Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Debunking Paul Johnson's Gay Reading of Song of Songs

One of the most consistently popular posts at The Wild Reed is the April 2, 2008 post "Song of Songs: The Bible's Gay Love Poem." In this post I reprint a review by Jim Kepner (from the International Gay and Lesbian Review) of Dr. Paul R. Johnson’s out-of-print book, The Song of Songs, A Gay Love Poem (Fidelity Press, 1995).

Recently, "Michael," an artist, calligrapher, and translator of Hebrew poetry (who blogs at About Soul and Gone), took to task Johnson's interpretation of the Song of Songs. Rather than let Michael's well-written and informed critique of what he careful shows is Johnson's fraudulent interpretation languish in the comments section of a six-year-old post, I thought I'd share it in a post of its own. I should also say that Michael's critique is not driven by any anti-gay agenda. Rather, as a scholar and translator, he is simply opposed to "specious 'research' and flagrant mistranslation."

Accordingly, I think it's important to share his scholarship. Truth is best, after all. And as Michael eloquently notes, we need to "make cases for just causes based on their justice, not mistranslation of ancient poetry. Doing otherwise is a disservice to both justice and literature."

Here then, with a few added links, is Michael's response to Paul Johnson's gay reading of the Song of Songs.

I'm admittedly six years late to this particular party, but I stumbled upon someone using a horrific mistranslation of the Song of Songs to counter an online homophobe, and traced it back to [your April 2, 2008 post, "Song of Songs: The Bible's Gay Love Poem"]. While countering homophobia is an admirable goal, and I find Christian abuse of Hebrew literature to serve hateful ends more painful than almost anybody, [the] specious "research" and flagrant mistranslation [of Rev. Dr. Paul Johnson contained in this post] is also an abuse, and does nobody fighting the good fight any favors. I am loath to engage in Internet feuds, but it pains me that people are out there patting themselves on the back for finding a bad, agenda-ed translation of my personal favorite poem.

I speak Hebrew and have degrees in both the Hebrew language and Jewish studies, which includes a whole lot of textual history as well as linguistics, and translate Hebrew poetry and literature for a living. I have not read the book in question, but based on [the] description [shared], it is certainly a fraud.

No fragments of the Song of Songs found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (there are only four minute fragments: 4Q106, 4Q107, 4Q108 and 6Q6) differ from the Masoretic text, nor do they disprove any of the informed theories regarding its provenance (although since public and scholarly understandings of the Scrolls are wildly divergent, it's easy to fabricate research as long as you're not writing for an expert audience). While opinions vary, as they do in everything related to Biblical scholarship, almost no scholar would date the song to the tenth century BCE. Its language, which includes Persian loanwords, indicates a likely composition in the period of Persian rule over Judea (the sixth to fourth centuries BCE). The presence of Aramaisms in the Hebrew, considered in conjunction with the Persian words, also indicate a late date as far as Biblical texts. Trust me, if you speak Hebrew, the language of the Song is highly distinct from Biblical texts written earlier.

If you'd like to read a serious, agenda-free, peer-reviewed study of the Song's likely literary antecedents (Egyptian and other Near Eastern love poetry, generally heterosexual) by an actual scholar of the Hebrew Bible, check out Michael V. Fox's The Song of Songs and the Ancient Egyptian Love Songs. Also try Marvin Pope's Song of Songs.

As far as other claims listed:

"Asher" is a relative pronoun, not a preposition (it is also a name, but the context in which it appears precludes that possibility). The line is שיר השירים אשר לשלמה - shir ha-shirim 'asher li-shlomoh, which is slightly ambiguous because of the preposition ל. It could mean either "The Song of Songs which is Solomon's" or "The Song of Songs which is for Solomon." Likely this is the author attributing it to a prominent historical figure to add a certain cachet to the text, which was a very common practice both among ancient Jews and in the wider Hellenistic world. (Confusing a relative pronoun, a preposition and a proper name should be your first clue that Johnson has no real knowledge of Hebrew.)

