David W. Stowe on Susan Gillingham’s Jewish and Christian Approaches to the Psalms
Psalm 137 is one of the more ubiquitous psalms in contemporary popular culture, but few who stumble upon its phrases would recognize it as a Hebrew psalm. “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.” Its beginning sketches a vignette of resigned exile and defiant remembrance that builds to a vengeful (and controversial) parting blast: “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.” The opening verses have intrigued Europe’s greatest composers and still resonate in popular song, including Godspell and the reggae version first recorded by the Melodians. The haunting canon popularized by Don McLean on the album American Pie even makes a cameo appearance in the television series Mad Men.
Do the psalms belong most essentially to Judaism or Christianity? Crucial texts for both traditions, the psalms speak across Jewish and Christian histories and identities in multiple ways. Historically, Jewish scholars have taken the superscripts (“A Psalm of David”; “A Song of Ascents”) literally, ascribing authorship to David and interpreting psalms in reference to historical events and temple rituals of the Hebrew Bible. For Christians, the particulars of the psalms may have referred originally to the history of Israel but are most profoundly understood to point to the life and significance of Christ. Psalm 137 stands as an anomaly, then, as it refers to events roughly midway between the time of David and Jesus. It doesn’t easily lend itself to either Davidic or Christological readings. Perhaps this lack of theological encumbrance, coupled with its unusual vividness of setting, helps account for the psalm’s enduring presence in popular culture. Jewish and Christian Approaches to the Psalms builds on the premise that attending to the various and conflicting ways Jews and Christians have read, understood, and worked with the psalms helps us better grasp their enduring power. The goal is not a comprehensive introduction to the history of the psalms, as William Holladay accomplishes admirably in The Psalms Through Three Thousand Years (1996). And readers who want more focused attention on reception history of the psalms should seek out another recent collection, Psalms in the Early Modern World (2011).
Jewish and Christian Approaches to the Psalms is more eclectic. Based on papers read at an international conference at Oxford in 2010, the chapters are relatively brief and conversational, often paired to produce an engaging dialogical quality. As John Barton observes in the Postscript, the papers center on three themes: the psalms for Jews and Christians; the Psalter as a book; and the reception history of the psalms over millennia. The latter generates many of the most accessible insights. With close attention to particular medieval psalters, Elizabeth Solopova describes how they were probably the most significant and widely owned of all medieval books. Psalters “crossed the boundary between religious orthodoxy and popular ritual, between the public liturgical sphere and private devotional practice, and even extended their presence into secular areas of their owners’ daily lives.” Owners treasured them as revered objects, customizing them with personal prayers, records of family life, and even devotional images and pilgrim badges.
The process of transforming the psalms from an ancient text to a text that can impact daily life lies at the heart of translation, as Nancy deClaissé-Walford and Philip Johnston demonstrate in their paired essays. Skirting the aphorism Traduttore traditore (“Translator, traitor”), psalm translators and paraphrasers for millennia have walked a fine line between imaginative rendering of Hebrew into other languages and expectations shaped by tradition and, more recently, market forces. “Many publishers want to have their own version of the Bible, since popular versions sell well and generate dependable income,” Johnston explains. “But in order to be popular a new version has to be accepted by a significant sector of the Bible-purchasing market. So editors are tempted to play safe in order to win buyers.”
Transforming psalms into visual art is another form of translation. Aaron Rosen skillfully explicates the spirit of ecumenical hospitality behind Marc Chagall’s psalm-inspired stained-glass windows. A Russian-born Jew who barely escaped the Nazis, Chagall created windows after the war for churches in France, England, and Germany, striking a delicate balance between honoring his Jewish identity and respecting the need for Christian symbolism. Chagall also created stained glass for Jewish sacred spaces, including a mosaic in the Knesset based on Psalm 137. Rosen judges these efforts a success. “By creating images which remain steadfastly multivocal—neither definitively Jewish nor Christian,” Rosen concludes, “Chagall captures the ‘not yet’ of Jewish-Christian dialogue, which asserts a ‘we’ which is, in the truest sense, yet to come.”
