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The Original Book of Ecclesiastes

edited with an introduction by Charles Siegel

 


copyright © 2014


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Reconstructing Ecclesiastes

Of the three books said to be by King Solomon, Ecclesiastes gave the most trouble to the rabbis who decided, almost two thousand years ago, what to include in the Bible. What could the rabbis make of sayings like:

There is a just man that perisheth in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man that prolongeth his life in his wickedness. Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over wise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself?

Could they admit that Solomon said we should not try too hard to be righteous and wise, because it would make life more difficult?

It is likely that this book would not have been included in the Bible if earlier scribes had not added other sayings attributed to Solomon, which made it more acceptable, but which also made it self-contradictory and difficult to understand.

By removing those added sayings, this edition shows that the original Ecclesiastes was influenced by the Greeks and makes a point that seems very modern: since the traditional religious worldview has been replaced by a materialistic worldview, we live in an absurd, meaningless universe.


selection from

The Original Book of Ecclesiastes

 


Introduction

Of three books said to be by King Solomon, Ecclesiastes gave the most trouble to the rabbis who decided, almost two thousand years ago, what to include in the Bible. The Song of Songs, which Solomon was supposed to have written as a young man, is a love poem, but it was easy to call it an allegory of God's love for Israel. The book of Proverbs, which Solomon was supposed to have written in his maturity, is filled with the sort of conventionally pious wisdom that causes no problem at all. But the book of Ecclesiastes, which Solomon was supposed to have written during his world-weary old age, is not only unconventional. It is dangerous.

What could the rabbis make of sayings like:

7:15 All things have I seen in the days of my vanity: there is a just man that perisheth in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man that pro­longeth his life in his wickedness.
7:16 Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over wise: why shouldest thou destroy thyself?

Could they admit that Solomon said we should not try too hard to be righteous and wise, because it would make life more difficult?

It is likely that this book would not have been included in the Bible if earlier scribes had not added other sayings attributed to Solomon that make it more acceptable.

This sort of editing of Biblical sources was not a delib­erate attempt at deception, because the scribes who did the editing did not think that their job was to reproduce the original text as accurately as possible. Their job was to collect and arrange texts by a single author.

In some cases, they arranged the texts in ways that seem strange to us. The book of Jeremiah is not arranged in chronological order. We can identify the date of some texts because they refer to a king or to a contemporary event, but some texts have no hint of their date, so it is impossible to understand them fully in their historical context.

In other cases, they included texts by several authors, because they were all attributed to one author. The book of Isaiah contains writing by Isaiah, who lived before the Babylonian exile, by an anonymous writer called deutero-Isaiah, who lived during the Babylonian exile, and by another anonymous writer called trito-Isaiah, who lived after the return from the exile.

The one exception during second temple times was the Torah, the five books of Moses, which had already been canonized and had to be reproduced literally, no matter how inconvenient the literal text was, but even in this case, it was common to interpret the text to reveal its “real meaning.” The consonants could not be changed, but in many cases, the scribes added vowel markings to show that a different word should be read in Hebrew. The Targum, the Aramaic translation that was read at the same time as the Torah during the era of the second Temple, adds many later interpretations to the text: the Hebrew word targum means translation, but it was really a paraphrase and reinterpretation.
Thus, it is plausible that the scribes who created the final version of Ecclesiastes believed that Solomon was far more pious than he sounded in this book and decided that they could bring out the “real” meaning of he book by including other, more orthodox sayings attributed to Solomon.

Today, we know that Solomon did not write Ecclesiastes. One decisive piece of evidence for a later date is the word pardesim which is translated as orchards in this verse:

2:5 I made me gardens and orchards, and I planted trees in them of all kind of fruits:

This Hebrew word comes from the Persian word meaning walled garden, which is also the origin of the English word “paradise.” This Persian word did not enter Hebrew until after the Persians conquered Babylon in 538 BCE, when the Jews were in exile there, many centuries after the time of Solomon.

As in many books of the Bible, the author of Ecclesiastes is identified in the first verse:

1:1 The words of Qohelet, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

Qohelet is the present participle of a verb related to Qahal, which means an assembly or a congregation; and so it was translated in Greek as “ecclesiastes,” which means a member of an ecclessia (assembly or congregation), and it was translated in the King James version as “the Preacher.” It was natural to identify the preacher with Solomon: this verse says that he is the son of David and king in Jerusalem, and later verses says that he had more wisdom [1:16] and more wealth [2:7-9] than any that were in Jerusalem before him - a perfect description of Solomon.

