M. R. Sneed, The Politics of Pessimism in Ecclesiastes: A Social-Science Perspective

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 13 (2013) - Review

Sneed, Mark R., The Politics of Pessimism in Ecclesiastes: A Social-Science Perspective (Ancient Israel and Its Literature; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012). Pp. 341. Paperback. US$41.95. ISBN 978-1-58983-610-5.

Mark R. Sneed has revised and updated his dissertation from twenty years ago (Drew University) to produce a new book on Ecclesiastes from a social-science perspective. As any good dissertation, his book gives careful attention to detail and offers comprehensive research. It also provides a helpful introduction to the use of social science in biblical studies. Sneed begins with the skepticism and pessimism that permeate Ecclesiastes, as well as the heterodox nature of that book. He looks at explanations for this heterodox character, especially social-science explanations (e.g., Marxian, postcolonial, Durkheimian). He then analyzes the socio-historical context of the author and his audience. Sneed further discusses literary and theological issues, such as the meaning of hebel, the problem of evil, and “Qohelet's Irrational Response to the (Over-) Rationalization of Traditional Wisdom.” The book ends with chapters on Qoheleth's pessimism and heterodoxy.

Sneed rightly notes Qoheleth's skepticism of the doctrine of retribution, but in his early statements he ignores subtle nuancing where Ecclesiastes seems more positive about retribution (in a qualified way; see, e.g., Eccl 8:8, 12–13; 10:18; pp. 4–6, 62; Sneed is more nuanced on pp. 187, 196, 200, 224, 240, 264). Likewise, Sneed sees Qoheleth as critical of wisdom “throughout the book” (p. 6, see also pp. 174, 250); but there are also statements in Ecclesiastes that are more positive in regards to wisdom (see e.g. Eccl 8:1, 5; 9:13–14, 16, 18; 10:2, 10, 12; p. 7; Sneed acknowledges Qoheleth's view that wisdom is more valuable than folly, although death cancels this out; see also pp. 149, 161, 227, 242).

Pessimism features prominently in Sneed's analysis of Ecclesiastes (more so than skepticism, p. 252). He connects this with the statements in 1:2 and 12:8, understanding hebel as “emptiness or nothingness and also fleetingness” (p. 7), “futility” or “illusion” (pp. 162, 174), and “worthlessness” or “uselessness” (p. 172). He seems to say that this motif occurs seventy-three times in Ecclesiastes (p. 7). However hebel occurs only thirty-eight times in Ecclesiastes (and seventy-three times in the Old Testament as a whole, which Sneed recognizes on p. 155; for other typographical errors see pp. 48, 49, and 215). Sneed may have overstated his case when he declares this theme “devastatingly deconstructive of human ambition of any kind” (pp. 7, 65). Ecclesiastes does affirm ambition but qualifies it as pursuit of a life of joy and a roof that does not leak (e.g., Eccl 3:12; 10:18). The advice to pursue joy may be a “brief and faint light” (p. 9), but its presence means that the book cannot rightly be called “consistently pessimistic” (p. 9). Later, Sneed characterizes these joy statements as part of an irrational (or non-rational) response to the “over-rationalization of the wisdom tradition” (pp. 224, 227, 251–2).

Although Sneed may have overstated the themes of skepticism and pessimism in Ecclesiastes, these perspectives form the basis of the questions he attempts to answer using a social-science perspective, especially the question of how such a book could have been incorporated into the canon (see pp. 10, 255). Sneed begins by showing that most interpreters have explained the heterodoxy of Ecclesiastes in terms of a “purely intellectual endeavor” on Qoheleth's part, with no analysis of “sociohistorical causation” (p. 14). Sneed prefers to acknowledge that “changed social conditions during the Persian and Ptolemaic periods” led to challenges of the doctrine of retribution (Job and Ecclesiastes; p. 19). He follows Max Weber in his analysis of ideas and social conditions (pp. 18, 34).

