The Psalms

Psalms Through The Centuries, Volume Two: Psalms 1-72
Author: Susan Gillingham
ISBN: 978 1 118 83056 7
Date: 2018
Price: £80.00
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Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell

Reception history/criticism is today easily the fastest growing section of OT studies. Numerous books, monographs and articles attest to this, as does the existence of at least two learned journals devoted specifically to the study of the afterlife of biblical texts. It is now widely accepted that it is important to try to discover, as far as possible, not only the original meaning and background of texts (‘the world within the text’ and ‘the world behind the text’, as they say), but also what the texts came later to say to readers (‘the world in front of the text’). Thus we are called to explore not only what Gen 22, on the binding of Isaac, may originally have meant but also what it came to mean to Jews as the ‘Aqedah’. Moriah was identified as the Temple mount; Isaac was seen as a willing victim; and the story came to be linked to Passover. We need too to study how, for Christians, the story came to foreshadow the Crucifixion. We need to explore not only what Psalm 130 (‘Out of the Depths’) meant as one of the Psalms of Ascent but also what it came later to mean, not least as a Christian prayer for the dead. Not only what Isaiah’s figure of a Suffering Servant may have initially meant, but what it came to be taken to say in relation to Jesus.


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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