Episode 22: Fatalism

The Old Testament, Part 8 of 10. If there is one Biblical book that explains all of life, thick and thin, love and anguish, that book is probably Ecclesiastes.

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The Book of Ecclesiastes

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 22: Fatalism. This is the eighth of ten shows on the Old Testament, and this program is about one of the most memorable and complex books in the Bible – the Book of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes, a fair amount of evidence shows, was likely a product of the Persian period of ancient Israel’s history – a period in which the largest empire the world had yet known extended its reaches across the central Eurasian land mass, at its greatest extent, stretching to Egypt and Thrace in the west all the way to the Indus Valley in the east. Persian rule brought stability, trade, religious diversity, and people from all over the world to Jerusalem, and the Israelites who rebuilt their civilization after the Babylonian Captivity benefited from all of these. I think that in order to understand the Book of Ecclesiastes, and moreover the Second Temple period of Judaism, it’s useful to know a bit of ancient history, and a bit about the vast, administratively complex, and religiously tolerant expanses of the Achaemenid Persian Empire.

The three world empires that were seated in modern day Iran – these were the Achaemenid, Parthian, and Sasanian Empires, stretched from the rule of Cyrus the Great in 550 BCE all the way down to the fall of the Sasanians in 651 CE, following the Rashidun Caliphate’s invasion of Persian territory. Thus, a gigantic empire persisted in the Ancient Near East and Central Asia, for 1,200 years, practicing variations of the same religion – Zoroastrianism – and having significant cultural continuity from century to century. For fully 1,200 years, Persian Zoroastrians were neighbors with Jewish Hebrew and Aramaic speakers, from the period when the Second Temple was being built in the second half of the 500s BCE, all the way down to the time when, following wars with Rome and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Jews were increasingly settling in Mesopotamia, where much of the Talmud was authored during Late Antiquity. For the second half of the 1,200 years of Persian imperial history, Parthian and Sasanian Zoroastrians were also neighbors with Christians. Because of the massive era during which these two and then three cultures overlapped, it’s a wonder that, between the three of them, ancient Persian cultural history gets shortchanged so much. One reason for this is that more recent history has been such that modern archaeologists have not been able to excavate ancient Persian capitals like Ecbatana, Persepolis, Susa, and Ctesiphon. Archaeologists uncovered a sizable cache of tens of thousands of clay tablets written in Elamite cuneiform in Persepolis, but in spite of this promising discovery, with state leadership being what it is in modern-day Iran, researchers haven’t been encouraged to investigate the country’s pre-Islamic past. Additionally, Zoroastrians are a tiny population of believers today, scattered in diaspora and most heavily concentrated in the Indian state of Gujarat, and so in spite of the fact that their religion was the predominant faith of a huge part of the world’s population for more than a thousand years, as I record this, no omnibus translation of Zoroastrian scriptures exists for the curious Anglophone reader.

Today, we generally encounter Achaemenid, Parthian, and Sasanian Persian culture in the context of the ancient history of Greece and Rome. The Byzantines and the Sasanians were frequently at war with one another, just as Rome, at various expansionist junctures, attempted to balloon further eastward into Mesopotamia, and in doing so, fought the Parthians. But most famously, the Achaemenid Persians, under the leadership of emperors Darius and then Xerxes, gobbled up Asia Minor and the eastern Aegean during the late 500s BCE, and then, from there, in the 490s, 480s, and 470s, attempted to conquer mainland Greece. So, while the Book of Ecclesiastes was a product of the city of Jerusalem, some time during the Second Temple period, and perhaps during the very years of the Greco-Persian Wars, we’re going to start our show today in the foothills around a city called Plataea, about thirty miles northwest of Athens on the Greek mainland, on a hot summer day in the year 479 BCE. This will be an unusually long introduction, by the way, before we actually get to Ecclesiastes. But Achaemenid Persian culture dominated much of the Second Temple period of ancient Jewish history, not to mention Classical Greek history, so it’s worth taking twenty minutes to learn the basics of the Achaemenid Empire, which ruled so much of the ancient world between about 550 and 332 BCE. [music]

Yehud and the Early Persian Period

Palestine under the Persians Smith 1915

The province of Judea, where post-exilic Jews lived from the fall of Babylon in 539 until the western conquests of Alexander of Macedon.

While the Psalms, the books of Ezra, and Nehemiah, and Esther, and possibly Ecclesiastes were being written, the Persian Empire was at war far to the west, in the lands of the Aegean. The Israelites still thought of themselves as the fulcrum of history, but to the Persian Empire, modern-day Israel and the area around it was just another small territory to be superintended by a regional governor and fleeced for taxes. Contrary to, say, the late 800s, or 700s, or 600s, the 400s BCE weren’t such a bad time to live in and around modern-day Israel. Jerusalem was tucked away deep in the Persian interior, in a province called Yehud Medinata. There, during the first century of the Second Temple period, some of Jerusalem’s greatest minds were continuing work on the Tanakh – likely editing books that already existed, and also writing new ones. They had survived the captivity and been given an opportunity to reconstruct. This opportunity, to some, like Ezra and Nehemiah, was clearly evidence of their centrality in the cosmos.

Meanwhile, far to the west, at the beginning of the 400s BCE, Persia had become embroiled in an increasingly expensive and exhausting border war. They were clashing swords and smashing boats together with Athenians, and Spartans, and Corinthians, and Thebans, and the Greeks, year after year, remained wily adversaries. Writers whom we will soon meet had fought in these wars. The playwright Aeschylus had lost his brother at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE. In 472, Aeschylus staged a play called The Persians about the Greco-Persian Wars, which is today the oldest surviving work of world theater. And another dramatist whom we’ll soon meet – the young Sophocles – had been selected to lead a procession after a glorious naval victory just southwest of Athens in 480 BCE.

So the wars between Greece and Persia had, by the year 479, been raging in the Aegean world for nearly a generation. Cyrus the Great, a decade before he sent a key contingent of Israelites back home Babylon, had subdued Greek settlements in Asia Minor. But Asia Minor remained a volatile region for the Achaemenid Empire. Revolts throughout the 490s drew more and more Persian attention to their troublesome western front, and when a Greek coalition sacked and burned the Persian regional capital of Sardis in Asia Minor in the year 498, Greece suddenly had the full attention of the Persian Empire, an empire that stretched from India to Ethiopia, and ate whole civilizations for breakfast.

And so Persia got its knife and fork, and prepared to take over Greece. In 494, the Greek island of Miletus fell. In 492, city states in present day Bulgaria and Macedonia came under the Persian yoke. And in 490, Persian forces disembarked at the beaches fifteen miles northeast of the city of Athens. Any betting man would have wagered that Athens would fall within the week. On the contrary, though, the Athenians locked together and charged into the strange armies who sought to take their city. According to the spectacular but likely vastly exaggerated statistics of the historian Herodotus, “There fell in this battle of Marathon, on the side of the barbarians, about six thousand and four hundred men; on that of the Athenians, one hundred and ninety-two.”1

Herodotus on Achaemenid Persia

The story of the Greco-Persian wars is one of the most spectacular tales that’s come down to us from the annals of ancient historians. Everything about these wars seems in hindsight to be dramatic, and cinematic, from Cyrus crushing opposition in Asia Minor, to Darius sailing around the Aegean and nearly turning it into a Persian lake, to the Battle of Marathon, to Xerxes crossing over the Hellespont on a pontoon bridge with doom in his eyes, and a desire to finish his father’s war in his heart. Next came Thermopylae in 480 BCE, and, in the same year, Themistocles’ come-from-behind naval victory against the Persians at the Bay of Salamis. Then, finally, came that hot summer day in 479 BCE, in the dry, shrubby hill country of Plataea, when the Greeks finally exhausted the Achaemenid Empire’s desire to conquer them. Herodotus’ tales of the Greco-Persian Wars, like the narratives in the Tanakh, are familiar stories to many of us. They are also stories that present just one side of a cultural encounter, and as such, they deserve closer scrutiny than they often get.

