Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Song of Songs

In pop culture, the most mysterious book of the Bible if often thought to be the book of Revelation. Indeed, the history of American religion has witnessed group after group of reformed churches founded upon expectation of Revelation's fulfillment. After years of textual study, including reading as much of the body of interpretation as  is possible, my own opinion differs. I would argue the Song of Songs should get the nod.

A cursory examination of the contents of the canon as it became defined reveals the Song of Song's awkward position - a book that seemingly does not belong both do to its subject matter and even vocabulary. A reading of the history of Biblical interpretation shows every great commentator tackled the text of the Song of Songs, more often than not disengaging from the book's eroticism and apparent celebration of human love/sexual intercourse in favor of an allegorical model.While historical criticism justifiably urges a renewed look at the text and suspends allegorical interpretation, one cannot necessarily condemn past commentators for such lines of interpretation. The text of the Song of Songs, when one removes the vowel pointing and restores it to its consonantal reading, can be maddening.

"τί ἐκαλλιώθησαν μαστοί σου ἀδελφή μου νύμφη τί ἐκαλλιώθησαν μαστοί σου ἀπὸοἴνου καὶ ὀσμὴ ἱματίων σου ὑπὲρ πάντα τὰ ἀρώματα " (Ct.4:10)

One of the best kept secrets from readers of the English language Bible and, well, most any vernacular Bible, is just how much more explicit the text of the Song of Songs is in the Septuagint. Comparing to one's contemporary vernacular version or the pointed Masoretic text, one may wonder, where does the Septuagint get "how beautiful/fair/good are your breasts my sister my bride". The variance between your love(s) and your breasts (μαστοί σου) stems from the consonantal reading of the text (the Hebrew text without vowel pointing). The un-pointed reading of the text, as observed in Pope's masterful commentary, lends itself to either reading as the consonants do not supply the vowel differentiation between dodeka (your loves) and daddayik (your breasts).

So which is the correct reading? In my estimation, either works, though after the variances found at Qumran, one does have to wonder if the Septuagint is working off of a different manuscript tradition of the Song of Songs. Whatever the textual tradition one prefers, Septuagint or Masoretic, one is still left with a text that has inspired countless interpretations and has confounded observers by its conclusion in the canon of Scripture.