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What Do We Learn About the Bible From
Studying the History of Its Interpretation?

   In their attempts to demonstrate that Jesus is the Messiah, the writers cited as authorities OT texts that in their historical context did not conspicuously refer to the messiah or make predictions about him.

William Yarchin
Associate Dean and Professor of Biblical Studies
Haggard School of Theology
Azusa Pacific University
February, 2005

Interest in the history of biblical interpretation is currently rising among students of the Bible, church history, and theology. Insights from ancient and medieval scholars are increasingly valued in dialogue with contemporary explorations into the meaning of the Bible. We see evidence of this growing interest in the sheer volume of recent monographs and reference works on the subject of biblical interpretation and its history.[1]

Study of the subject helps one realize that to speak of the history of the Bible is essentially to speak of the history of its interpretation and that the history of biblical interpretation is marked to a great extent by the rich variety of distinct purposes to which biblical writings have been employed over the centuries. To put it succinctly, we learn something about the Bible's multidimensionality as sacred scripture. In this essay, I will hint to that multidimensionality by noting a small sampling of what the Bible meant to some of its readers within a range of just a few centuries during antiquity, focusing on the Psalms. For our present purposes, the phrase "what the Bible meant" refers to what effects or information readers expected from the Bible as evident in how they spoke of it or in what they did with it.

The Late Second Temple Era

The Psalter, as we have it now, bears many signs that its contents underwent compositional changes and editorial adjustments during biblical times. For example, we can observe the addition of certain editorial elements at those points where the Psalter was constructed in five parts.[2] Additionally, it is almost certain that the superscriptions appearing at the head of many psalms were not originally part of the compositions.[3] Moreover, there are indications that liturgical compositions and portions of existing psalms were adapted to create new ones. These latter two innovations make for an interesting case in Psalm 108. We can know with some certainty that this psalm was not created from whole cloth, for it appears that Psalm 108 was fabricated from existing portions of other psalms. The first five verses of Psalm 108 are found also as the first five verses of Psalm 57; the last eight verses in Psalm 108 appear as the last eight verses of Psalm 60. Or, we might say that Psalms 57 and 60 were fashioned partially from the lines that were first found in Psalm 108. We might alternatively understand that the composition of all three psalms respectively occurred independently of each other, making use of poetic lines that were well known and available for such composition.[4]

Regardless of the direction of borrowing, our interest lies in the superscriptions that were added to these three psalms. The title of Psalm 57 includes these words:

Of David.

A Miktam, when he fled from Saul, in the cave.

The superscription to Psalm 60 reads,

A Miktam of David; for instruction; when he struggled with Aram-naharaim and with Aram-zobah, and when Joab on his return killed twelve thousand Edomites in the Valley of Salt.

Regardless of any discrepancies in details between these superscriptions and the record of David's life as we have it in the OT, it is evident that the composition of none of these three psalms can be reliably linked historically to a given moment in David's life. Nor can we conclude with certainty that such titles necessarily attributed authorship (nota auctoris) of the psalms to David and to other composers. Instead, the "David" of these psalms is a pliable protagonist-presence to facilitate the imagination's engagement with the petitions, praises, and expectations expressed in these compositions.[5] The point here is that even before the Psalms had become sacred scripture for Israel they were subject to changes in their application and signification to the life of David and presumably in the lives of Jews who learned them. Situating select Psalms within David's career made them more useful for the type of pious reflection that situates the petitions of the psalms into one's own life.

While the evidence of the Psalms themselves does not require that David wrote them, later in the Second Temple period David's authorship of (most of) the Psalms was universally accepted.[6] In fact, David features centrally as "the sweet psalmist of Israel" according to a composition found in column 27 of the first-century CE Psalm Scroll[7] from Cave 11 at Qumran (11Qpsa):

[2] And David, the son of Jesse, was wise, and a light like the light of the sun, and literate, [3] and discerning and perfect in all his ways before God and men. And the Lord gave [4] him a discerning and enlightened spirit. And he wrote [5] 3,600 psalms; and songs to sing before the altar over the whole-burnt [6] perpetual offering every day, for all the days of the year, 364; [7] and for the offering of the Sabbaths, 52 songs; and for the offering of the New [8] Moons and for all the Solemn Assemblies and for the Day of Atonement, 30 songs. [9] And all the songs that he spoke were 446, and songs [10] for the intercalary days, 4. And the total was 4,050. [11] All these he composed through prophecy which was given him from before the Most High.[8]

This poem draws attention directly to the production of David's psalms as scripture.[9]] Here David is neither a warrior pursued by Saul nor a king in pursuit of his enemies. Rather, he is here exclusively a composer of scripture. In this column of 11Qpsa, it was considered that when David composed his liturgical songs, he did so because he was spiritually moved by God to express prophecy. The poem dwells largely on the same association between David's liturgical compositions and the calendric cultic observances that Ben Sira, c. 200 BCE, mentions:

He [David] placed singers before the altar,

to make sweet melody with their voices.

He gave beauty to the festivals,

and arranged their times throughout the year,

while they praised God's holy name,

and the sanctuary resounded from early morning (47:9-10; see also 50:11-19.

Given the preoccupation in the Psalm scroll poem with the calendric cultic observances of the Second Temple period,[10] the role of "prophet" referred to is probably similar to, or even derived from, the post-exilic portrayals of David and others as singing cultic prophets.

For example, the scene described in 1 Chronicles 25 has David and other officers designating some twenty-four cultic functionaries "who should prophesy with lyres, harps, and cymbals" (v.1). Four were "under the direction of Asaph, who prophesied under the direction of the king" (v.2). Six others were "under the direction of their father Jeduthun, who prophesied with the lyre in thanksgiving and praise to the LORD" (v.3). Another fourteen were appointed for this service, "sons of Heman the king's seer" (v. 5), "for the music in the house of the LORD with cymbals, harps, and lyres for the service of the house of God" (v. 6). [11]

Throughout his description of the first Temple and its accoutrements, the Chronicler often reflects Second Temple realities and preferences.[12] The prophetic functions in the Chronicler's Second Temple cultic world included performance of music and singing for great communal Temple celebrations. Not only performance, but liturgical composition seems also to have been considered a prophetic service at the time, as indicated in 2 Chron 29:30: "King Hezekiah and the officials commanded the Levites to sing praises to the LORD with the words of David and of the seer Asaph. They sang praises with gladness, and they bowed down and worshiped." The Chronicler's record reflects a fourth-century BCE understanding that the production and performance of Temple psalmody took place under royally sponsored prophetic direction.

We see then that by the early first century CE there was ample basis in the cultic tradition to understand David as someone who, in his creating of compositions for the celebration of calendric offerings, functioned as a prophet. According to this understanding, the Psalms themselves were prophetically produced and communally experienced. We observe the Psalms serving to help constitute Second Temple-era Israel by their use at those all-important cultic celebrations[13] that define Israel's temporal and social existence "before God and men." Here the Psalms have constitutive meaning for Israel's corporate religious life. [14]


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