- The Song of Songs and the Fashioning of Identity in Early Latin Christianity by Karl Shuve
The Song of Songs and the Fashioning of Identity in Early Latin Christianity
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016
Pp. 236. $105.00.
The opening chapters of Genesis depict the creation of a garden paradise, and the biblical prophets (especially Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel) employ the metaphor of marriage to devastating effect in their critique of Israel’s piety. But it is the Song of Songs that brings the lovers to the garden. No other scriptural source articulates such sensuous yearning or offers so vivid a depiction of desire. In recent decades, a broad consensus has emerged that posits that figurative readings—those which understand the female voice to symbolize the church, the synagogue, or the individual soul, and the male voice to be that of the deity—were layered over an [End Page 155] original, “secular” collection of poems describing the experiences of individual lovers. According to this understanding, the surface meaning of the frankly erotic, if occasionally obscure, poems presented such a problem to early exegetes that only allegory could redeem it. Notable scholars, however, including Gershon Cohen, Ellen Davis, and Edmée Kingsmill, have resisted this conventional approach to the text and suggested that a kind of allegorical interpretation was latent within the Song from the beginning. For these modern readers, the figurative exegeses of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and the early rabbis elucidate an integral symbolic register of the Song even as they underscore how it can be read as an organic part of the Hebrew Bible.
Shuve’s volume offers a nuanced and elegantly informative treatment of a crucial moment in the Song’s history of interpretation. Shuve not only challenges the conventional understanding of the Song as a problematic text in need of figurative redemption, but does so by drawing forth and elucidating the rich, if often scattered and elusive, deployments of the text within polemics that shaped communal identity. Shuve argues persuasively that the “plain sense” of the Song cannot be disentangled from a cultural context in which sexuality and spirituality were deeply entwined. What modern readers perceive as a paradox—“the popularity of a text about carnal love among a group of men who rejected the sexual impulse as a mark of humanity’s fallenness” (5)—Shuve argues, persuasively, is an illusion, one that reveals more about contemporary readers than ancient ones.
Shuve builds his argument through the careful assembly and analysis of references to the Song in an array of early Latin Christian writings. He organizes the study by region and author: after a concise introduction to and overview of the issues driving the study, he proceeds to offer three chapters exploring the Song’s role in early Christian exegesis in North Africa and Spain followed by three chapters examining the tradition of interpretation in Italy. A brief epilogue gestures to the medieval history that flows from the traditions explored in the volume’s body. Each chapter weds the writings of specific authors to broader themes that reveal how the Song of Songs was used to elucidate, or construct, key elements of emerging Christian identity. Cyprian’s readings of the Song play a recurring role throughout the study, as they wed influence with subtle inconsistency and thus lend themselves to use by various factions and concerns. Chapter One focuses on Cyprian and his disputes with the Donatists, particularly over the issue of re-baptism, and highlights how Cyprian’s interpretations of specific verses of the Song indicate a larger understanding of the book as a whole. Chapter Two draws together three separate authors—Pacian, Tyconius, and (most extensively) Augustine—all of whom revise Cyprian such that the Song is understood to speak less about communal boundaries and more about the community internally. Chapter Three concludes the first half of the volume with a study of the earliest surviving Latin commentaries on the Song, primarily Gregory of Elvira’s Tractatus de Epithalamio. Where these initial chapters reveal the “ecclesial” importance of the Song in North Africa, the three chapters exploring the Song in Italy highlight the pivot to incorporate more...