I Hebrew Bible/Old Testament
As elsewhere in the HB/OT, kissing is an expression of personal contact with another person who is in close proximity, a gesture of openness, and an interpersonal exchange. It can be a display of powerful emotion or personal intimacy, but also a formal, ritual, or symbolic gesture.
The noun “kiss” occurs only twice in the HB/OT (Prov 27:6 and Song 1:2). The Hebrew noun nĕšîqâ is derived from the verbal root n–š–q (qal, nipʿal or piʿel), “to kiss,” “to kiss one another.” The Greek verbal equivalent in the LXX is usually φιλέω or καταφιλέω, and the nominal equivalent in both occurrences is φίλημα. There are about thirty verbal sentences speaking about “kissing” in the HB/OT.
2. Kissing Relatives, Friends, or Loved Ones
Among people who are close to one another, kissing is a spontaneous gesture of non-verbal communication expressing a direct interpersonal exchange and is usually linked with emotion. In the HB/OT kissing occurs especially in situations where there is a greeting or a farewell – kissing as a gesture of welcome (Gen 29:11–13; Exod 4:27; 1 Sam 20:41) or as a gesture of parting (Gen 31:28; 32:1; 1 Kgs 19:20; Ruth 1:9, 14). In these cases, kissing is a public gesture and can take place between two men (Gen 29:13), between two women (Ruth 1:9), or between a man and a woman (Gen 29:11). Depending on the circumstances, a kiss can also be an expression of reconciliation (Gen 33:4; 45:15), or can even serve to identify the other person by their smell (Gen 27:26–27). The sense of emotion can be heightened by the use of the verb “to weep” (b–k–h), both weeping for joy (Gen 29:11; 45:15; 1 Sam 20:41) and for sorrow (Gen 50:1; Ruth 1:14). Another gesture that is linked with kissing is “embracing” (ḥ–b–q Gen 29:13; 33:4; 48:10).
The highest degree of personal acceptance, intimate closeness, and emotional sharing is expressed by the erotic kiss. In the introduction to the Song of Songs this motif is emphasized metonymically (“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth!” Song 1:2). Song 8:1 also has an erotic connotation; the statement in Prov 7:13 is a warning against the treacherous kiss of a prostitute.
3. Formal Kissing
(a) Public veneration. In the secular public sphere, kissing is an expression of formal or symbolic communication between partners who are usually not equal. Above all, it is a gesture of veneration or formal greeting of a revered person. This formal display of veneration may also be expressed by further accompanying gestures and acts (“to bow down and kiss”: Exod 18:7; 1 Sam 20:41).
If the person of higher status gives the kiss, it is an expression of their generosity and a kind, positive approach; for example, the reception of Joseph’s sons by the patriarch Jacob in Gen 48:10 or Isaac’s blessing of Jacob in Gen 27:27.
A kiss can be a treacherous gesture, as in 2 Sam 20:9: the military commander Joab took King Amasa by the chin with his right hand in order to kiss him, while with his left hand he stabbed him with a sword below the ribs, thus killing him. Other narrative and wisdom texts also refer to the treacherousness of a kissing gesture that is a false display of reverence (2 Sam 15:5; Prov 27:6; Sir 29:5).
(b) Ritual and cultic kissing. As a public gesture of formal communication, kissing is also used in cultic practices. The human mouth, never God’s mouth, is the organ used for kissing in the HB/OT. Since the cult of JHWH became aniconic, it no longer included the kissing of cultic objects. The only remnant of such practices might be the enigmatic text Ps 2:11–12 (which reads according to a conjecture: “Serve the Lord, … kiss his feet”). Several texts adopt a negative attitude towards kissing in cultic contexts. According to 1 Kgs 19:18, “bowing knees to Baal and kissing him” is an expression of idolatry (similarly Hos 13:2). The elliptic expression in Job 31:27 probably points to a ritual gesture of venerating the sun by sending it kisses. The actions of Elisha when raising the son of the Shunammite woman to life (2 Kgs 4:34) do include him touching the boy’s mouth with his own, but in the given context this is more a dramatic expression of breathing life into him (cf. Gen 2:7) than normal kissing. This text may be evidence of the idea that the breath/the soul can be transferred or shared by kissing.
