired to make the work accessible in a Greek dress to the Jews of the Dispersion, and no doubt also to all lovers of wisdom. His name is unknown, although an ancient, but little reliable, tradition (“Synopsis Scripturae Sacrae” in St,. Athanasius’s works) calls him Jesus, the son of Sirach. His literary qualifications for the task he undertook and carried out cannot be fully ascertained at the present day. He is commonly regarded, however, from the general character of his work, as a man of good general culture, with a fair command of both Hebrew and Greek. He was distinctly aware of the great difference which exists between the respective genius of these two languages, and of the consequent difficulty attending the efforts of one who aimed at giving a satisfactory Greek version of a Hebrew writing, and therefore begs expressly, in his prologue to the work, his readers’ indulgence for whatever shortcomings they may notice in his translation. He claims to have spent much time and labor on his version of Ecclesiasticus, and it is only fair to suppose that his work was not only a conscientious, but also, on the whole, a successful, rendering of the original Hebrew. One can but speak in this guarded manner of the exact value of the Greek translation in its primitive form, for the simple reason that a comparison of its extant MSS.—all apparently derived from a single Greek exemplar—shows that the primitive translation has been very often, and in many cases seriously, tampered with. The great uncial codices, the Vatican, the Sinaitic, the Ephramitic, and partly the Alexandrian, though comparatively free from glosses, contain an inferior text; the better form of the text seems to be preserved in the Venetus Codex and in certain cursive MSS., though these have many glosses. Undoubtedly, a fair number of these glosses may be referred safely to the translator himself, who, at times, added one word or even a few words to the original before him, to make the meaning clearer or to guard the text against possible misunderstanding. But the great bulk of the glosses resemble the Greek additions in the Book of Proverbs; they are expansions of the thought, or hellenizing interpretations, or additions from current collections of gnomic sayings. The following are the best-ascertained results which flow from a comparison of the Greek version with the text of our Hebrew fragments. Oftentimes, the corruptions of the Hebrew may be discovered by means of the Greek; and, conversely, the Greek text is proved to be defective, in the line of additions or omissions, by reference to parallel places in the Hebrew. At times, the Hebrew discloses considerable freedom of rendering on the part of the Greek translator; or enables one to perceive how the author of the version mistook one Hebrew letter for another; or, again, affords us a means to make sense out of an unintelligible expression in the Greek text. Lastly, the Hebrew text confirms the order of the contents in xxx-xxxvi which is presented by the Syriac, Latin, and Armenian versions, over against the unnatural order found in all existing Greek MSS. Like the Greek, the Syriac version of Ecclesiasticus was made directly from the original Hebrew. This is wellnigh universally admitted; and a comparison of its text with that of the newly found Hebrew fragments should settle the point forever: as just stated, the Syriac version gives the same order as the Hebrew text for the contents of xxx-xxxvi; in particular, it presents mistaken renderings, the origin of which, while inexplicable by supposing a Greek original as its basis, is easily accounted for by reference to the text of the Hebrew fragments. But the Hebrew text from which it was made must have been very defective, as is proved by the numerous and important lacunae in the Syriac translation. It seems, likewise, that the Hebrew has been rendered by the translator himself in a careless, and at times even arbitrary, manner. The Syriac version has all the less critical value at the present day, because it was considerably revised at an unknown date, by means of the Greek translation.