But Qohelet is the feminine participle, and to refer to a man, you would normally use the masculine participle, Qohel. The feminine participle probably means that Qohelet is a name rather than a description. Rather than being Solomon, Qohelet is a fictional character that the author of Ecclesiastes created to embody his point of view. “Son of David” is used in Hebrew to refer to descendents of David in any generation. The author made this character a king ruling in Jerusalem, because the book had to be narrated by someone with enough wealth, power, and wisdom to try many possible ways of living and to find them all wanting.

Reconstructing Ecclesiastes

Ecclesiastes is one of the most popular books of the Bible. It is the source of common sayings such as “There is nothing new under the sun,” of book titles such as The Sun Also Rises, and of catch phrases such as “a fly in the ointment” and “eat, drink, and be merry.” It even provided the lyrics of a successful folk song during the 1960s: “To everything there is a season. Turn, turn, turn.”

Yet Ecclesiastes has always been a very controversial book. The rabbinic council that decided to include it in the Bible in Jamnia in 90 CE, was sharply divided, with the school of Hillel supporting its inclusion and the school of Shammai opposing. As late as the fourth century CE, many believed that it should not be included in the Bible, because it is often irreligious, and it is often self-contradictory.

This edition shows that we can eliminate the self-contradictions by making two assumptions. First, Ecclesiastes was written by a Hellenized Jew who was influenced by Epicurean thought but who found it very difficult to live in a world ruled by purposeless laws of nature - the Epicurean view of nature, which is so different from the traditional Jewish view. Second, Ecclesiastes was edited by scribes who believed it was written by Solomon or some other great sage and who added other texts attributed to this sage to moderate its unorthodox ideas.

This edition removes these added texts, so we can read the original book of Ecclesiastes. These texts are in a sep­arate section at the end of this book, with explanations of why each was removed from the main text.

The received version of Ecclesiastes is filled with self-contradictions and is very hard to make sense of, but without the added texts, Ecclesiastes is a consistent and well-structured dramatic monolog, showing the emotional and intellectual struggles of Qohelet.

Section 1: A Meaningless World

In the first section of this edition, Qohelet says that the world follows laws of nature that are repetitive and that are meaningless in human terms.

1:4 One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
1:5 The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.
1:6 The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about con­tinually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.
1:7 All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.
1:8 All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.

Verse 1:7 is particularly interesting because it gives a  rational explanation of nature. If the rivers keep running perpetually to the sea and do not fill up the sea with their water, then the water they deposit in the seas must somehow get back to the source of each river.

The Greeks were the first to try to understand nature in this rational way. In fact, the philosopher Lucretius, who is the best surviving source of Epicurean belief, addressed the same question as verse 1:7:

A point that sometimes occasions surprise is why nature does not cause the sea to grow bigger, considering what a huge influx of water it re­ceives from the rivers that flow into it from every side…. a large proportion of this increase is sub­tracted by the heat of the sun. … the clouds too pick up a lot of moisture drawn from the wide ocean levels and sprinkle it over all the earth …. Lastly, the earth is of open texture … just as water enters the sea from the land, so it must trickle into the land out of the briny gulf. The brine is filtered out, and the main bulk of the water flows back to reassemble in full at the fountainhead. Hence it flows overground … down the highway already hewn with liquid foot for the guidance of its waves. [i.e. down the existing river bed]

Ecclesiastes 1:7 is conclusive proof of the Epicurean influence on Qohelet. Like Lucretius, he asks why the rivers run into the sea but the sea does not become full and overflow, and like Lucretius, he concludes that the water that runs into the sea must return to the heads of the rivers. Without Greek influence, it is inconceivable that someone would ask this sort of rationalistic question about nature and answer it in the same way as the Epicureans.

The Epicureans’ view that world is governed by purposeless, repetitive laws of nature is very different from the traditional Jewish view that the world was created purposefully by God and that God sometimes intervened in the world in miraculous ways that are outside of the normal course of nature, such as by parting the Red Sea to allow the Israelites to escape from in Egypt. Of course, these miracles are not repeated; a miracle is something new under the sun.

This purposeless universe did not bother the Epicureans, but it did very much bother Qohelet to live in a world stripped of the meaning that traditional religion provided. It convinced him that the world was nothing but “vanity.”

