Category Archives: Psalms

PC: Is Allegory OK?

Here’s the next set of material from Psalming Christ. Now—if you thought that the previous two posts on David were building to something important about Jesus, you’re totally right! They are! But this isn’t it…  Indeed, I’m working on three different sections of the book simultaneously as the ability/energy/mood/Spirit direct.

There’s one line of thought on how reading more Scripture helps us pray the psalms better. The section I’m currently working on is how reading the prophets helps us understand the Psalms & vice versa. And yes, Ellen, this is one of the places where I’m tackling the imprecatory psalms with the suggestion that reading them in consonance with the prophetic destruction oracles can actually be a helpful thing.

There’s a second line of thought on how the psalms have been read in the voices of various biblical people, initially David and later Christ and how this is ok based on the insights of modern biblical scholarship. That’s what the previous two posts were leading to.

Then there’s a third line of thought on what modern people could or should do with the rampant allegorization that pervades patristic thought on the Scriptures generally and the Psalms in particular. As you’ve probably guessed from my title, that’s where we are today…

So—take a look, let me know what you think.

One of the biggest hurdles for modern readers of patristic biblical interpretation like Cassiodorus and Augustine is the idea of “allegorical interpretation.” Let me give you an example of what we’re talking about, then I’ll explain why I put that term in quotes and why it’s not nearly as much of a hurdle as we think it is.

Here are the opening lines of Psalm 11:

In the Lord I take refuge; how can you say to me,
“Flee like a bird to the mountains;
for look, the wicked bend the bow,
they have fitted their arrow to the string,
to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart.
If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?”

The Lord is in his holy temple;
the Lord’s throne is in heaven.
His eyes behold, his gaze examines humankind. (Ps 11:1-4)

When I look at this text, I see the psalmist speaking as one with a firm trust in God. The unnamed person to whom the psalmist speaks—the “you” in the first verse—lacks the same trust as the speaker. Hence, these lines beginning with “Flee like a bird to the mountains…” are the words of someone who does not have faith that the Lord is going to right all wrongs, especially when the wicked are in power. The rest of the psalm will continue to assert trust in God’s vindication of the righteous from a Wisdom orthodoxy perspective. If you wanted, you could almost see this psalm as a counter-argument from Proverbs against Ecclesiastes.

Now, here is how Cassiodorus reads Psalm 11:1:

This [rhetorical] figure is called caenonema, the divulging of a plan; it frequently occurs when we join words with foes or allies. These words are in fact addressed to persuasive heretics who wish to utter evil to seduce innocent souls with vicious argument. So to them the faithful man says: “Since I am established on the fixed peak of religion, how is it that you seek to persuade me, saying: Get thee away to the mountain, in other words, have recourse to the wickedness of heretics, falsely claiming that Christ is where Truth is known to leave no trace?” In the divine Scriptures, mountain is ambivalent, being applied in comparison to very different things. It is often used in both good and bad senses. When it is used in a good sense, its strength and notable height are regarded; when in a bad sense, its inner stolidness and lofty pride. So the one term is aptly applied to different objects after reflection on their qualities. There are also several types of sparrow. Some take pleasure in holes in walls, while others make for dewy valleys, and others haunt scaly mountains. But here the psalmist speaks of those whose most random inclination bears them off to the loftiest region of earth. So those who in fickleness of wavering mind turn to most wicked doctrines are rightly considered similar to them.[Cassiodorus, ExplPs 1.135.]

He is taking the image of a bird winging away to the mountains, and is infusing it with theological meaning. As a modern reader, I think that Cassiodorus is over-reading the text. That is, I think that the psalmist is trying to communicate to the reader a certain feeling of escape, giving us a mental picture of a bird swooping off into the distance intended to convey either a physical or emotional distancing of the self from a difficult situation. I see Cassiodorus finding more in the text than what the psalmist intended. He uses his knowledge of rhetoric to identify this passage as a particular figure of thought, caenonema, and then moves into a discussion of the possible deeper meanings of the words “mountain” and “sparrow.”

