Canonical Consciousness in the Prologue to Sirach


I mentioned the Prologue to Sirach in some of my comments in my last post on the canon in II Macc and I want to elaborate on this evidence regarding the tripartite structure and the closure of the OT canon. This post will first discuss the date of the Prologue, second the relevant texts in the Prologue, and third whether the Prologue gives indication of a closed canon.

The Date of Sirach

The grandson says that he came to Egypt in the thirty-eighth year of the reign of Euergetes. There are two Ptolemies with the name Euergetes, Ptolemy III Euergetes (reigned 247-222 = 25 years) and Ptolemy VIII Euergetes (reigned 170-117). The reign of the first was only twenty five years and so cannot be the referent of the Prologue, but the reign of the second endured for many years and the thirty-eighth year of his reign places his coming to Egypt in 132 BC. Thus we can date the Prologue and the translator’s view of the OT canon to c. 130 BC.

The Text of the Prologue

Lines 1-14

1 Πολλῶν καὶ μεγάλων ἡμῖν διὰ τοῦ νόμου καὶ τῶν προφητῶν 2 καὶ τῶν ἄλλων τῶν κατ᾽ αὐτοὺς ἠκολουθηκότων δεδομένων, 3 ὑπὲρ ὧν δέον ἐστὶν ἐπαινεῖν τὸν Ισραηλ παιδείας καὶ σοφίας, 4 καὶ ὡς οὐ μόνον αὐτοὺς τοὺς ἀναγινώσκοντας δέον ἐστὶν ἐπιστήμονας γίνεσθαι, 5 ἀλλὰ καὶ τοῖς ἐκτὸς δύνασθαι τοὺς φιλομαθοῦντας χρησίμους εἶναι 6 καὶ λέγοντας καὶ γράφοντας, 7 ὁ πάππος μου ᾿Ιησοῦς ἐπὶ πλεῖον ἑαυτὸν δοὺς 8 εἴς τε τὴν τοῦ νόμου 9 καὶ τῶν προφητῶν 10 καὶ τῶν ἄλλων πατρίων βιβλίων ἀνάγνωσιν 11 καὶ ἐν τούτοις ἱκανὴν ἕξιν περιποιησάμενος 12 προήχθη καὶ αὐτὸς συγγράψαι τι τῶν εἰς παιδείαν καὶ σοφίαν ἀνηκόντων, 13 ὅπως οἱ φιλομαθεῖς καὶ τούτων ἔνοχοι γενόμενοι 14 πολλῷ μᾶλλον ἐπιπροσθῶσιν διὰ τῆς ἐννόμου βιώσεως.

My translation: Many and great things have been given to us through the Law and the Prophets and the others which followed according to them, for which it is necessary to praise Israel for education and wisdom, and inasmuch as it is necessary that not only those who read them become capable of understanding , but also that those who love learning are able to be useful to outsiders, both when speaking and writing, my grandfather, Iesous, having given himself fully, both to the reading of the Law and the Prophets and the other ancestral books, and having acquired sufficient skill/expertise in them, he also was led to write something of the things concerned with education and wisdom, so that the lovers of learning, when they become captivated by these things, might gain very much more through living by the Law.


The Prologue begins with a reference to the three parts of the Hebrew canon: the Law, the Prophets, and the others who followed according to them (lit.). The description of the third part describes the nature of all three parts of the canon because it describes the writers of the three sections and not the three sections per se. The Law was written by Moses and the Prophets followed in his footsteps (Deut 18:18ff), and the Prologue says that the other writers, presumably of the ancestral books mentioned below, followed in the footsteps of the former writers. They followed according to the standard of Moses and the Prophets; therefore, the Prologue is claiming that the writers of the “other books” were inspired and are authoritative in the same manner as Moses and the Prophets.

The second reference to the tripartite structure refers to Iesous as reading them and acquiring skill in them. He studied the canon of the OT, and then he was led to write something of the things concerned with education and wisdom, so that…some might gain much more through living by the Law. It seems that the tripartite structure is taken for granted and that it is assumed to be the highest authority. Only after studying the canon does Iesous attempt to write a work of education and wisdom, and his work will only serve to profit one who lives by the Law, the canon. Iesous wrote a work of edification and, perhaps, interpretation, which he did not consider to be part of the canon, but rather it was intended to serve the one who was living by the Law. The Prologue indicates a distinction between canonical works and works of edification and interpretation. Sirach was never intended to be canonical, but rather to help one live according to the Law or the canon.

