When I read the ancient rabbis’ discussions of scripture, it makes me think of how we Americans talk about sports. For the rabbis, it is not so much about who in the discussion is right or rigorously scientific, but more about the conversation itself.
Sports talk is the same way. Only so many games are played. Only so many points are scored. Only one team wins it all. But the talk—it goes on forever! Sports talk radio is still going on and on about a football season that ended with the Superbowl almost two weeks ago—and no NFL team will play another game until August! It is almost as if the games and points and players and champions are not really what matters, but the conversation itself. The same issues are brought up over and over. The same players and situations are examined repeatedly looking for an explanation as to why this team did well or didn’t do well. The conversation never ends, it is an end in itself. Old stories that haven’t been talked about in years are brought up again for comparison’s sake. Sports talkers mull over player injuries, especially ones that have not been officially announced yet, and they try to use this (dis)information to gauge the team’s chances of success in its next competition. They argue points from multiple sides, taking on various views to see how they fit and to make the conversation continue. The rabbis are the same way.
The rabbis talk about a Scripture passage over and over. Yes, they have their opinions. But one rabbi is allowed to have more than one opinion. The point is not who is right, but that the Scripture should be talked about in such detail. The conversation is the point. Americans often look for what in a Scripture passage is the essential, scientifically defined “point” of the text. What in it must be obeyed? But the rabbis are not looking merely for a dictum to be obeyed. They’re simply admiring the beauty of the word by talking about all the various possibilities of meaning without really settling on only one meaning. Scripture is more than something that has rules to be obeyed. It is the Word of God and therefore infinitely beautiful. It is meant to be viewed, examined, admired, talked about and appreciated.
Listening to the rabbis’ conversations about Scripture is like overhearing two art critics discussing a painting at an exhibition. They don’t merely give a thumbs up or thumbs down, they talk through the artist’s technique, his subject matter, his choice of materials, his choice of colors, his subtlety with the brush, the influences on his style, his intentions as far as they can be worked out. They are not looking to establish a “message” for the painting, but rather, they are admiring the work of the artist by talking about what he has accomplished in all its details with a panoply of bunny-trails for the imagination to run down. Beauty is not something that can be circumscribed by a definition, but something that must be infinitely appreciated, admired, upheld, pondered and cherished. Hence the unending nature of the conversation.
Another story of a book hunt: I was using Richard Norris volume on the Song of Songs from the Church’s Bible series. It uses extensive quotations from Gregory of Nyssa’s Homilies on the Song of Songs. There’s a note in the front of the book that the quotations are from Norris’ own translation of Gregory, copyright 2003. I thought that looked promising, but turns out he did not publish it until 2006 and at the point it was published with Brill (ISBN: 9789004130616). Good luck finding a copy! It is no longer for sale from Brill, Amazon does not carry it and only 2 or 3 libraries own a copy. However, I found that it was re-published by SBL in 2011 (ISBN: 1589831055). That sounded good, but again only about three libraries own it. I called one of them and they told me the book was actually only on order, not in their possession. So, I found the book on the SBL online bookstore, but it said “forthcoming,” meaning “not yet published.” I called SBL publications and asked when the book would really be published. They told me that there’s no scheduled date. And really weird—I looked on their website today and there’s no trace of the book. The other thing I found out that probably affects what is going here is that Norris died in 2005. I would imagine that complicates the publishing of one of his books. Anyway, I’ll probably have to settle for the older translation of the homilies by Casimir McCambley from 1986.
One of the most important Christian commentaries on the Song of Songs is Bernard of Clairvaux’s series of 86 sermons. Unfortunately, he only got through Song 3:1 or so. Another Cistercian abbot, Gilbert of Hoyland from Swineshead in Lincolnshire, decided to keep up the sermon series and picked up at the beginning of chapter 3. He got in 47 sermons before his death and made it to Song 5:9. Once Gilbert died, another Cistercian abbot, John of Ford, took up the torch and wrote 120 sermons finally making it all the way through the Song of Songs (and the longest sermon series in the Middle Ages!). The whole series does not read like a commentary, but rather like a sermon series. The point of the sermons is not to focus in and provided a detailed historical critical exegesis of each passage. In fact, in some of the sermons it’s hard to find a mention of the text of Song of Songs at all. Rather, the vast sermon series is a great work of spiritual theology, which examines the nature of the soul’s relationship with God through the lens of the Song of Songs. All of the sermons are available in English translation from the Cistercian Fathers series. All told, there are 14 volumes.
The very earliest Christian commentary on the Song is that of Hippolytus. Unfortunately, the text of this commentary is only extant in fragments. Despite this fact, Hippolytus’ work remains of great import to the history of Christian interpretation of the Song.
Great, but where is it? Because of its fragmentary nature, no one seems to bother publishing the text of Hippolytus’ commentary. See this footnote from Roland Murphy’s Commentary on the Song of Songs (pp. 14-15):
Only a small portion of the Greek text is accessible in the Migne edition (PG 10, 627-630). Major fragments of the work preserved in various languages are treated in the following: Gottlieb Nathanael Bonwetsch, Studien zu den Kommentarn Hippolyts zum Buche Daniel und zum Hohenliede (TU 16/2 [N.F. 1]; Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1897); idem, Hippolyts Kommentar zum Hohenlied auf Grund von N. Marrs Ausgabe des grusinischen Textes (TU 23/2c [N.F. 8]; Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1902); idem and H. Achelis, eds., Hippolytus Werke, Vol. 1: Hippolyts Kommentar zum Buche Daniel und die Fragmente des Kommentars zum Hohenliede (GCS: Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1897). A Latin translation of the Georgian text is available: Gérard Garitte, Traités d’Hippolyte (CSCO 264; Louvain: Secretariat du CorpusSCO, 1965).
Ok, so it seems that only one guy was all that interested in publishing the text, Mr. Gottlieb Nathanael Bonwetsch. Now, using the magic of Google Books, I ‘m able to link to the 1897 edition of Hippolytus’ Commentary on Daniel and Song of Songs. And I’m also able to link to the 1902 edition of Hippolytus’ Commentary on just the Song of Songs. I can’t find an online copy of the other 1897 work, nor, of course, of the 1965 Latin translation.
It seems though, that a certain Yancy Smith has recently written a dissertation that includes English translations of these text. You can read about is at Roger Pearse’s blog. The dissertation is entitled “Hippolytus’ Commentary on the On the Song of Songs in Social and Critical Context” (2008) and is currently available through ProQuest UMI and perhaps soon through Brill with the title “The Mystery of the Anointing Hippolytus’ Commentary on the On the Song of Songs in Social and Critical Context,” which can be viewed online. The translations of Hippolytus work are in a separate section, viewable here. I have a feeling Mr. Smith could turn the translation section alone into a nice book for us. Perhaps in the next few years, we’ll see it. But for now, he has done everyone a noble service providing these texts in translation online.