Early Adventism and the Apocrypha, Part 3: The Book of Sirach

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Early Adventism and the Apocrypha, Part 3: The Book of Sirach

In this article, the third of our Early Adventism and the Apocrypha series, a saga exploring various books contained in early Adventist Bibles (and still retained in most Bibles around the world), we will discuss and discover the book known as the Wisdom of Ben Sira (usually called Ecclesiasticus in the King James Bible, or simply Sirach today). This work will be introduced, explored, and reflected on with regard to the role that it had within early Adventism. While certain apocryphal works such as 2 Esdras/4 Ezra (to be explored in a future article) carried the most weight spiritually in certain Adventist communities, other works such as the Book of Sirach were also studied, commented on, and even preached about by early Adventist pioneers. Their contributions to Adventism, while smaller than others, are no less important and certainly deserve attention, as such a need has been perceived to produce a closer study of some of these works and the role that they both held in early Adventism, as well as the role that they can potentially still have for modern Adventists who wish to read these ancient works as Mrs. White once admonished that the church should do.

 

Related Article: Is the Bible “Inspired” or “Inspiring”?

 

The Book of Sirach was written sometime during the Second Temple period of Judaism, and “was written in Hebrew ca. 180 b.c.e. and translated into Greek by the author’s grandson (who introduced it with an important prologue) ca. 130.”[1] This means that the book is one of the oldest confirmed works of the Apocrypha, pre-dating the Maccabean rebellion. In many ways, its style is similar to the book of Proverbs, providing pages of Jewish wisdom sayings. The book, unique amongst many of the apocryphal works, appears to claim divine inspiration for its author (Sir. 33:16-18 and 50:27). The prologue to the work in Greek, written later by his grandson, also claims inspiration for the work, noting that his grandfather “who had devoted himself especially to the reading of the Law and the Prophets and the other books of our ancestors, and had acquired considerable proficiency in them, was himself also led to write something” (NRSV). He likewise appears to consider Sirach’s book to be included within the Old Testament canon, noting that his translation of his grandfather’s work suffers in perfection in the same way as all the scriptures suffer when translated from Hebrew to another language.

 

Related Article: The Church and Scripture

 

The book was quite popular in Judaism. It was included in many editions of the Greek translation of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint, indicating that the work received a canonical-esque status by many Jews soon after its completion. Numerous copies of it were found amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls, indicating that it was considered scripture for those at Qumran who preserved it. Likewise, the style in which the Hebrew poetry was copied indicated it was viewed the same as biblical manuscripts. Sirach was also incredibly popular among early Christians, perhaps in part due to the fact that the author’s name was “Jesus” or “Jesus, the son of Sirach.”

Unsurprisingly, the book of Sirach appears to be alluded to and quoted from numerous times in the New Testament. In the Gospels, one can find allusions around every corner (cf. Matt. 6:7 and Sir. 7:14; Matt. 6:12 and Sir. 28:2; Matt. 6:19-20 and Sir. 29:11; Matt. 7:16, 20 and Sir. 27:6; Matt. 11:29 and Sir. 6:24-31; Matt. 25:36 and Sir. 7:32-35; Mark 4:5, 16-17 and Sir. 40:15; Luke 1:52 and Sir. 10:14; Luke 12:19-20 and Sir. 11:19; Luke 21:24 and Sir. 28:18; John 6:35-39 and Sir. 24:21). Paul, much earlier, appears to interact with the work as well (cf. Rom. 4:17 and Sir. 44:19; Rom. 12:15 and Sir. 7:34; 1 Cor. 6:12-13; 10:23-26 and Sir. 36:18; 37:28-30). Hebrews similarly shows interest in the work (cf. Heb. 11:5 and Sir. 44:16; Heb. 12:12 and Sir. 25:23) and the letter of James does as well (cf. Jas. 1:19 and Sir. 5:11; Jas. 1:13 and Sir. 15:11-20; Jas. 3:6-10 and Sir. 5:13 and 28:12; Jas. 3:13 and Sir. 3:17; Jas. 5:3 and Sir. 29:10-11). Similarly, 1 Peter appears to draw upon the work (cf. 1 Pet. 1:6-7 and Sir. 2:5; 1 Pet. 1:17 and Sir. 16:12) along with 2 Peter (cf. 2 Pet. 3:9 and Sir. 35:22).

 

Related Article: Solo vs. Sola Scriptura

 

The book never took hold in later Judaism however as a piece of Scripture except perhaps with those Greek-speaking Jews who helped to compose the Septuagint. In the later Jewish Talmud, there are references to Sirach both as Scripture and as non-canonical, indicating that the work was popular enough to cause great debates within developing Rabbinical Judaism about its status. As previously mentioned, the debate over this work remained even at the time of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther is often, quite incorrectly, remembered or imagined for having rejected the Apocrypha due to his decision to move the works to their own section within his German translation of the Bible. The truth, however, is that he accepted several of the works as already or potentially canonical.[2] His decision to move such books to their own section was driven by his hope that Protestants would come to decide the merits of each book eventually, something that ultimately never came to pass.