4. Metaphorical Use
Kissing is also used metaphorically as a comprehensible expression for intimate, immediate closeness and sharing. It is in this sense that the harmonious merging of “justice and peace” in Ps 85:11 is figuratively compared to a kiss. The aspect of pleasantness and desirability is used by the wisdom saying in Prov 24:26, which uses this image to express the value of an honest answer.
II Greco-Roman Antiquity
Kissing, to touch lips to someone or something, was a physical act signifying different things in the Greco-Roman world: affection, sexual desire, respect, or greeting. The act of kissing is indicated by an assortment of terms: ἀσπάζεσθαι, basiare (basium), γλωττίζειν (καταγλωττίζειν, καταγλώττισμα), osculari (osculum), savium, φιλεῖν (καταφιλεῖν), and κυνεῖν (προσκυνεῖν). The kiss was common in both the Greek and Roman worlds, although its meaning could be ambiguous.
Xenophon famously records the warning of Socrates about the danger of kissing (Mem. 1.3.8–15). Trimalchio kisses a slave at a meal drawing the protest of his wife, Fortunata (Petronius, Sat. 74–75). He explains the kiss as a reward for the boy’s intelligence. Evidence for kissing is preserved in a variety of sources: papyri, statues, frescoes, and graffiti. In a letter from the end of the 3rd century CE, the author kisses a papyrus as a substitute for the person (P.Warr. 20). Frescoes from Pompeii depict the kiss of lovers as well as more erotic kissing as fellatio and cunnilingus. The latter could result in the perceived contamination of the mouth and person, infamia in a Roman context. Early Christian instructions to greet others with a “holy kiss” (φιλήμα ἅγιον: 1 Thess 5:26; 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12; Rom 16:16) might be a counter to kissing with tainted mouths (cf. Barn. 10:8).
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III New Testament
Apart from the story of the kiss of Judas (see “Kiss of Judas”), the narrative texts in the NT only refer to “to kiss” (Gk. φιλεῖν) three times. The lexeme is semantically broad and used synonymously with “to love” in most NT occurrences. The intensivum καταφιλεῖν (cf. LSJ: 919) refers more specifically to the act of kissing and is only found in Luke-Acts.
The narrative of Jesus‘ anointment (Luke 7:36–50) recounts the following story: Jesus is attending a meal in the house of a Pharisee called Simon, when an unnamed woman starts kissing his feet (v. 38) – a sign of reverence, perhaps also of anticipatory gratitude. The host objects to her behavior, to which Jesus in turn replies by comparing her extraordinary gestures to Simon’s own conduct (v. 44b–46). This must not necessarily be understood as a reproach on Jesus’ part (Jülicher: 2:297) and is, therefore, not a statement about what should be expected of a host. In the closely related narrative of the unction at Bethany (Matt 26:6–13 par. Mark 14:3–9; John 12:1–8), no kiss is mentioned.
In Jesus’ parable-like narration of the two sons (Luke 15:11–32), the warm welcome bestowed by the father upon the return of the younger son is given emphasis by way of a number of gestures, among them a kiss (v. 20).
The combination of the two gestures in this passage, i.e., a hug and a kiss, is found again in Acts 20:37. Here, the context is Paul’s departure from the presbyters who had come from Ephesus to Miletus. Contrary to the scene in Luke 15, the one in Acts does not contain a kiss of greeting (and reconciliation or forgiveness?), but one of farewell.
The syntagma φίλημα ἅγιον is encountered four times – exclusively in the Pauline letters. The letters always end with a call to pass on the “holy kiss”. While in 1 Thess 5:26 Paul asks to send greetings to “all the brethren” with the holy kiss, in later passages – 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12; Rom 16:16 – the emphasis slightly shifts through the use of the reflexive pronoun ἀλλήλους. The “letter’s kiss” becomes an epistolary order to kiss one’s brethren, comparable to ἀσπασμοί. It is, however, rather unlikely (cf. Thraede) that a letter’s closing containing these elements would indicate a ritual in worship services. Contrary to previous assumptions, this is also the case in 1 Cor 16:19–24, which has also not been directly borrowed from early Christian liturgy (Löhr: 506–7).