The King James version of the Bible used the word “vanity” to translate the Hebrew hevel, which literally means air or vapor. “Vanity” conveys the emotional tone of the original if we remember that, when the King James translation was made, vanity meant emptiness or futility, as we still speak of a “vain hope” to mean an empty or a futile hope.

The New International Version of the Bible uses a more modern translation of the opening verses of Ecclesiastes:

NIV1:1 The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:
NIV1:2 “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”

Ecclesiastes makes a point that seems very modern and was repeated many times during the nineteenth and twentieth century, as traditional religion declined: because the traditional religious worldview has been replaced by a materialistic worldview, we live in an absurd, meaningless universe.

Section 2: Futile Search for the Good Life

In the second section (as this edition numbers the sections), Qohelet says that he cannot discover how to live a good life in this meaningless universe. The author made Qohelet the wealthiest and wisest of kings for the sake of the “thought experiment” in this section, where Qohelet tries every possible way of life and find that all are unsatisfying.

He dedicates his life to seeking wisdom, then to seeking pleasure, then to accomplishment and wealth, and he finds that all these ways of life are “vanity and a striving after wind,” largely because they are all cut off by death.

This futile search for the good life, inevitably frustrated by death, is alien to the conventional Judaism of the time, which considers it very obvious that the good life is a life devoted to fulfilling God’s commandments and to acting righteously, and that God will judge us after death (as Ecclesiastes says in some of more orthodox verses added by later scribes).

Section 3: Partial Reconciliation

In the third section of this edition, Qohelet is partially successful in finding a way to live happily in this meaningless world. The solution is to give up attempts to understand the world, and instead to live fully and enjoy everything in its time.

When he introduced himself at the beginning of section 2, he said:

1:12 I Qohelet was king over Israel in Jerusalem.
1:13 And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith.

In section 3, he gives up this attempt to understand “all things that are done” in this world and instead decides to enjoy his life:

2:24 There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God.
It is such a relief to give up his attempts to make sense of the world and instead to live in the moment that Qohelet breaks out into poetry - the famous poem that begins:
3:1 To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
3:2 A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted ….

And after this poem is finished, Qohelet summarizes his insight:

3:11 He hath made every thing beautiful in its time: also he hath set eternity in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.
3:12 I know that there is no good in them, but for a man to rejoice, and to do good in his life.
3:13 And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God.

To live a happy life, we have to enjoy the moment, appreciating “everything beautiful in its time.”
But this reconciliation is not completely successful, because God has “set eternity in their heart.” The rest of the book shows that Qohelet cannot completely give up his attempts to understand the world, and that he continues to be upset when the world does not make sense.

Remaining Sections: Recapitulation

The rest of the book is a series of sections that reca­pit­ulate the ideas of the first three sections. Qohelet keeps seeing flaws in the world - either injustices that refute the traditional Jewish notion that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked, or the fact that death makes our efforts futile by ending our existence completely.

Each of these sections begins as Qohelet sees some evil in the world that shakes his ability to live happily. Each ends by repeating the partial reconciliation, that we cannot understand the world completely and instead should enjoy life and live fully.

Section 4 begins with Qohelet seeing wickedness in the place of justice and also seeing the inevitability of death, and ends with:

3:22 Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him?

Section 5 begins with Qohelet seeing the suffering of the oppressed and ends with:

4:6 Better is an handful with quietness, than both the hands full with travail and a striving after wind.

Section 6 begins with Qohelet seeing people who make themselves miserable by pursuing riches and ends with:

5:18 Behold that which I have seen: it is good and comely for one to eat and to drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labour that he taketh under the sun all the days of his life, which God giveth him: for it is his portion.
5:19 Every man also to whom God hath given riches and wealth, and hath given him power to eat thereof, and to take his portion, and to rejoice in his labour; this is the gift of God.
5:20 For he shall not much call to mind the days of his life; because God answereth him in the joy of his heart.

Verse 5:20 means that he will not constantly think about his own mortality and the ultimate futility of his life, because he is busy enjoying life.

Section 7 begins by describing a man who is wealthy and cannot enjoy his wealth and ends by saying that we should try to be joyful and remember that we cannot understand the world as a whole:

7:14 In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity consider: God also hath set the one over against the other, to the end that man should not find what is after him.

