The Book of Psalms holds a unique place in worldwide religious and literary traditions. It is not only a sacred text for Judaism and Christianity, but it has also been a source of inspiration for poets, musicians and artists throughout history. The artistic tapestry of the Psalms which continues to captivate people today reflects its complex composition and inclusion in the Bible. With multiple authors contributing over an astonishing 800-year span, assembled into various collections, and subsequently collated into five distinct books, the Psalter presents a captivating challenge for both scholars and laypeople.
Owing to the nature of its composition, identifying the genre or the Psalter’s structure is a difficult and much debated task. Commencing from an easily discernible point, the superscriptions of the Psalms offer two valuable contributions to this discussion. Firstly, they provide valuable historical and contextual information shedding light on the circumstances in which the Psalms were written. Many Psalms bear the attribution to King David and are associated with specific episodes in his life. This association with David was so strong that in the New Testament the entire 150 Psalms of the Masoretic Text (MT-150) were considered Davidic (e.g., Mark 12:35-37; Acts 2:33-35). Complexities arise however when comparing the Septuagint’s (LXX) use of the superscription ‘of David’ which was added to Psalms absent in the Hebrew MT. Such variations may be linked to differing interpretations between Judah and the Diaspora (EXP). Additionally, the titles identify other authors such as Moses (Psalm 90), the Sons of Korah (42; 44-49; 84-45; 87-88) and Asaph (73-83). They support the notion that the Psalms originated with David (1 Sam 16:14) and expanded during Temple times where priestly families contributed to the production of Psalms in cultic contexts.
Secondly, the superscriptions represent an early attempt to categorise the Psalms by genre. For example, the term ‘Psalm’, denoted by ‘mizmor’, appears 57 times in the Bible. However, the mere designation of a Psalm as a musical composition – as the term mizmor implies – is only a broad categorisation. Other terms given in the texts include 'shiggaion' (e.g., Psalm 7, 'A shiggaion of David'), 'miktam,' and 'maskil,' whose meanings remain somewhat uncertain. Descriptors like 'Psalm of praise' (i.e. Psalm 145), 'song,' 'petition,' or 'for the Sabbath' (Psalm 92) provide some guidance but do not offer a comprehensive classification of genre. Instead, they highlight the idea that the Psalms encompass a blend of genres, contexts and purposes.
Modern scholarship has provided us with diverse approaches to interpret the Psalms. Scholars like Hermann Gunkel (1862-1932) and his student Sigmund Mowinckel utilized form criticism to categorize the Psalms based on their Gattung (genre) and Sitz im Leben (life setting). Broadly speaking, Gunkel aimed to illuminate the historical context in which the Psalms were composed, while Mowinckel developed the 'cult-functional approach,' which excessively tied the Psalms to religious rituals, including a mistaken connection to Babylonian New Year festivities. These scholars marked the beginning of in-depth scholarly exploration of the Psalms, and many others have since continued to refine systems for categorizing them.
In contemporary scholarship, various genres within the Psalms have been identified, including praise, lament, thanksgiving, royal Psalms, enthronement, wisdom, Torah, and festival/processional Psalms with dates from the first temple to the post exilic period. As such, these genres encompass both communal and personal settings rooted in Israel’s history. They also cater to the increasing democratisation of the Psalms allowing each individual to relate to them in their own time. Notably, the Psalter’s opening, consisting of Psalms 1 and 2, frames the entire collection as a book of instruction. Given its focus on Torah, it comes as no surprise that a longstanding belief recorded in Midrash suggests that the Psalter was divided into five books to parallel the Torah. While some, like Robertson, argue against this comparison, most scholars now generally accept that doxologies were employed to demarcate the divisions between these books, similar to how hymn collections were structured in Mesopotamia. (NIV)(Robertson and Nicot).
Recent scholarship, led by scholars like Brevard S.Childs since the 1970s, has focused on understanding the Psalter as a canonical collection. Whilst the Midrash might suggest that the ordering of the Psalter is ‘hidden’, the prevailing consensus now suggests that the Psalms trace the history of Israel from the era of David to the post-exilic period.
Books One and Two (Ps 1 -72) chronicle the reigns of King David and Solomon while book three (Ps 73-89) is set during the divided monarchy. Book Four recalls the Babylonian exile and Book Five celebrates Israel’s restoration to the land. This arrangement of the Psalter reflects the broader canonical trend wherein Israel grapples with its self-identity as a nation that endured despite the rule of multiple empires.
A deeper understanding of the Psalter's composition and evolution emerges when we examine the Dead Sea Scrolls and the LXX. The LXX, as previously mentioned, introduces changes to the superscriptions by expanding the number of Davidic Psalms and by adding further attributions to historical figures and contexts, indicating that these changes were later additions to the text. Furthermore, the LXX handles the liturgical elements of the Hebrew somewhat awkwardly, suggesting that the liturgical Psalms predate the LXX and may even have pre-exilic origins.
The Qumran 'Psalms Scroll,' specifically 11QPsa, amplifies the association with David by including more Psalms attributed to him and by framing David as a prophet. Moreover, among the thirty-six Psalm manuscripts found at Qumran, nine feature arrangements that differ from the MT-150. This observation fuels ongoing debates about the nature of Psalm canonization, with scholars like Sanders considering the Qumran Psalter as scriptural, and Flint's 'Qumran Psalms Hypothesis' proposing that the Psalter existed in various forms as scripture.
Recent scholarship, as articulated by William Yarchin, highlights the absence of a stable MT-150 during the Qumran period (200 BCE to 70 CE), describing the discussion of secondary or primary Psalters as anachronistic. While this discussion is ongoing, it underscores that the Psalter during the Second Temple period was fluid yet no less important to the communities of ancient Judaism, as it continues to be today.
The Book of Psalms remains an enduring treasure, cherished in religious and literary traditions across the globe. Its intricate composition, diverse genres, and historical context offer a profound tapestry of wisdom and devotion. Through ancient and modern scholarship, we gain deeper insights into the Psalms' timeless relevance and the enduring significance of this unique literary and religious work.