27 Mar 2012

Holy of Holies: Returning to Eden 2 – Song of Songs and the History of Denying Sexuality

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Church History, Exegesis, Hebrew Bible, Holy Spirit, Song of Songs

While the king was on his couch,
my nard gave forth its fragrance.
My beloved is to me a bag of myrrh
that lies between my breasts.”

Most of us reading the quotation from Song of Songs 1.13 probably did not know that it is really not talking about a woman’s perfumed body with her lover lying on top of her. Rather this text is really about the “grace of baptism.” Yes baptism! Or at least that is what one of the greatest scholars in the history of Christianity believed. Origen argued for this interpretation in his massive 10 volume commentary on the Song of Songs [1]. As strange as it may seem but readings from the Song of Songs were frequently part of baptismal liturgies in the early church. How can a text that appears to be plainly about the physical desire and intimacy between two lovers in covenant “really” be about baptism? In a word: allegory! For much of its history in the Christian era the Song of Songs has been the victim of allegory. But why?

Ancient Pre-Christian Interpretation

Allegory is the invention of Plato. In the fourth century BC, Plato raised questions about the worthiness of the Greek gods as Homer had portrayed them in the Greek “Bible” – the Iliad and Odyssey. Allegory became the vehicle by which platonic philosophers were able to salvage their legacy and save the gods. In the second century AD both Christian and Jewish scholars employed allegory in interpretation of the Song of Songs. But the question remains, why? Allegory is rooted, foundationally, in a worldview that is alien to the Creator God of the Hebrews at its very core.

It is easier to raise the question than answer it. It seems clear that allegorical readings of the Song do not pre-date the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. If Plato invented allegory to “save” the gods because he was embarrassed by them we may be able to make a parallel that Christian allegory of the Song was likewise an attempt to “save” a sacred text because the interpreters were embarrassed by it. This embarrassment says more about the interpreters however than it does the God of the Bible.

The earliest interpretation of the Song of Songs by Jews is actually the translation we know as the Septuagint. The Song had been translated into Greek by the second century BC and displays little if any interest in allegory or “spiritualization” of the Song. In fact the translators often bring out an even more blunt and erotic sense than the Hebrew original. For example in 1.2b the text reads “for your love is better than wine.” The LXX renders the text “for your breasts are better than wine.” This same phenomena is followed in the LXX at 1.4; 4.10; 5.1; & 7.12. [2]. Breasts replace love, certainly a heightened sense of sexuality rather than a distancing from it.

Origen (AD 184/5-253/4), and the early rabbis, were well aware that the Song had a more historical and literal beginning. Origen knew the Song was in fact a “wedding song.” Othmar Keel, likewise, points to three rabbinic texts from the first and second centuries AD to show that the literal meaning of the Song was understood and widespread in Judaism. Most interesting, for my purposes, is Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel (AD 140ish) who ties the Song to an ancient dancing tradition in Israel that goes all the way back to the time of the Judges (Judges 21.20ff). The Rabbi says

“There were no days better for Israelites than the fifteenth of Ab [in August] and the Day of Atonement [in October]. For on those days Jerusalemite girls go out in borrowed white dresses – so as not to shame those who owned none. All the dresses had to be immersed. And the Jerusalemite girls go out and dance in the vineyards. What did they say? “Young man, lift your eyes and see – choose what you want! Don’t look for beauty, look for family.” … “Go forth you daughters of Jerusalem and behold King Solomon with the crown with his mother crowned him in the day of his espousals and in the day of the gladness of his heart” (Cant 3.11)” (Mishnah Ta’an 4.8)

Origen and Rabbi Yohanan

It is almost certain that the allegorical approach to the Song began among the Jews after the destruction of the Temple. Again the question is why? The Jews appropriated allegory for reasons the church did. Both “Judaism” and “Christianity” were facing serious, and world shifting, crises in the period of AD 70 to beginning of the third century. First, Judaism (if it were to survive at all) had to come to terms with the question of identity. Second, Judaism had to define itself against the “upstart” group that laid claim to the historical heritage of Israel – the church.

For the church’s part it likewise had to deal with the issue of identity – ‘we” are “Israel” not ‘them”. We are the Bride, not them. God divorced them and married us (are you getting the feeling that Song of Songs might be useful for this kind debate). The church also had an internal battle going on. In the second century there were those that not only wanted to say God had divorced the Jews, but that their entire heritage was of no value – this included the “Scriptures” the church had appropriated. So the rabbis are doing ‘exegesis’ on two fronts and so are the Church Fathers. Both are reading in the context of polemics against the other group – we cannot miss how important this is.

