Biblical Bridal Songs and Latin Reception – by E. Ann Matter

E. Ann Matter on Karl Shuve’s The Song of Songs

Karl Shuve, The Song of Songs and the Fashioning of Identity in Early Latin Christianity, Oxford University Press, 2016, 256pp., $105
Karl Shuve, The Song of Songs and the Fashioning of Identity in Early Latin Christianity, Oxford University Press, 2016, 256pp., $105
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Scholarly interest in the traditions of biblical exegesis of the medieval Latin tradition has flourished since the first publication of Beryl Smalley’s The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages in 1941, with the growth of several journals, at least one book series, and even several scholarly organizations devoted to the topic, notably the Society for the Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages. In all of this effort, it is safe to say that the biblical book that has attracted the most attention is the Song of Songs. The Song of Songs is one of the shortest books in the Hebrew Bible, and certainly one of the most unusual; it seems to be a series of human love poems, offering no sacred history or moral teaching, and not even mentioning the name of God. But, in spite of this, or perhaps for this very reason, it was also one of the most avidly commented biblical books before the modern period, especially by medieval monks and clerics, who developed around it an intricate web of allegorical meanings.

Modern attention to this tradition of interpretation has centered on the period between 800 and 1300, when over a hundred Latin commentaries were written. This body of medieval literature is a showcase for elaborate allegory, giving readings that virtually always understand the text as the love between Christ and the Church, or the love between Christ and the soul, or both. Karl Shuve has made a notable contribution to this formidable body of scholarship by focusing on an earlier period of Latin Christianity, Late Antiquity. His book looks closely at the uses of the Song of Songs in the writings of Latin Christian authors from Cyprian of Carthage in the third century through the great Latin Fathers Ambrose, Augustine and Jerome at the turn of the fifth century, ending with an intriguing look forward to the better-known medieval authors. This in itself is an accomplishment worth noting, since most scholarship has only glanced in passing at this period. But it is important to note that this book is not just another survey of an exegetical tradition; rather, it is an argument that Christian Latin interpretation of the Song of Songs actually fashioned a tradition of piety, especially among women, that emerged in late fourth-century Italy. Thus, Shuve’s study links the history of biblical exegesis to another burgeoning field of the history of Christianity, the study of Christian views of gender and sexuality.

Shuve’s attention to the late antique Latin Christian authors, especially to Augustine and Jerome, looks closely at the role of the Song of Songs in disputes about asceticism and sexuality. In particular, he gives close attention to Augustine’s treatises against Pelagius, and to Jerome’s wrangling with Jovinian about the role of marriage in Christian life. As Shuve convincingly argues, Jerome’s “hierarchical-ecclesial” reading of the Song of Songs as an ascetic love between Christ and the virgin church, or Christ and the virgin soul, was the perceived “literal” meaning of the text in late antique Christianity, a meaning bequeathed to the medieval exegetical tradition. One consequence of this insight requires us to rethink of definitions of “allegorical” and “literal,” since the allegorical interpretations of the Song of Songs that seem so peculiar to modern readers betray major differences in the understanding of gender and sexuality between late antique Christianity and the twentieth-/twenty-first century historians. Another, even more striking, conclusion is that the standard late antique Christian understanding of the Song of Songs had an important role in the fashioning of traditions of consecrated virginal Christian women.

Another important difference between Shuve’s reading of this tradition and prior scholarship has to do with the role of the great Alexandrian exegete, Origen. Rather than accepting Origen as the first Christian to allegorize the Song of Songs, and therefore the one author on whom all later exegetes perforce depended, Shuve highlights Origen’s engagement with the literal sense. Further, Shuve argues that some of the earliest Latin exegetes, especially in North Africa and Spain, developed their own modes of reading the Song of Songs in tandem with, rather than as slavish followers of, Origen’s famous Homilies and Commentary. For example, his analysis of the use of the Song of Songs in the Tractatus de Epithalamio of Gregory of Elvira argues, against established scholarship including my own, that there is no direct link between Origen and this Spanish Gregory. Shuve instead argues for a fusion of a distinctly Latin tradition of the Song of Songs in Spain with a distinctly Spanish mode of Christological reflection, a combination that has a noted afterlife in the so-called adoptionist controversy of eighth-century Mozarabic Spain. This argument is based on the fact that the lone verbatim link between Origen and Gregory of Elvira is in Gregory’s prologue to his commentary on the Song of Songs, a part of the text that is of doubtful authenticity, since it is not attested in every manuscript, but which has been eagerly accepted as a conclusive link because of pre-established ideas of the importance of Origen. I think this detailed analysis shows that Shuve is an unusually courageous scholar, and also makes him the greatest expert of our century in the writings of the elusive Gregory of Elvira. In fact, his attention to this author shows beautifully Shuve’s comfort with early Latin exegetical and theological writings, especially those of Iberian and North African authors, a woefully understudied field.

In this book, Karl Shuve has shown that the more common, one could even say standard, approach to Latin Christian exegesis of the Song of Songs has missed some of the most important moments of influence of this beautiful text in the shaping of the western Christian tradition. His work dovetails nicely with the explorations of medieval Christian sexuality by the Norwegian scholar Line Cecilie Engh. This book is elegantly presented and wholly credible.