AN INTRODUCTION TO THE BOOKS OF THE OLD TESTAMENT. by W. O. E. Oesterley, D.D., Litt.D.,& T. H. Robinson, D.D., Litt.D. Hon. D.D. (Aberdeen), Hon. D.Th. (Halle Wittenberg). © W O E Oesterley & T H Robinson 1934. First published SPCK. 1934. - This edition prepared for katapi by Paul Ingram 2003.


HOME | Title. | Authorship. | The Character and Teaching of the Book. | The Influence of Greek Philosophy. | Date. | Canonicity. | The Hebrew Text and the Septuagint. 


In the Hebrew Bible the title of this book is Koheleth, usually translated "Preacher"; the word is feminine in form because, in Hebrew, titles and designations of office are usually indicated by the feminine form, "notwithstanding their occasional transference to masculine persons."

The word is, therefore, to be understood in the sense of one who "takes part in, or speaks in a religious assembly", hence the Septuagint: Ekklesiates, i.e. concionator, "preacher". [Gesenius-Kautzch, Para 122 q.v.]

It is from the Septuagint, through the Vulgate, that the title Ecclesiastes in the English Bible is derived.


In the opening verse of the book, "The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem," the claim is made that Solomon was the author; but that Solomon cannot have written the book is quite certain for the following reasons:

  1. The entire subject matter and the way in which it is dealt with is inconceivable in the tenth century BC. This will become sufficiently clear when the character and contents of the book are considered.
  2. The language in which the book is written is late and inelegant Hebrew, very different from the classical Hebrew of pre-exilic days. "The Hebrew language, which had been pure enough for some time after the return from Babylon, began to decay from the time of Nehemiah. The memoirs of Ezra and Nehemiah, and (in a less degree) the writing of Malachi, show signs of the change, which is still more palpable in the Chronicles, Esther, and Ecclesiastes."   [McNeile, An Introduction to Ecclesiastes, with Notes & Appendices, p.33 (1904).] The Hebrew is often reminiscent of that of the Mishnah; there are also many Aramaic words. [See for example, Cornill, Einleitung in das Alte Testament, p.249 (1896).]
  3. On occasion, the author writes not as a king, but as a subject, see iii.16; iv.1.

 These reasons are sufficiently convincing; there are others, of less importance, which also show that Solomonic authorship is impossible; but it will not be necessary to go into these.

Apart from a few obvious interpolations (e.g. iii.15, vii.18, ix.9b, .1a and .9- 14, which forms an appendix), unity of authorship is postulated by the majority of scholars. [See Ginsburg, Nowack, Cornill, Wildeboer, & more recently, Odeburg, Qohaeleth: a Commentary on the Book of Ecclesastes (1930).]

There is, however, one strong objection to be urged against this view, namely, the contradictory points of mental outlook, and assertions incompatible with one another, which occur fairly frequently. Some of these demand a little attention. In ii.24, e.g., it is said:

"There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink and make his soul enjoy good in his labour".

Of an entirely contradictory nature are the words of vii.2:

"It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting."

In ix. 2 the writer declares that

"all things come alike to all; there is one event to the righteous and to the wicked..."

But in viii.12, 13 quite a different view is put forth:

"Though a sinner do evil an hundred times, and prolong his days, yet surely I know that it shall be well with them that fear God, which fear before him; but it shall not be well with the wicked, neither shall he prolong his days, which are as a shadow; because he feareth not before God."

Again, in iv.2 it is said:

"Wherefore I praise the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive". But in ix.4 a very different view is presented: "For to him that is joined with all the living there is hope; for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they shall die; but the dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten."

And to give but one other example: in i.13 the writer says:

"I applied my heart to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is a sore travail that God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised therewith".

But in ii.13 it is said:

"Then I saw that wisdom excelleth folly, as far as light excelleth darkness."

These mutually exclusive utterances are difficult to account for on the hypothesis of unity of authorship. To explain them by saying that they reflect the varying moods of the author might be sufficient explanation if it were a question of spoken words. But for one and the same man to write down in cold blood, as it were, things that are so entirely contradictory, is repugnant to common sense.

There is much force, therefore, in McFadyen's contention that what appear as contradictions are in reality protests inserted in the text, not by the author, but by some others to whom much that was asserted was thoroughly distasteful.

