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HTR 99:1 (2006) 6583

Shades of Grace: Origen and

Gregory of Nyssas Soteriological
Exegesis of the Black and Beautiful
Bride in Song of Songs 1:5
Mark S. M. Scott
Harvard University
Patristic exegesis soared to sublime heights with the allegorical interpretation of the
Song of Songs.
This nuptial tale, replete with evocative imagery and multivalent
symbolism, supplied fertile ground for the mystical musings of Origen (ca. 185254
C.E.) and Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 335395 C.E.).
Although its overt eroticism engen-
I wish to express my thanks to Sarah Coakley, Nicholas Constas, and Rowan Greer for reading
earlier drafts of this essay. I would also like to thank Lucian Turcescu for encouraging me to submit
an earlier edition to an essay contest sponsored by the Canadian Society of Patristic Studies (CSPS),
for which it won rst prize. I presented it at their annual conference in 2005 in London, Ontario at
a session with Charles Kannengiesser. Thanks also to the editorial staff and the anonymous reader
for HTR. Lastly, I wish to thank Peter Widdicombe, who rst opened the wardrobe doors and
guided me through the enchanted world of Origens theology.
For a concise and helpful overview of patristic biblical exegesis, especially vis--vis Origens
hermeneutics, see chapter 4, The Interpretation of Scripture, in Henri Crouzels magisterial Origen:
The Life and Thought of the First Great Theologian (trans. A. S. Worrall; San Francisco: Harper &
Row, 1989) 6184. Excellent broad overviews can be found in the articles Allegory and Inter-
pretation of the Bible in Encyclopedia of Early Christianity (ed. Everett Ferguson; 2d ed.; New
York: Garland Publishing Co., 1997). See also the ne articles by Manlio Simonetti Cantico dei
Cantici and Scrittura Sacra in Origene. Dizionario. La cultura, il pensiero, le opere by Adele
Monaci Castagno (Roma: Citta Nuova Editrice, 2000).
In the prologue to his translation of Origens Homilies on the Song of Songs Jerome extols
the singular brilliance of Origens allegorical exegesis to Pope Damasus I (366384 C.E.): While
dered some apprehension, the profound symbolic meanings deployed by the church
fathers enabled the church to embrace fully the Song of Songs as a deep reservoir of
theological insight.
Always provocative and potentially scandalous, it perennially
generates hermeneutical difculties. Since exegesis invariably reects the social
and historical location of the interpreter, disparate themes and issues will resonate
with different readers in different eras. For a generation of scholars attentive to
the problem of racism, Song 1:5 merits particular attention because of its complex
employment of racial imagery. In this verse the Bride proudly declares: I am black
and beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem, like the tents of Qedar, like the curtains
of Solomon (hw: an: w ynI a} hr: /jv [#r <n w#-n<w]; c oivo ci i xoi xop).
Both the Hebrew and Greek word for black, hr:/jv and co, have negative
connotations, and the ambiguous sense of the conjunction between coivo and
xop constitutes the grammatical crux of the hermeneutical debate.
This essay advances two interrelated approaches to analyzing Origen and Greg-
orys theological exegesis of Song 1:5. First, it problematizes their use of negative
symbolism for blackness in their expositions of this verse.
Second, it proposes
that their innovative use of allegory enables them to transcend racial categories
and thus to obviate what might appear to modern readers as racist rhetoric. I will
argue that in distinct yet related ways, the exegesis of Origen and Gregory utilizes
black imagery to convey soteriological truth rather than racial stereotypes or anti-
black sentiments. They concern themselves ultimately not with race but with the
doctrine of salvation.
Origen surpassed all writers in his other books, in his Song of Songs he surpassed himself, in The
Song of Songs Commentary and Homilies (trans. R. P. Lawson; ACW 26; New York: The Newman
Press, 1956) 265. This paper will cite the pagination of Lawsons translation of the Latin original.
Lawson notes that the original Greek texts of Origens commentary and homilies on the Songs of
Songs are no longer extant, although there are some small fragments. Runus translated the original
commentary into Latin. Unfortunately, he translated only three out of the ten books of the original,
as Jerome reports (23).
The Song of Songs: Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentaries (ed. and trans.
RichardA. Norris, Jr.; The Churchs Bible, ed. Robert Louis Wilken; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003)
xviii. Norris comments that the Song of Songs was included late in the Hebrew Canon because of
the interpretive difculties involved in identifying the symbolic referents of the lovers and their
attendants. From an early point in Jewish and Christian interpretation, the book was reckoned
among the deepest and most difcult texts in the Bible.
Michael V. Fox notes that hw: an: w ynI a; hr: /jvv is best translated black but beautiful rather than t
black and beautiful which inverts the meaning. See d HarperCollins Study Bible: New Revised
Standard Version (London: HarperCollins, 1993) 1002, n. 1:5. hw: an: means desirable, and xop
means beautiful. The usual word for beautiful in Hebrew is (fem.) hp; y: , hence the Greek text
is glossing over a, perhaps exegetically undesirable, nuance here.
For a recent in-depth study of Origens treatment of the Song of Songs, as well as his
hermeneutical method more generally, see J. Christopher King, Origen on the Song of Songs as
the Spirit of Scripture: The Bridegrooms Perfect Marriage Song (Oxford; New York: Oxford
University Press, 2005).
I Origen: The Bride as the Puried Gentile Church
Consistent with his exegetical method, Origen begins the Commentary on the Song
of Songs by outlining his understanding of the literal sense of the passage (II.1).
He speaks in the voice of the Bride to explicate the basic meaning: that the Bride
is beautiful despite being black. At this point in the narrative, the Bride responds to
the daughters of Jerusalem, who apparently have disparaged her beauty because of
her dark complexion. She retorts that her black skin conceals an inner beauty, just as
the black tents of Qedar and the black curtains of Solomon conceal inner beauty. In
Origens imaginative reconstruction of this text, he expressly associates the Brides
blackness with ugliness. The Bride herself implicitly afrms the correlation of black
skin with ugliness by attributing her beauty to an internal rather than an external
state, as Origen puts it: I am indeed dark (fusca (( )or black (nigra)as far as my
complexion goes, O daughters of Jerusalem; but, should a person scrutinize the
features of my inward parts, then I am beautiful (formosa (( ).