Lines 15-35

15 Παρακέκλησθε οὖν 16 μετ᾽ εὐνοίας καὶ προσοχῆς 17 τὴν ἀνάγνωσιν ποιεῖσθαι 18 καὶ συγγνώμην ἔχειν 19 ἐφ᾽ οἷς ἂν δοκῶμεν 20 τῶν κατὰ τὴν ἑρμηνείαν πεφιλοπονημένων τισὶν τῶν λέξεων ἀδυναμεῖν· 21 οὐ γὰρ ἰσοδυναμεῖ 22 αὐτὰ ἐν ἑαυτοῖς Εβραϊστὶ λεγόμενα καὶ ὅταν μεταχθῇ εἰς ἑτέραν γλῶσσαν· 23 οὐ μόνον δὲ ταῦτα, 24 ἀλλὰ καὶ αὐτὸς ὁ νόμος καὶ αἱ προφητεῖαι 25 καὶ τὰ λοιπὰ τῶν βιβλίων 26 οὐ μικρὰν ἔχει τὴν διαφορὰν ἐν ἑαυτοῖς λεγόμενα. 27 Εν γὰρ τῷ ὀγδόῳ καὶ τριακοστῷ ἔτει ἐπὶ τοῦ Eὐεργέτου βασιλέως 28 παραγενηθεὶς εἰς Αἴγυπτον καὶ συγχρονίσας 29 εὑρὼν οὐ μικρᾶς παιδείας ἀφόμοιον 30 ἀναγκαιότατον ἐθέμην καὶ αὐτός τινα προσενέγκασθαι σπουδὴν καὶ φιλοπονίαν τοῦ μεθερμηνεῦσαι τήνδε τὴν βίβλον 31 πολλὴν ἀγρυπνίαν καὶ ἐπιστήμην προσενεγκάμενος 32 ἐν τῷ διαστήματι τοῦ χρόνου 33 πρὸς τὸ ἐπὶ πέρας ἀγαγόντα τὸ βιβλίον ἐκδόσθαι 34 καὶ τοῖς ἐν τῇ παροικίᾳ βουλομένοις φιλομαθεῖν 35 προκατασκευαζομένους τὰ ἤθη ἐννόμως βιοτεύειν.

My translation: Therefore you are invited to read with a good will and careful attention and to judge kindly in which places we may seem to be incapable [to translate] with respect to some of the expressions which have been toiled over eagerly in rendering; for these things having been spoken in Hebrew itself [originally] are not capable of producing the same effect as when they are rendered into another tongue/language; and not these only, but also the Law itself and the Prophets and the rest of the books have no little difference when spoken in their own language [the original]. For in the thirty-eighth year in the reign of Euergetes, when I had come to Egypt and spent some time there, when I had found a copy/exemplar of no little education, I myself also set to bring some speed and eagerness to toil to translate this book as a matter of of urgent attention, while in the space of time bringing much sleeplessness and understanding/skill, in order to publish the book by bringing it to completion also for the ones in sojourn desiring to be fond of learning, preparing themselves beforehand to live by the Law.


There is another contrast between Sirach and the tripartite canon. He comments on the great difficulties he had translating his grandfather’s work and on the difficulties in translating the OT canonical books into other languages. He contrasts the translating of his grandfather’s work with the translating of the Law, the Prophets, and the rest of the books, and he does not think to include his work in these. He does not include Sirach in the Rest of the books, which if the canon had not been closed, one might expect him to do.

The prologue indicates that the grandson published the work for the ones in sojourn (diaspora?) who were fond of learning and preparing themselves to live by the Law. Thus the original work of Iesous was to aid people in living by the canon and now the translation is intended to bring about the same result.

Closed Canon?

The text contains three salient features, which indicate that the Jews c. 130 BC considered the canon to be closed. First, it indicates that the canonical books are all inspired. The other writers of the ancestral books or the rest of the books followed according to the standard of Moses and the Prophets, and therefore shared the same inspiration and authority as the former two sections. Second, there is an assumed corpus of books and that corpus has a definitive structure. Third, Sirach is considered to be on the level of edificatory or interpretational literature aiding the people living by the Law. The Prologue also contrasts the canon with Sirach, showing that the latter is not considered to be part of the former.

As with the texts in II Macc., this text cannot by itself prove that the canon was considered closed c. 130 BC. It adds to the evidence that there was a definite structure and that the other writers of the Writings were inspired like Moses and the Prophets. It also provides a picture of the contrast between canonical and edificatory literature; therefore, the Prologue is a very significant piece of evidence for the closing of the canon in the mid-second century BC.

Does the fact that the third part of the canon has three different titles show that it was not completed or somehow that it was not fully canonical? In the former post on II Macc, I showed that Beckwith posited that the tripartite structure arose with Judas Maccabeus, and that he would have divided the Prophets from the Writings sometime around 150 BC since all three sects of Judaism hold to the same canon and and structure essentially. Thus it is not surprising that third section does not have a fixed title, since the formation of the third section would have been a relatively new invention c. 130 BC. Luke 24:44 calls the third section the ψαλμοί or Psalms and Philo uses the term ὑμνοι or hymns/Psalms to refer to the third section. Eventually this section is called the Writings, which is close to the title “rest of the books”. The different title does not reflect a different structure of the canon nor does it indicate that the books in the third part of the canon are dubious at this time. It probably indicates that the third section was a relatively new invention.

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