Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Who wrote Ecclesiastes and why would it matter?

Over the years I ended up hearing a few sermons on Ecclesiastes.  At the time I heard the sermons I thought they were pretty good and generally well-informed.

I no longer think that.  One of the most basic questions about the book of Ecclesiastes is who wrote it and the case that Solomon wrote the book near the end of his life as he was repenting of his apostasy doesn't add up.

It happens I read Martin Shields' The End of Wisdom this summer, his commentary on Ecclesiastes (HT Jim West).  Shields points out that while traditionally Ecclesiastes was credited to Solomon there are some significant internal problems in the text for establishing this claim.  There are two kings in the Davidic dynasty recorded as having made contributions to the wisdom literature/wisdom movement--Solomon and Hezekiah (see Proverbs 25:1 where it mentions that Hezekiah had proverbs of Solomon copied).

The trouble is that Ecclesiastes 1:16 reads

I thought to myself, "Look, I have grown and increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge."

If this was really Solomon then he had just two predecessors, Saul and David.  Now even if we grant the proposal that this reflects a standard formula found in royal self-promoting propaganda it's a short list.  Still, if it is "just" a formulaic statement of the sort we'd expect in royal propaganda then Solomon might be identifiable.  It would have been highly implausible for Hezekiah to have made such a claim for himself.

But then, as Shields points out, there's Ecclesiastes 1:12

I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem.

Now some translations render the passage as saying "have been king". The indication, Shields points out, seems to be that whoever wrote Ecclesiastes was king over Israel in Jerusalem but was not so at the time of writing the book (or by the time the editor compiled the material. significantly more on this later). The trouble is that there is simply no evidence that Solomon or Hezekiah abdicated.  There is also no hugely compelling evidence, I might add, to explain from just the canonical texts that Solomon ever had a late-in-life case of repentance.  In addition to a possible explanation of "more than anyone" being a royal formula "son of David" was not necessarily a given as being taken at a completely literal level either, for all we do and don't know about the text.  Shields suggests that how we interpret the text will not necessarily depend on having to identify Koholeth with a specific historical figure and that by now even most conservative scholars have not attempted to identify Koholeth with Solomon.

There's a distinct lack of actual historical references in Ecclesiastes that presents another problem for dating and identification of the author. It has been common among scholars (less conservative ones) to propose a post-exilic authorship.  Shields points out that a large chunk of Ecclesiastes 5 includes instructions about temple behavior and Ecclesiastes 8 includes advice about conduct in the royal court that would be completely useless if the material only reflects post-exilic concerns.  If Ecclesaistes was written in a post-exilic setting it had to have been in a setting where the author expected readers to play roles as court functionaries to a king of some kind for which the advice in Ecclesiastes 8 would actually be relevant.  

Shields presents an interesting and persuasive (to me) case that Ecclesiastes can be thought of as a kind of Pentagon papers of a wisdom movement.  In the canon we get Proverbs but we get Job and Ecclesiastes as correctives.  I had come to this conclusion years before discovering Shields' commentary but I admit it's a relief to discover at least one biblical scholar laying out this case formally.  It is not a given that the ideas expressed by Koholeth in Ecclesiastes are orthodox and this is another problem with a traditional view that Solomon was writing this book as he was repenting of stuff.  If that was the case the actual text of most of Ecclesiastes makes that impossible to sustain but that will require other blog posts.

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