Section 8 begins by saying that the righteous may perish and the wicked may prosper. It ends with verses that remind us we should take everything in its time and not try to understand the world as a whole:

8:6 Because to every purpose there is time and judg­ment, although the misery of man is great upon him.
8:7 For he knoweth not that which shall be: for who can tell him?

Section 9 begins by saying that the wicked are praised and ends with a reminder that we cannot understand that world as a whole:

8:17 Then I beheld all the work of God, that a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun: because though a man labour to seek it out, yet he shall not find it; yea further; though a wise man think to know it, yet shall he not be able to find it.

Section 10 begins by saying that death comes to everyone, whether they are good or evil. It ends with a restatement of the advice to live fully that makes it poignantly clear how partial this reconciliation is:

9:7 Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works.
9:8 Let thy garments be always white; and let thy head lack no ointment.
9:9 Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun.
9:10 Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.

Section 11, the final section is a conclusion that summarizes all the ideas of the book. It begins by repeating Qohelet’s two main reasons for being dissatisfied: the injustice of this world, where success depends on chance rather than merit, and the arbitrariness of death:

9:11 I turned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
9:12 For man also knoweth not his time: as the fishes that are taken in an evil net, and as the birds that are caught in the snare; so are the sons of men snared in an evil time, when it falleth suddenly upon them.

Then it talks about the impersonality and meaninglessness of nature:

11:3 If the clouds be full of rain, they empty themselves upon the earth: and if the tree fall toward the south, or toward the north, in the place where the tree falleth, there it shall be.

Then it repeats the reconciliation that we should not try to understand the world but instead should live fully and enjoy our lives:

11:4 He that observeth the wind shall not sow; and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap.
11:5 As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child: even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all.
11:6 In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thine hand: for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good.
11:7 Truly the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun:
But it concludes by admitting that this reconciliation is not completely satisfying:
11:8 But if a man live many years, and rejoice in them all; yet let him remember the days of darkness; for they shall be many. All that cometh is vanity.

As much as he tries to live in each moment and not to think about life as a whole, he cannot help thinking that life as a whole inevitably ends in death.

Notice that all of these sections begin with a word or phrase that indicates the beginning of a new section.

The early sections begin with a word that indicates the beginning of a new thought. Section 4 begins with “And moreover” (in Hebrew, v’od), and sections 5 and 6 begin with “And I turned” (in Hebrew, v’shavti, which literally means “and I turned” and is used colloquially to mean that the speaker is taking up a new subject). All of these verses also include “under the sun,” indicating that the speaker is stepping back and looking at the world as a whole again.

Section 4 begins, “3:16 And moreover I saw under the sun….”

Section 5 begins, “4:1 And I turned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun….”

Section 6 begins “4:7 And I turned, and I saw vanity under the sun.”

The later sections also begin with a phrase that indicates the the speaker is stepping back and looking at the world as a whole again.

Section 7 begins, “6:1 There is an evil which I have seen under the sun….”

Section 8 begins, “7:15 All things have I seen in the days of my vanity….”

Section 9 begins, “8:9 All this have I seen, and applied my heart unto every work that is done under the sun….”

Section 10 begins, 9:1 For all this I considered in my heart even to declare all this….”

Section 11, the concluding summary, goes back to the pattern of the early sections and begins, “9:11 I turned, and saw under the sun….”

Thus, the book has a very clear structure. The first three sections lay out its ideas in detail. Each of the remaining sections looks at these ideas again more briefly: each begins with a phrase indicating that Qohelet is starting to consider something new, each looks at new evidence that we live in an unjust and absurd universe, and each concludes by repeating an aspect of the partial reconciliation - either that we should enjoy our lives or that we should not try to understand the world from beginning to end.

Qohelet and Epicureanism

Qohelet is influenced by the Epicureans’ materialistic view of nature, but he differs from the Epicureans in many ways.

Qohelet’s advice that we should enjoy life is a bit like the Epicureans’ ethics of pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain, but it differs because he talks about living fully as well as about seeking pleasure:

9:10 Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might….

He also seems to believe that it is most important to change your attitude so you enjoy what you do, while the Epicureans believed that it was most important to act in ways that avoid pain.

Even more striking, the Epicureans did not see anything problematic about their materialism. They were not disturbed by a struggle to discover a good life; they believed that we naturally tried to pursue pleasure and avoid pain and that these natural inclinations alone were enough to define the good life. They were not disturbed by the idea that there is no immortality, and death ends us completely. In fact, this idea actually comforted them, and they said that Epicurus freed us from the fear of death by showing us that there could not be any pain or punishment after death.