This is precisely the kind of thing that we are talking about when we refer to “allegorical interpretation.” Over the centuries certain patterns of substitutionary reading built up (“when the text says ‘mountains’ what it really means is X; when it says ‘sparrows’ it really means Y”). By the late medieval period, knowing and understanding these patterns of substitutionary reading were considered necessary for the proper interpretation of the biblical text. This is why the Protestant Reformation insisted so strongly on the perspecuity of the text—that is, that a normal lay person can read a biblical passage and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, can understand what it says without needing the layers of additional interpretation to read it rightly. The Reformers objected to the notion that the Bible had to be withheld from those who had not been trained in this extensive system of substitutionary and additional meanings. In their day it was about power, control, and who was allowed to have access to the biblical text. This is a key reason why “allegorical interpretation” gets a bad rap: it was used as a means of keeping the Word of God from the people of God.

Another key reason why both the Reformers and modern readers don’t like it is because it seems so arbitrary. Why, for instance, in the next verse of the psalm does Cassiodorus insist that: “We must interpret the bow as the divine commands which the heretic wields and orders according to his own wickedness[Cassiodorus, ExplPs 1.136.]”? Do we really have to use the word “must” here? Surely there are other ways that we can read this. Why does Cassiodorus fix upon this particular meaning to the exclusion of others?

In defense of Cassiodorus, there is a reason why he reads this psalm in this way. From his reading of the whole psalm and his theological context within the doctrinal disputes on the nature of Christ, he has decided that this psalm as a whole speaks about and against heretics who are troubling the church. Coming at it from this angle, he is going to interpret the details that he sees in ways that fit this reading.

The question that we need to ask is, what is prompting him to read this psalm in this way? Why does he believe that the psalm needs to be read in this way? And what are the limits on this kind of interpretive model? Furthermore, is there anything that we can take away from this model to assist our praying of the Psalms?


The first place we need to start is getting clear on terminology—specifically around allegory. As we’ve mentioned, the art of rhetoric involves quite a number of figures of speech and figures of thought. Allegory in its technical sense is simply one of these, one among many. According to the formal definition, an allegory is a statement or narrative that is intended to be read in a substitutionary way, where the actors or characters or references are intended to refer to something other than their literal referent. It’s usually a deliberate and conscious choice on the part of the author. Hence, when George Orwell sat down to write his barnyard classic Animal Farm he did so with a solid working knowledge of the history of the Soviet Union and its relationships to the rise of totalitarian powers in Europe. An uninformed reader will find a story about how the animals tried to free themselves from human control but then—slowly but surely—the leadership began acting in more and more human ways until the situation of the workers were no better under the new management than they were under the old. The story makes sense on its own. An informed reader having the allegorical key (“this story is actually about the progress of Communism in the Soviet Union”), though, will have no problem matching up certain characters with certain historical figures: Farmer Jones is Czar Nicholas II, Napoleon is Joseph Stalin, Snowball is Leon Trotsky, etc. This is intentional allegory.

Allegory in this technical sense is not foreign to the Bible itself. Allegory as a compositional technique is found in many places in the Old Testament. The image of the vineyard as a representation for Israel is used creatively by several authors in an intentionally allegorical way. The ancient Song of Moses alludes to it, concluding with this image: “[God] brought [the people] in and planted them on the mountain of your own possession” (Exodus 15:17). Psalm 80 makes explicit use of the allegory, using it in the same way as the Song of Moses:

You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
it took deep root and filled the land.
The mountains were covered with its shade,
the mighty cedars with its branches;
it sent out its branches to the sea,
and its shoots to the River.
Why then have you broken down its walls,
so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?
The boar from the forest ravages it,
and all that move in the field feed on it.
Turn again, O God of hosts;
look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine,
the stock that your right hand planted. (Ps 80:8-15)

The allegory is clear: Israel is the vineyard, the wild boar and other beasts are the enemies of Israel. Another classic adaptation of this image is the prophetic oracle in Isaiah 5. It starts in the same place as the Song of Moses and Psalm 80:

Let me sing for my beloved
my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes. (Isa 5:1-2)

Instead of moving into lament like the psalm does, Isaiah does something unexpected and slips into the prophetic courtroom accusation mode taking on his own lips the voice of God (that is, making a propospological move himself):

And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?
And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it. (Isa 5:3-6)

Psalm 80 expects God to tend the vineyard; to strengthen its wall and secure its boundaries. He is the owner and the planter, therefore it is his job to care for the vineyard and protect it. But Isaiah takes this conventional image and turns it on its head. The issue here isn’t with God/the owner—it’s with the vineyard and its crop! Isaiah finishes the oracle by both making its allegorical character exceedingly clear and clarifying the fruit:

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
but heard a cry! (Isa 5:7)

Isaiah acknowledges his use of allegory by identifying the beloved farmer as “the Lord of hosts” and the vineyard as “the house of Israel /and the people of Judah.” The wild grapes produced by the people are “bloodshed” and “a cry”—violations of Israel’s covenant responsibilities rather than the fruit that God intends of his people, “justice” and “righteousness.”

