Thomas Bolin, Ecclesiastes and the Riddle of Authorship. New York: Routledge, 2017.
Who is Qohelet, the author of Ecclesiastes? In his scholarly monograph Ecclesiastes and the Riddle of Authorship, Thomas Bolin does not offer a singular answer to this question. He is not interested in discovering the actual identity of the author of Qohelet—if there is indeed one stable authorial identity lurking in the past. Had he offered his own interpretation of Qohelet’s persona, Bolin would have collapsed the enigma into one potential construal of the text. Instead, Bolin collects and categorizes a vast array of potential solutions to the problem of Qohelet’s identity that readers have offered throughout history, and in the process, he perceives more clearly the irreducible puzzle of Ecclesiastes.
In short, Bolin argues that the well-known interpretive problems posed by the book of Ecclesiastes, and in particular the shadowy figure of Qohelet, are generative. Namely, they have provoked interpreters over the centuries to construct a seemingly endless series of authorial portraits that they then use to exclude certain interpretive possibilities and to ground their reading of the text. In this lively and well-written book, Bolin stands Qohelet scholarship on its head by analyzing interpretations of Ecclesiastes—in particular, mapping the varieties of portraits of its author, Qohelet—rather than simply offering one reading of the text. Bolin thus combines the work of scholars such as Jennifer Koosed, who has explored the question of Qohelet’s identity, and scholars such as Eric Christianson, who has collected interpretations of Ecclesiastes that span millennia. Along the way, Bolin interjects fascinating asides about such diverse topics as Greek mythology, the origins of biblical scholarship, and consumer culture.
In his introduction, Bolin notes the recurring tensions among the perceived authorial voices throughout the book of Ecclesiastes. Unlike many other biblical texts, Ecclesiastes presents itself as the words of an individual who speaks for himself and describes his own purported experiences and thoughts using the first person pronoun (“I”) without much of a narrator to set the stage. Bolin then contextualizes the concept of “author” in the ancient Near East and Hellenistic world before turning to Michel Foucault’s essay “What Is an Author?” to consider the changing functions of assigning authorship throughout history, which lays the theoretical groundwork for his project.
Bolin conceives of his project as reception history. While scholars have used the phrase “reception history” to mean just about anything, for Bolin the project of reception history leads to the discovery of new insights into the text’s structure and potential meaning. As such, Bolin does not simply amass interpretations into a long series of disconnected receptions, or into general categories of “Jewish” or “Medieval Christian” interpretations. Instead, Bolin proposes categories that gather receptions by their similar construals of Qohelet’s persona, and thus he discerns broader patterns of interpretation that cross boundaries of communal identity, space, and time. In one instance, Bolin finds deep similarities and differences in the interpretive work of Didymus the Blind, Hugo Grotius, and Choon-Leong Seow. These patterns in turn reveal several multivalent points in the text that consistently force readers to make certain choices. One can then discern the text's interpretive potentials by tracing the patterns of many different readers’ solutions to these points of flexion.
Each of Bolin’s categories constitutes a chapter of the book. They are as follows: (1) Qohelet as King Solomon; (2) Qohelet as a royal figure other than the historical Solomon; (3) Qohelet as a site of contradiction, either because contradictory voices were edited together or because Ecclesiastes collects the sayings of an individual that changed over time; (4) Qohelet as saint, sinner, or both; (5) Qohelet as a philosopher. Bolin points out that these categories overlap at times, which is unavoidable in reception history — Qohelet was depicted as King Solomon, a repentant sinner, for example — and I cannot think of any better articulations of the mass of reception. Bolin's categories reveal a dichotomy between two types of portraits of Qohelet, those that focus on a specific authorial identity (usually Solomon), versus those that depict a more general role, such as a natural philosopher (as in Jerome or Isaac ibn Ghayyat) or a stoic philosopher (as in Dominic Rudman). The third chapter depicts a slightly different mode of conceiving authorship—centering on the relationship between the putative identity of Qohelet and the problem of the text’s many contradictions. In this chapter, Bolin focuses on disputes about the frame narration (1:1; 7:27; 12:9-14) as well as the possibility of redaction or the compilation of heterogenous voices in the text, since readers often posit multiple authors to contain and explain contradictions. By combining these interpretations into one category, Bolin shows us the formal similarities between the work of scholars as diverse as Abraham Ibn Ezra, Gregory the Great, Martin Luther, and Michael Fox.
Throughout each chapter, Bolin often helpfully adds his own assessments of readings, concluding that some are more or less convincing representations of the text’s meaning; but nevertheless, he includes interpretations even if he finds them less successful as readings.
Bolin readily admits that he cannot cover the breadth of all reception of Ecclesiastes, just as no work of reception history can aspire to exhaust the subject. But Bolin’s project articulates a generative categorization of potential construals of the character Qohelet. Other scholars can continue the work of adding to and refining his categories. Overall, instead of arranging a “scrapbook of effects” (a phrase coined by Rachel Nicholls in her study Walking on the Water: Reading Mt. 14:22-33 in the Light of its Wirkungsgeschichte), Bolin builds a categorization tool to help us understand Qohelet in a more expansive sense. I am grateful for Bolin’s careful reading of my own work in reception history in his introduction, but I am even more grateful for the ways that he improves upon my work. Ecclesiastes and the Riddle of Authorship has already proven generative for my own scholarship, and I anticipate that it will prove productive for others.
Dr. Brennan Breed is the Assistant Professor of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary.