1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Canticles

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CANTICLES. The Old Testament book of Canticles, or the Song of Solomon, is called in Hebrew The Song of Songs (that is, the choicest of songs), or, according to the full title which stands as the first verse of the book, The choicest of the songs of Solomon. In the Western versions the book holds the third place among the so-called Solomonic writings, following Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. In Hebrew Bibles it stands among the Megilloth, the five books of the Hagiographa which have a prominent place in the Synagogue service. In printed Bibles and in German MSS. it is the first of these because it is read at the Passover, which is the first great feast of the sacred year of the Jews.

No part of the Bible has called forth a greater diversity of opinions than the Song of Solomon, and this for two reasons. In the first place, the book holds so unique a position in the Old Testament, that the general analogy of Hebrew literature is a very inadequate key to the verbal difficulties, the artistic structure, and the general conception and purpose of the poem. In point of language the departures from ordinary Hebrew are almost always in the direction of Aramaic. Many forms unique in Biblical Hebrew are at once explained by the Aramaic dialects, but not a few are still obscure. The philological difficulties of the book are, however, less fundamental than those which lie in the unique character of the Song of Solomon in point of artistic form, and in the whole atmosphere of thought and feeling in which it moves. Even in these respects it is not absolutely isolated. Parallels to the peculiar imagery may be found in the book of Hosea, in Ezekiel xvi. and xxiii. and above all in the 45th Psalm; but such links of union to the general mass of the Old Testament literature are too slight to be of material assistance in the solution of the literary problem of the book. Here, again, as in the lexical difficulties already referred to, we are tempted or compelled to argue from the distant and insecure analogy of other Eastern literatures, or are thrown back upon traditions of uncertain origin and ambiguous authority.

The power of tradition has been the second great source of confusion of opinion about the Song of Solomon. To tradition we owe the title, which apparently indicates Solomon as the author and not merely as the subject of the book. The authority of titles in the Old Testament is often questionable, and in the present case it is certain on linguistic grounds that the title is not from the hand that wrote the poem; while to admit that it gives a correct account of the authorship is to cut away at one stroke all the most certain threads of connexion between the book and our historical knowledge of the Old Testament people and literature.

To tradition, again, we owe the prejudice in favour of an allegorical interpretation, that is, of the view that from verse to verse the Song sets forth the history of a spiritual and not merely of an earthly love. To apply such an exegesis to Canticles is to violate one of the first principles of reasonable interpretation. True allegories are never without internal marks of their allegorical design. The language of symbol is not so perfect that a long chain of spiritual ideas can be developed without the use of a single spiritual word or phrase; and even were this possible it would be false art in the allegorist to hide away his sacred thoughts behind a screen of sensuous and erotic imagery, so complete and beautiful in itself as to give no suggestion that it is only the vehicle of a deeper sense. Apart from tradition, no one, in the present state of exegesis, would dream of allegorizing poetry which in its natural sense is so full of purpose and meaning, so apt in sentiment, and so perfect in imagery as the lyrics of Canticles. We are not at liberty to seek for allegory except where the natural sense is incomplete. This is not the case in the Song of Solomon. On the contrary, every form of the allegorical interpretation which has been devised carries its own condemnation in the fact that it takes away from the artistic unity of the poem and breaks natural sequences of thought.[1] The allegorical interpretation of the Song of Solomon bad its rise in the very same conditions which forced a deeper 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;[2] 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.[3]

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.[4]

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 Testament, ch. x. § 1). The following presentation of the theory, on the general lines of Ewald, gives that form of it which Robertson Smith was able to accept in 1876.

The centre of attraction is throughout a female figure, and the unity of this figure is the chief test of the unity of the book. In the long canto, i. 1-ii .7, the heroine appears in a royal palace (i. 4) among the daughters of Jerusalem, who are thus presumably ladies of the court of Zion. At i. 9, an additional interlocutor is introduced, who is plainly a king, and apparently Solomon (i. 9, 12). He has just risen from table, and praises the charms of the heroine with the air of a judge of beauty, but without warmth. He addresses her simply as “my friend” (not as English version, “my love”). The heroine, on the contrary, is passionately in love, but nothing can be plainer than that the object of her affection is not the king. She is not at home in the palace, for she explains (i. 6) that she has spent her life as a peasant girl in the care of vineyards. Her beloved, whom she knows not where to find (i. 7), but who lies constantly on her heart and is cherished in her bosom like a spray of the sweet henna flowers which Oriental ladies delight to wear (i. 13, 14), is like herself a peasant—a shepherd lad (i. 7)—with whom she was wont to sit in the fresh greenwood under the mighty boughs of the cedars (i. 16, 17). Even before the king’s entrance the ladies of the court are impatient at so silly an affection, and advise her, “if she is really so witless,” to begone and rejoin her plebeian lover (i. 8). To them she appeals in ii. 5, 6, where her self-control, strung to the highest pitch as she meets the compliments of the king with reminiscences of her absent lover, breaks down in a fit of half-delirious sickness. The only words directed to the king are those of i. 12, which, if past tenses are substituted for the presents of the English version, contain a pointed rebuff. Finally, ii. 7 is, on the plainest translation, a charge not to arouse love till it please. The moral of the scene is the spontaneity of true affection.

Now, at viii. 5, a female figure advances leaning upon her beloved, with whom she claims inseparable union,—“for love is strong as death, its passion inflexible as the grave, its fire a divine flame which no waters can quench or floods drown. Yea, if a man would give all his wealth for love he would only be contemned.” This is obviously the sentiment of ii. 7, and the suitor, whose wealth is despised, must almost of necessity be identified with the king of chapter i., if, as seems reasonable, we place viii. ii, 12 in the mouth of the same speaker—“King Solomon has vineyards which bring him a princely revenue, and enrich even the farmers. Let him and them keep their wealth; my vineyard is before me” (i.e. I possess it in present fruition). The last expression is plainly to be connected with i. 6. But this happiness has not been reached without a struggle. The speaker has proved herself an impregnable fortress (ver. 10), and, armed only with her own beauty and innocence, has been in his eyes as one that found peace. The sense is that, like a virgin fortress, she has compelled her assailant to leave her in peace. To these marks of identity with the heroine of ch. i. are to be added that she appears here as dwelling in gardens, there as a keeper of vineyards (i. 6, and viii. 13), and that as there it was her brethren that prescribed her duties, so here she apparently quotes words in which her brothers, while she was still a child, speculated as to her future conduct and its reward (viii. 8, 9).

If this analysis of the commencement and close of the book is correct, it is certain that the poem is in a sense dramatic, that is, that it uses dialogue and monologue to develop a story. The heroine appears in the opening scene in a difficult and painful situation, from which in the last chapter she is happily extricated. But the dramatic progress which the poem exhibits scarcely involves a plot in the usual sense of that word. The words of viii. 9, 10 clearly indicate that the deliverance of the heroine is due to no combination of favouring circumstances, but to her own inflexible fidelity and virtue.

The constant direction of the maiden’s mind to her true love is partly expressed in dialogue with the ladies of the court (the daughters of Jerusalem), who have no dramatic individuality, and whose only function in the economy of the piece is to give the heroine opportunity for a more varied expression of her feelings. In i. 8 we found them contemptuous. In chapter iii. they appear to be still indifferent; for when the heroine relates a dream in which the dull pain of separation and the uneasy consciousness of confinement and danger in the unsympathetic city disappear for a moment in imagined reunion with her lover, they are either altogether silent or reply only by taking up a festal part song describing the marriage procession of King Solomon (iii. 6-11), which stands in jarring contrast to the feelings of the maiden.[5] A second dream (v. 2-8), more weird and melancholy, and constructed with that singular psychological felicity which characterizes the dreams of the Old Testament, gains more sympathy, and the heroine is encouraged to describe her beloved at large (v. 10-vi. 3). The structure of these dialogues is so simple, and their purpose is so strictly limited to the exhibition of the character and affection of the maiden, that it is only natural to find them supplemented by a free use of pure monologue, in which the heroine recalls the happiness of past days, or expresses her rising hope of reunion with her shepherd, and restoration to the simple joys of her rustic life. The vivid reminiscence of ii. 8-17 takes the form of a dialogue within the main dialogue of the poem, a picture within a picture—the picture of her beloved as he stood at her window in the early spring time, and of her own merry heart as she laughingly answered him in the song with which watchers of the vineyards frighten away the foxes. It is, of course, a fault of perspective that this reminiscence is as sharp in outline and as strong in colour as the main action. But no one can expect perspective in such early art, and recollection of the past is clearly enough separated from present reality by ii. 16, 17. The last monologue (vii. 10-viii. 3), in which the hope of immediate return with her lover is tempered by maidenly shame, and a maiden’s desire for her mother’s counsel, is of special value for a right appreciation of the psychology of the love which the poem celebrates, and completes a picture of this flower of the northern valleys which is not only firm in outline, but delicate in touch. The subordinate action which supports the portraiture of the maiden of Galilee is by no means easy to understand.

