There are several books which are included in some Bibles, called the apocryphal or deuterocanonical books, but because they don’t appear in all Bibles, they often cause confusion. These extra books are generally referred to as extra-canonical by Protestants, because they were not included in early lists of accepted Scriptures by the church fathers. They are also called deuterocanonical (second canon) or apocryphal (hidden) books. Ecclesiasticus, more properly known as The Wisdom of Sirach, is one of those books. Though it was well-known and widely read in New Testament times, it was not always viewed on a par with other Old Testament books.
Ecclesiasticus was apparently written by Jesus, grandson of Sirach, sometime between 190 and 170 BC. He was a philosophical observer of life who lived in Jerusalem and was well-versed in the Hebrew Scriptures and traditions. The original book was written in Hebrew, and a Greek translation was produced by the author’s grandson about 132 BC. In the Greek edition’s prologue, the writer identifies the accepted Hebrew canon as being composed of “the Law and the prophets, and the others who followed after.” By this three-fold categorization, the writer indicates that the Old Testament canon was considered closed, and his own book was not included. This view is supported by other ancient writings that list the Old Testament books and do not include any of the deuterocanonical or apocryphal books.
The common title of the book comes from the fact that it was used in ancient synagogue services, and it even had popular use in early church meetings. The Book of Ecclesiasticus was included in the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament written around 250 BC, as well as Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus (both from the 4th century AD). Despite its inclusion in the Septuagint and its widespread use in the early centuries, it was not included in the Hebrew canon, and no early church father included it in the canon until Augustine in AD 397. Epiphanius wrote in AD 385 that the canonicity of the book was disputed among the Jews of his day, and the Council of Laodicea in 363 AD omitted the book in its list of accepted Scriptures. Melito, the bishop of Sardis in AD 170, made a point of omitting the disputed books from the canon, and Eusebius of Caesarea gave his recommendation to Melito’s writing. The Catholic Church gave its official support to the deuterocanonical books with the decision of the Council of Trent in 1546, thus solidifying the Catholic canon as distinct from the previously accepted canon of Scripture. Most Protestants still hold to the ancient canon and reject the deuterocanonical books.
The contents of Ecclesiasticus are much like the other Hebrew wisdom books. Advice on a wide variety of topics in no particular order, and poems extolling wisdom and the Lord as the source of wisdom comprise most of the book. One area in which Ecclesiasticus differs from Scripture is in its treatment of retribution for sin. It is possible that Ben Sira identified with the Sadducees, who did not believe in life after death. The Hebrew version denies any retribution in the afterlife, teaching instead that God will punish those sins in this lifetime. Daniel 12:2 states clearly that some will awake to everlasting life, and “some to shame and everlasting contempt.” Psalm 9:17 also says that the wicked will be sent to hell, and Jesus rebuked the Sadducees (Matthew 22:29-32) for their ignorance in denying life after death.
For the most part, the remainder of the book can serve as a valuable commentary and instructional guide, since it finds its foundations in the Scriptures. Much of the book reflects the teachings of earlier biblical books, and it holds a traditional conservative Jewish theology. God is depicted as unchanging, all-knowing, and merciful. Even though sin is a result of man’s choice, there is hope even for sinners, because they can turn away from sin and repent. The essence of the book is that wisdom, identified with the Law, is bestowed only on one who fears the Lord (cf. Proverbs 9:10).