Nina Heereman’s Thesis Defense

On October 20, before an impressive international jury and a large gathering in the grande salle of the École, Nina Sophie Heereman defended her doctoral thesis summa cum laude. The 974-page tome entitled, “Behold King Solomon on the Day of His Wedding”: A Symbolic-Diachronic Reading of Song 3:6-11 and 4:12–5:1, won praise for its depth, breadth, and balanced innovation and was recognized as a watershed contribution to the field. In the estimation of Prof. Ludger Schwienhorst-Schönberger of the University of Vienna, one of the two external readers and a recognized expert on the Song of Songs, “This study has finally settled the differences between the profane and religious interpretations of the Song. The hypothesis that the Song of Songs originated as a collection of originally exclusively profane love songs, without any reference to prophetic or other texts of Holy Scripture, arguably can no longer be sustained.”

© Serge Nègre

In her opening, 30-minute presentation Nina described the scholarly context, argument, and major results of her research. In opposition to the modern consensus of the so-called “naturalistic school,” and also in distinction from certain recent, reader-response dissenters from this view, she maintains that the Song of Song is a theological text in its literal sense—not simply a secular love song, secondarily reimagined (in “a titanic act of eisegesis”) as a song of covenant love between Israel and her Lord. The strength of this claim must not obscure the subtlety of the argumentation, for she in no way means to evacuate the genuine insights of the naturalistic school. Her first step is thus a sustained hermeneutical discussion of the sensus literalis, bringing needed refinement to an often-hackneyed debate and opting for “symbol” (not “allegory”!) as the category most adequate to the multivalent poetics of the text. A very careful diachronic account of the Song’s long, four-stage textual history then follows, giving special attention to several newly studied manuscripts from Qumran and highlighting the unified movement from composition to canonization. At the crucial intersection of these two trajectories, the symbolic repertoire of the poem and its carefully sketched redactional-reception history, stands the all-important figure of Solomon, i.e. Israel’s idealized embodiment of a pervasive Ancient New Eastern royal ideology, an ideology with pregnant links to ancient love lyric literature and widespread heiros gamos cult traditions. It is through this lens of royal ideology, in its specific Israelite and Solomonic inflection, that Nina ultimately interprets two central and illustrative passages in the book, the wedding of Solomon (Song 3:6–11) and the Lover’s descent into the garden (Song 4:12–5:1), demonstrating the essential continuity of her symbolic-diachronic reading with the theological of interpretation of Jewish and Christian tradition.

© Serge Nègre

The subsequent exchange with the members of the jury was lively and interesting at all points. The two co-directors, Mark Avila, OVM, and Philippe Lefebvre, OP, spoke first and posed questions ranging from the translation of Hebrew prepositions to possible New Testament echoes. Prof. Gary Anderson, from the University of Notre Dame, spoke next and was characteristically energetic and pointed. He favorably noted the appropriation of mythological motifs (but with a hint of caution), then challenged Nina to keep pace as he confronted her with a huge number of scriptural and rabbinical texts and traditions, plus the anthropology of Evans-Pritchard, the theology of Karl Barth, and the multiple editions (in both Hebrew and German) of Yair Zakowitch’s various biblical commentaries. Prof. Schwienhorst-Schönberger was the last to intervene, asking about possible allusions to the Song in the text of Baruch, and pronouncing with calm deliberation his judgment on the superlative quality of the work and its profound theological implications. He added as well a word of high praise for the unique institution where this research was conducted. “This project might arguably only have been possible in place like Jerusalem, more specifically, at the renowned École biblique et archéologique Francaise de Jérusalem… Fr. Marie-Joseph Lagrange, founder of the École, who studied Oriental Languages in Vienna, could not have wished for a better result, since the École was founded not least with a view to repairing the breach between modern exegesis and ecclesial theology.”

Fr. Anthony Giambrone, OP and Nina © Serge Nègre

After delivering their decision to award her the highest possible honors and offering their warm congratulations, Nina, with gracious humor, read a personal word of thanks for all the many people who supported her during her years of study at the École. Nina will spend next semester lecturing at the Biblicum in Rome as the prestigious McCarthy Visiting Professor. The following fall she will move nine time zones away to begin teaching at St. Patrick’s Seminary in San Francisco.