Ecclesiastes Commentary Scavenger Hunt
Commentaries are a major tool for Biblical Studies. Rarely is it the case that one reads a commentary word-by-word straight through. Usually we use them as a reference tool with a specific passage or question in mind. Rather than asking you to simply read the commentaries I have arranged a scavenger hunt designed to guide you through various skills in using biblical commentaries. Try to answer or address the numbered questions and instructions. Here are scans of three good ones.
- Krüger, Thomas. Qoheleth: A Commentary. Translated by O. C. Dean. Edited by Klaus Baltzer, Hermeneia. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004, 39–55; 207–215. (PDF)
- Fox, Michael V. A Time to Tear Down and a Time to Build Up: A Rereading of Ecclesiastes. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999, 159–169; 349–363. (PDF)
- Crenshaw, James L. Ecclesiastes: A Commentary, The Old Testament Library. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987, 55–68; 189–192. (PDF)
Identifying a Good Commentary
There are several criteria one would want to notice when picking a commentary.
- Year – commentaries can become classics but generally one can assume that a recent commentary will be aware of older arguments and take them into account.
- Publisher and series – The Hermenia series published by Fortress is consistently excellent. The other series and publishers listed here are generally good (Eerdmans and Old Testament Library by Westminster). Not included here but generally good is the Anchor Bible Commentary Series.
- Author’s reputation – This is tough starting out but as you work on a project you will start recognizing some names. This happens when an author is frequently cited by others or when a scholar dedicates a career to a topic and has many related publications. There may be hidden gems out there, but in general if a scholar has only published one thing on a topic and is not cited by recent scholars that is a bad sign.
- Who wrote the Anchor Bible Commentary on Ecclesiastes? (you’ll need the Internet to answer this)
- Skim through Krüger’s footnotes and try to identify the name of an additional scholar that keeps coming up.
Commentaries follow predictable structures. Here are some essential parts and how to use them.
- Table of Contents – A good summary of what the author thinks are major themes and the structure of the biblical book.
- Introductory essays – Address topics broader or more fundamental than a few verses before more detailed commentary begins.
- Translation of a small section – The commentator has to pick one translation that best captures the understanding discussed in the following.
- Textual notes – optional but always found in Hermeneia. These notes are not the commentary per se but low-level notes on the text itself (variants attested in manuscripts) or more literal translations.
- Commentary – comments on the small section followed by comments on individual phrases in sequence
- Footnotes – additional discussion, particularly engagement with other scholars
- Excurses – these fall in between an introductory essay and a comment. They are grounded in a given passage enough that they are located at the appropriate place in the commentary rather than the introduction, but they have length and coherence sufficient to justify being set apart as a separate essay.
- Bibliography – necessary for finding works based on short citations in the footnotes. Skimming bibliography can also give you a sense of who has published extensively on a topic. Sometimes bibliographies are one big alphabetic sequence, other times they are divided into topical sections.
- Indexes – If you’re looking for a topic rather than a verse, and the topic does not have an essay dedicated to it in the introduction, the subject index can point you to discussion in the commentary. Books in biblical studies often also have indexes of verses cited. For example, you could check if a commentary on Ecclesiastes ever discusses a verse in Job that you see as related. There are also indexes of modern authors that help you find where a scholar is cited or discussed.
- Roughly how many pages of introductory essays do each of the three commentaries have?
- What two words do some manuscripts add to the first verse?
Addressing Questions of Interpretation in a Given Verse
Commentaries can be read to survey details others have noticed, or they can be read to address specific questions arising from reading a verse.
- Who is Qoheleth? (1:1)
- How else might the phrase translated by the NAB as “vanity of vanities” (1:2) be translated? What is the physical image evoked?
- What are two ways “under the sun” (1:3) could be understood?
- What one verb in Hebrew has the senses of “die,” “blow,” and “flow” in 1:4-7?
- How else might the phrase translated by the NAB as “nothing is new” (1:9) be translated? Which is more consistent with the argument of the book?
- What is the implication of “fixed spikes” in 12:11?
- Who is the “one shepherd” in 12:11?
- How many additions to the end of the book are there and where do they begin?