Since it is not certain whether Philippians was written after Romans, it is impossible to say whether Paul abandoned the phrase here (as well as the concept or the accompanying practice). The closing of Galatians diverges from this pattern for different reasons, chiefly due to the strained relationship which Paul had with the Galations, a historical context in which the text was written. In the closing of the pseudepigraphic 1Peter, the syntactic structure of the Pauline call to kiss one’s brethren is preserved, but only mentioned as a “kiss of love” (φίλημα άγάπης). The idea that the fellowship of believers in Christ is characterized by active devotion and a sense of humanity (ἀγάπη; cf. 1 Pet 4:8) could be the background for this new expression. It seems more likely, however, that 1 Peter makes a direct references to the typical closing of the Pauline letters.
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A Second Temple, Hellenistic, and Rabbinic Judaism
As in the HB, kissing appears in a variety of different contexts in later Jewish sources. Works from these periods draw directly upon examples of kissing in the Hebrew Bible, continue and expand the cultural meaning behind this action, and introduce new valuations of kissing in different situations.
Expressing love between family members, particularly at moments of reunion or departure, is one of the major functions of kissing in the Bible (e.g., Gen 33:4; 45:15; 1 Kgs 19:20). This is continued in the Second Temple period. In the book of Tobit, Raguel kisses his daughter Sarah farewell (Tob 10:12). The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs also frequently describe a parent kissing his children before dying. Relatedly, a son might kiss a recently deceased parent in order to say farewell (Gen 50:1; Jub. 23.5; Avioz: 245). Kissing is also a typical expression of marital love (Gen 29:11; Jos. Asen. 8.6; 21:5). In the anonymous work Joseph and Aseneth, such marital kissing also imparts the spirit of life, wisdom, and truth to the newly converted Aseneth (Jos. Asen. 19.11).
Beyond familial relations, in the Bible kissing is often employed as a sign of veneration for a ruler or deity (e.g., 1 Sam 10:1; 1 Kgs 19:18), another use which continues during the Second Temple period. The Additions to Esther includes a prayer attributed to Mordecai who claims that he would have “been willing to kiss the soles of (Haman’s) feet to save Israel (Add Esth 13:13) and Ben Sira describes a person kissing the hand of a lender (Sir 29:5; Segal: 177). This use of kissing to express veneration can also appear in a more metaphorical sense as a basic indication of power. In Gen 41:40 Pharaoh informs Joseph that “all my people shall order themselves as you command” (wĕʿal-pîkā yiššaq kol-ʿammî). This formulation ostensibly underlies the power attributed to a priest in the Damascus Document (CD 13:3; ʿal pîhû yishqû kûllām).
Kissing as an expression of veneration or even as a salutation does not necessarily entail love. As the Hellenistic author Philo makes clear, kissing “intimates only a bare and superficial salutation when some necessity has brought the two parties to the same place” (Her. 1.40). Indeed, he elaborates that, “men yielding to the bitter necessities of life offer this salutation to numbers of their enemies” (Her. 1.41). In this context, Philo describes Laban’s desire to kiss his children farewell (Gen 31:28) as not truly coming from a place of affection (Her. 1.43). For Philo kissing is “but the false money of friendship,” which explains for him why Aaron merely embraced his brother Moses rather than kiss him (Her. 1.44).
Within rabbinic literature (BerR 70:12; ShemR 5:1; RutR 2:21), we find a statement that all kissing is frivolous except in three specific situations: ascending to greatness (1 Sam 10:1), meeting someone after a long time (Exod 4:27), and taking leave of someone (Ruth 1:14). To this list R. Tanḥuma adds intimacy (Gen 29:11). In addition to this general statement, rabbinic literature records interpretations of several biblical instances of kissing. When Esau embraces his brother Jacob the Masoretic Text includes scribal dots above the word “kissed” (Gen 33:4). There is a disagreement in the midrash over whether these dots indicate that Esau did not truly kiss Jacob with all of his heart or if Esau overcame his hatred for Jacob and did kiss him with all of his heart (SifBem 69; BerR 78:4). The line “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth” (Song 1:2) is interpreted metaphorically in the midrashim to refer to either the first two of the Ten Commandments (DevR 1:11) or the reward and punishment for each commandment (ShemR 30:9). Additionally, at the end of Deuteronomy the verse states that Moses died by the mouth (ʿal-pî) of God which the midrash interprets to mean by a kiss (MidTan; Deut 34:5; DevR [ed. Lieberman] 42). Based upon this interpretation, Rabbi Eleazar declares that Miriam died by a kiss as well (bMQ 28a; bBB17a).
