Song of Songs in the Early Latin Christian tradition: a study of the Tractatus de Epithalamio of Gregory of Elvira and its context
Shuve, Karl Evan
The Song of Songs was the most commented upon biblical text in medieval Europe and became the cornerstone of the Western mystical tradition, but our knowledge of its use in Latin Christian communities before the time of Ambrose and Jerome is largely fragmentary. The thesis is a study of the use and interpretation of the Song in the Latin West during the period 250 – 380 CE, with a focus on the Tractatus de Epithalamio of Gregory of Elvira (c. 320-392), which is the earliest extant Song commentary composed in Latin. The research demonstrates that there was a robust tradition of Song exegesis in early Latin Christianity, although the mystical-affective interpretation that marks the later tradition is entirely absent. The poem is, rather, interpreted in an ecclesiological mode and is put in the service of communal selfdefinition. Gregory’s Tractatus, which I argue should be dated to 350-55, is a key source in recovering this largely lost tradition. The first part of the thesis traces in detail all of the citations of the Song in Latin Christian literature during the period in question, focusing on the writings of Cyprian of Carthage, Optatus of Milevis, Tyconius, Pacian of Barcelona, and Augustine. There emerge a cluster of passages from the Song that become key proof texts in ecclesiological controversies in North Africa and Spain. The second part engages problems in Gregorian scholarship, particularly issues pertaining to Gregory’s supposed direct knowledge and use of Origen’s writings. Scholars assert that his exegetical writings reflect the Origenist turn of the late fourth century. Using the tools of source criticism and theological analysis, I contest this hypothesis, demonstrating that the evidence of Origen’s influence has been greatly exaggerated and that the points of contact which do exist must be explained with reference to intermediary Latin sources. The third part sets the Tractatus de Epithalamio within its precise historical context and offers a close reading of the text, giving an account of its Christology, ecclesiology, and use of sources. The Tractatus, I argue, represents a ‘fusion’ of a distinctly Latin tradition of ecclesiological exegesis with a particularly Spanish mode of Christological reflection, which treats the enfleshment of the Word in the Incarnation and the embodiment of the risen Christ in the church as conceptually inseparable. Related historical problems, such as the chronology of Gregory’s career, are treated in appendices.