Tyndale and the Song of Songs

The Song of Songs has a very special significance in the history of the interpretation of the Old Testament because the Renaissance and Reformation neither diminished its popularity and perceived importance within the canon of the Old Testament, nor greatly changed the exegetical approach of commentators on it. The Song of Songs was the most read and most commented-upon book in the mediaeval cloister, according to one authority[1]. Consequently it is a great pity that we have no direct indication of how William Tyndale would have translated and presented it. With a very few exceptions, ‘pre-critical’ Christian exegetes considered the Song to be a mystical expression of the love of Christ for the Church and/or the believing soul, but they differed to a considerable degree as to the propriety of a literal-historical approach to the Song and to the number and role of the dramatis personae in it.

We do have a precious fragment of the Song of Songs which Tyndale translated for his English version of the Sarum Old Testament lectionary. Matthew's Bible may give some indication as to the course Tyndale would have taken had he escaped martyrdom to translate the Song as it was unique in its treatment of the Song amongst early English Bibles. We also have a striking passage from The Parable of the Wicked Mammon, which gives us some indirect clues as to the type of approach to the Song he may have endorsed.

The translated fragment is the reading for July 2nd: ‘On the Visitation of Our Lady’ and contains two extracts from Song of Songs, 2:1-4 & 2:10-14 which are as follows:[2]

(1) I am the flower of the field, and the lilies[3] of the valleys. As the lily among the thorns, so is my love among the daughters. As the apple tree among the trees of the wood so is my beloved among the sons: in his shadow was my desire to sit for his fruit was sweet to my mouth. He brought me into his wine-cellar and his behaviour to me-ward was lovely ...
(10) Behold my beloved said to me: up and haste my love, my dove, my beautiful and come, for now is winter gone and rain departed and past. The flowers appear in our country and the time is come to cut the vines. The voice of the turtle dove is heard in our land. the figtree hath brought forth her figs, and the vine blossoms give a savour. Up, haste my love, my dove, in the holes of the rock and the secret and thy fashion beautiful.

The reading of two portions of the Song of Songs on the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, does not call forth any censure from Tyndale. Mediaeval expositors were fond of interpreting the woman in the Song in three ways:

  1. the general spouse which is the Church,
  2. the special spouse which is every believing soul, and
  3. the singular spouse which is the Virgin Mary.
The Douay Bible had a neat exegesis of 2:2 ‘As the lilie among the thornes, so is my love among the daughters’: ‘The Church excelleth al other societies: in the Church the godlie excel sinners, among the innocent and holie the virgin Marie surpasseth al’[4]. It would be pointless to speculate on whether or not Tyndale approved of a reading of the Song in praise and honour of the Virgin Mary, suffice it to say that the reading was discontinued in the English prayer-books. Tyndale was concerned that worshippers should be able to understand the readings appointed for important dates in the Church calendar.

Despite his certain knowledge of Hebrew, Tyndale sometimes favours the Vulgate in this translation. In 2:12, he has ‘the flowers appear in our country’ translating the Vulgate Flores apparuerunt in terra nostra rather than the Hebrew b ' re ‘in the land’. The next phrase, ‘and the time is come to cut the vines’ will be unfamiliar to readers of the English Bible since the AV and later English Bibles interpret the Hebrew ' t hazz mîr higgîa 'the time of the singing of birds is come’. The root zmr has two meanings: ‘to sing’ and ‘to prune’. The idea of pruning a vine in the spring would not commend itself to most viniculturalists but the LXX read kairos tes tomes ephthake followed by Vulgate tempus putationis advenit and several Jewish authorities[5]. Tyndale would have found little encouragement to follow the ‘singing’ option unless he had access to the commentaries of Rashi, Kimehi or Ibn Ezra. The early editions of Pagninus's Bible (1527-8) follow the Vulgate, and Luther avoids a literal translation with der Lenz ist herbeige-kommen, ‘the spring is come’. The early English versions follow Tyndale albeit rather quaintly: Coverdale (1535) and Matthews (1537) have the ‘twistinge time is come’[6] whilst the Great Bible (1539), followed by subsequent English Versions, reads ‘the time of the birdes singinge is come’. This reflects their dependence on Sebastian Münster's Latin translation of the Hebrew Bible and his edition of Kianchi's S fer Haššôr šîm.