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B Medieval Judaism
In its interpretation of the kiss, medieval Jewish thought builds upon rabbinic treatments of Num 33:38; Deut 34:5, and Song 1:2. The kisses with which God took the lives of Aaron and Moses, and the maiden’s longing for her lover are interpreted as a symbol of the soul’s blissful union with God at the moment of death, or even in one’s lifetime.
For medieval philosophers, kissing is thought of primarily in eschatological terms. For example, in his Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides writes:
[W]hen a perfect man is stricken with years and approaches death … [intellectual] apprehension increases very powerfully, joy over this apprehension … become[s] stronger, until the soul is separated from the body at that moment in this state of pleasure. Because of this the Sages have indicated with reference to the deaths of Moses, Aaron and Miriam that the three of them died by a kiss … to indicate that the three of them died in the pleasure of this apprehension … that is achieved in a state of intense and passionate love for Him … in accordance with its dictum: Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth. (Guide 3:51)
Maimonides has interpreted the kiss in a thoroughly metaphorical way, stripping it of sensual meaning. The Zohar, the canonical text of medieval Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah) follows suit, with three of the companions who populate the text dying with a kiss in mystical rapture (3:144a–b).
In Kabbalah the significance of the kiss includes mystical union between human individuals, supernal entities, and mortals, and the bonding of Divinity’s feminine and masculine potencies. In the Zohar ḥadash (60c) we read: “Love’s kiss occurs solely with the mouth. Spirit joins with spirit, each comprising two spirits: his spirit and his friend’s spirit – both present in four spirits. All the more so with a man and a woman: when joined, [they are] four spirits together. The son who proceeds from them – [is a] spirit coming from four spirits (ruḥot) (Ezek 37:9).” The Zohar restores the centrality of the kiss’s concrete meaning even as it wrestles with the higher meaning of the kiss.
The male-male kiss signals companionship, whereas the male-female kiss is part of erotic foreplay leading to procreation. The kiss signifies the tension between the impulse towards spiritual continuity, effected through Torah study by men, with the countervailing impulse to propagate the Jewish people, and to conceive the messiah symbolically.
Further, all kisses of true love are said to draw upon a divine source. On the scriptural lemma With the kisses of his mouth (Song 1:2) the Zohar ḥadash (64b) comments: “from those supernal kisses that He had kissed before. For there is no love and enjoyment unless they descend from the kisses of the supernal spirit.” Human love ultimately participates in the larger economy of God’s love for humanity and recreates it in relationships in this world.
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C Modern Judaism
The Jewish mystics of the early modern period continued rabbinic and medieval traditions regarding the divine kiss as a mark of spiritual favor. These teachings, many of which are grounded in Deut 34:5; Num 20:1; Num 33:38, and especially Song 1:2, often suggest that God’s kiss ushers in a moment of unspeakable intimacy with the divine. A significant number of modern Jewish mystics describe the kiss of God as a sort of ecstasy or rapture, a devotional experience so intensely beautiful and overwhelming that it causes the worshiper’s death. The lover, drawn so near to the beloved, is consumed with fiery passion, like a moth drawn to the flame. R. Ḥayyim ibn Attar (1696–1743), for example, explains the mysterious demise of Nadab and Abihu as follows:
Their death was the result of having come too close to God. With great love they approached the supernal Light, and in doing so they expired; this is the “kiss” with which the righteous die. It is the same for all righteous individuals, though while the kiss comes to some of them, others go forth and pursue it ... even the feeling of their death drawing near cannot hold them back from the dearest and most pleasant communion (devequt), beloved intimacy and sweetest affection, until their very souls expire. (Ibn Attar: Lev 16:1, s.v. o yomar ʿal zeh ha-derekh)
Rather than focusing on Nadab’s and Abihu’s mysterious sin (mentioned in Lev 10), this passage attributes their death to the mortal danger of excessive closeness to God. Ibn Attar interprets Nadab and Abihu as worshipers overcome by a kind of semi-prophetic ecstasy bordering on madness. The mind and body are torn asunder as the soul, longing to return to its source, rebels against the constraints of the body and enters into sacred communion with God.
