The Book of Ecclesiastes

1. The text of Ecclesiastes

The primary source of the text of Ecclesiastes, as of any other Old Testament book, is a text-form established in or near the first century AD, vocalized and annotated by Massoretes (‘ transmitters’) c. AD 500– 1000, known as the Massoretic text. This was originally written in a consonantal form, but from the sixth century onwards several systems of vocalization arose. In the ninth and tenth centuries one of these, the Tiberian system, became the standard and is still used by Old Testament scholars. The text printed in Biblica Hebraica Stuttgartensia (1970) is that of a manuscript dated AD 1008, a copy of a text produced by the Tiberian textual scholar Ben Asher in the tenth century. Any student of the Old Testament must start from the Massoretic text but, because of inevitable copyists’ errors, must take into account other Hebrew texts that may be known and ancient translations which had access to earlier texts. 

In the case of Ecclesiastes we are fortunate to have four pieces of manuscript discovered at Qumran and published in 1954,2 containing fragments of chs. 5  –   7. On the basis of style of script these have been dated in the mid-second century BC. Most of the variations are purely orthographic. In addition Muilenburg lists ten places where the Qumran text differs from the Massoretic text. The Qumran text (4Q Ec) reads ‘for’ instead of ‘as’ at 5: 14, omits ‘and’ at 5: 15 and 7: 6, reverses the order of two words in 6: 3, has ‘house of pleasure’ insead of ‘house of drinking’ at 7: 2, has ‘corrupt’ instead of ‘destroy’ in 7: 7, ‘help’ instead of ‘strengthen’ in 7: 19, and slight variations with virtually no change of meaning in 6: 4, 6; 7: 4.3 None of this amounts to very much, and the manuscript tends generally to confirm the reliability of the Massoretic tradition.

Another source of textual evidence is provided by the ancient translations of the Old Testament. The most important of these is the Greek Septuagint (LXX), probably translated in stages beginning with the Pentateuch in the third   century and substantially completed by the late second century BC. It is uncertain at what date Ecclesiastes was translated. O.   Eissfeldt claims that Ben Sira had all of the law, the prophets and the writings before him in Greek c. 130 BC, 4 whereas D. Barthélemy claims that the LXX Ecclesiastes is in fact the work of Aquila, who produced a rival Greek translation in the second century AD. 5 The LXX translation is quite literal and generally bears witness to the Massoretic tradition.

The Syriac version, known as the Peshitta, was made in the early or middle second century AD.

Another witness is Jerome’s fourth-century Vulgate, a revision of an earlier Latin version. Although the Vulgate is a translation of the Hebrew text in the Massoretic tradition, Jerome’s textual decisions were also influenced by the LXX.

The Ethiopic text of Ecclesiastes, dated by S. A. B. Mercer some time before AD 650, reveals an acquaintance with the Massoretic tradition, the Vulgate, and perhaps the Old Latin and Syriac. Mercer points to eighteen instances where it follows the Massoretic text against the LXX and to fourteen instances where it shows knowledge of a pre-Massoretic Hebrew text. 8

The Aramaic Targum to Ecclesiastes is of little significance for textual study. It is a free paraphrase not earlier than the fifth century AD, and is of interest primarily as one stage in the history of interpretation.

The study of these versions leads one to the conclusion that the text of Ecclesiastes is well preserved and has fewer difficulties than many Old Testament books. The Qumran texts and the various versions generally support the Massoretic tradition.

2. The date, authorship and literary provenance of Ecclesiastes

Life in this world does not fundamentally change, and we do not need a date for Ecclesiastes in order to receive its message. It is part of the genius of the Preacher’s thought that it stands on its own feet at any time and in any place. The book in fact provides meagre clues to its date: language, possible dependence on foreign thought, and internal claims.

