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Is There Any Point To Life? More on Ecclesiastes

I have been talking about the distinctive views of the book of Ecclesiastes, one of the real gems of the Hebrew Bible, a book that refuses to accept easy answers or blithe truisms about life, but faces reality head on.   No matter what we do or how we try to explain it away, life is short.  Very very short.  The author of course had no conception of what we know now about time in relation to lifespan.  What would he say if he knew that the world (what we would call the universe — something about which also he had no knowledge) was not a few thousand years old but 13.8 billion?

My guess is that he would say the same thing he already does, but possibly with a few more explanation points.   Given how incredibly brief our life is, even if we live to “old” age — what’s the point of it?  Is there a point?   I think there is.  And I find not just value but also hope in his reflections.   Here is the final bit of what I say about it in my book The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction  (starting right before where I left off yesterday).

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The ultimate problem is that no matter how much wisdom you gain, or how many possessions you accumulate, or how many pleasures you enjoy – in the end, you die, and then you are no different from a miserable, impoverished fool:  “the same fate befalls all… for there is no enduring remembrance of the wise of or fools, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten” (2:14, 16).

Moreover, Qoheleth finds no comfort in the traditional teachings of positive wisdom.  In no small measure this is because in his experience, they simply are not true: “In my vain life I have seen everything; there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evildoing” (7:15; see also 8:14); “Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all” (9:11-12).

And one should not think that …

 The reflections of this ancient speaker of wisdom are well worth hearing today, and anyone who belongs to the blog can keep reading.  It is easy and inexpensive to join — free just now for anyone who wants a two-month membership.  And for those who are willing to pay the small membership fee, every nickel you pay goes to help the hungry and homeless.  So either way, JOIN!

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What Is The Meaning of Life? The Book of Ecclesiastes

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Amos1910  April 20, 2020

    Would you recommend any resource(s) on the concluding addition to the text? I have heard this claim before and I’d love to know what are the markers, other than its dissonance with the full text and tone of what came beforehand, e.g. grammar, vocabulary, textual variants? Thanks in advance Dr Ehrman (and/or any other knowledgeable followers).

    • Bart
      Bart  April 21, 2020

      I don’t have access to all my books right now, but I would think a good place to look would be James Crenshaw’s commentary on Ecclesiastes. A good general resource on the Hebrew Bible is John Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible.

  2. Avatar
    longdistancerunner  April 20, 2020

    Hey!
    I like this Quoheleth fella!

  3. Avatar
    godspell  April 20, 2020

    Isn’t that what all those people rebelling against the social distancing and lockdown are doing? Not what the author of Ecclesiastes has in mind, but it’s quite compatible.

    It’s a valuable answer, but an incomplete one. One piece of a very large puzzle. We can’t just live for ourselves. We’re not built that way. We aspire to much more. And to deny those aspirations is to deny ourselves.

  4. Avatar
    WhenBeliefDies  April 20, 2020

    Very interesting!

    Why didn’t the group that added in their final ‘God & Judgement’ focus not also edit the text within the book itself to make it align with their religious convictions? Seems halfhearted?

    When would do you think this group added these final words in, compared to the dating of the original text itself? 600 BCE.

    I wonder what people would have though if they read two versions next to each other. Fasinating.

    Cheers for this blog Bart – I just came across it and am loving it.

    Sam – aka When Belief Dies

    • Bart
      Bart  April 21, 2020

      The original text would have been in the 3rd or 4th c. BCE; the addition? No telling, really. Within a hundred years or so? It’s much easier to add a few lines than edit and entire text, which is probably why that’s they way the scribe did it (same with the book of Amos)

  5. Avatar
    Nichrob  April 20, 2020

    Is there proof that the end was added later like Mark where earlier copies have been found without the add summary? Or, is the added ending a scholarly hypothesis and if yes, is it a consensus within the scholarly community?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 21, 2020

      There aren’t a lot of manuscripts of the book, of coruse, unlike Mark; but all of them have the ending. The “proof” is internal evidence, not external. Within critical scholarship, yes, this the standard view.

      • Avatar
        brasmuss  April 28, 2020

        Hi Dr. Ehrman. Could you please point me to which of your writings where you discuss the multiple different copies we have of the Gospel of Mark and the differences between them? Thank you so much!

