Category Archives: Song of Songs

Egyptian Keys and the Pope

Egyptian Wooden Key

Photo from

A couple days ago I learned something new which shed light on at least two Bible passages for me.

What did I learn? That keys in Ancient Egypt were made out of wood and were very large–we’re talking two feet long or so. They were so big and heavy that they often had to be carried on the shoulder. Egyptian locks had pins just like modern locks, but the pins were a lot larger and made of wood. The key hole itself would have been very large–large enough to put a hand through. (See Paul Haupt, The Book of Canticles, 37).

So, where does this shed light on the Bible? First, Song of Songs 5:4 says “My lover put his hand through the opening; my heart trembled within me, and I grew faint when he spoke” (NAB). Now, this makes no sense if the keyhole is the size of modern ones, even skeleton key size. The keyhole has to be rather big to fit a hand through it. The poetic image makes no sense if the key hole is not big enough for fingers or a hand. Now did Israelites use Egyptian locks? Maybe not, but the technology was close at hand for over a thousand years in a bordering country so they could have easily used such locks.

The second place where this Egyptian key makes a difference is Isaiah 22. Here’s how the passage reads:

20 In that day I will call my servant Eliakim the son of Hilkiah,
21 and I will clothe him with your robe, and will bind your sash on him, and will commit your authority to his hand. And he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah.
22 And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.

Woman holding egyptian key

Photo from Rice University

Now, many Catholic commentators have associated this description of Eliakim as at the al-bayit (over the house) with Peter in the New Testament. Eliakim is assigned to be over David’s house, not to be king himself, but to be more a prime minister. Peter’s assignment by Jesus is very similar. And if Jesus is the legitimate heir to David’s throne, as he claims to be, then this comparison of Eliakim to Peter makes all the more sense. In Matthew 16:19, Jesus tells Peter two things that reference this passage in Isaiah 22. Matthew 16:19 – “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed1 in heaven” (ESV). First, Peter will be given the “keys of the kingdom.” This sounds a lot like Eliakim getting the key to the House of David. Second, whatever Peter binds on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever he looses on earth will be loosed in heaven. This binding/loosing power sounds a lot like Eliakim’s power to open and shut, a power which cannot be overridden. That’s where the Pope comes in. Since he’s the successor of Peter, he gets the power of the keys. And it turns out these are big old keys! Makes me feel a bit more comfortable with the huge keys Peter normally carries in icons and statues.

St. Peter Huge Keys

Photo from Capernaum, Israel

Ok, so what about the Egyptian keys? Well, in Isaiah we hear that the key will be upon Eliakim’s shoulder. Why would anyone put a key on their shoulder? I mean, it would fall off, right? It’s too small, right? Turns out though, that ancient Egyptians, who had such huge wooden keys would carry them on their shoulders. Can you imagine if your house key, barn key, office key and car key were all 20 inches long?! It’s not exactly like you could slip those into your pocket on a little metal ring. You’d have to carry them on your shoulder!

I even found a drawing of a Cairo merchant carrying some of these keys on his shoulder. Check it out!
(Image from T. K. Cheyne, The Book of the Prophet Isaiah, 160)

Which is better: wine or love?

There’s a wonderful line in Song of Songs 1:4

We will praise your love more than wine!

Franz Delitzsch (whose commentary I’ve been reading) brilliantly comments, “The wine represents the gifts of the king, in contradistinction to his person” (F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes, trans. by M. Easton, [Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1891], 23). Why is this so brilliant? Well, it reminds me of something that preachers often say, that we should “seek the Giver, not the gifts.” If we read the beautiful poetry of the Song allegorically (even just a little) and allow the king to represent God and the woman/women to represent His people, then the exclamation reminds us to seek God’s love, to seek a relationship with him, not just the gifts he provides to us. For indeed, his love is far better than any wine or other princely gift that he may offer to us.

Human relationships work the same way. If anyone ever tries to buy or bribe your friendship (or worse), at first you may be attracted because of the “stuff” you might get out of the relationship. But in the end, you’ll be more disgusted with the person attempting to buy your friendship than anything else. You may even be disgusted at yourself for being tempted by the notion of being bought. Our relationships with one another don’t work right if we try to “buy” each other. Love is about self-less giving, not about an exchange of goods. Persons are ends in themselves and deserve to be treated as such–and to treat themselves as such. So next time you’re tempted to try and bribe someone or to regard God’s gifts above his Person, remember Song of Songs 1:4, that His love is far better than wine.

Song of Songs Rabbah and Targum to the Song of Songs Online

Sometimes tracking down ancient Jewish sources on Scripture can be very challenging, especially for the uninitiate ( like me).  Understanding the difference between Targums, rabbah, Talmud, Mishnah, Midrash etc. can be quite complicated. So…in my research, I am hunting up the Song of Songs Rabbah, which is a midrashic commentary on the Song of Songs, compiled over a long time in Jewish oral tradition. The other source I am looking for is the Targum to the Song of Songs, an Aramaic “translation” of the text. I put “translation” in scare quotes, because the translator does plenty of interpreting rather than straight-up text translation.