Gate of All Nations, Persepolis

The Gate of All Nations at Persepolis. Tucked into a fertile valley north of modern day Shiraz, Persepolis had a milder climate than the more northern reaches of the central empire. Photo by Alborzagros.

Everyone who studies the Greco-Persian Wars wants to know more about the Persian side of things. If only there had been a Persian Herodotus, whose works survived, we might have known more about what their commander, Xerxes’ cousin Mardonius, was thinking as he watched some 40,000 confederated Greek forces descend from the mountains in the summer of 479 BCE into the flatland of Plataea. Xerxes had left his cousin Mardonius to finish the western campaign, following Xerxes’ humiliating defeat at the Bay of Salamis. If there had been a Persian Herodotus, we might have the story of the Persians’ first impressions of the Greeks – of polytheistic, animal sacrificing, bisexual hillbillies who ran around with bare legs and consulted strange women who lived near magic rocks in mountain shrines to learn about the future. But there is no Persian Herodotus whose works survive today, and so we have the opposite – a Greek language record of an eastern people who were decadent, obsessed with finery, overly submissive to hierarchy, and, most embarrassingly of all, wore pants. Herodotus is the wellspring of these cultural stereotypes – modern scholars like Edward Said and Edith Hall have pinpointed Athenian records of the Greco-Persian Wars as beginning a more general tradition of pejoratively depicting those from east of the Aegean Sea.2

Inasmuch as Ancient Greek historiography has cultural biases, it still has facts to offer us about the Achaemenid Empire around the time that Ecclesiastes was set down. So let’s quickly go through what Herodotus offers us about this period of Ancient Persian history. Plataea was the most decisive showdown of the Greco-Persian wars – the single event that broke the Persian will to continue fighting the disorganized but unquestionably resilient rabble on their western frontier. On the Greek side, before Plataea, the Greco-Persian Wars had long been characterized by alliances formed and then severed, by requests for aid that went out and help that came too late, by missed opportunities and internal feuds. Even after Athenian, Spartan, and other Peloponnesian forces joined together to mount an assault on the Persian army – at the actual battle of Plataea, miscommunications nearly caused a loss. The Persians not only had superior numbers, but also a knack for understanding and exploiting the shifting power blocs in their enemies and encouraging all sorts of deceit and desertion. At Plataea, as Persian horse archers whipped arrows into Greek shields, Greeks gradually gave way, until they lost one water supply, and then a second. They beat a nocturnal retreat – again this was during the summer of 479 BCE – but the retreat was disorganized. The Athenians snuck back further into the hills, but ended up encamping at the wrong place. And at dawn, the Spartans still, for some reason, hadn’t broken camp to rally with their allied armies. And so, at daybreak, one morning in this hot Greek summer of 479 BCE, a contingent of – according to Herodotus – about 5,000 Spartans and an equal number of regional allies stood, isolated and with no water supply, to face a force of perhaps 80,000 Achaemenid Persians.

The way it’s told in Greek history, rather than fleeing to join their companion armies, the Spartans not only withstood the full Persian assault – they made a direct attack on Mardonius himself. Xerxes’ cousin Mardonius was clearly identifiable by the giant white stallion he rode, and a fateful stone, hurled by a brawny Spartan arm, struck Mardonius in the head and crushed his skull. Thus fell the leadership of Persian martial power in the west. The Persian forces fled the scene of the battle, retreating so quickly that they left all kinds of treasures behind. Herodotus describes what happened next.
So the [Greeks] went and spread themselves through the camp, wherein were found many tents richly adorned with furniture of gold and silver, many couches covered with plates of the same, and many golden bowls, goblets, and other drinking-vessels. On the carriages were bags containing silver and golden kettles; and the bodies of the slain furnished bracelets and chains, and scimitars with golden ornaments – not to mention embroidered apparel.3

Many of our records of the Persian Empire, records from Greece, at least, linger with fascination on their stuff. The gold, the baubles, the clothing, and more generally the finery. The fact that the Persians wore brightly colored trousers into battle was a particular source of curiosity to the Greeks. Achaemenid Persians are said to have worn platform heels, and false beards and mustaches, and perfumes, and noblemen would have makeup artists in their retinues so that Persian aristocrats could have proper eyeliner and mascara.4 Among all the stories we have about Persians and their goods, the most famous is probably the one I’m about to tell you – the one in which the Spartan commander, the tough young nephew of King Leonidas named Pausanias, discovered that among all the finery abandoned by the Persians in their retreat was the tent of the king of kings, Xerxes. It was not just a tent – it was a mobile command center, complete with cooks, couches, and all the opulence of the Persian capital. The scene of the bloodied Spartan Pausanias entering the luxuriant interior confines of Persia’s aristocracy is one of the most memorable moments in all of Herodotus. Here’s how the historian Herodotus tells the story.

It is said that the following circumstance happened. . .Xerxes, when he fled away out of Greece, left his war-tent with [his commander]: when Pausanias, therefore, saw the tent with its adornments of gold and silver, and its hangings of divers colours, he gave commandment to the bakers and the cooks to make him ready a banquet in such fashion as was their wont for [the Persian commander]. Then they made ready as they were bidden; and Pausanias, beholding the couches of gold and silver daintily decked out with their rich covertures, and the tables of gold and silver laid, and the feast itself prepared with all magnificence, was astonished at the good things which were set before him, and, being in a pleasant mood, gave commandment to his own followers to make ready a Spartan supper. When the suppers were both served, and it was apparent how vast a difference between the two, Pausanias laughed, and sent his servants to call to him the Greek generals. On their coming, he pointed to the two [meals], and said: ‘I sent for you, O Greeks, to show you the folly of this [Persian] captain, who, when he enjoyed such fare as this, must needs come here to rob us of our penury.5

The contrast would have been obvious. Plain Spartan soup alongside goodness knows what kinds of international cuisine unknown to ancient Greece. In other words, the burly Spartan Pausanias implied, what kind of a lunatic, when he had every treasure you could possibly have, would travel across the known world to steal third rate soup from a bunch of poor people? Who were these strangers? What were their motivations? Right, let’s discuss that. [music]

Yehud Medinata and Achaemenid Persia

The Achaemenid Persian Empire began in a whirlwind in about 550 BCE in the southwestern part of modern-day Iran, when the Persian conqueror Cyrus the Great made war on a regional enemy, the Median king Astyages. Cyrus conquered Mesopotamia and much of Anatolia. His successors took Egypt. And Achaemenid Persia fell in the 320s BCE, when the forces of Alexander the Macedon conquered the Persian capitals of Susa and Persepolis. For 220 years, the Achaemenid Persians were the main thing going on in the central Eurasian land mass. Regional empires had spread before the Achaemenid Empire – Sargon’s Akkad, Hammurabi’s Babylon, and Thutmose’s Egypt. But Achaemenid Persia was far larger. It was more multiethnic, more sustainably governed, and had a more efficient taxation system. Its bureaucrats tracked collection, and leadership changes and building projects. And Achaemenid Persia was built for transportation and commerce, too, being knit together by carefully monitored road systems, and a system of signal fires that could spread messages from one end of the empire to the next more quickly than information had ever traveled up to that point in history.

achaemenid empire era of ecclesiastes

The Achaemenid Empire at its greatest extent. Notice the main capitals and the well maintained and protected Royal Road linking modern day Iran with the Aegean Sea. Map by Fabienkhan.

