A slightly more condensed version of these articles were originally written for the online mag Examiner.com (now AXS). My links thereto no longer work, so I am guessing they took them down. I moved them here.
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Christians sing with Solomon

Article 4 Article 6

Blockbuch: The banqueting table
Blockbuch: The banqueting table
In the last article we looked at how the Song of Songs had been interpreted through Jewish history. This time the focus is going to shift to the Christian world. In truth, it is not that dramatic a shift. Not only were these two Abrahamic traditions aware of each other (often with hostility), but they were often driven by the same external cultural forces.

To a great extent the Song's fate at the hands of interpreters was set in motion by the Roman world's extremely negative view of all things sexual. We have already seen how its natural eroticism led some Jewish leaders to doubt that it should be considered sacred although it eventually won the day in that arena. Its inclusion in the Christian Bible was, for the most part, a direct result of its inclusion in the Jewish canon, but the Church fathers were faced with the same problem of how to read it in some way other than the obvious. This ended up being, in fact, more of a problem for the Church than it ended up being for Judaism. While the later may have marginalized sexuality in the Roman period, the Christians (generally, both the proto-orthodox and the proto-heretics) positively rejected it. The earliest allegorical commentary we know of was written by Hippolytus of Rome (170-235), but his younger contemporary, Origen (185-254) outdid him with his 10 volume offering on the Song in which tried to find a way to read it in a way appropriate for Christian life (as understood at the time). He paralleled Jewish interpretation (who saw the man in the Song as God, and the woman as Israel), but substituted, of course, Christ and the Church as the characters. In this he was no doubt influenced by the path already set in the New Testament, in which the assembly of believers is said to be the bride of Christ (see

Rev. 21.9-10; Eph. 5.22-33). But he also pioneered a much more personal approach in which the man was the Logos (Christ) and the woman was the individual believer's soul. These two approaches would become the foundation for the Christian understanding of the Song to this day. The only major variation to this approach was pioneered by Rupert of Deutz (c. 1075-1129), who saw the woman as the Virgin Mary. Origen also anticipated later Christian leaders' horror that anyone would read the song literally (suggesting that some did).

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld - Like an apple tree is my lover
Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld - Like an apple tree is my lover
But Origen was to be set spinning in his grave, we suppose, when Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 350-428) argued that it was a love story between Solomon and his Egyptian queen. A monk named Jovinian (d. 405) maintained that the book showed God's approval for marriage as much as for celibacy (although he remained celebate). The Church roundly condemned Theodore at the Council of Constantinople (550), as Pope Siricius had done for Jovinian in 390, but that has not kept both these approaches from cropping up from time to time, in one form or another.

One slight variation to Origen's approach came during the Middle Ages when many saw the woman as the Virgin Mary, although in pictures, as in both the pictures on this page, she could represent herself, the Church, and the believer all at the same time. The Eucharist in the bottom of the Blockbuch picture reflects one of the ways of re-interpreting the kissing in the Song.

Also in the minority report section we should note that Nicholas of Lyra (1270-1349) was to revive the Jewish historical interpretation (see the previous article), appropriately Christianized to include the Church. Martin Luther (1483-1546), perhaps with a nod to his royal protector (Frederick III), read it as a portrayal of Solomon's beatific rule (with Israel as the woman).

Currently, the 'Christ and the Church' view is dominant among Christians, although Protestants, in particular, will often find Jovinian compelling as well (usually both, not either/or). Those with a more mystical bent (including some Protestants) will be drawn to Origen's more personal approach. As this series has intimated on several occasions, while there may be some poorer approaches (such as Luther's), this is not really a right/wrong issue. It is not to say that such things do not exist, but in this case there are several appropriate readings.

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