Let Us Now Praise Famous (and Unfamous) Men: The Wisdom of Sirach

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This is the third part of Dr. Noll’s series, “Reading and Enjoying the Apocrypha.”


“Let us now praise famous men” is the best-known phrase from the entire Apocrypha. In the 20th century, it was used as the title of a photo narrative of poverty in Appalachia by James Agee and Walker Evans and a patriotic anthem by Ralph Vaughn Williams. Both these writers were drawing their titles from the assigned reading for All Saints’ Day in the Anglican liturgy, Ecclesiasticus 44:1-14:

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Let us now praise famous men
and our fathers in their generations….
There are some of those who have left a name
so that their praises are declared.
And there are some who have no memorial,
who have perished as though they had not lived….
But these were, nevertheless, men of mercy
whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten;
with their descendants it will remain
a goodly inheritance to their posterity. (vv. 1,8-11)

So, who wrote these famous lines? Ecclesiasticus (meaning “Church Book”), the title often given to this book (even in the Book of Common Prayer), is a misnomer. It reflects the wide use of the book in the early Church. The actual title is “The Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach,” often shortened to “Sirach.” It was written by a Jewish sage in the early 2nd century BC, just before the events narrated in the Books of Maccabees. Sirach wrote his book in Hebrew, but his grandson translated it into Greek fifty years later. From there, it became part of the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint).

Old Testament Saints

In chapters 44-50, Sirach celebrates a roster of famous men of Old Testament history, from Enoch (Genesis 5:22-24) to Josiah (2 Kings 21-23). Sirach exalts those leaders of great zeal and excises those who fell away from God, including most of the kings of Israel. He concludes his roster by jumping forward 500 years to an encomium of the high priest Simon II (219-196 BC). Sirach says that, just as King Josiah cleansed the First Temple, Simon repaired and fortified God’s house. He says, “How“glorious he was when the people gathered around him as he came out of the inner sanctuary!” (Sirach 50:5).

New Testament Saints

When the New Testament picks up the theme of praise of the saints, it introduces a new category, a group only briefly alluded to in Sirach: the unfamous martyrs. In chapter 11 of the Epistle to the Hebrews, the author presents a similar roster of the heroes of faith. He adds a new group to the famous victors of Israel: those “made strong out of weakness.”

Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, sawn in two, and killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering about in deserts, mountains, dens, and caves of the earth. (Hebrews 11:35-39)

Cloud of Witnesses

The author of Hebrews describes his list as the “cloud of witnesses.” These are those who were “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who, for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Where Sirach looked to a high priest in all his glorious apparel, Hebrews looks to Christ, the heavenly high priest, who “having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28).

Revelation’s Famous Saints

The Book of Revelation gives a final vision of the unfamous saints, which is the second reading assigned for All Saints Day:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”… Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9-11,13-14)

In John’s vision, all the elect are wearing the same white robes of purity, and they are also all martyrs, having washed their robes white through Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice on the Cross.

Saints in the Anglican Tradition

St. Paul begins his letters addressing the “saints” in a particular local church. The Church came to confess the “communion of saints,” including those on earth (the “Church Militant”) and those in heaven (the “Church Triumphant”).  Anglicans have traditionally honored the famous saints and martyrs; see the commemorations in the 2019 Book of Common Prayer, pages 691-712. However, they observe All Saints Day especially to recall those who, in Sirach’s case, “have no memorial, who have perished as though they had not lived.” We also remember in our weekly Prayers of the People the persecuted Church, the current multitude of believers living under the threat of obscure and imminent death.

Taken into the secular sphere, the unfamous men include the impoverished of Appalachia, memorialized by Agee and Walker, and those dead soldiers “known only to God” honored on November 11 at Arlington National Cemetery.

There is much more to the Wisdom of Sirach than these final chapters. For those who would like a chapter-by-chapter guide to the book, I commend Wise Lives (Conciliar Press, 2009) by my former colleague and Orthodox priest, Patrick Henry Reardon.


Next month, Dr. Noll will post an article on the Book of Judith. Need a copy of the Apocrypha? Check out the ESV Bible with Apocrypha from Anglican House Publishers.


Image: Secret Book of Honor of the Fuggers, made in the workshop of Jörg Breu the Elder (1545–1549). First page depicting the high priest Jesus Sirach. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Published on

October 25, 2023

Author

Stephen Noll

The Rev. Dr. Stephen Noll is Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry.

View more from Stephen Noll

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