Friday, December 25, 2009

APOCRYPHA WATCH: Some weird, but I suppose seasonally-relevant, medieval Ben Sira apocrypha (which I guess counts as meta-apocrypha?) is noted by Michael Handelzalts in his Pen Ultimate column in Haaretz. This in the context of a discussion of the origins of the term "New Testament" in a phrase first used by the prophet Jeremiah.
The birth of Jesus commemorated on Christmas Day is a result of virginal conception by Mary. In the context of Jeremiah and the New Testament, it is particularly relevant to note here that there was a virginal conception in his own family as well (more of which anon).

One of the apocryphal books of the Bible - the third collection of writings (the so-called Apocrypha) - is the book of Ecclesiasticus (not to be confused with Ecclesiastes, or Kohelet, in the Old Testament). It is a book, as stated in its prologue, of "[the wisdom of] Jesus, as he himself witnesseth, [who] was a man of great diligence and wisdom among the Hebrews, who did not only gather the grave and short sentences of wise men, that had been before him, but himself also uttered some of his own, full of much understanding and wisdom. When as therefore the first Jesus died, leaving this book almost perfected, Sirach his son receiving it after him left it to his own son Jesus, who, having gotten it into his hands, compiled it all orderly into one volume."

Ecclesiasticus is not part of the Jewish canon, of course, but a book attributed to Ben Sira is mentioned by the Hebrew sages. It includes two collections, one in Aramaic and the other in Hebrew, of proverbs and pearls of wisdom, arranged in alphabetical order, written or compiled probably in the 11th century. In the preface to the second collection is the story of Ben Sira himself. Born with the ability to speak (and thus to argue with his teachers from a very early age, like Jesus did with the doctors), Ben Sira was the son of Jeremiah's daughter - and the fruit of virginal conception. Since she was virtuous and could not have sinned, the assumption was that she fell pregnant while immersing herself in a ritual bath, by the seed of a male who bathed in it beforehand.

Ben Sira claims - verbally to his mother, but elsewhere in writing - that he is the son of Jeremiah himself. Of course, we only have his word on this, but he says the prophet was forced by wicked men from the tribe of Ephraim, to whom Jeremiah had preached against spilling their seed in the bath, to perform that act himself under the threat of being sodomized. The prophet's seed thus impregnated his own daughter. (Incidentally, the book of Ben Sira is used by rabbis as a basis for halakhic rulings on the use of artificial insemination.)

To make a short story long, it is possible to see in Ben Sira's book a later, Jewish parody of the story of the virginal conception of Jesus, which is the cause for worldwide celebration today. And this is a fitting coda to our discussion of the new covenant - a term first used in the Old Testament.
The chronology of the story doesn't work: Jeremiah lived in the seventh-sixth centuries BCE and Ben Sira in the third-second. But apocrypha frequently do not trouble themselves much about such matters.