There is no neuter in Hebrew. It is a strictly gendered language (note that, as anybody who's taken Intro to Linguistics should be able to tell you, grammatical gender and biological gender have nothing to do with one another, it's just a term used in linguistics to describe a certain system of grammatical inflection, one of many). The language of the Song indicates a dialogue between, largely, a male and a female speaker, with occasional interjections from a different speaker, perhaps serving as something like a Greek chorus. It is extremely easy for anyone with a basic knowledge of Hebrew to distinguish the gender of a speaker and the gender (and number) of the object of a sentence, as all that information is reflected in pronouns and inflections of verbs and adjectives. No Hebrew scholar would "admit," parenthetically or otherwise, that both speakers of the Song are male, because it's simply not in the text.

"Yet all modern versions except that by Rev. Dr. Johnson make it appear as a heterosexual love drama." This should tell you something. If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and all but one scholar forcefully assert that it is a duck, it's probably not a mongoose.

This is the text of the passage quoted, which, despite what Johnson says, is unequivocally the oldest version anyone has of the Song of Songs:

מה יפו דדיך אחתי כלה מה טבו דדיך מיין וריח שמניך מכל בשמים. נפת תטפנה שפתותיך כלה דבש וחלב תחת לשונך וריח שלמתיך כריח לבנון

(Mah yafu dodhayikh, aḥothi kallah, mah tovu dodhayikh mi-yayin we-reiaḥ shemanayikh mi-kol besamim. Nofeth titofnah sifthothayikh kallah, devash we-ḥalav taḥath leshoneikh we-reiaḥ salmothayikh ke-reiaḥ levanon.)

I don't even know where to truly begin with the translation posted, other than to say the text quoted is very unambiguous. "How pleasant is your lovemaking, my sister, bride, how much better than wine, and the scent of your oils [is better] than all perfumes. Your lips drip honey, bride, honey and milk are under your tongue, and the scent of your garments is like the scent of Lebanon."

Caleh is not an attested Hebrew name (unless it were a masculine name meaning "impermanent," which it isn't). The word is kallah, and it means "bride." Or occasionally "daughter-in-law."

One cannot simply invent "Dead Sea fragments" in order to come up with a translation that would make any Hebrew speaker or Biblical scholar groan and shake his or her head (and I promise, Johnson has not consulted with a single genuine Hebrew scholar, and if he did, they laughed, not "reluctantly concede[d] the validity of his revolutionary word-for-word translation"). The Masoretes did not produce a homophobic text. They also did not produce a homophilic text. They reproduced a lovely poem about youthful, heterosexual erotic love.

(Also, there is no "clear naming of this thing" - any thing - "going into that thing." The Song is erotic, but it is also circumspect.)

If you want a poetic but also informed translation of the Song by Hebrew-literate Jewish scholars, try Chana and Ariel Bloch's wonderful version. If you'd like to read some brilliant Hebrew poetry that genuinely flouts heteronormativity, try the Jewish poets of al-Andalus, who wrote in love poems to men and boys in the Arabic mold.

What you've got here is not translation. It's fanfiction. Make cases for just causes based on their justice, not mistranslation of ancient poetry. Doing otherwise is a disservice to both justice and literature.

And kids, always check your sources.


Thank you, Michael, for sharing your expertise in response to Johnson's misreading of Song of Songs.

Image: "The Song of Solomon" (detail) by He Qi.


michael said...

I'd like to humbly thank you for publicizing my post. It's always a rare treat to be a part of debate on the Internet informed by mutual respect, as opposed to the flame wars that so often happen (and that I was half-fearing - not because I thought you personally weren't open to a rebuttal, just from experience).

Also, not to toot my own horn any more than you already have (again, I thank you), but I've translated a lot of Andalusi Hebrew poetry available on my site, including a lot of the homoerotic stuff (which actually often draws on the Song of Songs for its rhetorical and metaphorical devices). Moshe ibn Ezra wrote a lot (this is one of my favorites, and this famous muswashshah too). Yehuda ha-Levi also visited the subject a lot, like in this Hebrew-Arabic muwashshah.

Happy reading!

michael said...

Oh, and uh, my bad for misattributing a reprinted review to you yourself. I should heed my own advice about source-checking a little better.