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Ecclesiastes is a book of the Hebrew Bible whose title is derived from the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew title: קֹהֶלֶת (variously transliterated as Qoheleth, Qohelethh, Kohelet, Koheles, Koheleth, or Coheleth). (The Hebrew title, which is often translated as "the Preacher" or "the leader of the assembly" is discussed below.) The author represents himself as Solomon, the son of David and king over Israel in Jerusalem—an obvious attribution, given Solomon's characterization as the wisest monarch in Israelite history (cf. 1:1, 1:12, 1:16, 2:7, 2:9).
The work, which can be typologically identified as wisdom literature, consists of a loosely-organized collection of meditations on the ultimate meaning of life. In contrast to the vast majority of biblical texts, the book takes a largely nihilistic stance, emphatically proclaiming that all human actions are inherently "vain," "futile," "empty," and "meaningless," as the lives of both the wise and the foolish end in death. While the teacher clearly promotes wisdom for the enjoyment of an earthly life, he is unable to ascribe eternal meaning to it. In light of this perceived senselessness, the preacher suggests that one should enjoy the simple pleasures of daily life, such as eating, drinking, and taking enjoyment in one's wife and work—all of which are characterized as gifts from God. This philosophical tone is challenged in the postscript to the book (12:13-14), which partially undermines the previous reflections by implicitly suggesting that God's justice and judgment make such suppositions irrelevant.
In Jewish society, Ecclesiastes is read on the Shabbat of the Intermediate Days of Sukkot, a harvest holiday. If there is no Intermediate Sabbath of Sukkot, it is read on Shemini Atzeret or (in Israel) on the first Shabbat of Sukkot.
Torah | Nevi'im | Ketuvim
Books of Ketuvim
|Three Poetic Books|
|4. Song of Songs|
The Hebrew קהלת (Qohelet), the original title for the Book of Ecclesiastes, is a feminine participle related to the root קהל ("to gather"). Scholars are unsure whether it means the "one who gathers" or the "one among the gathering." From the time of the Septuagint translation onward, the title of the book has been derived from the Greek term Εκκλησία (ecclesia), which originally denoted secular gatherings, but later came to be seen in a primarily religious context.
While previous translators have suggested that Qohelet could be fittingly translated as The Preacher (as in Saint Jerome's Ecclesiastes and Martin Luther's Der Prediger), this term implies a religious characterization that is not inherently reflected in the text. A better alternative is "teacher," as "a teacher not only assembles information to convey to students but also carries out this function in an assembly, perhaps even in a place of congregational worship." However, this rendition is not without its own issues, as "there are other perfectly good and far more common Hebrew words for "teacher," … and whether qohelet would have been understood as a synonym for any of them is difficult to judge because this title occurs only in the book of Ecclesiastes." Regardless, it is this reading that is assumed in the exegesis below.
In the two opening chapters of the text, the author describes himself as the "son of David" and king over Israel in Jerusalem. This could apply only to Solomon, for his successors in Jerusalem were kings over Judah only. Consequently, the traditional Rabbinic and early Christian view uncritically attributed Ecclesiastes to King Solomon.
This view has been abandoned by many modern critical scholars, who now assume that Qoheleth is a work in the pseudepigraphical tradition that used the name of a well-known sage to add gravitas to their composition. Though there is, as of yet, no scholarly consensus on the dating of Ecclesiastes, different textual and philological schools have proposed a continuum of possibilities ranging from the fourth century to the second century B.C.E. Many of these scholars suggest that Ecclesiastes was written around 250 B.C.E. by a non-Hellenized intellectual in the milieu of the Temple in Jerusalem. Regardless of this debate, the latest possible date for the text is set by the fact that Ben Sirach repeatedly quotes or paraphrases it, using it as a canonical (rather than contemporary) writing.
Despite the lack of scholarly consensus on the dating of Ecclesiastes, the language and style of the text certainly provide clues into its historical and cultural context.
Lexicographically, the text's vocabulary is not compatible with "Solomonic-authorship" hypothesis, as its Hebrew contains features that only developed in later Semetic writings. Specifically, it borrows several terms from the Persian language, and incorporates vocabulary and constructions from Aramaic, both of which are characteristic of later Hebrew.
Stylistically, the text can be seen as a Hebrew rendition of wisdom literature—a ubiquitous genre in the ancient Middle East. In this literary mode, whose Mesopotamian, Persian, Egyptian and Hellenistic exponents were well known in the ancient Israelite world, readers were offered aphoristic wisdom, theological debates, and advice for living "the good life." Though some scholars argue that the purpose of Ecclesiastes was expose the fundamental inadequacy of this paradigm, it is undeniable that the conventions of the genre had a profound influence on the development and organization of the text.