 

Related Article: Searching for God’s “John Hancock” in the Bible

 

 

For Early Adventism, the book of Sirach was a popular work to cite in discussions of various topics. Discussing the topic of dreams, the editors of the Review cited Sirach alongside scripture.[3] When again providing their position on the topic of dreams, G. W. Holt and James White quoted Sirach 34:1-8 in 1852 as encapsulating “the position of the church at Oswego.”[4] In a commentary on the second chapter of the Gospel of John, H. C. Miller quotes a Bible commentary that cites Sirach as evidence for how a word was used in Greek.[5] In the 1873 publication of the book A History of the Sabbath, J. N. Andrews cites Sirach in a footnote as a defense for the belief that Adam was a popular figure in the early days of earth’s history.[6] That same year, an Adventist merchant (L. R. Long) wrote into the Review inquiring what he should do about Sirach 26:29 which seemed to suggest to him that merchants were sinful. Replying, J. H. W. assumed the authority of the apocryphal text and sought to defend how to best interpret it within the light of Jesus’ teachings.[7] In 1879, D. M. Canright cited Sirach 5:7 as an example of what the Jewish people believed about the immortality of the soul.[8] The same year, Eliza H. Morton cited Sirach.[9] Later, in 1887, A. S. Hutchins cites Sirach 30:3-4 as advice regarding raising children.[10] Three years later, Hutchins would again quote Sirach (35:8-10) with reference to tithing.[11] Many years later, the same message would be repeated by H. H. Burkholder, who quoted Sirach after citing Ellen White.[12] The book would get cited again in 1910 in the Youth Instructor.[13] And finally, in 1917, the editors of the Bible Training School periodical would print a lengthy quote from Sirach 27:16-21 on the topic of secrets.[14]

On occasion, sermons or exegetical expositions were given on the book, just as had been done with the books of Tobit and Wisdom (covered in previous articles). For example, the theme of health was often familiar in relation to the book. In 1867, a lengthy homily on Sirach 19:1 by the non-Adventist writer Jane Taylor was republished.[15] In 1873, R. F. Cottrell published in The Health Reformer a lengthy exposition on Sirach (38:15) and its advice regarding seeking physicians for illness.[16] In 1877, the same publication re-published a non-Adventist exhortation on the same theme from Sirach.[17] And again, in 1913, following an article by Ellen White, a W. B. White published an article on the issue in which he drew upon the same texts and noted that while “the book of Ecclesiasticus is not regarded as a part of the canon of Scripture, but in it are very many previous things and much good instruction.”[18]

However, on other occasions, doctrinal matters were appealed to with regard to Sirach in the area of ethics. In 1868, J. N. Andrews, writing for the Review and Herald, printed several short homiletical exhortations regarding the work, provided below:

 

UNJUST GAINS. “He that sacrificeth of a thing wrongfully gotten, his offering is ridiculous; and the gifts of unjust men are not accepted.” This is from the Apocrypha, [Ecclus. xxxiv, 18,] but it is worthy of serious attention. We cannot divide with the Lord things wrongfully obtained and so bribe him to allow us to retain our unjust gains by giving him a part. What can we do with such money? Use it to make restitution, and remember to add something to it when you restore. See Luke xix, 8, 9…

 

REPENTANCE. This always involves the ceasing to do evil. Whatever passes for repentance that allows a man to retain any of his sinful ways, or to continue any of his sinful acts, or to return to any of his old sins after a time, is a repentance that needs to be repented of. How forcible are the words of the Apocrypha, Ecclus. xxxiv, 25, 26: “He that washeth himself after the touching of a dead body, if he touch it again, what availeth his washing? So is it with a man that dasteth for his sins, and goeth again, and doeth the same; who will hear his prayer? or what doth his humility profit him?”[19]

 

An anonymous sermon was likewise printed earlier in the Review in 1858:

 

THAT LOST DAY. To those who seem to be thrown into a state of perplexing bewilderment on the subject of the Sabbath, on the supposition that a day was lost in the time of Joshua, we recommend the consideration of a passage in the Apocrypha. In Ecclesiasticus xlvi, 4, the writer speaking of Joshua, says, “Did not the sun go back by his means? and was not one day as long as two?” There it is: there was no day lost, but one day was as long as two. That week in which the sun hasted not to go down, and the moon stood still, had seven days in it, just as any other; only it was twenty-four hours longer than usual. And the seventh day of that week was the Sabbath, just as the seventh day of every week before it had been, and as has been the seventh day of every week since. This shows us that the seventh day in the order of its arrival, and not absolute time, is set apart and blessed as a day of rest; and on this principle the difference of time east and west, and the differing length of days north and south, are easily reconcilable with the Sabbath law, and the Sabbath institution.[20]

 

Not everyone who read the book enjoyed it as much as others. In 1894, R. S. Webber wrote an attack on the Apocrypha in which he cited Sirach as an example of teaching works-based salvation.[21] Similarly, in 1906, the Review re-published a non-Adventist scholar’s criticism of Sirach and other works, in-particular saying that it “forbids giving bread to the wicked, and advises to torture a malicious slave.”[22] Overall though, Sirach was favored publicly more than it was disfavored.

