The central thesis of Douglas’s revised dissertation at Marquette University is that Ecclesiastes represents a hybrid genre of “anti-apocalyptic” (pp. 1, 101) in that the book polemicizes against certain aspects of apocalyptic thought in order to recommend enjoyment of life in the here-and-now (pp. 1–2, 112). To establish this thesis, Douglas summarizes historical-critical and modern literary interpretations of Ecclesiastes, giving repeated attention to struggles of past scholars to understand Qoheleth’s contradictions and possible quotations of opponents (pp. 3–14). Douglas summarizes the message of the book as a call to accept life’s joys despite how life under the sun is short, the future is unpredictable, and we cannot change our lot in life (pp. 15–19). The first chapter finishes with a summary of previous suggestions for the genre of Ecclesiastes (e.g., a diatribe, a royal testament; pp. 19–24).
A discussion of the work of different genre theorists (such as E. D. Hirsch) constitutes the second chapter (pp. 25–45). Douglas’s emphasis falls on his definition of genre around the twin poles of historical setting and message (pp. 3, 45). Wisdom themes in apocalyptic texts occupy Douglas next. He spends the third chapter defining wisdom (pp. 47–52) and apocalyptic (pp. 57–60), presenting John J. Collins’s now-famous definition (The Apocalyptic Imagination [New York: Crossroad, 1987], 5–8). Douglas then investigates a number of Second Temple apocalypses, such as 1 Enoch and 2 Baruch, with regard to the presence of wisdom themes (pp. 62–100). Sirach is distinguished from other Second Temple Era texts as a wisdom text that argues against certain strains in wisdom thought (pp. 95–98).
The heart of the argument is found in Douglas’s fourth chapter. Returning to his definition of genre, Douglas locates the historical setting of Ecclesiastes around 200 BCE according to linguistic factors and the probable social location of a marginalized group in a politically troubled setting (p. 110). Douglas then argues that, since Qoheleth is a fictional persona, his opponents probably are as well (pp. 110–11). Three possibilities for such opponents are presented: traditional sages, apocalyptic sages, or apocalyptic seers (at this stage Douglas registers his dependence on the work of Leo Perdue). Douglas opts for the last of these options without fully considering the alternatives (that is to say, the commitment to an anti-apocalyptic message to Ecclesiastes seems to drive his position on Qoheleth’s opponents in a way that appears circular). On his reading, Qoheleth emphasizes the despair of his audience’s situation and exhorts them to enjoy life in the here-and-now, turning his audience away from hope in a mysterious, final plan for all of human history as revealed to a prophetic figure (p. 111). According to Douglas, the historical setting of Ecclesiastes within the matrix of Second Temple apocalypticism and wisdom thought illumines its function and message as a polemic against the former (p. 112). Douglas applies this thesis to three passages in Ecclesiastes, discussing, in order, 7:1–10, 3:10–22, and 9:4–6. Commenting on 9:4–6, Douglas explains that,in contrast to apocalyptic texts that narrate God’s special revelation of his mysterious plan for human history to a few seers, Qoheleth insists that human beings cannot know anything about the future except that they will die (p. 131). Similarly, Douglas is impressed with how different Eccl 3 is from apocalyptic texts that focus on the final judgment of the righteous and the wicked, immortality, and the knowledge of God and his plan for history. According to Douglas, Qoheleth does not think that God reveals his will to individuals (p. 122). A final chapter explores different rhetorical strategies in Ecclesiastes and their purpose (pp. 146–67).
Douglas’s central thesis is contestable on several fronts. The argument for the date of Ecclesiastes does not appear to grapple sufficiently with how Qoheleth’s gloomy statements about the human condition apply to all human beings in all times (e.g., 1:1–11; 6:10). It would have been interesting to see Douglas interact with C. L. Seow’s influential argument for a date earlier in the post-exilic period (Ecclesiastes, AB 18C [New York: Doubleday, 1997], 21–36). Furthermore, Douglas does not discuss the concluding poem in Eccl 12:1–8. Although it is true that a wisdom book like Ecclesiastes differs markedly from a book like Daniel, the funeral procession that closes the book draws many images from apocalyptic depictions of cosmic judgment: the sun and moon darken, everyone is frightened and troubled by what is happening, and so on. The otherwise unnamed narrator who introduces Qoheleth in 1:1 and comments on his words in 12:9–14 then speaks of a final judgment (12:14) which manifestly does not happen in this life. It looks as if the difference between Qoheleth and apocalyptic has been exaggerated. One also wonders if Qoheleth’s depiction of life under the sun—the ceaseless round of futile activity, year upon year, generation upon generation (1:2–11), without ever fully being able to grasp what God is doing in all of it (3:11; 8:17)—is really so discordant with an apocalyptic text that narrates revelation breaking in on the ceaseless round and revealing that divine work which man could never discover on his own. And is it necessary to interpret Qoheleth’s insistence that the future is always opaque to those living under the sun (9:4–6) as an assertion that special revelation never happens? Or is Qoheleth only pressing us to accept that, on our own and within our natural powers, we will never be able fully to predict and thus master our lives? Finally, Douglas offers no reflections on what implications this putative contradiction between Qoheleth’s view of the world and that of apocalyptic might have for our understanding of the canon and its theological consistency.
Douglas’s thesis is interesting but does not finally convince that Qoheleth should be read as a hybrid genre of anti-apocalyptic.comments powered by Disqus