Monday, 2 June 2008

Ecclesiasticus (Scripture reading plan)

On reading Scripture

Regular readers will know that I’ve been providing short introductions to the books of the Bible in an effort to encourage Catholics to become more familiar with the Bible.

Traditionalists are often reluctant to engage in systematic reading of the Bible, seeing it perhaps as something ‘Bible Christians’ do. In reality, though, the deep familiarity with Scripture that comes from regular and systematic reading and meditation on the bible is part of our tradition, embedded in the rhythm of the Breviary and Mass, and one we should eagerly reclaim in my view!

Accordingly, I’m trying out the ‘Bible in a Year’ plan (which excludes the Gospels) posted on the New Liturgical Movement website last October, which reflects the Benedictine monastic tradition of lectio divina.

Where we are up to on the reading plan

Although the breviary is currently meandering through 1 Samuel, the reading plan takes us to Ecclesiasticus (aka Sirach) next, before moving on to Joshua and Judges before finally getting to Samuel.

I’m only guessing, but I think the logic behind this is that Ecclesiasticus provides useful context for the history books of the Bible through its emphasis on God’s providential plan for Israel, and its instruction on the proper relationships between individuals, the community, and God.

I’m running a couple of weeks behind the suggested dates at the moment – by now we are supposed to be nearing the end of Ecclesiasticus – but I’m not proposing to rush it, as I think Ecclesiasticus is a very important book, and I can probably catch up later by going a bit faster through the Biblical history books. The reading plan allocates it nineteen days, and I’ll probably go with three weeks.

Background to Ecclesiasticus

Ecclesiasticus comes just before Isaiah in the Bible, and is the last of the Wisdom books, and the longest of them, at fifty-one chapters. It was written by Jesus (or Joshua) ben Sirach around 180 BC. Sirach was a teacher who had travelled widely.

The name ‘Ecclesiasticus’ comes from its extensive use in the early Church, particularly in the teaching of neophytes and catechumens. Other titles that have come down in the various manuscripts include the ‘Wisdom of Jesus, son of Sirach’, and ‘Book of Instruction’. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that the Council of Trent:

“..points out the very special esteem in which this didactic work was formerly held for the purpose for general reading and instruction in church meetings: this book alone, of all the deuterocanonical writings, which are also called Ecclesiastical by Rufinus, has preserved by way of pre-eminence the name of Ecclesiasticus (Liber), that is "a church reading book".

The book is particularly important in foreshadowing the idea of the three Persons in God, and Jesus as wisdom personified (see especially Chapter 24, which will be familiar to many from the Saturday Mass and Office of Our Lady). It is probably for this reason that it was excluded from the ‘Hebrew Bible’ at the end of the first century AD, and thus sits as one of the ‘deutero-canonical’ books (and so also not considered inspired Scripture by many Protestants).

Structure and key themes

According to the Navarre Bible commentary, Ecclesiasticus is divided into five parts, to mirror the five books of the Pentateuch – the central idea of the books being “He who hold to the law will obtain wisdom’ (15:1).

Each part has a doctrinal introduction, some reflections, and then a collection of practical applications in the form of maxims and proverbs. Part 1 runs from Chapter 1 to 16:23; part 2 from 16:24 to 23:27; part 3 from 24:1 -32:13, part 4 (chapter 32:14- 42:14) and part 5 (chapter 43:15 – 50:29). It also contains and introduction (by the author’s grandson, who translated it from Hebrew into Greek) and an epilogue.

Ecclesiasticus builds on Proverbs, developing further the idea of the value of wisdom and providing lots of practical advice. Wisdom, according to the author of this book, lies in keeping the Commandments and the Mosaic Covenant. Its emphasis is on ‘fear of the Lord’ (awe, reverence and respect for God) as the beginning of wisdom, and so is particularly important to understanding the Benedictine charism (fear of the Lord is the first degree of humility in St Benedict’s Rule).

The book also emphasizes the connection between worship and morality.

Further reading:

I should say that in writing these introductions I’m generally drawing on the following sources:

The Navarre Bible
The Catholic Encylcopedia (online at New Advent)
The New American Bible introductions (online at Bibliaclerus)
Kennneth Baker, Inside the Bible An Introduction to each book of the Bible, Ignatius Press, 1998
Peter Kreeft, You can understand the Bible A practical and illuminating guide to each book in the Bible, Ignatius Press, 1990.

As always, Bibliaclerus (see the sidebar on Scripture reading resources) provides linked commentary from the Fathers and Magisterium. Haycock’s commentary is also a useful starting point.


Joshua said...

I was ROTFL with your witty illustration of Ecclus xxv, 23 at the head of the post.

A priest of my acquaintance in Melbourne, obviously happy in his calling, once quoted the passage to me, adding "This is the Word of the Lord: Thanks be to God."

Nothing other than good-natured amusement intended, of course...

Terra said...

Glad someone noticed - I was beginning to think I'd have to blog on this little un-PC gem (perhaps I will anyway)!