Solomon or Qohelet?

*This post was originally posted in two languages (Korean and English) back in 2017, and now I separated it into two. For a Korean version of the post, see this

Ecclesiastes. . . . A problematic biblical text that entails many intriguing questions. Among them, the real identity of the protagonist of the book is, perhaps, the reader’s very first task that should be carried on to understand the text. If you have learned that the main speaker of the book is Solomon if you believe it with no doubt whatsoever, and if you have never been curious about the identity of the protagonist of the book, you might probably have never thought how many intriguing questions the text generates. If you are like this type of reader, this article may be able to open your eyes to see very different or maybe shocking aspects of the book. But don’t be afraid. We are simply going one step closer to this text’s historical aspects.

As I already wrote in the previous post, Qohelet is the protagonist of the book, called Ecclesiastes. In Tanakh published by Jewish Publication Society, this main character is called “Koheleth.” (Just so you know, “Qohelet” is a little more popular transliteration.) But Qohelet is better known as “Preacher.” Anyway, I guess, thanks to Tanakh version, the term “Qohelet” is not entirely greek to English speaking audiences.

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And yet, since Ecclesiastes comes right next to Proverbs, and since the very first sentence of the book says, “words of Qohelet, a son of David, a king in Jerusalem,” the reader of this book unconsciously neglects the word “Qohelet” and just regards this person as Solomon. The book of Proverbs introduces itself as “proverbs of Solomon,” and Ecclesiastes also introduces itself as words of someone who is a son of David and a king in Jerusalem. Whoever the “Qohelet” is, it is not fair to criticize the reader who believes that the main speaker of the book is Solomon and consider Qohelet to be his nickname or something.

Other than that, the book, in fact, reminds the reader of the name Solomon. For example, in Eccl 1:12–2:26, our protagonist claims to be the wisest man in the world, as Solomon is described to be in the Hebrew Bible, and he also shows off his wealth and honor as rewards of his excessive wisdom. Moreover, as First Kings describes the fall of Solomon, the so-called “Preacher” eventually realizes that his life, filled with wealth and honor, was, nonetheless, empty, transient, absurd, and meaningless. In these respects, it seems that Solomon indeed wrote this text. (FYI, should the stories about Solomon in 1 Kings be historical in a sense that we understand the word or in a sense that social scientists recognize, we need other ancient documents that confirm the historical accuracy of the accounts in 1 Kings. But, at this point, we don’t go that further.)

But most scholars label the section, 1:12–2:26, as “Royal fiction.” In other words, the passage is not a historical account but a piece of novel or fiction that only reminds of Solomon’s royal court. Why do these scholars so often express such impious and blasphemous ideas?

Let’s look into whether or not this book’s author is Solomon step by step. We already discussed the circumstantial evidence of Solomonic authorship of the text. But, of course, it is still circumstantial, and can never be hard evidence that proves the Solomonic authorship. An anonymous writer can always pretend to be Solomon in his or her writings. We should not jump to the conclusion that Solomon wrote the book just because it alludes to it.

As a matter of fact, the name Solomon never appears in the book. The book of Proverbs at least reveals its author’s name as Solomon, but Ecclesiastes does not. My readers would perhaps think they actually saw the name Solomon somewhere in the book because they believe the book to be a writing of Solomon, but only the word “Qohelet” appears. I am not going to talk about the designation “Qohelet” here. Please see the previous post for this term. Anyway, Qohelet is definitely not Solomon. He is just Qohelet. Then why is he not Solomon?

(Please note that most scholars consider Proverbs to be a product written and developed by many sages rather than Solomon through the centuries even though it says it is Solomon’s)

Solomon is a son of David who lived in the 10th century BCE (or BC–I will explain why I use the term BCE later in another post). He is a person of the past approximately 3000 years: 3000! Every writing reflects its own time. The shows on TV or movies set in ancient or future times try to show imaginary scenes of daily life totally different from our times, but, often at the core of the shows or movies, they seriously deal with totally current political, social, cultural, economic, and ideological issues. And sometimes they even involuntarily betray scenes of so very current daily life that they intend to hide: meaning they are sometimes just clumsy in disguising. Interestingly, Ecclesiastes is not an exception.

The dating of Ecclesiastes is one of the most controversial subject matters in Ecclesiastes studies. Nevertheless, what I can tell you for sure is that no one dates the book to the time of Solomon, that is, the 10th Century BCE (or BE). Among many reasons, a very conclusive one is the appearance of the two Persian loan-words: “pardes” (orchard) and “pitgam” (verdict) in 2:5 and 8:11. It was about the 6th century BCE when the southern kingdom of Judah was subjugated by Babylonians, and after the 5th century BCE, the Persian empire conquest the whole Levant area, of course including Palestine previously owned by the Babylonian empire. This was the time when Judahites were getting familiar with the language of Persians. Therefore, any ancient Hebrew text that contains Persian loan-words can hardly be a product of the 10th century BCE. There is no consensus on the dating of the book yet, but a vast majority of Ecclesiastes scholars would date the book to the third century BCE or consider this date at least as the most probable date. Scholarly debates on this issue are too complex to discuss here, so I will skip that part. Anyway, my readers, then, would wonder why on earth this person called Qohelet wrote in disguise of Solomon, a son of David, a king in Jerusalem? Answers to this question depend very much on the reader’s understanding and interpretation, so I will not go any deeper about the interpretation of the book in this post. Anyway, who Qohelet really is, why he pretends to be Solomon in his writing, and to what end he writes this controversial book. . . these are the questions that are captivating for the reader. If you re-read the text once again today reminding yourself of the fact that an anonymous writer in the third century BCE, instead of Solomon, wrote the book, you would probably discover something very new that you have never imagined to find out before.

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