Of the other ancient versions of Ecclesiasticus, the Old Latin is the most important. It was made before St. Jerome’s time, although the precise date of its origin cannot now be ascertained; and the holy doctor apparently revised its text but little, previously to its adoption into the Latin Vulgate. The unity of the Old Latin version, which was formerly undoubted, has been of late seriously questioned, and Ph. Thielmann, the most recent investigator of its text in this respect, thinks that chs. xliv-l are due to a translator other than that of the rest of the book, the former part being of European, the latter and chief part of African, origin. Conversely, the view formerly doubted by Cornelius a Lapide, P. Sabatier, E. G. Bengel, etc., namely that the Latin version was made directly from the Greek, is now considered as altogether certain. The version has retained many Greek words in a latinized form: eremus (vi, 3); eucharis (vi, 5); basis (vi, 30); acharis (xx, 21); xenia (xx, 31); dioryx (xxiv, 41); poderes (xxvii, 9); etc., etc., together with certain Graecisms of construction; so that the text rendered into Latin was unquestionably Greek, not the original Hebrew. It is indeed true that other features of the Old Latin—notably its order for xxx-xxxvi, which disagrees with the Greek translation, and agrees with the Hebrew text—seem to point to the conclusion that the Latin version was based immediately on the original Hebrew. But a very recent and critical examination of all such features in i-xliii has led H. Herkenne to a different conclusion; all things taken into consideration, he is of the mind that: “Nititur Vetus Latina textu vulgari graeco ad textum hebraicum alterius recensionis grace castigato.” (See also Jos. Knabenbauer, S.J., “In Ecclesiasticum”, p. 34 sq.) Together with graecized forms, the Old Latin translation of Ecclesiasticus presents many barbarisms and solecisms (such as de f unctio, i, 13; religiositas, i, 17, 18, 26; compartior, i, 24; receptibilis, ii, 5; peries, periet, viii, 18; xxxiii, 7; obductio, ii, 2; v, 1, 10; etc.), which, to the extent in which they can be actually traced back to the original form of the version, go to show that the translator had but a poor command of the Latin language. Again, from a fair number of expressions which are certainly due to the translator, it may be inferred that, at times, he did not catch the sense of the Greek, and that at other times he was too free in rendering the text before him. The Old Latin version abounds in additional lines or even verses foreign not only to the Greek, but also to the Hebrew text. Such important additions—which often appear clearly so from the fact that they interfere with the poetical parallelisms of the book—are either repetitions of preceding statements under a slightly different form, or glosses inserted by the translator or the copyists. Owing to the early origin of the Latin version (probably the second century of our era), and to its intimate connection with both the Greek and Hebrew texts, a good edition of its primitive form, as far as this form can be ascertained, is one of the chief things to be desired for the textual criticism of Ecclesiasticus. Among the other ancient versions of the Book of Ecclesiasticus which are derived from the Greek, the Ethiopic, Arabic, and Coptic are worthy of special mention.


The author of the Book of Ecclesiasticus is not King Solomon, to whom, as St. Augustine bears witness, the work was oftentimes ascribed “on account of some resemblance of style” with that of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Canticle of Canticles, but to whom, as the same holy doctor says, “the more learned” (apparently among the church writers of the time) “know full well that it should not be referred” (On the City of God, Bk. XVII, ch. xx). At the present day, the authorship of the book is universally and rightly assigned to a certain “Jesus”, concerning whose person and character a great deal has indeed been surmised but very little is actually known. In the Greek prologue to the work, the author’s proper name is given as Iesous, and this information is corroborated by the subscriptions found in the original He-brew: 1, 27 (Vulg., 1, 29); li, 30. His familiar surname was Bén Sírae, as the Hebrew text and the ancient versions agree to attest. He is described in the Greek and Latin versions as “a man of Jerusalem” (I, 29), and internal evidence (cf. xxiv, 13 sqq.; 1) tends to confirm the statement, although it is not found in the Hebrew. His close acquaintance with “the Law, the Prophets, and the other books delivered from the fathers”, that is, with the three classes of writings which make up the Hebrew Bible, is distinctly borne witness to by the prologue to the work; and the 367 idioms or phrases, which the study of the Hebrew fragments has shown to be derived from the sacred books of the Jews, are an ample proof that Jesus, the son of Sirach, was thoroughly acquainted with the Biblical text. He was a philosophical observer of life, as can be easily inferred from the nature of his thought, and he himself speaks of the wider knowledge which he acquired by travelling much, and of which he, of course, availed himself in writing his work (xxxiv, 12). The particular period in the author’s life to which the composition of the book should be referred cannot be defined, whatever conjectures may have been put forth in that regard by some recent scholars. The data to which others have appealed (xxxi, 22 sqq.; xxxviii, 1-15; etc.) to prove that he was a physician are insufficient evidence; while the similarity of the names (Jason-Jesus) is no excuse for those who have identified Jesus, the son of Sirach, a man of manifestly pious and honorable character, with the ungodly and hellenizing high priest Jason (175-172 B.C.—concerning Jason‘s wicked deeds, see II Mach., iv, 7-26).

