Translating Ecclesiastes

This is the first of what we hope will be many guest posts by Tom Bolin

This past weekend, Sententiae Antiquae posted a passage from the Septuagint (LXX) and Vulgate of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes (3:9-15). The passage occurs immediately after the well-known poem (and popular folk song) of 3:1-8.

Ecclesiastes has long been known as the biblical book most liked by people who don’t like the Bible. Its direct questioning of divine justice and human purpose has challenged readers practically from the time it was composed (most likely in the 3rd-2nd centuries BCE). Some of those readers have responded to these challenges by creative interpretations which read obvious statements from the book in a symbolic or otherwise non-literal fashion. For example, the Midrash Rabbah, commenting on Eccl 2:24 states simply that:

כָּל אֲכִילָה וּשְׁתִיָּה שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר בַּמְּגִלָּה הַזֹּאת, בְּתוֹרָה וּבְמַעֲשִׂים טוֹבִים הַכָּתוּב מְדַבֵּר 

kāl ʾăkîlâ ûšǝtiyyâ šenneʾĕmar bammǝgillâ hazzōʾt, bǝtôrâ ûbǝmaʿăśîm ṭôbîm hakkātûb mǝdabbēr.

“Everything that is said in this scroll about eating and drinking is intended to refer to Torah and good works” 

But both the LXX and Vulgate do such expurgation in their translations. For example:

Eccl 1:18a

כִּי בְּרֹב חָכְמָה רָב־כָּעַס וְיוֹסִיף דַּעַת יוֹסִיף מַכְאוֹב

kî bǝrōb ḥākǝmâ rāb-kāʿas wǝyôsîp daʿat yôsîp makʾôb 

For in much wisdom is much anger, and the one who increases knowledge increases suffering.

ὅτι ἐν πλήθει σοφίας πλῆθος γνώσεως, καὶ ὁ προστιθεὶς γνῶσιν προσθήσει ἄλγημα. 

For in much wisdom is much knowledge, and the one increasing knowledge increases suffering. 

Eccl 2:20

 וְסַבּוֹתִי אֲנִי לְיַאֵשׁ אֶת־לִבִּי עַל כָּל־הֶעָמָל שֶׁעָמַלְתִּי תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ

wǝsabbôtî ʾănî lǝyaʾēš ʾet-libbî ʿal kāl-heʿāmāl šeʿāmaltî taḥat haššāmeš

I turned and my heart despaired over all of the toil at which I had toiled under the sun.

καὶ ἐπέστρεψα ἐγὼ τοῦ ἀποτάξασθαι τῇ καρδίᾳ μου ἐπὶ παντὶ τῷ μόχθῳ, ᾧ ἐμόχθησα ὑπὸ τὸν ἥλιον

And I turned and renounced in my heart all the toil that I had toiled under the sun. 

In his translation and commentary on the biblical book, Jerome follows the LXX here: 

Et conversus sum ego ut renuntiarem cordi meo in omni labore meo quo laboravi sub sole.

Eccl 10:1b

‏זְבוּבֵי מָוֶת יַבְאִישׁ יַבִּיעַ  שֶׁמֶן רוֹקֵחַ יָקָר מֵחָכְמָה מִכָּבוֹד‏ סִכְלוּת מְעָט

zǝbûbê māwet yabʾîš yabbîaʿ‏ šemen rôqēaḥ yāqār mēḥākǝmâ mikkābôd‎‏ siklût mǝʿāṭ

Dead flies make the ointment give off a stench. Wisdom and honor are outweighed by a little folly. 


Μυῖαι θανατοῦσαι σαπριοῦσιν σκευασίαν ἐλαίου ἡδύσματος· τίμιον ὀλίγον σοφίας ὑπὲρ δόξαν ἀφροσύνης μεγάλης. 

Dead flies rot the aromatic oil. A little wisdom is more honorable than the glory of great folly. 

The historical importance of the Septuagint, first as a complex engagement of Hebrew texts with Greek language, and later as the appropriated canon of the “Old Testament” for Christians, is worth the attention of anyone interested in Hellenistic and Roman era Greek texts. Anyone interested can find the LXX text online. A clear, concise, and engaging place to start learning about the LXX is Timothy Michael Law’s When God Spoke Greek.

Book of Ecclesiastes


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