Lovers of Learning: The Reception of the Song of Songs in Two West Syrian Exegetical Collections (c. 600-900 CE)

Marion Pragt

Research output: PhD ThesisPhD-Thesis - Research and graduation internal

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Abstract The Song of Songs is unparalleled among biblical books in its passionate language and lack of overtly religious vocabulary. Its interpretation in the Greek, Latin and later medieval worlds has been studied extensively, but much remains to be discovered with regard to the Song’s reception among Syriac-using Christians in Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. This dissertation explores the interpretation of the Song of Songs in two West Syrian exegetical collections from the first millennium CE: the so-called London Collection and the Collection of Simeon. In these collections, interpretations of scripture from different authors and time periods are abbreviated, excerpted and brought together, yet these works are more than unoriginal containers of earlier sources. Following recent advances in the study of compilation literature, the dissertation approaches Syriac abbreviators and compilers as ‘lovers of learning’ who were transmitting and transforming the interpretations of their predecessors. The dissertation aims to demonstrate in what ways and with what aims Syriac abbreviators and compilers drew on the works of Greek Christian authors to interpret the Song, with particular emphasis on Gregory of Nyssa’s Homilies on the Song of Songs. The first chapter introduces the Greek Christian authors and approaches that shaped the understanding of the Song in the Syriac traditions. The chapter surveys how late ancient Christians advocated the spiritual interpretation of the Song and argues for the importance of including the Syriac traditions in the study of the Song’s reception history. It was by virtue of their translation into Syriac that Gregory’s Homilies became one of the main sources for the interpretation of the Song among West Syrian Christians. The second chapter therefore provides an overview of the Syriac manuscript transmission of the Homilies, examines the translator’s working method and offers additional evidence for dating the translation to the early sixth century. The third chapter offers a comparative analysis of the reception of the Syriac Homilies in the London Collection and the Collection of Simeon, demonstrating how the collections each used Gregory in their own way. It is suggested that the London Collection offers a shorter, more manageable version of Gregory’s lengthy original work. In contrast, the Collection of Simeon presents a commentary on the Song in which very brief interpretations from Gregory are used to explain the spiritual significance of the Song’s individual words and phrases. The next two chapters move away slightly from Gregory and take a closer look at each individual collection. The fourth chapter investigates additional extracts on the Song in the London Collection which emphasise the great interest of its compiler in the Greek Bible and its exegetical traditions. The chapter also shows that engagement with Gregory in the London Collection went beyond abbreviation alone by examining what theological and exegetical motivations influenced the addition of interpretations from Severus of Antioch as part of Gregory’s abbreviated Homilies. The fifth chapter argues that the marginal notes in the Collection of Simeon show a philological interest and include additional interpretations from both Greek and Syriac Miaphysite authors. The chapter illustrates the plurality of readings and understandings of the Song to which Syriac authors had access. The second part of the dissertation presents critical editions and the first English translations of the sections on the Song of Songs going back to Gregory’s Homilies in the London Collection and the Collection of Simeon.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
  • ter Haar Romeny, Bas, Supervisor
  • Verheyden, J., Supervisor, -
Award date6 Dec 2021
Publication statusPublished - 6 Dec 2021


  • Syriac, Song of Songs, Gregory of Nyssa, Late Antiquity, biblical interpretation, commentaries


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