        • Bart
          Bart  May 1, 2020

          I don’t have a book devoted to just that question. The closest thing would be Misquoting Jesus, but there I only talk about a few of the important variants in Mark among the mss (I do more in the Orthodox Corruption of Scripture)

  6. Avatar
    jagreen  April 20, 2020

    Interesting, I literally just asked a Christian friend today if he had ever wondered why the last few verses seemed to so abruptly shift the entire theme of the book. That you posted on this topic today is clearly providence…or is it chance occurrence? Ha, I jest, but on a serious note I would be interested in what evidence would lead us to believe verses 9-14 of the last chapter are redactions. Are there any other scholarly writings on the matter?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 21, 2020

      Clearly providence! The evidence is the tenor, tone, and contradictory view of the passage. For a brief discussion of the matter see John Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible and the fuller commentary by James Crenshaw Ecclesiastes (I’ve checked Collins, he defintely makes this argument; I don’t have access to many books just now, so I’m assuming Crenshaw argues the same thing, knowing his scholarship)

  7. Avatar
    AstaKask  April 20, 2020

    I feel like he would have much in common with Epicuros.
    This reminds me of the quote from the Epic of Gilgamesh:
    “Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to? You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.”

  8. Avatar
    Stephen  April 20, 2020

    A little internet research reveals no direct reference to Ecclesiastes in the New Testament although Paul mentions the “eat drink and be merry” outlook in I Cor 15:32 and the author of James comes closest in 4:14.

    “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”

    So…what was the attitude of the early church towards Ecclesiastes in the first centuries of its existence?

    thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  April 21, 2020

      We don’t really know. It’s not talked about much. Never was one of the favorite books of Scripture…

  9. Avatar
    fishician  April 20, 2020

    In v. 12:7 it says, “the spirit will return to God who gave it.” Is he simply saying that the life force leaves the body, or is this also a possible insertion like vv. 13 & 14? (those verses remind me how the lesson of Job is totally undone by the fairy tale ending added later!)

    • Bart
      Bart  April 21, 2020

      Yeah, hard to know. Life comes from God and teh breath is what provides the life, so it’s probably not saying that the breath is a defined entity that then goes to live with God, just that God removes it from the person.

  10. Avatar
    nichael  April 20, 2020

    To try to keep this succinct, I’ve always read Qoheleth’s answer to the original question, “Is There Any Point To Life?”, to be:

    Yes, of course. However, it is not granted externally, from the outside (by God, the universe, etc). Any such “point” (or “meaning”) we create, both as individuals and as a culture. But that doesn’t make it any less real.

  11. Avatar
    MichaelM  April 20, 2020

    What is the evidence of the late inclusion of 13:13-15 to the text other than the change in perspective? Clearly that is a giant about-face from the rest of the work. But is there additional evidence?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 21, 2020

      The evidence is the tenor, tone, and contradictory view of the passage. For a brief discussion of the matter see John Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible and the fuller commentary by James Crenshaw Ecclesiastes (I’ve checked Collins, he defintely makes this argument; I don’t have access to many books just now, so I’m assuming Crenshaw argues the same thing, knowing his scholarship)

  12. Avatar
    RICHWEN90  April 20, 2020

    I’ve always found the last bit of Ecclesiastes discordant and suspected redaction. Now I know. I’m just going to line out that part. Thanks for clarifying!

  13. Avatar
    AstaKask  April 20, 2020

    You said on the Webinar that the Lake of Fire comes from the Book of Revelation. Do we know where he got it from, or was it original to him?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 21, 2020

      No, he doesn’t tell us. But it was common trope in ancient thought that the wicked would be punished in fire (just as criminals were burned at the stake.)

  14. Avatar
    cngare  April 20, 2020

    Hi Bert, thank you for this wonderful post. Ecclesiastes also happens to be my favorite book especially for its sheer raw realism. I am curious about your claim that 13:13-15 is a later edit. Is there some textual criticism to illustrate this or do you say that only because the assumptions in the passage goes against the claims of the preceding passages?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 21, 2020

      The evidence is the tenor, tone, and contradictory view of the passage. For a brief discussion of the matter see John Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible and the fuller commentary by James Crenshaw Ecclesiastes (I’ve checked Collins, he defintely makes this argument; I don’t have access to many books just now, so I’m assuming Crenshaw argues the same thing, knowing his scholarship)

  15. Avatar
    Yvonne  April 20, 2020

    I am glad you posted this. This is my favorite book also but I did not know about the
    add on at the end.

  16. Avatar
    AbdulRahman  April 20, 2020

    Hello Professor Ehrman,
    My name is Isa, and I have joined your blog for the 2 month free trial which you informed me about, thank you!
    I have a question to ask you: Are there any reliable sources which prove the occurrence of Jesus’ crucifixion, other than the canonical gospels?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 21, 2020

      It is multiply attested outside the Gospels as well, eg., in Paul, Acts, 1 Peter, etc. One of the few things Josephus says about Jesus is that he was executed under Pilate; and it is one of the few things the earliest Roman sources say about Jesus (Tacitus).

