What/Who on earth is Qohelet?

*This post was originally published bilingually in English as well as Korean back in 2017. Now the post is separated in each language. For the Korean version, see  this.

Qohelet is the protagonist of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible. In some (older) English translations, including ESV, KJV, ASV, RSV, and WEB, the word “Qohelet” is translated as “the Preacher.” In some other translations, such as NIV and NRSV, the word appears as “the Teacher.” Additionally and unusually, Good News Bible (GNB) takes the word as the “Philosopher,” and Common English Bible (CEB) as “the Teacher of Assembly.” Among the translations, the most well-known designation is the “Preacher.” But Qohelet is not really a preacher or a teacher in the sense that we usually understand the terms. Perhaps, Qohelet could be seen as a teacher, since his writing, known as Ecclesiastes, is edifying after all. But the Hebrew word, “Qohelet,” does not mean “teacher.” Also, we do not call every speaking subject who provides moral and intellectual lessons teacher.

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The word, “Qohelet” is an English transliteration of a Hebrew word, קהלת (Qohelet), the participle feminine singular form of the root, קהל (Qahal). While the meaning of “Qohelet” is uncertain, we know the meaning of its root קהל; it means “to assemble.” So the ancient translators considered that the word has something to do with a gathering of people, such as assembly and congregation, which is rendered as εκκλησια in Greek; so the word was translated as Εκκλησιασής, meaning “a member of the assembly.” (One should note that “Ecclesia” does not necessarily mean “church.”) Like other designations such as “preacher” or “teacher,” nonetheless, “a member of assembly” does not properly or correctly represent Qohelet’s identity. Anyway, later, this Greek translation became Latinized as “Ecclesiastes,” and, obviously, that word became the title of this book in most English translations. The word, “Ecclesiastes,” though a mistranslation, indicates the person Qohelet as well as the book. Martin Luther followed the Greek mistranslation in his translation of the word קהלת (Qohelet). In his translation, Luther chose the word “der Prediger” meaning “the preacher,” which he seemed to consider to be related to the word, “assembly” or “congregation.”

But this Hebrew word, “Qohelet,” appears only in the book of Ecclesiastes among all ancient documents written in Hebrew, so its meaning is uncertain. And as indicated, the translations, such as “the preacher” or “the teacher,” do not properly represent the meaning of “Qohelet.” So, in Tanakh, a Hebrew Bible translation published by the Jewish Publication Society (JPS), the protagonist of this book is simply transliterated as “Koheleth.” For the same reason, I also use a transliteration of the word instead of much-disputed translations, such as “preacher” or “teacher.” There are a few ways to transliterate the word, and among them are “Qohelet,” “Qoheleth,” and “Koheleth.” And my choice is “Qohelet,” as it is, to my knowledge, a most widely used rendering of the word.

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