The time at which Jesus, the author of Ecclesiasticus, lived has been the matter of much discussion in the past. But at the present day, it admits of being given with tolerable precision. Two data are particularly helpful for this purpose. The first is supplied by the Greek prologue, where we read that the grandson of Jesus of Sirach came into Egypt en to ogdoo kai triakosto etei epi tou Euergetou Basileos, not long after which he rendered into Greek his grandfather’s work. The “thirty-eighth year” here spoken of by the translator does not mean that of his own age, for such a specification would be manifestly irrelevant. It naturally denotes the date of his arrival in Egypt with a reference to the years of rule of the then monarch, the Egyptian Ptolemy Euergetes; and in point of fact, the Greek grammatical construction of the passage in the prologue is that usually employed in the Septuagint version to give the year of rule of a prince (cf. Aggeus, i, 1; ii, 1, 10; Zach., i, 1, 7; vii, 1; I Mach., xiii, 42; xiv, 27; etc.). There were indeed two Ptolemys of the surname Euergetes (Benefactor): Ptolemy III and Ptolemy VII (Physcon). But to decide which is the one actually meant by the author of the prologue is an easy matter. As the first, Ptolemy III, reigned only twenty-five years (247-222 B.C.), it must be the second, Ptolemy VII, who is intended. This latter prince shared the throne along with his brother (from 170 B.C. onwards), and afterwards ruled alone (from 145 B.C. onwards). But he was wont to reckon the years of his reign from the earlier date. Hence “the thirty-eighth year of Ptolemy Euergetes”, in which the grandson of Jesus, the son of Sirach, came to Egypt, is the year 132 B.C. This being the case, the translator’s grandfather, the author of Ecclesiasticus, may be regarded as having lived and written his work between forty and sixty years before (between 190 and 170 B.C.), for there can be no doubt that in referring to Jesus by means of the term pappos and of the definite phrase ho pappos mou Iesous, the writer of the prologue designates his grandfather, and not a more remote ancestor. The second datum that is particularly available for determining the time at which the writer of Ecclesiasticus lived is supplied by the book itself. It has long been felt that since the son of Sirach celebrates with such a genuine glow of enthusiasm the deeds of “the high priest Simon, son of Onias“, whom he praises as the last in the long line of Jewish worthies, he must himself have been an eyewitness of the glory which he depicts (cf. 1, 1-16, 22, 23). This was, of course, but an inference, and so long as it was based only on a more or less subjective appreciation of the passage, one can easily understand why many scholars questioned, or even rejected, its correctness. But with the recent discovery of the original Hebrew of the passage, there has come in a new, and distinctly objective, element, which places practically beyond doubt the correctness of the inference. In the Hebrew text, immediately after his eulogism of the high priest Simon, the writer subjoins the following fervent prayer: “May His [i.e. Yahweh’s] mercy be continually with Simon, and may He establish with him the covenant of Phineas, that will endure with him and with his seed, as the days of heaven” (I, 24). Obviously, Simon was yet alive when this prayer was thus formulated; and its actual wording in the Hebrew implies this so manifestly, that when the author’s grandson rendered it into Greek, at a date when Simon had been dead for some time, he felt it necessary to modify the text before him, and hence rendered it in the following general manner: “May His mercy be continually with us, and may He redeem us in His days.” Besides thus allowing us to realize the fact that Jesus, the son of Sirach, was a contemporary of the high priest Simon, chap. 1 of Ecclesiasticus affords us certain details which enable us to decide which of the two Simons, both high priests and sons of Onias and known in Jewish history, is the one described by the writer of the book. On the one hand, the only known title of Simon I (who held the pontificate under Ptolemy Soter, about 300 B.C.) which would furnish a reason for the great encomium passed upon Simon in Ecclus., 1, is the surname “the Just” (cf. Josephus, Antiq. of the Jews, Bk. XII, chap. ii, 5), whence it is inferred that he was a renowned high priest worthy of being celebrated among the Jewish heroes praised by the son of Sirach. On the other hand, such details given in Simon’s panegyric, as the facts that he repaired and