Ecclesiastes through the Centuries (Blackwell Bible Commentaries). By Eric S. Christianson


Pp xvi, 314 , Oxford , Blackwell Publishing , £50.00 .

Another fascinating and endlessly readable entry in Blackwell's series on the history of interpretation of the various biblical books, Christianson's work on Ecclesiastes is particularly quotable and full of pithy insight owing to the nature of its focal text. As if to celebrate this fact he opens with 16 pages of ‘testimonia’, citing the great, the good, and the frankly obscure in their interpretative embrace of the ‘preacher’– the choicest quote being ‘Ecclesiastes … thinks it best to let sleeping dogmas lie … [He] is a free-lance humanist.’ (John Paterson, 1950). There follows an overview in trends in the history of interpretation, beginning with nothing less than a ‘history of reception histories’, before ploughing into the various chapters section-by-section. 1:1–2 take a fair amount of attention: one is past p.140 before arriving at 1:3, although admittedly much of the analysis of ‘vanity of vanities’ is very interesting. Christianson tracks five main paradigms of reading the phrase, which he labels ‘contemptus mundi’, ‘anti-contemptus mundi’ (from Luther onwards), ‘Renaissance vanitas’ (typically in high art), ‘literary vanitas’, and contemporary vanitas (T.S. Eliot, Charles Laughton playing Rembrandt …).

This taste of the scope and nature of the project lays bare its great strengths as well as the one nagging question regarding the series as a whole. The strengths lie in the coverage of significant swathes of the text's post-history so easily lost from sight in the academic conventions of biblical criticism. (The most startling example is Christianson's observation about how few commentators ever note the use of 3:1–8 in the Byrds 1960's anthem ‘Turn Turn Turn’– he finds only one commentator who mentions it.) Although aside from 1:1–2 and 12:1–7 the treatment is generally brief, the coverage is immense, and the pervading influence of the book goes beyond specifics. As Christianson helpfully expresses it towards the end: ‘readers have not ‘received’ a coherent idea from Qoheleth. What they have received, in abundance, is the spirit of his persona, the whole distilled essence of his brooding presence’. (p. 256) This sits particularly well with those celebrated definitions of the postmodern as ‘a mood’– as well as explaining the frequently allusive nature of many of the ‘receptions’ of the text in this book.

The nagging question concerns the point of having all this information laid before us. To his credit, and unlike some other volumes in the series, Christianson does tackle this head on in the ‘hermeneutical postscript’. Here he asks how Ecclesiastes might ‘measure up’ in contemporary exegetical terms, and recalls a review of Jerome's interpretation of the book which was described (by no less an authority than J.N.D. Kelly) as ‘worse than useless’ (!). Christianson however concludes that ‘there is something wrong-headed about the very question of fidelity to our own exegesis’ (p. 261) and suggests that reception history should inform the discipline of biblical studies by relativising our own readings and horizons, thus enabling us to ‘re-imagine the disposition of Qoheleth’ and re-situate him. This final word does feel a little like arriving at the point of inquiry rather than concluding the inquiry, although what is on offer here is indispensable to such a task.

The book is well indexed, and bears copious bibliographies, as well as a useful chart of ‘the quotable Qoheleth – Ecclesiastes in popular discourse’. I found that I had browsed through large sections of the book before ‘properly’ taking it up to read, and that in fact reading through it was a less rewarding project than browsing in it, inadvertently confirming my suspicion that a work such as this is delightful in many ways without necessarily being a resource to which one would often turn in the course of teaching Ecclesiastes, except that it will furnish educated illustrations for lectures and any stray sermons. While one may congratulate Christianson on a thorough project admirably achieved, it remains to be seen whether the Blackwell Bible Commentaries will have a more wide-ranging significance than this.