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Sex, Spirituality, and Pre-Modern Readings of the Song of Songs

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 September 2014

Thomas F. Ryan
St. Thomas University


While unfamiliar to many today, the Song of Songs was once one of the most frequently interpreted books of the Bible. This article seeks to counter the current lack of familiarity by highlighting the significance for the classroom of pre-modern exegesis of the Song. As course content, it provides a starting point from which to examine Christian thought and practice over the last two millennia. In particular, it supplies evidence that Christians (and Jews) have expressed some of their most profound insights into spirituality in terms of the erotic poetry of the Song. This essay concludes with an examination of method. How can pre-modern exegesis contribute to contemporary debates about interpretation, particularly of biblical texts?

Creative Teaching
Copyright © The College Theology Society 2001

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1 An earlier version of this paper was presented in a session sponsored by the Society for the Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages at the 1999 International Congress on Medieval Studies held at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo.

2 See, e.g., The Christian Spirituality Bulletin: Journal of the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality, Crossroad's multi-volume World Spirituality series and Paulist's Classics in Western Spirituality. See also McGinn, Bernard, The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism (New York: Crossroad, 1991).Google Scholar

3 For brief excerpts from twenty-three different accounts of Christian spirituality, see Cunningham, Lawrence S. and Egan, Keith J., Christian Spirituality: Themes from the Tradition (New York: Paulist, 1996), 2228.Google Scholar

4 Principe, Walter, “Spirituality, Christian,” The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality, ed. Downey, M. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1993), 932–37Google Scholar; Ibid., Thomas Aquinas' Spirituality (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1984), 3–5.

5 See Nelson, James B., “Between Two Gardens: Reflections on Spirituality and Sexuality,” Between Two Gardens: Reflections on Sexuality and Religious Experience (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1983)Google Scholar, which argues that the Song of Songs is “much misinterpreted” (7). On the theological implications of the convergence of sexuality and christology in art of the thirteenth through sixteenth centuries, see Steinberg, Leo, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, 2nd ed. rev. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).Google Scholar

6 In “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis,” Theology Today 37 (1980): 27–38, David Steinmetz identifies patristic and medieval figures ranging from Origen to Martin Luther as “pre-critical.” I prefer the chronological term “pre-modern” because, as I will argue, many of these figures exhibit critical capacities in their exegesis and so are in fact not pre-critical.

7 In Luther the Expositor, Companion Volume to Luther's Works (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1959), Jaroslav Pelikan makes a similar but broader claim when he writes, “The history of theology is the record of how the Church has interpreted Scripture. In fact, as Gerhard Ebeling has suggested, not only the history of theology but the entire history of the Christian Church could be read as the account of its efforts to find and to articulate the meaning of [Scripture] among the manifold changes of its historical development” (5).

8 Besides the Origen text listed below in note 10, assigned readings were drawn from the following: Origen, On First Principles, Book IV in Origen, , An Exhortation to Martyrdom, Prayer and Selected Works, trans. Greer, R. (New York: Paulist, 1979), 182–85Google Scholar; Ibid., The Song of Songs: Commentary and Homilies, trans. Lawson, R.P. (Westminster, MD.: Newman Press, 1957)Google Scholar; Gregory the Great, Exposition of the Song of Songs in Turner, Denys, Eros and Allegory: Medieval Exegesis of the Song of Songs (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1995), 217–55Google Scholar; Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs, trans. Walsh, K. and Edmonds, I. (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 19791983)Google Scholar; Hadewijch, , The Complete Works, trans. Hart, C. (New York: Paulist, 1980)Google Scholar; Mechthild of Magdeburg, The Flowing Light of the Godhead, trans. Tobin, F. (New York: Paulist, 1998)Google Scholar; Luther, Martin, Lectures on the Song of Solomon, trans. Siggins, I. in Luther's Works (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1972), 15:192264Google Scholar; Teresa of Avila, Meditations on the Song of Songs in The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, trans. Kavanaugh, K. and Rodriguez, O. (Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies Publications, 1980), 2:215–60Google Scholar; John of the Cross, The Collected Works, trans. Kavanaugh, K. and Rodriguez, O. (Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies Publications, 1979)Google Scholar; Trible, Phyllis, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978), 144–65Google Scholar; Childs, Brevard, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979), 569–79Google Scholar; Irigaray, Luce, “Questions to Emmanuel Levinas,” The Irigaray Reader, ed. Whitford, M. (Cambridge, MA.: Basil Blackwell, 1991), 179–89Google Scholar; Murphy, Roland, The Song of Songs a Commentary on the Book of Canticles, or, The Song of Songs, Hermeneia Series (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990).Google Scholar