As they cohered into a collection, the psalms were constructed, not given; they drew on preexisting sources and were compiled and redacted by human beings in ways that can be partially reconstructed through painstaking analysis. Investigations of the psalms in the book fall roughly into diachronic and synchronic camps. The first focus on the historical process that produced the Psalter, the second on understanding it not as a haphazard collections of poems but an integrated whole with thematic and formal structure—more than the sum of its parts. So, for example, two chapters situate the psalms within pre-existing literature of the ancient Near East. John Day concludes that Psalm 104 parallels the fourteenth century bce Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten’s “Hymn to the Sun” in ways that can hardly be coincidental. Similarly rejecting psalmic exceptionalism, Erhard Gerstenberger situates the Hebrew psalms within the praise tradition of the Near East, alongside “the rest of cuneiform (and other) liturgical remnants of Mesopotamian cultures and religions.”
Moving downstream from these sources, contributions by Peter W. Flint, the late Geza Vermes, and Klaus Seybold offer varying accounts of how the original texts of the Psalter, now lost to time, achieved canonical status. Drawing on their expertise on the Dead Sea/Qumran scrolls, Flint and Vermes reject the notion of a single original Hebrew Urtext. Seybold backs it, offering this account of how a collection of David’s prayers coalesced: “The editors found old texts in the archives and were surprised and impressed,” he speculates; “they thought they found the songs of David, the great poet of the past and one of the greatest figures in the history of God and his people. So they selected many of these texts and edited them to fit with their own period.” These original editors marked them with a distinctive stamp. Not long afterwards, perhaps the third century BCE and possibly in the Jerusalem Temple library, the poems and hymns were read, copied, and eventually canonized.
Despite the inconclusive nature of these findings and desultory process they suggest, several contributors align themselves with the trend in recent decades to find integrating patterns, both literary and theological, in the psalter. Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Till Magnus Steiner develop St. Jerome’s metaphor of the Psalter as domus magna, a sprawling mansion with multiple floors and corridors. “Such an edifice can certainly be outlined in a two-dimensional way,” they argue, “but to be able to understand the building we need to venture to walk through and explore the extent of its corridors and rooms.” Deploying diachronic and synchronic perspectives, such a method “necessarily starts with the exegesis of a single psalm as the fundamental unit of the Psalter; it then puts that psalm in the context of its psalm grouping, its collection, its book within the Psalter and finally in the Psalter as a whole.” Their ultimate goal of extracting a theology of the Psalter thus begins with close attention to an individual psalm.
What is the theological import of Psalm 137 and what makes it such a key text within the psalter? In recent centuries both Jews and Christians have grown uneasy with its vengeful finale. Taking the path of least resistance, some liturgies and lectionaries have simply dropped these challenging verses. Theologians make the case for honoring the psalm as a whole, using the imprecation as an opportunity to reflect on the darker aspects of the unredeemed human psyche. “The very structure of the psalm would suggest,” concludes Jonathan Magonet, “that the task of religion is not to accept or promote violence, however much it may seem to be justified, but, paradoxically, by offering it up to God, to contain and prevent it.” Gillingham uncovers revealing patterns in the psalm’s long reception history. For the most part, Jewish readings have been more political and material, Christian readings more personal and allegorical. But these patterns reversed for Christians at the time of the Reformation, which made the experience of exile painfully real for many religious people, as they did for Jews after the mid-20th century, reflecting the Holocaust and creation of Israel. “Many psalms inhibit Jewish-Christian dialogue because they lend themselves more to what might be called a ‘David-centered’ reading or a ‘Christ-centered’ reading,” she observes. “Psalm 137 is not such a psalm; it is as difficult to read it as either a psalm ‘by’ or ‘of’ or ‘for’ King David as it is as a psalm ‘about’ or ‘to’ or ‘of’ Jesus Christ.” In that sense it is a text suited to an era in which Chagall’s spirit of ecumenical hospitality struggles continually against darker strains of religious chauvinism.