By contrast, Qohelet was consumed by the struggle to find a good life and was very much disturbed by the idea  that life inevitably ends in death, leaving no memory of us or of our accomplishments. He shows us that, because the traditional religious view has been replaced by a mate­rialistic view, it is impossible to be completely satisfied with life.

The Epicureans believed that their materialist view of the universe gave them a clear and comforting idea of the good life. Qohelet is not satisfied with materialism, and he tries to give up his attempts to understand the universe in order to enjoy the moment - but he does not succeed completely.
Though he has accepted the Epicurean view of nature, Qohelet is still influenced by the traditional Jewish world­view - and Epicurean materialism seems unsatisfactory in contrast to this traditional worldview. He retains the feeling that the world should be just, and he is disappointed when he sees injustices. He retains the view that God created the world (while the Epicureans believed the world existed forever), but he is disappointed by a creation that follows impersonal laws of nature, saying:

7:13 Consider the work of God: for who can make that straight, which he hath made crooked?

The Bias of the Scribes

Ecclesiastes also gives us some insight into the attitude of the scribes who transmitted it to us.
After the sayings of Qohelet have ended, Ecclesiastes has an epilog, and most scholars agree that the scribe or scribes who transmitted the book are speaking for themselves here. Some say that the epilog was written by one scribe, and some say by multiple scribes. Either way, it can give us some insight into the attitudes of the scribes who gave us the book we have today.

The epilog begins:

12:9 And moreover, because Qohelet was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yea, he gave good heed, and sought out, and set in order many proverbs.

and this one sentence reveals several things.

This sentence includes two hints that the scribe thought that Qohelet was Solomon. It says that Qohelet “set in order many proverbs,” and Solomon was famous for compiling proverbs. It also says that Qohelet “taught the people knowledge.” The word “people” here translates the Hebrew ha’am, which means either the nation or the people. We still use the phrase am yisrael to mean the nation or people of Israel. If Qohelet taught the whole nation, then he must have been a very influential teacher, such as a king.

This sentence also gives a hint of the scribes’ attitude toward their own work, saying that Qohelet “sought out, and set in order many proverbs.” This sounds very much like what the scribes themselves did: sought out proverbs of Solomon in addition to the original text of Ecclesiastes, and then reorganized them all; their own words in the epilog show that they considered this the best way to edit a book.

“Set in order” translates the Hebrew word tiqqen, which literally means to make straight. The same word in used in 1:15 and 7:13 to mean making straight that which is crooked. It implies that one is correcting something that is wrong. In Hebrew, even more than in translation, this word implies that the scribe who transmits the proverbs of a sage should “straighten them out.”

After three verses that praise the wisdom of the Qohelet and the value of his proverbs, the epilog shifts its point of view dramatically and says:

12:12b of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
12:13 Let us hear the conclusion of the whole mat­ter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.
12:14 For God shall bring every work into judg­ment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.

We can see that, although the scribe who wrote this believed that Ecclesiastes was the work of a great sage, he also saw that some of its sayings seemed unconventional and even dangerous. He added these three verses at the end of the book to warn the reader that you should not take books so seriously that you might be misled by them; instead, you should stick with the pious belief that we must keep God’s commandments because God will judge our deeds.

Of course, this conclusion is the opposite of Qohelet’s attitude that there is no justice in this life and that there is nothing after death, so we should enjoy life and not be “righteous overmuch.”

Given the conflicting feelings that we can see in the epilog - that the book is the work of Solomon (or perhaps some other great sage) whose wisdom must be preserved and that the book contains ideas that seem dangerous - it is not surprising that scribes included other sayings attributed to Solomon, to show that Solomon was not as unconventional as he might seem.

This confirms our approach in this edition: to restore the original text, we try to eliminate these later additions

Language of the Persian Period

One possible objection to our view of Ecclesiastes is the book’s language. During the Hellenistic period, Hebrew used many word borrowed from Greek, but Ecclesiastes has none of these Greek loan words.

Some scholars claim that the language proves that it was written during the Persian period. It not only includes Persian loan words but also includes words that were used during the Persian period. Even the use of a feminine pattern for the masculine name Qohelet is found in the Persian period, in the names Soferet and Pokeret, which we find in the books of Ezra and Nehemia but in the Biblical Hebrew of no other period.

