In my last post, we ended by looking at progressive trajectories in Old Princeton, specifically with W. H. Green and his commitment to reading the Old Testament in its historical context. He wrote that inspiration does not “obliterate those distinctive qualities and characteristics which link men to their own age.”
This may seem like a rather obvious statement from our vantage point, but in Green’s day, reading the Bible in its historical context was a cause of concern for many, especially as biblical scholars were learning more and more about that context in the second half of the nineteenth century.
One example illustrates the point: Green’s conclusion that Solomon did not write Ecclesiastes. Again, today, such a conclusion is commonplace, appearing in nearly any evangelical commentary on the book (e.g., Tremper Longman’s Eerdmans commentary and Craig Bartholomew’s Baker commentary). But for some in Green’s day, this was simply caving in to unbelief.
Who Wrote Ecclesiastes?
Green came to the historical conclusion that Ecclesiastes was not written by Solomon in the early first millennium B.C., but several hundred years later, in the postexilic period. In coming to this conclusion, Green was in line with the growing consensus in Old Testament scholarship, that the long-standing traditional Jewish and Christian attribution of the book to Solomon was mistaken.
Why did Green arrive at this conclusion? It wasn’t a momentary compromise to liberal thought. Rather, Green heeded the results of comparative Semitic grammar (comparing the language of the Bible with other Semitic languages of the time). As more and more ancient Semitic texts began to be discovered and translated, it became more possible to compare them to each other linguistically and put these texts in some chronological sequence.
The far-reaching and lasting impact of such linguistic work for Old Testament studies was twofold: (1) Biblical Hebrew could be placed on a timeline with other Semitic languages. This led to debates about when Hebrew arose in the ancient world—in other words, where on the historical timeline of the surrounding cultures to place the Hebrew in our Bibles. On linguistic grounds, it is widely recognized today that the Hebrew of the Old Testament as a whole stems mostly from various periods in the first millennium B.C. (2) Individual books of the Old Testament itself could be placed on a timeline relative to each other. This led to debates about when to date certain books of the Old Testament.
It was this growing knowledge of the historical development of Semitic languages that led nineteenth century scholarship to state categorically that Ecclesiastes did not come from Solomon’s time. Franz Delitzsch is often cited as an early representative of this view: “If the Book of Koheleth were of old Solomonic origin, then there is no history of the Hebrew language.”1 Translation: on linguistic grounds, it is impossible that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes. When to place Ecclesiastes linguistically was debated, of course, but a very general consensus is the postexilic period—5th century B.C. or later.
Green did not accept everything he read about Ecclesiastes and he did not arrive at his own conclusions quickly. In fact, Green came to his conclusion somewhat reluctantly. It was only later in his career that Green concluded that the language of Ecclesiastes “stands alone in the Bible.” He then concurred with Delitzsch.
After all that has been said, however, we do not see how the argument from the language can be met. We conclude, therefore, that it is decisive….It is alleged, and the fact seems to be, that the Hebrew of this book is so Aramean [i.e., Aramaic] that it must belong to a period later than Solomon.2
Follow Where the Evidence Leads
One can sense in Green a tone of resignation. But that is precisely the valuable point for us to bear in mind today.
Green, though a champion of conservative scholarship, was so committed to the historical study of Scripture that even if it led to uncomfortable waters, he followed. He may have tested those waters cautiously and for a long time, but he still wound up going in. Why? Because if that’s where the evidence leads, that’s where it leads. As a trained, Reformed, biblical scholar, Green already had a long pedigree of taking historical evidence seriously and felt, as a matter of integrity, he had to arrive at an uncomfortable conclusion.
And this was no trivial issue, for when you date Ecclesiastes, and who you think wrote it, affect how you understand it.
It has struck me that if Green could easily have taken a different approach, he could have reacted against the historical arguments—resisted the comparative data—wholesale, just as he resisted Wellhausen’s historical reconstruction of Israel’s history (that the Law of Moses was written after the exile). But Green took another path, and this should not be passed over too quickly.
We can put ourselves in his place. These were tense times, and there was volatility in the academy and in the churches. Battle lines were being drawn. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to avoid conflict altogether and simply reiterate familiar conclusions. But in the midst of all this, Green acknowledged the central importance of this newly introduced linguistic evidence. By current standards, Green may have been overly cautious at times, maybe in some cases even a bit too selective, but that is perfectly understandable given the climate and should not overshadow his willingness to innovate.
In my next post we will look at other instances where reading the Bible in context was honored in the Reformed tradition. As we do so, a question for us is whether the current state of evidence concerning evolution and the genre of Genesis should be met with the same commitment to reading the Bible in context.
1. F. Delitzsch, Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes (trans. M. G. Easton; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1877; repr. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 190.
2. W. H. Green, Old Testament Literature: Lectures on the Poetical Books of the Old Testament (Princeton, NJ: Princeton College, 1884), 56.