As if that weren’t enough, a later author writing in the same tradition as Isaiah reclaims the vineyard image from God’s perspective in Isaiah 27:1-6 to speak of the future victory of God and the full restoration of Israel concluding with a mix of allegory and its interpretive key:

In days to come Jacob shall take root,
Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots,
and fill the whole world with fruit.

It’s not just Isaiah either in the prophetic literature. Jeremiah 12 uses this same agricultural image for Israel and the nations with regard to planting and plucking up (“Many shepherds have destroyed my vineyard, /they have trampled down my portion, /they have made my pleasant portion /a desolate wilderness” Jer 12:10). So too does Ezekiel 19:10-14. Thus, the Old Testament itself uses allegory as a compositional tool.

Because of this fact, it’s therefore no surprise at all to see the use of allegory proper pop up in the New Testament. Indeed, knowing this allegory of the vineyard from the Song of Moses, Psalm 80, and the Prophets is essential to understanding the parable that Jesus tells in Mark 12:1-12 (and its parallels in Matthew 21:33-44 and Luke 20:9-18) that begins “A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watchtower…” (Mark 12:1). Anybody who knows Isaiah 5 will immediately recognize what’s going on here. Matthew’s telling in particular wants to be sure that the allegorical connection is made by concluding his passage with a focus on the fruits just like Isaiah 5 does: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (Matt 21:43).

With these kinds of scriptural antecedents rolling around in our heads, then, what are we to make of the familiar passage from John 15 where Jesus begins speaking like this: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit…” (John 15:1-2)? Shouldn’t this address to the disciples at the Last Supper be heard as an allegory informed by Psalm 80 and Isaiah and the prophets where Jesus himself is the vine that God plants and all those connected into him are the people of God, called to bear fruit worthy of God’s kingdom?

The point I’m making here is that allegorical composition is not foreign to the Bible. To deny the legitimacy of allegory as a whole is an inaccurate reading of Scripture itself. However, what Cassiodorus and Augustine are doing goes far beyond recognizing allegorical composition. We need to make a distinction between allegorical composition which is something that a writer does, and allegorical interpretation which is something that a reader does. But here again, we have to look at the New Testament itself and how it teaches Scriptural reading.

The place where we must start to understand the role of allegorical reading in the Christian tradition is with St. Paul. Informed readers recognize that there is allegorical composition in the Bible—but Paul takes that and kicks it up several notches. In Galatians 4 he turns to the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar to contrast those who live by the law and those who live by the promise. After introducing the two children (Ishmael and Isaac), he says this:

Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother. (Gal 4:24-6)

Paul is doing something different than what we saw before. He has gone to a narrative text which does not contain any signals that it is allegorical in nature and asserts that there is, in fact, an allegory at work here—one that has bearing on Christian faith and practice. Nor is this the only time that he will do this.

First Corinthians 10 is an important text for understanding how Paul reads and for how he expects us to read as well. He begins the chapter by focusing his readers attention on what happened in and after the Exodus:

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, 2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ. (1 Cor 10:1-4)

This is different from what he says in Galatians; he is not claiming that this narrative is an allegory, nor does he inform us exactly how he is reading. His use of the term “spiritual” is important though. It points to the fact that he sees a deeper theological meaning embedded within the narrative and that there are certain meanings and identifications that have to be made in order to get the fullest meaning out of the text with one central hermeneutical key: “…and the rock was Christ.”

Within this section of 1 Corinthians, Paul is rebuking the Corinthians for their moral and ethical lapses. Despite the fact that they are baptized people, souls incorporated into the mystical Body of Christ, they persist in immorality that would make pagans blush. He introduces the generation of the Exodus and the pre-figurement of Baptism in the Red Sea to go on to chronicle both the ethical lapses of that generation and also the punishments that they received. He frames this material with an appeal to the utility of the scriptural text: “Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. . . . These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor 10:6, 11). Paul is not saying that there is a one-to-one correspondence between the Exodus generation wandering in the wilderness and his Corinthian flock. Rather, he indicates that the biblical material has a bearing on and was intended to inform this present generation. These past events were written for our present instruction.

