A Lenten Study on the Book of Psalms

Psalms_Scroll-half

One of the many Psalm Scrolls from the Dead Sea

In the Anglican Chaplaincy of St. Thomas, Kefalas, here on the island of Crete, I am leading a Lenten study on the Book of Psalms. Here are a few notes on the first session, held on March 12, 2019.

Some Basic Context

  • They are written in Hebrew. The standard critical text of the Hebrew Bible uses the Lenigrad Codex of the Masoretic text. This dates from 1008 0r 1009 CE.
  • The Hebrew Bible is organized differently from the Bible Christians use. It has three sections, which appear to correlate with age and the stabilization of the text.
    • Torah: The oldest is the five books in the Torah, which consists of the continuous narrative of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These five books are usually written on one scroll, one side only, without editorial vocalizations that are found in the Masoretic Text. In synagogues the Torah Scroll is kept in the ark above the Bema, the platform from which the Torah is read. Jewish synagogues read through the whole of the Torah in one year.
    • Nevi’im: The next section is the Prophets, or Nevi’im. This includes books Christians tend to consider more like history such as Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings. It also includes Isaiah, Jeremiah, Exekiel, and The Twelve.
    • Cethubim: The third section, called The Writings, or Cethuvim, still somewhat undefined during Jesus’s time, is a diverse group of texts, including 1 & 2 Chronicles, Daniel, Job, Proverbs, and the Psalms.
  • The Hebrew Bible is often referred to within Judaism as the Tanach, a word creating from the first initial of the three sections in Hebrew.
  • While the Torah would have been on one scroll and placed in a special location in the synagogue, the other books of the Bible would have been kept in a rack or box as independent scrolls. The Hebrew Bible was more of a library than a single book.
  • Only when the technology of binding sheets in codices (what we are used to as a book), using both sides of the paper, and easily used compared to rolling and unrolling scrolls, was the library that makes the Hebrew Bible put into a single book.
  • The Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered after World War I in caves in the Judean desert, contains many parchment and papyrus texts, including a virtually complete copy of Isaiah. There are many copies of psalms in the scrolls in various states of decay. Although a thousand years older than the Leningrad Codex the Dead Sea Scrolls did not dramatically change the critical text – the Masoretes had done a good job of transmitting the text.
  • Jewish people in Egypt translated the Bible into Hellenistic Greek about 150 BCE. This translation was widely used among Hellenistic Jews into the 2nd Century CE. Supposedly seventy scholars worked on the translation, so it is known as the Septuagint (“LXX”). Christians adopted it as their Bible, appending the much shorter New Testament to it. This remains the Bible of the Greek speaking part of the Orthodox Church (and not all that well understood by modern Greeks – it’s a bit like modern anglophones listening to Chaucer).
  • Modern translations in English are based on the Hebrew Masoretic text, with occasional emendations based on the Septuagint, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and other ancient texts that may preserve older readings.

The Organization of the PsalmsThe Book of Psalms

  • The name in Hebrew is Tehillim, which means “Praises”. The name in the Septuagint is “Psalmoi” which means “Pluckings”, referring to the fact that when sung the psalms were accompanied by stringed instruments, such as a lyre.
  • One needs to distinguish between modern editorial additions in translations and ancient ascriptions in the ancient Hebrew manuscripts. This is not always obvious! For example, the New Revised Standard Version writes “The Divine Shepherd” above Psalm 23, but that is a modern title given to it by the translators and editors. There is also the ascription A Psalm of David, which is in the ancient Hebrew text.
  • The manuscripts divide the Book of Psalms into five “books”. This undoubtedly corresponds to the five books of the Torah – the psalms, although a different genre, are to be read as “Law” or “Instruction” (which is what Torah means). Each “book” ends with a doxology.
  • Many of the psalms have ascriptions at their beginnings, but not all. They identify the presumed author, perhaps a tune, and sometimes links it to a story found in Samuel or Kings. For example, Psalm 51 (the Miserere) has the words “To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.”. Psalm 8 has “To the leader: according to The Gittith. A Psalm of David.” Nobody really knows what a Gittith is, but it is presumably a tune. Psalm 5 has “To the leader: for the flutes. A Psalm of David.” – indicating that a variety of instruments were used.
  • Psalms found in Christian prayer books or liturgical texts usually dispense with reproducing the ascriptions.
  • Psalms 1 and 2 do not have ascriptions. This seems to suggest that they are introductions to the rest of the Psalter. Psalms 146-150 are all filled with praise, with the word “Hallelujah” (which means “Praise the Lord” – a fitting way to conclude the Book of Psalms.
  • There is evidence that the Book of Psalms is a collection of collections. This is indicated by the fact that some psalms are repeated. Psalm 14 is more or less the same as Psalm 53.
  • The Dead Sea Psalm Scrolls are in the same order as the Masoretic text for the first three books, but begins to vary in Books 4 and 5. The order of the psalms change, and sometimes there are some otherwise unknown psalms in the scrolls. This suggests that while the Book of Psalms was considered inspired at the time of the hiding of the dead Sea Scrolls (around 66-70 CE), the precise contents were more variable than we might expect (or accept!). This suggests that the tail-end of the Book of Psalms was still in flux, and that the contents had not yet stabilized.
  • The ascriptions run over 90% in the first three books, but drops to 17% in Book 4. Not all the ascriptions are present in the Dead Sea Scrolls. This suggests that they  were added by ancient compilers and editors.
  • While many psalms are ascribed to David, many are also not. Psalm 89 is uniquely ascribed to an otherwise unknown Ethan the Ezrahite. It is arguably the angriest psalm in the whole book, calling God out for breaking his covenant with the heirs of David. The response is found in Psalm 90, which is ascribed to Moses – to such a devastating indictment they bring out the most important person in Israelite history.

About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Canadian. Husband. Father. Christian. Recovering Settler. A priest of the Church of England, Diocese in Europe, on the island of Crete in Greece.
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