Sirach as Scripture in Judaism?
It is astonishing to me the way certain myths persist in scholarship. One example is the traditional narrative about the formation of the canon. I don’t have time to write a long post on this topic. Years ago I covered the development of the canon in a three-part piece I posted (part one, part two, part three). I wrote that piece years ago and I’d love to revisit it some time in the future. Although I’d like to go back and tweak it in parts, I’d still stand by what I said in the conclusion:
In this essay we have traced the development of the Old Testament canon. Along the way we have seen that many presuppositions regarding the canon are now understood to be historically inaccurate. These include:
- The myth that the Palestinian canon was closed by 100 C. E.
- The notion, even held by Jerome, that the divergent readings of the Christian LXX could simply be chalked up to Hellenizations. Scholars now recognize that the varying readings of the LXX and the MT have their origins in different Hebrew Vorlage.
- (Closely related to 2): That the MT reading represents a more ancient textual tradition than that of the LXX.
- The idea that the criterion used by the rabbis to determine the canonical status of the Biblical books was based on solid historical evidence. (In fact, anti-Christian prejudices shaped in their determination.)
- That when the fathers speak of “canonical” books they always referred to the exhaustive list of books they consider part of Scripture. Indeed, there was not even a neatly divided list of protocanonical and deuterocanoical books - many included Esther in the category of disputed books.
Without citing numerous pieces of evidence which demonstrate the problem with the historical narrative regurgitated by professors to students each year in classrooms around the world, let the following from the Talmud suffice:
“Raba [again] said to Rabbah b. Mari: whence can be derived the popular saying, ‘A bad palm will usually make its way to a grove of barren trees’? – He replied: This matter was written in the Pentateuch, repeated in the Prophets, mentioned a third time in the Hagiographa, and also learnt in a Mishnah and taught in a baraitha: It is stated in the Pentateuch as written, So Esau went unto Ishmael [Genesis 28:9], repeated in the prophets, as written, And there gathered themselves to Jephthah idle men and they went out with him [Judges 11:3], mentioned a third time in the Hagiographa, as written: Every fowl dwells near its kind and man near his equal [Sirach 13:15].” (b. B. Qam. 92b; Soncino ed.).
“...And R Aha b. Jacob said: There is still another Heaven above the heads of the living creatures, for it is written: And over the heads of the living creature there was a likeness of a firmament, like the colour of the terrible ice, stretched forth over their heads above [Ezekiel 1:22]. Thus far you have permission to speak, thenceforward you have not permission to speak, for so it is written in the Book of Ben Sira: Seek not things that are too hard for thee, and search not out things that are hidden from thee. The things that have been permitted thee, think thereupon; thou hast no business with the things that are secret [Sirach 3:21-22]” (b. Hag. 13a; Soncino ed.).
Indeed, as other scholars have noted, it seems that—striking as it may seem—the Talmud quotes Sirach as Scripture! (See, e.g., Albert C. Sundberg, Jr. “The Septuagint: The Bible of Hellenistic Judaism,” in The Canon Debate [eds. L. M. McDonald and J. A. Sanders; Peabody: Hendrickson, 2002], 88; Jack Lewis, “Jamnia Revisited,” The Canon Debate, 158).
Jeff Morrow also explains in his post:
“We do know . . . that certain Jewish communities did in fact use the Septuagint (LXX) translation of the Bible, and that they included the deuterocanonicals as Scripture. Although far from certain, the Book of Sirach appears to have been according canonical status among some of the early rabbis (more on this in a future post). A recent discovery of medieval manuscripts from the Cairo Genizah has shown that Jews in the medieval period in Africa, and throughout the Byzantine Empire, continued to use the LXX (more on this in a future post). To this day, Ethiopian Jews use the LXX as their Bible, including the deuterocanonicals. Some Jews in antiquity used, and some Jews today continue to include the deuterocanonicals in their Scripture. More on this in future posts.”
I’ll be keeping an eye out for those future posts!