He makes this point again in a different way near the end of Romans where he explains to the Roman congregation his fundamental philosophy of reading:

We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor. For Christ did not please himself; but, as it is written, “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.”[Ps 69:9] For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom 15:1-6)

Paul’s emphasis is that the purpose of reading Scripture is to give hope and to constructively build up the community in Christ. That’s why we read: for the spiritual advancement of us all through the building up of the neighbor. Furthermore, whatever was written in Scripture is there in order to advance this purpose—to build up one another in love so that we may glorify God together in both our words and our works.

This, then, is the full and proper intention of the Pauline injunction in 2 Timothy 3:16-17. While the first verse of this passage is often proof-texted to make non-biblical assertions about inspiration, seeing it from this perspective helps us hear what Paul was intending:

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

Paul’s point is that all scripture bears a spiritual meaning and that the purpose of that spiritual meaning is to build up the community so that we are equipped to do acts of love and service. This is what the Scriptures are for and how they ought to be read: they are God’s self-revelation intended to build the Church up through an understand of how God wills us to live in love and reconciliation with one another.

At this point, let’s take a step back and summarize what we’ve been up to here. Why have we been spending so much time talking about Paul in a book about the Psalms and Jesus? What we’ve established here is that:

  1. Cassiodorus and the Church Fathers read the Psalms in an extra-literal way often referred to as “allegorical interpretation.”
  2. There is a suspicion of allegorical interpretation in the modern church.
  3. That suspicion is warranted because of the ways that substitutionary readings became a way to keep the biblical text out of the hands of the laity.
  4. However, certain texts of the Bible are demonstrably allegorical in composition.
  5. Sparked by this recognition, Paul taught allegorical or spiritual reading to the Church for a specific purpose—the upbuilding of the Church for acts of love and service.

PC: David the Ideal

J.R.R. Tolkien’s last book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy is entitled Return of the King. One of the final chapters in the book portrays this episode—where the ranger Strider finally claims his destiny as Aragorn Elessar, the long-awaited king of Gondor. Tolkien describes his crowning like this:

“But when Aragorn arose all that beheld him gazed in silence, for it seemed to them that he was revealed to them now for the first time. Tall as the sea-kings of old, he stood above all that were near; ancient of days he seemed and yet in the flower of manhood; and wisdom sat upon his brow, and strength and healing were in his hands, and a light was about him.” (Tolkien, Return of the King, 246).

Tolkien constructs Aragorn as the ultimate messianic king. He is not just a monarch, but an idealized figure who rules with almost supernatural qualities of wisdom, justice, and mercy. He is a healer, a sage; he is both a prophet and a subject of prophecy, promised to return at a crucial time. Aragorn is not the sole possessor of these characteristics in English literature; Tolkien, a medievalist, was thoroughly familiar with the legends of King Arthur. Of course, the lord of the Round Table and its mighty warriors, is said to be not dead but sleeping on the Isle of Avalon to return at the hour of Britain’s greatest need (apparently neither the Blitz nor Brexit).

Behind both of these figures and broader character of the messianic monarch in Western Literature is King David. He represents an ideal figure because he simultaneously embodies three deep archetypes: the king, the priest, and the prophet.

As king, David was the ultimate warrior. Slayer of Goliath and a mighty war leader, David became the target of Saul’s wrath because of the people’s celebration in song: “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands” (1 Sam 18:8). David was responsible for defeating the Philistines and taking Canaanite cities. While Saul had favored his fellow Benjaminites, David unified the tribes of Israel into a coherent unit around the tribally-neutral city of Jerusalem where he centralized both political and sacred power. This unification was a difficult task, almost proving too much for him, exploited as it was by the revolt of Absalom. Nevertheless, David was able to pass a united kingdom on to his son Solomon after whom it would splinter again into the two nations of Israel and Judah.