The mid-twentieth century has seen the rise of a three-sided debate concerning the linguistic background of Ecclesiastes. After a tentative suggestion by D. S. Margoliouth that its language is ‘not so much late Hebrew as foreign Hebrew’,  amplified by F. C. Burkitt in 1921, F. Zimmermann formally proposed in 1945 that Ecclesiastes is a translation from an Aramaic original.  This was supported by C. C. Torrey in 1948 and by H. L. Ginsberg in 1950. These suggestions led to a series of replies by R. Gordis, who maintained that the Hebrew of Ecclesiastes is authentic but late.  The discussion further developed in 1952 when M. Dahood suggested that Ecclesiastes was written in Phoenician orthography and shows signs of Canaanite-Phoenician literary influence.  Again R. Gordis replied rebutting Dahood’s theory.

The Aramaisms of Ecclesiastes are not necessarily proof of a late date. True, there are Aramaisms in the book,  indeed, their proportion is quite high, but since the quantity of material is so small one must be cautious in attributing too much significance to them. They may be expected in biblical Hebrew from the tenth century BC, increasing as the centuries go by, culminating in the sixth to fourth centuries BC. They are of comparatively little significance for dating. 

Even less is it likely that an Aramaic original underlies Ecclesiastes. To review the many intricate arguments involved is beyond the scope of the present work; but it must be said that the suggestions of Zimmermann, Torrey and Ginsberg are upheld only by a large number of tortuous emendations and suggested mistranslations, exhibiting considerable ingenuity of thought but carrying very little conviction. One small indication that the theory is suspect is the combination of the verbs mkk and dlp in 10: 18. The two verbs in combination are an old Canaanite cliché.  That it should be the result of a translation from Aramaic seems unlikely.

The question of Canaanite-Phoenician influence is more difficult to handle. Dahood argues that at one stage the text of Ecclesiastes had considerably less matres lectiones (consonants used as vowels to aid reading) than in the Massoretic text. Nouns with a feminine ending in –t, a conditional particle ’lw, the particle s–, the erratic use of the article, the infinitive absolute followed by an independent pronoun, the independent use of the pronoun to express the verb ‘to be’, the use of ’ādām, the phrase under the sun, the seven … eight phrasing (Eccl. 11: 2), all have Phoenician and Canaanite parallels but within the Old Testament are distinctive of Ecclesiastes. But it is doubtful if even the cumulative weight of all the parallels to be found point to an original in ‘Phoenician orthography’. The work of the ‘Dahood school’ has itself suggested that a considerable quantity of Ugaritic and Phoenician parallels can be found to sections of the Old Testament. Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Nahum are among books explored along these lines.

The difficulty is that the linguistic data show that Ecclesiastes does not fit into any known section of the history of the Hebrew language. It is dissimilar to works which claim to be Solomonic (Song of Songs; parts of Proverbs); it does not correspond to the fourth-century Hebrew of Malachi or Ezra; it does not tally with the Hebrew of the Qumran scrolls. Two words, pardēs and pitgam, are often thought to be Persian loanwords. This may be so; in which case our present Ecclesiastes was written or edited in or after the Persian period.

Our conclusion must be that the language of Ecclesiastes does not at present provide an adequate resource for dating. It is possible that a particular style was adopted for pessimism literature. The possibility that a northern dialect of Hebrew was used must be left open. Equally it is possible that its dialect is Phoenicianizing. Certainly no other document possesses precisely the same characteristics, and no reliable date can be given this way. The language of Ecclesiastes is probably of interest more in dialectology than chronology.

A second factor is the question of the book’s dependence on early Greek writings. It is virtually certain that the Preacher had some knowledge of and interacted with ancient Near Eastern pessimism, but what of similar Greek writings? The theory put forward by Zirkel in 1792, that Greek influence could be detected in the language of Ecclesiastes, is now almost universally abandoned. Reviewing the question in 1925 H. Ranston concluded that there was evidence of dependence on Theognis and Hesiod. In that case Ecclesiastes should probably be dated after the death of Alexander (323 BC), when Hellenistic culture increasingly spread throughout the ancient world.

