Aesthetic Divine Encounter: Ben Sira’s Ekphrasis on Simon ben Onias in Light of Greco-Roman Epiphanic Strategies

In Sirach 50.5–17, the ekphrastic description of the glorious appearance of Simon ben Onias is followed by the assertion that all of Israel worshipped God while facing the high priest. This paper explores the possibility that the Israelites’ visual encounter with the high priest is in part what incites them to worship God. What precisely about the aesthetic beauty of the high priest could engender this kind of response? I provide a partial answer to this question by situating Sirach’s ekphrastic description in the context of Greco-Roman artistic techniques used in crafting cult statues. Drawing upon Verity Platt’s work on epiphany in Greco-Roman religion (2011), I propose a taxonomy of epiphanic strategies in Greco-Roman religion to capture how cult images were intended to bring their viewers to worship. Two of these strategies are what I call ‘symbolic depiction’—presenting an image that symbolises an attribute of the god—and ‘economic depiction’—making visual something the god has done in the world. I demonstrate how these strategies are used in two texts which discuss idol-crafting, namely Philostratus’ Life of Apollonius of Tyana and Dio Chrysostom’s twelfth oration. For both Philostratus and Dio, a proper visual depiction of a god must be as comprehensive as possible, not only visualising a god’s form but also providing symbolic or direct representation of a god’s attributes, actions, and associations. Both Dio’s and Philostratus’ accounts exhibit the conviction that viewing a well-crafted cult image is more effective in inciting worship than pondering or encountering any individual aspect of that god—precisely because cult images are able to allocate these distinct aspects and bring them all into view at once. This technique of allocating multiple aspects of a god in one image sheds light on the connection between aesthetics and worship in Ben Sira 50.5–17. Ben Sira conveys Simon’s appearance as aesthetically resembling numerous symbols of God’s creative works and actions in history: he resembles the star, moon, and sun (creative works) (50.6–7); the rainbow (symbolising God’s commitment to sustain creation) (50.7); the living plants that fill the earth (indicating the life God has given creation) (50.8); and cultic items such as incense and the golden vessels (highlighting that God dwells with his people) (50.9). He also wears on his breastplate the ‘stones of favour’ bearing the names of the twelve tribes, thus signalling God’s favour upon Israel (50.9). Since both the created order and his acts in history exhibit God as worthy of worship, the visual representation of these various divine works in the high priest’s appearance should naturally bring those who gaze at him to worship. This reading elucidates the connections between visuality and worship, demonstrating one way that the high priest might ‘embody’ God. My analysis also brings Judaism and Greco-Roman religion into closer contact by suggesting that, despite the aniconic polemic in many Second Temple Jewish texts, Ben Sira intended to provoke his readers to worship by utilising the same epiphanic techniques as some of those who crafted idols.