A Genius for Mentorship: A Forum in Honor of Ben Wright on his 65th Birthday
~ presented by his students ~
Emulation in Ben Sira and its Hellenistic Context
The Hellenistic context of Ben Sira’s instruction is well acknowledged in current scholarship. In this regard, I have learned much from Benjamin Wright’s articles “Ben Sira on the Sage as Exemplar” (2008) and “Ben Sira and Hellenistic Literature in Greek” (2016), to mention but two examples of his publications that insightfully set the book of Ben Sira in dialogue with other early Jewish writings from the Eastern Mediterranean world. My own research on Ben Sira has specifically built on and been inspired by observations that concern the formative purpose of this instruction.
As scholars have mapped the Hellenistic milieu of Ben Sira, the Greek concept of paideia, in particular, has evoked comments on the work and its function. Elias Bickerman (1988) argued that the notion of paideia, that education forms a human being, was known in Jerusalem in the late third century BCE and that “hokmah had acquired something of the meaning … of paideia in Hellenistic Greek.” Wisdom now meant culture, which enabled the erudite elite of Hellenistic Jerusalem to reimagine the Jewish sage in Greek terms, as an intellectual with leisure for learning. Yet, Ben Sira assembled his own curriculum where the torah, rather than Homer’s poems, constituted the core of education. Moses provided the learned Jews with their own intellectual, text-based culture.
Judith Newman (2012) also addresses the concept of paideia, which she approaches as the upbringing and socialization of a person through activities and discourse. In her view, the aim of Ben Sira “is not to establish an ancient scribe of blessed memory … but particularly, at least in the Greek texts, to establish a contemporary named person as an ideal type and practitioner of paideia.” Newman points out that the grandson’s autograph and chapter 24 underline “the importance of the individual,” which implies that anyone may become a wise teacher. Thus Newman argues that the figure of the sage holds a central place in Jewish life by creating “an eternal dynasty through generations of future students.”
The concern for paideia in the sense of cultivating and training a person is clearly essential in the instruction. Attention has also been paid to the function of the figure of the sage per se. The wise person depicted in Ben Sira serves as an idealized exemplar to be followed, as has been pointed out by Wright (2008), who builds on Hindy Najman’s (2007) pioneering work on the exemplary function of biblical figures in the pseudepigraphical writings. Wright compares Ben Sira’s authorial voice with those of Moses in Jubilees and of Ezra in 4 Ezra, the sage being “the producer of the text and the founder of the discourse.” He argues that three specific features of the text reflect “a deliberate self-presentation” and exemplarity of the sage: (1) the use of father-son language; (2) the first-person accounts of the sage; and (3) the section on scribal activity in Sir 38:34c–39:11. The section in Sir 51:13–25 further crystallizes the theme of the sage’s exemplarity, as Wright exposes:
“It briefly charts the paradigmatic search for Wisdom that results in the sage gaining access to wisdom, achieving, and thus embodying within himself, the ideal that he sets before his students – being filled by Wisdom and transmitting it as prophecy for anyone searching for that same heavenly Wisdom. Here, the sage sets himself up as the ideal to be emulated. If one searches in the manner that the sage has, then that student will become the sage who has taken Wisdom as possession. This poem purports to describe Ben Sira’s own experience, but whether it does or not, it offers a powerful invitation for the student not simply to abide by the sage’s teaching, but to emulate and then become the sage who produced it.”
Wright’s observations on the sage and the related discursive strategies that construct his authority are apt and convincing. They have stimulated me to analyze the rise of the model-sage in Jewish literature from the Hellenistic and early Roman periods. In order to broaden the cultural horizons of the discussion on Jewish sages, I have explored the wider intellectual context of the idea of an exemplary sage as an object of emulation. In fact, this feature highlights, as I have shown, that the search for wisdom as reflected in the instruction of Ben Sira is worth contextualizing over against Greek philosophical discourse which had wide-spread influence around the Eastern Mediterranean region in the Hellenistic period and beyond (Uusimäki 2017; Uusimäki 2018).