We come next to chapter vi., which again sings the praises of the heroine, and takes occasion in this connexion to introduce, with the same want of perspective as we observed in ch. ii., a dialogue descriptive of Solomon’s first meeting with the maiden. We learn that she was an inhabitant of Shulem or Shunem in Issachar, whom the king and his train surprised in a garden on the occasion of a royal progress through the north. Her beauty drew from the ladies of the court a cry of admiration. The maiden shrinks back with the reply—“I was gone down into my garden to see its growth.... I know not how my soul hath brought me among the chariots of princes”; but she is commanded to turn and let herself be seen in spite of her bashful protest—“Why do ye gaze on the Shulamite as at a dance of Mahanaim (a spectacle)?” Now the person in whose mouth this relation is placed must be an eye-witness of the scene, and so none other than the king. But in spite of the verbal repetition of several of the figures of ch. iv.... the tone in which the king now addresses the Shulamite is quite changed. She is not only beautiful but terrible, her eyes trouble him, and he cannot endure their gaze. She is unique among women, the choice and only one of her mother. The unity of action can only be maintained by ignoring vii. 1-9, and taking the words of Solomon in chapter vi. in their obvious sense as implying that the king at length recognizes in the maiden qualities of soul unknown in the harem, a character which compels respect, as well as a beauty that inflames desire. The change of feeling which was wrought in the daughters of Jerusalem in the previous scene now extends to Solomon himself, and thus the glad utterances of vii. 10, seq., have a sufficient motive, and the dénouement is no longer violent and unprepared.

The nodus of the action is fully given in chapter i., the final issue in chapter viii. The solution lies entirely in the character and constancy of the heroine, which prevail, in the simplest possible way, first over the ladies of the court and then over the king.

The attractiveness of the above theory cannot be denied; but it may be asked whether the attraction does not lie in the appeal to modern taste of a story which is largely the product of modern imagination. It supposes a freedom of intercourse between lovers inconceivable for the East. The initial situation of the maiden in the harem of Solomon is left as a problem for the reader to discover, until he comes to its supposed origin in vi. 11; the expedient might be granted in the case of one of Browning’s Men and Women, but seems very improbable in the present case. The more elaborate dramatic theories can find no parallel in Semitic literature to the “drama” of Canticles, the book of Job being no exception to this statement; whilst even the simpler theories ask us to believe that the essential parts of the story—the rape of the Shulamite, the change in Solomon’s disposition, her release from the harem—are to be supplied by the reader from obscure and disputable references. More serious still is the fact that any progress of action from first to last is so difficult to prove. In the first chapter we listen to a woman speaker desiring to be kissed by the man who has brought her into his chambers, and speaking of “our bed”; in the last we leave her “leaning upon her beloved.” The difficulties of detail are equally great. To suppose that all the male love-making, by hypothesis unsuccessful, belongs to Solomon, whilst the heroine addresses her passionate words to the continuously absent shepherd, is obviously unconvincing; yet, if this shepherd speaks in iv. 8-v. 1, how are we to explain his appearance in the royal harem? This and other difficulties were acknowledged by Robertson Smith, notably the presence of vii. 1-9, which he proposed to set aside as an interpolation, because of its sensuality and of the difficulty of working it into the dramatic scheme. The fact that this passage has subsequently become the central element in the new interpretation of the book is, perhaps, a warning against violent measures with difficulties.

Attention has already been drawn to Herder’s proposal, accepted by some later writers, including Diestel and Reuss, to regard the book as a collection of detached songs. This received new and striking confirmation from the anthropological data supplied by J. G. Wetstein (1873), Prussian consul at Damascus. His observations of the wedding customs of Syrian peasants led him to believe that Canticles is substantially a collection of songs originally sung at such festivities. Wetstein’s contribution was republished shortly afterwards by Delitzsch, in an appendix to his Commentary; but it received little attention. The first amongst Old Testament scholars to perceive its importance seems to have been Stade, who accepted Wetstein’s view in a footnote to his History of the Jewish People (ii. p. 197), published in 1888; to Budde, however, belongs the distinction of the systematic and detailed use of Wetstein’s suggestions, especially in his Commentary (1898). This interpretation of the book is accepted by Kautzsch (1896), Siegfried (1898), Cheyne (1899), and other eminent scholars. The last-named states the theory tersely as follows: “The book is an anthology of songs used at marriage festivals in or near Jerusalem, revised and loosely connected by an editor without regard to temporal sequence” (Ency. Bibl. 691). The character of the evidence which has contributed to the acceptance of this view may be indicated in Wetstein’s own statements:—

