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Friday, November 17, 2006

Some verses I am glad are not in my Bible...

...although they are in some people's:
Sin began with a woman, and we must all die because of her. Don't let a bad wife have her way, any more than you would allow water to leak from your cistern. If she won't do as you tell her, divorce her.
Where does that come from? Believe it or not, these words are in the Good News Translation of the Bible, recently reviewed by Rick Mansfield. But they are in a book which I do not accept as authoritative. I don't think I could accept a Christian faith which required me to accept the above as authoritative teaching.

Now before you hold up your hands in horror, let me explain! These verses are from the book of Sirach, or Ecclesiasticus, 25:24-26. This is one of the "deuterocanonical" books in the so-called Apocrypha, which are not accepted as authoritative by most Protestant Christians. The following extract from Article VI of the Thirty-Nine Articles of my Anglican church explains the matter well:
And the other Books (as Hierome [= Jerome] saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine; such are these following:

The Third Book of Esdras, The rest of the Book of Esther,
The Fourth Book of Esdras, The Book of Wisdom,
The Book of Tobias, Jesus the Son of Sirach,
The Book of Judith, Baruch the Prophet,
The Song of the Three Children, The Prayer of Manasses,
The Story of Susanna, The First Book of Maccabees,
Of Bel and the Dragon, The Second Book of Maccabees.
(The list is of course of the books of the so-called Apocrypha.)

Actually the Greek of verse 26 is even worse than the Good News Translation version: εἰ μὴ πορεύεται κατὰ χεῖράς σου ἀπὸ τῶν σαρκῶν σου ἀπότεμε αὐτήν, literally "if she does not go according to your hands [probably referring to when you hit her], cut her off your flesh". The Hebrew text of Sirach seems to be missing at this point.

In the light of this passage, I am glad that my church does not apply Sirach/Ecclesiasticus "to establish any doctrine". (In fact I don't think even the Roman Catholic church does this; they certainly don't accept "If she won't do as you tell her, divorce her.") I am glad that what is written in my authoritative Bible has a very different flavour:
12 Sin came into the world through one man, and his sin brought death with it.
(Romans 5:12, GNT)
3 A man should fulfil his duty as a husband, and a woman should fulfil her duty as a wife, and each should satisfy the other's needs. ... 10 For married people I have a command which is not my own but the Lord's: a wife must not leave her husband; 11 but if she does, she must remain single or else be reconciled to her husband; and a husband must not divorce his wife.
(1 Corinthians 7:4,10-11, GNT)
Thanks to Ethel Saltz on the b-hebrew list for bringing the Sirach passage to my attention.


At Fri Nov 17, 03:24:00 PM, Blogger Jim said...

I've always enjoyed the book of Ben Sira. It has a lot of brilliant things to say and though some passages cause a bit of discomfort we cannot forget

1) that one harsh line invalidates everything else in the book

and 2) Ben Sira lived in a different world than we do. We can't judge him by our standards. That's just not fair.

If you will be a little patient, you can read my commentary on the book scheduled to be published early next year. It's really quite good....


At Fri Nov 17, 03:26:00 PM, Blogger Jim said...

that was *does NOT invalidate*-- sorry. I should have made sure to include that fairly useful word. Haste to reply to your unfair assesment of the book I suppose- so I'm blaming you!


At Fri Nov 17, 04:22:00 PM, Blogger Sylvanus said...

I know too little about Hebrew (or should I say nothing) to participate in the debate, but something strikes me as not being consistant (unless I have misunderstood).

Jim says: "Ben Sira lived in a different world than we do. We can't judge him by our standards. That's just not fair."
Peter say: "they are in a book which I do not accept as authoritative"

I say: " surely Ben Sira lived after Moses. As Jesus explained, divorce was given as a concession, not as a mean to flee from the hardship of a relationship. Shouldn't Ben Sira be judged by mean of the Holy Scriptures - those accepted as authoritative, given at a time prior to the person in question? I think that is what would be fair.

Does Jim regards the book of Sirach as authoritative?

I have always considered the cannonised books as written from the holy mind of wisdom, as there is only one Spirit, and so would agree with Peter wholeheartedly, even if my denomination is not similar to his. The sacred writings are such as not to just be enjoyed, but also as to pertain to salvation.

"that one harsh line invalidates everything else in the book"
"I've always enjoyed the book of Ben Sira. It has a lot of brilliant things to say and though some passages cause a bit of discomfort we cannot forget"
Which are these I wonder.

Thank you Peter.

At Fri Nov 17, 04:25:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Personally, I don't buy the "product of his time" argument no matter what the topic. If the same argument were applied across the board, we could use it to excuse all kinds of heresies today. Yes we have the Bible, but the old testament was around for a long time, and the 'standard' of God was known. Surely Ben Sira knew about Moses' writings and his account of Adam and Eve. If he didn't know, then what qualified him to write about it?

