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The Song of Songs in the Teachings of Jesus and the Development of the Exposition on the Song

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 August 2015

Peter J. Tomson*
Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, St. Michielsstraat 4 / 3101, B-3000 Leuven, Belgium. Email:


Picking up on the revived interest in the Song of Songs in biblical scholarship, the article focuses on the significance of the Song in the tradition of Jesus’ teachings. After a survey of rabbinic midrash on the Song, five examples show that Jesus as remembered in the gospel tradition expresses an unusual interest in the Song with a discreet mystical emphasis. The nuptial Christology that subsequently surfaces in Revelation and in Hippolytus and Origen suggests a continuous development as from the Jesus tradition. This continuity may explain the remarkable parallels between the interest of the Church Fathers in the Song and that of the Rabbis.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2015 

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1 The following incorporates materials and insights assembled during the Masters course, ‘The Song of Songs in Rabbis and Church Fathers’, in the Faculty of Protestant Theology of Brussels, 2005–13, with thanks to our students and colleagues. I dedicate this publication in particular to my former colleague, Dorothea Erbele Küster, in recognition of her professionalism and creativity as a scholar and teacher. Furthermore, I wish to thank Tamar Kadari, Markus Bockmuehl and Joseph Verheyden, and the Editor of this journal, for their advice and constructive criticism. Any remaining misjudgements and errors are my own.

2 Hom. in Cant. 1.1, MPG 13.37, see O. Rousseau, ed., Origène, Homélies sur le Cantique des Cantiques (SC 37bis; Paris: Cerf, 1966) 64–7; trans. R. P. Lawson, Origen: The Song of Songs, Commentary and Homilies (Ancient Christian Writers 26; Mahwah: Paulist, 1957) 266.

3 m.Yadayim 3.5. Translations of rabbinic literature are my own. Abbreviations used in this study:

  • -

    - m., t., y. b., followed by the respective tractate, indicate, respectively, Mishnah, Tosefta, Yerushalmi and Bavli, with chapter and paragraph number, plus (for Yerushalmi and Bavli) page or folio;

  • -

    - LevR: Midrash Wayyikra Rabbah (ed. M. Margulies (1953–60), repr. of 5 parts in 3 vols., Jerusalem: Wahrmann, 1972) with chapter, paragraph and page number;

  • -

    - MekRY: Mechilta d'Rabbi Ismael (ed. H. S. Horovitz and I. A. Rabin (1931), repr. Jerusalem: Wahrmann, 1970) with names of the piskaot, paragraph and page number;

  • -

    - MekRS: Mekhilta d'Rabbi Šim`on b. Jochai (ed. J. N. Epstein and E. Z. Melamed, Jerusalem: Mekize Nirdamim, 1955) with chapter and verse and page number;

  • -

    - PesRK : Pesikta de Rav Kahana (ed. B. Mandelbaum, with comm. and introd., 2 vols.; New York: JTS, 1962) with paragraph and page number;

  • -

    - SifDeut: Siphre ad Deuteronomium (ed. L. Finkelstein (1939), repr. New York: JTS, 1969) with paragraph and page number;

  • -

    - SifNum: Siphre d'Be Rab, (ed. H.S. Horovitz (1917), repr. Jerusalem: Wahrmann, 1966) with paragraph and page number.

4 Hom. in Cant. 1.1, Rousseau, Origène, Homélies, 66–9 (cf. 29–37); more elaborately, Comm. in Cant., prologue, 4.4–16, see L. Brésard and H. Crouzel, in collaboration with M. Borret, Origène, Commentaire sur le Cantique des Cantiques (2 vols; SC 375, 376; Paris: Cerf, 1991–2) i.148–59. For the extant Jewish tradition of an ascent of ten songs, see MekRY shira / beshallah 1 (pp. 116–17); MekRS 15.1 (pp. 71–2); Tanhuma beshallah 10 (86b); Midrash Zuta 1.1; Targum Song, beginning.

5 More superficially, Hippolytus, In Cant. 1.16 compares αἶσμα αἰσμάτων with ϕίλος ϕίλων and ἄνθρωπος ἀνθρώπων (ed. Richard, M., ‘Une paraphrase grecque résumée du commentaire d'Hippolyte sur le Cantique des Cantiques’, Muséon 77 (1964) 140–54Google Scholar).

6 On Origen, see J. C. King, Origen on the Song of Songs as the Spirit of Scripture: The Bridegroom's Perfect Marriage-Song (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); A.-M. Pelletier, Lectures du Cantique des cantiques: de l’énigme du sens aux figures du lecteur (Analecta Biblica 121; Roma: Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 1989) 227–80; W. Riedel, Die Auslegung des Hohenliedes in der jüdischen Gemeinde und der griechischen Kirche (Leipzig: Deichert, 1898) 52–66. Cf. also E. A. Clark, ‘Origen, the Jews, and the Song of Songs: Allegory and Polemic in Christian Antiquity’, Perspectives on the Song of Songs / Perspektiven der Hoheliedauslegung (BZAW 346; ed. A. C. Hagedorn; Berlin/New York: de Gruyter, 2005) 274–93, at 278–9. On Origen's influence, see M. W. Elliott, The Song of Songs and Christology in the Early Church 381451 (STAC 7; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000) 3–10; Brésard and Crouzel, Origène, Commentaire, i.54–68.

7 P. Blowers, ‘Origen, the Rabbis, and the Bible’, Origen of Alexandria: His World and his Legacy (ed. C. Kannengiesser and W. L. Petersen; Christianity and Judaism in Antiquity 1; Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1988) 97–116, at 111; cf. Clark, ‘Origen, the Jews, and the Song’, esp. 286–8. See also T. Kadari, ‘Rabbinic and Christian Models of Interaction on the Song of Songs’, Interaction between Judaism and Christianity in History, Religion, Art and Literature (JCP 17; ed. M. Poorthuis, J. Schwartz, J. Turner; Leiden: Brill, 2009) 65–82; Kimelman, R., ‘R. Yohanan and Origen on the Song of Songs: A Third Century Jewish-Christian Disputation’, HTR 73 (1980) 567–95Google Scholar. The discussion was opened by Urbach, E. E., ‘The Homiletical Interpretations of the Sages and the Expositions of Origen on Canticles, and the Jewish-Christian Disputation’, Scripta Hierosolymitana 22 (1971) 247–75 (in Hebrew, 1961)Google Scholar.

8 Eusebius, HE 6.22.1.

9 Hippolytus Werke, vol. i, Exegetische und homiletische Schriften (GCS 1; ed. G. N. Bonwetsch and H. Achelis; Leipzig: J. C. Hinrich, 1897) 341–74, at 344 (Slavonic fragment); cf. the Greek paraphrase (ed. Richard, ‘Une paraphrase grecque’) 2.2–3. Instead of ‘Law and Gospel’, Origen has ‘Law and Prophets’ (In Cant. 3.1, SC 375, p. 208–9). On Hippolytus, see Riedel, Die Auslegung des Hohenliedes, 47–52; Pelletier, Lectures du Cantique, 217–27.

10 The Slavonic fragment (Bonwetsch, GCS 1, 346) argues that ‘someone from the circumcision who believes in Christ is a flower (?) that can produce both old and new’ (cf. below, example in 3.2); the Armenian fragment interprets the ‘fragrance’ of Song 1.12 as Mary's ‘good deed’ (see below, example in 3.5).

11 Catholic exegetes have been more attentive, e.g. Feuillet, M. A., ‘Le Cantique des cantiques et l'Apocalypse’, Recherches de Science Religieuse 49 (1961) 321–53Google Scholar; Cambe, M., ‘L'influence du Cantique des cantiques sur le Nouveau Testament’, Revue Thomiste 62 (1962) 526Google Scholar. For more recent studies, see below, nn. 29, 36, 54.

12 P. W. Flint, ‘The Book of Canticles (Song of Songs) in the Dead Sea Scrolls’, in Hagedorn, ed., Perspectives on the Song of Songs, 96–104.

13 J. C. Treat, ‘Song of Songs’, A New English Translation of the Septuagint (ed. A. Pietersma and B. G. Wright; Oxford: Oxford University Press 2007), available online at:, accessed 30-07-2014.

14 T. Kadari, ‘On the Redaction of Midrash Shir Hashirim Rabbah’ (PhD thesis, Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 2004, in Hebrew). See also B. Rapp, ‘Rabbinische Liebe: Untersuchungen zur Deutung der Liebe des Hohenliedes auf das Studium der Tora in Midrasch Shir haShirim Rabba’ (doctoral dissertation, Katholieke Theologische Universiteit, Utrecht; Enschede: Ipskamp, 2003). Thanks to both authors for making their work available.

15 Thus Kadari, ‘Rabbinic and Christian Models of Interaction’.

16 G. Stemberger, Einleitung in Talmud und Midrasch (Munich: Beck, 19928) 287–91; Mandelbaum, Pesikta de Rav Kahana, x–xxi.

17 PesRK 5.6–9 (pp. 87–98). Another example is PesRK 1.1–3 (pp. 1–6). Here and in the following, translations of the Bible follow the New Revised Standard Version with adaptations where necessary.

18 PesRK 5.6; 5.9 (pp. 86, 96–7).

19 See b.Sanhedrin 97a and other sources indicated by Mandelbaum, Pesikta de Rav Kahana, 97.

20 כך דרשו שני הרי עולם, Song Rabba 7.3. Cf. the expression in y.Nazir 6.1 (54d); y.Kiddushin 3.9 (64b).