“The finest time in the life of the Syrian peasant consists of the first seven days after his wedding, in which he and his young wife play the part of king (melik) and queen (melika), both being so treated and served by their village and the invited communities of the neighbourhood. The majority of the greater village weddings fall in the month of March, the finest of the Syrian year. The winter rains being over, and the sun still refreshing, not oppressive as in the following months, the weddings are celebrated in the open air on the village threshing-floor, which at this time of the year is with few exceptions a flowery mead. ... We pass over the wedding-day itself with its displays, the sword-dance of the bride, and the great feast. On the morrow, bridegroom and bride awake as king and queen. Already before sunrise they receive the leader of the bridesmen, as their vizier, and the bridesmen themselves; the latter thereupon fetch the threshing-board and bring it to the threshing-floor, singing a rousing song of battle or love, generally both. There it is erected as a throne, and after the royal couple have taken their seats and the necessary formalities are gone through, a great dance in honour of the young couple begins; the accompanying song is concerned only with themselves, its principal element being the inevitable wasf, i.e. a description of the physical perfections of both and their ornaments. The eulogy of the queen is more moderate, and praises her visible, rather than veiled, charms; this is due to the fact that she is to-day a married woman, and that the wasf sung on the previous day during her sword-dance has left nothing to desire. This wasf is the weak element in Syrian wedding-songs according to our taste; its comparisons are to us frequently too clumsy and reveal the stereotyped pattern. It is the same with the little collection of charming wedding-songs and fragments of them which has been received into the canon of the Old Testament under the name of Canticles; the wasf (iv.—vii.) is considerably below the rest in poetical value. With this dance begin the sports, lasting seven days, begun in the morning on the first, shortly before midday on the other days, and continuing far into the night by the light of the fires that are kindled; on the last day alone all is over by sunset. During the whole week both royalties are in marriage attire, must do no work and have no cares; they have only to look down from the merteba (throne) on the sports carried on before them, in which they themselves take but a moderate part; the queen, however, occasionally gives a short dance to attract attention to her bridal attire.”[6]

For the general application of these and the related customs to the interpretation of the book, reference should be made to Budde’s Commentary, which recognizes four wasfs, viz. iv. 1-7 (describing the bride from head to breasts), v. 10-16 (the bridegroom), vi. 4-7 (similar to and partly repeating iv. 1-7), and vii. 1-9, belonging to the sword-dance of the bride, her physical charms being sung from feet to head (cf. vii. 1; “Why look ye on the Shulamite as (on) a dance of camps?” i.e. a war-dance). This dance receives its name from the fact that she dances it with a sword in her hand in the firelight on the evening of her wedding-day, and amid a circle of men and women, whilst such a wasf as this is sung by the leader of the choir. The passage relating to the litter of Solomon (iii. 6-11)—an old difficulty with the dramatizers—relates to the erection of the throne on the threshing-floor.[7] The terms “Solomon” and “the Shulamite” are explained as figurative references to the famous king, and to Abishag the Shulamite, “fairest among women,” on the lines of the use of “king” and “queen” noted above. Other songs of Canticles are referred by Budde to the seven days of festivities. It need hardly be said that difficulties still remain in the analysis of this book of wedding-songs; whilst Budde detects 23 songs, besides fragments, Siegfried divides the book into 10.[8] Such differences are to be expected in the case of a collection of songs, some admittedly in dialogue form, all concerned with the common theme of the love of man and woman, and without any external indication of the transition from one song to the next.

