It is impossible to understand the connection between skepticism and Qohelet without also understanding the historical and social context of the book. Perdue emphasizes this point by saying that “placing Qoheleth within its social world is critical to understanding its teachings, purpose, and relationship to Judaism as a whole” (Perdue 183). According to Perdue, Qohelet was likely “a man of wealth and prominence” (172) living in Jerusalem “in the third century BCE” (181). During this time, there was heavy Greek influence in Jerusalem; as a result, Qohelet “would have had the opportunity to encounter Greek culture and philosophy firsthand” (Perdue 181). Since Qohelet was likely familiar with Greek philosophy as a result of his social and cultural context, it is not surprising that the worldview articulated by Qohelet reflects that of Greek Skepticism (Perdue 184).
So, what are the characteristics of Greek Skepticism? Of course, we frequently use the word “skeptic” and “skeptical” in conversation, but studying Perdue made me realize that our use of this word is not always in line with the philosophy of Greek Skepticism. In my experience, the word “skeptic” is often used with a negative connotation. For example, if someone is skeptical about something, they likely have a negative feeling toward it. On the other hand, Greek Skepticism is characterized by a radical nonassertion, which “[leads] ultimately to tranquility and the cessation of anxiety” (Perdue 185). Greek Skepticism does not imply a negative assertion, but rather no assertion at all. This is because the original meaning of the Greek word “skeptic” meant “inquirer.” Skeptics, or inquirers, were individuals who “[searched] for what was true” because they were “not satisfied that current knowledge was verifiable.” In the end, this search led the skeptics to believe that nothing was really true (Perdue 183). In the end, this realization liberated them from the responsibility to prove their every statement or belief. This is a foreign concept to me, especially as a student in an academic environment that requires me to both make assertions and prove them! However, in order to understand Qohelet, it is important for me to understand this foreign intellectual and philosophical context.
As a teacher, Qohelet clearly articulated the philosophy of Greek Skepticism. Perdue explores six parallels between Qohelet and Greek Skepticism, including the beliefs that “justice avails nothing,” “truth cannot be obtained,” “it is impossible to differentiate what is true from what is less true or even false,” “it is impossible to know beforehand the outcome of an action,” “the divine…cannot be known,” and “the human quest to determine the good is doomed” (Perdue 184). As I read this list, it is difficult for me to relate to these statements because they are so different from my theology. However, it is easy to see the similarities between Qohelet and Greek Skepticism. These themes seem negative to me and I have trouble seeing these as liberating beliefs that would lead to “tranquility and the cessation of anxiety” (Perdue 185). Honestly, studying these themes in Qohelet and Greek Skepticism adds to my anxiety!
Perdue explains that “Qoheleth moves from theological affirmations, which are not self-evident and based on experience and rational reflection, to humanism, in which human qualities, activities, and experiences provide reasonable answers verified empirically to important philosophical questions” (184). This quote helped me understand the shift that takes place in Qohelet from theology to humanism, which fits in well with Greek Skepticism and also explains much of my discomfort with the book. While Qohelet prefers to move the conversation from God-truth to human-truth, my natural orientation is the exact opposite. This explains the internal disagreement I felt as I read Qohelet, and I appreciated Perdue’s insights that helped me identify this difference between Qohelet and myself.
Even though I disagree with much of what Qohelet has to say, I found it interesting to listen to this voice that is so different from my own. As we have studied wisdom literature this semester, I have enjoyed learning more about the immense diversity of perspective in wisdom literature and in the Bible as a whole. Understanding the Bible as an active conversation rather than a single voice has been a theme in both of my Biblical Studies classes, and I have found this concept to be an empowering one. In embracing the diversity found in the canon, I have found myself more able to hear the voice of Qohelet, knowing that the discomfort I feel is not only acceptable, but welcome in the ongoing conversation that is Scripture.