strengthened the Temple, fortified the city against siege, and protected the city against robbers (cf. Ecclus., 1, 1-4), are in close agreement with what is known of the times of Simon II (about 200 B.C.). While in the days of Simon I, and immediately after, the people were undisturbed by foreign aggression, in those of Simon II the Jews were sorely harassed by hostile armies, and their territory was invaded by Antiochus, as we are informed by Josephus (Antiq. of the Jews, Bk. XII, chap. iii, 3). It was also in the later time of Simon II that Ptolemy Philopator was prevented only by the high priest’s prayer to God, from desecrating the Most Holy Place; he then started a fearful persecution of the Jews at home and abroad (cf. III Mach., ii, iii). It appears from these facts—to which others, pointing in the same direction, could easily be added—that the author of Ecclesiasticus lived about the beginning of the second century B.C. As a matter of fact, recent Catholic scholars, in increasing number, prefer this position to that which identifies the high priest Simon, spoken of in Ecclus., 1, with Simon I, and which, in consequence, refers the composition of the book to about a century earlier (about 280 B.C.).


At the present day, there are two principal views concerning the manner in which the writer of Ecclesiasticus composed his work, and it is difficult to say which is the more probable. The first, held by many scholars, maintains that an impartial study of the topics treated and of their actual arrangement leads to the conclusion that the whole book is the work of a single mind. Its advocates claim that, throughout the book, one and the came general purpose can be easily made out, to wit: the purpose of teaching the practical value of Hebrew wisdom, and that one and the same method in handling the materials can be readily noticed, the writer always showing wide acquaintance with men and things, and never citing any exterior authority for what he says. They affirm that a careful examination of the contents discloses a distinct unity of mental attitude on the author’s part towards the same leading topics, towards God, life, the Law, wisdom, etc. They do not deny the existence of differences of tone in the book, but think that they are found in various paragraphs relating to minor topics; that the diversities thus noticed do not go beyond the range of one man’s experience; that the author very likely wrote at different intervals and under a variety of circumstances, so that it is not to be wondered at if pieces thus composed bear the manifest impress of a somewhat different frame of mind. Some of them actually go so far as to admit that the writer of Ecclesiasticus may at times have collected thoughts and maxims that were already in current and popular use, may even have drawn material from collections of wise sayings no longer extant or from unpublished discourses of sages; but they, each and all, are positive that the author of the book “was not a mere collector or compiler; his characteristic personality stands out too distinctly and prominently for that, and notwithstanding the diversified character of the apophthegms, they are all the outcome of one connected view of life and of the world” (Schürer).

The second view maintains that the Book of Ecclesiasticus was composed by a process of compilation. According to the defenders of this position, the compilatory character of the book does not necessarily conflict with a real unity of general purpose pervading and connecting the elements of the work: such a purpose proves, indeed, that one mind has bound those elements together for a common end, but it really leaves untouched the question at issue, viz. whether that one mind must be considered as the original author of the contents of the book, or, rather, as the combiner of pre-existing materials. Granting, then, the existence of one and the same general purpose in the work of the son of Sirach, and admitting likewise the fact that certain portions of Ecclesiasticus belong to him as the original author, they think that, on the whole, the book is a compilation. Briefly stated, the following are the grounds for their position. In the first place, from the very nature of his work, the author was like “a gleaner after the grape-gatherers”; and in thus speaking of himself (xxxiii, 16) he gives us to understand that he was a collector or compiler. In the second place, the structure of the work still betrays a compilatory process. The concluding chapter (li) is a real appendix to the book, and was added to it after the completion of