Tyndale's translation of 2:4[7] does not follow the Vulgate ordinavit in me charitatem. The translators of the Wycliffe Bible and the Douai-Rheims Bible rendered the Vulgate ‘he ordeyned in me charite’ and ‘he hath ordered in me charitie’ respectively. The Geneva Bible & AV follow the Rabbinical consensus and translate ‘love [was] his banner over me’ and ‘his banner over mee was love’. Tyndale's solution to this difficult phrase is strikingly different and suits the context: ‘he brought me into his wine-cellar and his behaviour to me-ward was lovely’. ‘Lovely’ was used synonymously with ‘amorous’ in the 16th century, [8] and here translates the Hebrew noun 'ah bâh ‘love’. Tyndale's translation does not violate the conventions of Hebrew grammar because an abstract noun is occasionally used adjectivally as in Psalm 120:7 nî š lôm literally ‘I am peace’ for ‘I am for peace’, or ‘peaceful’.[9] Other mid-1530's English Bibles translate the same line ‘and loveth me specially well’ [10]. The crucial word is the Hebrew word diglô, which traditionally has been translated ‘his banner’ signifying the ensign of God's love. Tyndale's rendering ‘behaviour’ may be an educated guess as he rejects Sebastian Münster's insigne eius and Sanctes Pagninus's vexilli eius[11]. Instead of a visual banner or ensign, Tyndale took diglô to mean the looks or signs of love that the beloved made. Thus the Hebrew would be interpreted ‘his intent towards (or concerning) me was love’.[12] This would agree with the most modern English versions which translate diglo as the loving demeanour of the beloved. The New Revised Standard Version, (1989) has ‘and his intention toward me was love’.[13] There does not seem to be any contemporary precedent for ‘behaviour’. Konrad Pellikan, in his commentary on the Song (1534), argued for insignivit, ‘he made conspicuous/displayed’, instead of ordinavit, ‘he ordered/set’, too late for Tyndale's use perhaps, but the idea may have been already in circulation.[14] Professor Daniell has often stressed that Tyndale's aim was clarity rather than strict philological accuracy:[15] this may be such an example. The educated guess, although not followed by other English versions, is fortuitously in agreement with the latest scholarly opinions.

We have very few clues as to how Tyndale would have interpreted the Song or how much information he would have placed in the margin or chapter headings concerning the interpretation of the Song and the dramatis personae, Matthew's Bible gives precise details as to the speakers, e.g. ‘The voyce of the Churche’, ‘The voyce of Christ’, ‘Christ speakinge of the churche to the synagogue’. The Patriarchs, the Heathen and the Apostles also make a unique appearance among the English versions. Matthew's Bible was greatly influenced in this respect by a corpus of Latin Bibles printed at Lyons between 1512 and 1533. This corpus has been seen as part of a more creative movement which flourished in early 16th century exegeses of the Song but which lost ground to headings and marginalia that were predominantly ecclesiastical and increasingly standardised.[16] The editor of Matthew's Bible knew the historical provenance of the Song. ‘Salomon made this Ballade or Songe by himselfe & his wyfe the daughter of Pharao’ the heading informs us, but this statement is prefaced by the observation that the Song was ‘A mysticall devyce of the spirituall and godly love/between Christ the spouse/ and the churche or congregacyon his spousesse.’ The abundance of detail in Matthew's version of the Song contrasts starkly with the plainness of those produced in England. Coverdale's Bible (1535) had no introduction to the Song, no section headings, and merely a few biblical references in the margin. The Great Bible (1539) had a very terse introduction of two lines and then only a few biblical cross-references in the margin. Later English Bibles were concerned that if the ploughboy read a plain translation, he might be led astray into carnal by-paths, so they drowned the text in a sea of marginal annotations giving guidance as to how to understand the book spiritually. Thus the Geneva Bible (1560) has fulsome notes, and the Douai Bible (1609-10) which has copious annotations, stresses that this book is not novices but strong meat for the perfect.