9 Ann Matter, E., The Voice of My Beloved: The Song of Songs in Western Medieval Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990), 6.Google Scholar

10 Origen, “Prologue to the Commentary on the Song of Songs,” in Origen, , An Exhortation to Martyrdom, Prayer and Selected Works, 230–36.Google Scholar

11 The significance of the Song for spirituality remains a concern today; see Bergant, Dianne, Song of Songs: The Love Poetry of Scripture, Spiritual Commentaries Series (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1998).Google Scholar

12 Keel, Othmar, The Song of Songs: A Continental Commentary, trans. Gaiser, F. J. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), 7.Google Scholar

13 On Songs Rabbah, see Neusner, Jacob, Israel's Love Affair with God: Song of Songs (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993).Google Scholar

14 Midrash Rabbah, trans. Simon, M. (London: Soncino Press, 1983), 9.36, 38, 95–99.Google Scholar

15 Targum de-Targum: An Old Neo-Aramaic Version of the Targum on the Song of Songs, trans. Sabar, Y. (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1991), 8485.Google Scholar

16 See Kugel, James L., The Bible as It Was (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997)Google Scholar, a study of early Jewish interpretation of the Pentateuch that touches on interpretive method when it outlines “four fundamental assumptions that characterize all ancient biblical interpretation” (17–22).

17 Pope, Marvin H., Song of Songs: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1977), 90101.Google Scholar

18 Chapter 2, entitled “A Medieval Event,” of Oberman, Heiko A., Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989)Google Scholar characterizes Luther as straddling the divide between medieval and modern.

19 Luther, , Lectures on the Song of Solomon, 194.Google Scholar On the kind of exegesis of the Song of Songs to which Luther responds here, see Matter, The Voice of My Beloved and Turner, Eros and Allegory.

20 Luther, , Lectures on the Song of Solomon, 194.Google Scholar

21 Ibid., 191.

22 Luther takes the twin sheep and the two lips mentioned in Sg 4:1 and 3 respectively as referring to Law and Gospel: “For twins are brought forth whenever souls are first terrified by the Law and then are raised up again by the promises, or the Gospel…. [Lips] signify the office of teaching. They are paired, just as the character of doctrine is twofold: Law and Gospel” (Ibid., 229).

23 On Sg 5:14 and its mention of hands, Luther writes, “The works of the Law are hands withered, wrinkled, and dry” (Ibid., 242).

24 On Luther's composition of “A Mighty Fortress,” see Bainton, Roland, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville: Abingdon, 1978), 270.Google Scholar Mention of a wall in Sg 8:9 leads Luther to write, “For through the ministry of the Word the church is fortified like a wall against all false doctrines, even against the gates of hell” (Luther, , Lectures on the Song of Solomon, 260).Google Scholar Then in verse 10, the bride identifies herself as a wall and her breasts as towers. In response, Luther writes, “For after the giving of the Holy Spirit and the revelation of the Word, the church truly is a wall against the cunning of Satan and the heretics. And it has breasts, firm like towers, by which it teaches, consoles, corrects, etc.” (Ibid., 261).

25 Ibid., 258–59.

26 Hadewijch, , The Complete Works, 68.Google Scholar

27 Ibid., 99–100.

28 Ibid., 280.

29 Ibid., 281–82.

30 Other students noted the assimilation of woman to man, that is of Hadewijch to her Beloved, the male Christ (“I wholly melted away in him and nothing any longer remained to me of myself,” Ibid., 282). To characterize the goal of spiritual union in exclusively male terms seemed to them to devalue women. It is true, traditionally the male character in the Song was taken to represent God or Christ, the goal of the spiritual journey found in the Song. However, the middle ages supply resources for figuring God other than as male. See Thomas Aquinas on naming God (in Summa theologiae I, 13) and Julian of Norwich on Jesus as mother in Julian of Norwich, Showings, trans. Colledge, E. and Walsh, J. (New York: Paulist, 1978), 292304.Google Scholar See also Trible, Phyllis (God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, 144165)Google Scholar and Irigaray, Luce (“Questions to Emmanuel Levinas,” 178–89)Google Scholar who, by emphasizing the woman's striking prominence and agency in the Song, implicitly highlight these characteristics in the person and work of Hadewijch and other women who use the Song to express their spirituality.

31 Origen, , The Song of Songs: Commentary and Homilies, 268.Google Scholar

32 See, e.g., the overview of the Song's structure in Murphy, , The Song of Songs, 5767.Google Scholar

33 For some of the scholarly tools of later medieval exegetes, see the essays in Richard, and Rouse, Mary, Authentic Witnesses: Approaches to Medieval Texts and Manuscripts (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990).Google ScholarSmalley, Beryl, The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages, 3rd ed. rev. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1983)Google Scholar also details many, especially twelfth- and thirteenth-century, efforts at critical biblical interpretation.

34 Volz, Hans, “Continental Versions to c. 1600: German Versions,” The Cambridge History of the Bible: The West from the Reformation to the Present Day, ed. Greenslade, S.L. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963), 94103.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

35 See the work on Origen throughout Young, Frances M., Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; see also Crouzel, Henri, Origen, trans. Worrall, A.S. (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989), 4041.Google Scholar

36 For a postmodern perspective on how modernity has defined itself in contrast to and at the expense of “medieval pre-modernity,” see Patterson, Lee, “On the Margin: Postmodernism, Ironic History, and Medieval Studies,” Speculum 65 (1990): 92, 99.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

37 Steinmetz, , “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis,” 2728.Google Scholar For a concise overview of historical criticism and its ongoing contribution to biblical studies, see Barton, John, “Historical-Critical Approaches,” The Cambridge Companion to Biblical Interpretation, ed. Barton, J. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 920.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

38 Segovia, Fernando F., “Methods for Studying the New Testament” in The New Testament Today, ed. Powell, M.A. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1999), 3.Google Scholar On the varieties of interpretive methodologies, see To Each Its Own Meaning: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and Their Application, ed. McKenzie, S.L. and Haynes, S.R. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1993)Google Scholar and The Open Text: New Directions for Biblical Studies? ed. Watson, F. (London: SCM Press, 1993).Google Scholar See also Grey, Thomas C., “The Constitution as Scripture,” Stanford Law Review 37 (1984)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, who speaks of “constitutional adjudication as one contested interpretive practice among many” (2) and then draws a parallel between debates about biblical and constitutional interpretation.

39 Segovia, , “Methods for Studying the New Testament,” 6.Google Scholar

40 See note 8 for references.

41 Bergant, Dianne, Israel's Wisdom Literature: A Liberation-Critical Reading (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1997), 124–41.Google Scholar

42 Falk, Marcia, The Song of Songs: A New Translation and Interpretation (San Francisco: Harper, 1990), xvi.Google Scholar

43 Bergant, Dianne, Song of Songs, 9.Google Scholar See Pope's extensive bibliography on the history of interpretation (Pope, , Song of Songs, 236–88Google Scholar).

44 See, e.g., Bloch, Ariel and Bloch, Chana, The Song of Songs: A New Translation with an Introduction and Commentary (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 32.Google Scholar However, not all are convinced of the value of these earlier approaches. In The Song of Songs, Othmar Keel speaks of allegorizers' attempts to “suppress the natural interpretation. The results of [their] search for a deeper meaning were arbitrary, unsatisfactory, and often revoltingly grotesque, as any history of interpretation of the Song will show” (7; see 5–11).

45 On postmodern biblical interpretation in general and its relation to historical criticism, see Burnett, Fred W., “Postmodern Biblical Exegesis: The Eve of Historical Criticism,” Semeia 51 (1990): 5180.Google Scholar Definitions of postmodernism (and post-structuralism) also often emphasize playfulness and attention to the body, both characteristic of premodern exegesis of the Song of Songs. See McGowan, John, “Postmodernism,” The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism, ed. Groden, M. and Kreiswirth, M. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), 585–87Google Scholar, and the final chapter of Harland, Richard, Literary Theory From Plato to Barthes: An Introductory History (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

46 Pope, , Song of Songs, 90.Google Scholar

47 On medieval Dominican education, see Michèle Mulchahey, M., “First the Bow is Bent in Study …” Dominican Education before 1350 (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1998).Google Scholar On the highly structured mode of commentary utilized in medieval universities in general, see Minnis, A.J., Medieval Theory of Authorship: Scholastic Literary Attitudes in the Later Middle Ages (London: Scolar Press, 1984), 145–55.Google Scholar See also Ryan, Thomas F., Thomas Aquinas As Reader of the Psalms (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000).Google Scholar

48 See especially chapter 5 of Leclercq, Jean, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture, trans. Misrahi, C. (New York: Fordham University Press, 1961)Google Scholar, which draws a sharper distinction between monastic and scholastic exegesis than I would.

