Ecclesiastes, Book of
ECCLESIASTES, BOOK OF
A sapiential book of the Old Testament canon. This article discusses the meaning of the name, the origin and unity of the book, and the author's teaching.
The Name. The initial phrase, the words of Qoheleth (Heb. dibrê qōhelet ), forms the title in the Hebrew text of Ecclesiastes. Throughout the book the word qōhelet occurs seven times (1.1, 2, 12; 7.27; 12.8, 9, 10), always with reference to the author of the work, very much as though it were a proper name. The word is related to qāhāl, which means "congregation" or "community." Already the Septuagint translator was perplexed by the term and contributed to its enigmatic character by the choice of an obscure Greek word ἐκκλησιαστής; this term, rare in Greek literature and designating a member of the citizen's assembly, is sometimes translated as preacher. Not having a more acceptable solution to the problem, St. Jerome simply transliterated the Greek word for the title of the book in the Vulgate. The style, mood, and purpose of the author are hardly such as to warrant the title preacher.
Origin, Linguistic Characteristics, and Literary Unity. For centuries Solomon was regarded as the author of this book because of the statements in 1.1, 12, and the general argument of the first two chapters. This view has been universally abandoned; now it is generally agreed that the book comes from a much later period. It has been assigned by critics to every century from that of Zerubbabel to that of herod the great, but the present trend is to date its composition in early Hellenistic times, c. 300 to 275 b.c. The author's apparent ignorance of belief in a resurrection of the dead excludes a date so late as the times of the Maccabees (2nd century b.c.). An earlier date is excluded because, among other reasons, his subjective, individualistic approach would not have been in character during monarchic times when community and national interests were paramount.
The language of Qoheleth is not the Hebrew of the Prophets. An analysis of the text provides an abundance of forms, words, and constructions that are Aramaic in nature or related to that idiom. For several decades one school of thought has advanced the hypothesis that Qoheleth in its present form is a translation from an Aramaic original (e.g., F. C. Burkitt, F. Zimmermann, C. C. Torrey, and H. L. Ginsberg), whereas the case against the translation theory has been defended by R. Gordis, among others (see bibliography). The linguistic problem may be answered by suggesting that Qoheleth was thoroughly conversant with Aramaic and used it as a vernacular tongue, while employing Hebrew in its contemporary state of transition to the later Mishnaic form for his lectures and the composition of his work.
The author's style, even as his thought, follows no neat pattern. Much is prose, although a prose that at times tends to become metrical under a load of poetic nuances. There are proverbs of the traditional type, some original and some from popular wisdom tradition [see wisdom (in the bible)]; statements seemingly contrary to each other are juxtaposed, and the reader is left to think out the answer; or Qoheleth cites a proverb and immediately adds his own evaluation. It is with this last form that he is most at home (4.9–12; 7.1–14; 9.4–6).
The question of the book's literary unity has become almost a historical one. Because of the author's seemingly unorthodox questioning of accepted orthodox religious and moral standards and because of the peculiarities of language and style, scholars at the beginning of the 20th century favored hypotheses of multiple authorship. The characteristics of the work are now seen from a more profound psychological and historical viewpoint and are interpreted as prime indications of the book's literary unity. Apart from a few evident exceptions, e.g., the opening words in 1.1, the epilogue in 12.9–14, and perhaps the words, "says Qoheleth," in 1.2; 7.27; 12.8, unity of authorship is now generally maintained.
Content and Teaching. Although Ecclesiastes does have a specific theme, an orderly, logical development of that theme is not in evidence. Perhaps the reader would be more sympathetic to the author on this score, if he would visualize the author as a sage advanced in years musing on his favorite subject, now and then glancing at notes made during years of teaching. As once his school audience, so now his readers may best regard his statements as pearls of wisdom that need no further literary framework to enhance their value.
If there is a key to the understanding of Ecclesiastes, it is to be found in the third verse of the book: "What profit has man from all the labor which he toils at under the sun?" Qoheleth had sought to plumb the depths of the mystery of life from the viewpoint of its ultimate worth. He desperately sought for what is permanent, lasting, stable—and failed to find it. Like Augustine, Qoheleth had a "restless heart;" unlike Augustine he was not favored with the revelation that the human heart is destined to quiet its restlessness in the divine embrace. By observation and experience he had come to know, not that there is no profit at all in human objectives, but that the fullness of an enduring and satisfying good is simply not to be had.
The author covers various areas of human interest and effort, namely, wealth, pleasure, wisdom, work, government, family relationships, worship, business, women, loyalty, prudence, knowledge—and ever finds the same answer; none of these yields an ultimate value, none provides a lasting, limitless satisfaction. Even the best of them, wisdom, is undone by death. Therefore all is elemental vanity, nothingness, a chasing after wind.
Nevertheless, Qoheleth remains a sober, humble realist. He knows God has a plan in the universe of things, even though man is unable to piece that plan together. Injustice, death, misery, and folly do not place his religious faith in jeopardy. The disciple who added the final six verses to his master's musings, may well have reflected his teacher's deepest conviction: "Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is man's all; because God will bring to judgment every work, with all its hidden qualities, whether good or bad" (12.13–14).
There exists no evidence concerning Qoheleth's direct contribution to the development of the doctrine of retribution in afterlife or of blessed immortality. Nevertheless, his trenchant, devastating formulation of the inadequacy of the traditional teaching on retribution in this life, together with his probing of the heart's undying desire for limitless possession of truth, goodness, and happiness cannot but have contributed to the evolution toward the belief in an afterlife.
Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) 615–617. v. hamp, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner (Freiberg 1957–65) 8:704. k. galing and w. werbeck, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Tübingen 1957–65) 5:510–514. r. gordis, Koheleth: The Man and His World (New York 1951); "The Original Language of Qohelet," Jewish Quarterly Review 37 (1946–47) 67–84; "The Translation-Theory of Qohelet Reexamined," ibid. 40 (1949–50) 103–116; "Qohelet and Qumran: A Study of Style," Biblica 41 (1960) 395–410. c. c. torrey, "The Question of the Original Language of Qoheleth," Jewish Quarterlly Review 39 (1948–49) 151–160. h. l. ginsberg, Studies in Koheleth (New York 1950); "The Structure and Content …," Vetus Testamentum 3 (1955) 138–149. r. patruel, L'Ecclésiaste (new ed. Bible de Jérusalem ; 1958). w. zimmerli, Die Weisheit des Predigers Salamo (Berlin 1936). a. miller, "Aufbau und Grundproblem des Predigers," Miscellanea Biblica 2 (Rome 1934) 104–132. d. buzy, "La Notion de bonheur dans l'Ecclésiaste," Revue biblique 43 (1934) 494–511. p. w. skehan, The Literary Relationship between the Book of Wisdom and the Protocanonical Wisdom Books of the O.T. (Washington 1938).
[w. g. heidt]