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The End of Wisdom
A Reappraisal of the Historical and Canonical Function of Ecclesiastes
by Martin A. Shields
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Table of Contents
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Through the ages, the book of Ecclesiastes (Qoheleth) has elicited a wide variety of interpretations. Its status as wisdom literature is secure, but its meaning for the religion of the Hebrew Bible and its heirs has been a matter of much debate. The debate has swung from claiming orthodoxy for the book to arguing that the message intended by its author is heterodox, in its entirety. There are a number of passages in the book that present difficulties for any comprehensive approach to the work. Martin Shields here fully acknowledges the heterodox nature of Qoheleth's words but offers an orthodox reading of the book as a whole through the eyes of the author of the epilogue. After a survey of attitudes regarding wisdom in the Hebrew Bible itself, which serves as an orientation to the monograph as a whole, Shields provides a detailed study of the epilogue (Qoh 12:9-14), which he believes is the key to the reading of the remainder of the book. He then addresses various problematic texts in the book in light of this perspective, arguing that the book could originally have functioned as a warning to students against joining a wisdom movement that existed at the time of the book's composition. Qoheleth is presented as a true adherent of this movement, and the divergence of his words from the theism presented in the rest of the Hebrew Bible becomes the basis of the epilogue's critique.
Finally, Shields proposes a historical context in which just this scenario may have arisen, showing that the desire of the writer of the epilogue is to correct a wayward wisdom tradition.
Publication date: 2006
Bibliographic info: xiii + 250 pages
"Shields delivers his thesis well and his exegesis alone is worth the price of the book. He interfaces with all the major commentaries and authors on the book. The author chooses in most cases to work with the Masoretic text rather than emend the sometimes obscure Hebrew of Qoheleth...the book is a must for anyone who works with the Hebrew text. Shields is to be congratulated for his contribution to the challenging task of understanding Qoheleth."
--Donald Fowler, Liberty University, Lynchburg, VA, in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 49/3.
"The presence of a book in the Bible, whose main theme is that everything is utterly senseless, is an enigma. Ecclesiastes (or Qohelet, in Hebrew), is a difficult book to interpret, eliciting a wide range of views, from claims of orthodoxy to accusations of heterodoxy. Qohelet presents a pessimistic view on life, which might seem to invalidate the overall message of biblical literature...The author meticulously elaborates his theory, beginning with an overview of attitudes to wisdom in the Bible itself to demonstrate the existence of an identifiable group of sages in ancient Israel. He concludes that divine wisdom, which originates with God, is seen
favourably, whereas human wisdom, which rests solely in the application of human intellect to life, is almost always presented in a negative light in the biblical texts. The next step is to provide a detailed study of the epilogue (Ecc 12:9-14), which Shields believes is the key to the book and the redeeming feature of a work which otherwise would seem out of place in the biblical canon.
He concludes, on page 109, that the writer of the epilogue (who is not Qohelet) has used Qohelet's words to reveal the true state of the wisdom movement, and to shock the audience. The epilogist offers an alternative way of the sages by pointing the readers back to the commands of God and warning that all will have to account for their deeds. The remainder of the book from page 110 to page 235 examines each verse of the twelve chapters. The author's justification is that the ultimate test for the interpretation expounded in the epilogue lies in the actual words of Qohelet."
--Marianne Dacy NDS, University of Sydney, in Austraian Biblical Review, Vol. 54, 2006.
"Shields dedicates the opening forty-five pages to surveying wisdom in the Hebrew Bible and concludes that wisdom is of two kinds: divinely revealed (viewed positively) and human (viewed negatively). S. suggests that any form of intellectual activity outside the revelation of Yhwh is consistently condemned by the author of the Hebrew Bible. S. reads the most informative texts about wisdom as unambiguous statements. The Joseph story basically commends Joseph's ability to receive revelation, not his wisdom. Proverbs basically commends divinely revealed wisdom and a reliable and predictable moral order that remains unquestioned. Job basically refutes the doctrine of retribution and undermines the wisdom tradition by exposing the futility of human understanding. This grouping of textual ideas informs S.'s approach throughout."
--Eric Christianson, University of Chester, England, in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 69, 2007.
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