49 Indeed, he acknowledges engaging in word play. “Why shouldn't I call it play? For where is the seriousness in all these words? The external sound is not worth hearing unless the Spirit within helps our weak understanding” (Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs, 3:141). Citations from Bernard of Clairvaux are taken from Sermon 61. Scriptural references in brackets are the citations that the translator identifies in Bernard's text; the Psalm numbers follow the older, Vulgate numeration used by Bernard.

50 One of the assumptions “of all ancient biblical interpretation” that Kugel identifies in The Bible as It Was is that Scripture is perfectly harmonious (20).

51 Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs, 3:142.Google Scholar

52 Ibid., 3:143–44.

53 Ibid., 3:145.

54 Teresa of Avila, The Collected Works, 2:218.Google Scholar

55 Ibid., 2:217.

56 Ibid., 2:230.

57 Ibid., 2:241.

58 Ibid., 2:221.

59 Ibid., 2:242.

60 Teresa writes, “Oh, Christians and my daughters! Let us now, for love of the Lord, awake from this sleep and behold that He does not keep the reward of loving Him for the next life alone” (Ibid., 2:246).

61 Ibid., 2:244–45.

62 Ibid., 2:248.

63 Ibid., 2:244.

64 Ibid., 2:243.

65 Ibid., 2:257. See Sgs. 2:5 in Vulgate translation.

66 Ibid., 2:246, 254.

67 Ibid., 2:240.

68 Ibid., 2:247.

69 Krentz, Edgar, The Historical-Critical Method, Guides to Biblical Scholarship (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975)Google Scholar speaks of “scientific interpretation” and “scientifically responsible interpretation” (33). See Barton, , “Historical-Critical Approaches,” 1112.Google Scholar

70 See Schneiders, Sandra, The Revelatory Text: Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred Scripture (San Francisco: Harper, 1991)Google Scholar, especially chapters 5 and 6 and her discussion of Hans Georg Gadamer and Paul Ricoeur, for a contemporary scholar's account of how the Bible can form a narrative or world into which readers can enter and be transformed.

71 By “critical retrieval” I mean the appropriation of older texts that is informed by critical engagement of contexts—both the texts' and the readers'. See Schneiders' discussion of Ricoeur's “second naïveté” (Ibid., 169–72).

72 Matter, , The Voice of My Beloved, 78.Google Scholar

73 Ibid., 58. On allegory, see Ibid., 49–58 and references. See also Dove, Mary, “Sex, Allegory and Censorship: A Reconsideration of Medieval Commentaries on the Song of Songs,” Literature and Theology 10 (1996): 317–28.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

74 Steinmetz's Benjamin Jowett made little allowance for other readings when he wrote in 1859, “‘Scripture has one meaning—the meaning which it had in the mind of the Prophet or Evangelist who first uttered or wrote, to the hearers or readers who first received it…. The true use of interpretation is to get rid of interpretation, and leave us alone in company with the author’” (Steinmetz, “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis,” 27).

75 Certeau, Michel de, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 1:169.Google Scholar See Miller, Vincent J., “Michel de Certeau” in Handbook of Biblical Studies, ed. Adam, A.K.M. (St. Louis: Chalice, 2000), 4248.Google Scholar

76 Certeau, De, The Practice of Everyday Life, 1:169.Google Scholar

77 “The use made of the book by privileged readers constitutes it as a secret of which they are the ‘true’ interpreters. It interposes a frontier between the text and its readers that can be crossed only if one has a passport delivered by these official interpreters, who transform their own reading … into an orthodox ‘literality’ that makes other … readings either heretical … or insignificant…. From this point of view, ‘literal’ meaning is the index and the result of a social power, that of an elite. By its very nature available to a plural reading, the text becomes a cultural weapon, a private hunting reserve, the pretext for a law that legitimizes as ‘literal’ the interpretation given by socially authorized professionals and intellectuals” (Ibid., 1:171).

