Ecclesiastes 1: ματαιότης ματαιοτήτων

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Ecclesiastes 1: ματαιότης ματαιοτήτων

Postby Jonathan Robie » March 1st, 2013, 2:45 pm

Can someone help me with the exact sense of the genitive in ματαιότης ματαιοτήτων in this sentence:

Ecclesiastes 1:2 wrote:ματαιότης ματαιοτήτων εἶπεν ὁ Ἐκκλησιαστής ματαιότης ματαιοτήτων τὰ πάντα ματαιότης.


I have the same problem with the genitive in the English phrase "vanity of vanities", I am not at all sure that I know what it means in English either.

And a bonus question for those of you who speak Hebrew: how does the Greek text differ from the Hebrew text here:

Ecclesiastes 1:2 wrote:.הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים אָמַר קֹהֶלֶת, הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים הַכֹּל הָבֶל


Do הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים and ματαιότης ματαιοτήτων mean the same thing?
ἐξίσταντο δὲ πάντες καὶ διηποροῦντο, ἄλλος πρὸς ἄλλον λέγοντες, τί θέλει τοῦτο εἶναι;
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Re: Ecclesiastes 1: ματαιότης ματαιοτήτων

Postby timothy_p_mcmahon » March 1st, 2013, 10:46 pm

The sense of the Hebrew is a superlative. הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים means 'the vainest of all vanities' or something to that effect, like 'song of songs' is the most beautiful song, 'God of gods' is the most powerful God, 'slave of slaves' is the lowliest slave, 'heaven of heavens' is the highest heaven, etc.

I'm not sure if ματαιότης ματαιοτήτων is an idiomatic rendering; perhaps the phrase in Greek also carries such a superlative sense, but it doesn't sound native.

LXX here is a perfectly wooden rendering of the Hebrew original.
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Re: Ecclesiastes 1: ματαιότης ματαιοτήτων

Postby Evan Blackmore » March 2nd, 2013, 6:01 am

Of course the cognate genitive construction per se wouldn't have been unfamiliar in Greek. Some examples of it, e.g. βασιλεὺς βασιλευόντων, had circulated widely throughout the Mediterranean world and must have long been naturalized Greek idioms.

Still, I find ματαιότης ματαιοτήτων more elusive, especially in context. I'm not too puzzled by "king of kings," "heaven of heavens," "song of songs," "holy of holies," because I can visualize the other kings, heavens (cf. 2 Cor. 12:2), songs, and holies, among which the one under discussion stands out. But if everything is ματαιότης ματαιοτήτων, then against what other ματαιοτήτων is this ματαιότης being measured? Granted, 'twere to consider too curiously, to consider so. But the context of the passage invites such overinquisitiveness.

If anything I personally feel the phrase to be even more elusive in Hebrew, because הבל is a notoriously difficult word to pin down (see the extended discussions of it in TDOT, TLOT, NIDOTTE)--more so, I think, than ματαιότης. But in both languages, this is a peculiarly riddling, opaque phrase, teasing the reader's mind and not yielding up its secrets readily... like much else in Ecclesiastes. And surely that riddlingness is itself an integral part of its meaning.
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Re: Ecclesiastes 1: ματαιότης ματαιοτήτων

Postby Jonathan Robie » March 2nd, 2013, 9:37 am

Evan Blackmore wrote:Of course the cognate genitive construction per se wouldn't have been unfamiliar in Greek. Some examples of it, e.g. βασιλεὺς βασιλευόντων, had circulated widely throughout the Mediterranean world and must have long been naturalized Greek idioms.

Still, I find ματαιότης ματαιοτήτων more elusive, especially in context. I'm not too puzzled by "king of kings," "heaven of heavens," "song of songs," "holy of holies," because I can visualize the other kings, heavens (cf. 2 Cor. 12:2), songs, and holies, among which the one under discussion stands out. But if everything is ματαιότης ματαιοτήτων, then against what other ματαιοτήτων is this ματαιότης being measured? Granted, 'twere to consider too curiously, to consider so. But the context of the passage invites such overinquisitiveness.


So if a King of Kings is the most kingly of all kings, and the Holy of Holies is the most holy of all places, perhaps Vanity of Vanities is merely the most vain of all vain things?

