In the last article we looked at how the Song of Songs had been interpreted through Jewish history. This time the focus is going to shift to the Christian world. In truth, it is not that dramatic a shift. Not only were these two Abrahamic traditions aware of each other (often with hostility), but they were often driven by the same external cultural forces.
To a great extent, the Song’s fate at the hands of interpreters was set in motion by the Roman world’s extremely negative view of all things sexual. Its inclusion in the Christian Bible was, for the most part, a direct result of its inclusion in the Jewish canon, but the Church fathers were faced with the same problem of how to read it in some way other than the obvious. This was, in fact, more of a problem for the Church than it ended up being for Judaism. While the latter may have marginalized sexuality in the Roman period, the Christians (generally) positively rejected it. Origen’s (185–254) ten volume offering on the Song tried to find a way to read it in a way appropriate for Christian life (as understood at the time). He paralleled Jewish interpretation (who saw the man in the Song as God, and the woman as Israel), but substituted Christ and the Church as the characters. In this he was no doubt influenced by the path already set in the New Testament, in which the assembly of believers is said to be the bride of Christ (see Rev. 21.9–10; Eph. 5.22–33). But he also pioneered a much more personal approach in which the man was the Logos (Christ) and the woman was the individual believer’s soul. These two approaches would become the foundation for the Christian understanding of the Song to this day. He also anticipated later Christian leaders’ horror that anyone would read the song literally (suggesting that some did).
But Origen was to be set spinning in his grave, we suppose, when Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 350–428) argued that it was a love story between Solomon and his Egyptian queen, and a monk named Jovinian (d. 405) maintained that the book showed God’s approval for marriage as much as for celibacy. The Church roundly condemned both, but both these approaches do crop up from time to time, in one form or another.
One slight variation to Origen’s approach came during the Middle Ages when many saw the woman as the Virgin Mary, although in pictures, as in the one above, she could represent herself, the Church, and the believer all at the same time. The Eucharist in the picture reflects one of the ways of re-interpreting the kissing in the Song. There are a few examples of historical Christian interpretation at Song of Songs Interpretation Samples.
Currently, the Christ/Church view is dominant, although Protestants, in particular, will often find Jovinian compelling as well (usually both, not either/or). Those with a more mystical bent (including some Protestants) will be drawn to Origen’s more personal approach. As this series has intimated on several occasions, while there may be some poorer approaches (Luther read it politically), this is not really a right/wrong issue. It is not to say that such things do not exist, but in this case, there are several appropriate readings.