Note: This short piece appeared in the Currents in Old Testament column of Didaktikos 2.5 (April 2019): 45–46. Read on, or view it as a PDF. It is reproduced and archived here with permission.

When I teach the psalms, I want students to encounter two major currents in psalms research: the historical profile of individual psalms in interpretation, and the contours of the Psalter as a whole. Work on the former appears above all in specialized studies in reception history, which commonly trace the effects of single psalms as they have supported Jewish and Christian faith in diverse settings, including biblical times, rabbinic and patristic periods, the Middle Ages, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and so on down to the present. Work on the latter, which we might file under canonical shape and shaping, is well represented by things like the Psalms Section of the Society for Biblical Literature. Unfortunately, very little work has been done at the intersection of these two areas of study. Even in the superb commentary of Hossfeld and Zenger,1 final remarks on the “Context, Reception, and Significance” of each psalm often read as detachable postscripts to the leading analysis.

Since it is not clear whether these two areas are more than incidentally connected in the literature, how should one bring them together in the classroom? To introduce more recent debate, one might start with the Psalms video produced by the good people of The Bible Project and then move on to current essays like those in a useful volume edited by Nancy deClaissé-Walford.2 Most students are soon persuaded that the Psalter’s order and arrangement have a bearing on the interpretation of individual psalms, at least in some cases.

In parallel, one might also present Jason Byassee’s thesis that the church today should read the Psalms like Augustine did in the fifth century, work through parts of Augustine’s monumental commentary, and then progress to a broader reception-historical study of select psalms, perhaps as modeled by Susan Gillingham on Psalms 1, 2, and 8.3 This approach, too, can be rewarding, although in my experience teaching at the undergraduate and graduate levels, Byassee is a hard sell and Gillingham is a hard slog. I have had rather more success asking students to study and report on the exegesis of important commentators from the past. Some of my favorite moments in any class have come while discussing a psalm with people who learn to speak for Diodore of Tarsus, Cassiodorus, or the Midrash Tehillim; Aquinas or Rashi; Erasmus or Luther; Hengstenberg or Gunkel. Such a seminar yields wonderfully rich and surprising results. Ancient voices are often at least as compelling as modern ones, even though it is doubtful that any of them could be revived completely enough to vanquish modern criticism, as a few theologians now seem to hope.

How much contact is there in the Venn diagram of Set A (the shape and shaping of the Psalter) and Set B (the historical reception of psalms)? In some scholarship, the answer is “none whatsoever.” There are some who treat Set A as if its circumference inscribed the entire field, and those whose prioritization of the ancient in Set B excludes newer theories of interpretation. Sometimes the gap is ideological, but mostly it stems from the limits of individual human interest and disciplinary competence. As Rolf Jacobson observed in 2014, after outlining prospects for work in Set A,

It is time to integrate and test what we know about how the communities were actually reading the psalms with theories about what the final form “means.” Are there any congruencies or incongruences between how the New Testament, Qumran, and other first-century Jewish communities were actually interpreting the psalms and the canonical theories about what the Psalter’s final form means? Were any of these readers who were approaching the Psalter as a “book” and interpreting in the psalms with anything like what we call “plot” or “characterization”?4

Jacobson’s timing was poor, since by 2013 Gillingham had already produced a substantial answer to that line of questions, demonstrating how reception history offers an important and neglected control for the current debate. Since then, she has pressed that insight even further.5

One of the happiest convergences between new and old involves Gregory of Nyssa, whose fourth-century treatise on psalm titles attends to the sequence and flow of psalms in the (Greek) canonical Psalter. Gregory’s approach was well-grounded but by no means universal in antiquity. Some at Antioch even rejected the psalm titles as spurious. For Gregory, however, the beatific scope of the Psalter is opened up by Psalm 1 and purposefully brought through five sections to its proper telos in Psalm 150.6 Gregory thereby anticipates Bernd Janowski’s apt description of the Psalter as “a temple of words.”7

Studying the work of both together—Janowski and Gregory in this example, or, more broadly speaking, Set A duly informed by Set B—should remind us that innovation may sometimes only rediscover and enrich what has already long been known. While contact between the two areas can be thin, it is enough to compel study of the Psalter as a book with overlapping literary- and reception-historical contours. Ultimately, to ignore either view is to refuse binocular vision.

  1. Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51–100 and Psalms 3: A Commentary on Psalms 101–150, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005, 2011). 

  2. Published November 17, 2015, https://youtu.be/j9ph NEaPrv8; Nancy L. deClaissé-Walford, ed., The Shape and Shaping of the Book of Psalms: The Current State of Scholarship, AIL 20 (Atlanta: SBL, 2014). 

  3. Jason Byassee, Praise Seeking Understanding: Reading the Psalms with Augustine (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007); Susan Gillingham, Psalms Through the Centuries, Volume One (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008) and A Journey of Two Psalms: The Reception of Psalms 1 and 2 in Jewish and Christian Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). 

  4. Rolf A. Jacobson, “Imagining the Future of Psalms Studies,” in deClaisseé-Walford, Shape and Shaping, 237. 

  5. Susan Gillingham, Psalms Through the Centuries, Volume Two: A Reception History Commentary on Psalms 1–72 (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2018). 

  6. Ronald E. Heine, Gregory of Nyssa’s Treatise on the Inscriptions of the Psalms: Introduction, Translation, and Notes (Oxford: Clarendon, 1995), 95–96. 

  7. Bernd Janowski, “Ein Tempel aus Worten: Zur theologischen Architektur des Psalters,” in The Composition of the Book of Psalms, ed. Erich Zenger, BETL 238 (Leuven: Peeters, 2010), 279–306.