Echoes of Gilgamesh in the book of Ecclesiastes?

Does Qohelet in the book of Ecclesiastes use the epic of Gilgamesh as a literary source for its so-called “carpe diem” texts? Not according to my article, “Sources of Contention and the Emerging Reality Concerning Qohelet’s Carpe Diem Advice”* published in the journal Antiguo Oriente (available here). Gilgamesh (Mesopotamia) is no more present than King Intef or Ptahotep (Egypt) or Siraš (Emar). The “carpe diem” motif is pervasive throughout the ancient Near East, and its ubiquity makes me skeptical that we should be investigating a literary precursor. Those who want to make sense of the spectrum of “carpe diem” texts in the ancient Near East would be better served by exploring it intertextually (following Kristeva, Barthes, and other post-structuralist practitioners).

The abstract reads:

When Qohelet declares “there is nothing new under the sun,” his own words are no exception. It has been known for a century now that not all of Qohelet’s material is original to his own genius, and the idea that Qohelet is directly dependent on a literary source(s) is standard fare. The hallmark example continues to be Siduri the alewife’s advice to Gilgamesh which displays remarkable correspondence with Ecclesiastes 9: 7-9. However, what may have been construed as an instance of clear literary dependency a century ago cannot be maintained in light of the data that continues to emerge from the ancient Near East. New sources have risen that contend with the Gilgamesh Epic, and there has yet to emerge a definitive victor. This paper calls into question the very idea that Qohelet was directly dependent on a literary precursor and joins with a few select voices both past and present in suggesting an alternate interpretation of the data.

*Note that some editorial mistakes were preserved in the final product. For starters, my name is Joseph Ryan Kelly, not “John Ryan Kelly” per the table of contents. Additionally, the final sentence of the first paragraph on page 130 reads: “The real contribution of Fischer’s study is in how he focuses not on 9: 7-9 not by itself, but as a part of the collection of carpe diem passages as a whole.” It is supposed to read: “The real contribution of Fischer’s study is in how he focuses on 9: 7-9, not by itself, but as a part of the collection of carpe diem passages as a whole.” There are a few other editorial mistakes that I noticed when the proof was sent to me, but I have since lost track of what they were.


8 thoughts on “Echoes of Gilgamesh in the book of Ecclesiastes?

  1. Hi Joseph,

    Your article is very well-written. Thank you for drawing attention to it. As for your thesis, it is similar to that of Seow:

    The possibility that Qohelet might have been familiar with wisdom and other traditions from elsewhere in the ancient Near East certainly cannot be ruled out. Israelite wisdom is, after all, characterized by an international outlook and it was fostered early in the court of Solomon (see Day, “Foreign Semitic Influence,” pp. 55–70). Our purpose for surveying the ancient Near Eastern wisdom texts, however, is not so much to establish influence, for “that, too, is vanity.”

    Seow, C. L. (2008). Ecclesiastes: A new translation with introduction and commentary (60). New Haven; London: Yale University Press.

    Still, I don’t agree with you or Seow in this instance. When all is said and done, though epistemological humility is per se and also in this instance a salutary corrective, I would revise S’s point as follows; by implication, yours as well:

    It is natural to assume that Qohelet was familiar, directly or indirectly, with “wisdom” texts and other texts the sages treasured, from elsewhere in the ancient Near East. Qoh 12:9 avers the same, if one takes to heart the following fact, that there was such a thing as an international intellectual tradition in the ancient Near East, known of course to most sages through the mediation of sources in their own language alone, sources almost in their entirety lost to us. For example, it is not in doubt that Amenemope and Prov 22:17-23:11 are related, with the former a source, direct or indirect, of the latter. But we are not in a position to reconstruct the chain of custody in that case and in almost all cases. Still, the influence is real. In the case at hand, it is hard to believe that the shared sequence Food; Drink/Merriment; Clothing; Oil; Wife is a coincidence. The simplest hypothesis is in fact that Qohelet was familiar, if not with Gilgamesh, with other literature dependent on Gilgamesh in this respect and others.

    1. Thanks John for your kind comments about a humble paper I wrote while working on my M.Div.

      The situation as I see it is one in which the identification of source-paternity is only ever hypothetical, and I say in concert with you, “this, too, is vanity.” Whether the influence lies with Egypt, Emar, or Mesopotamia, (assuming that these are mutually exclusive options, which I do not), the frame of reference within which we situate this text/motif is of more significance for interpretation than its hypothetical source. I believe an international wisdom tradition is a more significant frame of reference than a hypothetical paternal source, assuming these are not one in the same (i.e. no single aNE text is responsible for the motif in Eccl).

  2. For my part, I’d want to see what happens when the questions of literary allusion is isolated from that of “influence.” That is, in principle, Ecclesiastes could be “influenced” only indirectly or not at all by Gilgamesh, but still choose to allude to a part of that text. I’m not here arguing that it does, but just noting (out of my own current obsessions) that a text might allude at points to a source that it is not particularly “influenced” by.

