Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
The Apocrypha – Books of the Old Testament – about 16 of them - included in the Septuagint and Latin Vulgate but not in the Masoretic Bible or the Protestant Bibles. The word in Greek originally meant “hidden” or “secret” – thought to be somewhat beyond the reach of ordinary readers - but because of the exclusion of some of the texts from the Masoretic text, compiled by Torah scholars between the 7th and 11th centuries AD. Their criteria was generally to accept the book as canonical only if it was written before the time of Ezra (450 BC), before the promulgation of the Pentateuch as binding. Ecclesiastes we now know came after, but at the time it was thought to have been written by Solomon (Boadt, 535) And among Christians during the Protestant Reformation, it came to mean “questionable” or “false” - not reliable. While the books were not seen as canonical by the Lutherans or Anglicans, German and English bibles kept the books as a separate group of “apocryphal” books that should not perhaps be given as much authority, but should be approached with a degree of respect since they were often alluded to or quoted in New Testament writings.
The book of Sirach (Jesus Ben Sira) or Ecclesiasticus is part of the Greek Bible and is not in the Jewish Canon. St. Cyrpian is the one who started to call it Ecclesiasticus. The forward has words alleged to be those of the author’s grandson, and it refers to a time around 132 BC as the date of composition. At this time Palestine was newly under the rule of the Seleucids; and it was a time when that ruling class promoted Greek culture. Ben Sira is part of the traditionalist resistance of the time. He is devoted to the Temple and the law. He has studied the Prophets and the wisdom writings.
There is little logic to the writing overall though many parts of it are quite beautiful. The author believes that the way to wisdom is through adherence to the Mosaic Law and the Prophets. In this he is somewhat different from other wisdom proponents. The Jerusalem Bible introduction to the book says Sirach, the author, “is an outstanding example of those Hasidim (the ‘devout’) of Judaism, . . . who were soon to defend their faith against the persecutions of Antiochus Epiphanes, and preserve little islands of faith in Israel, in which the teaching of Christ could later take root” (1035).
In the New Testament, James borrows from it and “it is, next to the Psalms, the Old Testament book most frequently quoted in the Christian liturgy” (1035).
Translator’s Forward - The Translator’s (Greek) Forward is included in the Jerusalem Bible translation, which I will use: He refers to his grandfather, the supposed author, as Jesus. He saw “Wisdom” as rooted in the Mosaic Law and the Prophets. He says it was when he went to Egypt in the year 132 BC that he sought to instruct himself in the language so he could translate this text. It is intended to help people live according to the Law.
Sirach 1 – “All wisdom is from the Lord, and it is his own forever” (1:1).
“Before all other things wisdom was created. . . One only is wise, terrible indeed, seated on his throne, the Lord. He himself has created her, looked on her and assessed her, and poured her out on all his works to be with all mankind as his gift, and he conveyed her to those who love him” (1:4-10).
“To fear the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, she was created with the faithful in their mothers’ womb; she has made a nest among men, an age-old foundation, and to their offspring she will cling faithfully. To fear the Lord is the perfection of wisdom; she intoxicates them with her fruits; she fills their whole house with their heart’s desire, and their storerooms with her produce. The fear of the Lord is the crown of wisdom; it makes peace and health to flourish. . . To fear the Lord is the root of wisdom, and her branches are long life” (1:14-20).
“If you desire wisdom, keep the commandments, and the Lord will convey her to you. For wisdom and instruction mean the fear of the Lord, and what pleases him is faithfulness and gentleness. Do not be unsubmissive to the fear of the Lord, do not practice it with a double heart. Do not act a part in public, and keep a watch over your lips” (1:26-29).
Sirach 2 – “My son, if you aspire to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for an ordeal. Be sincere of heart, be steadfast, and do not be alarmed when disaster comes. Cling to him and do not leave him. . .” (2:1-3).
“Whatever happens to you, accept it, and in the uncertainties of your humble state, be patient, since gold is tested in the fire, and chosen men in the furnace of humiliation. Trust him and he will uphold you, follow a straight path and hope in him” (2:4-6).
“Look at the generations of old and see: who ever trusted in the Lord and was put to shame? Or who ever feared him steadfastly and was left forsaken? (2:10)
“Let us fall into the hands of the Lord, not into the hands of men; for as his majesty is, so too is his mercy” (2:18).
Sirach 3 – The first part is about respect for father and mother.
“The greater you are, the more you should behave humbly, and then you will find favor with the Lord” (3:18).
“Do not try to understand things that are too difficult for you, or try to discover what is beyond your powers. Concentrate on what has been assigned you; you have no need to worry over mysteries. Do not meddle with matters that are beyond you; what you have been taught already exceeds the scope of the human mind” (3:21-23).
Acts 4 – The priests, the captain of the temple and some Sadducees complain that Peter and John are teaching the people about resurrection from the dead. They are arrested and brought the next day to Annas, Caiaphas and others. Peter speaks out of the Holy Spirit to them, that the good deed done by them was done in the name and power of Jesus Christ “whom you crucified,” again trying to spark in listeners a sense of the terrible thing they had done. For Peter, there “is salvation in no one else” (4:12).
The fact that Peter and John are “uneducated and ordinary men,” or “uneducated laymen” in the Jerusalem BIble, they are not held to quite the same standard as a rabbi would be found teaching something like this, so they are warned to stop. The apostles retort by saying, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge” (4:19). They know they cannot keep from speaking “about what we have seen and heard” (4:20). The official lets them go, fearing the people.
Peter and John return to their friends. The incident only shows them that the “kings of the earth . . . and the rulers have gathered together against the Lord and against his Messiah,” quoting Psalm 2. They simply ask God to grant them power to speak his word “with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus” (4:30).
The writer returns to the theme of the apostles’ social testimony: The “whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (4:32). An example given is Barnabas, who sold a field that belonged to him and brought the proceeds to the apostles.
The Jerusalem Bible translates 4:37 so it reads “he had a field and sold it”; the NRSV simply said “he sold a field that belonged to him,” (4:37) leaving it to the reader to wonder if it was one of many or his only field. I guess, considering what happens to Ananias in the next chapter, the Jerusalem Bible translation probably reflects better what the tradition believed about Barnabas.