Intriguingly, the idealized sage to be emulated by his pupils appears in Jewish discourse in the Hellenistic period. The book of Proverbs is surely concerned with the education of young men towards prudent behavior (cf. Prov 1:1-7), and the persona of the sage is present in the framing of instruction (esp. Prov 22:17), but the book does not yet highlight the sage as a wisdom teacher or an exemplar to be followed. The specific figure receives more attention in Qoheleth with a plethora of first person speeches of the sage and the additional evidence of the epilogue which underlines the pedagogical and contemplative pursuits of the protagonist. Even so, the wise person as the object of emulation is explicit only from Ben Sira onwards.
Apart from Ben Sira, the conception concerning the sage’s exemplarity is internalized and expressed in other texts as well. The Hellenistic Jewish sources on the model-sage include diverse texts from both Judea and the diaspora. The ideal sage is documented in the Qumran corpus, including the maskil materials, which illustrate how the sage was imagined by a sectarian movement, and 4QBeatitudes, which mentions how a teacher will be remembered and mourned after his death by his followers who continue to walk together in the teaching of their model (4Q525 14 ii 15-16). Similarly, the book of the Parables refers to those who will walk on Enoch’s path (1 En 71:16-17). As already mentioned, the theme of identifying oneself with an exemplary biblical figure through pseudonymous attribution is further prominent in the pseudepigraphical writings (Najman 2007).
Similarly, the ideal sage is familiar from Greek Jewish writings. In the Wisdom of Solomon, the sage prays and meditates while being imagined to speak in the fictitious voice of the ancient king (Wis 9:7–8). The speaker highlights that his wisdom is a divine gift and originates in prayerful life throughout the eulogy and the prayer (esp. Wis 7:7; 8:17–21; 9:1–18). Philo of Alexandria’s numerous works emphasize the wise person as a model (παράδειγμα) to be emulated. Philo often refers to models of the biblical past and outlines the significance of emulation for the performance of good life (e.g. Abr. 3-4). Moses, in particular, offers a model to those who aspire to wisdom (e.g. Post. 174; Virt. 51; Mos. 1.158-159).
Thus the ideal sage is discussed in both Hebrew/Aramaic and Greek writings from the late second temple era, which indicates that the notion was not limited to Greek-speaking contexts of Jewish reflection on wisdom. The fact that several texts deal with the figure only from the Hellenistic period onwards demands more attention than it has hitherto received, since the idea of a model-sage to be emulated by his pupils emerges in Greek philosophical discourse already in the classical period.
Ancient Greeks maintained that the goal of philosophy was the formation of a virtuous person. A philosopher pursued wisdom and trained himself or herself accordingly in order to become a sage to be emulated by other wisdom lovers. The process of becoming wise always had an aspirational element (Annas 2008). As set out by Pierre Hadot (1995/2002), the sage provided the wisdom-lover with an “ideal described by philosophical discourse” rather than “a model incarnate in a living human being.”
Emulation (ζῆλος) was essential in this discourse; it was regarded as “virtuous and characteristic of virtuous men” (Aristotle, Rhetoric 11.1). Valued goods such as virtues, as well as people who possess those goods, should be the object of emulation (Rhetoric 11.4–7). The process is detailed by Plutarch in Progress in Virtue 84D–85B. The virtue of a good person creates emulation in those who pursue virtue. Recollection of good human beings leads into action in the form of readjusting one’s habit, repressing ignoble utterances, or resisting emotions. Ultimately, virtue is to be realized through one’s dedication to and learning from exemplars.
The topic of exemplarity can be illustrated by considering the figure of Socrates who is already set as the model of a philosopher in Plato’s Symposium and widely celebrated in the later Greek and Roman traditions. Epictetus, for instance, exhorts his audience to aspire to moral progress, stating that “even if you are not yet a Socrates, still you ought to live as one who wishes to be a Socrates” (Encheiridion 51.3).
Other figures of the past and the present are also celebrated as exemplars, regardless of whether they count as perfect sages or not. Plato characterizes Homer as “a leading educator in his own lifetime for some who delighted in his company and passed on a kind of Homeric way of life to their successors,” and mentions Pythagoras whose successors follow a Pythagorean way of life (Republic 600a). Diogenes Laertius’ portrayal of Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, is another illuminating example (7.10–11):
Whereas Zeno of Citium … has for many years been devoted to philosophy in the city and has continued to be a man of worth in all other respects, exhorting to virtue and temperance those of the youth who come to him to be taught, directing them to what is best, affording to all in his own conduct a pattern for imitation (παράδειγμα τὸν ἴδιον βίον) in perfect consistency with his teaching.
