This is a report on a paper presented by Shane Berg, Assistant Professor in New Testament in the Department of Biblical Studies at Princeton Theological Seminary, in the New Testament Research Seminar at the Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University, 25 Oct 2010.
The list of forthcoming papers in the NT Research Seminars at Durham University can be found here.
In his paper, Shane Berg presented an interesting view on religious epistemology by analysing Ben Sira’s reading of the Creation account in B S 16:24-17:17 and the possibility of Law obedience in 15:11-20, and by comparing them with the theme of the knowledge of the Torah as found in 4Q417 l i 16-18 and 1QHa VII, 12-14.
Following Greg Schmidt Goering’s view [see Goering’s Wisdom’s Root Revealed: Ben Sira and the Election of Israel, JSJ Sup 139, (Leiden: Brill, 2009)], Berg opines that Ben Sira’s unique approach to wisdom represents a departure from natural reaction to the wisdom theology, through linking wisdom to the Torah. In Ben Sira, the fear of the Lord means keeping the commandments of the Lord (covenant obedience drawn from Deuteronomy). He reconciles the sapiential and the legal based on the Creation account in Gen 1-2. A rewriting of the Genesis Creation account in literal terms can be found in Ben Sira 16:24-17:14. In narrating the Creation of the World, the author defends human beings’ ability to discern between good and evil; prior to doing good and evil, human beings can discern between good and evil through knowledge of the Law (Gen 1-3: God’s law is not universally knowable). Ben Sira extensively draws on Gen in creating his account of Creation and portrays good and evil as being shown to humankind. After 17:7 he no longer draws to Gen but Deut or other texts and moves from a rewriting of Creation to the theme of obeying God’s Law [Scriptural citations or allusions in Ben Sira: BS 17:1a = Gen 2:7; BS 17:1b = Gen 3:19; BS 17:2a = Gen 6:3; BS 17:3b = Gen 1:26, 28; BS 17:4 = Gen 1:28; BS 17:7b = Gen 2:9, 17; Deut 30:15; BS 17:11b = Deut 30:11-20; BS 17:12 = Deut 5:1-22; Ex 19:2-20:17; BS 17:13 = Ex 19:16-19, 24:15-17; BS 17:14a = Deut 5:6-15; Ex 20:1-11; BS 17:14b = Deut 5:16-21; Ex 20:12-17]. How to obey the Law is the question to which the wisdom author aims to give an answer.
In B S 15:11-20, literary controversy is introduced (the ‘do not say’ scheme) to express the author’s thought that human beings are, in fact, responsible for their sinful actions. Clearly, the author rewrites the Creation account to serve his purposes. The focus now moves from the universal to the particular (only Jews can obey God’s Law).
In the third section of his paper, Berg analyses the knowledge of the Torah in 4QInstructions and 1QHa VII, 12-14 (dated between the latter half of the 1st century and early 2nd century b.c.). Both these writings, contemporary with Ben Sira, seem to show two opposite views in Judaism (two opposite groups of people). The difference between the two groups is related to epistemology: one can obey the Law and the other cannot. 4QI has a strong eschatological focus and reflects a sectarian strategy. The texts do not reflect a sociological, but a rhetorical tendency toward boundaries between the ones inside (the Jewish people) and the ones outside (the non-Jews). According to 4QI, God’s Law is intended for and, therefore, given only to an elite.
Concluding his discussion on Ben Sira’s reading of Genesis 1-2, Berg emphasises that in Ben Sira, a certain knowledge of God is implied as being necessary in order to obey the Law. Nevertheless, Ben Sira says that God is knowable to all and that only the Creation is needed in order to obey the Law.
(Questions, remarks and suggestions were raised among others by Prof Francis B. Watson, Dr William R. Telford and Prof John Barclay.)
Justin A. Mihoc
Department of Theology and Religion