Mark DelCogliano’s Gregory the Great on the Song of Songs (2012)

In the opinion of Rabbi Akiva, ‘All the songs of Scripture are holy, but the Song of Songs is the holy of holies.’ This judgment may seem to involve a degree of chutzpah, given the frankly erotic nature of most of the text of the Song, unique among books of the Bible in its failure to mention God. But commentators have kept returning to it, offering a variety of allegorical interpretations that, among Christians, have seen the main male protagonist as Christ and his female counterpart as either the soul (so Origen) or the church (so Ambrose).

A new book by Mark DelCogliano presents a very readable and accurate translation of the exposition on the Song written by Gregory the Great (bishop of Rome, 590-604). Only Gregory’s exposition of the first eight verses has come down to us in its own right, but DelCogliano expands the volume of data by translating excerpts from other parts of the exposition that occur in compilations and works of excerpts by later writers.  He therefore makes available commentary by the second most influential of the Latin Fathers on a part of the Bible that has generated immense interest in the Christian tradition. (Augustine has relatively little to say on the Song; one may speculate why.)

This book also has a splendid Introduction, of which two parts are particularly interesting. A discussion of Gregory’s method of interpreting the Bible shows how just about everyone read large parts of it allegorically prior to modern times. The movements of the Renaissance and, in particular, the Reformation opened up different ways of understanding  texts, while the scientific revolution suggested ways of reading the Bible that would have staggered earlier Christian readers, of which modern fundamentalism is paradoxically the direct heir. As opposed to literal readings, the main tradition has adopted St Paul’s principle that the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life (2  Cor 3:6; the life-giving nature of the Spirit is affirmed in the Creed.) Of more specialized interest is Del Cogliano’s consideration of Gregory’s use of his sources. He can be very difficult to catch in the act of doing this, but here he is, and the results will be full of interest to scholars of Gregory.

At the beginning of the book are a few words of commendation by yours truly. I stand by every one of them!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *