Skip navigation to content

Hymnic and Liturgical Texts (More Psalms of David)

(Summary of a lecture by J. R. Davila on 6 March, 1997)

I'll begin today with some brief comments on the technical terminology of Form Criticism which will be useful for a number of the texts we look at in the remainder of the course. Then I'll focus on the background and importance of these five additional "Psalms of David" that comprise the text we're studying in this session. Liturgical works are different from the materials we've covered thus far, because they often have a function in the religious and ritual (cultic) life of some community. So they have at least the potential to give us valuable information on the day-to-day life of that community.

I. Form Criticism (Formgeschichte) is a discipline founded by the German scholar Hermann Gunkel beginning in the late nineteenth century. Its basic premise is that all forms of human communication fall into general patterns, depending in the situations where they are used. By comparing the Psalms (and the prophetic oracles) to one another, Gunkel was able to isolate a rough group of ideal genres or Forms (Gattungen) and to show that many of the Psalms belonged to one of these. This information was especially useful because other historical indicators frequently found in prose genres were sadly lacking in the Psalms, so there is very little evidence concerning their period of composition and historical background. But Gunkel's Form Criticism allowed him to isolate traditional and innovative elements in a given psalm by comparing it to its ideal Form. It also allowed him to break down the oracles of the prophets into smaller units that we otherwise might not have noticed and that were more true to the ancient cultural background of the oracles than the much later chapter and verse divisions. (Form Criticism can also be applied to prose genres, as we shall see later, but today I will concentrate on poetry.)

The next step is a bigger jump and its results are correspondingly less certain, depending on the individual case. Sometimes it is also possible to work out a probable Life Situation (Sitz im Leben) for the genre in the cult or liturgy, based on the contents of the psalms or oracles that belong to a given Form. To take a single example, this approach has led to the isolation of a group of royal psalms in the Psalter. On the basis of elements in the Form, plus comparison to the royal rites of other ancient Near Eastern cultures and deductions from other information about the Israelite calendar before the Babylonian exile, it has been argued that a corpus of psalms in the Psalter were recited as part of an annual autumn reenthronement ritual carried out by the Davidic king in Jerusalem. In other words, it was part of the royal cult of the Jerusalem temple. The ritual involved a cultic drama in which the king is first defeated and humiliated by enemy foreign nations, but then God intervenes to save the king and his people and to defeat the nations. The psalms recited in this ritual included Psalms 2, 18, 48, 89, 110, and others. Some prophetic oracles (e.g., Isaiah 9:2-7) may also have been tied to this rite.

II. It's interesting that Psalms 152-155 are preserved in a Syriac translation that appears to have been done directly from Hebrew. (Psalm 151 is also found in a Greek translation, from which the Syriac was made.) The Syriac connection may be illuminated by an eastern Church Father named Timothy (the Nestorian Patriarch of Seleucia) who wrote a letter to Sergius (Metropolitan of Elam) in Syriac around the year 800 CE. The letter reported that a decade earlier a cache of books had been discovered in a cave "near Jericho." A dog belonging to a local Arab chased another animal into the cave and when its owner followed it he found a structure inside the cave that contained many scrolls. The find was reported to the Jewish community in Jerusalem and they came and explored the cave and found many books written in Hebrew, including copies of books of the Hebrew Bible. The letter added that the cave held more that two hundred psalms of David. Evidently this was a cache from the Second Temple period, perhaps even one of the Qumran caves. It's possible that the Hebrew originals of some of these extra psalms of David were translated into Syriac and preserved in that form until the present.

