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Australian Biblical Review


ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 67, 2019

TORLEIF ELGVIN, The Literary Growth of the Song of Songs during the Hasmonean and Early-Herodian Periods (CBET 89; Leuven: Peeters, 2018). Pp. xiv + 237. Paperback. €72.00.

How late did the composition and textual development of the books of the Hebrew Bible continue? In this fascinating book, Torleif Elgvin investigates these questions, considering the canonical form of the Song of Songs in the traditional Hebrew Masoretic Text (MT) in light of the highly variant forms of Song of Songs attested among the Qumran or Dead Sea Scrolls (4QCanta, 4QCantb, 4QCantc, and 6QCant). It is essential reading, not only for scholars of the Song of Songs, but for all scholars concerned with the history of the composition and text of the Hebrew Bible (which, given the fundamental significance of such questions, should be everyone).

After a brief “Introduction” in which he explains how his scrolls edition is an advance on previous ones, Elgvin begins his very important Chapter 1, “A New Edition of the Canticles Scrolls,” which spans pp. 5–80 of the book. This new edition of the scrolls is based not only on a study of the photographic images of the Leon Levy Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Library from the Israel Antiquities Authority) but also on detailed personal inspection using a digital microscope. The discussion is accompanied by many images of the scrolls, including microscopic images of specific details. Although the least accessible section of the book due to its technical nature, it is the scholarly basis for the discussion which follows and represents a state-of-the-art edition of these scrolls. One major outcome of this survey is that the scrolls evidence many more variant readings from the MT than the already high number identified in the official publications in the Discoveries in the Judean Desert series. I understand this to be a phenomenon that is not just restricted to the Song of Songs. Earlier editors naturally relied heavily on the fully preserved MT when reconstructing often very fragmentary scrolls.

The second chapter then brings together and discusses the non-orthographic variants, now according to verse order rather than by manuscript. I noted that evaluation of variants was commonly in terms of earlier and later texts. This is valid, but I wondered whether the idea of parallel formulations of material, along the lines of the “scribes as performers” approach of Raymond F. Person and others would add an extra dimension to the evaluation of these variant manuscripts? Discussed separately as “literary differences” are those cases of large-scale variants, such as minuses of whole sections, the largest of these being 4QCantb’s ending the composition at Cant 5:1. Here, and in the following chapter, Elgvin concludes that we have parallel recensions that circulated at the same time, with the Qumran scrolls often preserving earlier stages of textual development, not a linear development. The MT “may thus be a first century C.E. recension from which some of the Aramaisms found in 4QCantb have been removed. Cumulative evidence points to the compilation of Canticles during the first century B.C.E.” (98). Elgvin considers 4QCantb to represent the earliest attested stage of the book’s composition, albeit a development of an earlier stage.

If there were multiple editions of the Song of Songs, why could the first century BCE Qumran manuscripts not be recensions of much earlier forms of the book? In the following chapters, Elgvin provides evidence for the first century BCE as the date of composition of the book. This includes evidence from language, Hellenistic culture, place names (e.g., the various northern names reflecting the Hasmonean conquests), late translation into Greek, and disputes over its canonical status. Elgvin also argues that the Song of Songs fits better with the prosperity and culture of Hasmonean period Jerusalem. It is not possible in a review to do justice to the wealth of data presented. I would comment though that the discussion of linguistic evidence strangely follows the same logic as the 19th century scholars cited, and shows no knowledge of the vigorous debate about “linguistic dating” in the last couple of decades. The highly rabbinic feel to the language of Song of Songs is not usual for literary Hebrew even in the first century BCE, as the majority of the Hebrew Qumran scrolls show; it certainly cannot be explained as part of a single linear development of the language from biblical to rabbinic Hebrew. Nevertheless, rightly, language is only one aspect of a coordinated argument for the date of composition, the cumulative force of which deserves consideration.

In regard to its status as Scripture, Elgvin suggests that Song of Songs was already being treated as symbolic of relationship with God by its first compilers. The “editors … read human love songs symbolically, earthly love reflecting the intense relation between God and his people” (152). Nevertheless, the textual tradition evidences the attempt to soften the sensuous nature of some verses. In this aspect also, Elgvin’s book demonstrates how important it is to be aware of the full textual tradition of each book of the Hebrew Bible.

Review by
The University of Sydney