Thus, she shifts the
aesthetic locus from her external hue to her internal state of virtue. By transpos-
ing the context of her beauty from a surface condition to a spiritual condition, she
betrays her internalization of their negative assessment of her bodily blackness.
At the same time, however, she supplants these negative attitudes and associations
by denying their ultimate signicance in determining her aesthetic status.
Origen proceeds from the literal level of the text to the mystical, which also co-
heres with his standard hermeneutical procedure.
As he enunciates in the Prologue,
the Bride in the story represents the Church,
but in this passage she represents more
specically the Church gathered from among the Gentiles (ecclesiae personam
tenet ex gentibus congregatae).
The daughters of Jerusalem represent the Jews
Origen, The Song of Songs: Commentary and Homilies, 19. Lawsons English translation of
these texts uses the critical edition of Origens works by W. Baehrens, Die griechischen christlichen
Schriftsteller der ersten drei Jahrhunderte (GCS, vol. 8; Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1925). This paper
will also consult with this critical edition throughout.
Origen, Song, 91.
Moreover, the transposition of beauty from an external condition to an internal state corresponds
to the shift from surface to depth, which is the modus operandi of Origens allegorical method.
Origen, Song, 92. Norris, The Song of Songs, xviii: The ancient writers nd no difculty in
transferring the language of erotic love to spiritual matters. Indeed, the primary reason for resorting
to allegory is that they assumed that any writing included in scripture treated, in one manner or
another, the relation between God and human beings. They believed that human ers, even when it
is focused by desire for union with another human person, displays a receptivity to and a reaching
out for a more ultimate love.
Origen, Song, 21.
Ibid., 92. Norris, Song, 39. He translates c 0vp as nations instead of Gentiles. The rst
systematic allegory of the Song of Songs was by Rabbi Akiba in the early second century, who
described it as the Holy of Holies and interpreted it as an allegory of Gods love for Israel
(xviii): This kind of exegesis was also practiced by Christians, beginning with Hippolytus of Rome
and Origen, both of whom saw in the Bridegroom a representation of Christ (i.e., the eternal Word
and Wisdom of God), and in the Bride a representation of the Church, that is, the people of God.
This ecclesiological interpretation of the Song became a dominant, and in some cases the exclu-
who despise and vilify her for her ignoble birth, in other words, they degrade
Gentile Christians because of their inferior ancestry. According to this mystical
interpretation, the aspersion black refers not to skin color but to the state of be-
ing unenlightened by the wisdom of the patriarchs and particularly by the Mosaic
law. As with his literal exegesis, black (nigra) here has an unmistakably negative
resonance. Blackness symbolizes for Origen a particular sort of spiritual opacity.
Although the Gentile church (ecclesia ex gentibus) cannot boast of Jewish descent
and Mosaic enlightenment (illuminatio Moysis), it nonetheless shares with the Jews
an innate capacity for divine enlightenment. As Origen writes, But I have my own
beauty, all the same. For in me too there is that primal thing, the Image of God
(imago Dei), wherein I was created; and, coming now to the Word of God, I have
received my beauty.
Origen regards divine ancestry as more fundamental than
human ancestry. Since God created all humans, regardless of race, in the image of
God, the Gentile church can reect divine beauty through the Word of God. The
Gentile church may lack the ancestral pedigree and exterior signs of enlightenment,
but close inspection shows its truly authentic and salvic illumination.
Later, when Origen draws further symbolic parallels between the Bride, the queen
of Sheba, and the personied Ethiopia of Psalm 67, he characterizes Ethiopia,
before its conversion, as the black one who has been darkened with exceed-
ing great and many sins and, having been stained (infectus) with the inky dye of
wickedness, has been rendered black and dark (niger et tenebrosus).
typology operates under the assumption that the blackness of the Bride, the queen
of Sheba, and Ethiopia signify spiritual opacity. In his exegesis the quality of
blackness denotes sin, wickedness, and spiritual deciency.
Consequently, the
Bride only becomes beautiful when she transforms her blackness into fairness or
whiteness, which denotes spiritual enlightenment. Thus, Ethiopia represents the
Gentile sinners who offer confession and repentance to God and subsequently,
it is implied, become beautiful by becoming white.
Origens exegesis clearly
intends to use categories of color symbolically, but the racial implications of his
commentary require careful nuance and critical reection; I shall take up that task
in the nal two sections.
In his exegesis of Song 1:6, Origen continues to develop these soteriological
themes and symbolic frameworks. In this verse the Bride expresses her shame over
sive, theme of later Christian exegesis (and, not least, that of Nicholas of Lyra, the late-medieval
commentator). Origen, however, taught that the Song could also be taken to speak of the relation
between the Word of God and the individual soul (xix).
Origen, Song, 92.
Ibid., 103. Origen notes the parallel between the Bride and the queen of Sheba (the South) in
his First Homily on the Song of Songs I.6, 27778.
Gay L. Byron, Symbolic Blackness and Ethnic Difference in Early Christian Literature (New
York: Routledge, 2002) 74.
Origen, Song, 103.
her deformed condition of blackness (nigredine) or darkness (infuscatione): It is
not a natural condition in which she was created, Origen argues, but something
that she suffered through force of circumstance.
In the very next sentence Origen
qualies his assertion by remarking that the passage obviously does not refer to
bodily blackness (nigredine corporis) but to the souls blackness. J. Christopher
King explains: When the Bride speaks of her blackness . . . Origen interprets her
words asomatically.
Whereas the physical blackness of the Ethiopian race
(gentem Aethiopum) results from prolonged exposure to the suns ercer rays
(107), spiritual blackness results from the Sun of Justice (sol iustitiae, pio
The light of the spiritual sun (sol spiritalis) affects the obedient
and disobedient differently. For the obedient and upright, it causes illumination
(illuminat), but for the disobedient, the sun must needs look askancethereby
scorching the soul and making it black.
Origen correlates the positive illuminating
effect of the sun to spiritual enlightenment and the negative burning effect of the
sun to spiritual darkening: The sun has twofold power: it enlightens the righteous;
but sinners it enlightens not, but burns.
