The Failure of Sirach

Sirach wrote in the period before the events which led to the Maccabean revolt. He is friendly toward the Greeks and optimistic that Jewish people can live alongside their Greek neighbors. Perhaps Israel’s religion can be presented to the nations as a rational philosophy of life, so that the Gentiles would flock to Israel and fulfill the sort of hopes found in Isaiah 2. That Sirach would try to synthesis Wisdom and Law implies that Judaism is facing a crisis between Torah and Wisdom: many of the peculiar laws cannot be made to work with Hellenism.

This kind of apologetic strategy is rarely successful. Sirach could be attacked by more liberal Jewish thinkers as antiquated, and by more conservative thinkers are giving up the heart of Judaism. Hebrew Law never was going to appeal to the Hellenist and factions on either end of the spectrum might think Sirach was wrong to even try. The Maccabean revolt will try to re-assert and enforce the Jewish boundary markers.

Perhaps an analogy would help. How do extremely conservative Christians keep their children from leaving the faith? What is their apologetic strategy”?  For some, they shelter their children and never let them think outside of the approved conservative reading list. For others, they develop rationalistic explanations for why “the world” has a keatondifferent view (creation science as a rational way to explain away evolution). On the other end of the scale, some conservatives allow their children freedom to explore, and sometimes they lose them to “the world.” Potentially this analogy works for extremely liberal parents shielding their children from the conservative worldview (Alex P. Keaton, for example).

After the Maccabean revolt, there are several movements which step forward as competitors to Sirach’s hope for a rational and intellectual Judaism.

First, although the apocalyptic movement begins before Sirach, the best representatives of this style of literature appear after the Maccabean revolt. The Enochian literature, for example would find Sirach far too worldly.  1 Enoch sees the cosmic dimension of the Jewish religion: evil angels and the war of the forces of darkness and the forces of light.

Second, martyrdom movements that produced 4 Maccabees, revolutionary prophets and the Zealots at the end of the first century would find intellectual arguments as insufficient.  Sirach never calls for the use of force, the Zealots will. The Law of Moses is recommended to people through rational persuasion – the Zealots think that violence is necessary to enforce the Law.

Third, the development of scribes and “teachers of the Law” who worked to make new connections between Torah and contemporary practice (and to undo the connections others are made). The old Torah was alive and could be made to work in a Hellenistic world, a Roman world, or even the modern world.

In the Second Temple period Jewish people are desperate because history is not actualizing their hopes. The utopia dreams of Isaiah or Ezekiel’s hope for a restoration of the tribes of Israel around a Davidic leader are not being realized. They are trying to bring together elements to give their children something which will prevent them from going to Hellenism.

It is not a stretch to say that Christianity developed as one answer to this struggle for the heart of Judaism. But Christianity finds itself in a similar place, at least in the west. How does the approach of Sirach (or Aristeas or others) help Christians who are finding it difficult to remain faithful to the core beliefs of the faith in an increasingly anti-Christian world?

18 thoughts on “The Failure of Sirach

  1. The beauty of the gospel is following faith properly is to stand out dramatically. Modern day Christianity seems more interested in evangelizing then their counterparts in intertestimental times. In a world when you want people to turn to God being a counter to the normal is the quickest way to be noticed. When bad things happen everyone gets down a bit, but when a believer chooses to be happy because they are aware of God being in control it sets them apart. And that’s really what it is from God is our call to be set apart. It is always been a hard balance to keep the faith and yet not shun the outside hard enough that they dont even know who you are.

  2. Sirach’s idea of a informed and exposed Jew makes perfect sense in my mind. The whole approach compares practices and beliefs to evaluate the truth in each. It’s true that the contemporary Christian parent faces challenges as far as what to allow their children to discover, and what to shield them from for their own good. The idea that ignorance can produce a positive reinforcement in a person holds some substance, but I would argue that Scripture presents a completely honest and rational explanation for why Christians believe what they believe, and supports these beliefs. Young people in the Church will have a far more compelling reason to follow the faith when they are presented with the logical truths of the Bible than if they are sheltered in a typical “church environment” until stumbling upon the ideas of the world. Sudden exposure without a proper understanding of how to combat secular arguments is far more damaging than learning about them and comparing them to what Scripture says. For me, that’s a large part of why I’m at Bible College. I believe that education on the compelling truth of Scripture is far more effective in building up a believer than ignoring what the world has to say against the Bible.

