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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Place in the Hebrew Canon, Date, and Text.

1.

The Song is one of the Five Scrolls, a collection of short texts (also Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther) placed within the third and latest division of the HB (the kĕtûbîm: Writings). These texts are called ‘scrolls’ since, in this form, they are used for reading as part of the liturgy of various holy days. In the case of the Song it is read on Passover, either in the synagogue or as part of the family ritual, in accordance with the customs of the Jewish community concerned.

2.

The placing of the Song in the Hebrew canon testifies to its lateness:the mention of Solomon in the superscription, as well as in other passages of the book ( 1:5; 3:7–11; 8:12 ), is ambiguous. It does not necessarily uphold the traditional Jewish view, probably shared by the editor who added the superscription, that King Solomon was the author of the book. The language, which is varied and sometimes contains Aramaisms, is relatively late biblical Hebrew. This points to a date of composition, or at least collection and editorship of the final text, not earlier than the Second Temple era. Therefore few modern scholars, with the notable exception of Rabin (1973–4 ), argue for a tenth-century (possibly Solomonic) date. On the other hand, the attribution to Solomon was probably influential enough for accepting the Song as a canonical text. Discussions in Jewish sources (m. Yad. 3:5 ; ᾽Abot R. Nat. 1; t. Yad. 2:4 ; Sanh. 12:10 ; b. B. Bat. 14–15; Sanh. 101a) show that acceptance of the Song as a sacred text was problematic and largely conditioned by two factors: its acceptance by Rabbi Aqiba and the Hillel school; and its understanding not as secular erotic lyrics, but as an allegory of the historical love between God and his people, the Jewish nation. This allegorical understanding, which completely disregards God's absence from the Song by way of positing it as its hidden but true subject, is already fully developed in the Aramaic Targum of the Song and was subsequently taken up by all mainstream Jewish commentators (see Song Rab., and Rashi, for instance), to be further elaborated in mystical works (cf. the Zohar and Hekhalot literature). Christianity took the allegorical principle in different directions, first Christological (an allegory for the relationship between Christ and the individual believer's soul, or Christ and the church) and later Mariological (between Mary and the believer, or Mary and the church community). Works on the Song by Christian mystics such as Teresa of Avila, St John of the Cross, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Gregory of Nyasa, continue to witness its evocative power, interpreted as a celebration of mystical divine–human union rather than human erotic love.

3.

At any rate, it is clear that, through divorcing the Song from its original setting and understanding it as religious poetry, a trend which has continued until modern times, both the emerging Judaism and Christianity of the second century CE had already accepted it as sacred literature. But the text's popularity is attested as earlier by its existence among the Qumran MSS. Four MSS of the Song were found in Qumran, three in Cave 4 and one in Cave 6.4. The first three (4QCanta, 4QCantb, 4QCantc) contain larger or smaller fragments of Song 2:1–5:1 . The fourth MS (6QCant) contains verses of ch. 1 . The Qumran texts are somewhat shorter than the MT texts: Tov (1995: 89) defines them (at least the first three) as abbreviated texts, based on one similar to or identical with the MT. If Tov's position is accepted, the Song already existed as a well-formed text quite early, in the second century BCE. Given the nature of the Qumran community, the Qumran Song texts perhaps also attest to its popularity even then as a secretive religious text. (In addition to the Jewish sources mentioned, see also the indirect evidence of 1st-cent. CE 4 Ezra 4:24, 26 , and the Ta῾anit scroll.)

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