"Doubtless these protests," he says, "could come from the preacher's own soul; but, considering all the phenomena, it is more natural to suppose that they were the protests of others who were offended by the scepticism and pessimism of the book, which may well have had a widespread circulation." [Introduction to the Old Testament, p.347 (1932).]

McNeile has put forth another line of argument against unity of authorship, perhaps even more convincing. He points to the probability that the book would naturally have created a great stir, since much that was written in it was not in accordance with orthodox Jewish teaching. But instead of being suppressed as heretical, one of the wise men of the time sought to "improve" it and enrich it

"by the addition of meshalim - more or less isolated apophthegms bearing on life and nature perhaps culled from various sources. [Op. cit., pp.22 ff.]

Some of these seem to be suggested by Koheleth's words, and correct or enlarge upon his remarks, but many are thrown in at random with no kind of relevance. In every case their frigid, didactic style is in strong contrast to the heat and sting of Koheleth's complaints."

McNeile then gives a list of these insertions. In some cases his argument is stronger than in others. But this was only the first step; something more was needed than the addition of maxims of worldly wisdom if the book was to be safely used by the orthodox;

"it must be made to give explicit statements which should fall into line with the accepted tenets of religion."

This was done, according to McNeile's theory, by one of the Hasidim, one of the "pious ones" often spoken of in some of the later Psalms, and mentioned in i Macc.ii.42. He gave a religious impress to the book, which was so sadly lacking by adding sentences that centre round two chief thoughts: the paramount duty of fearing and pleasing God, and the certainty of God's judgement on those who do not fear and please Him.

"The portions that appear to be due to him are seldom complete in themselves; they are tacked on to Koheleth's remarks, sometimes separating clauses that were clearly intended to be joined. In every case but one (v.1-7, Hebr.iv.17-v. 6) they are in direct opposition to Koheleth's spirit, if not to his actual words." [Op. cit., p.24.]

Some of the instances of the list of these additions are the same as the passages quoted above.

McNeile's twofold argument against unity of authorship is decidedly convincing.


The main theme of the book is the vanity, emptiness, and worthlessness of human life. A pessimistic outlook frequently finds expression, but it must be recognized, as Odeberg protests, that this is in large measure due to the aim of the book. It is intended to teach men to lead a better life, for which purpose the writer sets in vivid contrast to this the worldly life of every day, which is very hollow and foolish.

Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that the book does present a somewhat dismal outlook. It opens with a note of hopelessness:

"Vanity of vanities, all is vanity" (i.2),

and closes in a similar strain (.8). Life and labour are empty, purposeless. But inasmuch as man is placed in the world and must live his life, the only thing to do is to make the best of it, to eat and drink and enjoy oneself. And he is the truly wise man who acts under every circumstance in such a way as to secure a maximum of the material good to be got out of life (ii.24). Quite in tune with this pessimistic attitude is the theory of determinism that runs through the book. Man is a helpless being, everything is fixed, and there is nothing he can do to shape or alter the events of life (vii.13). But it is this very determinism to which is due the religious tone of the book, for all things are from God, even the power to enjoy life (vii.14), and therefore all must be done by man with a Godward view.

In spite of the many difficulties presented by the incongruities of life, there is a moral rule, for God is supreme. Man may be unable to understand many things (iii.11, vii.24, viii.17),

but "I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever; nothing can be put to it, nor anything taken from it; and God hath done it, that men should fear before Him" (iii.14).

The writer's intense belief in God, which is so often expressed in the book, would assuredly have suggested a more exalted conception of the life hereafter had the thought of the time been sufficiently advanced. But when this book was written (see § V below) a doctrine of immortality had not yet been attained. Hence the author says:

"For of the wise man, even as of the fool, there is no remembrance for ever; seeing that in the days to come all will have been already forgotten" (ii.16).

And more pointedly in ix.5:

" ...the dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten".

And in ix.10:

" ... for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in She'ol, whither thou goest," cp. ix.6.

In one passage, it is true, a speculation is expressed which is very suggestive:

"Who knoweth (with regard to) the spirit of the sons of men whether it goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast whether it goeth downward to the earth?" (iii.21).