The symbolic contrast between darkness
and light continues in his exegesis of Song 1:6, though with an emphasis on the
souls illumination.
By uniting with Christ, the soul becomes puried from sin and gradually re-
covers its beauty: Once she [the Bride or soul] begins to . . . cleave to Him [the
Bridegroom or Christ] and suffer nothing whatever to separate her from Him, then
she will be made white and fair (dealbata et candida).
Since spiritual blackness
occurs through neglect and sloth, one must transform it through industry, in other
words, through purication. Salvation then occurs in the movement away from
darkness into ever-brightening light: When all her blackness has been cast away,
she will shine with the enveloping radiance of the true Light.
Thus, Origens
exegesis of 1:6 reinforces the symbolic framework that he developed in his exegesis
of 1:5. Whereas his primary typological referent for the Bride in the Song of Songs
remains the Gentile church, he also identies her with the individual soul. These
two typologies do not appear inconsistent or mutually exclusive for him, because
his allegorical approach allows him to discover multiple symbolic meanings that
need not cohere with each other. As Origen delves deeper into mysteries of the text,
his symbolism becomes increasingly multivalent and theologically complex.
Ibid., 107.
King, Origen on the Song of Songs as the Spirit of Scripture, 57.
Origen, Song, 108. Lawson, The Song of Songs, 331, n. 60. Lawson notes that the Sun of
Justice has Messianic overtones for Origen and that he explicitly identies this Sun with Christ
throughout his corpus. He also mentions that the word Ethiopian (Ps 67:32, Ai 0i o: oi 0m, o )
means burnt-face (331, n. 57).
Ibid., 109.
Ibid., 112.
Ibid., 107.
Origen treats Song 1:5 in his First Homily, and many of the themes that surfaced
in his commentary echo here.
In this homily Origen puzzles over the simultaneous
ascription of blackness and beauty to the Bride. He takes it to be self-evident that
the two are antithetical: But the question is, in what way is she black and how, if
she lacks whiteness, is she fair?
Here again Origen associates blackness with sin
and whiteness with beauty. He presupposes the same symbolic framework that he
constructed in his commentary. The Bride represents the Gentile church puried
from sin, and her beauty, according to Origen, results from the divine gift that fol-
lows repentance: She has repented of her sins, beauty is the gift conversion has
bestowed; that is the reason she is hymned as beautiful.
She retains her beauty,
then, despite her blackness, which represents the vestiges of sin that remain fol-
lowing conversion: She is called black, however, because she has not yet been
purged of every stain of sin, she has not yet been washed unto salvation.
So the
beauty of the Gentile church consists in its conversion to Christ, while its blackness
consists in the continued tinge of sin in the church. Blackness represents the stain
of sin that must be washed away through the purication of baptism. According to
Origen, this symbolic nexus explains how the Bride can be simultaneously black
and beautiful: Intelleximus, quomodo et nigra et formosa sit sponsa.
For Origen, then, blackness clearly connotes a negative predicate that describes
the state of the Gentile church before conversion. Salvation, consequently, he may
metaphorically express as the gradual transformation fromdarkness (sin) to white-
ness (purity): Nevertheless she does not stay dark-hued, she is becoming white.
The process of purication uses blackness and whiteness as primary symbols. In
true homiletic fashion, Origen then applies the black and white dualism to the
individual soul: But if you do not likewise practice penitence, take heed lest your
soul be described as black and ugly.
Blackness indicates the shameful quality
of sin in the Gentile church and in the individual soul, as he mentioned above. d
Since it is a forbidding hue, it engenders ridicule and causes the Bride shame,
as he writes, Look not at me, for that I am blackened. She apologies for her
Lawson, 1617. Origens two Homilies on the Song of Songs were written in Greek and are
no longer extant in the original version. Jerome translated them into Latin and included a prologue
addressed to Pope Damasus I. Lawson surmises that Origen probably wrote the Homilies a few
years after his Commentary, that is, before 244 C.E. Furthermore, he argues that these Homilies are
an indispensable but often overlooked resource for apprehending Origens theology, especially
his soteriology or doctrine on grace. His translation of these texts into English seeks to remedy
this oversight.
Origen, First Homily, I.6, 276.
Just as darkness represents the absence of light in the physical world,
so in the spiritual realm darkness indicates the absence of spiritual light: The Sun
has looked down on me. With full radiance His bright light has shone on me, and I
amdarkened by His heat. I have not indeed received His light into myself.
As we
noted previously, Origen argues that the light of Christ can either darken or lighten
the soul, depending on its receptivity. A permeable soul absorbs the light of Christ
through repentance and thereby becomes beautied by illumination. The opaque
soul repels the light of Christ, which results in spiritual darkness and ugliness. In
section three Origens portrayal of blackness in his commentary and homily on
Song 1:5 will be analyzed further.
I Gregory of Nyssa: The Bride as the Beautied Soul
Gregory of Nyssas fteen homilies on the Song of Songs follow the same
hermeneutical trajectory that began with Hippolytus of Rome (b. 17075 C.E.),
whom most scholars agree composed the rst Christian allegorical interpretation of
the Song of Songs.
Origen, however, receives the credit for giving the allegorical
reading of the Song its classic expression.
In fact, Gregory acknowledges Origens
exposition in his prologue and situates his commentary alongside it: Although
Origen laboriously applied himself to the Song of Songs, we too have desired to
publish our efforts.
Their commentaries, though similar in hermeneutical and
theological approach, differ in symbolic emphasis. Gregory identies the Bride
primarily with the individual soul, while Origen identies her mainly with the
church. Quasten remarks:
The Song of Songs represents to him the union of love between God and the
soul under the gure of a wedding. It is this aspect of the book that predomi-
nates in Gregorys commentary in contrast to Origen, who, particularly in his
homilies on the subject, prefers to regard the Bride as the Church [specically
the Gentile Church]an interpretation that Gregory does not neglect, but
relegates to a minor role.
Ibid, 278.
For an extensive treatment of Gregorys commentary on the Song of Songs, see Franz Dnzls
Braut and Brutigam: die Auslegung des Caniticum durch Gregor von Nyssa (Beitrge zur Geschichte
der biblischen Exegese 32; Tbingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 1993).
