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How would the author of Ecclesiastes originally reconciled his statement that 'there is nothing new' with technological advancements at his time or even the new teaching he was providing?

What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. Ecclesiastes 1:9-10 (NIV)

Note: I am not interested in the meaning of 'under the Sun' as I assume it just means everything that happens in this life on planet earth.

Note: I guess how this verse is related to the theory of Evolution would be better on another site.

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There are two exegetical questions to consider in the phrase "nothing new under the sun":

  1. What is the scope of "under the sun"?

    This has been addressed elsewhere, and is likely to mean something like "in all creation".

  2. What is the contextual meaning of "nothing new"?

    Aside from context, at one extreme this could mean something like a 'Groundhog Day' where everything is literally a repeat, and at the other extreme it could be a fairly loose statement that nothing completely new and unique will happen — or it could mean anything in between.

    This is a variant of an incredibly common question that could be asked about many words and phrases in the Biblical texts1, but that doesn't make it a bad question at all, because it forces us to think carefully about the surrounding context and how the author intended it to be understood, rather than allowing us to imagine the phrase could be applied to wildly divergent contexts such as the relationship between scripture and modern science without first understanding its meaning in context.

    • "nothing new" means that human beings will never be satisfied2:

      8All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. ESV

      We may enshrine the pursuit of happiness as an 'inalienable right', but according to the author of Ecclesiastes, we can chase it but we can't catch it.

    • "nothing new" means we stop caring about the past, and that generations to come will do the same2:

      11There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after. ESV

      The Second World War is still living memory for some and many others will continue to care personally about the actions and ideologies of those involved, but it's already apparent that the memories are fading as one generation follows another. In a hundred years or so few will care and the remaining interest will be largely academic, as it is today concerning the British concentration camps used during the Second Boer War for example. To the author of Ecclesiastes, "Never Forget" is just wishful thinking, it's just a matter of time.

    • "nothing new" means nothing that is not "striving after wind2:

      14I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. ESV

      So, I could be working the land in ancient Israel or pursuing a career in Database Administration in Canary Wharf, and either way I'm "striving after wind". Databases are a new invention but in another sense, absolutely nothing has changed.

So, "nothing new" doesn't mean "absolutely nothing new without exception", it mean "nothing new that breaks these depressing patterns of human nature and existence"2.


1 For example, what does 'all' mean in Matthew 2:3 or 2:16 (or dozens of other places).

2 These 'truths' are not absolute: Ecclesiastes offers a way out from their apparent bleakness through the fear of God.

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  • I guess even a microprocessor is nothing new as it is just a further development of controlling electricity which has always been there since creation. I suppose the focus is also not on technology but human behavior as you point out. ;)
    – Mike
    Jun 8 '15 at 0:07
  • Exactly - it's 'something new' in the context of labour-saving tools, but nothing new in the context of human nature, as evidenced by the lack of satisfaction we have in our shiny gadgets when a new model comes out! Jun 8 '15 at 6:25
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Most people probably find my answer extremely contrary to their beliefs here: What is the meaning of the reference to 'stones' in Ecclesiastes 3?.

To me Ecclesiastes is a mathematical thesis. Where, קהלת/Aggregator/Assembler is the ancient term that relates to being mathematician.

It is accepted history that ancient Hindu priests in India invented the zero, and Arab traders incorporated it and thenceforth spread the good news of the concept of zero.

To say that Solomon had written a thesis about the concept zero, before priests in India ever did would be a travesty against accepted modern history.

To say that Solomon defined Nash Equilibrium before John Nash himself did would also be a great travesty to the honour of John Nash himself.

First, it would be a horrid terrible mistake to read Ecclesiastes in English, or in any language but Hebrew.

2ndly, imagine an ancient mathematician, expressing his thesis in old Hebrew - how would he have written it?

What does Ecclesiastes 1:9 - 11 actually have in Hebrew:

Before that, he allegorises his state-machine with the ecological surroundings that would be familiar to the readers of the thesis. He has invented a computation machine that is programmable such that what is worked on is repeatable.

1:9

מה שהיה הוא שיהיה
What has happened it will happen

ומה שנעשה
and what is worked on

ואין כל חדש תחת השמש
and nothing/zero all new under the sun/trunk.
(that is, reset all to new under the shamesh / entry point)

1:10

יש דבר שיאמר
Are there things of which is said

ראה זה חדש
See here new

הוא כבר היה לעולמים
It already exists in past/antiquity

אשר היה מלפננו
whose existence we face.

The Mathematician starts defining a state machine module/subroutine in 1:11. It does not keep computation memory of previous invocations, or even the subsequent invocations.

אין זכרון לראשנים
Null/zero memory to the first/former ones

וגם לאחרנים שיהיו
and also the ones that becomes afterwards

לא יהיה להם זכרון
no memory shall become to them

עם שיהיו לאחרונה
with which that comes thereafter

The Mathematician says that, this {state-machine/programming} {module/subroutine} is invoked such that the current call will not be affected by previous calls, or any subsequent calls.

He then says, I a Mathematician became king upon Israel in Jerusalem.

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