This historic battle defined Christianity as we know it. Song of Songs and its interpretation was one of the battlefields. We see this in Origen and one of the great Jewish exegetes of the day, Rabbi Yohanan. Both men set the course for interpretation for centuries. Both flourished in Palestine in the 240s, both were the leaders in their respective communities, both were giants of learning, both spent a great deal of time in Caesarea. Origen wrote/preached his Commentary on the Song in the 240s and Yohanan did too. These men probably heard each other speaking publicly but at the very least we know they knew each other’s arguments. Each is engaging the Song through polemics against the other and not simply reading the Song itself. In a very enlightening study Reuven Kimelman notes that one can parallel Origen and Yohanan using the same arguments, on the same verses, to undo the others exegesis. The issues are complex: the oral law literally takes on the function in Judaism that the NT does in Christianity. That is the teachings of the oral law interpret and apply and at times supersede the written Torah, Jesus functions that way in Christianity. Here is a short list of the issues as they are hammered out:

1) Covenant mediated by Moses versus one negotiated by him
2) NT versus the oral Torah
3) Christ versus Abraham
4) The heavenly versus the earthly Jerusalem
5) Israel being repudiated versus Israel being disciplined [3]

For the rabbis the tool of allegory became the way they could argue that God had not cast off his people but that the Song tells the story of his continuing love for Israel. Israel has been disciplined but not divorced and the Song, allegorically understood, assures Israel that the Messiah will come and redeem her. The rabbis are not Platonists but they use a platonic tool.

The early church had the same struggle as Judaism. Christians had to justify their own existence in the world and did so in opposition to Judaism. Christianity claimed to be the legitimate heir to the people of Israel prior to the destruction of the Temple.

This justification, I remind you, took place after the destruction of the Temple and for the most part in the second century, continues to shape and mold how people think about a myriad of issues. Origen, and others, told the same story as the rabbis from the Song but about the church! The church is now Israel, the church has replaced Israel. This view, hammered out in the midst of severe struggle – often with the blood of martyrs near by – where extremes are often proclaimed, cannot be reconciled with the NT view shared in the first century that Gentiles are grafted by the grace of God into Israel, they did not replace Israel.

Two other considerations shape Origen and most of these early Church Fathers. The rabbis were not platonists. Origen, I am sad to say, was. His cultural worldview was platonic. Like Plato before him he found some things “objectionable” in his sacred text and through allegory was able to “save” the text by finding the “true spiritual meaning” in the text.

Origen, likewise, had to do battle with the Marcionites – that internal front I mentioned above. The Marcionites were true Platonists, like Origen, but their solution was to simply cast the Scriptures of Israel aside. Reject them altogether!

Origen knew that could not be done so he needed a method to remove what the platonic world found objectionable. We actually owe Origen and many other Church Fathers a debt of gratitude – though thoroughly children of their times (as we all are) they saved the Scriptures of Israel for the church from the Marcionites. This is a historical fact and we are and have been shaped by their legacy in ways that most Christians simply, and quite literally, have no clue [4].

It is often difficult to be calm when the parties involved are struggling for their very lives. In circumstances like that perspectives and positions are taken that likely would not be in the calm noon-day sun. But Origen did not live in that noon day sun neither did Rabbi Yohanan. Sadly many still embrace their rhetoric in far less trying times.

Volume 1 of 4 of Bernard's sermons on the Song of Songs

Volume 1 of 4 of Bernard’s sermons on the Song of Songs

Neo-Platonism and the Song of Songs

In reference the Song of Songs, the objectionable material was precisely its content: sexuality. When the message of Jesus and the Kingdom of God crossed into Gentile fields many people embraced the faith that were culturally Greek and essentially Platonic. The church would struggle with this on multiple levels. Platonic thought, as good a story teller Plato was, however is fundamentally anti-biblical.

Platonism is anti-biblical because it is anti-Creation. This worldview asserts that physical matter and the physical body, with its needs is by nature, base, unspiritual, and ultimately evil. True spirituality, in the Platonic worldview, is liberation from the body and its degrading “needs.” This worldview was at the root of the denial of the physical incarnation of the Word of God to be literally flesh but only “seemed” to be flesh. This worldview lay at the heart of the Gnostic denial of the physical bodily resurrection of not only Jesus but of all the saints. This worldview rather promotes the immortality of the soul and the pure spiritual state all Greeks longed for rather than a resurrected and renewed earth. This worldview is pagan to the core. Sex is a very physical function that Platonic love wishes to eschew. It is sad, very sad, the church embraced this pagan notion that has haunted Christians ever since. C. S. Lewis notes quite well the impact of this view on sexuality even within marriage in the Christian faith. His focus is on the medieval period,

The views of the medieval churchmen on the sexual act within marriage … are limited by two complementary agreements. On the one hand, nobody ever asserted that the act was intrinsically sinful. On the other hand, all were agreed that some evil element was present in every concrete instance of this act since the Fall.

