The Canonicity of the Song of Songs

           [This excerpt is taken from A Primer for the Public Preaching of the Song of Songs (Manassas, VA: Outskirts Press, 2015), 12-13, 43-47.]

The Song was in circulation within both the religious and popular contexts of Israeli life. Pope writes, “In the Hebrew Bible the Song of Songs is placed among the Writings, ketubim, following Job as Five Scrolls (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther). This order corresponds to the sequence of their use in the liturgy, the Song of Songs being read on the eighth day of Passover.” Pope, Song of Songs, 18. Pope also notes on p. 18 that Rabbi Aquiba, who regarded the Song as the “veritable Holy of Holies,” uttered the following anathema upon those who considered the Song a mundane ditty, saying, “He who trills his voice in chanting the Song of Songs in the banquet house and treats it at a sort of song (zemir) has no part in the world to come.” Although Rabbi Aquiba understood the Song allegorically, clearly other Israelis took it otherwise. Alter states, “References in rabbinic texts suggest that at least by the Roman period the poems were often sung at weddings, and, whoever composed them, there was surely something popular about these lyric celebrations of the flowering world, the beauties of the female and male bodies, and the delights of lovemaking.” Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York: Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, 1985), 186.

            A great Jewish savant began his commentary on the Song of Songs with these words, “Know, my brother, that you will find great differences in interpretation of the Song of Songs. In truth they differ because the Song of Songs resembles locks to which the keys have been lost.”[1] With 1,440 glosses on the Song of Song compiled by Patristic and Medieval scholars by 1110,[2]the Church Fathers’ allegorical reading of the Song[3]confirm the assessment, “No other book of the Bible (except perhaps Revelation) suffers under so many radically different interpretations of the Song of Songs.”[4]Lecturing on the Song of Songs in November 1530, Martin Luther expressed his dissatisfaction with the three primary interpretive methodologies of his predecessors, lamenting,

For we shall never agree with those who think it [the Song of Songs] is a love story about the daughter of Pharaoh beloved by Solomon. Nor does it satisfy us to expound it as the union of God and the synagogue, or like the [Alexandrian] tropologists, of the faithful soul. For what fruit can be gathered from these opinions?[5]

            The interpretive, historic dissonance in the ecclesiastical tradition persists with no sign of an exegetically based, codified interpretation.[6]Redford succinctly states the contrasts, “The allegorist gives the reins to his fancy and ends in absurdities; the literalist shuts himself up in his naturalism and forfeits the blessings of the Spirit.”[7]

            The history of the Song’s interpretation, with minor exception, is entirely allegorical, the Song’s message referring to Jehovah and Israel or Christ and the Church. The one noted exception to this interpretive convention among medieval theologians was Theodore of Mopsuestia (350-428 who also denied the inspired character of the book. Considering the Song as a referring only to human love and non-canonical, Theodore was anathematized by the Second Council of Constantinople in 533.[8]

            The substantive question was whether the Song is an allegory and based on its genre received by the Church as canonical. Was the allegorical interpretation of the Song the basis for its acceptance as canonical, or was the divine authority of the Song accepted and subsequently determined by Jewish and Christian scholars to be interpreted allegorically?

            John Barton’s short essay, “The Canonicity of the Song of Songs”[9] makes a compelling argument for the Song’s canonicity apart from any interpretive qualification. Barton’s research finds that in the history of the Song’s interpretation scholars make a decuit ergo factum argument rather than a factual one, that the “celebration of physical love” is the primary reason for disputing the Song’s canonicity.[10]Barton also explains that the allegorical interpretation of the Church Fathers and medieval scholastics was “precisely practiced on books that had a high status” and that again there is no evidence that the Song was identified as canonical and secured as Scripture based on its allegorical reading.[11]In other words, the Song’s canonical authority was recognized prior to the formulation of Jewish and Christian interpretive philosophy. The Song was interpreted allegorically because it was already accepted as canonical. Barton’s findings are consistent with the medieval convention of a four-fold method of interpreting the Scriptures (literal, tropological, allegorical, and anagogical)[12]employed of the scholastics of the Middle Ages. This hermeneutical convention was challenged and rejected by the post-Reformation dogmaticians who emphasized a singular meaning for each text.[13]

            Barton’s research concludes that the “allegorical reading was a consequence, not a cause of canonicity.”[14] As canonical, the Song was read allegorically and in the Song’s history of interpreted was rendered in a manner considered fitting the Holy Scripture.[15]


[1]Quoted by Pope, Song of Songs, 89.

[2]The Glossa Ordinaria on the Song of Songs, translated by Mary Dove (Kalamazoo, MI: Western Michigan University, 2004), xxi. “Anselm of Laon (perhaps with his brother Ralph) is the compiler of the glossed Song of Songs, but we can only confidently ascribe to his authorship about a sixth of the 1,440 glosses. These are the glosses that are shared with surviving reportationes, ‘written reports’ of lectures on the Song of Songs which Anselm gave at Laon ca 1100-10.” Also see J. Robert Wright, ed., Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Old Testament (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 9:286-368; Mark W. Elliot, The Song of Songs and Christology in the Early Church 381-451 (Tubigen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000), 15-50.