The finery that the grimy Spartan Pausanias sees in the opulent tent of Xerxes in Herodotus’ Histories is intended to be a picture of decadence. Spartans, Herodotus wants to emphasize, didn’t need such gewgaws and delectables. On one hand, the tent of Xerxes in Book Nine of Herodotus is indeed a portrait of a weirdly sumptuous command post. It is also, perhaps inadvertently, the image of a very successful and well-run empire. Spartans, wanting to perpetuate their hidebound martial culture, certainly didn’t need the trappings of a world empire. The Achaemenids, however, who oversaw much of a continent via forward-thinking economic policies, road systems, and scalable provincial administrations, required a bit more than spears and brown broth to do so. Sparta, a century after Plataea, lost the Battle of Leuctra to the Theban hegemony in 371 BCE, and never rose to power again. Persian Empires, conversely, with their billowing tents and sumptuous foods, would continue to rule their own homelands for another thousand years. Brute force perhaps has its place in world history. But vast, enduring empires require a bit more than musclebound warriors who stab people and grunt laconic truisms.

From its early days, the Achaemenid Persian regime allowed both rulers and subjects to flourish. Xerxes’ father, Darius, had created a system of gold and silver coinage with standard values. This Persian coinage system was indispensable to the empire’s advanced taxation structure. Within this taxation structure, the Persian Empire was organized into subdivisions called satrapies, and each satrapy had specific dividends to pay based on its location, natural resources, and population. Throughout the cosmopolitan and religiously tolerant Persian Empire, people were getting wealthy. The empire provided them with tools to do so. There was a postal system, an empire-wide legal code, and a consistent tariff system. When laws are enforced, and roads are safe, and waterways monitored, economies can burgeon and diversify in ways that are otherwise impossible.

So what kind of a religious ideology propelled this complex, commercially interknit empire? Generally, the answer to this question is Zoroastrianism. Now, before too long, we will have an entire episode of Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic religion which greatly influenced both Judaism and Christianity with its dichotomous view of good and evil, and truth and lies, and its emphasis on the individual’s responsibility to do the right thing. But to be brief, because we’re already on a big sidetrack from Ecclesiastes, Zoroastrians believe in the existence of a single God called Ahura Mazda, along with his nemesis Angra Mainu. Zoroastrian ideology emphasizes honesty, and doing good deeds, and thinking pious thoughts, as the best means of staying on the path of truth, and acting in accordance with an orderly universe, and the will of Ahura Mazda. The most famous inscription in modern-day Iran is the Behistun inscription in the Zagros Mountains – a trilingual carving 50 feet high and 80 feet wide, done by King Darius some time during his reign from about 522-486 BCE. The inscription emphasizes King Darius’ faith in the Zoroastrian God Ahura Mazda, thus demonstrating conclusively that Zoroastrianism was the religion of the Achaemenid Persian Empire from its third king onward, and likely before this as well.

So, we’ve talked about the Spartan encounter with Persian finery at the close of the Greco-Persian Wars. And I’ve told you a bit about the actual Achaemenid Persian Empire – how circumspect economic policy enabled its expansionist agenda, how internal governance made it a prosperous empire, and just now, how Zoroastrianism was, at least at the level of executive leadership, its ideology from about 500 BCE onward. I have just one more point to make before we bring everything together and talk about Ecclesiastes.

I actually want to briefly talk about Zach Snyder’s movie The 300 – a film which I can’t think is very popular in modern day Iran. First of all, the movie is certainly entertaining, and it’s based on comic book, and it’s a work of historical fiction. But it also perpetuates cultural stereotypes that have existed for thousands of years, and that we need to remember – at least when we’re not watching sweaty guys wearing red cloaks against CGI backgrounds in a movie – we need to remember that these stereotypes are the constructs of historians. The 300 takes a pretty traditional, Mediterranean-centric view of the Battle of Thermopylae, and the Greco-Persian Wars more generally. The Greeks are brawny, ragingly heterosexual men who, when they’re not doing bicep curls, are speaking in gravelly voices about freedom. The Persians are exotic, bejeweled, often strange and hideous, their leader a nine foot tall, sexually ambiguous man with nipple rings. This view of the Greco-Persian Wars – as a clash between the rugged, freedom loving west and the effeminate, the silky east is as old as Herodotus. The reader of Herodotus is expected to identify with the gruff Greeks, and scoff at the primped Persians. History and archaeology, however, over the past century, have done much to supplant this asinine old dichotomy, and have in some ways made the Greeks seem far stranger, and far less familiar than the Persians.

Imagine being a citizen of the worldly city of Persepolis in, say, 500 BCE. Persepolis was the heart of Achaemenid Persia. Now as well as in antiquity, it is a gorgeous place – one of the more fertile and temperate parts of modern-day Iran. If you lived in Persepolis, under the Achaemenid dynasty in, say, 479 BCE, when Pausanias was rummaging around Xerxes’ fancy tent, you would have many of the trappings of modern civilization there. You would have standard coinage and a widely enforced legal system. This system would make the territories around you, for hundreds of miles at a stretch, insulated from banditry and all the economic turmoil that it causes. You would have a postal service, and weights and measures, and overland roads. You would live in a multi-ethnic civilization, with all of the knowledge that that entails. If you and your family traveled, unless it was far out in the periphery of the empire, you could do so with security. You would pay some taxes for the enjoyment of these privileges. And you would likely practice a monotheistic religion that told you to do good deeds, to tell the truth, and overall to do your part to keep society orderly and peaceful. Though of course, it was no utopia, that was what life would have been like in the heart of the Achaemenid Empire.

Now, how about Sparta? In Sparta, if you were born with any sign of physical inferiority or other aberrations, you were killed. At the age of seven, you left your family and the state worked to destroy any sense of individuality that you had. At the age of twelve, whether you were a boy or a girl, you were expected to be sodomized. This was supposed to be a good thing, because if an influential Spartan picked you to sodomize, you had all sorts of opportunities made available to you. After much martial training, if you were a boy, you were sent over the mountains with a knife into a land called Messenia, where you were expected to murder slaves of Sparta – Sparta had many, many slaves. It was a win-win situation – the Messenian slaves, after all, needed to have their numbers thinned out, and Spartan men needed to get used to butchering people without pity. As a man, even as you reached the age of thirty, and were allowed to grow your hair out, you still lived in barracks with other men, where you spoke as little as possible, and spent your days constantly in military exercises. When the time came, your children would be taken from your home, and you would find children to sodomize, thus passing on the practices of Spartan citizenship.6 To quote The 300, “This is Sparta.” We may have romanticized a vision of this ancient Peloponnesian society for the past 2,500 years, but that doesn’t make the vision accurate.

Comparing the reactionary brutality of short-lived Sparta with the vast order of Achaemenid Persia, we are still looking two at very ancient societies – slave states ruled by kings and oligarchs, both of which are a far cry from the stable nations in which most of us are lucky enough to live today. Revisionist history might lead us to dispel a romanticized version of one civilization’s history, but it doesn’t require us to romanticize another civilization’s history in turn. Nevertheless, with its interlinked checkerboard of satrapies and its economic prosperity, once you got past the artificial beards and platform shoes, I think that if you went back in time, you’d find you had a bit more in common with the Achaemenid Persians than the Spartans, and their small, grim, short-lived city state in the south-central Peloponnese.