Though Ecclesiastes has been a part of the Hebrew Bible since its canonization, its presence was often contested. Some of the issues with it include its seemingly-nihilistic perspective, its dearth of references to the Divine, and its predominantly negative view of death (and the afterlife). As noted by Jastrow and Margoliouth,
Indeed, the second paragraph quoted above discusses the text's seeming incompatibility with the thirteenth of Maimonides' Thirteen Principles of Faith, the "belief in the resurrection of the dead." Though Ecclesiastes evidently precedes Maimonides, this disjunction simply highlights the problematic nature of the text. These difficulties are well summarized by Bandstra:
Despite the issues surrounding the text's canonization, Ecclesiastes appears to be in harmony with other Scriptures in most situations where they treat the same subjects. For instance, it agrees with Genesis that a human is composed of the dust of the ground and a sustaining spirit from God (Ecclesiastes 3:20, 21; 12:7; Genesis 2:7; 7:22; Isaiah 42:5). Likewise, Ecclesiastes affirms the Torah's teaching that man was created essentially good and upright, but that he willfully chose to disobey God (Ecclesiastes 7:29; Genesis 1:31; 3:17; Deuteronomy 32:4, 5). Ecclesiastes also acknowledges God as the Creator (Ecclesiastes 12:1; Genesis 1:1), though the references are not necessarily specific to the Israelite deity.
Throughout its twelve chapters, the book of Ecclesiastes uses the expression haelohim ("the God") 32 times. Intriguingly, this does not necessarily imply a Jewish provenance for the text:
In other words, the more conventional YHWH is not used, though almost no modern scholars think that the book was written in Aramaic or Phoenician.
A great portion of the book concerns itself with death. The author emphatically affirms human mortality, going so far as to say that the dead in sheol know nothing. He mentions no resurrection. In fact, it is the lack of consequences after death that lead the author to advocate enjoying life while you can. Martin Luther and certain other Christian leaders have quoted these verses in defense of the doctrine that the soul sleeps between death and resurrection. A meaningless life followed by oblivion is consistent with the purport of much (though not all) of the rest of the Tanakh as to the state of the dead (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10; Genesis 3:19; Psalms 6:5; 115:17). This view that "death is oblivion" stands in contrast to later descriptions of the afterlife, such as gehenna, the bosom of Abraham, and the resurrection of the dead, all of which developed in later Jewish thought.
Qoheleth's stated aim is to understand the living of a good (read: meaningful) life, a task that is strongly compatible with the general purposes of Wisdom Literature. This humanistic program is immediately scuttled by the realities of corporeal existence, as the text suggests that all worldly achievements are nullified by the inevitability of death. As such, Qoheleth concludes that life (and everything in it) is senseless. In light of this conclusion, Qoheleth advises his audience to make the most of life, for there is no guaranteed technique for securing favorable outcomes in the future—a perspective that has been compared to Epicureanism.
The author's seeming nihilism is reflected in the refrain that both opens and closes the text: "Utterly senseless" says Qoheleth, "Utterly senseless, everything is senseless!" The word translated senseless, הבל (hevel), literally means vapor, breath. As Qoheleth uses it metaphorically, its precise meaning remains extensively debated. Older English translation often render it vanity, though this term has been rendered less relevant at present due to the loss of its connotation of emptiness. Some translations use the literal rendering vapor of vapors and so claim to leave the interpretation to the reader. Intriguingly, this perspective does not diminish the author's opinion of God's role in the world. Instead, it simply circumscribes the extent to which humans can understand the Divine Will (and the created existence built around it):
What does the worker gain from his toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him. …As for men, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Man's fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth (3:9-14, 18-21).
The relationship between this life-denying (or at least wisdom-denying) thesis and the body of the text is cogently summarized by Towner:
Eccelsiastes is not a book about God; it is a book about ideas. That is why one speaks of its ideology in the presence of its theology. Its ideas are about human survival in a world in which work is pain, overwork is foolish, pleasure soon pales in the fact of death, and wisdom is unable to comprehend even the simplest sequences that would make possible real understanding of the world. Such a world is absurd. Yet life in the face of the absurd did not create a Quohelet who, with desperate shouts of carpe diem, merely snatches a few shreds of superficial happiness. …No, he comes forward as the Teacher, with sober and caring countenance, ready to help his pupils deal with such a world. He holds God in profound respect but will never claim to know too much about God. Above all he will not commit God to the program of distributive justice that Job's friends advocated. Is his God just, then? Is his God even good? Qohelet does not tell us, perhaps he cannot tell us. His is not a book about God.
Ultimately, the author (or editor) of Ecclesiates relies on a theological deus ex machina to subvert the text's carefully outlined cynicism/defeatism: "The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone" (12:13). Some argue that these two last verses were an addition to the original script, as they seem to contradict its message. Others suggest that they actually provide a sense of theological completion to the volume by contrasting worldly reality (which is "in vain") with the work of God.
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