2017-01-31

How sayings came to be attributed to . . . David, Ben Sirach, Jesus

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing to read Eva Mroczek’s The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity and have come across another interesting snippet with relevance to the way the gospel-Jesus tradition took shape.

An intriguing feature found in the writings of the earliest Christian “fathers” is that frequently sayings that we know from the gospel are used by these early authors without any attribution to Jesus or the gospels. Why is that?

Well, Eva Mroczek’s discussion of the Ben Sirach sayings offers a very similar scenario along with a very plausible explanation. Ben Sirach, we have learned, is more than a flesh and blood author sitting in a room writing wise sayings. He is in fact “a representative of a tradition of wise sayings.” So a teacher who somehow developed or learned of a fresh saying that was particularly apt for the needs of his pupils might feel it notable enough to be added to an anthology of Ben Sirach sayings. There was no such thing as a single edition of a closed book of sayings by Ben Sirach. Ben Sirach served as a representative figure of a source of wisdom that flowed like channels and rivers, that grew like fruit on a tree, and so forth. Ben Sirach’s wisdom was not static but always open to new insights and understanding through the wisdom that no one person would ever be able to grasp in all its fullness.

One of many interesting passages explaining one effect of this king of fluid literary culture:

Just as David was considered not so much as the author of a book of Psalms but as an exemplary liturgist, linked to a more amorphous tradition of liturgical material, Ben Sira was considered not only as the author of a concrete and particular book but more generally as a representative of a tradition of wise sayings.

Because of this character’s reputation, new sayings “accumulated around and circulated in his name,” some of which made it into the “popular anthologies.”94

Other sayings found in Ben Sira circulated without attribution to this figure, as part of a large “amorphous body of sayings” that circulated “atomistically and anonymously.”95

Labendz summarizes this complexity: “The contents of Ben Sira were spread within the rabbinic community. They were preserved and remembered with varying degrees of accuracy, and sometimes they were conflated with other wisdom sources. The title of the work was attached to a variety of wisdom traditions, only some of which were actually in Ben Sira.”96

(p. 112, my formatting)

Gospel revisions — as we see from Mark to Matthew and Luke, and Mark to John — with variants in sayings attributed to Jesus, sayings in Fathers that appear to come from non-gospel sources yet are found in the gospels, and the anonymity of the gospels in their original form . . . . So many simplistic explanations have been popularized through “faith-based scholarship” or apologetic writings, but more enlightening explanations come from a growing understanding of the literary culture of the Second Temple era and century following.

 

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