Ecclesiastes as transgressive text, and Bishop Spong’s Christianity

14 Jun

I mentioned last week that I was reading Ecclesiastes. It really is an amazing little book. The notes in the OUP World’s Classics Bible (an excellent edition for students of literature) make the point that this strikes modern readers as a truly transgressive text, deconstructing “a great deal of the grandiose, and chauvinistic claims made elsewhere in the national literature of biblical Israel.” Those who try to accomodate the book to orthodoxy and traditional piety “[empty] his words of any meaning whatsoever and [replace] them by meanings derived from other parts of the Bible — a practice virtually anticipated and warned against in Eccles. 12: 10-12.” We are also told the Hebrew is particularly difficult in Ecclesiastes and we should consult modern translations as the 1611 English Bible conspicuously fails in a number of places in this book.

There is still a minority in the USA* which believes that the King James Version (as they insist on calling the 1611 Bible) is itself the Word of God, a monumentally stupid proposition by any standards. Somewhat gay King James, who translated none of it himself, may well have been amused. Just about as silly was the Catholic Church with its centuries of insisting that Saint Jerome’s Latin Vulgate Version was your actual word of God, something the Catholics dropped in the 1960s. On the tail end of that period though the Right Reverend Ronald Knox produced an English version of the Vulgate, though he did constantly refer to the Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek originals. I like Knox’s translation, for all the problems that arise when you translate a translation. In Ecclesiastes he does a splendid job. It isn’t “inclusive” in language, but I really don’t care. While I favour the use of inclusive language myself, I have doubts about retrospectively applying this to ancient texts. It smacks too much of crackbrained but well-intentioned reactions to the use of “nigger” in Huckleberry Finn. Anyway, inclusiveness of language (or the lack of it) is really the least of the Bible’s problems for the 21st century reader, something Bishop Spong tackles head-on in his recent books; but more on that later.

Take Knox’s Ecclesiastes 9:

All this, too, I pondered in my heart, and would spare no pains to find out the meaning of it. Here are upright men and wise; and every task of theirs is in God’s keeping, nor can any tell whether they have earned his love, or his displeasure! This remains as yet uncertain, and meanwhile all have the same lot, upright and godless, good and wicked, clean and unclean alike… And so they journey to the grave. Were but immortality the prize! But no, hope of that is none; living dog is better off than dead lion. They live under sentence of death; and when death comes, of nothing will they be aware any longer; no reward can they receive, now that every trace of them has vanished away; no love, no hatred, no envy can they feel; they have said good-bye to this world, and to all its busy doings under the sun.

Go thy ways, then; eat thy bread with a stout heart, and drink wine to thy contenting; that done, God asks no more of thee… Whatever lies in thy power, do while do it thou canst; there will be no doing, no scheming, no wisdom or skill left to thee in the grave, that soon shall be thy home.

Then my thought took a fresh turn; man’s art does not avail, here beneath the sun, to win the race for the swift, or the battle for the strong, a livelihood for wisdom, riches for great learning, or for the craftsman thanks; chance and the moment rule all. Nor does any man see his end coming; hooked fish or snared bird is not overtaken so suddenly as man is, when the day of doom falls on him unawares.

And here too is wise warning; most wise, as I judge it. There was a small city once, with few men to hold it; and there was a great king that marched out against it, raised a mound and ringed it with a siege-works, till it was beleagured on every side. To such a city, how came relief? By the wise counsel of one poor man that had his wits about him. And was there anyone, think you, that remembered the poor man afterwards? Not one. Sure enough, said I, wisdom has the better of valour; but see how the poor man’s wisdom goes for nothing, and no one listens to him now!

A wise man’s whisper carries further than great outcry from a king of fools. Arms cannot match wisdom; by one slip, what great advantage is lost.

Wonderful English, that!

On the current bookshelf page I have noted:

Jesus for the Non Religious by John Shelby Spong (2007). The positive book he promised at the end of The Sins of Scripture. To quote that reviewer: “I begin my discussion of this important and controversial work with a caveat. I was brought up within the strictures of fundamentalist Christianity, a force I consider deeply virulent in the world. I have not attended church services on a regular basis since I was a teenager. But I find myself drawn to reading about religion in all forms and varieties. I am profoundly hungry for a genuine spiritual experience, be it Buddhist, Taoist, Unitarian, Methodist, Lutheran or none of the above. “Jesus For The Non-Religious” (Harper Collins, 2007) is a book that has touched me deeply, a kind of hard jab in the heart, the wake-up call for which I have spent years waiting.” A posthumous present from Malcolm Gleeson too. Much reference to Kevin Rudd’s hero Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

I have begun now, and it promises to be Spong’s best, and given his age possibly last, book. I do commend it to atheists.


“The new versions have been translated in America, which is not a monarchy. God’s form of government is a theocratic monarchy, not a democracy. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that His word would be translated for the English speaking people under a monarchy with an English king. I know the King James Bible is the word of God because it was translated under a king.”


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3 responses to “Ecclesiastes as transgressive text, and Bishop Spong’s Christianity

  1. AV

    June 15, 2007 at 12:16 pm

    I have begun now, and it promises to be Spong’s best, and given his age possibly last, book. I do commend it to atheists.

    A non-theistic (well, almost), reality-based theologian? I think many atheists would see in Spong a kindred “spirit,” if you will.

  2. Clay

    June 16, 2007 at 1:10 am

    Hi again,

    FYI, if you haven’t seen the Spong speech on Google Video, “The Terrible Texts of the Bible,” you really should. Brutally honest, a beautiful conclusion.


  3. ninglun

    June 16, 2007 at 8:55 am

    Thanks. I have also found a YouTube, which I am posting.

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