Further, we must ask whether the task has been complicated by any editorial rearrangement or interpolation; the collector of these songs has certainly not reproduced them in the order of their use at Syrian weddings. Can we trace any principle, or even any dominant thought in this arrangement? In this connexion we touch the reason for the reluctance of some scholars to accept the above interpretation, viz. the alleged marks of literary unity which the book contains (e.g. Driver, loc. cit.). These are (1) general similarity of treatment, seen in the use of imagery (the bride as a garden, iv. 12; vi. 2, 3), the frequent references to nature and to particular places, and the recurrence of descriptions of male and female beauty; (2) references to “Solomon” or “the king,” to “the Shulamite” and to “the daughters of Jerusalem” (from which, indeed, the dramatic theory has found its chief inspiration); (3) indications that the same person is speaking in different places (cf. the two dreams of a woman, and the vineyard references, i. 6; viii. 12); (4) repetitions of words and phrases especially of the refrains, “disturb not love” (ii. 7; iii. 5; viii. 4), and “until the day break” (ii. 17; iv. 6). But of these (1) is no more than should be expected, since the songs all relate to the same subject, and spring from a common world of life and thought of the same group of people; (2) finds at least a partial parallel and explanation in the use of “king” and “queen” noted above; whilst (3) and (4) alone seem to require something more than the work of a mere collector of the songs. It is, of course, true that, in recurrent ceremonies, the same thought inevitably tends to find expression in the same words. But this hardly meets the case of the refrains, whilst the reference to the vineyard at beginning and end does suggest some literary connexion. It is to be noted that the three refrains “disturb not love” severally follow passages relating to the consummation of the sexual relation, whilst the two refrains “until the day break” appear to form an invitation and an answer in the same connexion, whilst the “Omnia vincit Amor” passage in the last chapter forms a natural climax (cf. Haupt’s translation). So far, then, as this somewhat scanty evidence goes, it may point to some one hand which has given its semblance of unity to the book by underlining the joy of consummated love—to which the vineyard and garden figures throughout allude—and by so arranging the collection that the descriptions of this joy find their climax in viii. 6-7.[9]

Whatever conclusion, however, may be reached as to the present arrangement of Canticles, the recognition of wedding-songs as forming its nucleus marks an important stage in the interpretation of the book; even Rothstein (1902), whilst attempting to resuscitate a dramatic theory, “recognizes... the possibility that older wedding-songs (as, for instance, the wasfs) are worked up in the Song of Songs” (Hastings’ D.B. p. 594b). The drama he endeavours to construct might, indeed, be called “The Tokens of Virginity,” since he makes it culminate in the procedure of Deut. xxii. 13 f., which still forms part of the Syrian ceremonies. But his reconstruction is open to the same objection as all similar attempts, in that the vital moments of the dramatic action have to be supplied from without. Thus between v. 1 and v. 2, the baffled king is supposed to have disappeared, and to have been replaced by the happy lover; between viii. 7 and viii. 8, we are required to imagine “the bridal night and its mysteries”; whilst between viii. 9 and viii. 10, we must suppose the evidence that the bride has been found a virgin is exhibited. He also attempts, with considerable ingenuity, to trace the legend involved in the supposed drama to the fact that Abishag remained a virgin in regard to David (I Kings i. 4) whilst nothing is said of her marriage to Solomon.[10]

On the view accepted above, Canticles describes in a number of separate poems the central passion of human life, and is wholly without didactic tendencies. Of its earliest history as a book we have no information. It is already included in the Hebrew canon (though its right to be there is disputed) when the first explicit mention of the book occurs. We have no evidence, therefore, of the theory of interpretation prevalent at the time of its incorporation with the other books of the canon. It seems, however, fair to infer that it would hardly have found acceptance but for a Solomonic theory of authorship and a “religious” theory of meaning. The problem raised by its present place in the canon occurs in relation to mistaken Jewish theories about other books also; it suggests, at least, that divine inspiration may belong to the life of a people rather than to the letter of their literature. Of that life Canticles portrays a central element—the passion of love—in striking imagery and graceful language, however far its oriental standard of taste differs from that of the modern West.

From the nature of the book, it is impossible to assign a precise date for its origin; the wedding-songs of which it chiefly consists must belong to the folklore of more than one century. The only evidence we possess as to date is drawn from the character of the Hebrew in which the book is written, which shows frequent points of contact with new Hebrew.[11] On this ground, we may suppose the present form of the work to date from the Greek period, i.e. after 332 b.c. This is the date accepted by most recent writers, e.g. Kautzsch, Cheyne, Budde, Rothstein, Jacob, Haupt. This late date finds some confirmation in the fact that Canticles belongs to the third and latest part of the Old Testament canon, and that its canonicity was still in dispute at the end of the 1st century a.d. The evidence offered for a north Israelite origin, on the ground of linguistic parallels and topographical familiarity (Driver, loc. cit.), does not seem very convincing; Haupt, however, places the compilation of the book in the neighbourhood of Damascus.

