The Song of Songs: Theme and Variations
The Song of Songs in Ancient, Medieval, and Modern Interpretation

RELS 438
University of Pennsylvania
[Song of Songs illumination]

A. Course Description

This course introduces students to the development of Jewish and Christian biblical interpretation by focusing on ancient, medieval, and modern interpretations of the Song of Songs. Students will encounter a variety of important interpreters in English translation, guided by appropriate secondary materials. The course will touch on issues of gender and religious language, on allegory and interpretation, on mystical and feminist readings of scripture, and on the interplay of the ascetic and the erotic in religion.

This course has no prerequisites. The readings will be made available in English. The class will utilize a combination of lecture, discussion, student presentations, reports, close reading, and a research paper. Participants in the seminar will be encouraged to do original research in the primary sources (in English translation).

B. The Subject

The Song of Songs (also known as the Song of Solomon or as Canticles) is part of the Hebrew Bible. The book appears to be a collection of poetry on the theme of human love. Its evocative, enigmatic, and often frankly erotic poetry raises significant issues of interpretation. No other book of the Hebrew Bible has provoked such a wide variety of interpretations among its readers. Studying the developing interpretations of the Song of Songs gives one an unusual opportunity to examine the history of significant ideas in Western culture. It was "the most frequently interpreted book of medieval Christianity" and it inspired many medieval Jewish commentaries as well. There has been a rebirth of interest in the Song during the last two decades, especially among feminist circles, because it provides alternative ways of looking at scripture.

C. Objectives of the Course

  1. To read and become familiar with the Song of Songs;
  2. To become familiar with significant interpretations of the Song and its overall history of interpretation by reading primary sources (in English);
  3. To become familiar with some of the most significant approaches to interpreting Jewish scripture;
  4. To gain first-hand experience using tools and methods of critical historical research into Biblical literature;
  5. To analyze thoughtfully other people’s views regarding the Song of Songs;
  6. To present one’s own insights about the Song of Songs intelligently in an academic environment;
  7. To contribute to a web of materials summarizing, evaluating, and commenting on the early sources and contemporary scholarship.

D. Textbooks

The instructor’s annotated bibliography of useful books related to the Song of Songs is available online in PennTags: (

Each participant will need a Bible in modern English (including both the Jewish and Christian Scriptures). The Revised Standard Version (RSV), New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), and New International Version (NIV) are particularly useful translations — especially in editions that include annotations, cross-references, and other help for participants.

In addition, each participant will need access to the following recommended textbooks:

E. Ann Matter, The Voice of My Beloved: The Song of Songs in Western Medieval Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990)

The anthology of readings for the class (available on Canvas).

Most of the above books will be available in the Rosengarten Reserve area in Van Pelt Library. Those who wish to purchase any of them will find them at the Penn Book Center (at 130 South 34th Street). All of these books (in various editions) are also available used and new from

The instructor will make several readings available in class, especially those that are out of print or difficult to obtain. In addition, several other useful books have been placed on reserve in Van Pelt Library.

E. Evaluation and Required Work

The requirements for the course include regular participation in class, up to three class presentations, and a research paper on a topic chosen by the participant with the approval of the instructor. Participants may expect to read 100 to 150 pages per week in preparation for class discussions. Work will be graded as follows:

30% of grade: class participation and class presentations
30% of grade: weekly assignments
40% of grade: research paper

This class puts a high premium on independent work and on cooperative effort. Consultation and collaboration are encouraged. Plagiarism and cheating will not be tolerated.

F. Tentative Class Schedule and Readings

This class schedule is tentative and may be adjusted, based on the interests and abilities of the students and the rate at which we progress. The latest class schedule (with a list of assigned readings) will be available on the course website. Please check there each week for updates.

Week 1 Introit: Theme and Variations — an introduction to the subject and the course
Week 2 Contemporary Scholarly Approaches to the Biblical Text
Week 3 Exegetical Study of the Biblical Text
Week 4 The Earliest Interpretations: Old Greek translation, Dramatic Rubrics, Rabbinic Sages
Week 5 Origen: Virtuoso of Christian Interpretation
Week 6 Early Medieval Jewish Readings: Targum and Midrash
Week 7 Medieval Jewish Commentary: Rashi, Ibn Ezra
Week 8 Jewish Mysticism: Shi`ur Qoma, Kabbala, Zohar
Week 9 Patristic Commentary: Theodore of Mopsuestia, Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory the Great
Week 10 Medieval Christian Commentary: Glossa Ordinaria, Bernard of Clairveaux, Nicholas of Lyra, Alan of Lille, medieval manuscript illustrations
Week 11 Vernacular Variations: Mechtild of Magdeburg, John of the Cross, Teresa of Ávila, late medieval and Renaissance music
Week 12 Modern Jewish & Christian Interpretations
Week 13 Contemporary Rereadings
Week 14 Coda: Participants' Presentations on Final Project
Week 15 Finale: (all work due on date for final exam)

G. Contact Information

Class sessions: Tuesday evenings from 6:00 to 8:40 p.m.
Class location: TBD
Instructor: Jay C. Treat, Ph.D.
Course Website: Canvas site:
Office: Williams Hall, room 433
Email address:
Office telephone: 215-573-3171 between 9:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays
Office hours: Monday-Friday, 9:00–5:00, preferably by appointment
Tentative Syllabus: available online in Courses inTouch