A Brief Intro to Ecclesiasticus (Sirach)

Exploring Jewish Literature of the Second Temple Period: A Guide for New Testament Students In his fine book which explores Jewish literature of the second temple period (516 BC to 135 AD), Larry Helyer has a helpful introduction to Ecclesiasticus (aka “The Wisdom of Ben Sira” or “The Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach” or just “Sirach”).  Written around 180 BC, Ecclesiasticus is a collection of the traditions of Hebrew wisdom; it is something like Proverbs in the Hebrew Bible.  In fact, Helyer says, “…Proverbs, more than any other canonical book, has shaped the work of Ben Sira.”

“There is much in Sirach that is just good common sense, and there is much that is spiritually uplifting.  Our author has a good grasp of the Hebrew Scriptures and represents a conservative, pious Judaism that seeks to come to grips intellectually with the Hellenistic world.”

Why is the purpose of the book?  Why did the Son of Sirach write it?  A good summary is found in Sirach 36:1-22.  You’ll have to read that text on your own – but I’ll put Helyer’s comments on it below:

“This passage provides the key for unlocking the motivation of Ben Sira.  Hellenism, with all that it entailed, presented a grave threat to the well-being of the ancestral faith.  Ben Sira is deeply concerned to preserve the Hebrew traditions based on the sacred Scriptures of Israel.”

“But our author is not a narrow fundamentalist.  He knows that the answer is not to retreat into a ghetto of intellectual isolation, pretending that Hellenism does not exist.  On the contrary, Ben Sira is able to appreciate that not all in Hellenism is bad.  He himself has clearly absorbed some aspects of Hellenism.  He is not simply a Hebrew like his ancestors who wrote Proverbs but a Hellenized Jews who is intensely aware that the Hebrew traditions are at risk.”

“In short, he has been able to appropriate that which is useful and helpful, but not in contradictions to the Scriptures.  He is fearful, however, that Hellenism may seduce young Jewish men by its seeming sophistication and trappings of grandeur.  To this end he points the way: Torah, not Hellenism, is the fountain of all wisdom; Toray is the guiding star that leads to life” (p. 96).

Even though it’s not Christian Scripture, Sirach is good Jewish literature well worth reading.  For example, and to conclude, consider how 3:22-23 echoes Deuteronomy 29:29: “Reflect upon what you have been commanded, for what is hidden is not your concern.  Do not meddle in matters that are beyond you, for more than you can understand has been shown to you.”

Larry Helyer, Exploring Jewish Literature of the Second Temple Period (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002).

shane lems

4 Replies to “A Brief Intro to Ecclesiasticus (Sirach)”

  1. Umm… I read it, and I’m not an author… I would also guess that the 799 people who have “liked” the Reformed Reader on Facebook read it from time to time (not to mention the 505,000+ hits).

    Sorry, I don’t mean to be snarky, but your question seems to have an edge to it. (Honestly, I’m a little puzzled by it… and why exactly you asked it…)


  2. Good encouragement to read Sirach; you are in good company.
    Adam Bede, George Eliot’s hero, had a habit: “The book Adam most often read on a Sunday morning was his large pictured Bible….and on some mornings, when he read in the Apocrypha, of which he was very fond, the son of Sirach’s keen-edged words would bring a delighted smile, though he also enjoyed the freedom of occasionally differing from an Apocryphal writer. For Adam knew the Articles quite well, as became a good churchman.” Chapter 51


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