Some notes upon Apponius and his commentary on the Song of Songs

It is rare that I come across a wholly unfamiliar patristic writer.  But among the results of a Cetedoc search on Matthew 27:25 was a quotation from “Apponius”:

Apponius – In Canticum canticorum expositio (CPL 0194) lib. : 12, line: 1136
Quos omnes non est dubium manibus aures oculos que clausisse, ne tam horridam uocem audirent dicentium: Crucifige talem, et: Sanguis eius super nos et super filios nostros, aut ne tantum nefas intenderent, quod etiam sol et astra absconsa sunt ne uiderent.

Erm … who?!  There is not even a Wikipedia article for him.  Philip S. Alexander rightly states:

Apponius is a very shadowy figure.[1]

So I thought that some notes might be useful.  My first port of call was Quasten’s Patrology[2]  Here is the entry:

An Expositio in Canticum Canticorum, generally held to have been written in Italy and probably at Rome between 405 and 415 has been transmitted under the name of Aponius, who is considered to have been a Roman, perhaps of Eastern origin. Some, however, judge it to be the work of an Irish author from the seventh century (cf. CPL, p. 43). The earlier date is nevertheless to be preferred because of the author’s delight in combatting the heretics of the fourth century, his interest in the Church of Rome, and, above all, because of the fact that he makes no reference to the Pelagian Controversy, although his favorite theme, the church without stain, would have had to have led him to deal with the Pelagian question (Riedlinger).

The twelve books of the Explanatio are written in a somewhat rough but always vivid Latin and are based on the text of Jerome’s Vulgate. Aponius, who is also acquainted with the commentary on the Canticle attributed to Hippolytus of Rome, follows the Origenist tradition and presents a Christological exegesis of the Canticle, considering it entirely from the spiritual point of view in connection with the history of salvation. He therefore seeks to emphasize the relation between Christ and the church from the very beginning of this history. Under the evident influence of the Jewish exegesis taken up again by Hippolytus, he also takes an interest in the destiny of the Jews within the scope of divine providence and the continuity of Old Testament forms in the Christian world. Just as the Jewish exegetes had recognized in the Canticle the historical vicissitudes of their people, so Aponius finds in it the history of divine revelation from creation until the last judgment, concluding with the conversion of Israel (12, 277: PLS I, 1023).

Aponius furthermore sees in the Canticle the representation of the union between Christ and the faithful soul and, not infrequently, of the intimate union between the Word and the human soul of Jesus.

Recent scholarship has shown a special interest for the way in which Aponius uses the idea of representation, for he designates both the sacerdotes et doctores (bishops or others) and in particular the bishop of Rome as vicarii of God, of Christ, or of the Apostles.

No less interesting is the Christological orientation of Aponius’ Explanatio, undoubtedly due to Origen, his principal example. Indeed, in the West at that time, no other author dealt to such an extent and in such detail with the human soul of Christ (Grillmeier, 385). Aponius insists on the role of this soul and makes the work of redemption depend on its free decision (11, 179: PLS I, 961 f). Although taking up the Origenist idea of the perfect union between the Word and the soul of Jesus, he, nevertheless, does not place the accent on the Christus gloriae but rather on the Christ of the cross since, according to him, that union became indissoluble at the moment of the death on the cross (12, 242: PLS I, 1020f), when Christ, i.e., his elect soul, brought peace into the world by reconciling it with God (12, 236f: PLS I, 1015). Thus Aponius’ Christology, inspired to a great extent by Origen but influenced likewise by Western traditions, anticipates in some way the Cur Deus homo of Anselm of Canterbury (Grillmeier, 388). Furthermore, Aponius displays a theological and philosophical culture based on the confluence of secular philosophy with exegesis of a Neoplatonic type (cf. Courcells).

The Explanatio of Aponius does not seem to have exercised extensive influence. Nevertheless, Gregory the Great and Bede the Venerable were acquainted with it and it appeared again in the ninth century in an abridged form of twelve homilies (Bellet).

Editions: (Cf. CPL 194) PLS I, 800-1031 (H. Bottino and J. Martini, 1843).

There is some additional bibliography giving studies, which I have omitted.

