The Book of Ben Sira

Welcome to www.bensira.org, the website devoted to the ancient and medieval Hebrew manuscripts of the book of Ben Sira.

The book of Ben Sira was composed in Hebrew c. 180 B.C.E. by a sage in Jerusalem bearing the name שמעון בן ישוע בן אלעזר בן סירא Shim‘on ben Yeshua‘ ben ’El‘azar ben Sira (to cite the name of the author as presented in Manuscript B at 50:27, 51:30), or Yeshua‘ ben ’El‘azar ben Sira (via the Greek version at 50:27) – but which has come down to us, regardless of the specific forenames, as simply Ben Sira (again, see Manuscript B at 51:30: שנקרא בן סירא ‘who is called Ben Sira’).

The composition is a collection of proverbs and teachings, written in poetry, within the well-known and widespread ancient Near Eastern tradition of wisdom literature. Its closest analogue within the biblical canon is the book of Proverbs, from which Ben Sira draws much of its inspiration.

The book was translated into Greek by the author’s grandson in Egypt (almost undoubtedly in Alexandria) in 132 B.C.E., during the reign of Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II. We know this specific information, for it is our good fortune that the grandson included an extended prologue to the book, in which he provides the specific date (to wit, year 38 of the reign of Euergetes). The grandson also presents the name of his grandfather as Iesous, the Greek version of Yeshuaʿ, in conformity with the name presented at 50:27 (see above).

In time, the book of Ben Sira, via its Greek and then later translations, became part of the Christian Bible, where it is known as either Sirach (in Greek) or Ecclesiasticus (in Latin). The work was known to the rabbinic tradition, and indeed Ben Sira is cited in the Talmud and related literature on about a dozen occasions. In addition, there are resonances of Ben Sira in medieval Jewish poetry, most famously in the piyyuṭ מראה כהן ‘The Appearance of the Priest’, recited during the Musaf service on Yom Kippur, with clear echoes of the description of the high priest in Ben Sira, ch. 50. Notwithstanding these testimonies to the use of Ben Sira by Jews during the late antique and medieval periods, because Ben Sira was not canonized in the Jewish tradition, the Hebrew original eventually was lost.

To our great fortune, portions of six medieval manuscripts were discovered in the Cairo Genizah, commencing in 1896. According to the now well-known story, when the British scholar-travelers and twin sisters Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson brought back Hebrew documents obtained in Cairo, and then showed one of them to Solomon Schechter (then Reader in Rabbinics at the University of Cambridge), the great scholar identified the first leaf of the Hebrew original of Ben Sira to come to light in the modern era. This document, bearing the shelfmark CUL Or. 1102 (=Manuscript B, IX recto and IX verso), is prominently displayed on the home page of this website, along with the handwritten note from Dr Schechter to Mrs Lewis informing her that the manuscript page ‘represents a piece of the original Hebrew of Ecclesiasticus’ (underscore in Schechter’s letter). In the ensuing years, at the close of the 19th century and throughout the 20th century, more and more folios of Ben Sira from the Cairo Genizah were identified by scholars. In the end, as noted above, pages from six separate manuscripts were discovered. Moreover, the age of Ben Sira discovery continues unabated, for several folios were identified as recently as 2007 and 2010. These Genizah materials currently are housed in Cambridge, Oxford, London, Paris, New York, and Los Angeles.

In addition to the medieval copies of Ben Sira, we also possess more ancient copies. These documents were discovered at Qumran and Masada, and while they represent a much smaller amount of material, their antiquity speaks for itself, for these manuscripts date from only a century or two after the work’s original composition, that is, c. 50 B.C.E. - c. 70 C.E. These documents now reside in Jerusalem, under the aegis of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

All told, we now possess about two-thirds of the Hebrew original of Ben Sira (one estimate calculates about 2210 cola out of about 3220 cola in the complete Greek version of Ben Sira), with considerable overlap between and among the various manuscripts. Thus, we have about 550 cola extant in two different Cairo Genizah manuscripts, and about 44 cola extant in three different Cairo Genizah manuscripts (14 in MSS B, C, and D; 22 in MSS B, E, and F; and 8 in MSS A, C, and D) – in addition to some overlap between the ancient and medieval testimonies, for example, between 11QPsa found at Qumran and MS B, and between the Masada scroll and MS B.

Prior to the creation of www.bensira.org, the scholar or interested lay person wishing to consult the various Ben Sira manuscripts needed to turn to a host of publications and/or internet sites. Indeed, due to the vagaries by which the approximately 300,000 Cairo Genizah manuscripts found their way to dozens of diverse libraries, museums, institutions, and private collections throughout Europe, North America, and Israel, even folios from the same manuscript are located in different places. Thus, for example, pages from MS A are in Cambridge and New York; pages from MS B are in Oxford, Cambridge, and London; pages from MS C are in Cambridge, Paris, and Los Angeles; and pages from MS D are in Cambridge and Paris. One can imagine the confusion and the difficulty in examining all the textual witnesses.

Today the task is much easier for scholars, since these documents are available at websites such as http://www.jewishmanuscripts.org/ > www.genizah.org (for the Genizah manuscripts) and www.deadseascrolls.org.il/home (for the Qumran and Masada material). Even with this availability, however, anyone wishing to inspect a particular manuscript page must navigate these websites (always with multiple steps) in order to reveal the desired image.

The current project, www.bensira.org, solves that problem by collecting all the material in a single website. In so doing, we have digitally reunited the folios from the same manuscript (see above) in a single platform, thereby allowing the reader to ‘turn the page’ of each manuscript with the click of the mouse - just as the ancient or medieval reader would have moved his or her eye from one column or folio to the next one.

