Why were Christian theologians in the ancient and medieval worlds so fascinated by a text whose main theme was erotic love? The very fact that the ‘Song of Songs’, a biblical love poem that makes no reference to God or to Israelite religion, played an important role in pre-modern Christian discourse may seem surprising to those of us in the modern world. After all, we are accustomed to imagining Christianity, especially in its medieval forms, as profoundly marked by a fear of sexuality and by revulsion of the body. And yet, the ‘Song of Songs’, which opens with its female protagonist urgently petitioning her lover to kiss her “with the kisses of his mouth” (1:2), was one of the most commented on books of the Bible in the Middle Ages. What interest could Christians possibly have in poetry that unabashedly revels in sexual delights?
Beginning in the 1970s, a number of American scholars set out to answer this question, particularly by making reference to French literary theory. These scholars argued that early and medieval Christians were put on the horns of a dilemma. The Song’s celebration of human sexuality ran contrary to the moral sensibilities of theologians, but these theologians were nonetheless compelled to accept its authority, since the poem had become part of an unalterable canon of sacred texts. To simply ignore the Song would have meant leaving a ticking time-bomb in the Bible: what would stop a reader from coming to the conclusion that sexual desire should be openly pursued, rather than controlled and suppressed to the fullest extent possible? The Song’s potency, therefore, had to be neutralized, and this would require a head-on engagement.
Scholars appealed to the emerging idea that commentary was a creative and disciplinary endeavor, rather than a simple and straightforward attempt to explain what a given text means. Michel Foucault, for example, in his famous 1970 lecture, ‘The Order of Discourse,’ said that commentary “allows us to say something other than the text itself, but on the condition that it is the text itself which is said, and in a sense completed.” In other words, commentary is not something ancillary to the text that it is expounding, but the two become so thoroughly interwoven that the “original” can no longer be heard or read in the same way. It was thus argued that Christians began to write commentaries on the Song so that this love poem would be heard differently—not as a romance between two human lovers, but between Christ and his church or the soul of the Christian. The stark eroticism of the dialogue between these two lovers was deliberately subverted by identifying the bridegroom as Christ and the bride as the Christian people.
This theory has been highly influential, not least because it elegantly maintains that Christians were interested in the Song because of their strong commitment to sexual renunciation, rather than in spite of it. But it fails to take account of one very significant point: our evidence for early Christian engagement with the Song does not come primarily from commentaries, but rather from treatises in which individual verses from the Song are cited in isolation. And these treatises are often on topics completely unrelated to human sexuality. For example, some of our earliest quotations of the Song can be found in a series of Latin letters written in the middle of the third century CE by Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, which was the largest city in Roman Africa. The church in Africa had recently splintered into competing communities in the wake of a severe persecution, and Cyprian was dealing with a vexing matter of ritual practice: should Christians who wish to join his church after having been a member of one of the competing churches be required to complete the initiation ritual again? To become a Christian, one had to be baptized with water in order to be cleansed of one’s sins, and it was a matter of intense debate whether the baptisms of other churches could be considered effective. Cyprian vigorously argued that they were not, and the key piece of evidence he produced came from the Song: “My beloved is a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed” (4:12). He takes for granted that the “beloved” is the true church (of which he considers his community, but not those of his competitors, to be a part), and that its “fountain” is the baptismal waters. He then argues that if the baptismal waters are enclosed within the true church (which, of course, is his church), then schismatic churches can have no access to them and cannot legitimately baptize anyone.
Cyprian’s letters sparked a debate over what the Song said about baptism that would last for nearly two centuries. Notably, no participant ever questioned the central premise that the Song was about the church, and we find no anxieties whatsoever about the poem’s eroticism. Thus it turns out that historians may have been asking the wrong question all along. Many simply presumed that early Christians would have been as struck by the peculiarity of the Song’s erotic language as are modern Christians. But perhaps they were not. Perhaps they heard the Song differently from us, quite apart from the intervention of commentaries. We might instead wish to ask, what was the literal meaning of the Song for them?
When we strip away our preconceived notions of how the Song must be “literally” understood, its popularity among early and medieval Christians becomes much less strange. These Christians were fed on a steady diet of prophetic literature, such as the books of Hosea and Ezekiel, which identified Israel as God’s bride, and they took Paul’s identification of the church as the bride of Christ with the utmost seriousness (Ephesians 5:31-32). When heard within the context of the liturgy, why should a poem about two lovers not be understood to reveal the love between God and his people? The history of the Song’s interpretation reminds us not only of the contingency of texts, but of love itself.
Featured image credit: Woodcut for “Die Bibel in Bildern”, by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.