Gregory of Nyssa, Commentary on the Song of Songs (trans. Casimir McCambley; Brookline,
Mass.: Hellenic College Press, 1987) 56. All references to Gregory will utilize McCambleys
Gregory, Commentary. 39.
Johannes Quasten remarks on the relationship between Gregory and Origen: The forward
concludes with high praise of Origen, whose mystical exegesis has beyond doubt had a powerful
inuence on Gregory. Nevertheless, Gregory is too deep and independent a thinker to follow slav-
ishly the Alexandrian master (Patrology [Utrecht: Spectrum Publishers, 19641966] 3:266).
Much like Origen, however, Gregory posits that the Song has deeper levels of
meaning beyond the literal storyline.
When understood properly, it functions
as a paradigmatic text for the transmission of both philosophical and theological
knowledge: Once again the Song of Songs (to Aioo tmv oootmv) is presented
to us as a guide for every type of philosophy and knowledge of God (ioooio
tc xoi 0coyvmoio).
Gregory operates with a twofold conception of the text that
corresponds to the twofold levels of meaning. The exterior or literal level appears
easily apprehensible by everyone. Conversely, the interior or symbolic meaning
requires purication from sin as a necessary precondition for accessing its meaning:
All these things can be found in the literal meaning if we only prepare ourselves
to enter the Holy of Holies (to oyio tmv oyimv) after having been puried from
the lth (uaov) of shameful thoughts by the bath of the Word (tm outpi tou
Just as entry into the Holy of Holies was forbidden to the unclean, so
entry into the mystical knowledge of God is forbidden to the sinful.
Those who
have cleansed themselves from sin have the capacity to apprehend the mysteries
hidden within the story.
Once the puried soul perceives that a gurative narrative runs parallel to the
literal story (though on a hidden, mystical level), the true spiritual meaning can
emerge. Gregory depicts the Bride in Song 1:5 as a teacher instructing her pupils
about the mysteries of God. Her self-description as black and beautiful (c oivo
xoi xop ) discloses not her self-perception or complexion but rather the nature of
divine love. For Gregory, the Bride represents the soul, and the predication of black-
ness denotes its sinfulness: I have become dark through sin (c ootio).
Brides blackness signies the repulsiveness that results from the souls wicked
deeds. Consequently, in harmony with Origen, Gregory explicitly characterizes
blackness as the antithesis of beauty. Something makes the Bride beautiful despite
being black: Although I am black, I am now this beautiful form, for the image of
blackness has been transformed into beauty (ctcoxcuoo0p yo to ooimo tou
oxotou ci xoou op v).
When juxtaposing their commentaries, one sees
that Gregory and Origen employ similar hermeneutical methods and interpretive
categories in their exegesis of this verse. Both employ symbolic interpretations
and utilize racial categories to describe the spiritual state of the soul. Moreover,
blackness represents their principal symbol for spiritual sinfulness, repulsiveness,
and ugliness, which indicates the quality of the soul that the Bridegroom must
either overlook or transform.
Norris, The Song of Songs, xx, 37. Gregory follows Origens twofold application of a moral
(individual soul) and Christological or ecclesiastical (the church) reading of the Song.
Gregorii Nysseni, In CanticumCanticorum(ed. W. Jaeger; trans. Hermannus Langerbeck; Gregorii
Nysseni Opera, vol. 6; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1960) 59. This paper cites from this critical edition.
Gregory, Commentary, 60.
Ibid. 61.
According to Gregory, the fundamental theological meaning of this verse is not
humanitys sinfulness but rather of Gods immense love for mankind.
In her
sinful condition the Bride remains unsuitable for marriage, but her Bridegroom
graciously transforms her ugliness into beauty. Gregory delineates the salvic
process by which the soul becomes beautiful through the interrelated concepts of
incarnation and atonement:
Although I have become dark through sin and have dwelt in gloom by my
deeds, the Bridegroom made me beautiful through his love, having exchanged
his very own beauty for my disgrace [Is 53:23; Phil 2:7]. After taking the
lth of my sins upon himself, he allowed me to share his own purity, and
lled me with his beauty.
Gregory delineates the nature of divine love, which deigns to enter into the human
condition and assume humanitys sinfulness for its salvation. The Brides beauty
metaphorically expresses the souls salvation from sin, and by imitating Christ the
sinful soul grows in beauty. Gregory, like Origen, associates the souls blackness
with its past sin: My former life has created this dark, shadowy appearance ( t to
oxotcivov xoi omoc).
Although the souls past sins impinge upon its present
existence, it nevertheless remains beautiful on the grounds that it abides loved by
The traces of sin indelibly afxed to the soul do not mar its beauty,
since these traces only indicate a sign of its past life, not its present reality.
Gregory posits a theological link between Song 1:5 and Rom 5:8: But God
proves his love for us in that while we were sinners Christ died for us. Both
Gods love and humanitys sinfulness constitute the central features of both texts,
he avers. Gregory expounds Rom 5:8 using the racial categories of Song 1:5: Al-
though we were darkened through sin, God made us bright (mtocioci ) and loving
through his resplendent grace.
Here Gregory applies the duality of darkness and
light to soteriological transformation. The gloom of night (i.e., sin) has darkened
our souls, although they are light by nature (oao xoto uoiv), and stand
in need of spiritual illumination. Salvation means the process whereby the soul
becomes beautiful by internalizing Christs resplendent grace. Gregory illustrates
the soteriological import of Song 1:5 using Pauls conversion: Paul, the bride of
Christ, had become radiant from darkness.
Hence, just as the Brides blackness
transformed into beauty, so Paul, a blasphemer, persecutor, insulter, and black in
color (c o), became illuminated, in effect made spiritually light/white, by Christ.
This transformation from darkness to light, in other words, from sin to salvation,
occurs in the cleansing of baptism, which symbolizes the bath of regeneration
Ibid., 60.
Ibid., 61.
that washes away the souls dark form (p oxotcivp op ). Gregory argues,
then, that Paul conceives of salvation as the enlightenment of the darkened soul:
Paul also says that Christ entered the world to enlighten those who were dark.
