James and the Wisdom of Sirach

Karen Jobes argues James assumes Jewish wisdom literature, although he “transposes it by Jesus’ teaching” (Letters to Christians, 206). By the time of the New Testament, Jewish wisdom literature (like Proverbs) had come into contact to Greek ethical teaching (like the Stoics or Epicureans). The book of Sirach (written about 200 B.C., but translated into Greek two generations later). The book was popular in the first century and reflects an attempt to teach the wisdom of the Hebrew Bible in a world infused with Greco-Roman ethics.

WisdomThere are several similarities between wisdom literature and James. First, Proverbs 9 and Sirach 24 closely relate wisdom and Law. Sirach teaches that the Torah as the essential path to attaining wisdom, but is not identical to wisdom. If this is true, then the path to wisdom must come through Israel, the nation to whom the Law was entrusted. Sirach 24 says that God commands wisdom to “dwell in the tents of Jacob.” For James, living a life according to the “Royal Law” is more or less equivalent to living a life of Wisdom.

Second, in Sirach, wisdom is clearly a gift of God (Sirach 20:9-12, 1:1-10, 42:17-19, 43:32-33). This theme is sounded in the very first verse of the book, “All wisdom is from the Lord” (Sirach 1:1, 10, 24:3-7). So too in James 1:5: “if anyone lacks wisdom, you should ask God for it.”  James does not recommend the ethics of the Greco-Roman world because God is the source of wisdom, it is all a gift of God.

Sirach always describes the process of obtaining wisdom as an act of the will: one must choose wisdom (6:18f, 15:15). Other verbs are used: one must seek (4:12), hold on to (4:13), serve (4:14), obey (4:15), chain one’s self to wisdom and carry it on your back (6:24-25). Attaching one’s self to an elder or other wise man is a critical step in attaining wisdom (6:34-36, 8:8-9). So too James, where a life of wisdom is an active choice to act (James 3:13-14).  A person is not wise, but his actions are wise.  Like most wisdom literature, one does wisdom in James.

Obedience to the Law and fear of God is a requirement for receiving Wisdom as a gift (Sirach 2:15-16, 20:19, 41:8). In fact, one might argue that many of the wise sayings in Sirach are meditations on the Torah. The person who holds to the Law will obtain wisdom (Sirach 15:1, cf 4:16). James also sees keeping the good, perfect, or Royal Law as pre-requisites for a life of Wisdom (James 2:8-11).

Jobes points out that while there are similarities to Sirach, James runs his ethics through the lens of Jesus. James does not allude to the book of Sirach nor are the parallels an indication James had read the book (although if he was a mid-first century Jew he was, at the very least, aware of the book).  But James stands within a stream of wisdom literature that includes both Sirach and the teaching of Jesus.

Ultimately, I am not sure there is anything in James which Sirach would dispute, ethically speaking. Bit for James, the “biblical life of wisdom” is the way to live out a commitment to Jesus. Perhaps this is something of an evangelistic strategy – the Jewish  believer in Jesus will behave in a way which is consistent with Torah and Wisdom.

15 thoughts on “James and the Wisdom of Sirach

  1. Good article, Phillip. I’ve argued that the brother of Jesus is likely NOT the author of this epistle. But it doesn’t matter that much to my theology and understanding of Christian origins…. That as a progressive and into historical, literary and social/political analysis as important for forming and pursuing a “faith”. (If we ignore it, it is to our detriment.)

    On the assumption James, brother of Jesus, DID write it, which would almost certainly place it prior to 62 A.D., it still does not affirm Paul’s theology and is the MORE likely to be reacting to it. It may or may not be a direct argument against it… hard to tell. My point is that a careful student of the NT is wise to closely compare Paul’s writings to Acts in relation to conflict and major tensions between Paul and James (the Jerusalem leader). Similarly compare the two (and other NT texts) as to what was “another gospel” that Paul refers to. And who were “those from James”, “super apostles” and those designated by other derogatory labels by Paul? A deep look makes it difficult to pass them off as some unapproved and smaller split-off group of “Judaizers” as traditional “Christian origins” has generally done.

    In fact, the message of the book of James fits a generally Jewish concept of “salvation” and righteousness than a Pauline or Johannine one. It certainly goes against an “accept Christ and you will be saved concept, whether that is “securely” or “for-now-unless-you-lose-faith”.