    1. Brooke, could you clarify? Do you mean that Qohelet could be intentionally alluding to Gilgamesh in a kind of subversive way, reversing the sense of the original? Or that, by the very nature of language itself, Qohelet evokes Gilgamesh? If the former, then I think we are still technically involved in “influence studies,” though the influence concerns less the situated meaning and more the topic of address. If the latter, then we are involved in an intertextual discussion of semiotics. I’m interested in the prospects and the limitations of both for determining/constructing meaning. It is navigating between theory and methodology that is so complicated; each is supposed to preclude the other. I want to find a middle way.

      1. Hey Joseph,
        I definitely mean more the former than the latter. With many literary critics, I’m defining “allusion” not simply as indirect reference, but as a literary trope in which a marker in the alluding text intentionally evokes a marked in the source text, such that the alluding marker “means twice” like a metaphor “means twice”: in its immediate literary context mundanely, and also in light of the evoked text.

        My point is that an allusion can be a small thing of a few words or less. In principle, a situation is possible where the *major and direct influences* on Eccl 9:7-9 are some other than Gilgamesh, while the text nonetheless is aware of Gilgamesh and includes one or more allusions to it.

        Again, I’m not at all saying that that’s the case: I haven’t done any heavy lifting on allusion in Ecclesiastes 9. But a lot of my own methodological work involves parsing out the relationship of “allusion” to “influence” and “intertextuality,” as well as to metaphor and related figurative tropes. So I can’t resist musing aloud.

      2. Brooke, what you are describing sounds interesting. For example, the carpe diem motif in Ecclesiastes might be influenced by the “Heretic” Harper Songs from Egypt, but 9:7-9 might also be alluding to the epic of Gilgamesh. These literary trajectories are possible, I admit, because they exist in my own writing (and yours, I suspect). But how do we go about reconstructing so complex a trajectory? And when we find it, what then? Angela Roskop writes in her Wilderness Itineraries (see John Hobbins’ post here), “if we view meaning as something that we recover, all we are left with when we finish reading is admiration for the text, and all we can do is ‘congratulate’ ourselves that we found the meaning” (17). I’m interested in something that transcends this, which is why I want to invoke Theory. But I’m far from answering these questions.

        As for Ecclesiastes, I suspect that we have only a fraction of those texts that participated in this international motif, and I remain unconvinced that literary filiation can be established among those that are extant. In this particular interpretive situation, there is too much uncertainty for me to accept any solution however provisionally it is expressed.

  3. Unless I misunderstand the distinction Brooke is making, I would emphasize how often a precursor text influences the wording of a successor text, with the author of the successor text having only a vague idea, if any, about where the wording she adopts comes from.

    For example, at the moment I want to say that I seem to have sugarplums dancing in my head, but I am only able to locate the source of the phrase, a poem that begins with Twas the night before Christmas, thanks to Google. Note that the precursor text determines the wording I use, one might also say, influences my choice of words, even though I am using the words for their ability to evoke, not Christmas on the minds of children, but, far more simply, a joyful, light-headed mood typical of a pleasant Sunday afternoon in the life of a pastor.

    Finally, I would point out that it is normal for it to be difficult to be specific about chains of custody. For example, Ben Franklin is reputed to have said:

    Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.

    Aristotle is reputed to have said:

    It is well to be up before daybreak, for such habits contribute to health, wealth, and wisdom.

    Suppose for a moment that we knew not what editions of Aristotle, if any, Franklin read for himself. Suppose further that we had no hard evidence for the assumption that someone quoted Aristotle’s observation to Franklin at some point.

    Regardless, I would think that it is still obvious that Franklin’s aphorism owes quite a bit to Aristotle’s observation, even if it is unnecessary (and wrong-headed) to assume that Franklin was deliberately alluding to A’s observation, or to assume that F knew that his aphorism owed a great deal to an observation by someone else.

    I wonder if a scholar of Ben Franklin has expressed herself on the matter. The question is complicated by many issues, such as, is Poor Richard’s Almanac a compilation of wit from many sources? If so, what sources are identifiable? It is natural to note that Franklin, a famous partygoer, did not live by the adage attributed to him. But did Franklin attribute to himself? Of course not. He attributed it to a persona, poor Richard.

    Analogous questions are worth asking in the case of Qohelet and the Gilgamesh epic.

    By the way, the only reason I am reasonably sure that the aphorism in question appears in Poor Richard’s Almanac is because Wikiquotes lists it as appearing in the 1734 edition. As for the observation attributed to Aristotle, I have never seen it sourced. That does not mean it doesn’t have one. Obviously, it has a source, either in Aristotle or “pseudo-Aristotle.” Such fun.

    1. John, I would follow Benjamin Sommer here (A Prophet Reads Scripture: Allusion in Isaiah 40-66, 15-17, 30-31) in defining what you are describing as an “echo” and distinguishing this from “allusion” (with both belonging to “influence” studies). “The meaning of an alluding text is affected by the content of the source text, while echoes do not suggest any altered understanding of the passage in which they appear” (30-31). Of course, if influence studies concerns itself with the author and authorial intention, then categories such as “allusion” and “echo” need to be defined in reference to the author. Perhaps Sommer’s distinction would work better worded differently: The source text is employed by the author with the intent that its meaning is affected in the alluding text, while an author does not intend an echo to suggest any altered understanding of the source text.

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