sense, now universally discarded, upon so many other parts of scripture. Yet strangely enough there is no evidence that the Jews of Alexandria extended to the book their favourite methods of interpretation. The arguments which have been adduced to prove that the Septuagint translation implies an allegorical exegesis are inadequate; and Philo does not mention the book. Nor is there any allusion to Canticles in the New Testament. The first trace of an allegorical view identifying Israel with the “spouse” appears to be in the Fourth Book of Ezra, near the close of the 1st Christian century (v. 24, 26; vii. 26). Up to this time the canonicity of the Canticles was not unquestioned; and the final decision as to the sanctity of the book, so energetically carried through by R. Aqiba, when he declared that “the whole world is not worth the day on which the Song of Songs was given to Israel; for all the scriptures (or Hagiographa) are holy, but the Canticles most holy,” must be understood as being at the same time a victory of the allegorical interpretation over the last remains of a view which regarded the poem as simply erotic.
The form in which the allegorical theory became fixed in the synagogue is contained in the Midrash Chazita and in the Targum, which is a commentary rather than a translation. The spouse is Israel, her royal lover the divine king, and the poem is explained as tracing the great events of the people’s history from the Exodus to the Messianic glory and final restoration.
The authority of Origen, who, according to Jerome, surpassed himself in his commentary of ten volumes on this book, established the allegorical theory in the Christian church in the two main forms in which it has since prevailed. The bridegroom is Christ, the bride either the church or the believing soul. The latter conception is, of course, that which lends itself most readily to purposes of mystical edification, and which has made Canticles the manual in all ages of a wide-spread type of religious contemplation. But the other view, which identifies the bride with the church, must be regarded as the standard of orthodox exegesis. Of course the allegorical principle admitted of very various modifications, and readily adapted itself to new religious developments, such as the rise of Mariolatry. Within the limits of the orthodox traditions the allegory took various colours, according as its mystical or its prophetical aspect was insisted on. Among medieval commentators of the former class S. Bernard holds a pre-eminent place; while the second class is represented by Nicolaus de Lyra, who, himself a converted Jew, modified the Jewish interpretation so as to find in the book an account of the processus ecclesiae under the Old and New Testaments. The prophetic exegesis reached its culminating point in the post-Reformation period, when Cocceius found in the Canticles a complete conspectus of church history. But the relaxation of traditional authority opened the door to still stranger vagaries of interpretation. Luther was tempted to understand the book of the political relations of Solomon and his people. Others detected the loves of Solomon and Wisdom—a view which found a supporter in Rosenmüller.
The history of the literal interpretation begins with the great “commentator” of the Syrian Church, Theodorus of Mopsuestia (died 429), who condemned equally the attempt to find in the book a prophecy of the blessings given to the church, and the idea even at that time expressed in some quarters that the book is immoral. Theodorus regarded the Canticles as a poem written by Solomon in answer to the complaints of his people about his Egyptian marriage; and this was one of the heresies charged upon him after his death, which led to his condemnation at the second council of Constantinople (553 A.D.). A literal interpretation was not again attempted till in 1544 Chateillon (Castellio or Castalion) lost his regency at Geneva for proposing to expel the book from the canon as impure. Grotius (Annot. in V.T., 1644) took up a more moderate position. Without denying the possibility of a secondary reference designed by Solomon to give his poem a more permanent value, he regards the Canticles as primarily an ὀαρίστυς (conjugal prattle) between Solomon and Pharaoh’s daughter. The distinction of a primary and secondary sense gradually became current not only among the Remonstrants, but in England (Lightfoot, Lowth) and even in Catholic circles (Bossuet, 1693). In the actual understanding of the book in its literal sense no great progress was made. Solomon was still viewed as the author, and for the most part the idea that the poem is a dramatic epithalamium was borrowed from Origen and the allegorists, and applied to the marriage of Pharaoh’s daughter.
From Grotius to Lowth the idea of a typical reference designed by Solomon himself appears as a mere excrescence on the natural interpretation, but as an excrescence which could not be removed without perilling the place of Canticles in the canon, which, indeed, was again assailed by Whiston in 1723. But in his notes on Lowth’s lectures, J. D. Michaelis, who regarded the poem as a description of the enduring happiness of true wedded love long after marriage, proposed to drop the allegory altogether, and to rest the canonicity of the book, as of those parts of Proverbs which treat of conjugal affection, on the moral picture it presents (1758).
Then came Herder’s exquisite little treatise on Solomon’s Songs of Love, the Oldest and Sweetest of the East (1778). Herder, possessing delicacy of taste and sympathetic poetical genius, delighted in the Canticles as the transparently natural expression of innocent and tender love. He expressed the idea that the poem is simply a sequence of independent songs without inner unity, grouped so as to display various phases and stages of love in a natural order, culminating in the placid joys of wedded life. The theory of Herder, which refuses to acknowledge any continuity in the book, was accepted by Eichhorn on the part of scholars, and with some hesitation by Goethe on the part of the poets. Commentaries based on this view are those of Döpke (1829), Magnus (1842), Noyes (1846).
The prevalent view of the 19th century, however, recognizes in the poem a more or less pronounced dramatic character, and following Jacobi (1771) distinguishes the shepherd, the true love of the Shulamite, from King Solomon, who is made to play an ignominious part. Propounded by Stäudlin (1792) and Ammon (1795), this view was energetically carried out by Umbreit (1820), and above all by Ewald, whose acuteness gave the theory a new development, while his commanding influence among Hebrew scholars acquired for it general recognition. Ewald assumed a very simple dramatic structure, and did not in his first publication (1826) venture to suppose that the poem had ever been acted on a stage. His less cautious followers have been generally tempted to dispose of difficulties by introducing more complicated action and additional interlocutors (so, for example, Hitzig, 1855; Ginsburg, 1857; Renan, 1860); while Böttcher (1850) did his best to reduce the dramatic exposition to absurdity by introducing the complexities and stage effects of a modern operetta. Another view is that of Delitzsch (1851 and 1875) and his followers, who also plead for a dramatic form—though without supposing that the piece was ever acted—but adhere to the traditional notion that Solomon is the author, who celebrates his love to a peasant maiden, whom he made his wife, and in whose company the proud monarch learned to appreciate the sweetness of a true affection and a simple rustic life.
In view of the prevalence of the “dramatic” theory of Canticles during the 19th century, and its retention by some comparatively recent writers (Oettli, Driver, Adeney, Harper), it seems desirable that this theory should be presented in some detail. A convenient summary of the form it assumed in the hands of Ewald (the shepherd-hypothesis) and of Delitzsch (the king-hypothesis) is given by Driver (Literature of the Old
- Repeated recently by Scholz, Kommentar, pp. iii. and iv.
- The chief passages of Jewish writings referring to this dispute are Mishna Jadaim, iii. 5 and Tosifta Sanhedrin, xii. For other passages see Grätz’s Commentary, p. 115, and in control of his criticism the introduction to the commentary of Delitzsch.
- The text of the Targum in the Polyglots and in Buxtorf’s Rabbinic Bible is not complete. The complete text is given in the Venice editions, and in Lagarde’s Hagiographa Chaldaice (Lipsiae, 1873). The Polyglots add a Latin version. A German version is given by Riedel in his very useful book, Die Auslegung des Hohenliedes (1898), which also reviews the interpretation of Canticles by Hippolytus, Origen and later Greek writers.