the work, as is proved by the colophon in 1, 29 sqq. The opening chapter reads like a general introduction to the book, and indeed as one different in tone from the chapters by which it is immediately followed, while it resembles some distinct sections which are embodied in further chapters of the work. In the body of the book, ch. xxxvi, 1-19, is a prayer for the Jews of the Dispersion, altogether unconnected with the sayings in verses 20 sqq. of the same chapter; ch. xliii, 15-1, 26, is a discourse clearly separate from the prudential maxims by which it is immediately preceded; chs. xvi, 24; xxiv, 1; xxxix, 16, are new starting points, which, no less than the numerous passages marked by the address “my son” (ii, 1; iii, 19; iv, 1, 23; vi, 18, 24, 33; etc.), and the peculiar addition in 1, 27, 28, tell against the literary unity of the work. Other marks of a compilatory process have also been appealed to. They consist in the significant repetition of several sayings in different places of the book (cf. xx, 32, 33, which is repeated in xli, 17b, 18; etc.); in apparent discrepancies of thought and doctrine (cf. the differences of tone ii chs. xvi; xxv; xxix, 21-41; xl, 1-11; etc); in certain topical headings at the beginning of special sections (cf. xxxi, 12; xli, 16; xliv, 1, in the Hebrew); and in an additional psalm or canticle found in the newly discovered Hebrew text, between ii, 12, and li, 13: all of which are best accounted for by the use of several smaller collections containing each the same saying, or differing considerably in their general tenor, or supplied with their respective titles. Finally, there seems to be an historical trace of the compilatory character of Ecclesiasticus in a second, but unauthentic, prologue to the book, which is found in the “Synopsis Sacrae Scripturae”. In this document, which is printed in the works of St. Athanasius and also at the beginning of Ecclesiasticus in the Complutensian Polyglot, the actual redaction of the book is ascribed to the Greek translator as a regular process of compilation of detached hymns, sayings, prayers, etc., which had been left him by his grandfather, Jesus, the son of Sirach.


Before setting forth in a summary way the principal teachings, doctrinal and ethical, contained in the Book of Ecclesiasticus, it will not be amiss to premise two remarks which, however elementary, should be distinctly borne in mind by anyone who wishes to view the doctrines of the son of Sirach in their proper light. First, it would be obviously unfair to require that the contents of this Sapiential book should come fully up to the high moral standard of Christian ethics, or should equal in clearness and precision the dogmatic teachings embodied in the sacred writings of the New Testament or in the living tradition of the Church; all that can be reasonably expected of a book composed some time before the Christian Dispensation, is that it shall set forth substantially good, not perfect, doctrinal and ethical teaching. In the second place, both good logic and sound common sense demand that the silence of Ecclesiasticus concerning certain points of doctrine be not regarded as a positive denial of them, unless it can be clearly and conclusively shown that such a silence must be so construed. The work is mostly made up of unconnected sayings which bear on all kinds of topics, and on that account, hardly ever, if ever at all, will a sober critic be able to pronounce on the actual motive which prompted the author of the book either to mention or to omit a particular point of doctrine. Nay more, in presence of a writer manifestly wedded to the national and religious traditions of the Jewish race, as the general tone of his book proves the author of Ecclesiasticus to have been, every scholar worthy of the name will readily see that silence on Jesus’ part regarding some important doctrine, such for instance as that of the Messias, is no proof whatever that the son of Sirach did not abide by the belief of the Jews concerning that doctrine, and, in reference to the special point just mentioned, did not share the Messianic expectations of his time. As can readily be seen, the two general remarks just made simply set forth elementary canons of historical criticism; and they would not have been dwelt on here were it not that they have been very often lost sight of by Protestant scholars, who, biased by their desire to disprove the Catholic doctrine of the inspired character of Ecclesiasticus, have done their utmost to depreciate the doctrinal and ethical teaching of this deuterocanonical book.