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  2. Jobes describes how the Torah and Jewish law states that life’s highest good was to obey God. James stressed that faith without works is dead, and I think that this is the relation to the wisdom tradition of Judaism. Jobes said that James assumes the wisdom tradition of Judaism, but as it has been transposed by Jesus’ teaching. This is the light in which I have read the book of James, and how James describes the necessity to obey God and demonstrate his likeness as much as humanly possible if you are a Christian. He gives the idea that if an individual is truly involved in a personal relationship with God, then they will be pursing after him and radiating out likenesses of God that are proof of their relationship with him. James 3:13 says, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom.” To put this all together, Jobes defined wisdom as the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment, which means that our walk with God will produce these qualities since he is the only source of perfect and true wisdom. So the closer we are in our relationship with him, the more wisdom we will attain.

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  3. James is really trying to pastor the people who are reading this letter. He wants them to live in a community that is peaceful. Jobes brings out the point that James is trying to put a stop to issues that can destroy the community such as evil talk or favoritism. I have the opinion that if James hadn’t written these things to keep peace the gospel might not have spread the way it did. There could have been a hindrance to the evangelism of it. Jobes also says that even if you have a faith in Christ, it still doesn’t give you the right to neglect Gods moral order. James is about wisdom but it is also more than that. It is doing what God asked of us and not sitting on our hands waiting for someone else to do it.

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  4. James is written to a people group that are mostly of the Jewish tradition. Throughout the book of James it is shown that there is a need to address the way that people are speaking. With passages that talk about controlling the tongue and watching what we say, it is possible that the people of the time would not be a great example to others around them when it comes to sharing about Christ and their new found faith in him. James makes it a point to stop crude talk and bad language coming from the readers of this letter, because that would not help with any form of evangelism being shown by any Christian leaders or groups going around.

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  5. The part of this blog post that I wrestled with is wisdom being a gift from God. My immediate reaction to reading such a statement would be to agree. Of course, wisdom is a gift from God because God is wisdom. But is it not ‘God is love?’ God clearly has many attributes so it is easy to dissipate this question. I continued to struggle with the idea God giving wisdom as a gift because of those who are not in a relationship with God. The Oxford American Dictionary, as mentioned in Jobes, states that wisdom is obtaining experience, knowledge and good judgment and the action to apply said experience, knowledge and good judgment. I know that one can possess those qualities without faith in the Lord just as I know you may receive wisdom as a gift from God and still execute it poorly. For example, wise men such as James Watson and Mark Twain were agnostic as well as others. The poor execution of wisdom is clearly portrayed throughout Solomon’s life (1 Kings 1-11). Although he was given the gift of wisdom by God, he still did not live up to his fullest potential. His life makes me question the impact of wisdom. I think this would be a great topic to discuss and research because wisdom is clearly prevalent in the Bible and our daily walk with the Lord.

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  6. I have struggled with the concept of wisdom as being a gift of God for as long as I can remember because the way I view it God is wisdom, God is everything we are not and that is why we must look to him for the answers we can’t give ourselves. While the laws of Judaism work well with each other they are different but yet at the same time cannot survive without one or the other. It is important to realize that both of the books contain some wisdom to obtain God’s main goal which is reaching the highest good for the reason of God. A trait portrayed throughout Jobes book, no matter what religion we are, this is something we should always strive for in accomplishing and I believe the Wisdom of James and the Sirach both teach us valuable lessons in ways we can achieve it for the Kingdom come. The poor execution of God given wisdom is seen in Solomon’s life in Kings as Sydney said which also makes me question how the world is using the wisdom God has given us or if we are just spending hours upon hours wasting our knowledge away doing something that is dishonoring of God. I believe this is a discussion for another class period as this post is already getting lengthy as is but I would enjoy some more research on this topic.

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  7. Karen Jobes states that life’s highest good was to obey God. Due to this obedience to God, you will receive wisdom as a gift. In Jobes, wisdom is defined by, “the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment; the quality of being wise; the soundness of an action or decision with regard to the application of such experience, knowledge, and good judgment (Jobes 206).” Usually when we think of someone wise, we think of a grandparent or someone older than us who has been able to overcome several obstacles and still keep their faith rooted in God. I feel that in the letter of James, he is trying to explain what wisdom is and the necessity it is for the people of this time and today. He is looking to create peace amongst the community. He guarantees that we can gain wisdom from God if we ask him (James 1:5).

