Ecclesiastes, Kohelet in Hebrew, is a book of the Hebrew Bible, known to Jews as the Tanakh and to Christians as the Old Testament. The title derives from the Greek translation of the Hebrew title: קהלת (variously transliterated as Qoheleth, Qohelethh, Kohelet, Koheleth, or even Coheleth).
The author represents himself as the son of David, and king over Israel in Jerusalem (1:1, 12, 16; 2:7, 9). The work consists of personal or autobiographic matter, largely expressed in aphorisms and maxims illuminated in terse paragraphs with reflections on the meaning of life and the best way of life. There is a long excursus on death.
"Kohelet" and "Ecclesiastes"
The Hebrew קהלת is related to the root קהל meaning "to gather." Thus the nominal form קהל means "gathering, congregation." The Hebrew קהלת is probably a title (rather than a name) referring to one who gathers something. That something, given the context, is probably either aphorisms or a group of people for the purposes of instruction in wisdom.
The English title of the book, Ecclesiastes, comes from the Septuagint translation of Qoholet, Εκκλησιαστής. It has its origins in the Greek word Εκκλησία (originally a secular gathering, although later used primarily of religious gatherings, hence its New Testament translation as church).
The word Qoheleth has found several translations into English, including "the Preacher" (translating Jerome's ecclesiastes and Luther's der Prediger). Since preacher implies a religious function, and the contents of the book do not reflect such a function, this translation has largely been rejected by modern translations and scholars. A better alternative is teacher, although this also fails to capture the fundamental idea behind the Hebrew.
In the two opening chapters the author describes himself as the son of David, and king over Israel in Jerusalem, presenting himself as a philosopher at the center of a brilliant court. This could apply only to king Solomon, for his successors in Jerusalem were kings over Judah only. Consequently, the traditional Rabbinic and early Christian view attributed Ecclesiastes to king Solomon. This view has been abandoned by many modern scholars, who now assume that Qoheleth is a work in the pseudepigraphical tradition that borrowed weight for a new work by putting it in the mouth of a well-known sage. The modern view is that Ecclesiastes was written around 250 BCE by a non-Hellenized intellectual in the milieu of the Temple in Jerusalem. The latest possible date for it is set by the fact that Ben Sirach (written cca 180 BCE) repeatedly quotes or paraphrases it, as from a canonic rather than a contemporary writing.
The Hebrew of Ecclesiastes was not common in the era of Solomonís reign, and the book contains words borrowed from other languages. For example, the book contains several Aramaic and Persian words. The influence of these two languages is characteristic of late Hebrew, and is thought to have occurred after Jerusalem was taken captive by Babylonian forces in 607 BCE. However, the use of these languages could also be a reference by the author to the language skills Solomon would have accumulated through his development of international trade and industry, as well as from traveling dignitaries and other contacts with the outside world (1 Kings 4:30, 34; 9:26-28; 10:1, 23, 24).
Dominic Rudman, Determinism in the Book of Ecclesiastes (JSOTSup. 316; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001, p. 13) cites the modern commentaries supporting this dating.
"Most current commentators e.g., R. N. Whybray, Ecclesiastes [NCB Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1989] 4-12) argue for a mid-tolate-third-century date. Others, among them N. Lohfink (Kohelet [NEchtB; Wurzburg: Echter Verlag, 1980] 7) and C. E Whitley (Koheleth: His Language and Thought [BZAW 148; Berlin/ New York: de Gruyter, 1979] 132-46), have suggested an early- or mid-second-century background."
Placement in canon
The book of Ecclesiastes uses the expression haelohim, "the God", 32 times. Clarkeís Commentary, Volume III, page 799, states: The book, entitled Koheleth, or Ecclesiastes, has ever been received, both by the Jewish and Christian Church, as written under the inspiration of the Almighty; and was held to be properly a part of the sacred canon.
Ecclesiastes also appears in harmony with other Scriptures where they treat the same subjects. It agrees with Genesis on manís being made up of a body composed of the dust of the ground and having the spirit (or life-force) from God and the breath that sustains it (Ecclesiastes 3:20, 21; 12:7; Genesis 2:7; 7:22; Isaiah 42:5). Ecclesiastes also affirms the Bible teaching that man was created perfect and upright but 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). Also, Ecclesiastes concurs with the rest of the Hebrew Bible as to the state of the dead (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10; Genesis 3:19; Psalms 6:5; 115:17).
Qoheleth's stated aim is to find out how to ensure one benefits in life, an aim in accord with the general purposes of Wisdom Literature. For Qoheleth, however, any possible advantage in life is destroyed by the inevitability of death. As such, Qoheleth concludes that life (and everything) is senseless. In light of this conclusion, Qoheleth advises his audience to make the most of life, to seize the day, for there is no way to secure favorable outcomes in the future. Although this latter conclusion has sometimes been compared to Epicureanism, for Qoheleth it comes about as the inevitable result of his failure to make sense of existence.
This conclusion is reflected in the refrain which both opens and closes Qoheleth's words:
- "Utterly senseless" says Qoheleth, "Utterly senseless, everything is senseless!"
The word translated senseless, הבל, literally means vapor, breath. Qoheleth uses it metaphorically, and its precise meaning is extensively debated. Older English translation often render it vanity, but in modern usage this word has come to mean "self-pride" and lost its Latinate connotation of emptiness and is thus no longer appropriate. Other translations include meaningless, absurd, fleeting or senseless. Some translations use the literal rendering vapor of vapors and so claim to leave the interpretation to the reader.
- Few certain allusions to "Ecclesiastes" arise in the New Testament. Romans 8:20 is the most commonly cited allusion: "For the creation was subjected to futility..." (where futility renders the Greek word used in the Septuagint to render the Hebrew hebel.
- The poem about times in Eccl. 3:1-8 is also well known as the inspiration for the Pete Seeger song, "Turn! Turn! Turn!", recorded by The Byrds.
- The protagonist in Roger Zelazny's 1963 Hugo award-nominated short story A Rose for Ecclesiastes uses quotations from Ecclesiastes to great emotional effect.
See also: Bible, Tanakh.
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