Perhaps it was not the act itself but …

the emotion which is the efficient cause [of sex], remains guilty. But the concrete sexual act, that is, the act PLUS its unavoidable efficient cause [i.e. the desire for sex], remains guilty. [5]

It isn’t difficult to see how, or why, one enmeshed in a Platonic worldview would have a nightmare reading the Song of Songs. The Song does not simply talk about the things of the body … it celebrates them! While it is true that the Bible condemns lust for another person’s wife or husband the Bible never describes sexual desire as evil – rather sexual desire is good!!

For centuries the church, because of Platonism, promoted virginity and celibacy as spiritual ideals. The heroes of faith were those who renounced the body and its sexual desires (monks, priests, nuns, etc). The Desert Fathers fled to the remotest parts of the world to seek refuge from the female body – but separation from women hardly delivered these men from the power of sexuality.

These ideas swirling around about the Song of Songs, Platonism and sexuality are hardly harmless ideas that cause Christians to have unbiblical views regarding creation, the body and sex. There are profound day to day ramifications not least of which has been the demonization of the female members of the human race by those who claim to be disciples of Christ. “She” becomes the very symbol of the evil from which the chaste monk wishes to flee! Not only will Platonism bear fruit in outright doctrinal heresy but its pragmatic fruit is the legacy of women being the target of oppression, as the handmaids of Satan, and all manner of such stuff.

The Persistence of Allegory

Origen’s commentary, forged in a life and death struggle for survival and identity, set the agenda for Christian exegesis of the Song for all practical purposes till the modern period. The polemic against the Marcionites became a forgotten memory, the debased nature of sexuality became an assumed maxim (sex became a necessary evil for procreation), and the cross fertilization with Judaism continued, even if often unrecognized. The greatest expositor of the Song in the medieval period was Bernard of Clairvaux (AD 1090-1153)[6] and I plan to treat him alone in a separate blog.

By the high middle ages Rashi, the Jewish theologian, had tweaked an interpretation of the Song that reflected a historical narrative of Israel. Nicholas of Lyra (AD 1270-1349) one of the few medieval churchman who knew Hebrew became heavily influenced by Rashi and basically took his interpretation of the Song and Christianized it. In his rewriting of Rashi the “narrative” in the Song looks like this

1) The Exodus of the Jews from Egypt (1.1-10)
2) Journey through the Desert (1.11-4.6)
3) Entry into the Promised Land (4.6-16)
4) God’s Love for the Wayward People (ch’s 5-6)
5) The Coming of Christ (ch 7)
6) The Early Church till Constantine (ch 8)
Concluding with a brief look to the conversion of the “synagogue to Christ.” [7]

Nicholas’s understanding was carried into the infant English language through John Wyclif who authored two commentaries on the Song and gave the English their first version of the Song (for more on Wyclif and his Bible see HERE).

Wyclif and his disciples disliked the allegorical interpretation of Scripture. Allegory was termed “goostli vndurstondyng” in their writings. In the Song of Songs, which was translated from the Latin Vulgate into “English” between 1370 and 1390, rides a very fine line between allegory and literal understanding of the book. It is through the Wycliff Bible that the word “spouse” became an English word and lent itself to a more allegorical interpretation. On the whole, however, Wyclif’s Bible leaves it to the reader to interpret the text and in the words of Mary Dove, “the Wycliffite Bible Song of Songs … is more literal than any English translation made during the Reformation” [8].

The most common reading of the Song has come to English readers through the King James Version and allegorization of the Song through hymnody based upon that version. The KJV continues, sadly, what I have come to call “sanctified Platonism” by misleading the reader of the Song through the use of headings. Throughout the KJV the Song never refers to the historical woman or the historical man but Christ and the church are the only voices that are heard in the Song. “The church’s love unto Christ,” “Christ awaketh the church,” “Christ’s love for the church,” and “Calling all Gentiles” are among the interpretive headings that mislead the reader of the text.

One of the hymns I can remember from my earliest days shows both the power of allegory and its ability to cause the disciple of Christ to miss what the Holy Spirit actually wrote. “Lily of the Valley” is based on Song of Songs 2.1 where the female lover speaks. The Song unambiguously identifies the female lover as the speaker of these words who identifies her as “the rose of Sharon,” yet the hymn identifies “lily of the valley” as Jesus. Some may object and say this is rather innocent but if we never actually hear what the Spirit said then there is a real problem.