      • Avatar
        brasmuss  April 28, 2020

        Hi Dr. Ehrman, love this commentary on Ecclesiastes, thank you! Isn’t the Testimonium Flavianum in The Antiquities of the Jews of Josephus another analogous case where the scholarly consensus is that it was added much later and not actually what Josephus wrote? I was reminded in how, like you said, Josephus confirms that Jesus was crucified under Pilate, but then suddenly he takes a sharp left turn and testifies that Jesus was actually the Messiah. Just thought that this is another such case of how texts were forged over centuries when the actual contents of the writing no longer jived with the new religious convictions of the people, in this case the triumphant Christians. Thanks!

        • Bart
          Bart  May 1, 2020

          No, that’s not the consensus, but it’s certainly an important minority view. My sense is that the consensus is that the Testimonium as a whole goes back to Josephus, but that it’s been expanded by a Christian scribe who wanted to insert affirmations of the messiahship of jesus into it.

  17. kt@rg.no
    kt@rg.no  April 20, 2020

    Looking from an external perspective such claims are relevant,,,,,,,,,,,but from an internal perspective the question makes no sense. From an internal persepctive,,,,,,,,,,yes,,,one might lean on even Quantum physics,,,esoterical traditions (mystics) i.e. the claimed esoteric/”mystic”basis of the Hebrew Bible,,,,,,,that the human spirit and soul were first created in the spiritual world as a part of God. (Adam Kadmon,,,the first man in spirit,,a devine light without a vessel. ) Well,,the Genesis claims, and confirms that human are created in the likeness of God!!!!!!!!!!!!! “likeness”,,,and as devine vessels (Genisis, Psalme 82.6,,,,,,,,,John 10:34),,,and more.

    All from a Quantum Physics ,,,from a Jewish mystic who claim originated the Hebrew Bible whom many modern orthodox Jews accept,,,,and from a main stream religion (like Hinduism, example from Pataljanis Yoga Sutra ),,,,,,,and more,,,,,claim our devine heritage ,,our devine essence,,,where our spirit and souls origin.

    If they claim that we derive from the devine,,,and we descended through more and more dense counsiousnesses (worlds as the Jewish mystics call it),, and will be on our way back,,,we still “are”! , and the always been.

    From such an internal perspective, the question is probably difficult to understand and answer.

  18. Avatar
    Poohbear  April 20, 2020

    Solomon was once a man after God’s own heart. His writing in Ecclesiastes reflects a man who maintained a religious belief but it was now stripped of its living spirit. He had grown darker. He had opportunity, like no other Jew before or since, to see for himself how vain was power and riches.

    Solomon’s first book, Song, was very much a physically sensual book. His next book, (probably a compilation of Jewish Proverbs) was about wise living. Such as you could find anywhere.
    Solomon never had the relationship with God that his father had. David cried, “Bow down thine ear for I am poor and needy.”
    All Solomon could say is, “Bow down thine ear and hear the words of my wisdom.”
    Solomon, like Eli the priest, twice ignored warnings by God. Now all he could do in his last book was exhort others to obey – as was his Kingly role. It was an appeal to reason but not to spirit. The love was gone.

    • Avatar
      robgrayson  April 21, 2020

      Solomon didn’t write Ecclesiastes. (See Bart’s earlier posts in this series.)

  19. Avatar
    veritas  April 20, 2020

    On a side note, I enjoyed your talk and Q & A on Heaven and Hell. I learned quite a bit of material I never knew and you defined well the history in the short time you had. Back to the post. So the ending of the book is a later addition to bring God into prominence as you say. Just wondering about chapter 8 ; 16-17, ” When I applied my mind to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night one’s eyes see sleep; then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out; even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out”. What is he referring to here ? Is the passage saying, God’s work is incomprehensible and as mortals we will not get answers here so keep living the best you can ? Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 21, 2020

      I guess he’s saying we have limited knowledge of everything that God is doing.

  20. Avatar
    timcfix  April 21, 2020

    I don’t read KJV so I do not have a 15 (12:13-15), but I put a note on what I have. On the subject of long life. The early fathers like Mathuselah still feeling the residual of the tree-of-life seemed not able to get humanity beyond goat herding. I guess the practice of getting a lot done in a short time versus getting nothing done in a long time is true. That is why life is short, humanity will just waist a long life. Only in the book “Glory Road” by Robert Heinlein did those with a long life make any progress. In RR Tolkien “Lord of the Rings” the elves lived 3000 years and never got passed bows and arrows.

    • Avatar
      timcfix  April 21, 2020

      Sorry, wasn’t “Glory Road”

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