Sneed offers limited approval of scholars who have taken the social setting into account in their interpretations of Ecclesiastes (pp. 29–30). He then offers a detailed study of more developed social-science approaches to Ecclesiastes. These include the Marxian approach, the postcolonial approach, the Durkheimian approach, the Grand Theories approach, and the anthropological approach. It would have been illuminating if Sneed had elaborated more on the anthropological approach, which he seems to downplay (see pp. 42, 82).

In his review of the literature, Sneed prefers social-science approaches to the neglect of personal factors (see p. 54). In his discussion of social interpretations, Sneed criticizes explanations which could be relevant for the Persian period as well as the Hellenistic period (e.g., pp. 58, 66). However, some of Sneed's own analysis relates more generally to the post-exilic period and not specifically to the Hellenistic period (e.g., ch. 7, which deals with the response to rationalization). Sneed also marginalizes interpretations which portray Qoheleth as pious (e.g., p. 49). However, an interpretation that concludes that the protagonist is pious is not suspect for that reason alone, since a book like Chronicles portrays David as pious.

Having summarized the explanations for Qoheleth's skepticism and pessimism, Sneed proceeds to offer his own social-science explanation, drawing on the suggestions of others, pulling them into a comprehensive system, and analyzing them with Weberian theory (pp. 82–83). Sneed locates Qoheleth among the retainer class, a lower level of aristocracy that accounted for about five percent of the population (pp. 111, 132, 154). As such, Qoheleth feels powerless while at the same time he is able to criticize the ruling class (p. 143). This contributes to Qoheleth's pessimism along with the social context which is identified as the “oppression of the Jews by the Ptolemies” (p. 190). Qoheleth's response includes his “dissolution of the theodicy problem,” which reduces cognitive dissonance created by the failure of the doctrine of retribution (pp. 190, 197, 202).

Sneed makes an important contribution in his book with the chapter on “The Positive Power of Qohelet's Pessimism.” Here, he argues that Qoheleth intentionally used pessimism as a coping mechanism and survival strategy within the oppressive socio-historical context of Ptolemaic Judah (pp. 231–2). However, Sneed overstates Qoheleth's pessimism and ends up dismissing Qoheleth's joy statements as an irrational response, a kind of “drug that enables him to endure the painful existence of life” (p. 225, following Bernhard Lang[1]). However, advising joy constitutes a completely rational response for someone who is realistic and recognizes the possibility that, while something worse may happen (see, e.g., Eccl 11:2), there is a present good to be embraced.

In his final chapter, Sneed returns to the question of how Ecclesiastes was accepted into the canon. He answers this by maintaining that Ecclesiastes was not actually so heterodox and that the ambiguity of the book invited misconceptions. He does so through his sociological analysis, which is inspired by his Weberian approach. With Weber,[2]) Sneed argues that Qoheleth is going back to an earlier view of God as war deity (p. 258). This makes Ecclesiastes not the most modern book in the Bible, but “the most ancient and primitive” (p. 264). This is the main conclusion of Sneed's book and it relies heavily on Weber's analysis of Judaism. Sneed's thesis would be stronger if he had done more to incorporate other texts regarding the origin and development of Judaism and also to provide concrete examples of where this ancient and primitive faith can be located outside Ecclesiastes.

The strength of this book is the theoretical base which Sneed lays for his social-science perspective (p. 82). Sneed acknowledges that he is not the first to consider the socio-historical context of Ecclesiastes. Indeed he details twenty-five interpreters who have already incorporated some kind of social analysis. The import of Sneed's contribution, however, lies the accessible way he presents sociological theories to readers with limited knowledge of sociology; in this regard, The Politics of Pessimism serves as a helpful introduction to the sociological interpretation of Ecclesiastes. Sneed has emphasized the importance of considering the socio-historical context and has suggested a positive function for pessimism.

Stephen J. Bennett and Charles Awasu, Nyack College

[1] Bernhard Lang, “Ist der Mensch hilflos? Das biblische Buch Kohelet, neu und kritisch gelesen,” TQ 159 (1979), 109–24, here pp. 119–20. reference

[2] Max Weber, Ancient Judaism (trans. and ed. Hans H. Gerth and Don Martindale; New York: Free, 1976), 124. reference