The original language texts of these two sources are not easy to find on the internet. In fact, they may only exist in printed editions. Translations, however, are easier to find.

The Targum to the Song of Songs on Google Books
Gollancz, Hermann, translator. The Targum to the ‘Song of Songs’; The Book of the Apple; The Ten Jewish Martyrs; A Dialogue on Games of Chance. London: Luzac, 1908. Pp. 15-90.

There is an Aramaic text out there in the world of public domain, but I can’t find it in Google Books: Raphael Hai Melamed, “The Targum to Canticles According to Six Yemen Mss. Compared with the ‘Textus Receptus’ (Ed. de Lagarde),” Jewish Quarterly Review, New Series, 10 (1919-20): 377-410, 11 (1920-21): 1-20, and 12 (1921-22): 57-117. It looks like this series of articles was compiled into a book in 1921: R. H. Melamed, The Targum to Canticles According to Six Yemen Mss. Compared with the ‘Textus Receptus’, (Philadelphia: Dropsie College, 1921) . You can get an electronic copy from the Internet Archive.

I also found an online translation by Jay Treat who uses the text provided by Melamed.

Song of Songs Rabbah is more elusive, unfortunately. Printed translations include, chronologically:
Maurice Simon, Midrash Rabbah: Esther and Song of Songs, 10 vols. (London: Soncino Press, 1939).
Jacob Neusner, Song of Songs Rabbah: An Analytical Translation, 2 vols. (University of South Florida Press, 1989-90).
Jacob Neusner, Israel’s Love Affair with God: Song of Songs, The Bible of Judaism Library (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity, 1993).

The only printed original language text of Song of Songs Rabbah I can track down:
Samson Dunsky,Midrash Rabbah: Shir Hashirim, (Montreal, 1973). (Includes Yiddish translation. The editor’s first name is misspelled as “Simson” or “Shimshon” in some electronic records.)
And it looks like you can get an electronic copy at Internet Archive. The digital copy is made available by the Steven Spielberg Digital Yiddish Library.

If you can find more texts online or offline, make a comment on this post.

Was Theodore of Mopsuestia condemned for his views on the Song of Songs?

In my research on the Song of Songs, I have come across numerous authors—mainly commentators on the Song—who contend that Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 350-428) was condemned by the Second Council of Constantinople for his views on the Song of Songs. Theodore was an important theologian and his writings were often cited by the Nestorians in support of their views.

Here are some examples of Bible scholars mentioning the case of Theodore:

“Theodore of Mopsuestia (ca. 350-428 CE) saw the Song as love poetry composed by Solomon to justify his marriage to the daughter of Pharaoh (1 Kgs 11:1) and concluded that it should not be in the canon. He was posthumously condemned for his views on the Song, among other more serious charges, by the Second Council of Constantinople (553). His commentary did not survive and is known only from attacks on it.”

–Cheryl Exum, Song of Songs (OTL; Louiville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 73.

“Theodore of Mopsuestia, a follower of the Antiochene school of biblical interpretation (which preferred a natural, “plain sense” understanding of the Bible to an allegorical approach), rejected the allegorizing interpretation. He was posthumously condemned in the Fifth Council of Constantinople (553 C.E.),and his writings on the Song are lost.”

-Duane Garrett, Song of Songs (WBC 23B; Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 90.

“Theodore (A.D. 350-428) was one of the most interesting figures of early church history, frequently taking minority positions that got him in ecclesiastical trouble, but often winning the day in the long run. One such view was the interpretation of the Song of Songs that he took simply as a passionate love poem between Solomon and the Egyptian princess whom he married. While his interpretive intuitions were valid, his theological conclusions could be and were questioned. He said that such a love poem should not appear in the Holy Scripture. It is probably more for the latter view that he found himself criticized even by his student Theodoret, who judged his teacher’s literal interpretation as “not fitting the mouth of a crazy woman.” [Footnote: Davidson, “Theology of Sexuality,” p. 3] Later, he was condemned, in part for his views on the Song, by the Second Council of Constantinople (A.D. 553). [Footnote: Kallas, “Martin Luther,” p. 324.]”

-Tremper Longman III, Song of Songs (NICOT; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), 38-39.

“Theodore, bishop of Mopsuestia, at the end of the fourth century wrote a commentary on the Song of Songs in which he rejected allegorical meaning and read it in its literal and plain sense, as an erotic song. Theodore theorized that Solomon’s subjects had criticized his marriage with an Egyptian princess and that the king responded to the protest by boldly singing of his love in this Song. Unfortunately, Theodore’s commentary did not survive and is known only from the attacks on it. His great learning, no doubt, discouraged debate during his lifetime. In little more than a century after Theodore’s death, at the Council of Constantinople in 550, his views were condemned as unfit for Christian ears.”

