The early Christian use of the Hebrew Bible

The Old Testament takes up two-thirds of the Christian Bible.  The Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, is divided into three major parts, the Torah, the Nevi’im, and the Ketuvim.  The Torah was known as the Law or instruction.  The works of the prophets was called Nevi’im.  Finally, the Writings were called Ketuvim.  New Testament writers used these three terms of the law, the prophets, and the writings when they referred to the Hebrew Scriptures, the only Bible that they knew.  Most of the final codification of the Hebrew Bible had taken place centuries before the time of Jesus Christ.  Thus, the Christians often referred to the law and the prophets when they were talking about the books of the Hebrew Bible.  These early Christians never referred to their own writings as the Bible.

These foolish man made idols (Jer 10:8-10:9)

“They are stupid.

They are foolish.

The instruction given by idols

Is no better than wood.

Beaten silver is brought

From Tarshish.

Gold is brought

From Uphaz.

They are the work

Of the artisans.

They are the work

Of the hands of the goldsmiths.

Their clothing is blue.

Their clothing is purple.

They are all the product

Of skilled men.”

Jeremiah remarks that the false idol gods are stupid and foolish. Any instruction from them is like instruction from a piece of wood. Their silver is from Tarshish, the big ship building place somewhere on the Mediterranean Sea. Usually the gold is from Ophir, but here it is from an unknown place only mentioned here called Uphaz, that may be another name for Ophir. They even have blue and purple clothing. Obviously these false idols are the work products of skilled humans, both artisans and goldsmiths.

The future of the house of Jacob (Isa 29:22-29:24)

“Therefore thus says Yahweh,

Who redeemed Abraham,

Concerning the house of Jacob.

‘No longer shall Jacob be ashamed.

No longer shall his face grow pale.

When he sees his children,

The work of my hands,

In his midst,

They will sanctify my name.

They will sanctify the Holy One of Jacob.

They will stand in awe of the God of Israel.

Those who err in spirit

Will come to understanding.

Those who grumble

Will accept instruction.’”

Yahweh, via Isaiah, presents an oracle about the future of the house of Jacob. Yahweh has redeemed Abraham and his family. In the future, the house of Jacob will not be ashamed or have a pale face. Just the opposite, their children will sanctify the name of the Holy One of Jacob, Yahweh. They will stand in awe of the God of Israel, Yahweh. Those who make a mistake will understand what happened to them. Those who grumbled will then accept instruction on how to improve. The future looks bright for the house of Jacob.

Sirach’s qualifications (Sir 33:16-33:18)

“I was the last

To keep vigil.

I was like a gleaner

Following the grape-pickers.

By the blessing of the Lord,

I arrived first.

Like a grape-picker,

I filled my wine press.

Consider that I have not labored

For myself alone.

But I labored

For all who seek instruction.

Hear me!

You!

Who are great among the people!

You!

Leaders of the congregation!

Pay heed!”

This biblical book takes a very personal tone as Sirach defends his position as a teacher. He was the last one to keep the vigil in his congregation. He compared his position to the gleaners who came after the grape-pickers. The mostly poor gleaners picked up the leftover grapes after the good grapes had been picked. However, by the grace of God, Sirach was able to fill up his wine press with all his grapes. In other words, he was not originally a major figure in his religious assembly, but he has progressed. He was not working for himself, but for all those who wanted further instruction about the law. Thus he proclaimed in the assembled congregation that they should listen to him. They should pay attention to him.

Preparation (Sir 33:4-33:6)

“Prepare what to say!

Then you will be heard.

Draw upon your instruction!

Draw upon your training!

Give your answer!

The heart of a fool is

Like a cart wheel.

His thoughts are

Like a turning axle.

A mocking friend is

Like a stallion.

He neighs no matter

Who the rider is.”

Sirach wants you to prepare yourself before you speak. Then when you speak, others will listen to you. You should draw upon your experience, instruction, and training when you speak. Thus you can give a correct answer. On the other hand, the heart and the thoughts of a fool are like cart wheels or turning axles, just spinning around without saying or doing anything. If you have a mocking friend, he is like a stallion that sounds off against its rider, no matter who he is. So too, this fool will complain about anything you say.

Grandpa Jesus (Sir 0:5-0:14)

“My grandfather Jesus

Devoted himself especially

To the reading of the Law,

To the reading of the Prophets,

To the reading of the other books of our ancestors.

After acquiring considerable proficiency in them,

He was himself also led to write something

Pertaining to instruction,

Pertaining to wisdom.

By becoming familiar with this book,

Those who love learning

Should make even greater progress

In living according to the law.”

Who is Grandpa Jesus? Obviously, he is the grandfather of this writer/translator. This ‘Jesus’ is the Anglicized form of the Greek name Ἰησοῦς or the Aramaic Yeshua. He was the son of Sirach, a Jewish scribe who had been living in Jerusalem. He then authored this work in Alexandria, Egypt, around 180–175 BCE, where he is thought to have established a school. He is sometimes referred to as Ben Sira, son of Sir, or as it has been rendered in Greek, ‘Sirach’. There are all kinds of Jewish stories about his background. This ‘Jesus’ or ‘Sirach’ was a devoted scholar of the Hebrew Law, Prophets, and the other books of the Hebrew Bible. He wanted to share some of the instruction and wisdom that he had received from these books. Thus this author, his grandson, wants those who loved learning to become familiar with this work. With that, they would be better able to follow the Law itself.

The Hebrew Bible (Sir 0:1-0:4)

“Many great teachings have been given to us

Through the Law,

Through the Prophets,

Through the other books that followed them.

For these,

We praise Israel for instruction.

We praise Israel for wisdom.

Now those who read the scriptures

Must not only themselves understand them.

They must also,

As lovers of learning,

Be able

Through the spoken word,

Through the written word,

To help the outsiders.”

The first question that we face with this book of Ecclesiasticus is its role in the Biblical canon since it was not part of the Hebrew cannon, but certainly part of the Greek Septuagint. Thus it is often considered deutero-canonical. There is even a question as to whether this prologue is canonical since it clearly was added on later by the translator. No other book has this clear delineation between author and later translator. However, what is extremely interesting is the threefold division of the Hebrew Bible that still exists today, the Law, the Prophets, and the other Writings. This would seem to indicate that the canonical Hebrew Bible had been completed when this writing took place. This statement is generally considered the earliest witness to a Hebrew canon of the books of the Prophets. This author praised Israel for its instruction and wisdom. He was quite aware that most people did not read these holy writings or scripture. Thus, those who read these scriptures must not only understand it themselves, but also help others. These lovers of learning must help with the written and spoken word to spread the message of the great teachings.