The following are the principal dogmatic doctrines of Jesus, the son of Sirach. According to him, as according to all the other inspired writers of the Old Testament, God is one and there is no God beside Him (xxxvi, 5). He is a living and eternal God (xviii, 1), and although His greatness and mercy exceed all human comprehension, yet He makes Himself known to man through His wonderful works (xvi, 18, 23; xviii, 4). He is the Creator of all things (xviii, 1; xxiv, 12), which He produced by His word of command, stamping them all with the marks of greatness and goodness (xlii, 15-xliii; etc.). Man is the choice handiwork of God, who made him for His glory, set him as king over all other creatures (xvii, 1-8), bestowed upon him the power of choosing between good and evil (xv, 14-22), and will hold him accountable for his own personal deeds (xvii, 9-16), for while tolerating moral evil He reproves it and enables man to avoid it (xv, 11-21). In dealing with man, God is no less merciful than righteous: “He is mighty to forgive” (xvi, 12), and: “How great is the mercy of the Lord, and His forgiveness to them that turn to Him” (xvii, 28); yet no one should presume on the Divine mercy and hence delay his conversion, “for His wrath shall come on a sudden, and in the time of vengeance He will destroy thee” (v, 6-9). From among the children of men, God selected for Himself a special nation, Israel, in the midst of which He wills that wisdom should reside (xxiv, 13-16), and in behalf of which the son of Sirach offers up a fervent prayer, replete with touching remembrances of God‘s mercies to the patriarchs and prophets of old, and with ardent wishes for the reunion and exaltation of the chosen people (xxxvi, 1-19). It is quite clear that the Jewish patriot who put forth this petition to God for future national quiet and prosperity, and who furthermore confidently expected that Elias‘s return would contribute to the glorious restoration of all Israel (cf. xlviii, 10), looked forward to the introduction of Messianic times. It remains true, however, that in whatever way his silence be accounted for, he does not speak anywhere of a special interposition of God in behalf of the Jewish people, or of the future coming of a personal Messias. He manifestly alludes to the narrative of the Fall, when he says: “From the woman came the beginning of sin, and by her we all die” (xxv, 33), and apparently connects with this original deviation from righteousness the miseries and passions that weigh so heavily on “the children of Adam” (xl, 1-11). He says very little concerning the next life. Earthly rewards occupy the most prominent, or perhaps even the sole, place, in the author’s mind, as a sanction for present good or evil deeds (xiv, 22-xv, 6; xvi, 1-14); but this will not appear strange to anyone who is acquainted with the limitations of Jewish eschatology in the more ancient parts of the Old Testament. He depicts death in the light of a reward or of a punishment, only in so far as it is either a quiet demise for the just or a final deliverance from earthly ills (xli, 3, 4), or, on the contrary, a terrible end that overtakes the sinner when he least expects it (ix, 16, 17). As regards the underworld or Sheol, it appears to the writer nothing but a mournful place where the dead do not praise God (xvii, 26, 27).

The central, dogmatic, and moral idea of the book is that of wisdom. Bén Sïrae describes it under several important aspects. When he speaks of it in relation to God, he almost invariably invests it with personal attributes. It is eternal (i, 1), unsearchable (i, 6, 7), universal (xxiv, 6 sqq.). It is the formative, creative power of the world (xxiv, 3 sqq.), yet is itself created (i, 9; also in Greek: xxiv, 9), and is nowhere treated as a distinct, subsisting Divine Person, in the Hebrew text. In relation to man, wisdom is depicted as a quality which comes from the Almighty and works most excellent effects in those who love Him (i, 10-13). It is identified with the “fear of God” (i, 16), which should of course prevail in a special manner in Israel, and promote among the Hebrews the perfect fulfilment of the Mosaic Law, which the author of Ecclesiasticus regards as the living embodiment of God‘s wisdom (xxiv, 11-20, 32, 33). It is a priceless treasure, to the acquisition of which one must devote all his efforts, and the imparting of which to others one should never grudge (vi, 18-20; xx, 32, 33). It is a disposition of the heart which prompts man to practice the virtues of faith, hope, and love of God (ii, 8-10), of trust and submission, etc. (ii, 18-23; x, 23-27; etc.); which also secures for him happiness and glory in this life (xxxiv, 14-20; xxxiii, 37, 38; etc.). It is a frame of mind which prevents the discharge of the ritual law, especially the offering of sacrifices, from becoming a heartless compliance with mere outward observances, and it causes man to place inward righteousness far above the offering of rich gifts to God (xxxv). As can readily be seen, the author of Ecclesiasticus inculcated in all this a teaching far superior to that of the Pharisees of a somewhat later date, and in no way inferior to that of the prophets and of the other protocanonical writers before him. Highly commendable, too, are the numerous pithy sayings which the son of Sirach gives for the avoidance of sin, wherein the negative part of practical wisdom may be said to consist. His maxims against pride (iii, 30; vi, 2-4; x, 14-30; etc.), covetousness (iv, 36; v, 1; xi, 18-21), envy (xxx, 22-27; xxxvi, 22), impurity (ix, 1-13; xix, 1-3; etc.), anger (xviii, 1-14; x, 6), intemperance (xxxvii, 30-34), sloth (vii, 16; xxii, 1, 2), the sins of the tongue (iv, 30; vii, 13, 14; xi, 2, 3; i, 36-40; v, 16, 17; xxviii, 15-27; etc.), evil company (xi, 31-36; xxii, 14-18; etc), display a close observation of human nature, stigmatize vice in a forcible manner, and at times point out the remedy against the spiritual distemper. Indeed, it is probably no less because of the success which Bén Sïrae attained to in branding vice than because of that which he obtained in directly inculcating virtue, that his work was so willingly used in the early days of Christianity for public reading at church, and bears, down to the present day, the pre-eminent title of “Ecclesiasticus”.