In The Parable of the Wicked Mammon Tyndale enlarges on Luther's statement that outward deeds are a sign of inward faith, and illustrates the point with the account of the ‘woman who was a sinner’ in Luke 7. Tyndale describes the approach of the woman to the Lord in a ‘cascading passage’, where ‘its irrepressible torrent of clauses accurately reflects the subject matter’.[17] The passage seems to be inspired by Bernard of Clairvaux's Sermons on the Song of Songs where the black but beautiful bridge, outwardly sinful but inwardly glorious,[18] longs for the presence of her beloved. In sermon 3 on Song 1:2, entitled ‘Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth‘, St Bernard discourses on what it is to kiss the feet, the hand, and the mouth of the Lord. ‘You, 0 unhappy soul, if you would cease to be unhappy, must imitate this happy penitent prostrate upon the ground, kissing His Feet and washing them with tears.’[19] Once the soul has kissed the feet and hand she is raised up and emboldened to seek the most intimate of kisses. Here is Bernard's explanation of the woman's action:[20]

And notice how abruptly she comes out with her request! From the Great One she has a boon to ask; but she employs no flattery to get what she desires, nor does she beat about the bush. Bluntly boldly, out of her full heart she blurts it out ... Her love is holy, for it is spiritual, not after the flesh. And it is burning, eager, for she is so absorbed in it that she forgets the majesty of Him to Whom she speaks. What? ‘The earth shall tremble at the look of Him’ and she asks for a kiss! Is she drunk? Yes indeed she is.

Compare this to Tyndale's explanation of the extraordinary actions of the woman (allegedly Mary Magdalen) in Luke 7:37-8:[21]

‘And she believed the word of God mightily and gloffied God over his mercy and truth, and being overcome and overwhelmed with the unspeakable yea and incomprehensible abundant riches of the kindness of God, did inflame and bum in love, yea was so swollen in love that she could not abide nor hold, but must break out, and was so drunk in love that she regarded no thing, but even to utter the fervent and burning love of her heart only.’

St. Bernard made several connections between the first verses of the Song of Songs and the various accounts of the anointing of Jesus on the basis of three common characteristics:

  1. The black and beautiful beloved (Song 1:5, 6a), and the sinner who loved much (Luke 7:37),
  2. ‘good ointments’[22] and ‘ointment poured forth’[23] (Song 1:3) and the alabaster flask of ointment of the Gospel accounts[24] and
  3. ‘kisses of his mouth’ (Song 1:2) and kissing the feet (Luke 7:38,45).
Furthermore, commentators since Origen[25] have linked Song 1:12 ‘While the king sitteth at his table, my spikenard[26] sendeth forth the smell therof’, with the anointing story in John 12:3 where the King is at his table, the nard[27] is poured out and the house is filled with the odour. The classical association of banquets with wine, women and perfume has been transformed into a messianic anointing but the allusions are clear[28]. Tyndale's enthusiastic appraisal of the passage in Luke 7 would have raised the eyebrows of his reforming successors. An illustration of this contrast could be drawn from Tyndale and Calvin on Luke 7. Calvin and Tyndale are agreed that the woman's anointing and tears are a thankful response to sins forgiven, but although Calvin has a very precise and skilful commentary on the text he has none of the passion and extravagance that characterises Tyndale's approach.[29] Would Tyndale have discoursed on the Song with the same exuberance as on Luke 7 or would he bath been the precursor of the puritans? As far as the exegesis of the Song of Songs is concerned the puritans did not greatly differ from the mediaeval mystics: the beloved was the Church, or the believing soul and the lover was Christ. According to George Scheper, many reformers were very reluctant to indulge much in exuberance when commenting upon the Song. They did not approve of drunkenness as suitable metaphor of spiritual ecstasy, neither did they emphasise that the longing of the bridge is expressed in terms of sexual desire: she desires to be wholly united with her beloved. The sensuous nature of the Song was played down whilst they extolled the domestic harmony, fidelity, headship and other marital values by which the Song portrayed the relationship between Christ, and the Church or believer." [30]It seems that in this case Tyndale would have understood the Song with more feeling and physical intensity than his reforming successors in England.