So, that’s plenty about the Greco-Persian war for now. I wanted to review that history with you because it is with the Book of Ecclesiastes that we enter the part of the greater Second Temple era called the Persian Period, which produced Protocanonical Old Testament books like Chronicles, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Songs, and Esther. It’s worth meeting the Achaemenids now, because while a lot of the Tanakh was written during the tumultuous centuries of the Pre-exilic and Exilic periods, a lot of it was also written during the Persian period, as well. The Persian Period books have a different tenor and tone to them. They are, as we’ll learn in this and future episodes, gentler. They are less likely to see foreigners as outright adversaries. Some of them depict marriages between Jewish people and outsiders without batting an eyelash. They philosophize about wisdom and love, and explore what life is like for diasporic Jews who live their lives far from Jerusalem, because this was, and is the reality of the post-exilic world for many. So, let’s begin our journey into the Tanakh’s Persian period books by getting the Book of Ecclesiastes in front of us, and learning about this very unique wisdom book. Unless otherwise noted, quotes from the Bible in this episode will come from the NRSV translation, printed in The New Oxford Annotated Bible, published by Oxford University Press in 2010. [music]

Jerusalem, Ecclesiastes, and Yehud Medinata

Within the grand, orderly expanses of the Persian Empire – where there were no giants with nipple rings, nor monsters, and where people paid taxes just like they did everywhere else and perhaps got a bit more for it due to the tidy organization of their state system – there was a semi-autonomous kingdom called Yehud. Yehud, for two centuries, was where the Tanakh continued to be written, edited, read, and copied. After the Achaemenid Cyrus took over the Mesopotamian capital of Babylon in 539, the former citizens of Judah who were held there were permitted to head home, recommence their old cultural practices, and build their Second Temple. Understandably, then, the citizens of Yehud had a comparatively better attitude toward the Persians than the Greeks did. Here’s how the Book of Ezra tells this story:
In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in order that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom, and also in a written edict declared: “Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of those among you who are of his people—may their God be with them!—are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem; and let all survivors, in whatever place they reside, be assisted by the people of their place with silver and gold, with goods and with animals, besides freewill offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem. (Ezra 1:1-4)7

As is usually the case in the Historical Books of the Old Testament, in the passage you just heard from Ezra, global events that impact the kingdom of Judah are identified as the work of God. The Old Testament God has a great partnership with Cyrus, who is later called the “anointed” of God in Isaiah (45:1).

Cyrus the Great era of ecclesiastes

Cyrus the Great permits the Jewish captives to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple. From a fifteenth-century illustration to Josephus’ Antiquities.

Some time after Cyrus the Great told the diasporic Jewish citizens of Babylon that they could pack up their bags and head back to Jerusalem if they wanted to, the tiny little kingdom of Yehud Medinata produced the Book of Ecclesiastes. Good internal evidence suggests that Ecclesiastes was written during, or even after the Persian period. Ecclesiastes uses two Persian loan words, pardes and pitgram, and its worldview, as we’ll soon see, suggests a time of peace and economic stability.8 And another school of thought believes Ecclesiastes was written later, during the Hellenistic, or Greek period, when Jerusalem was under the control of the Seleucid Empire, but either way, Ecclesiastes was the product of a large empire, whether this empire was the Achaemenid or Seleucid Empire.

During the Second Temple period, Jerusalem was seated in an important confluence of the Persian and, later, Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires. The speaker of Ecclesiastes is a product of this imperial climate. The city of Jerusalem was home to people from all over the Mediterranean and Ancient Near East. The laws of the Tanakh might have outlawed miscegenation. The Pentateuch, Historical and Prophetic Books might have often taken xenophobic stances toward cultural outsiders. But, with some important exceptions, Jerusalem, during much of the Second Temple period, was a place of economic opportunity. That finery that Pausanias and his strapping Spartan comrades found in Xerxes’ tent in Plataea in the summer of 479 BCE – some of it had come through places like Jerusalem – nodes in the giant Achaemenid Empire where, if you had a mind and energy to, you could claim a small slice of your kingdom’s prosperity.

So let’s meet the speaker of the Book of Ecclesiastes. I want you to picture a man. He’s old, and has lines around his eyes and on his forehead. He has a venerable looking beard. And he’s standing in the second story window of a building in the city of Jerusalem. He’s standing there with his elbows on the windowsill, and his chin resting on the heels of his hands. He’s looking down at the street, where vendors hawk their wares – gold and silver, fruits and breads, weapons and silks. He stands like this a lot, thinking and thinking, his eyes calm and tired. This man is the narrator of the Book of Ecclesiastes. And he is commonly called “The Preacher.”

Ecclesiastes purports to be the work of a preacher, or gatherer, by the name of Qoheleth, the “son of David, king in Jerusalem.” As with many attributions of authorship in the Bible, like the notion that Moses wrote the Pentateuch, or that David wrote Psalms, Ecclesiastes’ claim to Solomonic authorship is widely dismissed by modern biblical scholars. Ecclesiastes, after all, was written at least four hundred years after the historical Solomon’s death.

Being a piece of wisdom literature, Ecclesiastes is not fiction, nor drama, nor poetry. It’s not a logically unfolding essay, or piece of philosophy. It is, like almost all wisdom literature, a series of significant sounding pronouncements and observations about the universe. Ecclesiastes’ twelve chapters, sometimes breaking into what feel like sets of canned proverbs, are sometimes frustratingly contradictory. But in spite of the book’s antique architecture, its repetitiousness, and its persistent logical incongruities, Ecclesiastes is still very special within the Biblical canon. We just don’t have anything else that sounds quite like it. [music]

The Opening of Ecclesiastes

I want to quote the first eleven verses of Ecclesiastes in full. These are not only some of the most famous lines in the Bible – they also vividly introduce most of the ideas in the Book of Ecclesiastes. opening of Ecclesiastes states that the book contains:
The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow.
All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has already been, in the ages before us.
The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them. (ECC 1:1-11)

Now, these aren’t very difficult lines. But they’re so important I’ll tell you a bit more about them. The opening words, “Vanity of vanities,” are translations of the Hebrew word hebel, which means “vapor,” or “breath.” So all existence, in the opening of Ecclesiastes, is likened to something as transitory and substanceless as a single breath. Everything in the world, in other words, is brief, inconsequential, and pointless. The sun careens around the earth, the rivers dump into the sea, life is short and unfulfilling, and nothing new ever happens. People, once dead, are quickly forgotten, and it will always be so.

These words are annihilative. They could come from the existentialist philosophy of Camus or Sartre. There is, throughout Ecclesiastes, very little about Israel, and its covenant with Yahweh. As we know from this long series on the Tanakh, the main theme of the Bible up to the Wisdom Books is Israel alternately pleasing and angering the God of the Tanakh. Ecclesiastes is not interested in this dramatic story. Instead, the book philosophizes, chapter after chapter, about earthly existence – its meaninglessness, the absurdity of trying to accrue wealth or distinction, and the lack of justice in the world of humanity.

Let’s look at some other sections. I’d like to give you, first of all, a sense of the pessimism at the heart of Ecclesiastes. It is a graceful pessimism, eloquent and at peace – maybe the pessimism of someone who’s had a go of it and then, after some duration, become reclusive and retiring, looking on the world only from afar. There are other elements to Ecclesiastes, but we can begin with the pessimism.

The Reclusive Philosopher in Antiquity

The recluse who narrates Ecclesiastes has a resigned pessimism to him – a sense that he has had enough of the bustle of society, and prefers the life of a contemplative hermit. In general, in the wisdom literature from antiquity that we have read already, and that which we’ll read in episodes to come, society is imagined as an external thing, frivolous at best, and at worst, corrosive to individual identity. This was the perspective of the ancient Egyptian Instructions of Amenemope. It is the perspective of the philosophy and wisdom literature that begins with Pythagorean and Orphic cult ideologies in the sixth century BCE, explodes to life in full color in the ideology of Plato, and after him, thrives in stoicism – this notion that society is full of senseless preoccupations, and that the solitary contemplations of an individual, or small sect, is the real route to the truth. Plato, Zeno, and long after them Seneca, Juvenal, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, generally had a disparaging attitude toward the bustle of the crowd. Plato, most famously, in Book 7 of the Republic likens the mass of humanity to prisoners in a cave, gawking at something “like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets. . .[at] all sorts of [levels], and statues and figures of animals. . .which appear.”9 Philosophy’s most famous allegory may have been written during the very same years as Ecclesiastes. And while Plato, in this allegory, is writing both about the specious attractiveness of everyday civilization as well as the falseness of the material world, generally speaking, one of ancient philosophy’s favorite ideas was that that humanity was divided into common rabble, preoccupied with superficial things, and then a much, much smaller group of thinkers who knew the truthiest truths. Ecclesiastes shares this vantage – this sense that the mass of humanity is lost in ephemera.

This idea in itself – that most of humanity is a herd corralled into an illusory world of transient concerns – is ubiquitous in intellectual history from the Iron Age onwards. We bookish people just seem to like to applaud ourselves for our studious reclusiveness – no matter those folks out laughing and playing badminton, having drinks at the bar – no thank you! – and for this self-imposed reclusiveness, in turn we get a sense of belonging to a small, special coterie in touch with much profounder ideas. Plato wrote that philosophers were those special individuals who saw beyond the illusions of the cave and into the realm of eternal truths, and from the fifth and fourth centuries BCE onward, the notion of an in-group of wise, and an out-group of foolish has been part of the machinery of many ideologies, sacred and secular.

To return to Ecclesiastes, the Book of Ecclesiastes begins with this commonplace notion the mass of humanity is a herd blatting over material possessions and petty affairs. But Ecclesiastes then does something else very different than Plato and his successors. Let me explain. Within the dour outlook of the gracefully resigned recluse, in intellectual history, is often a certain degree of plucky self-confidence. In other words, once you paint your fingernails black and start walking in the rain with no umbrella – once you join that club, your sense of individuality is bolstered by your solitude. You may have moved out of the jostle of the crowd, but within this self-imposed isolation comes a sense that cloistered contemplation is a gateway to wisdom. What’s unique about Ecclesiastes’ outlook, and what makes the book depart from the wheel ruts of Plato and his acolytes, is that Ecclesiastes doesn’t even see the pursuit of wisdom as ultimately, durably meaningful.

Here’s some of what the main speaker of Ecclesiastes, often called the “Preacher,” has to say about wisdom.
I said to myself, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a chasing after wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow. (1:16-18)

So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly; for what can the one do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done. Then I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness. The wise have eyes in their head, but fools walk in darkness. Yet I perceived that the same fate befalls all of them. Then I said to myself, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also; why then have I been so very wise?” And I said to myself that this also is vanity. For there is no enduring remembrance of the wise or of fools, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How can the wise die just like fools? So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after wind. (2:12-17)

You see, in these lines, that the speaker has contradictory ideas about wisdom. On one hand, wisdom is a wellspring that keeps one’s eyes clear and leads him to “excel” those around him. And on the other hand, wisdom is, like everything else, futile. Wisdom is a vanity, or hebel, or a vapor, or breath. And throughout Ecclesiastes the Preacher teeters back and forth between praising wisdom on one hand, and then admitting its limitations on the other. The book has at times the structure of a dramatic monologue. It’s like the Preacher is trying to convince himself that there is a greater purpose to wisdom, and again and again finding that wisdom, too, is pointless. “Better is a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king” (4:13), he says in Chapter 4. And then, a moment later, imaging the wise youth becoming a king, the Preacher sighs, “Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and a chasing after wind” (4:16). Wisdom, the Preacher reveals, has a nobility to it. But it is, like everything else, as transient as a breath.

The Preacher’s Past Life

From what we’ve covered so far, you already have a pretty good understanding of the Book of Ecclesiastes, and some of the tensions in it. You know that it’s a twelve-chapter long monologue by a world-weary speaker alleged to be Solomon, who again and again insists on the meaninglessness of earthly existence. And you know that this preacher thinks of highly of wisdom, but not so highly that he believes that wisdom holds any enduring cosmic purpose. Paragraph after paragraph of Ecclesiastes ends with the words, “[T]his is also vanity and a chasing after wind” (4:16), as the Preacher pictures the theater of human existence and dismisses its actors and props, and considers the deeper pursuits of intellectualism and dismisses these, as well.

The Preacher is no stranger to these actors and props of society. In fact, he hasn’t been a recluse all of his life. It seems that he can attest to the meaninglessness of worldly goods better than anyone else, due to the fact that he was once, evidently, quite materialistic. Here’s how he tells it, in Chapter 2.
I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself; I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house; I also had great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and of the provinces; I got singers, both men and women, and delights of the flesh, and many concubines. (2:4-8)

Here we have all the finery and trappings available to a wealthy citizen of a world empire. The author of Ecclesiastes may have been trying to imagine the mythical world of Solomon’s Jerusalem, but his actual world was Persian or Hellenistic Jerusalem. The Preacher, in other words, knows very well the sumptuous pleasures of Xerxes’ tent. Elsewhere, the Book of Ecclesiastes mentions “wealth, possessions, and honor” (6:1), and “perfumer’s ointment” (10:1), and a “silver cord. . .[a] golden bowl. . .[and a fine] pitcher” (12:6). The Book of Ecclesiastes, just like Herodotus’ descriptions of the Persians, is utterly filled with stuff. Its speaker – again the figure generally called “The Preacher” – may have been a poet who was witnessing firsthand the rise of monetary currency and the sudden opportunities it provided for personal gain for all sorts of new people. This poet might have seen the birth of global capitalism, partaken in its unique pleasures, and then, dissatisfied, adopted a sequestered life – the life of a Wordsworth, or a Dickinson – a life of solitary rumination.

But Ecclesiastes isn’t quite that simple. The Preacher isn’t just a retired cynic who waxes on about the meaninglessness of life. He has one other major tension that I think you’ll find is also really interesting. So you’ve already heard one tension in the Book of Ecclesiastes – that’s that the preacher can’t seem to figure out whether or not wisdom has any value, after all. He vacillates on the question of wisdom a number of times, and it’s one of the big tensions in Ecclesiastes. First it’s “wisdom is great, the words of the wise are super-duper.” And a minute later it’s “[sigh] but no, wisdom is as meaningless as everything else.” And back and forth and back and forth. Now, let’s talk about the second major tension in Ecclesiastes – another back and forth that drives some of the Book’s most beautiful moments. [music]

The Two Sides of Fatalism

To introduce this second major tension, I need to lay out the main idea of this episode – the one I’ve been building toward. The main idea of this episode is in its title – Episode 22: Fatalism. Fatalism is a noun, of course, and it describes a philosophy of surrendering oneself to the whims of fate. Fatalists believe that to a large extent what happens to them is out of their control. On one hand, it’s a defeatist philosophy, encouraging you to shrug your shoulders and not try too hard. On the other, it’s a practical philosophical approach to some of life’s unsolvable problems. If you’ve said the words “It is what it is,” then you’ve had a moment of fatalism. And really, if you’ve accepted the fact that you cannot fly, or breathe underwater, or live forever, then you’re already a pretty experienced fatalist. I’ve accepted these things too, and it’s tough. But whatever. We have beer.