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  8. I would say that James’ writing is very clearly wisdom literature, in the tradition of the Old Testament, full of the illumination which Jesus brought. I do not see the dissimilarities that are said to be evident in what James and Paul. In fact I see them speaking very nearly the same thing, just with the approach and a different audience. Jobes also holds to this view, “Note that James does not argue that works save instead of faith; nor does he argue that works must be added to faith, which is really the point Paul argues in Galatians and Romans” (Letters to the Church, 218). I think that this is a very healthy view to have with regards to the James/Paul debate because Scripture affirms Scripture. I think that the only thing that Sirach would disagree with James on would be possibly his view of Jesus as Messiah.

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  9. In my studies of the scriptures, I have found that wisdom can be found anywhere in the Bible if one simply takes the time to look for it. There are many books which are well-known to Christians for having such rich Godly wisdom that is quite evident, like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. But as I stated earlier, wisdom is found all throughout the Bible. One book that my pastor actually directed me to once, when I was looking for wisdom in the scriptures was the James’ epistle. The fact that there are many similarities between James and other conventional wisdom literary works in the Bible may be one reason, but I believe that it was because my pastor (as well as I) firmly believe this to be a piece of God inspired Jewish Wisdom Literature. I do not believe any OT wisdom author would read James and call it blasphemy, setting aside the emphasis James has on Jesus as Messiah. No, James is a fine work, indeed and one full of great wisdom.

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  10. While the wisdom of the Sirach is being discussed here, we can’t help but only think they are in accordance with one another. There are some fairly similar connections with the wisdom of James and the Sirach. The book of James has a ton of wisdom, but at the same time, the Bible has a ton of wisdom as well. Like Jobes would argue, “James assumes the wisdom tradition of Judaism,…” (Jobes, 206). I think that you can gain wisdom from the Sirach and the book of James because of how similar they are. For anyone seeking wisdom and guidance, I believe they will come to the book of James because of the content and the applicable aspect to their lives. I never thought of James to be so much applicable to my life after reading through it and looking into the verse more in depth. While looking at the Sirach, it strikes me as another book that shares the same principles with that of James, but the wording is slightly different.

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  11. I like thinking about wisdom. Thinking about the wisdom shown in the book of Sirach and James, I would lean more to picking James. This would simply be because James is an inspired book through the Biblical Cannon and all of this wisdom comes directly from God. However, simply because Sirach is not in the Bible does not mean that Sirach has no value. I am simply stating that James has more authority over Sirach. What I really enjoyed about the commentary of Jobes is the diagrams within the book (168) to help explain James’ statements on wisdom (yes, I am saying the pictures are my favorite part). James identifies that God is the true source of wisdom (1:5) and that if we need it, simply to ask for it, Solomon is a great example for this. However, wisdom comes from a mature faith. In order to achieve this wisdom, one must have a mature faith. This is not simply meaning that every christian must go through trials in order to become mature, even though that is helpful. This is meaning that one must be serious about their faith in order to receive wisdom from the Lord. Luke warm Christians do not have true wisdom, as if they were wise they would be boiling hot rather than warm. Christians must surrender themselves to the Lord and dedicate themselves to Him. This is the wisest decision of all. Being wise does not mean making smart decisions all the time, as everyone has sinned. Being wise is knowing the difference between right and wrong. How is anyone to know that without God?

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  12. To me, I feel like as a Christian it should be obvious that our gifts, such as wisdom, come from God. It is crazy to think that if God gives us wisdom, do non-Christians have it? My natural instinct would be to say, yes, they still can have wisdom. Then again, to know God is to be wise, to look away from Him is foolish. They might be able to make great decisions, but I would not say that they have the wisdom, that we could gain, by knowing Christ. James discusses wisdom a lot. A good portion I would say is for ethic reasons. “James assumes the wisdom tradition of Judaism,” Jobe made the point that James views wisdom as a Jewish tradition. As God’s chosen people it would seem natural for him to think that Jewish people would see wisdom as a tradition, almost as a given.

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