Qohelet 2: Who or What is “Ecclesiastes”?

This post is worthy of the “Bible Nerd Alert” warning because it can be quite technical. However, I will try to distill all that nerdiness into a post of slightly less than 1000 words. This is no small feat, so I hope you’ll at least appreciate the effort, if not the result.

Bible Nerd Alert!

Why does it matter who wrote Ecclesiastes? Because the question of whose words comprise the bulk of the book we call Ecclesiastes is significant because it potential provides a context and thus impacts how we might choose to interpret these words. However, determining with any degree of confidence to whom or what “Qoheleth” refers is not straight forward.  So, let’s start with what we have.

To Translate or Transliterate? That is The Question

Most English translations read: (1) The words of the Preacher (e.g., KJV, ASV, ESV, etc.); (2) The words of the Teacher (e.g., HCSB, NET Bible, NIV, NRSV); or, (3) The words of Qohelet (e.g., JPS, Alter, Enns, Felushko). The earliest translation of the Hebrew text (first century BCE) is found in the Septuagint (LXX). There the Hebrew word קֹהֶ֣לֶת (Qohelet) has been translated by the Greek Ἐκκλησιαστής (Ecclesiastes). This is due to fact that the 3-letter root from which Qohelet comes, means “to assemble, to gather together. The Greek, Ecclesiastes, is related to ekklesia which means “assembly, gather”. Scholars presume that both the Hebrew and the Greek is either a proper name or is a title that describes one who gathers others together in order to speak to them. The word קֹהֶ֣לֶת is found only in this one book of the Bible.

  • דִּבְרֵי֙ קֹהֶ֣לֶת בֶּן־דָּוִ֔ד מֶ֖לֶךְ בִּירוּשָׁלִָֽם (Hebrew Bible)
  • Ῥήματα Ἐκκλησιαστοῦ υἱοῦ Δαυιδ βασιλέως Ισραηλ ἐν Ιερουσαλημ. (Septuagint)
  • [The] Words of Qohelet, son of David, king in Jerusalem (Alter)

Robert Alter concludes, “Given the uncertainty about the name, and whether it is a name or a title, it seems wise to preserve the term in the Hebrew, as scholars generally now do.” Peter Enns notes, “The meaning and identity of Qohelet have eluded biblical interpreters for centuries and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future … That the word neither occurs outside Ecclesiastes nor is defined in Ecclesiastes renders any translation inconclusive. It is best to leave it untranslated…”

Qohelet (Hebrew) = Ecclesiastes (Greek)

Is Qohelet, Solomon?

Traditionally, the authorship of Ecclesiastes has been attributed to Solomon for the following reasons:

  • Qohelet is identified by the framer as “son of David, king in Jerusalem” (1:1).  He self identifies as “king over Israel in Jerusalem.”
  • The word wisdom (חָכְמָה, hochmah) is found 20 times in Ecclesiastes, many times with respect to a quality Qohelet had and used. “Jewish and Christian tradition famously identified him as Solomon because of this epithet, because of the repeated stress on his search for wisdom, and because of the autobiographical narrative in Chapter 2 in which he speaks of having built many houses and created elaborate gardens and amassed wealth and items of luxury” (Alter, Robert. The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes: A Translation with Commentary)

However, “son of David” could refer to a descendent of David, much later in time and not to Solomon. Also, in 1:16 we read Qohelet say, “Look, I have grown and increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me.” Yet only David had ruled over Jerusalem before Solomon.

Or Is Qohelet, Just Qohelet?

The vast majority of modern biblical scholars have concluded that Solomon could not have be the author for the following reasons:

  • “Ecclesiastes does not claim to be authored by Solomon, and the non-Solomonic Solomonic authorship of Ecclesiastes is the least problematic position…” (Enns. Ecclesiastes).
  • The attitude displayed toward kingship is not the attitude one who was an actual king would have. While Qohelet starts out with references to kingly duties, he moves on from an aloof to a critical attitude to seeing kingship as a threat.
  • The style of Hebrew in Ecclesiastes is what is known as Late Biblical Hebrew, which is the Hebrew of the post-exilic period of Israel’s history. It uses Persian loan words and is obviously influenced by Aramaic, both of which are only possible if Ecclesiastes were written post-exilically, 400 to 500 years after Solomon ruled Israel.
  • The content of the book also reflects a time of theological questioning and philosophic thought.

While debates will, no doubt, continue as to the identity of the author and the date of Ecclesiastes, it is clear to me that whoever Qohelet was, he lived and wrote his words in the post-exilic period. Once again, I find myself in agreement with both Alter and Enns.

  • “It is my opinion that Qohelet is a character created by the author to make his theological that is, a nickname adopted by the writer to maintain a Solomonic connection for his character while also distancing his character from the actual person” (Enns).
  • “It is best to think of Qohelet as the literary persona of a radical philosopher articulating, in an evocative rhythmic prose that occasionally scans as poetry, a powerful dissent from the mainline Wisdom outlook that is the background of his thought” (Alter).

So, as you read through the book of Ecclesiastes, don’t do so through the lens of Solomon, but of a sage (wise man) who lived in the Second Temple period, a time of theological questioning and evolution, resulting in a Judaism that was quite different from that described in the First Temple period.

[For all Bible Nerds, a thorough and technical discussion of the author and date of Ecclesiastes can be found in Peter Enns, Ecclesiastes: The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary (Kindle Location 250ff).]