Hence, Gregory correlates Pauls explicit soteriology in Romans with the implicit
soteriology of Song 1:5.
Gregory adduces another scriptural passage to elucidate his notion of the souls
salvic enlightenment. In Ps 87:4 the citizenry of the heavenly Jerusalem in-
cludes Ethiopia and other foreign peoples.
The demographics of the city of God,
Gregory avers, will be multi-ethnic and multi-national. Interestingly, he comments
that the Ethiopians become light in color in the heavenly city, a change which
symbolically marks their salvic transformation. When applied to the narrative,
Gregory argues that this passage reveals the Bridegrooms goodness in accepting
his black Bride. When read allegorically, however, it testies to the goodness of
Christ, who receives the blackened soul and restores its beauty by fellowship
with himself (tp ao coutov xoivmvio xopv oacyoctoi).
Salvation, ac-
cording to Gregory, consists of the beautication of the soul that ensues from its
purication from sin. But the negative metaphysical or spiritual status of blackness
entails that the souls beauty requires illumination or whitening. By conceiving of
salvation as the process of becoming light or white, he makes blackness an evil
quality both spiritually and physically. Although Gregory only draws a correlation
between blackness and sin on a spiritual level, it nevertheless tends to reinforce
racially prejudiced opinions. He may, thus, inadvertently provide transcendental
legitimization for prejudicial views, since the material world ought to reect truths
in the spiritual realm. In the nal two sections, I shall develop this critique and
advance a theological solution.
After explicating verse ve, Gregory proceeds to expound on the closely inter-
connected verse six. Apparently the Bride, not originally black, became black by
exposure to the sun: Do not gaze at me because I am dark, because the sun has
gazed on me (Song 1:6). Allegorically this verse accounts for the origin of evil,
which the pigmentation of the Bride symbolically represents. Just as the Bride
originated white, so the soul originated pure of sin. Moreover, just as the Bride
became dark by exposure to the sun, so the soul becomes sinful by succumbing
to temptation: The cause of darkness is not ascribed to the Creator, but its origin
is attributed to the free will of each person.
Blackness, then, does not appear
natural, either spiritually or physically. Gregory focuses not on the literal level
but on the spiritual implications that follow, namely, the theological anthropology
that it suggests: Human nature was an image of the true light, far removed from
Ibid., 62.
any darkness: it gleamed by imitation of the archetypes beauty.
The natural light
or white condition of the soul, then, corresponds to its condition as originally pure
and enlightened by God. But by their exercise of free will, souls become burned
by the sin that results from yielding to temptation, which renders it ugly: The sun
burns the bright surface of the body by the assault of temptations and blackens its
form in ugliness,
The anthropology that he develops from Song 1:6, therefore,
reinforces the negative association between blackness and sinfulness. Blackness,
he argues, results from a perversion of the original white, pure condition of the
Gregory returns to the theme of the Brides beauty in his fourth homily. Before
commenting on the passionate panegyric in verses 1516 of chapter one, Gregory
pauses to reect once more on the nature of spiritual beauty and corruption, a topic
which he introduced in his exegesis of Song 1:5. He compares the souls purica-
tion from sin and return to primal beauty to the purication of adulterated gold
through re. In the beginning human souls remained bright by virtue of their pure
reection of God: Human nature was golden at the beginning and shone by reason
of its resemblance to the undeled good.
But a foreign matter became mixed
with the soul and resulted in its delement and adulteration. The advent of sin viti-
ated the souls ability to reect Gods light. Verse ve, he observes, symbolically
indicated this problem: However, it [the soul] became discolored and blackened
by the admixture of vice as we have heard the Bride say at the beginning of the
Song of Songs: her neglect to tend the vineyard made her black [1:5].
Sin, then,
represents the failure of the soul to continue in its natural and proper good. In its
sinful state the soul becomes discolored and blackened (ou oou xoi c oivo),
since impurities have adulterated its golden or bright hue. The categories implied
here cohere with Gregorys earlier ones. A healthy, pure soul remains golden and
bright, while an unhealthy, impure soul becomes discolored and blackened. The
source of the darkening of the soul, consistent with the symbolic matrix outlined
above, comes from sin.
As before, Gregory does not place the weight of his allegorical interpretation
on the sinfulness of the blackened soul. On the contrary, he accentuates the solu-
tion, not the problem, gleaned from Song 1:5. Mired by sin and diminished in its
capacity to reect the divine, the soul stands in need of grace, just as the Bride
needs beautication. Not willing to put her away quietly, God restores her original
state of beauty, which corresponds to Gods redemption of the soul:
God, who fashions all things in his wisdom, cares for his Brides deformity.
He does not contrive for her any new beauty which was not formerly there;
Ibid., 63
Ibid., 91. See also Gregorii, Canticum, 100.
rather, He leads her back to her rst grace by removing what was blackened
through evil, changing her color to one which is not deled.
A spiritually black soul, deformed, unnatural, and deling, requires salvation or
beautication, namely, the return to the pristine beauty of the soul by the removal of
the grime of sin. To illustrate the souls purication, Gregory returns to the analogy
of the goldsmith. Just as adulterated gold needs to undergo multiple purications
by re to restore it to its unalloyed state, so the sinful soul requires repeated puri-
cations, before one can cleanse it from all stain of sin and restore it to its natural
state of beauty: So too the attendant of the blackened gold, i.e., the Bridegroom,
has brightened the soul by a kind of rening process through the application of his
So Gregory develops here the themes of divine love and salvation as
beautication, which involve a change from darkness to brightness through the
analogy of the renement of gold.
In summary, then, salvation, for Gregory, means the restoration of the souls
original state. Put in the terms of the Song, salvation means beautication, and
beautication entails changing from black to white: The Song teaches by these
words about the restoration of beauty which the Bride gained by approaching the
true beauty from which she has departed.
The Origenistic theme of the fall and
return of souls informs Gregorys soteriology. Beauty forms Gregorys central
soteriological category, which he deploys throughout his commentary. In his ex-
egesis of Song 1:15: Behold, you are fair, my companion, Gregory alludes to
Song 1:5 and succinctly articulates his theological anthropology and hamartiology,
namely, the souls primal beauty and its corruption through sin: Formerly you were
not fair. Having strayed from the archetypal beauty by association with vice, you
became ugly.
