The Psalms

Susan Gillingham, Professor of Hebrew Bible at Oxford University, has built up an amazingly encyclopaedic familiarity with the reception history of the Book of Psalms. The first volume of this book (in 2007; paperback ed. 2012) surveyed two millennia of Jewish and Christian ways of reading and reciting the Psalms. Every translation, every commentary, Jewish or Christian, that you have heard of, and many that you have not, was there discussed in an informed and informative way. But Prof Gillingham considered not just translations and commentaries but also the use of Psalms in liturgy, music and art. In this second volume, she goes through each of the first seventy-two Psalms (Books I and II of the Psalter) in turn, concentrating on their reception history, both Jewish and Christian. A third volume will deal with the remaining Psalms (Books III-V).

The way each psalm is discussed follows a common pattern. First, since ‘reception history starts with the process of compilation’ and the ordering of the psalms is not accidental, the relationship of the psalm to its neighbours is noted. Next, the Jewish reception is explored, e.g. in the Targumim, the Midrash Tehillim and the medieval commentators such as Rashi and Kimchi. Then Christian reception in the NT, the Fathers and the medieval commentators is reviewed. There follows a study of the psalm in Jewish and Christian liturgy, and in music. Finally, Gillingham looks at any imitations and interpretations of the psalm in English, from the early modern period until today.

Prof Gillingham casts her net very wide. Thus, to take one particular psalm as an example, in Ps 23 she points out verbal similarities with Ps 22 (‘the compiler placed this psalm within the collection with care’). She notes how the Greek and Latin versions find in v4 in the Hebrew text’s tsalmaweth, a death-like shadow, a reference to death itself rather than to troubles experienced in the present life. That facilitated the later use of the psalm in funerals. The Targum sees the psalm as referring to the experience of exile. Some early Christians found in the Shepherd figure a reference to Jesus. Some others, from Ambrose onwards, found baptism, the Eucharist and anointing in the symbols employed, whereas Luther would later take the symbols to denote scripture as the Word of God. In Jewish usage, the psalm has often been associated with meals and funerals. In Christian liturgy, especially in the Orthodox Church, Ps 23 is often used in prayers before the Eucharist. In art, the psalm was in previous times taken to speak of rescue from dangers in this life, but from the 19th century onwards the experience of war led to its representation in connection with death. In literature, Ps 23 was originally represented in pastoral, bucolic terms, highlighting the language of vv1-3, but later it became associated with death. Many musicians, from Schütz onward, have arranged this psalm as a motet or anthem or have used it in oratorios or other public works. It has even been used in parody, as in Pink Floyd’s rock song ‘Sheep’ to denounce the greed and violence of capitalism.

As with Volume One, this volume is lavishly illustrated with colour plates, (hence the steep price.) Prof Gillingham aims to interest and assist both academic readers and pastoral/confessional readers. The latter will welcome the fact that Hebrew and Greek words are transliterated. Prof Gillingham’s magisterial treatment of the reception history of the Psalms puts all who read, recite and pray the Psalms very much in her debt. The first two volumes themselves amount to a magnificent piece of work. I look forward eagerly to the appearance of the third volume.

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Michael A. Hayes 1957 - 2017


Michael A. Hayes 1957 - 2017

It is with deep sadness that we announce the death of Rev. Professor Michael Hayes editor of the Pastoral Review.

Many friends and readers of the Pastoral Review and The Tablet will have been shocked and deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Michael Hayes early on Easter Saturday.   Read More


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