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date: 19 November 2019

Qohelet/Ecclesiastes

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion. Please check back later for the full article.

Multiple questions surrounding the Book of Ecclesiastes (Qohelet in Hebrew)—including the identity of the book’s author and how it fits with other normative texts—have long fascinated and confounded readers. In regard to authorship, modern scholarship has dispensed with the tradition that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes; but exactly who was responsible for the present form of the text, and why he chose to call himself Qohelet, remains unknown. Multiple voices in the book appear to compete over theological and religious questions concerning divine justice and the efficacy of ethical behavior. The voice that frames the words of Qohelet cites Qohelet’s teaching with approval and appears to undermine them. The linguistic and lexical features of the book are late biblical Hebrew, but they contain several repeating key words (e.g., hebel, ‛amal, yitron), each with connotations whose meanings shade into others and that cannot be understood with facile one-to-one renderings. Ecclesiastes contains no undisputed allusions or citations of other biblical material, despite its being one of the latest compositions in the Hebrew Bible, but it does reference material found in the Old Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, a work over a millennium older than Ecclesiastes. The book resists the attempt to reduce its message to coherent themes, and modern critical scholarship sees in Ecclesiastes a mirror that shows the field’s own methodological flaws. The book’s aphoristic quality, vivid description of life’s joys and sorrows, and unflinching engagement with the limits of religion have ensured its influence as a cultural touchstone.