Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.09.52 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.09.52

Karl Shuve, The Song of Songs and the Fashioning of Identity in Early Latin Christianity. Oxford Early Christian Studies.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2016.  Pp. xix, 236.  ISBN 9780198766445.  $105.00.  

Reviewed by Dries De Crom, Tilburg School of Catholic Theology (


The history of Christian exegesis of the Song of Songs, one of the most intriguing pieces of biblical poetry, is dominated by the legacy of Origen of Alexandria. Though preserved only indirectly,1 his Homilies and Commentary described the Song as a complex work of narrative poetry, evoking on multiple levels of meaning the dialectical relationship between Christ and the church, as well as between Christ and the individual soul. Origen’s allegorical exegesis left an indelible mark both in Greek patristic authors (notably Gregory of Nyssa) and in the Latin-speaking church. In many overviews of the history of interpretation of the Song of Songs, a direct line is drawn from Origen to Bernard of Clairvaux and the mystical traditions of the Middle Ages, while the intervening exegetical traditions of early Latin Christianity receive only cursory treatment.2

Karl Shuve’s volume on precisely this understudied topic is, therefore, a welcome addition to the history of interpretation of the Song of Songs. He focuses on Latin authors from the third to the early fifth century, which has repercussions on the nature of the available sources. From the relevant period, we know of only three running commentaries on the Song of Songs – by Reticius of Autun, Victorinus of Poetovio, and Gregory of Elvira – only the last of which is still extant. This means that the analysis is built on hundreds of quotations from and allusions to the Song of Songs in the writings of several early Christian authors. From this disparate material, Shuve successfully paints a nuanced picture of how the Song of Songs fits (or is made to fit) into the various topics and contexts dealt with by the patristic sources under discussion.

The volume opens with a methodological section, including a brief but elucidating overview of recent interpretative work on the Song of Songs. Shuve’s interpretative stance is conceptually related to the work of Naomi Koltun-Fromm and Mary Douglas on the symbolic relations between sexual and bodily boundaries, on the one hand, and communal or social boundaries, on the other. 3 Thus, Shuve’s primary interest lies in how the Song of Songs was deployed in ongoing debates on Christian identity. Shuve focuses on periods in which this identity came under pressure from the inside out: the Donatist and Novatianist controversies, Ambrose’s early period as bishop of Milan, and the Jovinianist dispute. These topics are always contextualized both historically and theologically, which enhances the usefulness of the volume as an introduction to important themes in early Latin Christianity.

The first chapter focuses on the third-century rebaptism crisis in North African Christian communities, and the ensuing Donatist schism. Pride of place is given to Cyprian, who “established the parameters according to which the poem would be read and interpreted for over a century” (37). His is the first attested usage of verses from the Song of Songs to define the church as a bounded community, with clear distinctions between insiders and outsiders. The second chapter builds upon the first, but shifts focus to authors who view the church as “a diverse and mixed temporal body of believers” (52), for example, Pacian of Barcelona, Tyconius, and Augustine of Hippo (who in the context of this study does not merit a chapter all by himself). It is shown that these authors continued to mine the Song of Songs for scriptural arguments in the context of anti-Novatianist, anti-Donatist, and anti-Manichean writings. Shuve stresses that the influence of Cyprian remained very strong. No matter how different his views were, even Augustine was, in the end, required to deal with Cyprian’s use of the Song of Songs.

The most valuable part of the study appears to be the third chapter, on Gregory of Elvira’s Tractatus de Epithalamio, the only extant commentary on (part of) the Song of Songs from the fourth century. Shuve engages thoroughly with several fundamental questions, such as the dating of the writing. For this, he convincingly proposes sometime in the 350s, an earlier date than is generally assumed, on the basis of evidence both text-critical and historical. Also in focus is the Tractatus’s relation to Origen’s exegetical works. In view of the earlier date of the Tractatus, Shuve argues that Gregory of Elvira was unfamiliar with Origen’s Homilies on the Song of Songs, which were not available in Latin before Jerome translated them in the early 380s. There are, however, unmistakable traces of Origen’s Commentary on the Song, to which Gregory certainly could not have had direct access. Shuve points to Victorinus of Poetovio as a possible source for these similarities (83-86). Most importantly, Gregory depicts the church as a vulnerable woman and raises the issue of her integritas. Thus, his exegesis occupies a key position between the ecclesiological themes of the authors from Africa and Spain, and the issues of gender, virginity, and asceticsm raised by Ambrose and Jerome.

The fourth chapter discusses Ambrose’s use of the Song of Songs during his early period as bishop of Milan. The chapter contains many fine insights on both the political and theological dimensions of Ambrose’s stance on virginity. For him, virgins are “signifiers of the divine economy” (127). This thought is further developed in the fifth chapter, which discusses Ambrose’s later works. Here, the influence of Origen is undeniable in the double application of the Song of Songs to the collective and the individual, i.e., to ecclesiology and to mysticism. Yet Shuve takes great care to identify the difference between Origen’s exegesis, which is pedagogical and altogether more positive towards the body and physical beauty, and Ambrose’s, which has a more dualistic and ascetic mind-set (145–50).