21 MekRY bo / pisha 7 (p. 22). Cf. also the midrashim of R. Yashia, MekRY bo / pisha 7 (p. 25) and R. Shimon ben Elazar, SifNum 115 (p. 125).

22 t.Sanhedrin 12.10.

23 MekRY bo / pisha 14 (pp. 51–2), with God saying: ‘”With Me from the Lebanon, my bride” ‒ it is as though I and you ascend the Lebanon.’ Cf. other versions in SifNum 104 (pp. 82–3, R. Akiva); ibid. 161 (pp. 222–3, R. Nathan); MekRY beshallah / vayehi (p. 115, R. Nehemia); MekRS 14.31 (p. 70, R. Nehemia). Rich information in M. I. Kahana, Sifre on Numbers: An Annotated Edition (3 vols.; Jerusalem: Magnes, 2011, in Hebrew), i.210–11; iii.586–7.

24 t.Hagiga 2.1–7. For a description and implications for the New Testament, see C. Rowland and C. R. A. Morray-Jones, The Mystery of God, Early Jewish Mysticism and the New Testament (CRINT 12; Leiden: Brill, 2009). See also Urbach, ‘Homiletical Interpretations’, 249–52.

25 For the range of opinions, see m.Yadayim 3.5; t.Yadayim 2.14.

26 Cf. Kadari, ‘Rabbinic and Christian Models’.

27 Origen, Comm. in Cant., prologue 1.7 (Brésard and Crouzel, Origène, Commentaire, i.84–5); m.Hagiga 2.1 with t.Hagiga 2.1. The Mishnah mentions ‘the Arayot’ (Lev 18 and 20) instead of the Song. y.Hagiga 2.1 (77a) reports a disagreement of Tannaim on this point. This requires further study.

28 Pace D. Boyarin, Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash (Bloomington/Indianopolis: Indiana University Press, 1990) 108.

29 Cf. the ‘tumult of reverberations’ announced by exegetes as noted by J. MacWhirter, The Bridegroom Messiah and the People of God: Marriage in the Fourth Gospel (SNTSMS 138; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006) 4–10.

30 MacWhirter, The Bridegroom Messiah, 10–20 adopts Richard Hays’ criteria (Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul; New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989). On p. 82 she registers ‘two exact verbal parallels’ between Song 1.12 and John 12.3 but does not make this a systematic criterion. Similarly, without making his method explicit, Feuillet, ‘Le Cantique des Cantiques’, 327 registers an allusion based on ‘la présence de quatre éléments communs’ between Rev 3.20 and Song 5.2 (see below). The criterion here proposed was developed in work on identifying Scriptural allusions in midrash.

31 Similarly W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison, The Gospel according to Matthew (ICC; 3 vols.; Edinburgh: Clark, 1988–97) iii.465–6, without reference to the Song.

32 U. Luz, Das Evangelium nach Matthäus (EKK; 4 vols., re-ed. and repr., Zürich/Neukirchen: Benzinger/Neukirchener, 1985–2002) ii.262–3 recognises the redactor's pen while sensing a traditional kernel.

33 Noted in Davies and Allison, Matthew, ii.447, referring to b.Eruvin 29b; t.Yoma 4.6; 2.14.

34 Targum Song: קום קבל מלכותא די גנזית לך.

35 b.Eruvin 29b (cf. Strack–Billerbeck, i.677); LevR 2.11 (vol. i, p. 52 – insert from Seder Eliyahu Rabba); Song Rabba 7.14. Cf. above, n. 10 on Hippolytus.

36 M. Blickenstaff, While the Bridegroom is with Them: Marriage, Family, Gender and Violence in the Gospel of Matthew (London/New York: Clark, 2005) discusses bridegroom imagery in Matthew without touching on the midrash background and links with the Song.

37 Cf. the extensive material in Strack–Billerbeck i.500–17; add t.Berakhot 2.10.

38 Also in the synoptic parallels to Mark 2, i.e. Matt 9.14 and Luke 5.33.

39 In line with the testifying role of the Baptist in John 1. On the complex links between John and Jesus, see C. H. Dodd, Historical Tradition in the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963) 282–3, 331, and cf. R. E. Brown, The Gospel according to John (2 vols.; AB 29; New York: Doubleday, 1966) i.155–6.

40 Cambe, ‘L'influence du Cantique’, 13–15 thinks also of Song 8.13.

41 Treat, ‘Song of Songs’, 660.

42 Dodd, Historical Tradition, 282–3, 386, for ϕίλος τοῦ νυμϕίου referring to m.Sanhedrin 3.5, האוהב זה שושבינו. See Blickenstaff, While the Bridegroom is with Them, 126–7 for philology on בני חופה and שושבין. For the Semiticism χαρᾷ χαίρει, cf. BDR, 198.6.