But beyond that the writer could not penetrate. It is clear from the whole of his book that his ideas of the Hereafter coincided with the traditional She'ol belief.


That the language of our book shows any traces of Graecisms is very improbable.

McNeile has carefully examined all the instances in which, according to the opinion of Siegfried, Wildeboer, and others, Greek idioms and expressions are reflected. (Op. cit., p.39 ff.) His conclusion, with which many other scholars agree, is that

"though Koheleth has a few expressions that might have resulted from the prevailing Greek atmosphere of his time, there are none that demand this explanation. And several of the instances offered can be traced to the Greek language only by violence."

The position is somewhat different regarding Greek thought. But here again there is much divergence of opinion. In such passages, e.g., as i.4ff; iii.1-8, 22; vii.16, 17; viii.15; ix.3, 7; x.19; it may well be that the influence of Greek philosophy is to be discerned. On the other hand, the thoughts expressed may be nothing more than the reflection of the general mental atmosphere among cultured Jews generated by the Greek spirit, but not necessarily implying any direct knowledge of Greek philosophy. The subject is too large to be gone into here.

Ranston, who has treated it with much knowledge and discernment, holds that

"the evidence strongly suggests that Ecclesiastes was not widely or deeply acquainted with the early Greek literature, i.e. he had not read much of it. Had his reading knowledge been greater, signs of it would have been more clearly apparent. [Ecclesiastes & the Early Greek Literature (1925).]

The conclusion reached is that Koheleth, in his search for suitable proverbs (.9 f.), moved for a time in circles where the minds of the people were stored with the wisdom-utterances of the early sages mentioned by Isocrates as the outstanding teachers of practical morality, Theognis being the most important." [pp.149 f.]



From what has been said there can be little doubt as to the approximate date of our book. The Hebrew marks it as one of the latest books of the Old Testament. Its paucity of ideas shows that the religious spirit, so characteristic of the writers in Israel, had practically exhausted itself. And the influence of Greek culture, however superficial, suggests, at any rate, that it was written after the beginning of the Greek period. Hence circa 300BC is the earliest possible date, but half a century later is more probable.

The Maccabaean period, advocated by some scholars, is unacceptable. 

[The fact that it was known to Ben-Sira (Ecclesiasticus), written about 180BC, makes a Maccabean date impossible.]


Considering the religious standpoint of Ecclesiastes it is small wonder that it was the last of the Old Testament books to be received into the Hebrew Canon.

An echo of the controversy which raged in regard to it among the followers of Hillel and Shammai is contained in the Mishnah tractate Yadaim, iii.5, where it appears that the house of Hillel declared that Koheleth "defiled the hands,") i.e. was canonical, but that the house of Shammai disputed this. (See above p.4)

The date of this was about AD 100-120. In the end the Hillelites won the day. Not so much, however, on the ground that the contents of the book made it fitting that it should be regarded as canonical, but simply because for many years it had been tacitly accepted as Scripture.

That it should ever have appealed to Jews is a matter of surprise, and we entirely agree with Margoliouth when he maintains that "without the idea that Koheleth was Solomon one could scarcely imagine the work ever having been included in the Canon." [Jewish Encycl, v.34a.]


Taken as a whole, the Hebrew text, which is more or less rhythmical, has been handed down in a fairly good condition. There are not many seriously corrupt passages - among such are ii.12b; iii.11; iv.1, 17; v.17.

On the other hand, there are very many instances of the addition of isolated words, presumably inserted with the object of making the meaning clearer, though that object is by no means always achieved. Frequently, too, words have dropped out of the text, due doubtless to careless copying.

The Septuagint is of but small value in the case of Ecclesiastes. Here and there (e.g. iii.19, ix.1, 2, 4) it is helpful; but as a rule it does not throw much light on corrupt passages.

From the point of view of the study of the Greek text Ecclesiastes is of considerable interest, for it

"savours of the school of Aquila." [McNeile, op. cit., p.316.]

The subject is somewhat intricate. McNeile has dealt with it very thoroughly. He shows that an old Septuagint version was superseded by Aquila's version, and that, later, Aquila revised his translation himself; thus there were at one time three forms of the Greek text extant. [Op.cit., pp.115-134.]