We have elected to use the cataloging system devised by P. C. Beentjes, The Book of Ben Sira in Hebrew (Leiden: Brill, 1997), which in turn is based on the work of earlier scholars, in order to keep track of the various manuscripts and folios. Since Beentjes’s publication, however, new leaves belonging to MS C and MS D have come to light (see above), so that we have needed to renumber some of the folios. In such cases, we have provided both our new numbers and the older numbers.

MS C, folio V (recto and verso), deserves special comment. This single folio was published by Moses Gaster in Jewish Quarterly Review (Old Series) in 1900, but unfortunately its whereabouts are now unknown. Presumably it is located in London or Manchester, or it may have passed into private hands. Fortunately, though, the Gaster article included excellent black-and-white photographs of the two sides of the folio page, and we have included them herein.

Another folio which deserves special comment is MS C, folio VII, recto and verso. The main portion of this leaf, with the shelfmark T-S 12.727, was published by Solomon Schechter in 1900; a small fragment which creates a perfect join, bearing the shelfmark T-S AS 213.4, was then identified and published by Alexander Scheiber in 1982. Once more the wonders of modern technology have come to our aid, for we are able to present MS C VII, recto and verso, with the two items merged in a single photograph. While we could have placed the two in perfect combination, we have elected to leave a small space between them, so that the user of this website is able to realize how the two have become one.

A note about viewing the images: Within the ‘View the Manuscripts’ module, you will find a pull-down menu with each manuscript presented separately (Genizah MSS A-F; Masada; Qumran). Clicking on the image of any folio or column will spawn a new tab with the image in full view; clicking on that image in turn will provide for a zoom view.

We are exceedingly grateful to the institutions and one private individual, which (who) serve as the custodians of these invaluable documents. They have provided us with new high-resolution digital images of the Ben Sira manuscripts and/or have generously allowed us to incorporate them into this website for public use. Specifically, we thank the following:

  • The Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit of the Cambridge University Library
  • The Bodleian Library, Oxford
  • The British Library, London
  • Bibliothèque de l’Alliance israélite universelle, Paris
  • The Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary, New York
  • Israel Antiquities Authority, Jerusalem
  • Jewish Quarterly Review, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
  • Mr Gifford Combs, Los Angeles

To all of the individuals with whom we have been in contact – Ben Outhwaite, César Merchán-Hamann, Ilana Tahan, Jean-Claude Kuperminc, Avraham Malthete, David Kraemer, William Klein, Yael Barshack, Orit Kuslansky, Penina Shor, Shani Tzoref, Natalie Dohrmann, and Gifford Combs – we say לכל מעשיכם ניתן הודות ‘for all of your deeds we give thanks’ (adapting Ben Sira 47:8 [MS B]).

We append here a note regarding a certain confusion over the MS B folios (X recto through XVIII verso) housed in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, with the shelfmark MS. Heb. e. 62. Both the Bodleian's own website and www.genizah.org display these folios in the incorrect order. At our website they appear in the correct order, with correct procession of the material from Ben Sira 40:9 through Ben Sira 49:11. For the reader's convenience, we include here a chart, which correlates the presentation of the relevant MS B folios at www.bensira.org with their appearance at the Bodleian website and at www.genizah.org.

We also gratefully acknowledge the cooperation and assistance offered by the following colleagues: a) Martin Abegg, for graciously providing transcriptions of the Cairo Genizah manuscripts in a most generous manner; b) Benjamin H. Parker, who along with Prof Abegg, provided the translations of the Cairo Genizah folios; c) Roy Brown of Accordance Software, who kindly granted us permission to use the Abegg and Parker material (originally produced for Accordance); d) Eric Reymond, for graciously providing both the transcription and the translation of the Masada manuscript; e) Shulamit Elizur for allowing us to use her transcription and translation of the newly discovered folios of MS C; f) Prof Elizur and Michael Rand for their transcription of the newly discovered folio of MS D; g) Jeremy Corley, both for the annotated bibliography and for the list of early Greek Sirach manuscripts which accompany the website; h) Joshua A. Blachorsky, for producing the detailed Index of Passages; and i) Benjamin G. Wright, who has served as a consultant to the project.

We invite you to explore our website and to communicate with us if there are questions, comments, and/or suggestions for improvement.

One final note: The Greek version of Ben Sira (= Sirach) as attested in Codex Sinaiticus (the oldest complete manuscript of the Bible in Greek) is available online via the British Library and its partner institutions: http://www.codexsinaiticus.org/en/. Sirach begins at quire 68, folio 1r (which includes the grandson's prologue), and runs through quire 71, folio 2r; the website presents both the images and the transcription. For an English translation of Sirach, the reader is directed to the rendering by Benjamin G. Wright, as part of A New English Translation of the Septuagint (NETS), under the general editorship of Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright, available online at: http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/nets/edition/30-sirach-nets.pdf.

One hopes that future enterprises will make available online the manuscript evidence for the other two primary versions of the Book of Ben Sira, to wit, the Syriac text of the Peshitta and the Latin text of the Vulgate. For the latter, for the nonce, go to: http://www.academic-bible.com/en/online-bibles/biblia-sacra-vulgata/read-the-bible-text/bibel/text/lesen/stelle/43///ch/21b1fc41d98dfeb7ef0f3ed4f74a96b9/.



Gary A. Rendsburg and Jacob Binstein
Department of Jewish Studies
Rutgers University
New Brunswick, N.J., U.S.A.
grends@rci.rutgers.edu
jbinst@rutgers.edu - JakeBinstein.com

The developers of this website are grateful to the following benefactors, all affiliated with Rutgers University, for research support:

  • The Deborah S. and Herbert B. Wasserman Endowed Research Award Fund
  • Aresty Research Center, Division of Undergraduate Academic Affairs
  • The Blanche and Irving Laurie Chair in Jewish History

View the Manuscripts