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Ben Sira’s disbelief in the Afterlife and it’s relevance to Orthodox Judaism

One chief claim of Orthodox Judaism is that of doctrinal continuity. That the core doctrines of the movement are the same as it was in Ancient times. This claim is highly doubtful. Ben Sira is an example Second Temple author whose views on the Afterlife will be examined here. It will become evident that he doesn’t believe in much of an afterlife. This would be a core doctrinal shift from Ben Sira to current Orthodox Judaism and therefore problematic.

I present the following lines in Ben Sira as evidence of disbelief in an afterlife with an emphasis on the most important parts:

My child, treat yourself well, according to your means,
and present worthy offerings to the Lord.
Remember that death does not tarry,
and the decree of Hades has not been shown to you.
Do good to friends before you die,
and reach out and give to them as much as you can.
Do not deprive yourself of a day’s enjoyment;
do not let your share of desired good pass by you.
Will you not leave the fruit of your labors to another,
and what you acquired by toil to be divided by lot?
Give, and take, and indulge yourself,
because in Hades one cannot look for luxury.
All living beings become old like a garment,
for the decree from of old is, “You must die!”
Like abundant leaves on a spreading tree
that sheds some and puts forth others,
so are the generations of flesh and blood:
one dies and another is born.
Every work decays and ceases to exist,
and the one who made it will pass away with it. (Sira 14:11-19)
Turn back to the Lord and forsake your sins;
pray in his presence and lessen your offense.
Return to the Most High and turn away from iniquity,
and hate intensely what he abhors.
Who will sing praises to the Most High in Hades
in place of the living who give thanks?
From the dead, as from one who does not exist, thanksgiving has ceased;
those who are alive and well sing the Lord’s praises.
How great is the mercy of the Lord,
and his forgiveness for those who return to him!
For not everything is within human capability,
since human beings are not immortal.
What is brighter than the sun? Yet it can be eclipsed.
So flesh and blood devise evil.
He marshals the host of the height of heaven;
but all human beings are dust and ashes. (17:25-32)
O death, how bitter is the thought of you
to the one at peace among possessions,
who has nothing to worry about and is prosperous in everything,
and still is vigorous enough to enjoy food!
O death, how welcome is your sentence
to one who is needy and failing in strength,
worn down by age and anxious about everything;
to one who is contrary, and has lost all patience!
Do not fear death’s decree for you;
remember those who went before you and those who will come after.
This is the Lord’s decree for all flesh;
why then should you reject the will of the Most High?
Whether life lasts for ten years or a hundred or a thousand,
there are no questions asked in Hades. (41:1-4)

Some verses may be proposed to support the concept of an afterlife but the cases are weak at best for this. One suggested verse is Ben Sira 11:26 but in context this is clearly not referring to post-mortem punishment but rather to how people die.

On the day of prosperity, adversity is forgotten,
and in the day of adversity, prosperity is not remembered.
For it is easy for the Lord on the day of death
to reward individuals according to their conduct.
An hour’s misery makes one forget past delights,
and at the close of one’s life one’s deeds are revealed.
Call no one happy before his death;
by how he ends, a person becomes known. (11:25-28)

Another reference used is 7:17 which reads in the Greek

Humble yourself to the utmost,
for the punishment of the ungodly is fire and worms.

However the Hebrew (represented in some Cairo Geniza manuscripts) reads

“Lower your pride to the greatest extent as man’s hope is worms.”1

Another possible reference is 21:9 which in context reads

Whoever builds his house with other people’s money
is like one who gathers stones for his burial mound.
An assembly of the wicked is like a bundle of tow,
and their end is a blazing fire.
The way of sinners is paved with smooth stones,
but at its end is the pit of Hades. (21:8-10)

This can be interpreted as referring to the death (“end”) of sinners in accordance with the verses in Chapter 11. I believe it to therefore be evident that Ben Sira didn’t believe in an afterlife which is as elaborated above theologically problematic for Orthodox Jews who do not embrace the concept of progressive revelation.

[1] Pancratius Cornelis Beentjes, The Book of Ben Sira in Hebrew: A Text Edition of All Extant Hebrew Manuscripts and a Synopsis of All Parallel Hebrew Ben Sira Texts, 135

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