As priest, David was responsible for bringing the worship of Yhwh to Jerusalem and centralizing the worship of the God of Israel around the ark of the covenant. While he did not suppress the old shrines like Gilgal and Shechem, he identified the ark with the presence of God and tied its presence in Jerusalem to the royal court. In his day, royalty retained some priestly functions as it had in former days—remember that Melchizedek the king of Salem (Jerusalem) was both a king and a priest (Gen 14:17-24). Thus, when David brings the ark into Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 6 he does so with dancing and sacrifice, performing the sacrifices himself while wearing an ephod, the distinctive garment of the priests (2 Sam 6:13-14, 17-19). Similarly, David offers atoning sacrifices to avert a plague from his people in 2 Samuel 24:18-25. The materials in 1 Chronicles further ties David himself to the Jerusalem Temple. David is identified as the mind behind the entire project and Solomon just the hands that carry it out, contradicting the Kings account where Solomon has the larger role.

As prophet, David’s is identified as a vessel of God’s Spirit twice. The first time is in connection with his anointing as king; Gods favor is transferred from Saul to David. When Saul was first anointed as king Samuel told him “the Spirit of the Lord will possess you, and you will be in a prophetic frenzy along with [a band of prophets] and be turned into a different person” (1 Sam 10:6). After Saul did not follow God’s directives Samuel was told to find and anoint David. As in Saul’s case, the anointing with oil is tied to the coming of the Spirit (as it is today in traditions that follow baptismal chrismation):

Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed [David] in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah. Now the spirit of the Lord departed from Saul and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him… (1 Sam 16:13-14)

Thus the giving of the spirit to David went hand-in-hand with its removal from Saul; it proceeded from the king-making ritual. In David’s case, though, it did not depart from him. While the Spirit operates in a prophetic frenzy for Saul on several occasions (1 Sam 10:10-13, 19:18-24), David never displays this kind of behavior. Rather, his oracular last words connect it with his poetry: “The spirit of the Lord speaks through me,/ his word is on my tongue…” (2 Sam 23:2). Later interpreters would pick up this theme. Second Temple literature including both the Dead Sea Scrolls and the New Testament routinely refer to David as a prophet or to the psalms as prophetic documents (see Matt 22:43; Mark 12:36; Acts 1:16; 2:25; 2:31; 4:25; etc.).

As if all of this weren’t enough, there’s one more important piece of David’s legacy: the covenant that God makes with his house. In 2 Samuel 7, just after David brings the ark into Jerusalem with dancing and sacrifice, he considers building a house for the Lord. However, God sends a message through the prophet Nathan that completely flips this. David is not going to build a house for God; rather, God is going to build a house for David! A promise to place one of David’s sons on the throne becomes a covenant:

When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established” (2 Sam 7:12-16).

From a narrative perspective the initial lines of this passage refer to Solomon. As time went on, though, they were interpreted more broadly. David represents a godly king who rules a restored people of Israel with justice. God’s covenant with the house of David became both a challenge to the throne’s current incumbent (does he measure up?) and a promise that God would restore Davidic rule if this succession was ever broken. The Zion theology of Isaiah emphasizes this point: God will raise up and protect godly kings and, conversely, all kings of Judah are vassals of the true King, Yhwh. This brings us back to those psalms we discussed above, Psalms 45, 72, and 89 that sketch out the lines of an aspirational messianic figure.

The exile to Babylon and eventual restoration caused a theological crisis: how was God remaining faithful to the promise with David? How would God make good on this promise in the present situation? Thus, this post-exilic period became one of intense messianic expectation. The victories of Judas Maccabeus and the restoration of a line of priest-kings in Israel described in the books of the Maccabees seemed an initial answer, but the Roman occupation crushed the people’s hopes once again.

At the turn of the millennium and at the time of the birth of Jesus, this is what the faithful of Israel were hoping for: God’s Messiah (anointed one) who, like David, would be anointed with oil as a sign of his kingship, receive the Spirit of God with power, and act in a Davidic way by driving out the foreign oppressors, restoring the house of David, and ruling with justice and equity from Jerusalem. This is what it meant to be “Son of David” in the world that would birth the New Testament.

PC: David the Man

Of all of the figures of the Old Testament, David is the richest and most complex. His story begins in 1 Samuel 16 and extends through the remaining 15 chapters of 1 Samuel, though all 24 chapters of 2 Samuel, and even into 1 Kings where David’s death is recorded in 1 Kings 2:10. Through almost 1,200 verses, we get a deep and intimate portrait of this pivotal king of Israel.

