Bible Review 16:1, February 2000

Did Ecclesiastes Copy Gilgamesh?

By Karel van der Toorn

Nearly a century ago, the German scholar Hubert Grimme NOTICED some startling similarities between the biblical Book of Ecclesiastes and the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh. This was indeed strange. Ecclesiastes, most scholars agree, dates to the second half of the third century B.C.E. and was written by a sophisticated Jerusalemite intellectual. On its face the book is a rather remarkable collection of Israelite Wisdom literature—aphoristic, skeptical, even hedonistic.1 The Gilgamesh epic, on the other hand, is a long Mesopotamian narrative masterpiece, fragments of which have survived in a Sumerian version from as early as the beginning of the second millennium B.C.E., as well as in later Akkadian and Babylonian editions and even Hittite and Hurrian versions. Any similarities between Ecclesiastes and the Gilgamesh epic would be surprising.

But there they were! Shortly after the Old Babylonian version of the Gilgamesh epic was published, Grimme noted the strong resemblance between the advice given by Shiduri, the tavern keeper, to Gilgamesh and the advice directed at the reader by Qoheleth, literally “the Preacher,” who purports to be the author of Ecclesiastes.2


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