[3]For a succinct history of the Song’s interpretation until 1690 see Richard Littledale, A Commentary on the Song of Songs, (New York: Pott and Emery, 1869), xxxii-xl. Also see John Barton, “The Canonicity of the Song of Songs,” Perspectives on the Song of Songs (Perspektiven der Hoheliedauslegung), ed. Anselm C. Hagedorn (New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2005), 2.

[4]Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, 352.

[5]Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, American Edition (St. Louis and Philadelphia: Concordia and Fortress, 1955), 15:194-195. “Although difficult to trace exactly, it is highly suggestive to think that the ‘new pathway’ of Luther for the sixteenth century has historical roots in particular late medieval Christian scholarship (circa 1300) and in latter medieval ‘rabbinic’ exegesis.” Endel Kallas, “Martin Luther as Expositor of the Song of Songs,” Lutheran Quarterly, 2 (1988): 323-41.

[6]Longman, Song of Songs, 54-55. “The question of the structure of the Song is a difficult one, as is demonstrated by the plethora of hypotheses found in the secondary literature. No two scholars agree in detail, though there is what might be called schools of thought on the subject. While we feel confident in the general conclusions reached regarding the structure of the Song, we have no illusions that the following is the final word.” Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry, 185: “We have no way of knowing the precise circumstances under which or for which the Song of Songs was composed.”

[7]H.D.M. Spence, Joseph S. Excell, eds. Song of Songs, vol. 22, The Pulpit Commentary(London and New York: Funk and Wagnalls Co., nd), xxiv.

[8]Ibid., 38-39. Longman also cites John Calvin and Sebastian Castellio as two who accepted the congruity of marital love and divine love in the canon; also see Roland Murphy, “Canticle of Canticles,” The Jerome Biblical Commentary (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968), 506.

[9]Barton, “The Canonicity of the Song of Songs,” 1-7.

[10]Ibid., 1.

[11]Ibid., 2.

[12]See Andrew Willet, Hexapla in Leviticum, that is, a sixfold commentary upon the third book of Moses, called Leviticus (London: Printed by Aug. Matthewes, 1631), 120. “The tropological, which is applied to moral things, allegorical, to spiritual things, and anagogical, to heavenly things, as Jerusalem signifieth the soul of man; allegorically, the church militant; and anagogically, the church triumphant in heaven.”    

[13]Ibid. In his commentary on Leviticus, Andrew Willet (1562-1621) agrees that the content of Scripture deals with historical matters and mysteries but those elements in themselves do not prove diverging senses in interpretation. He succinctly addressed the crux of the matter by explaining, “There is a difference between the literal, or historical sense, and the application, or accommodation of it. That is the proper sense of the scripture, which is perpetual and general; it is therefore dangerous for men, of their own brain, to pick out every place mystical senses. It belongeth only to the Spirit whereby the scriptures were written, to frame allegories and mysteries.” Of particular significance Willet makes clear that there is a literal or historical sense to the words of scripture. Citing 2 Timothy 3:16, Willet states that there are four profitable uses of inspired Scripture: to teach, to improve, to correct, and to instruct in righteousness. And thus, he says, “To devise and frame allegories and mysterie (wherein the Spirit intended them not) is none of them.”

[14]Barton, “The Canonicity of the Song of Songs,” 3.

[15]For useful discussions on the canonicity of the Song, see William Frederic Bade, “The Canonization of the Old Testament,” The Biblical World 37, (Mar., 1911): 151-162; David Kraemer, “The Formation of Rabbinic Canon,” Journal of Biblical Literature 110, (Winter, 1991): 613-630; Solomon Zeitlin, “An Historical Study of the Canonization of the Hebrew Scriptures,” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, (1931-1932): 3:121-158; Albert C. Sundberg, Jr., “The Old Testament of the Early Church (A Study in Canon),” HTR 51, (Oct., 1958): 205-226.

Published by Dr. Peter Van Kleeck, Sr.

Dr. Peter William Van Kleeck, Sr. : B.A., Grand Rapids Baptist College, 1986; M.A.R., Westminster Theological Seminary, 1990; Th.M., Calvin Theological Seminary, 1998; D. Min, Bob Jones University, 2013. Dr. Van Kleeck was formerly the Director of the Institute for Biblical Textual Studies, Grand Rapids, MI, (1990-1994) lecturing, researching and writing in the defense of the Masoretic Hebrew text, Greek Received Text and King James Bible. His published works include, "Fundamentalism’s Folly?: A Bible Version Debate Case Study" (Grand Rapids: Institute for Biblical Textual Studies, 1998); “We have seen the future and we are not in it,” Trinity Review, (Mar. 99); “Andrew Willet (1562-1621: Reformed Interpretation of Scripture,” The Banner of Truth, (Mar. 99); "A Primer for the Public Preaching of the Song of Songs" (Outskirts Press, 2015). Dr. Van Kleeck is the pastor of the Providence Baptist Church in Manassas, VA where he has ministered for the past twenty-one years. He is married to his wife of 43 years, Annette, and has three married sons, one daughter and eighteen grandchildren.

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