2014. Stuart Weeks, The making of many books. Printed works on Ecclesiastes 1523-1875. Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, Indiana.

Weeks’ book deals with the many printed works on Ecclesiastes published between 1523 and 1875. The reader is overwhelmed by all the information about the seven hundred and thirty four works which Weeks has painstakingly analysed and described. The first book Weeks mentioned was published in 1523 by Robert Shirwood and the last one by Alwin Lange was probably published in 1875. Seven hundred and thirty four books between 1523-1875 were described and all entries follow a specific structure (see below).

This book is a good example of meticulous historical research which required many hours of study in libraries, the thorough investigation of old catalogues and the resources on the internet. Although the author executed his task brilliantly one can pose the question about the value of this kind of work. It merely consists of seven hundred and thirty four separate paragraphs on works of many years ago and each paragraph is packed with information.

According to Hans-Georg Gadamer all the interpretations of the past must not be regarded as meaningless or irrelevant. It can help us to understand and to discover forgotten aspects of Ecclesiastes interpretation. Gadamer calls this continuing process of interpretation and re-interpretation ‘Wirkungsgeschichte’. The ‘Wirkungsgeschichte’ of Ecclesiastes interpretation is a kind of a historical movement that can influence the reading of the text and the understanding of Ecclesiastes even here and now, consciously or subconsciously. The history of the interpretations of Ecclesiastes co-determine its understanding. A text (in this case Ecclesiastes) cannot be understood on its own and detached from previous interpretations.

And therefore we must commend Weeks for contributing to our understanding of Ecclesiastes through the ages. His work can be labelled as ‘reception history’ and ‘history of interpretation’ and since this kind of research requires accurate data the author can be commended for his thorough research work, his painstaking investigation of the different works and his detailed descriptions. This was no easy work and the author himself said that ‘it has taken me much time and effort to trace the detail of all the works here – effort which I hope others will not now need to duplicate in their own work’ (x).

The investigation of the works between 1523-1875 also created its own problems. To mention but a few. One were lies. The lies the books themselves ‘told’. In 1759 for instance a work on Ecclesiastes by Voltaire was heavily disputed and was probably not published in that year. Out of fear for church and state many copies dated 1759 bore false imprints. And those editions claiming to have been printed in Paris and Frankfurt came from elsewhere (par 419). According to the titlepage of another book from 1576 Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs were to be explained but then only Song of Songs is expounded and there it stopped. Nothing is said of Ecclesiastes further (par 64).

Sometimes new ‘revised’ editions were announced which were clearly not the case. New title-pages were just stuck to the existing unsold stock. In 1683 Michel Boutauld published ‘The Councils of Wisdom’ which were published in London and Amsterdam and were identical editions but they differed regarding title-page and imprint (par 264). Another problem deals with simple mistakes and inaccuracies which were made centuries ago but found their way into catalogues and bibliographies and which complicate matters for the researcher.

In writing a research history like Weeks’ he had to overcome a few important difficulties. Where could knowledge of works between 1523-1875 be obtained? Which works had to be mentioned and which not? How must the particulars of each book be presented?

Concerning the first, the major printed catalogues were of help but were also limited. Online resources like the COPAC of UK and WorldCat developed by OCLC were invaluable sources of information and they enabled Weeks to discover and access many early works on Ecclesiastes.

Regarding the decision which works to be mentioned and which not Weeks included all works that were genuinely grappling with the text and the thoughts of Ecclesiastes. Excluded were popular commentaries and simple translations. Weeks also added a few things more: poetic rewritings of the texts and other literary interpretations which could shed light on the way Ecclesiastes was interpreted during this period.

Weeks followed a basic structure to order the massive amount of material he obtained: a paragraph (734 in total) was devoted to each work providing the date, author, representation of the full title, publication details and the language of the work. He gave the name of the author as printed as well as alternative names in Latin or Hebrew and preserved the original spelling and capitalisation. Important is the rather detailed information about the publication history of the book. If he only mentioned the particulars of the first edition it would have been unsatisfactory because the further history would have remained unknown.

It was impossible for Weeks to have studied each work from cover to cover and to write a summary on each but the very long titles of each work on Ecclesiastes are very illuminating. These long titles can serve as a kind of a summary which the author himself gave to his work and reflects how the author himself understood the essence of his contribution.

Weeks’ history of interpretation also tells the story of ordinary people who wanted to accomplish something through their endeavors. In 1685 Jean Le Clerc wrote something on Ecclesiastes which actually served as a critical response to Richard Simon’s work on the Old Testament and which was also suppressed in France in 1678 (par 269). In his 1686 commentary Georg Wolfgang Wedel describes the degenerative conditions of old age as depicted in Ecclesiastes 12 ‘from a medical perspective’ (par 271). In 1712 Govard Bidloo, a famous anatomist, wrote a commentary on Ecclesiastes in Dutch from his ‘anatomical’ point of view (par 316).

The intellectual context of the day also influenced the interpretation of Ecclesiastes. An example is a work written in 1704 reflecting the influence of the Enlightenment and the ambitions of the young intellectual (par 297). In his famous book on Hebrew poetry written in 1753 Robert Lowth made a very interesting one page comment on Ecclesiastes. According to him Ecclesiastes has a single form and argument about ‘the vanity of human things, sub persona Salomonis, as he deliberates over a difficult question, argues on each side, and finally removes himself from this worrying contemplation’ (par 407).

Many a commentator experienced the meaninglessness of life in a tragic way. William Dodd for instance published his commentary on Ecclesiastes in 1770 but in 1777 ‘the unfortunate Dr Dodd … a clergyman of the Church of England … died upon the scaffold’ because he was involved in a scheme to pay off all his debts. This caused a public outcry and ‘Samuel Johnson was prominent in the public campaign to spare him’ but to no avail (par 438).

In 1846 there was an important contribution highlighting the problems English and American scholars had with the critical readings of the Germans. A balanced view had to be taken. A prejudiced alarmist would have argued ‘that all impiety and error may be shut out by a rigorous embargo upon German books’. This, however, ‘would have put the literature of the work back half a century at least’. In the end extreme positions were avoided and it was decided to open ‘the door to the results of German learning, without opening the windows to the pestilential atmosphere of what may still unappily be called German principles’ (par 597).

The book of Weeks may be boring to some. It consists mainly of names and dates. Names of authors and publishers, information about books and their vicissitudes. However, this book is in the first place a hommage to so many authors who worked incessantly to understand Ecclesiastes, to many publishers who spent vast amounts to get the books published and to faithful readers between 1523 and 1875 who bought the books, read them and spread the message. And since no text has a final meaning and each reading must always be a different reading Weeks’ book is an invitation to be enriched by the interpretations of the past.

Of all his endeavours Weeks said: ‘I hope that by filling some gaps and correcting some errors, this book will itself help to bring some order, at least to one small corner of the chaos’ (xii). It was not always an easy job and ‘it has required much detective work to track’ all the books between 1523 and 1875 ‘down from vague references’ (xii). According to him this book ‘is not an exercise in history or evaluation, but a tool intended to facilitate work on, or with the early printed literature’ (xiii). We commend Weeks for his research and for making us hear the voices of people long ago.

 

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