The misuse of free will, he asserts, causes sin. Beauty remains the
symbol for salvation, and ugliness remains the symbol for sin. Furthermore, beauty
and ugliness correspond to whiteness and blackness, which constitute the dening
features for each. So for Gregory the story of the Bride conveys deep anthropological
and soteriological truth. He emphasizes not the souls ontological dilemma (sin),
but the divine love as expressed through its beautication (salvation).
In his interpretation of Song 1:5, Gregory consistently posits a symbolic matrix,
wherein the Brides blackness represents the souls sinfulness. At rst the soul pos-
Ibid. 92. The soul functions like a mirror that reects whatever it is exposed to, according to
Gregory. By turning away from evil the soul is able to become beautiful by reecting the Beauti-
ful One: So too the soul, when cleansed by the Word from vice, it receives within itself the suns
orb and shines with this reected light. Therefore, the Word says to his Bride: You have become
beautiful by approaching my light; by drawing near to me, you have attained communion with my
beauty (93).
Ibid., 92.
sessed a beautiful quality expressed by the metaphor of whiteness or brightness.
But once sin corrupted its original beauty, it developed an ugly quality expressed
by the metaphor of darkness or blackness. Since sinfulness and temptation lurk
outside of Gods original creation, ugliness must ultimately have a satanic origin,
although that begs the question of the origin of Satan.
At any rate, darkness, for
Gregory, is antithetical to beauty; I have noted the detrimental implications of
this symbolism for racial discourse and will expand on them momentarily. More-
over, Gregory considers the quality of blackness unnatural, since souls originated
golden or bright, and their salvation consists of returning to that state. At bottom,
then, the passage speaks to the nature of sin and salvation: The Song of Songs
then speaks about our transformation from a good color (cuoio) to blackness
Gregory, however, cautions against interpreting the words in the Song
very precisely, recommending instead a symbolic hermeneutic.
One must read
the racial categories presented in Song 1:5 allegorically, not literally, in order to
avoid detrimental misapprehensions and misapplications.
I Black Theology and the Soteriological Foci of Song 1:5
We must now ask whether or not Origen and Gregorys allegorical interpretations
withstand the searching critiques of black theology. But before we embark on
this stage of the argument, we must raise an important methodological question:
is it fair to evaluate their exegesis from a modern hermeneutical and theological
perspective? We must bear in mind that modern racism and a black theology,
sensitive to the problem of racism and exploitation in recent history, did not exist
in antiquity in the same way that it does for contemporary society. From the outset,
then, we must vigilantly avoid anachronistically assessing their racial discourse by
standards that they could not possibly meet. As I mentioned in the introduction, all
exegesis remains deeply contextual, and so we cannot expect Origen and Gregory
to treat this racially charged material with the critical nuance of a modern exegete.
They attended to the social and theological problems of their time and particularly
to Jewish-Christian relations and the doctrine of salvation. In light of this, I would
consider it unfair and misguided to subject them to modern critical standards.
Although we must avoid anachronistic judgments, we may nonetheless ask prob-
ing questions about the racial implications and undercurrents of their exegesis. Can
one justify their use of racial metaphors? Does their treatment of this verse promote
or reinforce racial prejudices? I submit that Origen and Gregory interpret Song 1:
5 soteriologically, not racially, which demonstrates both their ability to transcend
these racial categories and their appropriation of negative black symbolism. For
Origen, the condition of blackness denotes, not a negative physical state, but a nega-
The origin of evil must lay in the privation of the good, since everything God creates is
Ibid., 63.
Ibid. 6364.
tive spiritual state. He does not equate black pigmentation with ugliness, because
the quality of blackness constitutes simply a metaphorical description of the souls
sinful state: it in no way indicates or promotes any anti-black sentiment. It would
not occur to him to make an aesthetical judgment of colored bodies, since he seeks
only to ascertain the spiritual sense of blackness. In fact, he plainly avers: She [the
Bride] is not speaking of bodily blackness.
The darkness of the Bride functions
merely as his point of entry for reecting on the purication of the Gentile church
and the soul from a state of sin to a state of salvation. His employment of racial
categories was a matter of textual necessity rather than personal preference. Given
the presence of these categories, however, he does not use them as an occasion to
legitimize racial stereotypes but rather to see in the narrative profound ecumeni-
cal truths about the movement from sin to salvation. Origen thus transcends these
racial categories by transposing the context from the physical to the spiritual. True
beauty for him remains a condition, not of the body, but of the soul.
But this explanation does not imply that Origens exegesis is completely free of
negative racial symbolism. In his Homilies on Jeremiah Origen adduces Song 1:5
within a wider commentary on Jeremiah 13:11. Just as the linen mentioned in this
verse appears dark at the beginning but becomes bright through effort, so the soul
appears dark at the start of its purication but eventually becomes cleansed: We
are dark at the beginning in believinghence in the beginning of the Canticle of
Canticles it is said, I am very dark and beautiful, and we look like the soul of an
Ethiopian at the beginning.
What does Origen mean by looking like tpv upv
Ai 0i oiv?
He seems to suggest that the souls of Ethiopians, not simply the
Bride, correspond to their skin color, with the implication that black people have
black souls. Although the absence of the denite article suggests that he means all
Ethiopians, it seems more plausible, given his explicit reference to Song 1:5, that
he limits the ascription of a blackened soul to the Bride. In any case, this condition
of blackness precedes the souls purication through baptism and enlightenment:
Then we are cleansed so that we may be more bright according to the passage,
Who is she who comes up whitened (Song 8:5)? d
Blackness, as the color of the
earth, must become more white and bright (oao tcoi), before the soul becomes
worthy to cling to God (xooo0oi tm 0cm), which coheres with his notion of
the progressive purication of the soul. In contrast to his commentary, however,
he seems to draw a more explicit correspondence between black skin and a black
(i.e., sinful) soul.
Origen, Commentary II.2, 107.
Origen, Homily 11.6.3, from Origen, Homilies on Jeremiah, Homily on 1 Kings 28 (trans.
