The Song of Solomon in the Old Testament (also called the Song of Songs) has a controversial history. Its sensual themes have been interpreted as both scriptural pornography and inspired allegory by Latter-day Saint leaders. In this interview, BYU’s Dana Pike talks more about the book’s reception within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint.
Learn more about this topic in Dana Pike’s article about Latter-day Saints and the Song of Solomon.
Table of contents
- Song of Solomon
- Latter-day Saint youth
- Moral danger
- Joseph Smith
- Evolving references
- Bible Dictionary
- Open question
What is the Song of Solomon?
The Song of Solomon is a biblical book comprising eight chapters of poetry, primarily the words of a female and a male lover describing their own and each other’s bodies and their feelings about and sensual desires for each other. Although authorship of the Song is traditionally ascribed to Solomon, the general academic consensus is that Solomon is not really the author.
The Song shares several features with ancient Egyptian love poetry, and most scholars see the Song as originally an example of ancient Israelite love poetry. A major factor in the Song’s inclusion in the Bible is that some early readers began to allegorize the male and female lovers, seeing God and his people as represented in the Song.
The opening line of the book, “The song of songs, which is Solomon’s” (1:1; KJV), is the basis for its two most common names in English, “Song of Songs” and “Song of Solomon.” It has also been called “Canticles,” which is an anglicized form of the Latin name Canticum Canticorum (Song of Songs) in the Vulgate.
Many modern translations refer to this book as “Song of Songs,” but some render the name as the “Song of Solomon,” in harmony with the alternative tradition reflected in the King James Version (KJV), which explains why Church materials in English have generally referred to the book as “Song of Solomon.”
How are many Latter-day Saint youth first exposed to the Song of Solomon?
Eric Eliason and I worked on the assumption that most Latter-day Saint youth were not reading the Song as part of their family scripture study(!), so, we assume that most youth have first encountered comments, typically negative, regarding the Song in Sunday School or Seminary classes.
Otherwise, they are likely to have heard about avoiding the Song from mission leaders or companions, if they served a mission for the Church. We do not have quantifiable survey data to answer this question, but we have a lot of anecdotal evidence for this assumption.
Is it morally dangerous to read the Song of Solomon?
Well, this question has been and for some still is a subject of debate, and depends on one’s viewpoint, so, we do not presume to give a definitive answer to this question. After all, we quote Latter-day Saints who have claimed the Song is “worthwhile to enjoy [for] its beauty as romantic literature,” and who have claimed it is “biblical trash.”
Our perspective is that the language of the Song, while certainly suggestive, is more literary and less racy than a lot of what some Church members view and hear online and in the media today.
Of course, that does not automatically make it safe, and there is a lot online that we avoid! In a different article I compared reading the Song to viewing paintings in art museums that include nude human figures.
While some people may choose to avoid contact with such art, others find pleasure in the beauty and wonder of the human body and in the skill of artists to represent such. I’m talking about art here, not porn, and granted there can be a fuzzy middle between those two categories, depending on one’s individual perspectives.
So, in our opinion, reading the Song in and of itself is not morally dangerous, but when one reads it and what one does with it might be for some people. Interestingly, as noted above, a major reason for the inclusion of the Song in the Bible was the view that it was allegorically represented the love God or Jesus have for their people.
Would Jesus have studied the Song of Solomon?
This is a good question, but one that does not have a definitive answer. For one thing, “the Bible” was not yet a completely defined collection of books in the time of Jesus, nor would most people living in Israel/Palestine at that time even have had personal access to what became known as biblical books.
According to one Jewish tradition, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs were among the last of books to be accepted as scripture by leading Jewish rabbis.
On the other hand, portions of four copies of the Song were discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls (found in the caves near Qumran), dating to about the time of Jesus. This suggests the Song was accessible to and had a certain appeal among some Jewish people in Israel at the turn of the era (from BC to AD).
However, we have no ancient evidence of how the Song was viewed, either specifically by Jesus or generally among the majority of Jewish people at that time.
What is the possible connection between Song of Solomon and the naming of Nauvoo, Illinois?