A Google search revealed an editio princeps, of only 6 books, in 1538, which also includes the medieval epitome by Luke the Abbot.[3]

The edition listed by Quasten, of Bottino and Martini (1843), is a little difficult to track down, but seeing that it is listed in a catalogue as “Aponii scriptoris vetustissimi in Canticum Canticorum explanationis libri 12 / Quorum alias editi, emendati et aucti, inediti vero hactenus desiderati e codice Sessoriano monachorum Cisterciensium S. Crucis in Jerusalem Urbis nunc primum vulgantur. Curantibus Hieronymo Bottino [Bottino, Gerolamo], Josepho Martini [Martini, Giuseppe]. Romae 1843: Typ. S. Congregationis de propaganda fide. XIX, 256 S., 1 Taf.”, I was able to find an online copy at here.

The “PLS” edition, the Patrologia Latina Supplementum, is impossible to locate online.

A new edition exists, in the Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, vol. 19 (1986), edited by B. De Vregille and L. Neyrand.  It is 658 pages.

Thankfully the same editors also produced a Sources Chrétiennes edition, with French translation, in 3 vols.[4].  There is also a German translation of books 1-3 and 12.[5]

Let us return to Philip S. Alexander, and see what he says about Apponius’ commentary on the Song of Songs:

This states that the Song of Songs speaks of quidquid ab initio mundi usque in finem in mysteriis egit acturusve erit Dei Sermo erga Ecclesiam. This enigmatic commentary, in its full form, is large, and as a result its historical schema does not, perhaps, emerge all that clearly from the mass of detail. But that Apponius offers a historical schema cannot be denied. Thus Cant. 1.1-2.6 covers Israel under the old dispensation; 2.7-15 refers to the incarnation; and 2.16-3.11 to the crucifixion, the resurrection, the conversion of the Church of Jerusalem and the bringing in of the Gentiles by Paul. Chs. 4-6 rather lose the chronological thread but they do speak of a time of persecution and martyrdom, and of a fall into heresy by the Church. The thread is picked up again strongly in 7.1-9, which is seen as referring to the conversion of Rome to Christianity. 7.10-8.4 deals with the barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire which are looked upon in a rather positive light, since they allowed the barbarians to be converted to Christ. This leaves only the conversion of the Jews outstanding, and Apponius anticipates this event in the exposition of Cant. 8.5-14.

Apponius is a very shadowy figure. De Vregille and Neyrand are inclined to accept Johannes Witte’s view that he wrote his commentary on Canticles (his sole known work) in Rome between 405 and 415 CE.  They are less certain that he was a converted Jew, and with good reason: there is little in his commentary to suggest a Jewish origin. His occasional sympathetic references to the Jews and his interest in Israel’s place in the divine scheme of things prove little. The persistent suggestions that he drew on Jewish Bible exegesis and perhaps even directly on the Targum of Canticles are unsubstantiated.

Alexander also states that Witte’s 1903 volume on Apponius is still the most important study.[6]

I also found on Google Books a preview of The Voice of My Beloved: The Song of Songs in Western Medieval Christianity, by E. Ann Matter (2010), which was rather interesting.  After discussing the commentary of Gregory of Elvira, she goes on (p.89-91, footnotes omitted):

The Tractatus de epithalamio of Gregory of Elvira thus provided a model for exegesis of the Song of Songs which made the narrative of God’s love for the Church into a polemic for orthodoxy. This is also true to some extent though not exclusively, of other commentaries from the age of the great councils. The influential commentary of Apponius, for example, while relying on the same sources as Gregory of Elvira, makes a striking contrast to this strident exclusivity. Apponius is an obscure author whose major (and perhaps only) work, In Canticum Canticorum expositionem was not printed until 1843, and has only recently appeared in a critical edition. As Grillmeier has shown, this interpretation of the Song of Songs presents itself squarely within the Christian polemics of the age: it argues Christ’s divinity against the Arians and Christ’s humanity against the Gnostics, and echoes Origen’s stress on the soul of Christ and the human soul.

