Karl Shuve. The Song of Songs and the Fashioning of Identity in Early Latin Christianity. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 2016.
A common view of the exegetical history of the Song of Songs is that early Christian interpreters resorted to allegorical readings out of embarrassment over the book’s eroticism and its lack of any explicit reference to God. Christian allegorical approaches may read the Bride and Groom as the individual soul in its search for God, or the Church beloved of Christ. The assumption is that underlying such allegorical readings is a stable text whose literal meaning never changes and is apparent to all readers regardless of their historical or cultural context.
Karl Shuve masterfully challenges that very assumption of a transparent and invariant literal text. His study of the early Latin tradition of Song interpretation is clear, cogent, and illuminating. Shuve demonstrates that for some of its most prominent Latin readers, the Song was self-evidently an allegory about the Church and its purity. Origen, who justly assumes a prominent role in most accounts of early Song interpretation, was mostly irrelevant to these Latins because they did not view the Song as a mystery that required a sophisticated argument defending an allegorical interpretation. For them, the contentious matter was not whether the Bride represented the Church but what the implications of this ecclesial reading were. The central question for them was how the Bride’s depiction could help resolve problems besetting the church in particular regions and time periods. But instead of providing definite answers, the Song’s enigmatic poetry enabled different readers to defend diametrically opposite positions.
In North Africa and Spain, starting in the mid-third century, focus was on boundaries between rival communions. Here the controversy was whether those moving from one communion to another required rebaptism. For Cyprian, the imagery of the enclosed garden and sealed font of Song 4:12-15 was the natural starting point. The garden enclosure signified that the church was not open to outsiders; the sealed fountain implied that only the church possessed the life-giving sacrament of baptism. Cyprian used both this passage as well as the perfect dove, another ecclesial symbol, in Song 6:9 to argue against the validity of Novatian baptism. The Novatians in turn exploited the very same verses to defend their extreme rigorism. But later, the dissident Donatist Tyconius also used Song 4:12-15, though he focused on the diversity of plants in the garden to affirm a more inclusive vision of the church. He also adduced the Bride’s declaration of herself as black and beautiful (1:5) as a sign of the compresence in the church of both the good and wicked. Shuve ends his discussion of this interpretive strand with an analysis of Augustine’s use of the Song in the Donatist controversy. In opposing Donatist exclusivism, Augustine focused on the lily among the thorns of Song 2:1, which represents the visible church, in contrast to an “interior community” bound together by love, symbolized by the enclosed garden. The visible act of baptism is the external mark of this inner love that lends the sacrament its efficacy. Accordingly, rebaptism would be otiose.
A transitional figure for Shuve is Gregory of Elvira, a fourth century bishop and opponent of Arianism. His commentary, one of the earliest in Latin, focuses on doctrinal rather than ritual purity. Gregory develops the metaphor of the church as a virgin preserved from corrupting heretics. Although Gregory does not extend the image of the virgin beyond this ecclesial context, by emphasizing the femininity of the body of Christ, he made more plausible the approaches of Ambrose and Jerome that connect the Bride with consecrated virgins.
This second interpretive trajectory developed mostly in Italy. Shuve presents a comprehensive account of the progression of Ambrose’s thought on virginity and asceticism. For Ambrose, the consecrated virgins were vital symbols of the church’s integrity. Ambrose faced formidable opposition from Christian aristocrats who considered celibacy a renunciation of civic responsibility. His used the Song to uphold virginity as a higher form of life but also to consolidate his authority within his diocese. Yet his views also evolved as he engaged the criticisms of Jovinian, who decried the formation of a virginal elite in the church. Ambrose advanced a Marian reading of the Song that allowed him to “domesticate” virginity and show how virginity and marriage need not be in tension. Mary combined in her person the twin ideals of virginity and motherhood. Shuve suggests that Ambrose’s Marian approach inspired later readings of the Bride as Mary in the Latin tradition.
From Ambrose, Shuve moves to Jerome, who also extolled virginity, but in contrast to Ambrose’s vision of virginity as a sign of the established church’s integrity, Jerome assumes a distinctly anticlerical stance. He contrasts virginal purity with clerical venality. For Jerome, the Song is a call to an asceticism aimed at individual encounter with Christ. Jerome’s use of the Song would thus profoundly impress the subsequent Western Christian mystical appropriation of the Song. Shuve ends his book with a fascinating epilogue on Julian of Eclanum’s De amore, which advanced a pro-marriage reading of the Song in opposition to the ascetic readings of Ambrose and Jerome as well as the more general Augustinian antipathy toward sexuality.
I highly recommend Shuve’s book to all interested in the history of exegesis of the Song of Songs. One of the book’s great advantages is that it does not just focus on the commentary genre but draws from a rich variety of texts that cite the Song. Shuve thereby provides a balanced and representative account of the place of the Canticle in early Latin thought. This book will prove of great value not only to those interested in Latin Christianity and its reception of the Song, but also for those working on its exegesis in other Christian traditions, where too the Song has been used in defense of local ecclesial and doctrinal concerns. More broadly, too, the book will profit all who study the hermeneutics of biblical and other ancient literary texts.
Dr. Michael Papazian is a professor of Religion and Philosophy at Berry College. His research focuses on ancient Greek philosophy and medieval Armenian theology. He is currently completing a book on the tenth century Armenian poet and theologian St. Gregory of Narek.