Tyndale is so often appropriated by the Reformed party and reviled by the Roman party that we forget that he was a Roman Catholic priest, agitating for reform from within the Church, whose work was dedicated to giving ordinary people access to the Scriptures. We should not therefore be surprised that he translated the readings ordained of that same Church into English for the benefit of parishioners everywhere. We can see from his translation of the Song that he was free to use the Vulgate as one of many translating tools and to follow it and other versions where he felt it transmitted the sense of the original. We can only get a glimpse of what the case might have been had Tyndale survived to translate and to comment on the Song. In the bit that has survived we have an example of his forthright originality and bold manner of dealing with cruces interpretum. Of his interpretation we have the marginalia of disciples who completed his work, but it is the veiled allusions to St. Bernard's surpassingly beautiful sermons on the Song which bear witness to Tyndale's richness and catholicity, his earnest love and humility, and which might lead us to wonder how much the spiritual legacy of the English Church was impoverished by his martyrdom.

© Gregory Morris


  1. ‘Le livre qui fut le plus lu, le plus souvent commenté dans les cloîtres du Moyen Age.’ Jean Leclerq, L'amour des lettres et le désir de Dieu, Paris, 1957, p.83. Cited in Luc Brésard et Henri Crousel avec Marcel Borret, Origène Commentaire sur le Cantigue des Cantiques, vol. 1, Sources Chrétiennes, No. 375, 1991, p.61.

  2. David Daniell, Tyndale's New Testament, Translated from the Greek by William Tyndale in 1534, Yale University Press, 1989. p.406. Here the Sarum O.T. readings are reproduced as an appendix to the New Testament. pp. 391 - 408.

  3. Tyndale's translation here is puzzling. Vulgate reads lilium convallium. Lilium is a 2nd declension nominative singular, convallium is a 3rd declension fem. pl. genitive form. I have met no precedent for Tyndale's translation and all other versions have the singular noun.

  4. Even Henry Ainsworth the radical separatist acknowledged this point. In a grammatical note on Song 1:8 ‘Oh thou fairest among women’ he notes that fairest means ‘fairest of woman-kinde: as the mother of our Lord, is called, Blessed among women, that is, most blessed, or more blessed than other women.’

  5. Aquila, Symmachus, Targum and Rashbam opt for pruning whereas Rashi, Kimchi and Ibn Ezra (whose commentaries were all in the Mikra'ot Gedolot) seem to have influenced later English versions, possibly via Sebastian Muenster. Marvin Pope, Song of Songs, A New Translation and Commentary Anchor Bible Series, Doubleday, New York, 1977, pp. 396 cites Isaiah 18:4-6 in favour of ‘pruning’. There niâh ‘blossom’ and vek rat ... bammazm rôt ‘cut ... with pruning hooks’ are closely associated.

  6. Shorter O.E.D. Twist 1.2. obs. or dial. ‘prune’, ‘clip’. (1483).

  7. Heb. vediglô ` lai'ah bâh.

  8. As in W. Shakespeare Pass. Pilgr. vi ‘Sweet Cytherea ... Did court the lad with many a lovely looke.’ O.E.D. sub ‘lovely’.