But that doesn't help me make sense of ματαιότης ματαιοτήτων τὰ πάντα ματαιότης. If it's all vain, which part is the most vain?

Perhaps it's just a kind of superlative, "really really vain"?
ἐξίσταντο δὲ πάντες καὶ διηποροῦντο, ἄλλος πρὸς ἄλλον λέγοντες, τί θέλει τοῦτο εἶναι;
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Re: Ecclesiastes 1: ματαιότης ματαιοτήτων

Postby NathanSmith » March 2nd, 2013, 7:53 pm

Jonathan Robie wrote:If it's all vain, which part is the most vain?

Perhaps it's just a kind of superlative, "really really vain"?

That could be it, or the Teacher could be speaking hyperbolically.
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Re: Ecclesiastes 1: ματαιότης ματαιοτήτων

Postby Louis L Sorenson » March 2nd, 2013, 10:00 pm

Here is a discussion of how Hebrew makes the superlative: Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar/133. The Comparison of Adjectives. (Periphrastic Expression of the Comparative and Superlative) http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Gesenius%27_Hebrew_Grammar/133._The_Comparison_of_Adjectives._%28Periphrastic_Expression_of_the_Comparative_and_Superlative%29

2. Other periphrases for the superlative are the use of a substantive in the construct state before the plural of the same word (which is naturally to be regarded as a partitive genitive; cf. our book of books), e.g. Ex 2633 קֹדֶשׁ הֲקָּדָשִׁים‎ the most holy place; שִׁיר הַשִּׁירִים‎ (Ct 11) the most excellent song; cf. Gn 925 (= servus servorum, the lowest servant); Nu 332, Dt 1017 (ψ 1362, 3)[8]; 1 K 827, Is 3410 (cf. Gal 1:5, Rev 22:5); Jer 319, Ez 167, 267 (king of kings, of Nebuchadrezzar; cf. 1 Tim 6:15, Rev 17:14, 19:16, and another kind of periphrasis in ψ 953); Ec 12. Similarly in Jer 628 two participles are combined, and in Ho 1015 two substantives in the singular. Finally, the same object is attained by connecting one substantive in the construct state with another of the same stem (שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן‎ a sabbath of solemn rest, i.e. an obligatory day of rest, Ex 3115, &c.) or of the same meaning (e.g. ח֫שֶׁךְ אֲפֵלָה‎ a thick darkness, Ex 1022).


But the text in Ecclesiastes does not have the article, like the Hebrew construct would (ματαιότης [τῶν] ματαιοτητων), where I would have expected it. I thought abstract nouns in Greek usually took the article. Here are some of the Greek passages cited above. Some of those passages don't render the Greek with the same syntax as the Hebrew.

Ex 26.33 ἀνὰ μέσον τοῦ ἁγίου καὶ ἀνὰ μέσον τοῦ ἁγίου τῶν ἁγίων.
Num 32.2 καὶ ὁ ἄρχων ἐπὶ τῶν ἀρχόντων τῶν Λευιτῶν Ελεαζαρ
Ct 1.1 Ἆισμα ᾀσμάτων,
Dt. 10.17 οὗτος θεὸς τῶν θεῶν καὶ κύριος τῶν κυρίων,
3 Kingdoms 8.27 εἰ ὁ οὐρανὸς καὶ ὁ οὐρανὸς τοῦ οὐρανοῦ οὐκ ἀρκέσουσίν σοι
1 Tim 6.15 ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν βασιλευόντων καὶ κύριος τῶν κυριευόντων,

There are phrases in English in which it is hard to understand the meaning: e.g. When Peace like a river attendeth my way. - I guess that's where context comes into play.