Apponius emerges from the difficult pages of this work as a complicated and rather cosmopolitan figure. His attitude towards the disputes of fourth-century Christianity is far more tolerant and sophisticated than that of the Bishop of Elvira, yet the reasons for this tolerance are obscure. In fact, many things about Apponius are obscure. He has been credited with knowledge of Greek and several Semitic languages, but this has been disputed.  He has been described as a native of fifth-century Syria or of seventh-century Ireland, or as a converted Jew, all with little evidence. Recent scholarship has suggested that the Song of Songs commentary of Apponius was written between 398 and 404, perhaps in Italy, or among an Italian literary circle. His commentary on the Song of Songs seems to show knowledge of Jewish biblical interpretation, but this may be secondary, as he is heavily dependent on Jerome. Apponius also cites from the Latin translations of Origen on the Song of Songs, and a number of grammatical and scicntific texts of late antiquity.” Like Jerome, Apponius may be most accurately described as a Christian who lived and studied in Italy and/or Palestine, and perhaps had some connexion with an intellectual center such as Caesarea, where many worlds—East and West, Christian and Jewish, Semitic, Greek, and Latin—came together.

It is not surprising, therefore, that Apponius’s work on the Song of Songs is most widely known in the Latin Middle Ages in the form of an adaptation into twelve homilies attributed to Jerome. This version, known by its incipit, “Veri amoris,” is found in twice as many manuscripts as the original, significantly, in copies associated with monastic houses in France and the Low Countries.   …

At the beginning of the commentary, Apponius promises to show the hidden wit of the rough text of the Song of Songs, “following in the tracks of ancient teachers,” and “by using the examples of the Hebrews.” The latter may refer to rabbinic interpretation, or it may indicate use of the Vulgate Bible translation of Jerome, which Apponius consulted along with other Latin translations.” Whether or not Apponius actually knew Hebrew, there are hints throughout of his awareness of the Jewish tradition of Song of Songs interpretation. Near the beginning of Book I, he recalls Akiba’s defense of the Song of Songs, stating that it speaks not at all of carnal love (“which the Gentiles call cupidity”) but is “totally spiritual, totally worthy of God, and totally the salvation of souls;” just below is a remarkably clear reference to the commonplace of rabbinic interpretation that the Song of Songs “was shown in figura to Moses on Mount Sinai so that he could make the Tabernacle of like beauty and measure.” At Song of Songs 1:7-8, Apponius gives an elaborate (though trinitarian) exegesis of Deuteronomy 6:5, part of the central Jewish prayer known as the Sh’ma.

This knowledge and acceptance of Judaism is in striking contrast to the vituperations of Gregory of Elvira, and indeed, to other contemporary Christian authors. Clark rightly claims that Apponius even “outstrips Origen in his positive evaluation of ancient Israel.” But Apponius’s most frequent type of reference to Judaism is not to contemporary Jews, but to the role the Hebrew people played in keeping the Law before the proclamation of the Gospel. The entire commentary is structured around the ultimate triumph of the Church, against great odds, as the people of God. Apponius praises the ancient Hebrews as forerunners of the Church: they were, for example, the only ancient people to anoint with oil, and they anticipated the coming of Christ, who was praised by God’s faithful servant, Moses. The triumphalism of this message must be stressed, for to contemporary Jews, Apponius preached conversion. However more cosmopolitan and tolerant Apponius may have been, he is most like Gregory of Elvira in his firm defense of the Church militant. He shows the highest regard for both the secular and religious power of the Roman Empire, which he links to the triumph of Christianity. Like contemporary Syrian authors, but unlike the Roman Church of the fourth century, Apponius understood the Feast of the Epiphany as the birthdate of Christ; using a tradition dating from Tertullian, he emphasized the congruence of the Nativity and the foundation of the Empire under Augustus, both evidence of divine providence. This variant on Roman liturgical customs thus paradoxically serves to emphasize the importance of Rome for Christian leadership.

The first job of the literary critic, is to cause the reader of the critic to desire to read the author criticised.  Dr Matter has achieved this well.  Incidentally “Clark” is Elizabeth A. Clark, “The Uses of the Song of Songs: Origen and the Later Latin Fathers,” in Ascetic Piety and Women’s Faith: Essays on Late Ancient Christianity, 1986, pp. 386-427.

Perhaps it is time that somebody translated Apponius (or Aponius) into English!  I was able to find a couple of passages that have been translated.

First of these is a passage in the IVP Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture volume on Isaiah 1-39.  On p.142-3 is a passage from Apponius:

19:18 Five Cities in Egypt.

Hebrew, Greek, Coptic, Latin and Syriac: Five Cities. Aponius: Like one body has five senses and five movements by which all of its works are performed, so also are five different personas typified in this Canticle, each through the image of a spouse. not counting the “sixty queens’and “eighty concubines”and ‘adolescents without number,”or”daughters,”and “the only child of her mother,” who calls herself a “wall,” and she who “has no breasts.”