A humorous fictional letter of Alciphron (the 2nd or 3rd century CE) even tells about a man who had sent his son to a philosophical school to be instructed in logic and speaking skills (Letters 3.64). Instead, “[t]he boy modeled himself after his teacher to the smallest detail; he preferred to study, not doctrines, but his way of life and his behavior.”
What does Ben Sira have to do with these Greek accounts? The wise person imagined in the instruction is not overtly Greek, though the Greek translation emphasizes the control of emotions in places (e.g. Sir 18:30-33), something that generally reminds one of Greek ideals of virtuous conduct. Yet the sage’s portrayal involves an aspirational element, as it sets a model of wisdom to be pursued by wisdom-lovers. This suggests that although Ben Sira is not directly indebted to written accounts of Greek sages, they deploy the motif of an exemplary wise person which is first explicitly discussed in such sources.
To conclude, Wright (2008) first explicated the literary devices used by the author of Ben Sira in order to outline the exemplary sage, which provides a solid ground for exploring the book’s formative purpose. Building on it, I have demonstrated that the idea of the sage as an object of emulation seems to be rooted in the Greek world. A fundamental element of the book of Ben Sira is, therefore, best understood as reflecting and participating in a wider ancient Mediterranean wisdom discourse; it probably resulted from creative cultural collaboration in which various cultural influences floating in the Eastern Mediterranean region intermingled. The idealized nature of Ben Sira’s sage only brings the figure closer to the Greek world where the process of becoming a virtuous person always involved an aspirational element.
Annas, Julia. 2008. “The Sage in Ancient Philosophy.” In Anthropine Sophia, ed. Francesca Alesse et al. Naples: Bibliopolis, 11–27.
Bickermann, Elias J. 1988. The Jews in the Greek Age. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Hadot, Pierre. 1995/2002. Qu’est-ce que la philosophie antique? Paris: Gallimard. Reprinted as What is Ancient Philosophy? Trans. Michael Chase. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Najman, Hindy. 2007. “How Should We Contextualize Pseudepigrapha? Imitation and Emulation in 4 Ezra.” In Flores Florentino, ed. A. Hilhorts et al. Leiden: Brill, 529–536.
Newman, Judith H. 2012. “Liturgical Imagination in the Composition of Ben Sira.” In Prayer and Poetry in the Dead Sea Scrolls and Related Literature, ed. Jeremy Penner et al. Leiden: Brill, 311–326.
Uusimäki, Elisa. 2017. “The Formation of a Sage according to Ben Sira.” In Second Temple Jewish ‘Paideia’ in Context, ed. Jason M. Zurawski and Gabriele Boccaccini. Berlin: de Gruyter, 59–69.
Uusimäki, Elisa. 2018. “The Rise of the Sage in Greek and Jewish Antiquity.” Journal for the Study of Judaism 49, 1–29.
Wright, Benjamin G. III. 2008. “Ben Sira on the Sage as Exemplar.” In idem, Praise Israel for Wisdom and Instruction. Leiden: Brill, 165–182.
Wright, Benjamin G. III. 2016. “Ben Sira and Hellenistic Literature in Greek.” In Tracing Sapiential Traditions in Ancient Judaism, ed. Hindy Najman et al. Leiden: Brill, 71–88.
Dr. Elisa Uusimäki is a scholar of ancient Jewish literature and holds the title of docent in Old Testament and Early Judaism at the University of Helsinki. Apart from Helsinki, she studied in Manchester, Yale, and Jerusalem. Uusimäki has written on wisdom, the Dead Sea Scrolls, ancient biblical interpretation, the figure of the sage, and moral exemplarity. Her first book was titled Turning Proverbs towards Torah: An Analysis of 4Q525 (Brill, 2016), and she has published in journals such as Dead Sea Discoveries, Journal for the Study of Judaism, Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha, Journal of Ancient Judaism, and Revue de Qumran.
 Despite this positive comment, Plato himself also rejected the importance of Homer as an educator and preferred to banish him from his own ideal state.