The Song of Songs and the Fashioning of Identity in Early Latin Christianity

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Karl Shuve
Oxford Early Christian Studies
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     256 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Most accounts of the history of exegesis of the Song of Songs in Western Christianity focus on the commentary tradition, assume that the book’s erotic character was a problem to be overcome by imaginative allegorical reading, highlight the theme of the soul’s mystical ascent to the divine, and acknowledge the great third-century Alexandrian theologian Origen as the dominant influence on the development of both patristic and medieval interpretations of the Song. In his thorough and often insightful revisionist history of the Song’s role in third- and fourth-century Latin debates about ecclesiology and ascetical theology, Karl Shuve successfully challenges previous scholarship on all of those points. As a result, the history of Song exegesis in the patristic West will need to be thoroughly rewritten, and the subsequent history of medieval interpretation will at least need to be inflected with some appropriate nuance.

Following an introduction that reviews the major contributions to the history of Song interpretation since the 1950s and summarizes his argument, Shuve devotes the first part of the book to North Africa and Spain, with one chapter on Cyprian and the Donatists; another chapter on Pacian, Tyconius, and Augustine; and a final chapter on the fourth-century Spanish bishop Gregory of Elvira. In their exegesis of the Song, all of these authors focused on issues of ecclesiology, especially the preservation of the church’s integrity and unity in the face of heresy and schism. Gregory’s Tractatus de epithalamio is a sequential commentary on Song 1:1-3:2 as a history of the church from the incarnation to the eschatological return of Christ, but none of the North African authors produced a sustained commentary on the text. Instead, they made use of specific phrases such as “’enclosed garden” and “sealed fountain” (4:12), “well of living water” (4:15) and “my dove, my perfect one” (6:8) to buttress their various positions in theological debate.

What Shuve convincingly shows is that none of these patristic authors ever found it necessary to defend an allegorical approach to the Song. On the contrary, the identification of the poem’s bridegroom as Christ and the bride as the church was something they (and apparently their readers) all had in common, even if they frequently diverged from one another in their application of the lessons to be drawn from the biblical text. For instance, both Cyprian and Augustine used the image of the enclosed garden to buttress their respective cases about the rebaptism of schismatics. But whereas Cyprian had argued against the Novatianists that the garden of a bishop’s diocese had to be closed off from the impurity of sinners, Augustine in his controversy with the Donatists would identify the garden as the idealized eschatological vision of a pure but currently invisible church.

In the second part of the book, Shuve turns to Song interpretation in Italy, with two chapters on Ambrose and one on Jerome. Here the influence of Origen is undeniable, but in Shuve’s view is still not as determinative as has often been claimed. Origen had seen the bride in the Song as representing the church as a whole, and then by implication the individual Christian soul. Ambrose and Jerome tended to identify her in the first instance with the consecrated virgin whose role was coming to prominence in the Roman church of the late fourth century. In his later writings, Ambrose would extend the identification to include the souls of other believers, the church, and the Virgin Mary. For his part, Jerome too eventually came to apply the ascetic exhortations of the Song beyond the company of virgin women, to widows, matrons, and even to married men. But for both Ambrose and Jerome, the Song’s primary reference had to do with the enclosure and discipline appropriate to consecrated virginity. When Jovinian and later Julian of Eclanum tried to enlist the Song in support of their defense of married love, it was they who were the innovators. Before them, the Latin exegetical tradition had been unanimous in reading the Song as an allegory about the boundaries of Christian community and practice.

In a brief epilogue entitled “Towards Medieval Exegesis,” Shuve wisely refrains from suggesting that the flourishing of medieval Song exegesis in the Carolingian period or the twelfth century can be explained by reference to the Latin patristic ecclesiological interpreters he has examined in this book. His claim about the legacy of the third- and fourth-century authors is rather “that the Song, in a variety of ways—through the liturgy, epistolary correspondence, polemical and theological treatises, ascetic instruction, the preaching of sermons and writing of commentaries, and the translation of Greek exegesis—was woven into the imaginative fabric of Latin Christian thought, and that this opened up a panoply of interpretive possibilities that might otherwise have never arisen” (212). Fair enough. But it would be wrong for scholars to make an overcorrection by discounting the powerful influence on medieval Song interpretation exercised by a commentary tradition stemming from Origen in which the bride was identified as both the church and the individual soul, and for which the mystical ascent to God was very much at the heart of the text’s meaning.

As Shuve acknowledges in a footnote (19), a long commentary by the shadowy (probably fifth-century) author Apponius injected a fresh infusion of Origenist interpretation, together with a thoroughgoing salvation-history approach to the Song. Apponius seems to have been an important source for Gregory the Great (d. 604), along with Origen’s work in the translations by Rufinus and Jerome. Gregory’s own commentary on the Song was unknown to Bede in the eighth century, but the English monk did have snippets of Gregory’s pastorally-oriented Song exegesis embedded in some of his other works, as well as a complete copy of Apponius. The tradition of Song interpretation that came into the medieval period, including the distillation of that tradition contained in the influential twelfth-century Glossa ordinaria, owed considerably more to Origen, Apponius, Gregory, and Bede than it did to Cyprian and Augustine, or even to Ambrose and Jerome.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Arthur Holder is Professor of Christian Spirituality at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.

Date of Review: 
January 25, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Karl Shuve is assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia.


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