A note on the readings for today’s commemoration

Readers will have noticed that the Old Testament Lesson appointed for the commemoration of Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, is taken from Ecclesiasticus (not Ecclesiastes), also known as the Wisdom of Jesus the son of Sirach, or simply, Sirach.  Jesus (Yeshua, Joshua) ben Sira was a teacher who had lived in Jerusalem and who probably authored the book bearing his name at Alexandria, Egypt, where there was a thriving and very large Jewish diaspora community, in the early second century BC.

Though the book was not accepted into the Hebrew canon by the late first century (AD) council of Jamnia, it was included in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible made by Jewish scholars at Alexandria and completed in the late second century BC.  Because of its conclusion in the Septuagint (most of the Old Testament passages quoted in the New Testament are taken from the Septuagint), Sirach was included in the biblical canon by most of the early Church, its frequent use leading to its being called the liber ecclesiasticus, the book of the Church, hence the name by which it is most often known.  The book is included in the Deuterocanon (the “second” canon, alongside the canonical Hebrew books) by the Roman Catholic Church and in the Old Testament canon of the Orthodox Churches (they receive the Septuagint as the authoritative, God-inspired Greek translation of the Old Testament) and in the canon of most of the Oriental Orthodox Churches.  Protestants and Anglicans include Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) among the books of the Apocrypha (a Greek word that means, “those that have been hidden away”).  The Church Father Jerome (ca 347-420), the writer of the Vulgate, the more cultured Latin translation of the Bible that replaced earlier, more crude versions and that became the standard text of the Bible throughout the Middle Ages in the West, considered the apocryphal, or deuterocanonical books to be of lesser authority than those of the Hebrew canon.  (Jerome had consulted with Jewish rabbis in Palestine on the Hebrew texts while he was working on his translation.)

While most Churches of the Reformation (Lutheran, Reformed and Presbyterian, Anabaptist, and their denominational offspring) do not read the books of the Apocrypha in public worship, the English Reformers, in keeping with a stance of essential liturgical conservatism, kept some of the readings from the Apocryphal books in the liturgy. Both Luther’s German Bible and the King James Version (the Authorized Version) include the books of the Apocrypha. The current Prayer Book lectionary and the Revised Common Lectionary preserve a number of readings from the deuterocanonical books, both in the eucharistic lectionary for Sundays and holy days and in the Daily Office lectionary.  Anglican belief about the deuterocanonical books, drawing on St Jerome, is stated in Article VI of the Articles of Religion, “Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation” (p. 868, 1979 Prayer Book).  After listing the canonical books of the Old Testament, the article continues

And the other Books (as Hierome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners, but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine;

Given this belief about the particular authority of the deuterocanonical (Apocryphal) books, after concluding a reading from one of these books, the reader should say the alternative response, “Here ends the Lesson”, to which there is no congregational response.

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