Anyway, the philosophy of Ecclesiastes has often been described as fatalist. “Vanity of vanities,” it begins, “vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” In other words, everything is utterly pointless, and all your actions amount to nothing. This stark, fatalistic sentiment sounds bleak when you first hear it. But fatalism actually has a very logical bright side. If everything is vanity, and nothing matters, then – well – the pressure’s off, really. Then life is all basically a big merry-go-round or bounce castle. There are no consequences, nothing is at stake, and when you clock out, it’s over. So if you truly believe that the theater of human existence has no cosmic purpose – in other words, if you’re a real fatalist – what kinds of things do you do, in order to pass the time? Well, the answer is obvious, isn’t it? You enjoy life on earth.

The preacher, or speaker of Ecclesiastes, places heavy emphasis on the importance of having a good time. Let’s hear some of the book’s famous lines about the importance of enjoying life. The Preacher says,
So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun (8:15). . .Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going. (ECC 9:7-10)

John Liston Byam Shaw ecclesiastes

John Liston Byam Shaw’s Truly the Light is Sweet, inspired by Ecclesiastes 11:7-8.

The Book of Ecclesiastes is full of passages like these. The Preacher tells us that “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink, and find enjoyment in their toil” (2:24). A chapter later, he writes, “I know that there is nothing better. . .than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live” (3:12). Not long after this, along the same lines, he says, “This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot” (5:18). These are pretty unique lines within what has come down to us from the ancient world. From Plato to Augustine, we more often hear that the material world is false and ephemeral, and that we ought to focus on something more abiding – a world of forms and absolute truths, or a god or gods, and personal ethics and practices that get us closer to these truths and/or gods.

For many reasons, then, the ideology expressed in Ecclesiastes doesn’t mesh very well with much of the rest of the Old Testament. We’ve already covered the Historical Books – books that understand the Israelites’ terrible suffering as a result of their sacrilege, their wickedness, and their uncleanliness. It’s absolutely impossible to imagine the line “There is nothing better for mortals than to eat and drink,” for instance, in the book of Numbers, or Second Kings. In these earlier books, the acts of individual Israelites have great significance – the deeds of kings like Ahab or Manasseh condemning their kingdoms to the wrath of God and or scourge of foreign invaders. The Pentateuch and Historical Books were produced during a darker juncture of Ancient Israel’s history. Their ideology is often out of step with what we find in Persian and Hellenistic period books of the Bible. It’s no wonder that the Book of Ecclesiastes, with its combination of carpe diem philosophy and its fatalism, with its paradoxical sense that earthly enjoyments and wisdom alike are as meaningless as they are valuable, proved to be a bit of a conundrum in theological history. [music]

Before Heaven and Hell

During many moments of the history of Judaism and Christianity, the beliefs in Ecclesiastes have proved troubling to rabbis, priests and preachers. A third-century rabbi recorded a long conference in which Jewish wise men considered removing Ecclesiastes from the canon altogether. It was, according to one rabbi, indeed removed while its meaning was considered.10 Most troubling to Jewish interpreters during the Amoraic period was that Ecclesiastes doesn’t seem particularly interested in Israel at all, other than the fact that the Preacher happened to live in Jerusalem. One school of thought has been that the Book of Ecclesiastes was originally written in Aramaic, and came from a Canaanite or Phoenician literary tradition before being co-opted into the Old Testament – which would explain why it lacks the Hebrew ethnocentrism prevalent throughout the majority of the Tanakh’s other books.11 Wisdom literature in the Bible, like the Book of Proverbs, is sometimes synthesized from other, earlier sources, and so the more striking statements in Ecclesiastes may indeed reflect its roots in a distant, non-Israelite culture.

While Ecclesiastes’ lack of emphasis on ancient Jewish culture was a point of contention to Late Antique rabbis who took issue with the book, Ecclesiastes presented other issues to Christian interpreters. The book’s speaker advises us to enjoy life, to have fun, to eat and drink and take delight in marriage. The Preacher gives us this advice, to repeat an earlier line, recommending, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.” These sentiments did not mesh well with Christian doctrines of salvation. While the New Testament presents some different schemas for salvation – salvation by good works, salvation by grace, predestination, and apocalyptic corporeal resurrection, the New Testament never says that you should just enjoy your life because everyone is going to Sheol. The ideology of whoever wrote Ecclesiastes was quite different from that of Saint Paul and the Apostolic generation.

As you may know, in addition to not featuring Satan, the Old Testament also does not describe or promote posthumous salvation and damnation, nor heaven and hell. Some passages, in particular the Prophetic Books, picture various grisly fates for God’s adversaries, but these are not depictions of the Christian hell. Heaven, or a high place, is understood as the dwelling place of God throughout the Bible. The Prophetic Books envision a lasting prosperity for Israel at times, occasionally as the result of a messiah figure. But Ecclesiastes has neither Judaism’s investment in the notion of Israel as an earthly polity, nor Christianity’s emphasis on salvation and damnation. Consider these passages from the Book of Ecclesiastes.

Everything that confronts them is vanity, since the same fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to those who sacrifice and those who do not sacrifice. As are the good, so are the sinners; those who swear are like those who shun an oath. This is an evil in all that happens under the sun, that the same fate comes to everyone (9:1-3). All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth? (3:20-22). Even though we should live a thousand years twice over, yet enjoy no good—do not all go to one place? (6:6).

These do not sound like Christian ideas, as these verses from Ecclesiastes explicitly deny Christian doctrines of salvation. And these passages in Ecclesiastes are also, as we’ve already observed, out of step with the theology of the Tanakh, in which piety and apostasy do matter for the collective of Israelites, and in which God, who is paying attention to the deeds of individuals and communities, sometimes does smite Israel’s foes, or reward devout believers.

So, Ecclesiastes doesn’t sound much like the rest of the Old Testament – considering its relative disregard of Israel and Israel’s legacy. And Ecclesiastes doesn’t seem very Christian, as it in some places seems to do little more than endorsing a life of hedonism, and in others it says the good and evil go down to Sheol. The question we need to address now is this: What is the theology of the Book of Ecclesiastes, exactly? What does this book say about God?

We already saw a big tension relating to wisdom in Ecclesiastes. Wisdom is wonderful. No it’s pointless. No, it’s really great. No, it’s not worth a dime, etc. The second major tension in Ecclesiastes has to do with its theological perspective. Put briefly, the speaker of Ecclesiastes sometimes says things akin to what we’ve already heard – scoundrels and saints are all going down to the basement of Sheol together, so to heck with it, just enjoy your life while you can. But at other junctures, the book’s speaker offers more of a conventional sense – conventional by the standards of the Abrahamic religions – that the bad will, eventually, get what’s coming to them, thus directly contradicting other statements about good and evil people all consigned to the same posthumous fate.

Now the speaker of Ecclesiastes contradicts himself frequently – the book’s blatant self-contradictions were a cause for its temporarily being removed from the canon during the early centuries of the Christian period. One of the book’s self-contradictions, however, is especially memorable. I’m going to read one more short passage of the Book of Ecclesiastes to you.
Though sinners do evil a hundred times and prolong their lives, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they stand in fear before him, but it will not be well with the wicked, neither will they prolong their days like a shadow, because they do not stand in fear of God. (8:12-13)

Now, that sounds, almost, as though the wicked will be punished. “[I]t will not be well with the wicked,” says the preacher. A few other passages come similarly close to pronouncing the same thing. For a moment, at just a few junctures of Ecclesiastes, you get a whiff of that notion that God will punish the wicked and reward the good. But it’s only for a moment. Because elsewhere you have lines that say the opposite. “[T]here are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous” (8:14), says Ecclesiastes, and again, “the same fate comes to all, to the righteous, and the wicked, to the good and the evil” (9:2). The same fate, then, not reward and punishment, heaven and hell. The same underworld, the same fate. This is the second major tension in the Book of Ecclesiastes – the wicked will be punished. No, they’ll be exactly the same as everyone else. No, they – maybe have it coming. No, they don’t – they’re going to be just like the righteous. And on and on.

