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.