Some modern Jewish mystics, however, do not describe God’s kiss as leading to the seeker’s death. R. Elimelech of Lizhensk (1717–1787) refers to devequt, the heightened mystical awareness and even communion with the divine, as a “kiss” or connection of soul to Soul (Elimelech of Lyzhansk: Be-shalaḥ 1:206, interpreting Gen 29:11). This state of mind may, of course, be intensified in key religious activities, but Hasidism suggests that devequt is a contemplative way of being that must be cultivated in all moments.
The image of the kiss was also extended beyond its place as a sign of devotion to God. Jewish mystics invoke the metaphor of kissing – and indeed, the physical act – in the human realm as well. The students of R. Isaac Luria recall that he would embrace his wife and kiss his mother’s hands after returning from the synagogue on Friday night. Luria’s theurgic model suggests that human beings embody elements of the Godhead, and that all aspects of one’s interpersonal conduct will have an impact upon the divine as well. And the members of various mystical fellowships, from Safed to Jerusalem, refer to the kiss as an expression of their spiritual devotion to one another. In his enormously popular book of kabbalistic ethics entitled Reshit ḥokhmah, R. Elijah de Vidas writes as follows:
A person’s love for a friend is through the soul, because the soul’s desire is for love. Even though in body we are distinct and separate from one another, the souls of this one and that one are of the spirit ... as it says, “They kissed one another and wept … until David wept exceedingly (1 Sam 20:41).” (De Vidas: shaʿar ha-ahavah 1:25)
Hasidic sources invoke similarly amorous – even erotic – language in describing the depth of connection shared by individuals in mystical friendship. These teachings also summon the image of the kiss in reference to the master-disciple relationship. A letter from a Hasidic leader in Tiberias to his flock in White Russia offers the following remarks:
When I think of you, my beloved ones, who among you, in contemplating these words deeply, would not allow their hearts to be bursting open and their eyes to be pouring forth tears of divine love. As it is written in Scripture, “Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and broke into tears” (Gen 29:11) – because of the kisses of true love he was speechless. (Glazer/Polen)
And, elsewhere in the same collections of epistles, we find:
So, my beloved brethren to whom my soul is intertwined with love, like a flame intertwined with the coal – if I were present among you I would kiss you with the kisses of true love and bliss, like a father with his wise son. (ibid.)
The influential R. Dov Baer of Mezritsh (1704–1772) refers to the homilist or spiritual teacher as “kissing” his disciples through his words:
He speaks from his heart... and this arouses the love in his fellow’s heart. It means that he wishes to give his love to his friend, and thereby the corresponding love in his friend’s heart will be aroused, and he greets him with a smiling countenance. This is the meaning of kisses – when they kiss one another, they reveal the love in their hearts. Their kisses bring their loves close to one another, and they become one. This is the idea of the “soul-to-soul” connection mentioned in the Zohar. (Dov Baer of Mezritsh: 21b–24a)
Here R. Dov Baer builds upon a midrashic tradition (Midrash Ḥazita on Song 1:2) that describes that moment of revelation as God having kissed Israel with each of the Ten Commandments. Just as the linguistic “kiss” of the divine utterance sealed a loving, covenantal bond between God and the Jewish people on Mount Sinai, says the Maggid, so do the words of a human preacher – saturated with meaning and devotion – awaken the students to ever-higher levels of spiritual consciousness.
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In the Christian tradition of scriptural reception, the symbol of the kiss carries meanings as diverse as veneration, reconciliation, love, homage, betrayal, humility, and hospitality. Two categories of biblical kiss have been particularly influential: (1) the erotic kisses of the Song of Songs; and (2) the “holy kiss” used as a greeting in the NT and subsequently incorporated into liturgical practices.
(1) The sensual language of the Song of Songs has been read allegorically since at least the 3rd century, when Origen described the erotic kisses of Song 1:2 as symbols of the union between Christ and bride, representing either the individual soul or the church as a whole (Comm. Cant. 1). The intimacy of kisses, particularly “kisses of the mouth” also implied physical presence and thus incarnation, and Gregory the Great interpreted the bride’s desire for a kiss as the church’s desire for the presence of Christ, so that “he may speak to this same Church no longer through prophets, but by his own mouth” (Exp. Cant. 12).