  9. Gesenius-Kautzsch, ed. A.E. Cowley Hebrew Grammar, Oxford, 1910, §141c, n. 3 on š lôm.

  10. Coverdale (1535). Matthew's Bible (1537) & The Great Bible (1539) have this reading. The ‘banner’ versions are the Great Bible (1553) ‘his baner spred over me is love’, Geneva Bible 1560 «and love was his banner over me’, the Bishops' Bible, (1568) ‘his banner spred over me, whiche is his love’ and the A.V. (1611) as above.

  11. Münster, Sebastian, Juxta hebraicum contextuin in Latinam utcunque vertissimus linguam, atgue grammaticas quasdem adiecissemus annatationes, non desuerunt qui similem operam a me flagitarent in [šîr haššîrîm] Cantico canticorum. 1525 fol. a21. Sanctes Pagninus, Canticum Canticorum selomoh interprete Eodem Sancte Pagnino Lucensi in Biblia Lyon, 1527-8.

  12. Arabic: `alamuhu fawq lit. ‘his sign or indication, on or over me’. ‘Indication’ could be interpreted ‘behaviour’.

  13. The NEB (1970) & the REB (1989) ‘have he has ... given me loving glances.’ The readings are based on the Akkadian cognate dag lu to ‘look’. cf Eugenio Zolli, In margine at Cantico dei Cantici Biblica, vol. 21, 1940, pp.273-292 esp. 273- 275. Robert Gordis, The root [dg] in the Song of Songs, Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 88, 1969, pp. 2034. Cf also M. Pope, ibid pp. 375-7, on intent.

  14. Konrad Pelaan, in his 1534 Commentaria bibliorum ... Tomus quartus in quo continentur ... Cantica Solomonis, 7 vol. 1532-1539 fol. Christopherus Froschoverus, Tiguri, 1534.

  15. See Max Engammare La Cantique des Cantiques à la Renaissance Geneva, 1993, pp. 136-8.

  16. These assessments of the passage are from A. Hume, A Study of the Writings of the English Protestant Exiles 1525-35, PhD (University of London), 1961 p.71. Cited in D. Daniell, William Tyndale: A Biography, YUP 1994, p.164.

  17. See Bernard of Clairvaux Sermones in Cantica Canticorum, No. 8, section 2.

  18. St Bernard on the Song of Songs Sermones in Cantica Canticorum, Translated and edited by a Religious of C.S.M.V., Mowbray, London, 1952, p.26.

  19. ibid. p.28. I have altered ‘inebriated’ to ‘drunk’.

  20. This is taken from The Parable of the Wicked Mammon, (1528), Sig. B7v-B8r.

  21. Heb. ler a šem nek LXX kai' sme muron s u.

  22. Heb. šemen tûraq LXX murou 'ekkenoth n.

  23. Matt. 26:7 mur u barutim n ‘costly ointment’;
    Mk. 14:3 mur u nar u pistikes p lutel us ‘ointment of nard, costly perfume’;
    Luke 7:37 mur u, ‘ointment’;
    John 12:3 (as Mark)

  24. See, Luc Bréssard et Henri Crousel avec Marcel Borret, Origène Commentaire sur le Cantique des Cantiques, vol. 1, Sources Chrétiennes, No. 375, 1991, Ch. 9 pts. 3-9.

  25. Heb., nirdî LXX nard s m u.

  26. Gk. mur u nard u

  27. Marvin Pope, ibid. p.349.

  28. See John Calvin, Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark and Luke, ed. W. Pringle, vol.2, p. 134. The comment on the passage is pp. 135-141.

  29. Orthodox commentators were aware that the Song was open to literal interpretations which could lead either to rejection of its canonical status, or to the physical excesses of the Family of Love and other antinomian groups who were apparently inspired by it. The Westminster Assembly Annotations have some priceless observations which indicate their sensitivity to these extreme conclusions. They note that there are some who reject or abuse the Song believing it to be an ‘hot carnall pamphlet’.

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