Have you ever heard someone say, “I interpret the Bible literally”? When I hear this, I often wonder how they’d interpret the Song of Songs. After all, the Song of Songs is a love poem — and a pretty heated one at that.
What’s unique about this book is that if one approaches it in a literalistic fashion, it doesn’t really seem to be a religious book at all, much less a book one would expect to find in the Bible. But if it is interpreted allegorically, it becomes a very profound religious text.
The ancient rabbis understood the Song of Songs to be a love song between God and Israel. The early Church understood it as a passionate dialogue between Christ the Bridegroom and His bride, the Church. How one approaches the Song of Songs impacts the book’s religious character, so the book had a bumpy journey into the Bible, at least within rabbinical Judaism.
Christians didn’t have a problem with the sacredness of the Song of Songs. The earliest Christians were fond of interpreting the Old Testament allegorically, so the religious character of this book wasn’t a matter of dispute. Moreover, the Song of Songs was included in the original deposit of faith given to the Church by Christ and his Apostles as a book that was to be read as sacred Scripture in the liturgy. With very rare exceptions, it was accepted by all and the Church solemnly affirmed it as canonical Scripture at the councils of Hippo (A.D. 393), Carthage (A.D. 419) Florence (A.D. 1442), and the Council of Trent (A.D. 1546). No problem here. However, the same can’t be said for rabbinical Judaism.
Disputes concerning the sacredness of the Song of Songs continued into the second Christian century. In addition to disputes among the rabbis concerning the sacredness of this book, there appears to also have been abuse. One rabbinic text, for example, corrects those who use the Song of Songs in a profane manner: “He who recites a verse from the Song of Songs and treats it as a [secular] air, and one who recites a verse at a banquet table … brings evil upon the world” (Sanhedrin 101a).
Eventually, a ruling needed to be made, and it appears to have come from Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph, the head of the rabbinical school in Jamnia sometime between A.D. 132-135. After listing the opinions of rabbis who disputed or affirm the sacredness of the Song of Songs and a few other books, Akiba exclaimed:
“Heaven forbid. No man in Israel ever contended regarding the Song of Songs … for the whole world is not worth the day when the Song of Songs was given to Israel … for the Song of Songs is the most sacred of all of them [the Writings]” (Mishnah, Yahayim 3:5).
Akiba’s hyperbolic statement that no man in Israel ever disputed the sacredness of the Song of Songs was intended to drive home a point: the Song of Songs is sacred, end of discussion!
Why did Akiba believe it was time to end the disputes? Before Akiba, Judaism didn’t have a single official Old Testament text. Different Jews used different texts. Many, for example, used a Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint. This is the preferred Old Testament text quoted in the New Testament.
But others used different texts and translations, much like Christians will use different English translations and texts today. However, there became a need to unify Judaism and adopt a single official Hebrew text that all Jews would use. This text would later be called the Masoretic Text. But there was a problem: The Masoretic Text would never become the norm if rabbis continued to dispute about certain books it contained. Therefore, Akiba put an end to any rabbinical doubts. As one rabbinical text puts it, “… [The] Song of Songs [was] ‘hidden’ until the men of the Great Assembly declared [it] to be written in the ‘holy spirit’” (Avot R. Nathan 1:4).
Today, everybody (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, and Jews) accepts and enjoys the beauty of the passionate love God has for His people expressed in the Song of Songs.
Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.