Gregorius Nyssenus Theol., In Ecclesiasten (homiliae 8)
Volume 5, page 282, 5.282.10
Εἰ οὖν ἤδη νενόηται ἡμῖν τοῦ ματαίου ἡ ἔννοια, ἐξεταστέον
[5.282.11] ἂν εἴη, τί βούλεται ἡ ματαιότης τῶν ματαιοτήτων. τάχα δ' ἂν
ἡμῖν γνωριμώτερον τὸ ζητούμενον νόημα γένοιτο, εἰ τὴν γρα-
φικὴν συνήθειαν ἐπὶ τῶν πρὸς τὸ κρεῖττον νοουμένων συνεξε-
τάσαιμεν. ἡ τῶν ἀναγκαίων τε καὶ συμφερόντων πρᾶξις ἔργον
[5.282.15] παρὰ τῆς γραφῆς ὀνομάζεται, ἀλλὰ τὰ ὑπερβαίνοντα τῶν
σπουδαζομένων, ὅσα εἰς αὐτὴν ὁρᾷ τὴν τοῦ θεοῦ λατρείαν,
ἔργον ἔργων λέγεται, καθὼς ἡ ἱστορία δηλοῖ, δεικνύντος, οἶμαι,
τοῦ λόγου διά τινος ἀναλογίας ἡμῖν ἐκ τοῦ ἔργου τῶν ἔργων,
τί τὸ ἐν τοῖς σπουδαζομένοις ἐστὶ προτιμότερον. ὃν γὰρ
[5.282.20] ἐπέχει λόγον πρὸς τὴν καθόλου ἀργίαν ἡ περὶ τὰ ἔργα
σπουδή, τὸν αὐτὸν ἔχει λόγον πρὸς τὰ λοιπὰ ἔργα ἡ πρὸς τὰ
ὑψηλότερα καὶ προτιμότερα τῶν σπουδαζομένων ἐνέργεια.
οὕτως καὶ ἅγιόν τι παρὰ τῆς γραφῆς λέγεται· καὶ πάλιν
[5.283.1] ἁγίων ἅγιον, ὡς ἴσῳ τῷ μέτρῳ τοῦ τε ἐξαγίστου τὸ ἅγιον
ὑπερέχειν ἐν ἁγιότητι καὶ τούτου πάλιν τὸ τῶν ἁγίων ἅγιον,
τὸ καθ' ὑπέρθεσιν ἐν ἁγιασμῷ θεωρούμενον. ἅπερ οὖν
ἐπὶ τοῦ κρείττονος ἐδιδάχθημεν λόγου τῆς γραφικῆς συνηθείας
[5.283.5] τῷ τοιούτῳ εἴδει τὴν ἐπίτασιν τοῦ ὑποκειμένου νοήματος
σημαινούσης, τοῦτο καὶ ἐπὶ τῆς τῶν ματαιοτήτων ματαιότη-
τος νοοῦντες οὐ σφαλησόμεθα. λέγει γὰρ οὐχ ἁπλῶς εἶναι
μάταια τὰ ἐν τοῖς οὖσι φαινόμενα, ἀλλὰ καθ' ὑπέρθεσίν τινα
τῆς κατὰ τὸ μάταιον σημασίας εἶναι τοιαῦτα, ὡς εἴ τις λέγοι
[5.283.10] τοῦ νεκροῦ νεκρότερον καὶ τοῦ ἀψύχου ἀψυχότερον. καίτοι
ἡ συγκριτικὴ ἐπίτασις χώραν ἐπὶ τῶν τοιούτων οὐκ ἔχει,
ἀλλ' ὅμως λέγεται τούτῳ τῷ ῥήματι πρὸς τὴν τῆς ὑπερβολῆς
τοῦ δηλουμένου σαφήνειαν. ὥσπερ οὖν ἐστι τὰ ἔργα τῶν
ἔργων καὶ τὰ ἅγια τῶν ἁγίων νοούμενα, δι' ὧν ἡ ὑπερθετικὴ
[5.283.15] πρὸς τὸ κρεῖττον ἔνδειξις ἑρμηνεύεται, οὕτω καὶ ἡ τῶν μα-
ταιοτήτων ματαιότης τὸ ἀνυπέρθετον δείκνυσι τῆς ἐν τῷ
ματαίῳ ὑπερβολῆς
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Re: Ecclesiastes 1: ματαιότης ματαιοτήτων

Postby Ken M. Penner » March 2nd, 2013, 11:13 pm

Greek Ecclesiastes is what some might call extremely "literal". The "Translation Profile of the Greek" section of the introduction at http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/nets/edition/ ... s-nets.pdf is very helpful. The genitive represents the construct relationship in Hebrew. The absence of the Greek article reflects the absence of the Hebrew article.
Readers familiar with the Greek scriptures would have encountered this Hebrew use of the genitive for the superlative, as Louis pointed out. I might render the Hebrew meaning here as "total pointlessness" here.
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