Ecclesiastes and the Riddle of Authorship

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Thomas M. Bolin
  • New York, NY: 
    , April
     144 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Ecclesiastes and the Riddle of Authorship, Thomas M. Bolin presents a focused reception history of Ecclesiastes. At a time when Bible scholars are sensitive to the polyvalence of biblical texts, reception history explores how readers engage texts and influence their interpretation. Specifically, Bolin wants to know how readers’ constructions of the book’s author over the centuries have influenced their interpretations of the book. This fascinating and well-researched work employs the reception history model of Brennan Breed, connected with insights on constructed (as opposed to discovered) authorship by literary critic Michel Foucault, and is conversant with Eric S. Christianson’s important reception history of Ecclesiastes, Ecclesiastes through the Centuries (Wiley-Blackwell, 2007).

Breed identifies what he calls singularities, each of which “functions as a [semantic] node that constitutes a center around which the given text can be organized” (Breed, The Nomadic Text: A Theory of Biblical Reception History, Indiana University Press, 2014). Examples include “particular phrases that are construed in wildly different ways” and, in the case of Exodus, “liberation from oppression” (140). Foucault suggests that readers engage the “author function” as part of making sense of a text (“What Is an Author?” in Professing the New Rhetorics, ed. Theresa Enos and Stuart C. Brown, Prentice Hall, 1994; original French, 1969).

Bolin organizes his study by entry points (nodes) that interpreters of Ecclesiastes have utilized over the centuries to variously construct the book’s author. Chapter 1 describes the historical Solomon as author, drawn largely from 1 Kings and other literature associated with Solomon (and sometimes expansions of those). Chapter 2 concerns those who, for various reasons, conclude that the historical author has only adopted Solomon or some other royal persona in the book. Interestingly, here Bolin seeks to correct a false claim that Luther rejected Solomon as author. The third (and most diverse) chapter reviews various authors constructed in response to contradictions and tensions in the book. In chapter 4, Bolin discusses authors as saint, sinner, or repentant sinner turned saint, leaving the author as philosopher for his final chapter. Within each chapter, the discussion proceeds fairly chronologically.

Bolin identifies examples of Brennan’s insight that the ways ancient readers made sense of a text reflect commonalities across time, culture, religion, and even methodology (14–15, 69, 88). Tremper Longman’s appeal to the (theologically orthodox) epilogue as the true message of Ecclesiastes—rejecting the unorthodox Qohelet’s voice as a foil—is similar in principle to that of the rabbis when they accepted the book: the beginning and ending of Ecclesiastes contain words of Torah overcoming problems within (69).

Bolin had to consider how to organize such a complex overview of this subject matter. Each of his chapters reflects a different choice of constructed author as entry point into one particular pattern of the book’s interpretation. Naturally, each construction is done in connection with some issue or issues in Ecclesiastes, a matter most obvious in the third chapter’s concern with contradiction. Such an arrangement involves inevitable overlap, and such are evident in Bolin’s book: for instance, those who reject an historical Solomon as author (chap. 2) might consider him a saint or a sinner (chap. 4) and engage various tensions in the book (chap. 3). Thus, the same author is often discussed in several chapters. I wonder whether organizing a discussion of constructed authorship by the rhetorical outcomes in each case might have advantages—such as, confessing sin, venting frustration, giving practical advice—yet any gain would no doubt have its own drawbacks. Other interpretive nodes might be considered as well, such as significant terms used in the book and their connection to constructed authors (e.g., ‘āmālmāwethebel).

Overall, the book is well done, with fresh and engaging writing, and, helpfully, almost always includes original texts along with translations of both short and longer quotations. There are minor weaknesses: some copyediting misses; the bibliography and index are incomplete and incorrect in a few instances.

I conclude by noting two (related) ideas in the book that provoked my own further reflection. The first, hinted by Bolin (2, 9, 36, 127), is that we necessarily read and interpret books of normative claim on our life differently from those that have no such claim. That is, certain readers have something at stake existentially in how they interpret the book of Ecclesiastes, unlike when they read Shakespeare or even a religious text from a different tradition. Without failing to appreciate the text-reader dialectic, perhaps support can be found (from the community of interpretation?) to assist against the tendency to inappropriately impose meaning onto normative texts.

Bolin also notes examples of interpreters imposing themselves onto a construction of Ecclesiastes’s author (see his discussion of Jerome and Jastrow, 90–92). The more recent works of Bolin’s review are academic, but my favorite example of this type is the popular work by Harold Kushner, When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough (Simon & Schuster, 1986). Kushner recounts in chapter 2 that when he was young, he believed that the author of Ecclesiastes was young: “an idealistic enemy of falseness and foolishness.” But now that Kushner is past middle age himself, he realizes his mistake: “I [had] looked into the mirror of his book and saw my own image reflected back.” So now Kushner knows that the author was an older man like himself (a man afraid of dying before he has found purpose in life)—without any apparent awareness that the mirror phenomenon may be no less in play now than it was earlier. Perhaps it is a law, at least with Ecclesiastes, that to achieve insight into the beliefs and values (and age!) of the commentator one need only learn how she or he interprets the book.

As an early foray into the use of Brennan Breed’s model of reception history, I heartily recommend this probing study by Thomas Bolin to those interested in Ecclesiastes or in the reception history of biblical texts.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Douglas B. Miller is Professor of Biblical and Religious Studies at Tabor College in Hillsboro, KS.

Date of Review: 
February 6, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Thomas M. Bolin is professor of theology & religious studies at St. Norbert College.


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