These five personas, I believe, denote five languages. Hebrew, the first of all languages, was the language of those from among whom the church was first assembled at the coming of Christ and to whom the first Gospel was addressed in Hebrew through the apostle Matthew. Greek is the language of those collaborators of the apostles, the Evangelists Mark and Luke, who are shown to be the first after the Hebrews to have gone on their missions. Egyptian, with which Mark the disciple of the apostles was not unfamiliar, is the tongue of those to whom he was sent as a teacher; the example he left them flowers still today with holy piety. Latin, which the ancients called Auxonian after King Auxonius, is the language of the one who has Peter, prince of the apostles, as its teacher and patron; decorated with the jewels of his doctrine, it is united by participation in Christ. It is to it, we believe, that it was said, “How beautiful are your feet in sandals, daughter of the prince!”  Fifthly, Assyrian, also called Syriac, is the tongue of the country to which the nation of ten tribes, the kingdom of Ephraim, was led away captive. By proclaiming the merit of its religion through this tongue, the people were made one body. Assyrian, then, represents the nation which was led by the Word of God “out of the wilderness” where Christ was not honored and out of the thorny conduct of humanity, to be settled in the delightful garden of sanctity.

After or apart from these languages, all the others under heaven, once converted to Christ, will be grafted into them like a limb onto a body. For everyone who believes in one omnipotent God and confesses one Redeemer, Christ, the Son of God, and receives the one Holy Spirit who proceeds from both, together constitutes the one body of the church, which is unified. as we have said. as though by the five senses. And it was prophesied quite clearly in mystery through the prophet Isaiah, I believe. that these five languages would become one language rejoicing in the praises of its one Creator by holding firm to the one faith. The coming of such a time was predicted when he said, ‘There will be in that day,” the day when the Lord will break the chains of his people, “five cities in the land of Egypt speaking the language of Canaan, one of which will be called the city of the sun.”

We know that “Egypt”means “obscurity”or “darkness,” which characterized the entire world before the incarnation of Christ, as blessed John the Evangelist taught when he said, ‘The light shone in the darkness, and the darkness has not overtaken it.” Zechariah also taught that Christ came “to illuminate those who were sitting in darkness and the shadow of death.” And the Savior himself declared, ‘I am the light of the world.’ “Canaan,” on the other hand, means “glowing chalice.” Who else are we able to understand as a glowing chalice except the Holy Spirit, who, after the ascension of the Lord, was first sent by the Father and the Son to the apostles while their faith was still cold? Of him it is said in the Acts of the Apostles that “he rested upon each one like a flame.” He filled those who spoke the one praise of the one God in the tongue of every nation, such that they appeared intoxicated to the unaware. Having received from this chalice. the five prophesied cities now speak the marvels of the omnipotent God with one mouth or one tongue, ‘that our Lord Jesus Christ.” as Paul, teacher of the Gentiles, shows, ‘is to the glory of God the Father,’ and that “no one can say that Jesus Christ is Lord except in the Holy Spirit.’ The name ‘city of the sun’ designates the one Hebrew language itself, whose kingdom is seared in Jerusalem. There is the throne, there is the temple, the holy place of worship, and there is the kingdom of Judah, whence came Christ, the Sun of justice. It is from Jerusalem, which was previously called Heliopolis, meaning “city of the sun,” that light is shed throughout the entire, darkened body of the world. From it, a healing balm is applied to every member of the church. And it was of this sun that the prophet predicted, “For you who fear the Lord, the sun of justice will rise, and healing is in its rays; and you will leap like young bulls in the middle of the herd, and you will trample your enemies until they become like the dust under your feet.” — Exposition of Song of Songs, Epilogue 89-93.

Now that is indeed very Origenian and allegorical, isn’t it?  There are two further short passages given in the same ACC volume.  Incidentally why don’t we hear more of these exceedingly useful IVP volumes of ancient commentary?