John Clark Smith; The Fathers of the Church 97; Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of
America Press, 1998) 109.
Origen, Homlies sur Jrmie IXI (trans. Pierre Husson and Pierre Nautin; Sources chrtiennes I
323; Paris: Cerf, 1976) 430.
Origen, Homilies on Jeremiah, 11.6.3, 109.
Origens exegesis of Song 1:6 evinces the most racially offensive material in his
commentary, although he does not expressly disparage black skin. While expound-
ing on the allegorical meaning of this verse, he parenthetically discusses the natural
origin of physical blackness. He comments that the Ethiopian race became black
through prolonged exposure to the intense rays of the sun. Originally, he tacitly
argues, white Ethiopians became black, departing from their natural hue, only af-
ter being scorched and darkened. Once darkened, the Ethiopians transmit their
congenital stain to their progeny.
To classify blackness as a natural deformity
rather than as an expression of divine creativity reveals a parochial view of black-
ness. In these deliberations Origen presupposes whiteness as the natural condition
of humanity and blackness as an anomalous state that arises afterwards. These as-
sumptions make black pigmentation an ailment that one must overcome, if one can
invert the analogy to spiritual blackness to apply to physical blackness. By making
blackness a negative physical quality, Origen reveals the extent to which he has
internalized the ethnocentric views of his socio-historical context. The theologian
must then ask how this ethnocentrism informs his theology and later theology as
well. These opinions shape his allegorical interpretation of the Brides blackness
and explain why spiritual blackness has negative symbolic connotations.
On a more promising note, however, Origens mystical interpretation posits an
anthropology that negates racial and ethnic differences. He attempts to express the
fundamental unity of humanity despite these distinctions, as I alluded to above:
For in me too there is that primal thing, the Image of God, wherein I was created;
and, coming now to the Word of God, I have received my beauty.
His theological
anthropology constitutes a salutary starting point for understanding the theological
signicance of race and ethnicity. If God created all humans in the image of God,
then each person, regardless of his or her racial or ethnic identity, reects (albeit
imperfectly) the beauty of divinity. Skin color cannot diminish or enhance this in-
ner beauty. Moreover, although ones dark or light hue might comprise a feature of
ones physical beauty, the real locus of beauty lies in the state of the soul, which all
share equally. As one grows in Christ, the soul becomes more beautied and less
marred by the effects of sin, which thus deepens the correspondence between ones
created capacity and existential reality. Hence, Origens universal anthropological
ground for salvic purication transcends racial categories by privileging spiritual
unity over physical differentiation. Frank Snowden afrms that Origen exhibited
no hostile opinions against blacks and actually fostered a highly favorable view
Ibid., 107.
Origen, Commentary, II.1, 92. Norris, The Song of Songs, 39. Norris translates this passage
as follows: For in me what is most elemental and deep-seated is that which has been made after
the image of God; and now drawing near to the Word of God I have recovered my beauteous ap-
of blacks.
Nevertheless, Origen does appropriate an ancient view of race even in
his allegorical interpretation: In his language of spiritual blackness and whiteness
Origens adaptation of the Greco-Roman back-white imagery is clear, but equally
clear is his indebtedness to classical themes of black-white contrast.
In this
way Origen overcomes anti-black sentiments latent within these polarities.
he does not, pace Snowden, entirely wrest himself free of all negative attitudes.
Nevertheless, he makes great strides in that direction.
Gregory also employs racial categories in his homiletic exegesis of the Song
but, like Origen, he uses them not to promote or reinforce racism but to illustrate
deep spiritual truth. He probes beyond the surface meaning, and, as with Origen,
does more than merely equate blackness with sin. The souls blackness only marks
the beginning of the knowledge disclosed by this verse. For Gregory, the essential
point remains not the sinfulness of the soul but the love of God who transforms the
souls ugliness into beauty: The Bride further speaks to her pupils of an amazing
fact about herself in order that we might learn of the Bridegrooms immense love
for mankind who added beauty to the beloved [Bride] through such love.
than simply diagnosing the problem, Gregorys exegesis celebrates the solution
to sin: the beautication of the soul through Christ. God demonstrates the depth
of divine love by loving humanity despite their sin and by emptying Godself for
its amelioration. This verse, then, far from merely appropriating negative and
antiquated assumptions about blackness, uses the given racial categories of the
narrative to illustrate and to extol the magnitude of Gods love. He transforms what
one might justiably perceive as a relic of ancient bigotry into an ode to Gods
love for lost souls. Thus, Gregory shifts the focus from the negative connotations
associated with black skin to the spiritual reality of the sinfulness of humanity and
the salvation afforded by God.
The theological afrmation of Gods love combines with his soteriological em-
phasis on the souls beautication. Gregory expresses his soteriological viewpoint
through the analogy of the Brides transformation fromblackness to beauty, which
corresponds to the souls transformation from sin to salvation. He characterizes the
souls purication as an exchange, whereby Christ imparts his beauty to the soul
and assumes the sin of the soul.
Two important passages underpin his soteriology:
Frank Snowden, Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks (Cambridge, Mass.:
Harvard University Press, 1983) 66.
Snowden, 103.
Snowden, 101.
Gregory, Fourth Homily, 60.
Ibid., 6061, 67. This idea anticipates what Luther later called the great exchange between
the soul and Christ whereby Christs righteousness becomes ours, and our sinfulness becomes his. In
Luthers Two Kinds of Righteousness and The Freedom of a Christian he illustrates his soteriology
by employing the Song of Songs portrayal of the love between married lovers (e.g., TKR, 297; FC,
351). In a marriage union all that belongs to the Bridegroom is given to the Bride, and vice versa
(TKR, 297). Likewise, according to Luther, all that belongs to Christ belongs to the Christian and
the Suffering Servant song in Isaiah 53 and the hymn to Christ in Philippians 2.
He does not explicate the mechanics of this exchange between the soul and Christ,
but the main lines of his conception appear clear. God the Son descends into the
human condition, assumes humanitys sinfulness, and puries the soul from sin
by lling it with his beauty and making it lovely.
He enlightens the previously
black in color souls.
