Origen's Commentary on The Song of Songs (A Brief Review)

Below is a short review I wrote up for a class presentation, which deals with Origen's Commentary on The Canticles (Song of Songs). I only interact here with his interpretation of the first few verses but if you want to get an idea of how Origen did exegesis, you may find some of this review helpful. Enjoy.

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Origen, an exegete nurtured in the Alexandrian spirit of interpretation, above all else in his reading of the Song of Songs, appears to value the notion of the unity of the Scriptures. Shaped by the “Rule of Faith,” the theological banner of his socio-religious context, he strives to show how passages of the “Divine” and “Holy Scriptures” (63-64) work in unison. For Origen, this seems most explainable by reading Scripture through a sort of dualistic lens: Literal (which also encompasses “literary”) and Spiritual.

From the start, Origen makes it clear in his interpretation of the Canticles that there indeed, is a literal / literary sense to the text but that upon further reflection, there is a more spiritual or “inner” sense as well (58). After reviewing the literary aspects of the story (in a verse-by-verse fashion), he writes, “This is the content of the actual story, presented in dramatic form. But let us see if the inner meaning can be also fittingly supplied along these lines” (59). In his commentary, the foremost way in which he goes about finding this “inner meaning” is to reference other, allegedly related Scriptural texts—an approach which is quite likely to offend the sensitivities of the modern exegete!

For example, Origen suggests that 1.2, a verse which reads “For thy breasts are better than wine” should be filtered such through narratives as that of John leaning on the breasts of Jesus during supper in John’s Gospel and the separation of priestly sacrifices in Leviticus (64). Further, he goes on to make an argument whereat the breasts are types of the teachings of Christ, which make them good breasts and therefore more desirable than the shapeless breasts of the Law. This reading, asserts Origen, can find more stock in the statement by Qohelet who speaks of “looking on that which is good” (66). Origen finds no reason to stop here though. He even gets some mileage out of the stories of the boy Jesus being searched for in the Temple by His parents, the Cana Wedding scene, the Queen of Sheba, the sons of Jonadab and the parable of the treasure hidden in a field (66-70).

In making hermeneutical choices such as these, Origen seems to assume that exegetes must not only have a working knowledge of the text but also a high theology of Scripture and an orientation toward deep spiritual discernment. While these (doctrinal) dispositions may not be troubling to many interpreters, again, many modern readers are far less comfortable with Origen’s allegorizing (60-61), christianizing (59) and personalizing of these texts (59). He also has expectation that those engaging the text should soon find themselves embedded in it. This is an expectation that can be seen in his self-referential rhetoric (e.g. “Let it be [us] the Church…59).

On-the-one-hand, Origen’s methods would appear to lead readers to an ahistorical point-of-view of the biblical events. That is, one gets the impression that by allegorizing and spiritualizing things as he does, Origen ultimately overemphasizes revelation to the detriment of history (or historical happenings). Of course, such a reading might be expected when it is a reading done by those who stand in the wake of ongoing and heated debates about the distinctions between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. However, there is one sense in which Origen does root his interpretations (and applications) in real history: through eschatology.

He makes two comments early on in his commentary that allude to this: 1) “…but since the age is almost ended…” and 2) “…at His coming…” (60). Without too quickly throwing the baby out with the bathwater, readers may do well to attempt to understand the precise connections that Origen may be suggesting actually exist between these two spheres. Undoubtedly, Origen believes that his “Bridegroom” (Christ) is going to make a real return within the confines of world history but interpreters may get too hung up on his assertion that the “Bridegroom” mentioned in the drama of the Canticles is Christ, to actually notice it.

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