In the Greek version of the Bible, the first title of this book was “The Wisdom of Ben Sirach,” but from the time of Cyprian (early third century) the Latin title, Ecclesiasticus, was used. It received this name from the fact that, after the Psalms, it was the book most used in the liturgy; in fact, in the early Church it was a kind of official catechism used in the catechumenate.
Sirach was originally written in Hebrew, as the Greek translator says in the prologue. Jerome was acquainted with the Hebrew text, which was used up to the Middle Ages. In the eleventh century the Hebrew disappeared and could not be used again until about two-thirds of it was discovered in an old synagogue in Cairo in 1896. The archaeological evidence given by that manuscript, together with the portions of the same which survive in rabbinical literature, proves that the Hebrew text dates from before 132 B.C. The New Vulgate conserves the Old Latin text, which was made from a Greek codex containing some interpolations, to which certain glosses and retouches were added.
According to the prologue and other passages in the book, the inspired author was a learned scribe, a humble and zealous man, who lived in Jerusalem. Through application and response to grace, from an early age he had meditated deeply on sacred Scripture. As an adult he was an indefatigable traveler and always kept his eyes and his soul open to test “the good and the evil among men” (34:12, 39:5). He eventually settled in Jerusalem, where he opened a school to give moral and civic education to all comers; there, under the inspiration of God, he wrote this book. His grandson—the Greek translator—arrived in Egypt in the thirty-eighth year of the reign of Ptolemy Euergetes (170-116 B.C.). He began on his translation in the year 132, working on the Hebrew text, which probably was written prior to 170 B.C., since it contains no reference to the persecution of the Jews by Antiochus IV Epiphanes.
Like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, this book has no particular structure. Subjects arise in delightful and even planned disorder—praise of wisdom, fortitude in temptation, filial piety, praise of parents, friendships; he parades before the reader a whole series of themes taken from the world around him, in a period on the threshold of the heroic age of the Maccabees—things to do with family life, with work, situations affecting old people, the rich, people in power, parents and children. Alongside this Sirach also deals with typical wisdom themes–the origin of evil, human freedom, creation, sin, penance. In treating each of these he uses the classical sapiential form of the mashal–numerical (25:7-11), parallel (21:16- 19) and anaphoristic (2; 4; 7:20-16).
The book closes with hymns giving thanks to God the Creator, who has arranged things in the best possible way to benefit the just and punish the evildoer; these are followed by a hymn praising the patriarchs for having lived in accordance with the laws God gave them, from Adam up to Simon, the son of Onias, the high priest in Ben Sirach’s time.
As happened with all the wisdom books of the Bible, the Greek translator puts special emphasis on the practical purpose of Sirach. First, he advises everyone to live in accordance with divine Law, which should be the highest rule and main aspiration of man’s behavior. But as he says in the prologue, Ben Sirach wanted to write this book for those living abroad “who wished to gain learning, being prepared in character to live according to the law.”
This book played an important part in shaping the faith of the Jewish people to equip them to cope with the imminent menace of Hellenism, which ran completely counter to the monotheism of the people of the Old Covenant. At the basis of his teaching Ben Sirach puts fear of God. In concrete terms this means fleeing from sin, as a first step on the road to virtue, and then walking that way in humility, which is the basis of all the other virtues; through humility a person accepts himself and recognizes his defects, while also respecting his neighbor and never engaging in defamation and calumny (7:12-17). This follows logically from obedience to God’s commandments and implies total trust in God’s power and majesty. This sense of trust grows the more a person is tested and tempted—an experience he needs if he is to develop a strong character and temper his spirit.
The main enemy which people encounter—an enemy which is an ally of Hellenism—does not come from outside. This enemy is to be found in easygoingness and a lack of moral vigilance, in indolence and neglect of the duties the Law imposes. Ben Sirach, therefore, argues energetically in favor of pursuit of righteousness and consideration for others. He asks people to aim at consistency between their faith and their everyday actions and to give special attention to things to do with the worship of God.
Chapter 24 marks a high point in the book’s teaching. It presents wisdom in the form of an actual person who is ever alongside God, man’s Creator and supreme lawgiver. Now, in his infinite goodness and mercy, wisdom speaks directly to the people of Israel; he speaks like a person, as befits the personification of a divine attribute:
“I came forth from the mouth of the Most High and covered the earth like a mist. . . . 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.”
This text clearly represent a development of the revelation given in earlier books: Wisdom is shown as intimately united to God, though distinct from him, and has characteristics which will later be attributed to the Person of the Word. Once the eternal Word of God becomes man it will be much easier to understand what this book as yet only hints at. It was this text which led the liturgy to describe our Lady—in an allegorical, spiritual sense—as “the seat of wisdom,” a wisdom which God communicates to all men, but to Mary in a very special way.
Finally, Sirach prepared the way, a short while before the schism between the Sadducees and the Pharisees, for a devout and faithful people to accept the revelation which Jesus Christ would bring. Although the book is doctrinally a considerable distance from the Sermon on the Mount, it does contain features which are later to be found fully formed in the New Testament—as, for example, when Ben Sirach, for the first time in Old Testament tradition, addresses his prayer to God, calling him Father: “O Lord, Father and Ruler of my life, do not abandon me to their counsel, and let me not fall because of them! . . . O Lord, Father and God of my life, do not give me haughty eyes, and remove from me evil desire” (Sir. 23:14). He even says that this Father will not pardon our sins unless we first pardon those who offend us: “Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray. Does a man harbor anger against another and yet seek for healing from the Lord? Does he have no mercy toward a man like himself and yet pray for his own sins?” (Sir. 28:24).