43 Fasting was standard practice in early Christianity: Matt 6.16–18; Did 8.1.

44 y.Hagiga 2.1 (77a); cf. t.Hagiga 2.1.

45 See discussion in Luz, Matthäus iii.465–92; Davies and Allison, Matthew, iii.392–3.

46 E.g. J. Jeremias, Die Gleichnisse Jesu (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 19708) 171–5; discussion in Luz, Matthäus, iii.468, 472; information on the cultural context in Blickenstaff, While the Bridegroom is with Them.

47 Strack–Billerbeck i.969, 878 (b.Shabbat 153a, R. Eliezer; Eccl. Rabba 9.8, R. Yohanan ben Zakkai); Davies and Allison, Matthew, iii.392. But cf. Luz, Matthäus, iii.472.

48 Strobel, A. F., ‘Zum Verständnis von Mt 25,1–13’, NovT 2 (1958) 199227Google Scholar. Luz, Matthäus, iii.471 n. 30 finds a ‘singular allegorical interpretation’ in view of Passover, based on ‘isolated motives’.

49 Strobel, ‘Zum Verständnis’, 203–4 (add: Origen, Scholia in Matt., MPG 17.304). Also noted in Davies and Allison, Matthew, iii.398.

50 Cf. also Eph 6.14; 1 Pet 1.13; Did 16.1.

51 Blickenstaff, While the Bridegroom is with Them, 105 notes the ‘door’ on which the bridegroom ‘knocks’ in Song 5.2 and Rev 3.20.

52 We shall ignore Matt 26.6–13, which mainly rehearses Mark 14.3–9, and Luke 7.36–50, which contains unique elements but does not seem to carry visible allusions to the Song.

53 Dodd, Historical Tradition, 162–73. Cf. J. A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke (2 vols.; AB 28; New York: Doubleday, 1981) 684–8; Luz, Matthäus iv.57 n. 2; Brown, John, i.449–52.

54 MacWhirter, The Bridegroom Messiah, 79–85 (following Cambe, ‘L'influence du Cantique’, 15–17), see above n. 30. Less cogently, A. Roberts Winsor, The King is Bound in his Tresses: Allusions to the Song of Songs in the Fourth Gospel (Studies in Biblical Literature 6; New York: Lang, 1999) 25–6 sees allusions to Song 1.3 and 1.12.

55 In Cant. 9 (SC 375 p. 436–43) = Scholia in Cant. MPG 17.260. Cf. ‘note complémentaire’ 12 in Brésard and Crouzel, Origène, Commentaire, ii.765–6.

56 Hippolytus, In Cant. 2.5 (ed. Richard, ‘Une paraphrase grecque’).

57 Armenian Fragment, Bonwetsch, GCS 1, 361.

58 Noted by MacWhirter, The Bridegroom Messiah, 2 n. 6.

59 The transferral of this feature of the king (1.3) to the bride (1.12) can be seen as a ‘midrashic liberty’. Cf. R. Eliezer's much bolder transferral from Israel's haste to God's, above, n. 21.

60 עלמות is read either as על מות or אומות העולם: MekRY beshallah shira 3 (p. 127, R. Akiva; see below, n. 64); MekRS 15.2 (p. 79, same); SifDeut 343 (p. 399, anonymous). Cf. Song Rabba 1.22 (R. Yohanan); LevR 3.7 (vol. i, p. 73, from Seder Eliyahu Rabba). Targum Song 1.3: ושמך קדישא אשתמע בכל ארעא.

61 Cf. Luz, Matthäus, iv.62, commenting on Matthew's near-identical version.

62 Feuillet, ‘Le Cantique des Cantiques’, 324–34; Cambe, ‘L'influence du Cantique’, 5–9.

63 Cf. the semi-formal quotation formula of R. Eliezer, a ‘conservative’ early Tanna, above, n. 21.

64 MekRY beshallah shira 3 (p. 127), reading both עולמות and על מות (see above, n. 60). Cf. Urbach, ‘Homiletical Interpretations’, 250–1.

65 Eusebius, HE 4.3: Quadratus and Aristides.

66 Barn 13.1. See P. J. Tomson, ‘The Didache, Matthew, and Barnabas as Sources for Early Second Century Jewish and Christian History’, Jews and Christians in the First and Second Centuries: How to Write Their History, (CRINT 13; ed. P. J. Tomson and J. Schwartz; Leiden: Brill, 2014) 348–82, at 357–62.

67 Cf. A. Schremer, Brothers Estranged: Heresy, Christianity, and Jewish Identity in Late Antiquity (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) 3–7.