Wisdom of Syrach in Matthew’s Gospel
As I approach the end of a four-year project to translate the New Testament from Greek, I have saved the Gospel of Matthew for last. What has struck me most while translating it is how often Jesus taught from Wisdom of Sirach in the first half of this Gospel. I worship, fellowship, and serve in a Restoration Movement congregation (a movement which comes from within Protestantism), therefore I have no denominational bias in favor of Sirach. While Martin Luther considered Sirach to be “profitable and good to read,”1 most Protestants ignore the profitable book, not realizing that Jesus both taught from it and apparently applied the book as prophetic toward Himself. All four of the apostolic branches of Christianity (ACOE, Oriental Orthodoxy, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Roman Catholicism) number Wisdom of Sirach among their Holy Scriptures.2
While the other New Testament gospels each included at least one of Jesus’ teachings from Sirach, Matthew recorded six instances where our Lord used the book, several of which can only be found in Matthew’s Gospel. Church tradition holds that after Pentecost, Matthew remained in Judea to minister among the Jews for many years, and even originally wrote his Gospel in Hebrew.3 Therefore perhaps Matthew made special note of the teachings from Sirach because of its particular popularity among Jews in the first century.
Despite Sirach’s omission from the later official Jewish canon, the Dead Sea Scrolls include Hebrew pieces of Sirach manuscripts. Likewise the Jewish repositories of Cairo Geniza4 reflect ongoing Jewish interest in Sirach much later, as they held Hebrew manuscripts of it dating to the ninth century AD.5 Sirach was also cited as Scripture in the Jewish Babylonian Talmud and later quoted in the Jewish Midrash.6
HYPOCRISY, TREASURE & FALSE TEACHERS
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all included at least one of Jesus’ teachings from Sirach about the link between forgiving others and asking God to forgive us:
Sirach 28:2-4 “Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray. Does anyone harbor anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord? If one has no mercy toward another like himself, can he then seek pardon for his own sins?”
Matthew 6:14-15 “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Mark 11:25-26 “And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.”
Luke 6:37 “… Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”
Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount and Luke 12:33-34 both present Jesus’ teaching on Sirach 29:10-12, which reads:
“Lose your silver for the sake of a brother or a friend, and do not let it rust under a stone and be lost. Lay up your treasure according to the commandments of the Most High, and it will profit you more than gold. Store up almsgiving in your treasury…”
It is likewise hard not to see the influence on Matthew 10:40-42 from Sirach 12:2, which states:
“Do good to the devout, and you will be repaid—if not by them, certainly by the Most High.”
Matthew alone captures Jesus’ use of Sirach 7:14, “do not repeat yourself in prayer”
Matthew 6:7 “And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.”
Once again in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught Sirach 27:6, which says, “As fruit reveals how a tree is cultivated, So a man’s reasoning process reveals his heart.”
Matthew 7:16-20 “Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.”
Perhaps more important than the fact that Jesus taught from Sirach is that He applied Sirach’s teaching to Himself, thereby showing the book’s prophetic value. Matthew 11:28-30 captured our Lord’s cherished words on Sirach, as follows:
“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”
In this familiar passage, Jesus takes Sirach’s doctrine on God’s Wisdom and shows that it applies to Himself. While some will find it foreign to hear of Wisdom (personified as a woman) as speaking of Jesus, Paul twice called Jesus “the Wisdom of God.” Likewise, early Christians including Athanasius were not shy about listing Scriptures on Wisdom as references to Jesus. The great danger of noting that Jesus is God’s Wisdom is to then take references to the creation of Wisdom in the heretical fashion of Arius and the Watchtower Society, as though the Scriptures state that God’s Son was created.
The Nestle-Aland’s 27th edition of the New Testament (which was produced by Protestants) lists 25 references in Matthew’s gospel to Wisdom of Sirach, including Sirach 6:24 & 6:28 in Matthew 11:29.7 R.C. Sproul’s Ligonier Ministries states: “Divine wisdom is not mere words spoken by great teachers; rather, God’s wisdom is a person. It is the right relationship with this person that secures our entry to heaven, not mere obedience to His ethical pronouncements without looking to His cross for our salvation.”8 N.T. Wright speaks similarly.9
Sirach 6:24-28 (speaking of Wisdom) says:
“Put your feet into her fetters and your neck into her collar. Put your shoulder under her and carry her, And do not be angry with her bonds. Come to her with all your soul, And keep her ways with all your strength. Search for her and seek her out, And she will become known to you; And when you become self-controlled, do not let her go. For in the end you will find her rest, And she will turn to you in gladness.”
Our Lord’s use of Sirach may be more evident when showing Matthew 11:28-30 in parallel with passages from Sirach 6:
Matthew: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden…”
Sirach 6:19 “Come to her like one who plows and sows…”
Sirach 6:26 “Come to her with all your soul…”
Matthew: “and I will give you rest.”
Sirach 6:28 “For at last you will find the rest she gives…”
Matthew: “Take My yoke upon you…”
Sirach 6:24 “Put your feet into her fetters, and your neck into her collar.”
Sirach 6:30 “Her yoke is a golden ornament…”
Matthew: “and learn from Me for I am gentle and lowly in heart…”
Sirach 6:27 “Search out and seek, and she will become known to you…”
Sirach 6:33 “If you love to listen you will gain knowledge, and if you pay attention you will become wise.”
Matthew: “and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”
Sirach 6:28-30 “For at last you will find the rest she gives, and she will be changed into joy for you. Then her fetters will become for you a strong defense, and her collar a glorious robe. Her yoke is a golden ornament…”
Throughout the rest of the Old Testament, yokes are always presented in a negative light, except for in Sirach. Every thought in Matthew 11:28-30 was first penned by Sirach, except for one: “For I am meek and lowly in heart.”
Sirach 51:23-26 in the New English Translation of the Septuagint repeats much of this teaching concerning Jesus, adding the invitation to quench the thirst of our souls (John 6:35):
“Draw near to me, you who are uneducated, and lodge in a house of instruction. Why are you still lacking in these things, and your souls thirst greatly? I opened my mouth, and I said, ‘Acquire for yourselves without money. Place your neck under a yoke, and let your soul receive instruction.'”
Whether we accept Wisdom of Sirach as simply “profitable and good to read,10 or whether we embrace it as Scripture, Matthew’s attention to the book stands out from the other Gospel writers. In the Sermon on the Mount and in Matthew 10 and 11, Jesus taught from Sirach repeatedly and then applied one of Sirach’s discourses on Wisdom to Himself. I pray that at a minimum, this article will encourage readers to profit from this book which has blessed so many Jews and Christians down through the ages.Show Sources
- Hills, Edward, “King James Version Defended” (Ankeny, IA: Christian Research Press, 1997) p. 98.
- For a synopsis, see https://conciliarpost.com/theology-spirituality/church-history/myths-of-the-apocrypha-part-i/
- Eusebius of Caesarea, “Ecclesiastical History,” Book III, chapter 24, paragraph 6.
- “Nestle-Aland Greek-English New Testament” Eds. Barbara and Kurt Aland (Deutsche Biblgesellschaft, Stuttgart), p 804.
- Hills, p. 98.