Allegorical readings of these kisses were constant throughout the Middle Ages, but renewed interest in the Song of Songs amongst Cistercian authors of the 12th century prompted a fresh emphasis on the kiss as a symbol of personal union with the divine. Most famously, Bernard of Clairvaux described a series of mystical kisses ascending from the foot to the hand, and finally to the mouth of Christ (Serm. Cant., esp. nos. 3, 4, and 7). Whilst Bernard’s scheme exerted a strong influence on later works of mystical theology – for instance, Teresa of Ávila’s Meditaciones sobre los cantares – kissing remained a polyvalent symbol in medieval theology. In Alan of Lille’s mariological reading of the Song, kissing simultaneously represented the harmonious state of the Trinity, the unity of natures in the incarnation, and the prophetic, salvific message of the annunciation (Elucidatio Cant. 1.4).
With obvious political implications, Martin Luther read the Song as a historical poem in which the female lover represented the state under Solomon’s rule, longing for kisses of the mouth, i.e. for the Word of God (Auslegung über das Hohelied, on Song 1:2). As late as the mid 18th century John Wesley continued to accept the traditional, exclusively allegorical, interpretation, identifying the kisses as symbols of the love “between Christ and his people.” Over the past two centuries biblical scholars and theologians have increasingly reassessed the sensuality of the Song, facilitating a literal reading of these erotic kisses as a lyrical celebration of human sexuality.
(2) In the NT, Paul advocates a “holy kiss” as a physical greeting between Christians (e.g., Rom 16:16; 2 Cor 13:12), and this gesture played an increasingly formal role in rites surrounding baptism, ordination, and death. In the mid 2nd century Justin Martyr described how Christians and the newly baptized “saluted one another with a kiss” directly before celebrating the Eucharist (1 Apol. 62.5). By the 4th century, kissing had an explicit liturgical and Eucharistic function. In the East, what was now called the “kiss of peace” took place directly before the offertory prayers and consecration. John Chrysostom stressed the importance of offering a kiss “of the soul” as well as of the mouth, so that this Pauline gesture could satisfy the requirement set out in the Sermon on the Mount, that Christians make peace with one another before approaching the altar (Compunct. Dem. 1.3; cf Matt 5:23–4).
In the Latin West, the osculum pacis was positioned after the eucharistic prayer and the Lord’s Prayer, and before the Communion rite. As Innocent I explained, this liturgical arrangement allowed kissing to act as a communal seal and endorsement of the prayers just offered (Epist. 25.1: Ad Decentius). Augustine called the Kiss of Peace a “great sacrament” (Serm. 227: In die Paschae IV) and this understanding of liturgical kissing gradually eclipsed ideas about communal unity and reconciliation. In the 13th century, Innocent III explained that whilst the kiss was mandated by Paul, it was primarily given in response to Christ’s words: “Peace be with you” (John 20:21). Contemporary practice emphasized personal reception of divine peace, since the kiss was now to be offered in the first instance by the priest, and then “diffused through all of the faithful in the church.” Innocent concluded that the kiss, available daily, was a “remedy” for the laity’s diminished access to the eucharistic elements themselves, which they were only expected to receive three times a year (De mysterio altaris 6.5).
Over the following centuries, it became increasingly common for the kiss to be diffused through a single proxy item, such as a crucifix or a paxboard that depicted Christ. This item would be kissed by the entire congregation in turn, providing each of the congregants with their own interface with the peace of Christ. Luther complained that kissing an image was a poor substitute for regular access to the actual sacraments (Ein Sermon von dem neuen Testament , WA 6:374), and whilst the Protestant reformers acknowledged the biblical precedents for liturgical kissing, they suppressed the action in favor of a chaste “sign of peace” (as prescribed for example in Luther’s Formula missae 5, WA 12:213) which they considered better suited to 16th-century morals. “The peace” is still shared today in Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Reformed traditions alike, usually via a handshake and only exceptionally in the form of a kiss on the lips.
