This review appeared in the Jan-Mar 2004 vol. 161 no. 1 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.Subscribe Today
Vain Rhetoric: Private Insight and Public Debate in EcclesiastesT&T Clark, Sheffield June 1, 2001
Just as the realities of the world mystified Qoheleth, so the Book of Ecclesiastes continues to mystify its would-be interpreters. In this volume, a revision of his doctoral dissertation, Salyer approaches Ecclesiastes from a postmodern, reader-response perspective. His goal is twofold—to make a contribution to research on Ecclesiastes and to provide “a literary methods ‘primer’ for a college level or graduate student” (p. 11). In chapters 1–4, which are hermeneutical in focus, Salyer presents “a theory of reading scriptural texts,” provides an introduction to literary methods (focusing on narrative and reader-response perspectives), and shows how a reader-response approach can appropriate the results of historical scholarship. Chapters 5–6 are essentially a commentary on Ecclesiastes, and chapter 7 draws some conclusions.
Salyer calls the book’s rhetorical strategy a “vain rhetoric” because, he argues, the book’s first-person narration is inherently subjective and invites debate and even disagreement. In Ecclesiastes this challenge comes from the frame narrator or epilogist. The first-person narrator speaks from personal experience, while the epilogist counters this private insight with public knowledge. As such the book reflects the inevitable epistemological tension that people face as they seek to harmonize private insight with communal beliefs. According to Salyer the meaning of the book cannot be found at the surface, descriptive level, but rather at the deeper level of “the interactional dialogue that exists between the different narrational levels in the book” (p. 17).
The book’s rhetoric is also “vain,” Salyer says, because of its language, which is performative, not descriptive. Like other interpreters of Ecclesiastes, Salyer recognizes that the book seems to be intentionally ambiguous and opaque. But this should not be surprising, given the book’s conclusions on life. Salyer writes, “The implied author has consciously constructed a text which would recreate the same sense of hebel at a literary level that one often experiences in real life.” He adds, “The rhetorical effect of the text’s various gapping techniques and strategies of indirection is to recreate in the reader life’s penchant for absurdity and ambiguity” (p. 18). Salyer concludes that “Ecclesiastes may be the most postmodern book in the Canon, and certainly, one that deserves a hearing in our age” (p. 19). Salyer’s study deserves a hearing from all who would seek to unravel the mystery of this strange but fascinating biblical book.
—Robert B. Chisholm Jr.