-Martin Pope, Song of Songs (AB 7C; New York, Doubleday, 1977)

Ok, so that’s a representative sample of major commentaries in reverse chronological order.

Notice a few things:

1. Garrett calls the council the “Fifth Council of Constantinople” while the others call it the “Second.” It is a forgivable mistake. The council of 553 was the fifth ecumenical council (the previous four being Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus, Chalcedon), but only the second held at Constantinople. Hence, it is normally referred to as the Second Council of Constantinople.

2. Exum and Longman state the Theodore wanted to remove the Song of Songs from the canon. However, this point is not settled. Dimitri Zaharapoulos observes that “the conciliar fragment [from Second Constantinople] in its present Latin version does not inform us that our author [Theodore] rejected the Song of Songs from his canon. It was only his avowed adversary Leontius who made that claim” (Dimitri Zaharapoulos, Theodore of Mopsuestia on the Bible [New York: Paulist, 1989], 51). Zaharapoulos kindly points us to the reference in the writings of Leontius of Byzantium (Migne, PG 86, 1365D) and translates it thus, “In his [Theodore’s] impudent and immoderate recklessness, having understood the Song of Songs according to his prostituted language and judgment, he cut it off from the Holy Books” (Leontius quoted in Zaharapoulos, 33). So, there is no record of Theodore himself ejecting the Song from the canon. Nor is there a record in the Council’s extant documents for that position. Only his opponent, Leontius, accuses him of rejecting the Song from the canon. To me, it seems unlikely that Theodore would comment at length on a book he viewed as non-canonical. Based on Zaharapoulos’ work, it seems the best view is that Theodore held the Song as canonical, but that he took a different interpretation.

3. It is true that little of Theodore’s views on the Song are extant. All we have are a few fragments from a letter he wrote to a friend on the topic. The letter is cited in the Council documents. You can read it here: Migne, PG 66, 699-700.

4. It also turns out that the condemnation of Theodore and the Second Council of Constantinople are extremely complex historical events in their own right. Here’s a brief summary of events: The emperor Justinian wants to bring the Monophysites back into the Church. They reject the Nestorians, who often cite Theodore of Mopsuestia. So, Justinian condemns the writings of Theodore in an edict that comes to be known as the condemnation of the Three Chapters in 544. Pope Vigilius defends Theodore. In 553, Justinian calls a Council without the permission or participation of Pope Vigilius who was at odds with the emperor. The Council, held in May-June of 553, upheld the condemnation of the Three Chapters (Mansi, IX, 225). (Unfortunately, the Council documents are only incompletely preserved and in Latin translation.) Under the pressure of exile, Vigilius published a letter on December 8 which concurred with the condemnation of the Three Chapters, but did not mention the council. This papal pronouncement thus ratified the illegally-called council.

Pope Vigilius had published before the council a Constitutum which condemned certain positions held by Theodore. After the Council he published the Letter to Eutychius of Constantinople on Dec. 8, 553 (Mansi IX, 424) and another Constitutum on Feb 23, 554 (Mansi IX, 455).

So, yes, Theodore was condemned for his view on the Song of Songs, but not only for that, also for many other positions he took. That’s about it on Theodore of Mopsuestia and the Song of Songs. If you want to read more about it all, you can check out this short bibliography I’ve put together.

Greer, Rowan A. Theodore of Mopsuestia: Exegete and Theologian. Westminster: Faith, 1961. pp. 86-131.

Leontius of Byzantium, Contra Nestorianos, Lib. III, Migne, PG 86, 1365.

Mansi, J. D. Sacrorum conciliorum collectio. Vol. IX. Graz: Akademische Druk-U. Verlagsanstalt, 1960. pp. 225-227.

Migne, PG 66, 699-700. (Theodore’s letter on Song of Songs)

Pirot, Louis. L’oeuvre exégétique de Théodore de Mopsueste. 350-428 aprés J.-C. Scripta Pontificii Instituti Biblici; Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1913. pp. 131-137.

Smalley, Beryl. The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1952. pp. 14-20.

Vosté, J. M. “L’oeuvre exégétique de Theodore de Mopsueste au IIe concile de Constantinople.” Revue Biblique 38 (1929) 382-395.  (esp. 394-395)

Wiles, Maurice F. “Theodore of Mopsuestia as Representative of the Antiochene School.” Cambridge History of the Bible, vol. 1, 489-510. Cambridge: University Press, 1970.

Zaharopoulos, Dimitri Z. Theodore of Mopsuestia on the Bible: A Study of His Old Testament Exegesis. Theological inquiries. New York: Paulist Press, 1989.