Another couple of passages appear in translation in a volume of Biblical and Near Eastern Essays[7]

… (God) enriches his Church with ‘the flowers of heavenly wisdom and the lilies of integrity’. He (Apponius) then explained that Christ became ‘the Lily of the valley’ when he took on a human body and entered the thorny world of idolaters and sinners:

“When, through the mystery of the Incarnation, he came down into this valley of tears (Ps. 83.7; Vulg) to live in the midst of the thorny thicket of sinners he declared that he had become ‘the lily of the valleys’. In this valley nothing flourished but the filthy practice of idolatry, nothing but the thorny thicket of hatred, theft, murder, divination and soothsaying, fornication and the magic arts.”[8]

The idea that Christ became ‘the lily of the valleys’ on his incarnation is from Origen[9].  Maher continues, however, thus:

The words ‘As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters’ (Cant. 2.2) allowed Apponius to develop the idea that the Church in the world is always subject to the attacks of gentiles and heretics of different kinds. These are children of the devil who do their father’s work and whose teaching poisons the atmosphere in which the faithful must live. Of these Apponius says;

“Although we are not actually told whose ‘daughters’ are those souls among whom the Church exists as ‘a lily among thorns’, nevertheless from the fact that they are compared to ‘thorns’ we can conclude that they are called ‘daughters’, not of God, but of the devil, brought to birth by his most wicked doctrines. For the Church dwells in this world in the midst of as many poisonous thorns as there are people who attack the Church with the doctrines of pagans, or with the many and varied rites of the heretics…in defence of their father (the devil)… In this way the Word of God has clearly shown that the souls of the just dwell in this world in the midst of sharp ‘thorns’. So the Christian need not be surprised when his or her body is pierced by the various thorns of the wicked.”[10]

And one final passage:

Apponius continues with a statement to the effect that Christians, who are citizens of a world in which the virtuous and the wicked live together, must avoid the company of sinners and reject their teaching. Since this is not easy one can see that the text which describes the Church as ‘a lily among thorns’ is an expression of generous praise of the faithful who refuse to be deceived by the attractions of the wicked:

“It is not so much by living in this earthly life—where the innocent and the wicked live together— but by fellowship with unbelievers that the souls of the faithful are wounded… That is why the Scriptures warn us in many places to avoid associating with such people… When Scripture says ‘As the lily among thorns so is my love among the daughters’ it is not for the purpose of finding fault with the righteous who are members of the Church but to praise them. This she does in order to teach us that it is highly praiseworthy to live devoutly among wicked and perverse people and not to conform in any way to their thorny conduct. Among such people the upright person shines like a light in the darkness’ (cf. Jn 1.5).”[11]

UPDATE: The passage referencing Matthew 27:25 may be found on p.246 of the 1843 edition.  I have also added extra material, after further searching.

  1. [1]Philip S. Alexander, “The Song of Songs as Historical Allegory” in: Kevin J. Cathcart & Michael Maher (eds), Targumic and Cognate Studies: Essays in Honour of Martin McNamara, 1996, p.25.
  2. [2]Vol. 4, p.565-6, where he is named “Aponius”.
  3. [3]Aponius: Commentariorum … in Cantica Canticorum Solomonis libri sex … Ad haec epitome commentariorum D. Aponij in eadem Cantica per Lucam Abbatem … Praeterea D. Cassiodori Abbatis … commentaria … in eadem Cantica, etc.  Issued by Johannes Faber Emmeus, Freiburg im Breisgau, 1538.  Online here.  There are many reprints.
  4. [4]Commentaire sur le Cantique des Cantiques, 1997. SC 420. , tome I. Livres I-III; SC 421. tome II. Livres IV-VIII; SC 430. tome III. Livres IX-XII
  5. [5]Hildegard König (ed), Apponius. Die Auslegung zum Lied der Lieder: Die einführenden Bücher I-III und das christologisch bedeutsame Buch IX, Freiberg: Herder, 1992.
  6. [6]Johannes Witte. Der Kommentar des Aponius zum Hohenliede. Inaugural-Dissertation,  Erlangen: K. b. Hof- und Univ.-Buchdruckerei von Junge & Sohn, 1903.  I don’t know if US readers may be able to obtain it from Google Books here.
  7. [7]Michael Maher, “A Lily among Thorns: Canticles 2:2 in the Latin Exegetical Tradition” in: Kevin J. Cathcart &c (ed), Biblical and Near Eastern Essays, 2004, 227-239.  P.232-3.
  8. [8]Apponius 3, 26; CCSL 19: 75.
  9. [9]Homiles on Canticles 2.6, Baehrens edition of 1925, 49-50.
  10. [10]Apponius 3, 29; CCSL 19: 77.
  11. [11]Apponius 3, 30; CCSL 19: 77-78.