Together with these maxims, which nearly all bear on what may be called individual morality, the Book of Ecclesiasticus contains valuable lessons relative to the various classes which make up human society. The natural basis of society is the family, and the son of Sirach supplies a number of pieces of advice especially appropriate to the domestic circle as it was then constituted. He would have the man who wishes to become the head of a family determined in the choice of a wife by her moral worth (xxxvi, 23-26; xl, 19-23). He repeatedly describes the precious advantages resulting from the possession of a good wife, and contrasts with them the misery entailed by the choice of an unworthy one (xxvi, 1-24; xxv, 17-36). The man, as the head of the family, he represents indeed as vested with more power than would be granted to him among us, but be does not neglect to point out his numerous responsibilities towards those under him: to his children, especially his daughter, whose welfare he might more particularly be tempted to neglect (vii, 25 sqq.), and his slaves, concerning whom he writes: “Let a wise servant be dear to thee as thy own soul” (vii, 23; xxxiii, 31), not meaning thereby, however, to encourage the servant’s idleness or other vices (xxxiii, 25-30). The duties of children towards their parents are often and beautifully insisted upon (vii, 29, 30, etc.). The son of Sirach devotes a variety of sayings to the choice and the worth of a real friend (vi, 6-17; ix, 14, 15; xii, 8, 9), to the care with which such a one should be preserved (xxii, 25-32), and also to the worthlessness and dangers of the unfaithful friend (xxvii, 1-6, 17-24; xxxiii, 6). The author has no brief against those in power, but on the contrary considers it an expression of God‘s will that some should be in exalted, and others in humble, stations in life (xxxiii, 7-15). He conceives of the various classes of society, of the poor and the rich, the learned and the ignorant, as able to become endowed with wisdom (xxxvii, 21-29). He would have a prince bear in mind that he is in God‘s hand, and owes equal justice to all, rich and poor (v, 18; x, 1-13). He bids the rich give alms, and visit the poor and the afflicted (iv, 1-11; vii, 38, 39; xii, 1-7; etc.), for almsgiving is a means to obtain forgiveness of sin (iii, 33, 34; vii, 10, 36), whereas hard-heartedness is in every way hurtful (xxxiv, 25-29). On the other hand, he directs the lower classes, as we might call them, to show themselves submissive to those in higher condition and to bear patiently with those who cannot be safely and directly resisted (viii, 1-13; ix, 18-21; xiii, 1-8). Nor is the author of Ecclesiasticus anything like a misanthrope that would set himself up resolutely against the legitimate pleasures and the received customs of social life (xxxi, 12-42; xxxii, 1 sqq.); while he directs severe but just rebukes against the parasite (xxix, 28-35; xl, 29-32). Finally, he has favorable sayings about the physician (xxviii, 1-15), and about the dead (vii, 37; xxxviii, 16-24); and strong words of caution against the dangers which one incurs in the pursuit of business (xxvi, 28; xxvii, 1-4; viii, 15, 16).


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