Literature.—Most of the older books of importance are named above; Ginsburg, The Song of Songs (1857), gives much information as to the history of the exegesis of Canticles; Diestel’s article, “Hohes Lied,” in Schenkel’s Bibel Lexikon (1871), reviews well the history of interpretation prior to Wetstein; cf. also Riedel, Die Auslegung des Hohenliedes in der jüdischen Gemeinde und der griechischen Kirche (1898). The most important commentary is that by Budde, in Marti’s Kurzer Hand-Commentar (Die fünf Megilloth) (1898), where references to the literature of the 19th century are given. To his list add Siegfried, “Prediger und Hoheslied,” in Nowack’s Handkommentar (1898); Cheyne’s article “Canticles,” in the Encyclopaedia Biblica (1899); Dalman, Palästinischer Diwan (1901), parallels to the songs; Rothstein’s article, “Song of Songs,” in Hastings’ Dictionary of the Bible (1902); G. Jacob, Das Hohelied auf Grund arabischer und anderer Parallelen von neuem Untersucht (1902); A. Harper, The Song of Songs (1902); Haupt, “The Book of Canticles,” in The American Journal of Semitic Languages (July 1902); Scholz, Kommentar über das Hohelied und Psalm 45 (1904) (written from the Roman Catholic dogmatic standpoint of allegorical interpretation, with a vigorous criticism of other positions). No commentator in English, except Haupt, in the article named above, has yet worked on the lines of the above anthology theory. Haupt gives valuable notes, with a translation and rearrangement of the separate songs.  (W. R. S.; H. W. R.*) 

  1. An argument for the allegorical interpretation has been often drawn from Mahommedan mysticism—from the poems of Hafiz, and the songs still sung by dervishes. See Jones, Poëseos Asiaticae Com. pt. in. cap. 9; Rosenmüller’s remarks on Lowth’s Praelectio, xxxi., and Lane’s Modern Egyptians, ch. xxiv. But there is no true analogy between the Old Testament and the pantheistic mysticism of Islam, and there is every reason to believe that, where the allegory takes a form really analogous to Canticles, the original sense of these songs was purely erotic.
  2. Repeated recently by Scholz, Kommentar, pp. iii. and iv.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Ewald and others make this song a distinct scene in the action of the poem, supposing that the author here exhibits the honourable form of espousal by which Solomon thought to vanquish the scruples of the damsel. This view, however, seems to introduce a complication foreign to the plan of the book.
  6. Wetstein, Zeitschrift f. Ethn., 1873, pp. 270-302; quoted and condensed by Budde as above in Comm. p. xvii.; for a fuller reproduction of Wetstein in English see Harper, The Song of Songs, pp. 74-76.
  7. For the connexion of the threshing-floor with marriage through the idea of sexual fertility, we may compare many primitive ideas and customs, such as those described by Frazer (The Golden Bough, ii. p. 181 f., 186).
  8. Castelli (Il Cantico dei Cantici, 1892) has written a very attractive little book on Canticles (quite apart from the Wetstein development) regarded as “a poem formed by a number of dialogues mutually related by a certain succession”; they require for their understanding nothing but some indication of the speaker at each transition (such as we find in codex A of the Septuagint).
  9. On the erotic meaning of many of the figures employed see the notes of Haupt in The American Journal of Semitic Languages (July 1902); also G. Jacob, Das Hohelied (1902), who rightly protests against the limitation in the Comm. of Budde and Siegfried (p. 10) of all the songs to the marriage relation. Haupt thinks that the songs were not originally composed for weddings, though used there (p. 207, op. cit.). Diestel had pointed out, in another connexion (B.L. 125), that nothing is said in the book of the blessing of children, the chief end of marriage from a Hebrew standpoint.
  10. Rothstein’s criticism of Budde turns chiefly on the latter’s admission of redactional elements, introducing “movement and action,” and may be summed up in the statement that “Budde himself by the characteristics he assigns to the redactor points the way again past his own hypothesis to the dramatical view of the Song” (loc cit. 594b). A. Harper, “The Song of Songs” (Cambridge Bible) also criticizes Budde at length in favour of the conventional dramatical theory (Appendix).
  11. E.g. the late form of the relative pronoun used throughout except in title; foreign words, Persian and Greek; Aramaic words and usages (details in the Comm. or in E.B. 693).