Mrs. White is not yet known to have alluded to or quoted directly from Sirach, but it is certainly possible that she did (our ignorance notwithstanding). Regardless, her early endorsements of the entire apocryphal collection stand as an implicit affirmation of the need for Adventists to read and study the work. Likewise, James White felt that it was vitally important that all Adventists have available to them the entire collection of the Apocrypha, including the book of Sirach. He compared the need for having an Adventist printing of the Apocrypha to the same importance as publishing a second edition of one of Mrs. White’s writings.[23]

In conclusion, several things can be noted regarding the use of Sirach by early Adventists:

 

  1. It was treated by some as authoritative, not only in historical but even spiritual matters.
  2. Some objected to certain instructions in it.
  3. When discussed publicly, more favored it than disfavored it.

 

Regardless of whether Adventists today are willing to share James White’s enthusiasm or affirm Mrs. White’s younger affirmation that the Apocrypha, and the book of Sirach, is part of the Word of God, as she repeatedly claimed in her 1849 vision, surely many Adventists can begin today to once again agree with her that these works are worth our time and study for both historical and spiritual edification. The Apocrypha, and specifically Sirach/Ecclesiasticus, are truly part of our Adventist background in many unforeseen and important ways.

Click here to read the rest of this series on early Adventism and the Apocrypha

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Notes.

[1] Roland E. Murphy and O. Carm, “Sirach, Wisdom of Jesus The Son of,” ed. David Noel Freedman, Allen C. Myers, and Astrid B. Beck, Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2000), 1229.

[2] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, vols. 1-55 (Philadelphia, PA; Saint

Louis, MI: Fortress Press and Concordia Publishing House, 1955-1986): 35:353.

[3] Editors, “Dreams,” Review and Herald 1:9 (1851): 71.

[4] G. W. Holt and James White, “Dreams,” Review and Herald 2:10 (1852): 80.

[5] H. C. Miller, “John II, 10,” Review and Herald 32:16 (1868): 203.

[6] J. N. Andrews, History of the Sabbath and First Day of the Week (2nd Ed.; Michigan: Steam Press of the Seventh-day Adventist Publishing Assoc., 1873), 32.

[7] J. H. W., “To Correspondents.,” Review and Herald 42:21 (1873): 168.

[8] D. M. Canright, “The Scripture Doctrine of a Future Life – No. 17.,” Signs of the Times 5:19 (1879): 145-146.

[9] Eliza H. Morton, “The Commandments,” Review and Herald 54:7 (1879): 53.

[10] A. S. Hutchins, “Ye Fathers,” Review and Herald 64:12 (1887): 181.

[11] A. S. Hutchins, “Payment of Tithes,” Review and Herald 67:29 (1890): 450.

[12] H. H. Burkholder, “Debts and Tithes,” Columbia Union Visitor 8:16 (1904): 1.

[13] F. D. C., “Little Things Bring Great Results,” The Youth Instructor 58:39 (1910): 12.

[14] Editors, “Secrets,” Bible Training School 16:5 (1917): 151.

[15] Jane Taylor, “Little Things,” Review and Herald 30:22 (1867): 334-335.

[16] R. F. Cottrell, “The Physician,” The Health Reformer 8:2 (1873): 62.

[17] Anonymous, “Patent Medicines,” The Health Reformer 12:7 (1877): 213-214.

[18] W. B. White, “Hydrotherapy in the Apocrypha,” Atlantic Union Gleaner 12:20 (1913): 2.

[19] J. N. Andrews, “Practical Thoughts on Bible Subjects,” Review and Herald 32:26 (1868): 283; reprinted as Idem, “Practical Thoughts on Bible Subjects,” Signs of the Times 1:42 (1875): 332. The second part was reprinted on its own, without attribution in Editors, “Notes and Comments,” The Gospel Sickle 1:11 (1886): 81.

[20] Anonymous, “That Lost Day,” Review and Herald 12:15 (1858): 120.

[21] R. S. Webber, “The Apocryphal Books,” Review and Herald 71:30 (1894): 466.

[22] George L. Robinson, “The Canon of the Bible (Concluded): The Canon of the Later Reformed and Anglican Churches,” Review and Herald 83:4 (1906): 9-10.

[23] James White, Review and Herald 33:6 (1869): 48.

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About the author

Matthew Korpman

Matthew J. Korpman is a student at Yale University’s Divinity School, pursuing his Master of Arts in Religion. He is a graduate of La Sierra University where he earned four degrees, among them Religious Studies, Archaeology, and Philosophy. He has several publications in the fields of Biblical Studies and Protestant History already released and forthcoming in academic journals and books.