Jerome is the focus of the sixth and final chapter. One of the leading insights in this part of the book is that the ascetic interpretation of the Song of Songs, announced already in Gregory of Elvira and carried through by both Ambrose and Jerome, was not a reactionary response to more “natural” readings of the poem. Rather, Shuve argues that a more “literal” interpretation of the Song, as a poem about human love that is essentially “pro-marriage” (178), emerged in reaction to the ascetic readings of Ambrose and Jerome. It may be difficult for us, modern-day readers, to imagine anyone not understanding the Song of Songs primarily as a poem on human love, with clear erotic undertones at that. Yet it is striking that the erotic character of the Song did not become an issue in early Latin Christianity until the time of Gregory of Elvira, Ambrose, and Jerome — until, that is, Origen’s exegetical works were translated from Greek and started to pervade Western interpretations of the Song. In this respect, Shuve rightly asks “whether the Song would have sounded as carnal to late antique Christian ears as it does to our own” (5).

Throughout the volume, the share of Origen of Alexandria, the mainstay in any work on the Song’s history of interpretation, is deliberately downsized, though of course never entirely absent. This is perhaps one of the most refreshing aspects of the book: it attempts to take the interpretative traditions of early Latin Christianity seriously, without viewing them as afterthoughts to Origen’s seminal work. At various points, Shuve argues for the early Latin writers’ independence from Origen. For instance, Shuve contends that Ambrose’s interpretation of the Song of Songs, rather than owing almost everything to Origen, “was shaped even more profoundly by the ascetic corpus of Athanasius” (17). Sometimes this point is made somewhat less convincingly: Victorinus of Poetovio is tentatively suggested as a common source for both Tyconius and Gregory of Elvira, rather than Origen (66); yet Victorinus is also suggested as a possible source for spreading bits of Origen’s exegesis in the West, before any of his works had been translated into Latin (82–83).

Another intriguing question raised by Shuve’s analysis concerns the origins of the Western, non–Origenist ecclesiological interpretation of the Song of Songs. As important as Cyprian was for the Song’s history of interpretation, Shuve makes it very clear that his work was not entirely innovative. His quotations already point towards a pre-existing tradition of interpretation, with two salient features: (1) the Song of Songs was read as a dialogue, with portions of the text assigned to different characters; (2) one of these characters was the church, indicating an early and “natural” ecclesiological interpretation of the Song. Exactly how this interpretative tradition came to be in (we must assume) second-century Latin Christianity, remains one of the unanswered questions of scholarship on the Song of Songs. Shuve suggests the answer may lie in the liturgical function of the text in the early church (p. 36), but with the current state of the evidence this remains entirely hypothetical.

Throughout the volume, Shuve’s analysis highlights the question of intertextuality. Verses from the Song of Songs are often quoted in conjunction with verses from, for instance, the corpus Paulinum. Both Eph 5:27 and Ps 44 repeatedly appear in correlation with certain verses from the Song of Songs. It is clear that, when cited together, these texts are meant to be mutually enlightening. Together, they create a subtext that is, in most cases, more significant for the exegete’s immediate purpose than the Song of Songs by itself — indeed, at certain points in the book the Song disappears almost entirely from view. These hermeneutical processes are not in themselves the object of Shuve’s study. It would be interesting to see how and where intertextual links arise in the history of the Song’s interpretation. For instance, Augustine innovatively links Song 4:12 to Ez 8:12–13, or Song 2:1 to the parables in Mt 13 — an innovation that, in the context of Shuve’s study, is not extensively commented upon.

While the volume has otherwise been excellently edited, there are a number of unfortunate typos in Latin quotations, some of which look suspiciously like autocorrect mistakes (e.g. permanent for permanet, terrarium for terrarum, meridian for meridia, necessaries for necessarios), in addition to a small number of oversights: p. 47 occidentali surely is “western,” not “eastern” as printed; p. 198 butyro “butter”, not “bread”.

In short, Shuve has succeeded in drawing the early Latin interpreters of the Song of Songs out from under the shadow of Origen, in a well-organized and pleasantly written volume that deserves a wide readership.


1.   The Homilies were translated into Latin by Jerome, the Commentary only partially and not very accurately by Rufinus of Aquileia. Of the original Greek, only fragments have survived in catenaric manuscripts.
2.   For instance, M.H. Pope, Song of Songs. A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Anchor Bible Commentary; Garden City: Doubleday, 1977).
3.   Naomi Koltun-Fromm, Hermeneutics of Holiness. Ancient Jewish and Christian Notions of Sexuality and Religious Community (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger. An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (New York: Praeger, 1966).

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