78 Certeau, Michel de, “How is Christianity Thinkable Today?Theology Digest 19 (1971): 334–45.Google Scholar

79 Ibid., 335.

80 Ibid., 344.

81 Ibid., 336.

82 From another perspective, McGinn, Bernard in “With ‘The Kisses of the Mouth’: Recent Works on the Song of Songs,” Journal of Religion 72 (1992)Google Scholar writes, “Theological meaning, insofar as theology remains in some way a discipline that grows out of and serves a believing community, cannot neglect the history of the use of the book by the community as an integral part of its datum” (272). See also The Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (Boston: Pauline Books, 1993)Google Scholar, which represents, in part, an official Roman Catholic attempt to meld the more modern concerns mentioned above with the concern for practical and pastoral implications. It sees the Bible not only as an historical document but also as the Word of God (106) “that bears on reality” today (51). It rejects “the thesis of one single meaning” and holds out for “a plurality of meanings,” including the historical meaning (81), and it advocates study of the history of interpretation—it takes as its example the history of the interpretation of the Song of Songs—which “offers a better chance of uncovering all the dimensions of meaning contained in” the Bible (58).

83 Keel speaks of the “natural interpretation” of the Song (Keel, , The Song of Songs, 7Google Scholar). Other authors approve of “the plain sense” (Bloch, and Bloch, , The Song of Songs, 3Google Scholar), the “plain erotic interpretation” (Rowley, H. H., “The Interpretation of the Song of Songs” in The Servant of the Lord and Other Essays on the Old Testament [Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1965], 198)Google Scholar, and “the original intent [and] plain meaning” of the Song of Songs (LaCocque, André, “The Shulamite” in LaCocque, André and Ricoeur, Paul, Thinking Biblically: Exegetical and Hermeneutical Studies, trans. Pellauer, D. [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998], 238).Google Scholar

84 In fact, some have proposed its removal from the lectionary: Hutton, Thomas, Reasons for Refusal of Subscription to the Booke of Common Praier … (Oxford, 1605), 125–28.Google Scholar Others have proposed its removal from the Bible's canon: Perrin, Noel, Dr. Bowdler's Legacy: A History of Expurgated Books in England and America (New York: Atheneum, 1969), 129–30Google Scholar, and Rowley, , “The Interpretation of the Song of Songs,” 216.Google Scholar Incidentally, Rowley includes a substantial bibliography on the history of the interpretation of the Song of Songs.

85 Origen, “Prologue to the Commentary on the Song of Songs” in Origen, , An Exhortation to Martyrdom, Prayer and Selected Works, 218.Google Scholar

86 Quoted in Turner, , Eros and Allegory, 217–18.Google Scholar

87 Ricoeur, Paul, “The Nuptial Metaphor” in LaCocque, and Ricoeur, , Thinking Biblically, 266.Google Scholar

88 Ricoeur rejects the assumption “that there exists one true meaning of the text, namely, the one that was intended by its author, authors, or last redactor, who are held to have somehow inscribed this meaning in the text, from which exegesis has subsequently to extract it, and, if possible, restore it to its originary meaning. Hence the true meaning, the meaning intended by the author, and the original meaning are taken as equivalent terms. And commentary thus consists in identifying this overall true, intended, and original meaning” (Ibid., 266–67).

89 Ricoeur argues that the current emphasis on the erotic in the Song results in part from growing technical expertise in historical and literary studies, but he states that “major cultural change” also lies behind “the almost universal triumph of the erotic reading [today]…. [T]he search for the original meaning independent of any engagement on the part of the reader is not some atemporal, ahistorical attitude, but itself stems from a history of reading. Next, the triumph of the erotic sense, taken as self-evident, is itself a fact of reading, where the technical changes within the exegetical field and cultural changes affecting public discourse about sexuality reinforce each other” (Ibid., 294–95).

90 Ibid., 265, 266, 301.

91 Ibid., 268.

93 Ricoeur is quick to point out the distinction between reading and writing here: “The question—at least for a hermeneutic centered on reading rather than on writing of a text—is not whether the Prophets inspired the author of the Song of Songs, and whether he (or she!) intentionally reinscribed the Prophets' conjugal metaphor within the idiom of a popular song…. [The] question is not, at least here, that of some filiation at the level of the origin, hence of the writing of the text, even if this question has its legitimacy within the framework of a historical-critical inquiry into the composition of the Song of Songs. The question for me is … that of an intersecting reading that respects the difference in the setting of the texts under consideration. Following this pathway of intertextuality, many rich insights can be discovered” (Ibid., 301).