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Until the 12th century the biblical kiss does not figure prominently in the Jewish and Christian literary traditions. One important exception is the midrashic interpretation of Deut 34:5–6 as the “kiss of God” describing the deaths of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam and appearing in for instance George Eliot (450) and Rainer Maria Rilke’s (10) poems about Moses’ death. In the Jewish tradition the “kiss of God” became also the expression for saintly and martyr deaths, possibly informing Lamed Shapiro’s (46–49) 1907 pogrom story of the rabbi who is ordered to kiss one of his persecutors’ feet but instead sinks his teeth in them and is consequently beaten to death. It was also adopted to describe the death of Christian saints, as in Richard Crashaw’s description of Theresa of Avila’s death in lines 101–102 of his poem “The Flaming Heart”:
By the full kingdome of that finall kisse
That seiz’d thy parting Soul, & seal’d thee his.... (Crashaw: 327)
Beginning with 12th century, the biblical kiss gains popularity in mystical writing such as in St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s sermon on the Song of Songs 1:2 (see above “V. Christianity”). The motif of the desire of the perfect for Jesus Christ as mediator between them and God, also surfaces later in for instance Victor Hugo’s “Cantique de Bethpagé” (in his La Fin de Satan, pub. posthumously 1886) in which the young girl states that she would die for a kiss of Jesus’ mouth (154).
In Dante’s Purgatory, the kiss of peace, referring to the Christian ritual greeting with a kiss that is based on among other passages Rom 16:16, purifies those who are punished for sins of the flesh including the misuse of the kiss, when he sees “shades on either side make haste to kiss each other without lingering, and each with this brief meeting satisfied” (26.31–33).
Indeed, the problem of sensuality characterizes modern literary references to biblical kisses. In Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (Il nome della rosa, 1980) the protagonist, a young monk, recites Song 1:2 (while changing the gender of its language) during his love making with a peasant girl (246). Of the kisses in the biblical narrative of Jacob, Jacob’s kiss to the other gender, Rachel, is most popular in literature. Whereas the Bible does – as usual – not mention how and which part of Rachel’s body Jacob kisses, in Johann Jacob Bodmer’s Jacob und Rachel (1752: 20) Jacob kisses her on the forehead, making it a chaste kiss and in Thomas Mann’s Joseph and his Brethren (Joseph und seine Brüder, 1943) the patriarch “solemnly” kisses Rachel’s cheeks “she gave him” (150). In addition, while Genesis’ Jacob kisses Rachel before he reveals his identity as her kinsman, Mann’s Jacob asks first her permission to kiss her and thoroughly discusses with her their shared genealogy.
Another example of this tension is when the often idolatrous (e.g., Hos 13:2) biblical ritual kiss of worship blurs with eroticism in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s description of sabbatian rituals in Satan in Goray (Der sotn in Goray, 1933), when “scholars and holy men” (150) kiss the feet of the messiah’s wife, and the sabbatian worshippers embrace and kiss not only one another but also one of the village woman’s naked breasts. Modern literature neither fails to follow, with interesting variations, Luke 7:38’s identification of the woman kissing Jesus feet as “sinful.” In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (Prestupleniye i nakazaniye, 1866), e.g., the murderer Raskolnikov kisses the feet of the innocent young prostitute (reversing the biblical action) and thence embarks on his path to redemption. The sinful woman’s kiss in Nikos Kazantzakis The Last Temptation (Ο τελευταίος πειρασμός, 1955) becomes romantic when Mary Magdalene uses her hair as a cover to “secretly kiss” Jesus’ feet (187).
A literary kiss that was added to the biblical narrative and which deserves mentioning is the kiss Oscar Wilde’s Salomé (1891; 1912: 78; also adopted in Richard Strauss’ opera Salome) places on the mouth of John the Baptist's severed head.
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Undoubtedly, the kiss of Judas is the biblical kiss, most often set in music (see “Kiss of Judas V. Music”). However, especially in the late Middle Ages and early modernity, texts from the Song of Songs were increasingly set in subtle polyphony, the eroticism of the text understood in a spiritualized way, inspired not least by Bernard of Clairvaux (see above, “V. Christianity”). Among composers who set the very beginning of Song of Songs (from the Vg.) with the opening Osculetur me osculo oris sui (Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth!) is Jacobus Barbireau (1455–1491; Wegman) from the Netherlands, but also the early 16th-century French composer Mathieu Cascongne. Much more famously, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525–1594) set texts from Song of Songs in his Fourth Book of Motets for Five Voices, dedicated to Pope Gregory XIII, opening with a setting of Song 1:1–2 (Carter). However, Song 1:1–2 is found in manuscripts already from the 11th century onwards as a chant for mass (for various Marian feasts; see Cantus database s.v. Osculetur me osculo oris sui).