On one hand, there are signs that certain portions of his story have the air of political propaganda: the image of the handsome young shepherd boy fighting the Philistine Goliath with just a sling is calculated to play well in its Ancient Near Eastern setting. Kings were referred to as “shepherds of their people” and were expected to be successful warriors. Emphasizing David’s youth and apparent naivety implies that it would take a (literal) miracle for him to win, and thus his victory is a demonstration of God’s favor, recalling other divinely sanctioned victories against overwhelming odds like Gideon’s (Judges 7). But contrary to this portrait (and every Sunday School illustration you have ever seen), David is described to Saul the chapter before the Goliath episode as already being a full-grown and accomplished figure: “One of the young men answered, ‘I have seen [David,] a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite who is skillful in playing [the lyre], a man of valor, a warrior, prudent in speech, and a man of good presence and the Lord is with him’” (2 Sam 16:18). Saul—already on the lookout for “any strong or valiant warrior” (2 Sam 14:52)—not only brings David into his household to play the lyre but also promotes him by the end of chapter 16 to be his own armor-bearer, a position of importance and trust. Thus, it’s odd that Saul barely recognizes him in chapter 17.

The fact that there would be this kind of idealization of David comes as no surprise at all. After all, he was the founder of a dynasty, the man who freed Israel from Philistine control, united the divided north and south, captured Jerusalem from the Jebusites, and established it as the centralized capitol of his kingdom. Rather, what does come as a surprise is that we hear of so many things that David did wrong! From his days as a bandit captain to his sinful taking of Bathsheba to the revolt of his son Absalom, we hear of all kinds of things that could have been covered up and expunged from the historical record altogether—but weren’t. The picture we get is far more interesting because of the ways that it wasn’t sanitized by court historians. We are shown a fully human David, warts and all.

The David we meet in the books of Samuel and Kings is a shrewd, rakish fellow who lives by his wits, his sword—and also his faith. He is a complicated person: a canny opportunist, a lover of many (married!) women, a wise king, and a loving father who we see grieving the death of an infant son and the betrayal and subsequent death of another. He is a devoted follower of the God of Israel and—despite his many moral lapses—is nevertheless a man after God’s own heart. He is the only character in the Old Testament with such a complete emotional spectrum. After all, we don’t see Moses feeling a lot, and the only feelings we get from Job are bad ones! Add to this portrait the several references to David as a musician and it’s no surprise that not only is a large early collection of psalms named after him, but that they are interpreted through and connected with episodes in his life.

The David featured in 1 Chronicles adds a whole extra layer to our picture of the man. The two books of Chronicles are a post-Exilic rewrite of the history of Israel from a liturgical perspective. That is, it’s most interested in what’s going on with the Temple, who has been appointed to do what, and how all of the various priests and Levites are organized. In the book of 1 Kings, it’s pretty clear that Solomon was the ruler responsible for building the Temple in Jerusalem and setting up worship. In Chronicles, Solomon is simply carrying through on all of the detailed plans that his father David had orchestrated. David is the worship planner par excellence especially when it comes to establishing the rota the levitical singers and, by implication, what they ought to be singing. Chronicles is an interesting addition to David’s legacy. That’s not because it gives us any new, accurate, historical information about David (after all, it was written some six hundred years after his death!); instead, it shows us the reverence with which David was seen amongst the liturgical musicians, the pre-eminence given to him and his memory. This will only grow throughout the Second Temple period including into the time of Jesus and the early church. The Jewish liturgically-obsessed sect that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls attributes to David some 4,050 fifty songs which included 3,600 psalms as well as songs to be sung at temple worship every day of the year, and even 4 therapeutic songs of exorcism to be sung over the demon-possessed (hearkening back to his original role at Saul’s court in 2 Samuel 14).[11Q5, col. XXVII (Martinez, The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated, 309).]

This is David the man. But there’s more to the biblical picture of David than this—and that’s what we have to turn to next. We must reckon not just with David the man, but also with David the ideal.

PC: Hearing the Psalms in other Voices

Here we go again…

In this section, I’m tackling a key question about the way the Church Fathers read the Psalms. They heard them in the voice of Jesus. But can we do that? Is this an appropriate reading strategy based on what we know from modern biblical scholarship? This is the first of four sections on this topic.

