Tuesday, October 16, 2012


I started Alexander Di Lella's Anchor Bible commentary on The Wisdom of Ben Sira.  (Patrick Skehan provided the translation and the notes, whereas Di Lella wrote the Introduction and the commentary.)  Di Lella contends that Jesus Ben Sira published his book "to convince Jews and even well-disposed Gentiles that true wisdom is to be found primarily in Jerusalem and not in Athens, more in the inspired books of Israel than in the clever writings of Hellenistic humanism" (page 16).  Yet, Ben Sira made use of Gentile thought.  Di Lella states that he did this "to show others how the best of Gentile thought is no danger to the faith but could even be incorporated into an authentically Jewish work, the purpose of which was to encourage fidelity to their ancestral practices" (page 50).

I found Di Lella's section on "Canonicity of the Book and Place in the Canon" to be interesting.  Here are some things that De Lella says that I found to be significant:

----Until some point in the 1960s, a prominent scholarly view was that there were two canons: the Alexandrian or Septuagint canon, which included the Deuterocanonical books, and the Palestinian or Hebrew canon, which excluded them and only contained the books that the Pharisaic rabbis later said were canonical.  But that view was challenged because it was argued that many Greek-speaking Jews lived in Palestine and used the Septuagint prior to 90 C.E., which was when the Pharisaic canon had been established.  As Di Lella says on page 18, "Thus there never was an actual Alexandrian (LXX) canon at all or a Palestinian (Hebrew) canon before ca. AD 90."  Di Lella also refers to a Hebrew copy of Ben Sira at a first century B.C.E. "Jewish community at Masada", and Hebrew fragments of Ben Sira at Qumran (page 20).

----In terms of Christianity, Di Lella affirms that the church got Scriptures from Judaism, but not an actual canon.  Di Lella states on page 19 that "the final determination of the Christian Old Testament canon was an activity of the Church that took place in the West at the Council of Hippo (393) and two Councils of Carthage (397 and 419)."  Yet, there was some difference of opinion even in the fifth century C.E.  After Jerome moved to Palestine and was influenced by Jewish teachers, he differentiated between canonical books and "ecclesiastical books", which (I think) were books that were read in churches yet were not deemed to be canonical.  The ecclesiastical books were the Deuterocanonical ones.  But Augustine disagreed with Jerome and believed that even what we label as the Deuterocanonical books were authoritative.  In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther sided with Jerome and relegated the Deuterocanonical writings to a special section of his Bible, taking them from "their logical and time-honored locations in the canon (e.g., Tobit and Judith from the historical books and The Wisdom of Solomon and The Wisdom of Ben Sira from the Wisdom books)" (page 18).

----Regarding rabbinic Judaism, its treatment of Ben Sira is (to use Di Lella's word) "complex".  In Jerusalem Talmud 28a, we find an opinion attributed to the second century C.E. Rabbi Akiva that Ben Sira is non-canonical and that whoever reads it will be excluded from the World to Come.  (Wow!  That's heavy!)  And Tosefta Yadayim 2.13 (third century) says that the Book of Ben Sira does not defile the hands, which means that it is not canonical.  And yet, according to Di Lella, the Book of Ben Sira seems to have influenced the Talmud, Midrashim, and Derek Etetz, and it is quoted eighty-two times "with approval in the Talmud and other rabbinical writings" (page 20).  Sometimes, the quotation is preceded by the phrase "it is written", a phrase often "reserved only for quotations from the canonical Scriptures" ([Ch]agiga 12a; Niddah 16b; J. Berakot 11c).

As I write about these points from Di Lella's commentary, I'm reminded of a debate that I saw between Protestant James White and a Catholic on the canonicity and inspiration of the Deuterocanonical writings.  What I remember is that White was arguing that Judaism even before 90 C.E. had a canon that excluded the Deuterocanonical writings, for Josephus refers to twenty-two books.  If I'm not mistaken, White also said that the church father Athanasius (third-fourth centuries C.E.) differentiated between inspired canonical books and the Deuterocanonical writings (see here for Athanasius' discussion of the canon).  I'm open to correction on this, but I think that White was emphasizing the sixteenth century Council of Trent as the place where the Catholic canon (which included the Deuterocanonical books) was solidified.

The Catholic debater, by contrast, maintained that even first century Palestinian Judaism was open to the Deuterocanonical writings.  He said that the New Testament itself alludes to the Wisdom of Solomon at some point (see here for a list of supposed allusions to the Deuterocanonical writings in the New Testament, as well as patristic references to the Deuterocanonical writings).  And, if I recall correctly, he held that Athanasius was not dismissing the Deuterocanonical writings but other writings (though, in my link to Athanasius above, you will see that Athanasius did not include the Deuterocanonical writings in the twenty-two books of the Old Testament).  For the Catholic debater, the rabbis in the late first century excluded the Deuterocanonical writings from the canon, and this was partially because the Christians were using them.

I think that things were messier than either White or the Catholic debater presented them in that debate.  In my opinion, there was probably diversity within first-century Judaism and early Christianity about whether or not to accept the Deuterocanonical books as authoritative.  But why was there controversy?  A professor of mine once said that a reason that rabbinic Judaism excluded the Deuterocanonical books from the canon was that they were not in Hebrew, but in Greek.  Perhaps, but Ben Sira was in Hebrew before it was translated into Greek.

The date of the writings probably had something to do with whether they were accepted or not.  The Deuterocanonical writings were late, and there are statements in Jewish writings that inspiration ceased at some point in the past, and so those who believed this way most likely dismissed the Deuterocanonical writings as uninspired.  Early Christians, however, felt that inspiration was still going on, and so that could have opened many of them up to accepting the Deuterocanonical works.  Moreover, perhaps early Christians were drawn to elements of certain Deuterocanonical works, such as the Wisdom of Solomon's description of the righteous sufferer, which reminded them of Jesus.

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