Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Ecclesiasticus

Ecclesiasticus or The Wisdom of Jesus, Son of Sirach
From The New English Bible, pp. 158 -251
© Oxford and Cambridge Universities 1970


Last week I read the Book of Wisdom, a title within the original Jewish and Christian bibles, but one discarded by Protestants. In an effort to learn more about the evolution of Judaism and Christianity, and out of my own interest in wisdom literature, I'm continuing to read from the more complete Catholic canon. Ecclesiasticus is also placed firmly within the genre of wisdom literature and is largely similar to Proverbs in being an extended collection of observations, maxims, and advice. The author also tacked on Book of Wisdom-like devotions to wisdom, poetic history, and two sections of praise worthy of the Psalms.

Unjust rage can never be excused; when anger tips the scale it is man's downfall. (1:22)

Ecclesiastisicus is definitely an interesting little book. I forgave its frequent praise of submission and obedience (to kings, priests, etc) as being a fault of the times which produced it,  and delighted in its frequent references to emotional self-control, especially given that the author seems to have been influenced by Stoic cosmology, using 'wisdom' in the opening section in the same way that a Stoic might refer to the divine fire: it is rational, fused into the universe, and given to mankind so that we might draw closer to God.  While a fair bit of the advice consists of objections worth reflecting on ("Do not overrate one man for his good lucks or be repelled by another man's appearance"), other advice stands out. I would have never expected to read admonishments to examine evidence and engage in reflection before making a judgment, and to put conscience before deferment to authority in a religious text that places so much emphasis on faith and obedience to authority.


I have still more in my mind to express;
I am full like the moon at mid-month.
Listen to me, my devout sons, and blossom like a rose planted by a stream.
Spread your fragrance like incense; and bloom like a lily.  (39: 12 - 14)

It's hard to get a handle on the author of Ecclesiasticus. He seems pious and introspective, yet at the same time encourages readers to make hay while the sun shines -- 'you will enjoy no luxuries in the grave'.  Like Epicures and the author of Ecclesiastes, he obviously doesn't consider pleasure a mortal failing: he only warns against excesses. Speaking of excesses, he unfortunately his own -- especially in the hate department. I am surprised that "Jesus, Son of Sirach" doesn't enjoy more name recognition in the United States: publishers have obviously missed two huge markets to sell his thoughts to: those who subscribe to the American Family Radio school of parenting would adore his brutal approach, which consists of breaking the will of sons and bemoaning virginal daughters as liabilities who are remarkable only for their potential bringing shame to the family; and gangsta rappers would delight in his fantastic misogyny, which crippled the closing two fifths of the book for me..  As I read line after demonizing line, culminating in the classic "Better a man's wickedness than a womans goodness; it is woman who brings shame and disgrace (42: 14)", I thought to myself that this guy had some serious frustration issues to work out. Obviously, he didn't have a happy love life.  His attitude toward slaves borders on schizophrenic: he warns readers to keep their slaves constantly working, or on the rack being tortured, lest they run away -- and then on the very next page, scarcely twenty lines later, suggests treating them like family. Considering this fellow's attitude toward wives, sons, and daughters, however, I would not be surprised if he recommended the rack for them. I'm still reeling from the moral whiplash: the lack of consistency is problematic, and why I would recommend Marcus Aurelius or a similar philosopher over this faithful, but unpredictable, wisdom-seeker.

All in all, an interesting book. It's not as revealing of the Jewish  and early Christian mind as the Book of Wisdom,   but if you excised a few choice sections there's a fair bit of value here. Just er, don't give it as a Mother's Day present.

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