Though tempting, it would be anachronistic to cast Origen and Gregory as
nascent black theologians. But it would also be anachronistic to cast them as
anti-black. The situation is more complex than either option suggests. Origen and
Gregory exhibited favorable attitudes toward blackness, but they also reected
negative attitudes.
I submit that they transcended these categories by denying their
ultimate signicance and by utilizing them to convey profound soteriological truth.
Nevertheless, for the modern reader, the association between blackness and sin and
whiteness and salvation remains problematic. One can mitigate the force of this
objection by highlighting their shared sense of a common theological anthropol-
ogy, whereby the souls of all people, regardless of skin color, reect the image of
God (as Origen writes) and share an archetypal beauty (so Gregory), before they
fall into sin. Moreover, with Snowden, one could praise them for their ecumenical
and global conception of salvation: Origen and his exegetical disciples made it
clear that all men, regardless of the color of their skin, were called to faith, and in
their interpretations they employed a deeply spiritualized black-white imagery.
The problem remains, however, that symbolic associations between blackness and
sin carry over to the physical realm and engender negative racial attitudes. They
certainly did not intend thisand Snowden correctly notes that skin color did not
give rise to a marked antipathy toward blacks and did not evoke negative reactions
in the domain of social behaviorbut it nevertheless follows as an unintended
all that belongs to the Christian belongs to Christ. The union between the soul and Christ entails an
exchange of attributes whereby Christs grace, life, and salvation becomes the souls while sin,
death, and damnation, which belong to the soul, becomes Christs (FC, 351).
Ibid., 60.
Ibid., 61.
Gregorys positive attitude toward darkness is expressly seen in his Life of Moses, where
Moses sees God in the darkness, which signies the unknown and unseen (96). Darkness is the
condition for spiritual enlightenment: What is now recounted seems somehow to be contradictory
to the rst theophany, for then the Divine was beheld in light but now he is seen in darkness.
Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses (trans. Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson; New
York: Paulist Press, 1978) 95.
Snowden, Before Color Prejudice, 107.
I Origen and Gregory of Nyssa: The First Apostles of Blackness?
Black theology raises salient criticisms about the stigma attached to blackness and
the concomitant fusion of the physical with the moral and ontological. Within the
context of the patristic period, Robert Hood remarks that the church appropriated
the dominant cultural attitudes toward blacks and blackness: During the forma-
tive years of the Christian church in the Roman Empire, blackness not only had
a distinctive negative connotation, but also was personalized as the devil.
church expressed spiritual categories in terms of shade and color polarities, where
light and white signied spirit and divine goodness, and dark and black signied
materiality and evil. Hood further comments that these categories ltered into the
patristic exegesis of Song 1:5, which intentionally deviates from the Septuagint
nuance of the verse because of a widespread uneasiness about the correlation
between blackness and beauty:
The Greek-language Septuagint translated the Hebrew I am black and beauti- d
ful; the Latin Vulgate by Jerome resisted the theological implications of the
Greek Nigra sum et pulchra and instead renders it in the Latin Nigra sum sed
formosa: I am black but comely (or beautifully formed). (Cf. RSV: I am
very dark, but comely.)
Hood extols Origen as the rst apostle of blackness because he transforms
blackness into a positive witness to salvation in his commentaries and homilies on
the Song of Songs.
Hoods insight into Origen could equally apply to Gregory,
who also redeployed black imagery to positive ends. In contrast with Hood, Frank
Snowden argues that we have no evidence of racial prejudice in the ancient world:
The ancient world did not make color the focus of irrational sentiments or the
basis for uncritical evaluation . . . nothing comparable to the virulent color preju-
dice of modern times existed in the ancient world.
Snowden rightly afrms the
fact that the ancients did not fall into the error of biological racism; black skin
color was not a sign of inferiority, but, conversely, Hood rightly afrms that
we do have evidence of negative connotations associated with blackness.
studying Origen and Gregorys interpretation of Song 1:5, we may conclude that
Hoods thesis about the early churchs attitude toward blacks seems too pessimistic,
while Snowdens appears too optimisticthe truth lies somewhere in between.
Origen and Gregory at once exhibit negative attitudes toward blackness and posi-
tive attitudes toward the salvic import of black imagery. Our analysis shows that
while we cannot classify Origen and Gregory as the rst apostles of blackness,
Robert E. Hood, Begrimed and Black: Christian Traditions on Blacks and Blackness (Min-
neapolis: Fortress Press, 1994) 73.
Hood, 75.
Idem., 18, 80.
Snowden, Before Color Prejudice, 63.
we may nonetheless recognize their positive employment of the racial categories
inherent in this verse, despite the fact that the very use of these categories involves
problematic assumptions. For Origen the black Bride corresponds primarily to the
Gentile church and his central metaphor for salvation is purication. For Gregory
the Bride corresponds primarily to the soul and his central metaphor for salvation is
beautication. For both the racial categories in Song 1:5 are a gateway to profound
soteriological truth, not racism.
I Conclusion
When the church fathers read the Song of Songs, they perceived deep theological
truths beneath the surface narrative. The passionate nuptial relationship detailed
in the story, often in overtly erotic terms, became in the industrious hands of the
Fathers an allegory of Christs relationship to the soul and the church. Origen and
Gregory exemplify this hermeneutical trajectory and while some might character-
ize their homilies and commentaries on the Song of Songs as eisegesis rather than
exegesis, their speculative ights nonetheless have captured the imagination of
generations of exegetes. By treating Origen and Gregory together in this essay I do
not mean to elide their differences. As I stated above, they have disparate symbolic
emphases. Nevertheless, their exegesis of the Song of Songs evinces remarkable
similarities. With respect to Song 1:5, they both afrm the soteriological signicance
of the Brides blackness, though with slightly different nuances. For both, the story
manifests divine grace in symbolic shades. Once the symbolism of these shades
of grace comes into view, the potentially offensive racial aspects of the narrative
become less problematic, though not altogether obsolete. In this way, Origen and
Gregorys soteriological exegesis of the racially charged language in this verse opens
up new exegetical pathways for black theology. It also provides a new imaginative
context for Christian theology to conceive of divine love and salvation.
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