So this second tension in Ecclesiastes shows a fascinating moment in the history of human religion. We observed in the Epic of Gilgamesh that the Sumerian afterlife was just like Sheol – it was a dark place where good and evil alike went. And we know that Zoroastrianism, the newer religion all over the Achaemenid Persian Empire, very differently, had a dualistic conception of the universe, including good and evil, heaven and hell, reward and punishment. Ecclesiastes, then, is in some ways ground zero of human religion transitioning from version 1.0 to version 2.0. In its pages you can see a youthful Judaism emerging into a bigger world – a world of Zoroastrian dualism, a world of Classical Greek philosophy, with all of its postured world-weariness. And while Ecclesiastes shows the slight impress of ideas new to Persian period Jerusalem, Ecclesiastes, with all of its contradictions, and perhaps because of those contradictions, is also an incredible aggregate of the ideologies and literary traditions that came along before it. [music]

The Many Ancient Literary Traditions Behind Ecclesiastes

Every single work that we have studied in this podcast, and many we haven’t covered yet, has direct ties to Ecclesiastes. I was really surprised to discover this as I prepared notes for this program on Ecclesiastes, but everything – the Enuma Elish and Atrahasis, Gilgamesh and Ancient Egyptian wisdom literature, Hesiod’s two poems and Homer’s two poems – they all have passages that Ecclesiastes either sounds like, or literally quotes. Now sorry if you haven’t caught the earlier episodes, but it’s just amazing how much Ecclesiastes seems to synthesize so many different ideas and sentences from earlier texts. Here are some examples.

The Preacher in Ecclesiastes emphasizes at one point that there is “a time to break down, and a time to build up” (ECC 3:3). Babylonian Marduk, in the Enuma Elish, is told that during his time “Your word shall build up and tear down.”12 The Preacher in the Book of Ecclesiastes says, again and again, that everything is hebel – vanity, vapor, or wind. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gilgamesh tells Enkidu “As for man, his days are numbered. / whatever he may do, it is but wind.”13 The Preacher tells his listener, “Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun” (ECC 9:7-10). And at the climax of the Epic of Gilgamesh, following a roller coaster ride of adventures and a heartbreaking disappointment, the hero Gilgamesh is given the same advice by his companion:
But you, Gilgamesh, let your belly be full,
     enjoy yourself always by day and by night!
Make merry each day,
     dance and play day and night!
Let your clothes be clean,
     let your head be washed, may you bathe in water!
Gaze on the child who holds your hand,
     let your wife enjoy your repeated embrace!14

It’s the same carpe diem idea, crafted in some of the same language – be happy, wash and be clean, love your wife, eat and drink – only the Epic of Gilgamesh was a thousand years old by the time Ecclesiastes was written. And just like Ecclesiastes and Gilgamesh, the Ancient Egyptian Song of the Harper, written at least 1,600 years before Ecclesiastes, tells the listener to follow his desire for pleasure, anoint his head, and wear fine clothes. The Ancient Egyptian poem tells us
Let thy desire flourish. . .
Follow thy desire, as long as thou shalt live.
Put myrrh upon thy head and clothing of fine linen upon thee. . .
Fulfil thy needs upon earth, after the command of thy heart,
Until there come for thee, that day of [death].15

In all three cases, the advice is to live for pleasure while one can, wear fine garments, and bathe one’s head, since death inevitably comes to all.

Ecclesiastes also has some pretty striking parallels to Homeric poetry, as well. For instance, the Preacher in Ecclesiastes proclaims, “[W]hoever is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion” (ECC 9:4). And in the Odyssey, in a scene set in Hades, the first great Homeric hero Achilles tells the second great Homeric hero Odysseus the exact same thing.
I’d rather be a hired hand back up on earth,
Slaving away for some poor dirt farmer,
Than lord it over all these withered dead. (11.511-13)16

Both the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, and Achilles of the Odyssey, say the same thing – it’s better to be alive at any cost, than to be regal and dead.

Even more incredibly, the Preacher in Ecclesiastes states, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (ECC 3:1). And Odysseus, compelling his wife Penelope to fall asleep, tells her, “But we cannot always be sleepless, / For everything there is a season, and a time / For all we do on the life-giving earth” (19.650-2).17 Same idea, hundreds of years apart. There’s another close parallel to Greek literature with Ecclesiastes – Greek literature more contemporary to the time Ecclesiastes was written. The preacher of Ecclesiastes says that “in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow” (1:18). And in Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex, produced in the Persian period during the early 420s BCE, the wise old seer Tiresias admits that most of the time, “wisdom brings no profit, / To be wise is to suffer.”18

It’s amazing! It’s as though the twelve chapters of Ecclesiastes are a distillation of every philosophical tradition in the ancient world, every national literature, and every idea! How could there be anything new under the sun, when the whole book of Ecclesiastes is sewn together from old truisms – the sayings and stories of Egypt, and Babylon, and Sumer, and Archaic Greece? In the very act of synthesizing these earlier works, Ecclesiastes seems to prove its own point that new ideas are simply recycled old ones. [music]

Judaism’s Evolution During the Second Temple Period

In this episode, we’ve learned, perhaps most of all, that the unique ideology of the Book of Ecclesiastes may have been a product of the cultural synthesis of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, in which Ecclesiastes was produced. When I began this series on the Tanakh, I was very conflicted on how to structure it. The fact that Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, and other Old Testaments all have different tables of contents was only part of the challenge. The much greater challenge was that our show has been moving forward, chronologically, through ancient cultural history, and the Tanakh’s books – even the core protocanonical books that are in every Old Testament – span a period of 500 years, with the earliest materials, roughly speaking, dating from the 600s BCE and the latest dating from the 100s BCE. Judaism, during these centuries, evolved. It evolved under the influence of many different forces, from Mesopotamian cultures to the east, and later, Greek and Roman cultures to the west, as the Book of Ecclesiastes demonstrates. The extent to which Judaism evolved over these five centuries has historically been largely ignored outside of specialist circles. Christian works of history, set down during Late Antiquity by authors like Eusebius, and after him Jerome and Isidore of Seville, have played no small part in disregarding the importance that Second Temple Jewish history ultimately played on the birth of Christianity.

In any Christian Bible, there is a blank page in between the Old and New Testaments. This is a page that will come up again and again in far later episodes when we reach the Gospels, and it’s an important page to remember, perhaps the most important page in any Christian Bible. What that page depicts is an imaginary fissure between the Testaments – a very dangerous myth called the “Intertestamental Period,” or the “silence between Malachi and Matthew.” To hear a description of this period in one of its most famous formulations, we can look to Saint Augustine, who wrote that following the building of the Second Temple in the late 500s BCE, “the Jews by race. . .had no prophets from that time onwards, and [were] afflicted by many disasters, at the hands of foreign kings and even at the hands of the Romans.”19 This statement is a lie – perhaps not a deliberate lie on Augustine’s part, but a fiction that evolved over the course of Late Antiquity as, after the first century CE, Christianity increasingly worked to distance itself from Judaism – to suppress the fact that Christianity, at its birth, was a Jewish splinter group, led by a Jewish apocalyptic prophet, practiced and written about, during the Apostolic generation, by Jewish people.