More recently scholars have been less inclined to trace Greek influence. O.   Loretz finds none at all. 26 Others (e.g. J. Bright27) see only a general and indirect influence. M.   Hengel28 concedes that all attempts to prove dependence on particular Greek writers (e.g. Epicurus, Heraclitus, Hesiod, Theognis) have failed. Yet, dating Ecclesiastes between 270 and 220 BC, he agrees with R. Kroeber that ‘in ideas and mood the work has contacts with the spirit of Hellenism’.  Hengel admits that the Greek parallels adduced for the book are unsatisfactory and that ‘because of the “international” spread of wisdom and its universal themes the indication of parallels says nothing about their origin’. He also dismisses attempts to find Graecisms in particular words. However, he feels that the Preacher’s spirit is Greek: his individualistic critical analysis of experience, his cool detachment towards the correction of injustice, his universal rather than distinctively Israelite conception of God, his willingness to criticize orthodox Judaism, are all thought to reflect a Hellenistic outlook.

Hengel’s argument, however, presumes that Ecclesiastes is definitely a third-century work. If that assumption is correct, to see Hellenistic atmosphere in the book may well be right. But the argument is circular. No convincing evidence for influence by Greek authors has been produced, other than the assumption that Ecclesiastes is to be dated in the third century.

There are reasons, however, for caution in seeing Greek influence in the Preacher’s work. Many of the parallels cited are trivial and could be found anywhere in the ancient Near East. Our ignorance of the future, the claim to more than ordinary wisdom, the dependence of mankind upon God or the gods, the apparent inconsistency of earthly retribution  –   these themes, common to Ecclesiastes, Theognis and Hesiod, are found throughout the ancient Near East. The parallels are more likely part of a common stock of wisdom subject-matter than specific borrowings. By contrast, the God-centred, judgment-orientated, contented life held forth in Ecclesiastes is very different from the bleak sensualism of Theognis. Pessimism concerning human life and destiny appears from the third millennium onwards. It is likely that both the Greeks and Ecclesiastes knew of it; there is no need to postulate that the Preacher drew upon Greek literature. Certainly Ecclesiastes cannot be reliably dated on these grounds.

Ecclesiastes is not only a collection of wisdom material; it is also a narrative.  Within its pages there is a person who unobtrusively appears in the words ‘says the Preacher’. At the very beginning (Eccl. 1: 2) we are gently informed that one man is reporting the wisdom material of another man. Roughly in the middle (7: 27), the words appear again as a delicate reminder. At the end (12: 8), lest we have forgotten, they appear again. Around this narrative is added a title (1: 1) and an epilogue (12: 9– 14).

Who are the two personages within the book? Is one man presenting the work of another? Or is a man presenting himself and adopting the dual role of wise man and editor of his own material? There are slight pointers in both directions. On the one hand the voice that says ‘says the Preacher’ would most naturally be taken as distinct from the author of the material; he would be an editor presenting the material of a revered wise man. Leaving aside 1: 2; 7: 27; 12: 8, the Preacher speaks of himself not in the third person but in the first. Although 1: 2 and 12: 8 could be self-introduction and self-commendation, the intrusive ‘says the Preacher’ would be pointless in 7: 27 unless the speaker at that instant is a second person peeping through the curtain. As Fox says: ‘While one can speak of himself in the third person, it is unlikely he would do so in the middle of a first-person sentence.’

On the other hand, even within so small a compass as 12: 9– 14 there are phrases which exactly echo the style and phraseology of the bulk of the book. The use of wĕ yōtēr (12: 9, 11; cf. 7: 11, etc.), his way of speaking of ‘the people’ (12: 9; cf. 4: 16), the ‘master of …’ idiom (in the Heb. of 12: 11; cf. 10: 11, 20 and slightly differently in 5: 10, 12; 8: 18), each echoes the style of the bulk of the material. Delitzsch points to the similarity of the structure in 12: 9– 11; 1: 7 and 6: 5.

