The lovely folk at Theologischer Verlag Zurich have just published a new commentary on Qoheleth, by the excellent Annette Schellenberg:
Das biblische Buch Kohelet (oder «Prediger») übt seit jeher eine spezielle Faszination aus. Annette Schellenberg bietet einen Überblick über die Hauptthemen von Kohelets Theologie und zeigt die traditionsgeschichtlichen Zusammenhänge mit anderen Schriften aus dem Alten Testament und seiner Umwelt auf. Im anschliessenden Kommentarteil arbeitet sie heraus, von welchen Erfahrungen Kohelets Reflexionen ausgelöst sind: Weisheit führt nicht zwingend zu Erfolg, Gerechtigkeit setzt sich nicht immer durch, der Tod trifft alle gleichermassen. Dies zeigt, dass die Lehren der klassischen Weisheit zu kurz greifen, und entsprechend klingt manches im Koheletbuch pessimistisch. Doch dabei belässt Kohelet es nicht. Er nimmt die Dissonanzen zwischen der Erfahrung und den klassischen Lehren der Weisheit zum Anlass, um vertieft über Gott, den Menschen und die Welt nachzudenken. Diese Reflexionen führen ihn zu einer Lebensphilosophie, die alles andere als pessimistisch ist.
Schallenberg asserts in the very first sentence that her reading and interpretation of the book is not from the standpoint of a neutral exegete but rather that of a person who loves this book. That love shows on every page, from the foreword through the last word. What Schellenberg provides, then, is the finest commentary on Qoheleth that has been written in half a century (and longer, truth be told). She loves the book and as a consequence her exposition is thorough and exact and shows a grasp of the author(s) intention(s) in a way that the cold and calculating commentary written at arms length cannot.
What this suggests, then, is that the best commentaries are written by people who actually love and respect the books upon which they comment. Schellenberg is not merely appreciative of the author’s work but understands it precisely because she appreciates it. Sympathetic readers make the best exegetes. There’s a lesson to be learned here. And it’s just the first of many which readers of the volume will encounter.
Before, however, I discuss this particular commentary allow me the space to laud the series in which it appears. The Zürcher Bibelkommentare is astonishing in that each published volume is of incredibly high academic quality. Some commentary series are uneven and sometimes even contain volumes that are both very good and utter rubbish (as, for example, the Anchor Bible- which contains the brilliant Jeremiah in three volumes and the utterly horrible and completely meritless ‘Revelation’).
Returning to S.’s work- she commences, following the foreword, with the usual introductory material discussing authorship, canonicity, themes, traditions, and the date of the book. The commentary proper begins on page 45 and concludes on page 165. After it, S. provides a bibliography.
While the foreword is engaging, the discussion of authorship is eye-opening and provides, in perfect sincerity, many ‘aha’ moments for readers. Many of those ‘aha’ moments are then immediately followed by those annoying ‘why didn’t I notice that myself’ moments which both thrill and madden.
Turning to the commentary proper, the translation upon which the work is based is really quite lovely. Eminently readable, it is also amazingly modern and still faithful to the ‘authorial intent’ (if I might be forgiven for using such a term). Every pericope is carefully explained and when necessary divided into subsections for ease of discussion. The biblical text is in dark bold print, as are the verse numberings in the explanations so persons seeking information on particular verses can easily find them.
There are neither footnotes nor endnotes. S. does something amazing for a writer of a biblical commentary: she thinks for herself. To be sure, she has consulted all the relevant literature but, mercifully, she doesn’t feel compelled to slavishly restate what has already been stated elsewhere.
The volume is an academic tour-de-force which also manages to offer Pastors and Clergy and those responsible for proclamation grist for the mill. In that, too, S. is nearly unique. To illustrate the point, ask yourself how many academically rigorous commentaries you’ve read which offer anything useful for proclamation. S.’s does.
This volume needs to be read. It needs to be translated into English and published so non-German reading North American academics (their name is Legion) can have it to use.
In sum- Schellenberg disproves the author of Qoheleth when he says ‘vanity of vanities, all is vanity’. No, not everything. Not this book.