I am visiting an old friend who is in nursing and has just entered a palliative care program. As he has trouble speaking, we settled into a pattern where I read the psalms to him.
It gave me a project to get some more sense from his ancient prayer book of Jewish and Christian traditions. The following are some notes I have collected on the background of the psalms. It’s just an overview. But it occurred to me that others might also be interested in the context of these ancient hymns.
The Psalms are an extremely diverse selection of religious poetry.
We have two sources for the Psalms.
There are 150 psalms in the Masoretic text version. It is the authoritative rabbinic Jewish version of the Bible, established in its modern form between the seventh and tenth centuries of our common era. The oldest known complete text, the Leningrad Codexstart date of 11e century. Most modern Bible studies rely on the Masoretic texts as their primary source.
And there are 151 psalms in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible. It was created in a process that probably began in the third century BCE and ended in 132 BCE. Additional texts appear in variant Septuagint documents dating perhaps as late as 50 CE. Rabbinic Judaism rejected the Septuagint version of the second century CE. The early Christian church relied on the Septuagint in the development of its canon and remains the touchstone of the Orthodox churches.
The Psalms themselves are ancient. They were compiled during the Second Temple period, between 516 BCE and 70 CE. And they are sometimes called the hymnal of the Second Temple. They are collected in the first volume of the third part of the Hebrew Bible, the Ketubimthe scriptures.” The Psalms are the longest book in the Bible and consist entirely of religious poetry, although the “religion” of some of them is hard to see. Perhaps they all meant to l originally be accompanied by music and many offer advice on the appropriate instrument to play as they were recited or sung.
The collection of Psalms is divided into five books. Contemporary research suggests that the first three books, Psalms 1-89 are the oldest strata in the collection. The balance of the psalms does not appear to have been settled within the canon until the transition to the common era.
There are groups of psalms with related meaning. But the collection’s only overall arc is a general movement from lament to praise. Some psalms are obviously meant for corporate worship, while many seem very intimate and personal. In addition to laments and praises, some are didactic. Individual psalms are sometimes attributed, almost half to the semi-legendary King David.
The Psalms form the backbone of liturgical prayer in Jewish and Christian traditions. The Quran cites the “Zabur” revealed to King David, which Islamic scholars regard as the Psalms. And there seem to be echoes of the psalms in several passages of the Quran.
The Psalms were the first biblical texts to be published by Gutenberg on his new movable-type printing press. And the most printed part of the Bible in vernacular languages in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The main difference between the Jewish and Christian reading of the psalms is how the Christian community interprets many of them through the prism of Christology, seeing Jesus anticipated and sometimes explained. The Christian canon was established from around AD 200, but did not take hold among the majority of Christian communities until the 5th century. How to engage the texts including the Psalms has been divided into two main schools. The Antiochian school favored a more literal reading, while the Alexandrian school used analogy in search of deeper and sometimes more mystical readings.
The fourth-century scholar Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria described the psalms as a “mirror” of the heart. The Oxford Handbook of the Psalms quotes him describing the psalms as revealing “in all their great variety the movement of the human soul”. The manual notes that since ancient times, Jewish interpretation “explores both the ordinary meaning and the hidden meanings of the text, even by appealing to numerology…” the same numbers.
Since the European Enlightenment, scholars’ engagement with the texts has been critical and contextual, often informed by what seemed to be the spirit of various psalms related to the time and place of their composition. With the advent of form criticism, various types or genres of psalms have been identified. These include hymns of praise, individual complaints, community complaints, royal psalms celebrating the reign of God, individual thanksgivings and community thanksgivings.
The details of these lists vary, but there are widely recognizable families of psalms. In the 20th century, scholars turned to the Book of Psalms itself and attempted to discern broad arcs in the composition of the entire collection. Some discerned great arcs, or enduring metaphors, such as the presence of the living God, the faithfulness of God, or a movement towards and an end in God. My limited survey of the literature suggests that normative agreement as to what this arc might be has remained elusive. Although all three I noted seem true.