The hypothesis (and it can be no more than that), which accounts for these phenomena, is that an editor is presenting in his own words and style the teaching of a revered wise man. The revered teacher is ‘the Preacher’ (Heb. Qōhelet ); the editor-author presenting Qoheleth’s wisdom is an unnamed and unknown admirer or disciple working at a date and location that cannot be precisely determined. Thus one style pervades the book; but two people, Qoheleth the originator of the material and an unnamed author-editor, lay behind it.

Who then is Qoheleth and why is this enigmatic name used? The phrases ‘son of David, king in Jerusalem’ (1: 1) and ‘king over Israel’ (1: 12) point clearly to Solomon. Admittedly ‘son of David’ could describe any descendant of David. Many generations after the king a certain Hattush is described as ‘of the sons of David’ (Ezra 8: 2). It is also true that after the fall of Samaria (722 BC), and even sporadically before, ‘Israel’ might be applied to the southern kingdom Judah. In theory, therefore, any later Davidic king could have been the author. Nevertheless, in view of the traditions concerning Solomon (1 Kgs 2  –   12; 2 Chr. 1  –   9), without further definition the title would certainly lead any reader to suppose that the allusion is to him. Also the account in 2: 1– 11 is strongly reminiscent of Solomon; almost every phrase has its parallel in the narratives concerning Solomon. B.   Porten points out that the root qhl serves to mark the beginning and end of several of the units of narrative in 1 Kings 8.33

However, there are indications that Solomon himself was not the author. Not only is the presenter of the material apparently distinct from Qoheleth: the name Solomon is avoided. Qōhelet (1: 1f., 12; 7: 27; 12: 8– 10, normally translated ‘Preacher’) is probably an entirely artificial name. The root qhl is used of ‘gathering’ or ‘assembling’ people but not of collecting things. Names with similar structure (sōperet, ‘scribe’, Ezra 2: 55; pōkeret, ‘binder’, Neh. 7: 59) are personal, yet appear to have derived from titles. One might compare in English Baker or Smith, both names and occupations. There are verbal forms niqhal (‘ to assemble, be gathered’) and hiqhîl (‘ to gather an assembly’). Thus it is likely that Qōhelet is a name meaning ‘one who gathers an assembly to address it’, yet retaining an official force so that it can be used with the article: ‘the Qōhelet ’ (7: 27). The meaning is easily seen in 1 Kings 8: 1, where Solomon gathers (qhl ) the people of Israel for worship, prayer and instruction.  ‘Preacher’ is as good a translation as any.

We may conclude that the author is a pseudo-editor, an editor-author, writing in defence of faith in the God of Israel. He is an admirer of Solomon, writing up the lessons of Solomon’s life in the tradition of the wisdom for which Solomon was famous. Yet Ecclesiastes is not pseudonymous, and the writer avoids using Solomon’s name. Instead he portrays his material as coming from ‘Mr Preacher’, who has all the characteristics of Solomon except his name. The epilogue portraying Qoheleth has all the appearances of referring to an actual historical character: a wise man, a collector of proverbs, a teacher and writer. Who else but Solomon? Avoidance of the name must stem from the fact that the editor-author puts things in his own way and declines to foist a work directly on Solomon. Yet he thinks of the material as Solomon’s; it is what Solomon would have said had he addressed himself to the subject of pessimism. The artificiality of the name Qoheleth was probably conspicuous. It is as though there were a book under the pen-name of ‘John Smith, King of England’ which proceeded to press home some lessons from the viewpoint of an English monarch. The story is real enough; it is Solomon’s with its major lessons highlighted. But Qoheleth was honest enough to sign himself (for so we might paraphrase): ‘Mr Preacher, King of Israel.’

The date of the book must be left undecided. If it contains significant Persian words, then it must be dated after the fifth century. If, however, as is likely, the Iranian words are not determinative of date, the matter must be left open until more is known of the unique dialect in which the book is written.


Phillip Santillan