Norbert LOHFINK, S.J., Qoheleth. A Continental Commentary. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003. pp. 158. $23.00 ISBN 0-8006-9604-2.
Reviewed by Robert L. HUMPHREY, Southern New Hampshire University, 2500 North River Road, Manchester, NH 03106

This is a translated and revised (about 1990) version of Lohfink's popular 1980 German commentary on Qoheleth (Ecclesiastes) which went through five printings. It is unfortunate a further revision to include the results of research in the last ten years was not possible. While some of this work is referenced in the up-dated bibliography, as Lohfink tacitly admits in his preface (p. ix), more dialogue with recent work would have been desirable. One wonders what changes he might have made had he been permitted.

Lohfink describes his work as the "commentary of the translator" and his lively and somewhat controversial translation of Qoheleth, here represented in a new English translation of the Hebrew text by Sean McEvenue which follows the "direction and exegetical decisions" (p. xi) of Lohfink's German translation, is the most important part of the book. The book includes Lohfink's introduction to Qoheleth and his overviews of each section and notes on the text. There is also a select bibliography and indices of ancient sources, subjects, ancient authors and groups, Greek words and phrases, and Hebrew words and phrases.

Lohfink's contribution to the study of Qoheleth is his appreciation of the literary form of the book and its structure which led him to see that the apparent contradictions in the book resulted from the fact that in a time before quotation marks and footnotes the author was "citing the ideas of others or was playing upon them" (p. viii). He also recognized that Qoheleth was in dialogue not only with the wisdom teachers of Israel but with Hellenistic wisdom. Lohfink attempts to understand Qoheleth against the social and economic background of Ptolomaic Palestine (Third century B.C.E.) and regards Qoheleth as a peripatetic philosopher defending Hebrew wisdom against the challenges of Hellenistic wisdom. More debatable is Lohfink's view, shared by some others, that Qoheleth was a precursor of modern existentialist philosophy, a suggestion which may recommend his commentary to many readers.

In his introduction, Lohfink argues that Qoheleth combines the Greek Cynics' rhetoric of the diatribe with the Semitic rhetorical art of chiastic balance. "We see here an almost playfully worked out interweaving of diatribe and palistrophe [chiasmus]. It reveals a supreme art in the use of literary form, and also a settled refusal, amid total openness to Greek, to give up one's own heritage. What is true of form is equally true of message" (p. 8).

The message of Qoheleth is in the center of the book and is a measured response to the increasing Hellenization of his society. "What is new, and also required, needs to be assimilated, but in such a way that it not be necessary to send the children to a Greek school; in such a way also that future generations will continue to come to the temple, not so much in order to offer sacrifice (the heathen also do this) but rather to listen when there are readings from the Torah and the Prophets, and to grow in the fear of God" (p. 9).

Lohfink makes some interesting comparisons between Qoheleth and Jesus of Nazareth. Both were peripatetic teachers who called into question the basic assumptions of their interlocutors and maintained that the kingship of God made the world ultimately unintelligible, placing humans in the ever-new astonishing moment. But Qoheleth remained the teacher who must allow his students to go on seeking their own way, while Jesus could invite people to follow him for he created the possibility of letting go of the old assurances of this world and living each moment in the kingship of God (pp. 16-17).

This translation of the difficult Hebrew text of Qoheleth should be read alongside Lohfink's commentary because much of what he suggests does not come through in other translations. However, what we have in this volume is McEvenue's rendering of the Hebrew text into English, and McEvenue's rendering of Lohfink's German commentary into English. So what is of Qoheleth, what is of Lohfink, and what is of McEvenue? Those with knowledge of the several languages can judge for themselves, but the general reader can only compare other translations and commentaries on Qoheleth.

This commentary provides a provocative approach to Qoheleth for the general reader; it is not intended for the academic community. Its text-critical notes, cross-references with a useful ranking system, and references to non-biblical parallels make it suitable for introductory courses on the Wisdom literature, although perhaps not technical enough for a course specifically on Qoheleth.

TO ORDER BOOKS: - Continuum - Crossroad - Eerdmans Publishing - Liturgical Press - Orbis Books