Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 10 (2010) - Review

Passaro, Angelo and Giuseppe Bellia (eds.), The Wisdom of Ben Sira: Studies on Tradition, Redaction, and Theology (Deuterocanonical and Cognate Literature, 1; Berlin-New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2008). Pp. 411. Hardcover, € 88.00, $123.00. ISBN: 978-3110194999.

This important collection of essays on Ben Sira, edited by two scholars from the University of Palermo includes the following contributions:

Maurice Gilbert (1–20: “Methodological and Hermeneutical Trends in Modern Exegesis on the Book of Ben Sira”) offers a history of research on Ben Sira since 1896 with a focus on textual history and text-critical problems. Despite more than a century of research, many problems have not yet received an adequate answer, especially concerning the relation between the Hebrew texts and the ancient versions.

Jeremy Corley (21–47: “Searching for Structure and Redaction in Ben Sira. An Investigation of Beginnings and Endings”) offers a study of the structure of Ben Sira by comparing it with the structures of other sapiential writings, then looks closely at the beginning and ending of Ben Sira and formulates a hypothesis of five separate editorial stages the book went through, acknowledging that his reconstruction is rather hypothetical.

Giuseppe Bellia (49–77: “An Historico-Anthropological Reading of the Work of Ben Sira”) attempts to deal theoretically with the problem of the group or society behind the text, and concludes from his historico-anthropological approach that “Sirach is the witness but also the protagonist of a most impressive, if underestimated, religious and cultural metamorphosis: from the knowledge of the divine…to the direct and personal hearing of the Law.”

Emile Puech (79–118: “Ben Sira and Qumrân”) writes about the Ben Sira manuscripts, fragments and citations from the Cairo Geniza, and those from Masada and Qumran; he concludes that there was a strong influence of Ben Sira on some of the Essene writings, both in relation to the priesthood, the calendar, the Law and the mysteries, and the messianic and eschatological views.

Nuria Calduch-Benages (119–138: “The Hymn to the Creation [Sir 42:15–43:33]: A Polemic Text?”) compares Ben Sira with the Jewish sapiential tradition, the Enochic apocalyptic circles, and Graeco-Hellenistic astronomy, astral cult, and concludes that Ben Sira did not directly engage (polemically) with Enochic and Graeco-Hellenistic thoughts.

Pancratius C. Beentjes (139–154: “‘Full Wisdom is from the Lord.’ Sir 1:1–10 and its Place in Israel's Wisdom Literature”) offers a detailed study of the text of Sir 1:1–10 in the Greek I and Greek II text, its place in the whole of Ben Sira and its relation to other sapiential writings in the Hebrew Bible, concluding that Ben Sira occupies quite a unique place in wisdom theology.

Angelo Passaro (155–171: “The Secrets of God. Investigation into Sir 3:21–24”) studies the text of Sir 3:21–24 in the Greek and two Hebrew manuscripts with a focus on the gnoseological problem it reveals. The addressees are probably apocalyptic circles or minority groups of priests opposing the official priesthood.

Silvana Mandredi (173–195: “The True Sage or the Servant of the Lord [Sir 51:13–30 Gr]”) identifies many links between Ben Sira and the prophets Jeremiah and the Third Servant Song of Isaiah. Sir 51:13–30 Gr works like a recapitulation of the most important themes of the book of Ben Sira, with a focus on cult, Law, prophecy and the scribe as transmitter of wisdom.

Jan Liesen (197–208: “The True Sage or the Servant of the Lord [Sir 51:13–30 Gr]”) offers a brief comparison of the Torah in the so called Torah Psalms and in Ben Sira. Ben Sira does add the wise scribe to the priest and prophet as an authority to formulate and pass on the Torah.

Friedrich Vincenzreiterer (209–231: “The Interpretation of the Wisdom Tradition of the Torah within Ben Sira”) gives a more detailed study of Ben Sira's interpretation of wisdom as found in the creation, the law, ancestral tradition and the Bible, and shows how Ben Sira offers a conception of faith and revelation for behaviour, everyday life and the meaning of life in a period dominated by the politics and philosophy of the Ptolemies and Seleucides.

Alexander A. Di Lella (233–252: “Ben Sira's Doctrine on the Discipline of the Tongue. An Intertextual and Synchronic Analysis”) gives a detailed inter-textual analysis of 5:9–6:1 and 28:12–26, and concludes that no other book in the Bible offers so much material and reflection on the “tongue” as does Ben Sira.

Antonino Minissale (253–277: “The Metaphor of ‘Falling’: Hermeneutic Key to the Book of Sirach”) studies the concept of “falling” through the tongue, the woman, enemies, as well in the context of rich and poor, vices and virtues, banquets and profits, God and the fear of the Lord, and violence and nudity. In all, Ben Sira appropriates, assimilates and metabolizes certain values of Hellenism into the spiritual patrimony of his people, thus bridging between past and present and between different cultural experiences and multiple lifestyles.

Giovanni Rizzi (277–308: “Christian Interpretations in the Syriac Version of Sirach”) writes on the Syriac translation in the Peshitta of Sirach in Hebrew and the question of a Jewish, Ebionite or Christian origin and interpretative character, and concludes that neither theories of a Jewish background of Peshitta Sir nor suggestions about an Ebionite Christian sectarian context are convincing.

Rosario Pistone (309–353: “Blessing of the Sage, Prophecy of the Scribe: from Ben Sira to Matthew”) offers links between Ben Sira and Matthew, both in terms of the concept of the wise scribe and the parallels between Sirach 14:20–15:1 LXX and the Beatitudes. They both place wisdom central to their theology and emphasize its union with prophecy.

Passaro and Bellia (355–373: “Sirach, or the Metamorphosis of the Sage”) summarize some of the central themes of Ben Sira: the development of a scribe, the turning point in faith, the possible addressees; inner-Jewish tension, and the theological aim of Ben Sira's pedagogy. In all, Ben Sira sees on the one hand God's providential activity in history and among his people as central, and on the other hand the existence of the believer and the sage as those having access to truth in a changing world.

This is a very valuable contribution to an important 2nd century BCE Jewish work that goes beyond a study of Ben Sira itself, in that it offers a kaleidoscopic and methodologically solid approach from multiple angles to an important witness of the transition from a biblically oriented to a culturally embedded understanding of Torah and Wisdom. The authors (from Italy, the UK, the USA, the Netherlands and Israel) and especially the two editors are to be congratulated with this fine and erudite piece of scholarship, that rightly inaugurates W. de Gruyter's promising new book series “Deuterocanonical and Cognate Literature,” edited by Friedrich V. Reiterer, Beate Ego, and Tobias Nicklas.

Gerbern S. Oegema, McGill University