The Sentences of Menander (or Syriac Menander) is a collection of proverbs claiming to come from Menander, the famous Greek poet of the fourth century B.C. Since the work is extant only in Syriac, it seems unlikely to be the work of Menander. More likely the proverbs come from a writer collecting various proverbs into a short collection and attributing them to the great poet. It is possible some proverbs came to the writer in other languages and were translated into Syriac or that the book was originally in Greek and translated into Syriac. (Baarda’s translation of the Sentences appears here.)
It is difficult to date the book, although a date in the fourth century A.D. is a reasonable guess (OTP 2:585). Jones suggests the third century A.D. following the more recent work of Baarda and de Vos. It is possible the suggestion in line 37 to teach your brutish son to become a gladiator and hope he dies young implies a pre-Constantine date (Baarda, 2:585) since “schools for gladiators” began to disappear in the late fourth century. But even this evidence is weak since the metaphor of a brutish gladiator would have continued to be effective for some time after the heyday of the gladiatorial games.
The earliest witness to the text is a seventh-century Syriac manuscript. Equally difficult is the location of the writing: there is simply no clues in the text to make any definitive statement of provenance. The text in Charlesworth is divided into a thirty-nine line Epitome and a 474 line collection beginning with the line “Menander the Sage said.”
Baarda suggested the author of this text may have been a “cultured pagan writer who, drawing up this collection of wisdom sayings, incorporated additional material in it from oriental wisdom traditions, including Jewish ones” (Baarda, “Syriac Menander,” 588-589). It is true lines 76-93 refer to Homer, but some of the sayings seem to rely on Jewish wisdom literature more than would be expected from a “cultured pagan.” For example, line 394 resonates with Proverbs 1:7, “The main source of all good things is the fear of God.” Line 470 calls Sheol a “place of rest,” which sounds more Jewish than not, but it is far from decisive. Even a line life “Fear God, and honor (your) father and mother” may be based on Jewish wisdom, but it is not so distinctive as to demand the conclusion. Although there are no obvious Christian intrusions into the text, the text was preserved by Christians (the seventh century manuscript Or.Add 14.658 comes from the Deir-al Suriani monastery in Egypt).
Like the book of Proverbs, the collected lines appear to have no logical flow. Perhaps they were added as they were discovered without any interest in themes. Some of the sayings sound like canonical wisdom:
“Intemperance provokes conflict” (line 416); One given to anger stirs up strife, and the hothead causes much transgression. (Prov 29:22, NRSV)
“Pleasant are life, goods, and buildings, but more pleasant than these is a good name” (lines 402-403); A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold (Prov 22:1, NRSV).
Others sayings are wise sayings without canonical parallel:
“Insipidity leads the mind astray” (line 419)
“Agitation makes one lose his senses” (line 420)
“Old age is the frontier of death” (line 434)
Lines 367-376 resonate with the book of Ecclesiastes:
“If you have goods, if you have possessions, live on your possessions as long as you are alive and your eye (can) see and your foot (can) walk. For remember and see: one (can)not use (his) goods in Sheol, and riches do not accompany one into the grave. Therefore, you shall not deny yourself the good things, for better is one day under the sun than a hundred years in Sheol.”
Some lines are quite brutal: “Every bad son should die and not live on” (line 44), but compare this to Deuteronomy 21:18-21. If you have a son who is “brutish, crude, and insolent, (one who is) thievish, deceitful, and provocative, then the writer suggests the parents “teach him the profession of gladiator and put into his hand a sword and a dagger.” Perhaps he will die young, saving the parents from growing old on his “frauds and expenses.”
As with the Sayings of Pseudo-Phocylides, most of the Sentences of Menander are very generic proverbial wisdom which could come from any number of sources, including the Hebrew Bible. Given this uncertainty, the use of this text for New Testament context is difficult at best. We are at the far end of the trajectory and might be able to detect how the early Church used wisdom literature (or whoever produced these sayings, since they are not clearly Christian).
Baarda, T. “The Sentences of the Syriac Menander (Third Century AD)”, OTP 2:583-606.
de Vos, J. Cornelis. “The Decalogue in Pseudo-Phocylides and Syriac Menander: ‘Unwritten Laws’ or Decalogue Reception.” Pages 41–56 in The Decalogue and Its Cultural Influence. Hebrew Bible Monographs 58. Edited by Dominik Markl. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix, 2013.
Jones, Robert, “Syriac Menander,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
Kirk, Alan. “The Composed Life of the Syriac Menander.” Studies in Religion Sciences Religieuses 26, no. 2 (1997): 169–83.