Thoughts on Wisdom in Ecclesiasticus

The grandson of the author of Ecclesiasticus opens the book with a prologue of his journey through Egypt translating the text into Greek, which has allowed him to impart great wisdom on his peers, the Egyptian Jewry -for the Torah is good, but only words written in their native tongue carry the greatest power. The author claims to be a teacher of how to achieve wisdom, not unlike the Athenian Sophists. The author labors, like a martyr, for the wisdom of “all people.” The remainder of the text, reflects his grandfather’s book of wisdom (wisdom books were highly popular among Greek-speaking Jews near the turn to the so-called “common era.”)

Naturally, the text is decidedly theological. Wisdom is described as being “created” by God, and can be attained “only” through Him. As echoed elsewhere in the Bible, the “fear” of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Thus, wisdom is quantifiable like a possession, and is rewarded to meek and lowly people, whom God favors. The Lord delights in “faith and meekness” (1:27). How, then, are we to understand the author’s attainment of wisdom through his mysterious book in Egypt? Did he achieve wisdom by reading and learning, or rather through divine intervention, or fear?

However, the poetry of the text is beautiful. In some ways, it reads like a series of maxims for how to live a good life, perhaps similar to the Tao Te Ching or as an extension of Proverbs. But what is meant by a “good life”? Does the text encourage upright moral citizenship? Or merely meek and lowly people to submit to the will of the Shephard? Does it reinforce the laws of the city, or counter them?

According to the text, wisdom is a kind of ontology -one must behave in a fearful, meek, yet just and faithful way. In order to be wise, one must spend time with elders, and speak less but listen more. Give more than you take. Have patience, do not dishonor others. Be selective of your family. Be well-ordered, like a judge; not petty like a beggar, but still meek. Your laughter reveals what kind of man you are. Do all things only according to the proper time and place. Be wise, but not bitter and resentful. Avoid slothfulness, do things only with your own money. Find yourself a silent and obedient wife with a strong mind, and be firm with your slaves. Yet, still follow the Mosaic law and take pity on the poor. Two of his key theological claims are: that man has a freedom of will, and that God rewards virtuous people. Wisdom is personified as a woman -as in later literature as “Lady Wisdom.”

The text closes at the 51st chapter, wherein the author Jeshua son of Sirach (Yeshua ben Sira) admits that he was unfulfilled by the men of the world, but in his despair he called on the Lord who never abandoned him. In this way, he “profited” from his “learning” -and the text closes with a promise of “rewards” if one follows these maxims.

The book has no particular structure, and is considered an apocryphal late Hebrew text. It is included among Catholic and Eastern canons, as well as the King James Bible. The text is rare in that it presents a whole book as if it had come down to us from one single author. It is unique in its declaration of authorship. The author ben Sira, was a famous ancient Jewish scribe of Alexandria, Egypt. Fragmentary Hebrew copies of the text have been found throughout Egypt, and the Greek translation was included in the Septuagint.

For this reading I used an internet-based Project Gutenberg translation.

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