These scholars say that Ecclesiastes does not deliberately try to use archaic language from the time of Solomon by suppressing language from the Persian period. A book written in contemporary language during the Hellenistic period would have included Greek loan words, and a book written in the archaic language of Solomon’s time would not have included Persian loan words. Therefore, they conclude, Ecclesiastes was written during the Persian period in the language of that time. Some scholars claim the ideas are Greek, but the language is clearly from the Persian period.

But in this case, the ideas trump the language.

It is plausible that, if a Jew living in the Hellenistic period wanted the book to look like it was written by an ancient sage, he would avoid Greek loan words, because he and his audience spoke Greek as well as Hebrew, and it would be easy for them to recognize those words. But, if he had not studied the history of the Hebrew language, or if he was only thinking about the effect of the text on an audience that had not studied the history of the language, he might not have considered it necessary to avoid words added to Hebrew during the Persian period. In fact, he might even have deliberately used words from this earlier period to make the book sound archaic, as an English writer might use the words “thee” and “thou” to make language sound archaic, even if he were writing about the time of King Arthur, long before these words entered the language. It is plausible that he might have invented the name Qohelet for the same reason.

But it is not at all plausible that a Jew living in the Persian period would develop a materialistic view of the world independently and without any Greek influence - right down to the Epicureans’ rationalist explanation that the water of rivers must somehow return to the heads of the rivers after emptying in the sea, because otherwise the sea would eventually fill up and overflow.

No one thought about the world in this rationalistic way before the Greeks. This rational explanation of how rivers flow, taken directly from the Epicureans, is the decisive proof of Greek influence.

A Dramatic Monolog

Another objection to this edition’s interpretation of Ecclesiastes might be based on misreading the book as wisdom literature. Many traditionalist readers consider the book a series of wise proverbs, and they are puzzled that the proverbs contradict each other. One scholar even says that there is a contradiction, because Qohelet says in one place that it is better to be dead than alive:

4:1 And I turned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter.
4:2 Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive.

But at another point, he says that it is better to be alive than dead:

9:4 For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion.
9:5 For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten.

All these verses remain in this edition of the original book of Ecclesiastes. Does this mean that it has not removed the self-contradictions of the original?

This objection is based on the misconception that the book is wisdom literature, while it is actually a dramatic monolog, showing the speaker’s changing emotions.

He says it is better to be dead when he is reacting to the injustices in the world, seeing all the people who are oppressed. He says it is better to be alive when he accepts his partial reconciliation, thinking that we should not try to understand the world as a whole but should enjoy life and live fully in each moment.

The first two sections in this edition of Ecclesiastes describe the pessimistic view of the world. The third section describes the partial reconciliation. The subsequent sections recapitulate the change in mood, each beginning with the pessimism that comes from looking at the world as a whole, and each moving toward the reconciliation that comes from enjoying each moment.

Ecclesiastes is like the book of Job, except that Job is a drama with many characters while Ecclesiastes is a dramatic monolog with one character. Both books include pes­simism about the injustices of the world, and both include reconciliations. No one says that Job contradicts itself because Job complains about the injustices of the world but changes his mind after God speaks to him out of a whirlwind and tells him that he cannot understand God’s purposes. Like­wise, we should not say Ecclesiastes contradicts itself because Qohelet’s mood shifts from complaint about the meaninglessness of the world to partial reconciliation.

Ecclesiastes is a landmark of world literature because it is the first book ever written to explore the idea that we struggle to find meaning in a materialistic universe. This idea became in important theme in nineteenth and twentieth century literature, when traditional Christian religion was being undermined by scientific materialism, but Qohelet had the same struggle two millennia earlier, when traditional Jewish religion was being undermined by the Epicureans’ materialism. Ecclesiastes is a portrait of a character engaged in this struggle for meaning, with all his changing and conflicting emotions.

In the past, it has been difficult to make sense of Ecclesiastes, because the original text is interrupted by more conventional ideas that later scribes added. This edition removes these later additions.
It is up to readers to decide whether this new edition is more consistent and coherent than the received edition. Read the received version of Ecclesiastes in any Bible, and you will see that it is intriguing but inconsistent and that you cannot make sense of it as a whole. Then read this edition, and see whether you believe that you are reading the original book of Ecclesiastes.