I didn't see Kirk using that one verse to invalidate the whole book anyway, as the title of the post would suggest.

At Sat Nov 18, 01:41:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

I certainly didn't intend to invalidate everything in the book of Sirach or Ben Sira. I am sure that indeed "It has a lot of brilliant things to say". As such I could class it alongside the works of some of the great preachers and theologians of the Christian era, and of the best modern Christian authors. However, many of these also say some things with which I would strongly disagree. And that's OK, I don't expect everyone to agree with me, even in my own time, far less in a remote historical time.

The issue is whether Sirach should be taken as authoritative Scripture, in the way that evangelical Christians take the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments as authoritative. If Sirach were taken in this way, the verse I quoted would have to be taken as a clear commandment, that a man must divorce a disobedient wife, and this teaching would be taken as timelessly valid, without reference to the cultural context - in the same way that for example 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2 are taken as such (well, some people insist on 1 Timothy 2:12 while effectively denying 1 Timothy 2:4, but that's another issue). Of course if Sirach were in the Protestant canon, people would look for ways to harmonise it with the rest of Scripture and probably to qualify its applicability to modern Christians. But fortunately that is not necessary, because as has been recognised by Christians since the time of Jerome, and by Jews even earlier (for Sirach, although written in Hebrew, was never part of the Hebrew canon), this book, while no doubt full of "brilliant things", should not be understood as authoritative teaching from God.

At Sat Nov 18, 11:42:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Yitzhak Sapir kindly sent me, on the b-hebrew list, a link to an image of the manuscript fragment of the Hebrew text of this part of Sirach. And I was astonished to find that 25:25-26, the verses translated in the Good News Translation as:

Don't let a bad wife have her way, any more than you would allow water to leak from your cistern. If she won't do as you tell her, divorce her.

are simply not in the Hebrew text at all. The manuscript is not damaged here; it simply skips straight from 25:24 to 26:1. This could be an omission by a Hebrew copyist, but more probably 25:25-26 are a later addition by a Greek copyist, perhaps originally a marginal note copied into the text. This might explain why their teaching is so different from what is normal in both Jewish and early Christian writings. For more detail about this, see my reply to Yitzhak on the b-hebrew list.

It has been argued, for example by Gordon Fee, that 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is a similar late insertion into the text. There is some evidence for this in that in several early manuscripts these verses are displaced to the end of the chapter. But they also seem out of place in giving teaching which contradicts what is taught in this case elsewhere in the same book e.g. 11:5.

At Sun Nov 19, 08:26:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

As Yitzhak further pointed out to me, the Hebrew manuscript we were looking at omits several verses from chapters 25 and 26, and then skips from 26:17 to 36:27. Thus this Hebrew text may have been a deliberately abridged copy; or else the textual history of the book is more complex than I realised. Unfortunately there is no other Hebrew evidence for this part of the book.

As for the name of the author, he appears to be Ἰησοῦς υἱὸς Σιραχ Ελεαζαρ "Joshua [or Jesus] son of Sirach Eleazar" in the Greek text, but שמעון בן אלעזר בן סירא "Simeon son of Eleazar son of Sira" in the Hebrew. The Hebrew form Sira (סירא, with aleph at the end) is probably more original than the Greek Sirach (Σιραχ, with chi at the end).

At Tue Nov 28, 06:10:00 PM, Blogger Ted Gossard said...


Thanks for this.

Am slowly working my way through the Apocrypha/Deuterocanonical books. Have four translations, and mainly stick with the NRSV. But when it seems to be "wrong", I find that the NAB tends to smooth is down into a meaning that is palatable. (also REB and NJB in it)

Am not sure about deuterocanonical books. I think they have alot of good, and some of it I find very good. But then some of it, I wonder. So I'm not sure. Except to trust the church in this. And that too, is ambiguous. But must hurry off, as daughter needs computer.

At Sat Jul 14, 06:08:00 PM, Blogger Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Peter, yes, Sirach is probably the most daunting of the Apocrypha, textually speaking. There were at least two text traditions in Greek, one much fuller than the other. The Old Latin is either representative of a third Greek tradition, or (quite likely) incorporates further expansions. I'm not sure where the Syriac fits into all that. It'll be a headache for anyone to sort out the variant Hebrew texts themselves, much less relate them to the Greek. I think the suggestion was that Greek I was the initial translation by Sirach's grandson, then Greek II an expansion by the same person or someone else close to the time of the original translation, with expansion. But I don't have the Goettingen text at hand, where all this is discussed in detail.


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