Qoheleth. Translated by Sean McEvenue. Continental Commentary

By Norbert Lohfink
Minneapolis : Fortress (2003). xviii + 158 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. William Barrick
16.1 (Spring 2005) : 162-164

Lohfink’s German commentary on Ecclesiastes was first published in 1980. This translation is a revision of the German edition that makes the English “a new, and henceforth the only, authentic version” (ix). An English translation of Ecclesiastes opens the commentary (19-34) and introduces each exegetical section. McEvenue translated the text from the Hebrew, while following the exegetical decisions Lohfink made in his German translation of Ecclesiastes (xi). Formerly Professor of OT at Sankt Georgen Seminary in Frankfurt, Germany, Lohfink is now retired.

In his introduction (1-17), Lohfink hypothesizes a setting in 3rd-century- B.C. Jerusalem and Alexandria under the Ptolemids. Setting the book in the Hellenistic Period, he believes it was a textbook for Jews in Jerusalem (11-12), although he often understands the text’s reference to be Alexandria rather than Jerusalem (50 [2:3-10], 104 [8:1b-4], 125-26 [10:2-3], 129-31 [10:16-17, 20]). Qoheleth supposedly exhorted the Jews to utilize the Greek worldview as a stepping stone to success in a very competitive climate (5-6, 118-19).

For Lohfink, similarities exist between modern existentialism and Qoheleth’s philosophy (viii-ix, 14). He also sees parallels between Qoheleth and Jesus (16- 17). At the same time, he believes that “the decisive characteristic of Qoheleth’s theory of knowledge” is agnosticism (110).

Throughout the commentary, Lohfink theorizes that the text has been repeatedly manipulated by editors and copyists (3, 12-13, 136). Yet, late in the volume, he admits that “no theory attempting to show a variety of hands at work in the history of the book’s composition has proven to be convincing” (143). In addition, he treats the autobiographical sections as fiction (44, 55). Throughout the commentary, he cites parallels from Greek writers and philosophers of the Hellenistic Period to support his conclusions (e.g., Archimedes, Euripides, Menander, Pindar, Simonides). Interestingly, Lohfink mentions the parallels in the Gilgamesh Epic (4, 119-20), the Egyptian harp songs (119-20), and Assyrian sources (124), but denies that kind of antiquity to Qoheleth. At one point he cites archaeology in support of his 3rd century dating (141) in reference to the much-debated “wheel” at the well (12:6), which Iain Provan (Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, NIV Application Commentary [Zondervan, 2001] 218) identifies as a “bowl” or “water pitcher.”

As for the content of Ecclesiastes, Lohfink sees an elaborate structure of interlocking chiasms and linkwords (7-8). Although his analysis has some merit and contributes to an understanding of the book as a whole, some of the chiasms might be considered imaginative. For continuity, McEvenue translates the recurring Ehebel (traditionally “vanity”) with “breath” in most places. At 3:11 the translation departs from “in their heart” to read, “he has put eternity in all of it,” although a note refers to the alternative (58). Lohfink’s interpretation of 7:26-28 resonates with radical feminism in taking liberties with the text. He identifies the passage as antiwoman talk typical of male youth culture: “This is the type of thing one says when a classmate from the old school, a member of a sport team, or a military buddy is going to get married. And it gets a laugh” (102).

Although Lohfink’s commentary has many problems, he at least avoids the error of concluding that pessimism is the philosophical core of Qoheleth. He rightly understands the book’s theme of living joyfully in spite of one’s situation in this life—even in the face of inevitable death (44, 62, 134-35). Ultimately, those denying Solomonic authorship will have a greater appreciation of this volume than those, like this reviewer, who adhere to Solomonic authorship (see Gleason Archer, “The Linguistic Evidence for the Date of ‘Ecclesiastes,’” JETS 12 [1969]:167-81.). Lohfink’s bibliography (145-50) ignores Archer’s seminal essay as well as the best of English commentaries, such as Michael A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary, TOTC (InterVarsity, 1983), and Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, NAC (Broadman & Holman, 1993).