There may be a tenuous connection between the Song and the name of the city Nauvoo. The name “Nauvoo” is a transliteration of the plural of a rare Hebrew verbal form, na’vu, which means, “to be pleasing, delightful, lovely.” This plural form occurs only twice in the Hebrew Bible: Isaiah 52:7 and Song of Songs 1:10.
Joseph Smith, along with some other early Church leaders, began studying Hebrew in Kirtland, Ohio, in late 1835. They hired Professor Joshua Seixas to teach biblical Hebrew, which he did from January 6 to March 29, 1836. They used Seixas’s recently published A Manual Hebrew Grammar for the Use of Beginners, 2nd ed. (Andover, MA: Gould and Newman, 1834), and the transliteration nau-voo occurs of p. 50 of that volume (although without a translation).
In 1839, the city of Nauvoo was named. Although it cannot be proved, this interesting datum may represent a potential link between Joseph Smith and the Song of Solomon (or, with Isaiah 52:7).
What did Joseph Smith say about the Song of Solomon?
The only specific comment we have from Joseph Smith about the Song is the oft repeated: “The Songs of Solomon are not Inspired writings [sic].”
This notation was included in his inspired revisions to the Bible known now as the Joseph Smith Translation (JST) and dates to July 1832. But we have no statement from Joseph Smith or his contemporaries about this notation or any other of his thoughts on the Song.
Why is it in the Doctrine and Covenants?
We don’t presume to know for sure why a verse from the Song is quoted in the Doctrine and Covenants. However, a few points are worth considering:
- Biblical inclusion. The Song is in the Bible, and most early members of the Church were likely at least somewhat familiar with it;
- Popular sayings. There are several verses from the Song that were popular sayings in the 1800s (e.g., 1:2; 2:12, 15; 8:6);
- Other sources. Latter-day prophets have not avoided quoting or referencing non-Latter-day Saint sources when they found something of value therein (e.g., C. S. Lewis); and
- Inspiring imagery. The language of Song 6:10, the verse that appears in the Doctrine and Covenants, contains beautiful, evocative, and inspiring imagery, so why not employ it (even if the book itself is regarded as “not inspired”)!
How do references differ before and after the 1970s?
We note in our article that there are scattered references to the Song itself as well as to various of its verses in Church publications in the 1800s and 1900s up until about 1970. These appear in publications aimed at Church members generally, in publications for Relief Society sisters, and in general gonference talks.
As far as we can tell, none of these cite or explain the JST notation, and none explicitly endorse a serious the study of the Song. They just refer to it or quote from it as a matter of course.
As mentioned already, the Song is in the Bible, and as such is part of our collective religious heritage, whatever one thinks of the Song.
However, after the 1970s, general uses of and references to the Song drastically diminish, replaced by regular mention of the JST notation mentioned above.
How have the Bible Dictionary’s references changed?
I presume you are asking about the fact that the Latter-Day Saint Bible Dictionary, first published along with the Topical Guide and other study helps with the Latter-day Saint edition of the KJV in 1979 originally contained this statement: “the JST manuscript contains the note that ‘the Song of Solomon is not inspired scripture’.”
This was altered in 2013 to accurately reflect what the JST reads: “The Songs of Solomon are not Inspired writings [sic].” We believe this was due to the work of the Joseph Smith Papers project and an effort to improve the accuracy of the content of the Bible Dictionary.
I am not sure why the JST comment was not accurately rendered in the original Bible Dictionary. And I have wondered about the impact, if any, on the use of the word “scripture” for the word “writings,” which seems to be a broader term, even though “inspired” is the qualifier in both cases.
Either way, the rise of Church correlation in the 1970s and the inclusion of JST annotations in the Church’s KJV edition beginning in 1979 seem to have supported an institutional marginalization of the Song, and more Church members became aware of the JST notation.
Is the Song of Solomon scripture?
This question is why we wrote the article in the first place—we suggest you read what we wrote! We hope our article will help readers appreciate that the answer to this question is not a simple “yes” or “no.”
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