    • Thanks for your input on this issue. I agree that only exposing children to certain things that we deem “Christian” is no way to build up children who have meaningful faith. If people are never informed of both sides, can we even call it genuine faith? Everyone’s journey to faith should involver personal decisions, and when we raise kids in such a bubble, we can take those decisions away from them.
      However, I am not completely sold on the concept of combating secular arguments with scripture. I suppose I would like some clarification as to what you meant by “combat”. In my experience, you will never win an argument versus a secularist by quoting scripture. By their very nature, they deny the validity of scripture, so it is not going to even register for them as admissible truth. I do not believe that it is our responsibility to win arguments against the secular people around us. I believe that in this case, it is far more important to be willing to apply the scriptures instead of simply having the necessary knowledge of them. The pharisees had as much experience and wisdom on the scriptures as anyone, and yet failed to apply them and live as they were called to.
      However, you may have meant combat secular arguments in a personal way, as in using scriptural truth to reinforce your own faith when you hear the “sirens call” of secular reason. If this was your intention, I agree that the process of studying and applying scripture is a good way to keep our own faith sharp and strong.

    • That is a very good point, education on the compelling truth of scripture is super important. We need to be open to society, but first, we must learn from God’s word to take the best steps we can take in the society that we are in. Scripture tells us the narrow path is the way to salvation and wide is the gate that leads to destruction (Matt 7:13). We must be precise in our tactics of how we interact within this world, but we must be open-minded enough to stay on the narrow path, so that we do not fall off of it with our own narrow thinking. This only comes from a deeply rooted sense of leaning on God first. We need to love the Lord our God with our heart, soul, mind and strength (Deut 6:5). We need to be resilient against the temptations that society tries to put on us, so that society does not run off with our heart, soul, mind, or strength.

  3. Christianity today does face a number of issues comparable to those of the Jews during the intertestamental period. One of these is how the “top thinkers” of the time had a worldview that was very different than that of the Jews, which caused them to think that the Jews’ strange practices and beliefs were foolish. Because of this issue, it seems like several Jews tried to reconcile their beliefs with the “intellectual” beliefs of the Greeks. The big problem with that is when you try to take scriptural teaching and attempt to merge it with a worldly culture, it loses its power. God’s teaching and God’s followers are meant to stand out in a pagan world. This may be a hard fact to practice, but it is a true fact.

  4. The thing that stands out to me the most is Sirach’s desire to make Judaism rational. The basic core of Judaism, or to experience the basic truth of the God in the Bible, is when God tells you to do something you do it. Deity obedience should be a concept that the Greeks have in their culture. Having a spine is attractive and at the very least respected in other cultures. Another issue Israel is facing is that the children of Israel are getting pulled away by Hellenism, so Jews such as Sirach are trying to figure out how to blend Jewish culture with Hellenism. This is intriguing because these struggles remind me of the struggles that were in the emerging church. They want to have the cool hip Greek coffee shops but still make sure that they don’t lose their Jewish Heritage and teachings. In Deuteronomy 6:7, Israel is commanded to teach their children daily about the laws and rules that God has placed over them. I wonder if the Jewish culture was failing to demonstrate what is mentioned in Deuteronomy 6. Were they loving the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength and were they displaying that to their children?

  5. I would like to believe that Sirach was trying to show us that we can still be faithful to our faith and beliefs and still be in a culture that thinks and believes in the total opposite. I have been reading a book called The Gutter by Craig Gross and it talks about the modern age struggle for people addicted to porn, whether being in or out of the church. Craig talks about being plugged in the culture while still being firm in the faith. for example, every 4 months or so, he and a group of people will go to porn convections to just talk with people there and handout Bibles and a book called Jesus Loves Porn Stars. to me, I could never do that because it would be an open invitation to just fall into porn again while saying that I’m a Christian to these people that are here for sexual pleasure. this is an extreme example, but Sirach similarly did the same thing during his era. he didn’t force Hellenism onto the Jews, which was going to end up towards the Maccabean Revolt. if he had done what the other rulers of that time did and spread Hellenistic culture to the known world, things could have ended up differently.

  6. One thing that I thought was interesting from this blog was the example of how parents are raising their children in a anti-christian world. You can take it to both extremes, really strict trying to protect them from the evil world, or relaxed and then risk them falling into by themselves. Sirach does a good job of reminding the Jews to stick to their core beliefs, something that we should constantly be doing as the church. Going back to scripture before we dive into something unknown, it is crazy to think how much farther this world has gotten just in my 21 years of life and how far we have stretched our beliefs to become accepting and I anticipating the future to see how we can rely on the bible to come up with our decisions. Since apologetic rarely works with “the other side” I wonder if the author of Sirach was to encourage Jews to stay on course and not to fall for some hellianistic ways. I wonder what the next 21 years will look like in the church. We have changed so much, we now have drums and electric guitars in church when this used to not be the case. The church will change with culture and cultural beliefs but we have to be careful not to go against the bible and our non negotiable beliefs.

  7. The people tried different ways to bring hellenism into the culture around them. This took some time to figure out as they tried different approaches to getting the people to adhere to the new religion. This was difficult because the world was not for everyone changing to a new religion and following it. This is the same with Christians, not everyone in the world is a christian and therefore makes it harder to follow your own beliefs because you can easily get consumed into the world and not focus on God like you read. It’s about learning how to adapt to the new situations that come up and not slipping on the things that aren’t as big of a deal. For example, for conservative Christians in the late 1900’s it was a big deal that women wear skirts or dresses to church and outside of the house. In the 2000’s it is not as big a deal, our culture has adapted to the fact that women can wear pants and still be modest. Pants compared to same sex marriage seems like a minuscule thing to be upset and pick apart compared to what is going on with different beliefs in same sex marriage. You can’t say that the two are the same in regards to what causes an uproar in society. As stated in the post, “history is not actualizing their hopes.” People want different things for their children or the next generation. This means changing how you respond to society and their beliefs, it is not always going to line up with your religion. At the end of the day wearing pants is not going to change your salvation but living an alternative lifestyle can change your salvation.

  8. There are multiple issues that Christians face today that are comparable to the Jews of the intertestamental period. The issue discussed above in the blog post about the Hellenistic Culture overtaking traditional Jewish views & practices can be relevant today when looking at the Postmodern Church or Progressive Christianity.

    In the time of Sirach the culture was changing, and the Hellenistic view of things was being forced upon the Jewish people; so heavily forced to the point where the traditional views of Judaism were being looked at as weird and they were even judged for it. Unfortunately many of the Jews gave into the Hellenistic ways of things and began transforming their lives according to the culture around them abandoning their traditional practices & views to create a more modern version of them. As for the Jews that stood strong in the traditional way of things they were never fully accepted into modern society and were outcasts, thus creating a split between the two cultures & views.

    Today we see the same pattern, not just in the small things but in the more salvation concerning topics. In traditional Christianity there is a view of a “White Picket Fence” analogy, (meaning there is a family complete with an opposite sex couple, 3.5 kids and a dog that practice the all American way of life) this type of Christianity is one where the Bible is taken as is with no adjustments, sugar coating, or twisting of Scripture to fit the modern mold. Most traditional Christians aren’t afraid of offending people, now there is a fine line between doing things in love / being understood, and then there’s loving so much to the point where one ignores sin. Something that traditional Christians do not do is look over someone’s sin because it may offend them or turn them away from Christ, they come to a level of understanding and try to walk beside them in discipleship hoping that the individual will turn from their sinful ways.

    When we look at Progressive Christianity or the Postmodern Church we can see some traditional ways of Christianity but for the most part there is a lot of reconstruction of God’s Word and the way each believer lives their life. These types of Christians are ones who love so much they overlook an individual’s sin and don’t address it in fear of them leaving the Church and Christ behind. Instead of working through an individual’s sin they will accept it and move on. Just from background knowledge on this topic many Postmodern Churches and Progressive Christians will twist Scripture to justify the sin rather than looking at the story or verses as a whole and applying it to their lives as is.

    This culture shift in modern society has come to a head where traditional Christianity is looked at as bigotry because they are standing firm that sinful nature is evil and must be addressed in not just love but multiple other aspects as well. It is very hard to stand firm in a traditional view of Christianity when there is so much judgment going around.

  9. One philosophy says that the best option when faced with two extremes, is to choose a desirable middle way. While this may not always be the best philosophy, it certainly seems to be used a lot. Sirach used a form of this philosophy in the wisdom that he wrote. He was faced with two extremes, Hellenize and join the Greeks, or ostracize from people and stay true to every letter of Jewish law. Thus, his response was a compromise between the two extremes. Sirach’s suggestion was that the Jews could live among the Greeks, accepting some of their practices and culture, but yet remain true to the Torah in the most important ways. Sirach also hoped that through this, the Gentiles would come to convert to Judaism. As with any compromise, there were people who were not happy with it. Those who believed the Jews should assimilate with the Greeks criticized Sirach for not supporting Hellenism enough, while those on the opposite extreme, criticized him for even suggesting they should associate with the Greeks. Some thought Sirach too strict, others, not strict enough. In some ways, Christianity was the result of a compromise between Jewish culture and the world around it. But now, in the western world, Christianity seems to be one of the extremes that we must find a balance with. As Christians, how much of the world around us should we accept and how much should we separate ourselves from it? I think there are areas we can compromise in, but there are other areas where we should not compromise. In order to do this, we have to evaluate what the essential truths of Christianity are. Those are the things we should not compromise on. And in other cases, we simply have to think outside of the box. Our culture now is different than a hundred years ago was, and perhaps our approach to certain topics needs to change to accommodate that. Sirach is helpful because it shows that this is not the only time where there has been a struggle trying to figure out how to live in the world around you, without compromising the core beliefs of the faith.

  10. Through this time, we see that the Jews felt pressed by the society that they lived in and because of this they tried to fit in. The Bible says that believers should stand out amongst pagans and in a sinful world that is extremely difficult to do when sin is fun and easier than staying the course of the Christian walk. Now we are also told in the Bible to go into the world and share the light of the world (Gods word). This can be difficult to do when you amerce yourself into the sinful culture. Temptation would be all around you all the time so having a strong relation with God and constantly surrounding yourself with positive influence and staying connected with other strong believers. What I took from this is definitely just having a good backbone of support.

  11. Ben Sirach, in his book, attempts to provide a rational and philosophical interpretation of Judaism in light of the advancement of Hellenism into Israelite culture. He tends to provide a positive outlook on relations between Greek culture and Judaism, believing that they can coexist alongside each other. However, this centralized perspective was not favorably by the liberal or conservative groups present during his lifetime, as both sides saw his efforts as a futile attempt to reconcile two irrevocably distinctive. Yet, the question that Ben Sirach was attempting to answer still remains, how is the Jewish person supposed to navigate between Judaism and Hellenism? It seems highly unlikely that any Hellenist would desire to adapt the Hebrew law or practice any Jewish boundary marker. Yet, For the Jewish individual, the question of cultural assimilation was increasingly looming and a seemingly inevitable process. Should the Jewish individual completely Hellenize or completely commit themselves to the observance of Judaism, despite the cultural shifts of their world? Regardless of Ben Sirach’s lack of success in his apologetic pursuits, it was an honorable exploration of how interconnected Hellenism and Judaism could potentially interact.
    In our own culture, we find this interplay of different cultural and religious perspectives in modern post-Christian America, as Christians must explore how to authentically participate in their religious faith while also engaging a broader secular and postmodern world. Should we completely isolate ourselves from the larger culture or completely assimilate and leave behind certain Christian principles and practices, producing a synthesis of secularism and Christianity? Personally, as unsuccessful as the attempt might be, would attempt to modernize certain ecclesiological practices, such as the style of worship and style of preaching, while keeping the moral and theological practices largely untouched. A moderate approach may be unproductive, as Ben Sirach is an example, yet, I cannot help but think such a centrist position may be the most venerable perspective on the spectrum of beliefs.

  12. When reading the blog post “The Failure of Sirach” the root of this story is a desire to live up to the legend of Alexander the Great along with achieving the same accomplishments. The motivating factor of conquests and areas he took over were to exactly reflect on the life of Alexander the Great, and in some ways prove himself worthy and successful. Sirach had a vision that the Greeks and Jews could live alongside one another not only just in peace but also to dominantly absorb the Greek culture while also preserving and blending Jewish culture in as well. If there is one thing that is common about Jewish culture it is how much they value tradition, rituals, and law. One can only assume that a group of people that come in to not only take over their land but to not only compare their God with idols but to replace their God and tarnish their temples with idols would not go over well. While there were some Jews that were willing to fold to this, the majority held strong to their beliefs. This relates to the question we began to ask ourselves in class, when is it time to fold and give to culture in order to stay relevant and connected.

  13. “How does the approach of Sirach (or Aristeas or others) help Christians who are finding it difficult to remain faithful to the core beliefs of the faith in an increasingly anti-Christian world?” (Long, 27). This is a great question. The Sirach was written with the belief that the Greeks and Jews could live alongside each other in a peaceful manner. However, the Sirach was unsuccessful in its attempt due to events that occurred. One event that occurred was the emergence of scribes and teachers of the law. This group wanted to make new connections between the Torah and contemporary practices. Thus, Sirach was somewhat discarded. However, I would argue that the message of Sirach is still applicable today. In society, there is so much division between people of different races, religions, beliefs, etc. If you do not agree with someone else’s point of view, you will either agree to disagree or you will be attacked for having a different perspective. Sadly, the second option is more likely to occur than the first. For this reason, I think the message of Sirach is still applicable. In today’s world, Christians are looking for ways to exist in the world while also holding to their faith. Sirach’s message of hope that the Greeks and Jews could be one, although in the end, this did not work out. Likewise, there is a hope Christians hold that they will be at peace with nonbelievers one day. Overall, Sirach provided hope (or tried to) for a brighter future for Christians in a world that seemed to go against them.

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