The Ancient Near East in the 14th century BCE. From this time to the Achaemenid Persian period, there is perhaps no short text more representative of the various creeds and ideologies of Mesopotamia and the Eastern Mediterranean world than the Book of Ecclesiastes. Map by Electionworld.

As we have observed in these programs on the Old Testament, as humans, we like etiology stories, or origin stories. The need for Christianity to be something new under the sun – something wholly, uniquely new, drove the historiographical methods of Late Antique Christians like Eusebius and those who came after him. But the Book of Ecclesiastes, itself a synthesis of contemporary and earlier ideologies, perhaps gives us good advice when it tells us that “There is nothing new under the sun.” The New Testament, as we’ll see in episodes to come, was the outgrowth of ancient ideologies – a cobbling together of the apocalypticism and messianism of the Prophetic Books, of Platonic and stoic disdain toward the material world, of a growing and pan-cultural interest in binary afterlives, and of Greek language and civilization that had, by year zero, sopped up creeds and stories from all over the inhabited world. The so-called “Intertestamental Period,” during which many books of, in particular, the Catholic Old Testament were still being written, was when all of this was happening. During the years between 500 BCE and 70 CE, when the Second Temple stood, much of human religion as we know it evolved and matured. I remind you of this now, as we talk about Ecclesiastes, because Ecclesiastes is such a completely different text than anything else in the Bible, and because some simple facts about cultural history can help explain these differences. Ecclesiastes is a benchmark on what was happening all over the Mediterranean and Eurasian land mass, once intercontinental empires started tossing practitioners of indigenous religions all over the place and they, like the Jews of Persian Period Jerusalem did, began to get a sense that in human cultural history, there is at best very little new under the sun.

Still, it’s hard to hear the words “There is nothing new under the sun” without feeling a certain defeatism. And fatalism – this notion that we must resign ourselves to the modest ambit of our fate – endorses a certain method of conduct – a recklessness, or just as much, indifference, to the broader world. If the paths of glory lead but to the grave, as a classic English poem says, then there’s little ultimate purpose to seek glory. But historically, the men and women of the 500s and 400s BCE – the Cyruses, Dariuses, Lucius Brutuses, Cleistheneses, Leonidases, Themistocleses, and so on – the men and women who changed the course of Iron Age history – these people could not have been fatalists. They may have accepted their mortality, but they didn’t resign themselves to their positions. They were restless, hungry, and unrelenting. They did not believe that earthly existence was a breath of wind, and in fact, their ingenuity and stamina had a vast effect on human history – one that we’re still experiencing today. And though the Preacher in Ecclesiastes attests that “The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them” – well – for those of us who love literature and history, this isn’t quite true. Of course we want to remember them. That’s why I’m recording this, and why you’re listening to it.

And the Book of Ecclesiastes, though it claims that nothing is new under the sun, by its existence proves itself not entirely correct. Ecclesiastes is an amalgamation of many ancient literary traditions. It is a strange, exquisite book of the Bible, where Hebrew, Canaanite, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Persian, and perhaps even Greek ideology all washes together. Ecclesiastes itself shows Iron Age theology cross pollinating and blossoming, and transforming. It is an emblem of the great syncretism that would eventually characterize the Hellenistic and Roman worlds. [music]

Moving on to the Song of Songs

Ecclesiastes isn’t the only idiosyncratic Second Temple book in the Old Testament. Its next-door neighbor, the Song of Solomon, also known as the Song of Songs, has also raised some eyebrows over the past couple thousand years. Because if Ecclesiastes doesn’t trouble itself much with Israel, the Song of Songs doesn’t trouble itself much with God. Some have interpreted the Song of Songs as an impassioned and erotic dialogue between two mortal lovers. Others have seen it as a poem recording the love between Israel and the God of the Tanakh, or the Church and Christ. In the next episode, I’ll introduce you to the Song of Songs, and we’ll try to figure out what it is – a pious prayer, a lusty love ballad, or maybe something else altogether. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, and this concludes the strictly academic part of the show. If you stay on for the songs, keep listening. If not, see you soon.

Okay, if you’re still here, I’ll try and amuse you with a song. Now, I’ve always loved the Book of Ecclesiastes. But it’s also, to me, personally, always seemed to have a certain je ne sais quoi of a haughty thirteen-year-old – one who really believes that he or she is the first person to ever understand that his or her existence is actually of little consequence to the universe – a sort of existentialist with braces and an Introduction to Algebra textbook. I got to thinking about what kind of a person the preacher of Ecclesiastes would be if he were still around – like in the twenty-first century. And I decided that he would be the kind of discontented type who wears somber colors and sits at the back of a coffee shop, sort of occasionally reading a sophisticated book, but taking plenty of breaks to look disdainfully out at the others around him. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen such an individual – but he or she is sort of a type in certain modern cities – definitely ones I’ve lived in – the nominal misanthrope who nonetheless stoops to visit cafes and eateries, only to look contemptuously down upon the others gathered there. “Oh, I’m not here to talk to anyone. I’m reading Being and Time by Heidegger – didn’t you see the cover? Oh, you haven’t heard of Heidegger? Have you ever even heard of Husserl?” You know, that kind of an ass – I mean person. So I got to thinking about all the modern preachers and teachers like the one in the Book of Ecclesiastes who are out there in the world, superciliously sipping coffee and tea, and I wrote this sort of emo or indie folk type song about that character. I hope you like it, and I’ll see you next time with the Song of Songs.

1.^ Herodotus. Histories (VI.117). Printed in Herodotus. The Histories. Translated by George Rawlinson and with an Introduction by George Swayne. Digireads Publishing, 2016, p. 347.

2.^ E.g. Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1979, p. 201 and Hall, Edith. Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition through Tragedy. Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 2.

3.^ Herodotus. Histories (IX.80). Printed in Herodotus (2016), p. 504.

4.^ See Holland, Tom. Persian Fire. Anchor Books, 2007. Kindle Edition, Locations 3658-60.

5.^ Herodotus. Histories (IX.82). Printed in Herodotus (2016), p. 505.

6.^ See Holland (2007), Locations 1285-1856.

7.^ Coogan, Michael, et. al., eds. The New Oxford Annotated Bible. Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 669. Further quotes from this text will be noted with chapter and verse in this episode transcription.

8.^ See Eaton, Michael. TOTC (Tyndale Old Testament Commentary Series) Ecclesiastes. Intra-Varsity Press, 2009, p. 20.

9.^ Plato. Republic (514a-c). Printed in Plato. The Republic. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Public Domain Book, 2012. Kindle Edition, Location 4036.

10.^ See Eaton (2009), pp. 26-7.

11.^ Ibid, p. 12.

12.^ Matthews, Victor Harold. Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East. Paulist Press, 2007. Kindle Edition, Location 208.

13.^ Anonymous. The Epic of Gilgamesh. Translated by Andrew George. New York: Penguin Classics, 1999, p. 19.

14.^ Ibid, p. 124.

15.^ Printed in Eaton (2009), p. 34.

16.^ Homer. Odyssey. Translated by Stanley Lombardo and with an Introduction by Sheila Murnaghan. Hackett Publishing Company, 2000, p. 172.

17.^ Ibid, p. 308.

18.^ Sophocles. The Theban Plays. Translated by E.F. Watling. Penguin Books, 1974, p. 34.

19.^ Augustine. City of God (18.45). Translated by Henry Bettenson and with an Introduction by G.R. Evans. Penguin Classics, 2003, p. 824.