Wrapping Up

The Song of Songs was, until the modern period, one of the most popular and important works in the canon. It cannot be denied that it furnished many Christians with deep Spiritual insights and a basis for lectio divina. This is simply the Holy Spirit blessing us and working within our flawed understandings and ever flawed hermeneutics. In the modern, post-Enlightenment period, many Christians have continued to surrender creation (and the body) for some form of semi-pagan piety mistaken for Spirituality. Biblical Spirituality is, without exception, creation affirming.

Yet several things the modern period has forced upon us as disciples of Christ are

1) the recognition that many interpretations were never grounded in the actual biblical text rather they were grounded in the existential situation the readers brought to the text

2) the recognition that there was a “history” to the Song of Songs before the history of allegory and it seems to have entered the canon without allegorical help.

3) the recognition that even as the early church struggled with the issue of sexuality on its blind side, it confessed that the Scriptures of Israel are in fact the Word of God and that creation was “good” thus the continued rejection of Gnosticism as heresy.

4) One of the great theological values of the Song of Songs, as God gave it, is that it quite literally forces us to wrestle with the question of the goodness of the physical. If forces us to see the physical as actually Spiritual! That is creation issues forth from the creative work of the Triune God and filled with the Holy Spirit’s glory.

The Song of Songs is about the things the Platonist regards as degrading, embarrassing, and evil. It is about the the joy of physical beauty. It is about kissing. It is about desiring our mate. It is about the bliss of sexual union. It is about passion and communion. The Song of Songs declares that these things, far from being embarrassing, degrading or evil, they are holy, Spiritual, and of God himself. They are very good.

The monks did not completely miss the boat they understood that the “this” is about “that.” The problem is that they failed to see the Flame of Yahweh (8.6c) himself imaged and mirrored in the passionate love of the wife and her husband – this is the glory of the Song of Songs.


1] See Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 411.

2] Weston W. Fields, “Early and Medieval Jewish Interpretation of the Song of Songs,” Grace Theological Journal 1 (1980), 223-224. See Othmar Keel, The Song of Songs (Minneapolis: Fortress 1994), 7-6

3] Reuven Kimelman, “Rabbi Yohanan and Origen on the Song of Songs: A Third-Century Jewish-Christian Disputation,” Harvard Theological Review (1980): 567-595.

4] A very readable introduction to these momentous issues is Ronald E. Heine’s excellent book Reading the Old Testament with the Ancient Church (Grand Rapids: BakerAcademic, 2007) especially the chapter “The Struggle concerning the Law in the Second Century,” pp. 47-74. For a broadly illuminating look at the struggles of the “elder brother” and the “younger brother” see Oskar Skarsaune, In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity (Downers Grove: IVP 2002), 225-274.

5] C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 14-15.

6] See the sympathetic overview by Wm. Loyd Allen, “Bernard of Clairvaux’s Sermons on the Song of Songs: Why they Matter,” Review and Expositor 105 (2008), 403-416.

7] Mary Dove, “Nicholas of Lyra and the literal senses of the Song of Songs,” in Nicholas of Lyra: the Senses of Scripture, ed. Philip Krey and Lesley Smith (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 129-146.

8] Mary Dove, “Love ad litteram: The Lollard Translations of the Song of Songs,” Reformation 9 (2004), 1-23. Quote from p. 22.

2 Responses to “Holy of Holies: Returning to Eden 2 – Song of Songs and the History of Denying Sexuality”

  1. Deus Vitae Says:

    While there certainly are some strong Platonic themes developing in early Christianity, the cult of virginity seems to predate it a little bit. It would not be surprising if many Christians, in reaction to the sexual excesses of pagan society, over-reacted and made too strong a virtue of virginity. It becomes a prominent theme in apocryphal stories (Acts of Paul and Thecla, martyrdom stories) and such characters seem to replace the “heroes” so popular among the Greeks.

    Nevertheless, excellent analysis.

  2. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:


    I appreciate you reading my blog. I think we are on the same page though I think Platonism I think entered into the blood stream of Christianity even within the first century. The docetism that John inveighs against in 1 & 2 Jn is neo-platonic and at least (in seed form) neo-gnostic.

    What I find interesting is that many of the Fathers embraced this platonic view of creation and especially sexuality but retained a stark emphasis on the resurrection of the body in opposition to Platonism and Gnosticism. We are all mixed bags I suppose.

    Thanks again and I appreciate your work for the kingdom.

    Bobby V

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