In 1930 the German scholar Martin Noth published a Hebrew retroversion of Psalms 151-55 based on the Syriac translation. Since the original Hebrew of Psalms 151, 154, and 155 were recovered from Qumran in 11QPsalms some years later, we have a nice test for the accuracy of such retroversions, and it turns out that Noth did not do at all badly. For the rest of this lecture I'm going to concentrate on this Psalms scroll, along with other MSS of Psalms from Qumran. The first part of 11QPsalms is destroyed, but the remainder has the Psalms from 93 on in a different order from the canonical Psalter and intermixed with additional noncanonical compositions. Two other copies of the book of Psalms from Cave Four seem also to have had the same arrangement (although they are fragmentary, so we can't be quite sure). So we're faced with clear proof that there were variant arrangements of the book of Psalms in the Second Temple period besides (and perhaps not dependent on) the arrangement now found in the MT. ) that the canonization of the Psalter was a process rather than a single decision. Peter Flint (editor of the Psalms MSS from Cave Four) supports this proposal. Sanders and Flint point out that in the Qumran MSS Psalms 1-89 are very stable: there is almost no variation in order and no other compositions are ever included. The Massoretic Psalter divides itself up into five books (I: 1-41; II: 42-72; III: 73-89; IV: 90-106; V: 107-150), so this means that the text and arrangement of the first three books is quite stable in our earliest sources. But from Psalm 90 on the picture is quite different. The order of these psalms varies considerably and other texts are intermingled with them. Therefore they argue that the contents of books 1-3 were set early on, but that books 4-5 of the Massoretic Psalter is only one version of the rest of the collection and it has no particular priority over other versions. There are at least four redactions of the Psalter preserved among the scroll finds in the Judean Desert: the proto-MT is represented by a MS from Masada and probably by some fragmentary MSS from Qumran; the version of 11QPsalms seems to be represented in three MSS from Qumran; plus there are at least two other redactions among the Qumran scrolls. Eventually, of course, only the arrangement in the MT survived in later Judaism (the Greek Psalter of the LXX, preserved by Christians, includes Psalm 151), but Sanders and Flint would see this as a later decision that imposed uniformity on a tradition that had included a variety of forms. has a prose insert that asserts that David composed 3600 Psalms, plus many used for the festivals of the liturgical year and other purposes for a grand total of 4050! Inspired by Noth's success, John Strugnell published an article in 1965 pointing to another Psalm of David in Pseudo-Philo 59:4b and attempting valiantly to retrovert it into Hebrew, even though our Latin text is a secondary translation via Greek. We can only hope that future discoveries will allow us to test his retroversion as well.

It was suggested by James Sanders (the editor of 11QPsalms

Evidently there were many other "Psalms of David" circulating in the Second Temple period. (It's doubtful of course whether any of them, inside or outside the canonical Psalter, actually go back to David himself.) Timothy's scroll find of the eighth century implies the existence of at least fifty Psalms beyond the Massoretic Psalter, but other texts make even more extraordinary claims. 11QPsalms


Some bibliographical notes:

On Form Criticism in general see Gene M. Tucker, _Form Criticism of the Old Testament_ (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971)

A convenient English translation of some of Gunkel's work on the Psalms is: Hermann Gunkel, _The Psalms: A Form-Critical Introduction_ (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1967)

A recent work on the royal psalms is John H. Eaton, _Kingship and the Psalms_ (London: SCM, 1976)

The letter of Timothy to Sergius was published by O. Braun in _Oriens Christianus_ 1 (1901) 138-52 and has received a fair bit of attention since the discovery of the Qumran library

For the Qumran Psalm scrolls see Peter W. Flint, "The Psalms Scrolls from the Judaean Desert: Relationships and Textual Affiliations," in _New Qumran Texts and Studies: Proceedings of the First Meeting of the International Organization for Qumran Studies_, ed. George J. Brooke and Florentino Garcia Martinez (Leiden: Brill, 1994)

Martin Noth, "Die f<"u>nf syrisch <"u>berlieferten apokyrphen Psalmen," _ZAW_ 48 (1930) 1-23 (Noth's reconstruction of the Hebrew Vorlagen of the five Syriac Psalms of David)

John Strugnell, "More Psalms of 'David'," _CBQ_ 27 (1965) 207-16 (Strugnell's reconstruction of a Hebrew psalm in Pseudo-Philo)

(c) 1997
Reproduction beyond fair use only on permission of the author.

Back to the OT Pseud Web Page.

Contact details

St Mary's College
The School of Divinity
University of St Andrews
South Street
St Andrews
Fife KY16 9JU
Scotland, United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)1334 462850
Fax: +44 (0)1334 462852