Ben Sira’s Incorporative and Cosmic Messianism


I have just returned from the a stimulating symposium in St Andrews on the Atonement in biblical texts and traditions. I heard expertly done main papers by Deborah Rooke, David Moffitt, David Wright, Martha Himmelfarb, Carol Newsom and Catrin Williams and many short papers with the latest research on everything from the precise meaning of Pentateuchal sacrificial terminology to the temple imagery in Revelation.

In my own presentation I argued that the Wisdom of Ben Sira (early second cent. B.C.E.) has a distinctive understanding of atonement, or at-one-ment, in which the high priest is an incorporative and cosmic messiah. In Ben Sira 50 all of heaven and earth, and all of humanity, are united, and find their proper place, in joyous, ecstatic, worship of God in the Jerusalem temple and its liturgy. The chapter is carefully crafted to sum up everything that has been said about Wisdom and its presence in the world in the foregoing chapters (chs. 1–49).

Most remarkably of all, by dense poetic allusion and an intricate literary structure, the high priest is portrayed as one who in whom there is present every sphere of reality in the liturgical enactment of creation and human history. For Ben Sira the temple is a microcosm (in which the roofed sanctuary equates to heaven and the altar in the forecourt is earth) and the high priest is—or plays the part of—the principal actors in the drama of creation and history. On the divine side, he is God, the Creator, Lady Wisdom, and the visible glory of God (cf. Ezek 1:28). He is also a new and glorious Adam (fulfilling God’s vision for humanity in Genesis 1–2 and Psalm 8). He is Israel—the nation of the pious and glorious. And he is, or he has, the pied beauty of the heavens and the arboreal abundance of the earth. He is both the image of the invisible God, and the one in or through whom all of creation is sacramentally recreated and held together. In him there is at-one-ment.

The argument was well received and, all being well, a version will no doubt appear somewhere in print in due course. In the meantime here is a copy of my annotated translation of Ben Sira 50. Any who are willing to give the time to careful study of the text and its scriptural language will, I’m sure, figure out for themselves the main points of my argument.

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