Our session was based on the first chapter of this book, which is entitled “The heretical book of the Bible”. Because of the topic, this was an informative exercise rather than a discussion.
This first chapter is an introduction to the theme, before the subsequent dialogues, where the author engages in a “discussion” with Ecclesiastes, who lived over 2000 years ago.
An explanation is given of the method by which the Bible came into being as a collection of individual writings, each intended to be read on its own, and often contradicting other books. This is very much the case with Ecclesiastes, which undermines much of which is traditionally preached from Christian pulpits. It openly questions the validity of the doctrine (held by Jews, Christians and Muslims) that God rules this universe in a loving way that ensures justice for all.
Some background to the place of Ecclesiastes in the Bible was provided.
The traditions of ancient Israel developed along four parallel paths.
For Jews, the most authoritative stream of tradition is found in the first five books, known as the Torah or Books of Moses.
The second stream describes how the monarchy emerged out of the primitive tribal structure, and then focussed on the dynasty founded by David.
The third stream of tradition was the Prophetic. This was initially short messages thought to have come directly from God.
The fourth tradition is now referred to as the Wisdom stream, which was developed by the sages. These writings show no interest in official religious beliefs and practices, and we would now describe them as secular. The work of the sages is found chiefly in Proverbs, some of the Psalms, Job, Ecclesiastes, Ecclesiasticus, and the Wisdom of Solomon.
Geering pointed out that from the cultural tradition of ancient Israel, three quite independent religious communities evolved, and in each, one stream became dominant.
In Judaism, the Torah remained central, with the priests expounding the law.
In Christianity, it was the Davidic royalist tradition, with Jesus being seen as the Messiah, the anointed successor to David.
In Islam, the prophetic tradition dominated, with Muhammad being acclaimed as the greatest and last of the prophets.
However the Wisdom stream was neglected and even rejected by Jews and Christians. Only in the modern secular world has the Wisdom stream, being more secular than any other writings, come into its own.
More information is provided about the Wisdom writings, in particular raising the issue of the finiteness of human existence, and the relevance of these writings to us today.
Notes by John M