The kisses of the sinful woman in Luke 7:37–45 probably also lie behind many poetical metaphors in devotional music in early modernity. Among many examples, one may mention Dietrich Buxtehude’s (1637–1707) meditative cycle of seven cantatas for the Passion, Membra Jesu nostri, setting the famous poem Salve mundi salutare, then ascribed to Bernard of Clairvaux, now to Arnulf of Louvain (13th cent.; Noelke). Each cantata sets the poem’s meditation on one of Christ’s limbs, including also biblical quotations. In agreement with the mentioned narrative from Luke, cantata 3 ad manus (to his hands) sets Arnulf’s words manus sanctae, vos amplector […] dans lacrimas cum osculis (“sacred hands, I embrace you […] with tears and kisses”; Buxtehude/Arnulf of Louvain: 14) for a soprano solo.
A similar metaphorical biblically inspired use of kissing is found also in cantatas by Johann Sebastian Bach, for instance in Cantata BWV 12 Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (1714, “Weeping, wailing, fretting, fearing”) where, in lines probably written by Salomo Franck, the bass sings “Ich küsse Christi Schmach” (“I kiss Christ’s humiliation”; Stokes: 20). Similarly, in Cantata BWV 49, Ich geh und suche mit Verlangen (1726, “I go and seek with longing”), a dialogue between Jesus and the soul leads to the jointly singing of “komm und laβ dich küssen” (“come and let me kiss thee”; Stokes: 86).
Salome’s non-biblical kissing the dead head of John the Baptist in Richard Strauss’ opera Salome (1905) based on Oscar Wilde’s play (see above, “VI. Literature”), appropriated the biblical story of the beheading of John the Baptist far beyond its narrative points, consciously and provokingly exploring human psychology and perversion, scandalizing as well as fascinating contemporaries, in a musical avant-garde expressionism. The idea of Salome’s kiss goes back, at least, to Heinrich Heine’s Atta Troll from 1843 (Weidman).
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Two categories of kiss from the Bible appear on film. First are scenes of familial or intimate kissing. For example, Jacob deceiving Isaac (Gen 27:26–27), Joseph with his brothers (Gen 45:15), and in the David cycle (1 Sam 20:41). Second are scenes of kisses within a religious context, such as Samuel anointing David (1 Sam 10:1), the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears (Luke 7), or the witness that early Christians would use a kiss as a greeting (e.g., Rom 16:16 and 1 Cor 16:20).
In silent films, directors dramatized kissing. So Ferdinand Zecca and Lucien Nonguet combine Luke 7:36–50 with Matt 26:6–13, moving the Lukan scene to the passion, and identify the woman as Mary Magdalene, to increase the drama (Passion Play, 1903, FR). The actress weeps and kisses Jesus’ feet with grand gestures. We see similar dramatization when Lazarus kisses his sisters in La Resurrection de Lazare (dir. Georges Hatot/Victorin Jasset, 1910, FR).
With the advent of sound, biblical epics became the norm. These films continued dramatizing the kiss, though gradually reservation emerged. Thus, by the 1970s Joseph does not kiss his brothers at their reunion (Greatest Heroes of the Bible: Joseph in Egypt, dir. James L. Conway, 1978, US). The end of the 20th century saw a number of evangelical Bible films marked by literal faithfulness to the text. So The Bible: David (dir. Robert Markowitz, 1997, US/IT/DE) has Samuel kiss David when anointing him, though it omits Jonathan and David’s kiss.
Finally, films treating early Christians and Jesus in the late 20th and the early 21st centuries have either omitted or limited the kiss as Christian greeting. So Quo Vadis (dir. Mervyn LeRoy, 1951, US) reserves the kiss for family members or romance and Agora (2009, dir. Alejandro Amenábar, ES) only allows a kiss on the hand of the bishop. The Last Temptation of Christ (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1988, US/CA), however, is one film that shows a ritual kiss of greeting. For example, Jesus kisses Judas’ hand, disciples kiss their dead leader, and the Baptist kisses Jesus farewell.
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