Is this a legitimate way to read the Psalms? Coming from a modern perspective, grounded in the insights of the scientific study of the Scriptures, is this a means by which we can approach them?

There are a couple of angles we can use to think through this question. The first is to come at it from the perspective of the historical critical method, the method that was the centerpiece of the academic study of Scripture from the nineteenth century until the last quarter of the twentieth century. This approach privileges the idea of authorial intent—what was the  original author intending to communicate to the people they expected to be reading or hearing this material? Was the original author of any given psalm writing it with the idea that it should be heard in the voice of Jesus? The quick and simple answer to this question is no, of course not. Remember, a fundamental premise of the academic study of Scripture is that supernatural causes or authors are outside the realm of this form of research; we can’t assume or refer to supernatural knowledge on the part of the authors. Scholarship cannot make an appeal to the Holy Spirit to suggest that a psalmist of the ninth century BC was either consciously or unconsciously writing about Jesus. As a result, this form of biblical research must answer this specific question in the negative: no, the original authors did not have Jesus in mind as they wrote, nor would their original audience have thought of Jesus when they heard or read these psalms.

That having been said, even though this form of research would deny this kind of reading in its specific application, it may give it a cautious go-ahead based in its general application. Let me explain what I mean by that. Put simply, Jesus is not mentioned by name in the Psalms for obvious temporal reasons—his Incarnation occurred centuries after the last psalm was written. However, a key feature of the psalms is a studied generality. Think back to the psalms you know. Many of the lament psalms talk about the troubles that their authors were or are in. But what specifically are these troubles? Does any psalm refer to the threat of poverty because a band of Amorite raiders seized a caravan of goods coming up from Egypt that the author had spent his last shekels on? Does any psalm talk about the political danger the author is in because he knows that Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah have heard a false rumor about him and suspect him of disloyalty in the current difficulties with the Neo-Babylonians?  No—none of them do. One of the things that makes each psalm so hard to date is the lack of specificity within them. Rather, the psalms as we have received them speak in vague generalities about the trials, tribulations, and narrow escapes of the righteous. They are general enough that anyone can find themselves within their troubles. Everyone has experienced tribulations, and the laments are crafted in such a way that each of us can hear their situations through our own experiences. As a result, the psalms taken as a whole can be read as the praise and lament of the a righteous one—a righteous one who has suffered greatly yet still praises God.

Furthermore, royal figures appear frequently in the psalms. If we wanted to group the many references to kings, we would end up with three major groups: foreign kings, usually enemies of Israel;[See Psalm 2:2, 10; Psalm 48:4; Psalm 68:12, 14, 29; Psalm 72:10-11; Psalm 76:12; Psalm 89:27; Psalm 102:15; Psalm 105:14, 20, 30; Psalm 110:5; Psalm 135:10-11; Psalm 136:17-20; Psalm 138:4; Psalm 148:11; and Psalm 149:8.] Yhwh, the God of Israel who is also the true king of Israel;[See Psalm 5:2; Psalm 10:16; Psalm 24:7-10; Psalm 29:10; Psalm 44:4; Psalm 47, Psalm 48:2; Psalm 68:24; Psalm 74:12; Psalm 84:3; Psalm 93; Psalms 95-99; Psalm 145; and Psalm 149:2.] and the human king of Israel/Judah[See Psalm 2:4; Psalm 18:50; Psalm 20:9; Psalm 21:1, 7; Psalm 33:16; Psalm 45; Psalm 61:6; Psalm 72; Psalm 89; Psalm 119:46; and Psalm 144:10.]. And yet, despite all of these references in the first and third groups, only three kings are ever mentioned by name—David, Sihon of the Amorites, and Og of Bashan—and one by implication—the unnamed Pharaoh of the Exodus. There’s no Hezekiah or Joram or Manasseh or any of the other kings of Israel or Judah mentioned in the historical books. Too, the royal psalms 45, 72, and 89 speak in hyperbolic terms about the relationship between God and the king, portraying a set of expectations that seem far beyond what any human person and accomplish or achieve! These appear to portray less historical figures and more aspirational messianic figures, a future unnamed figure of the line of David who will bring peace, prosperity and security to God’s people. What would a reader of the time hear? Is this political propaganda exalting the current occupant of the throne, or an aspirational vision of who a king could be—who is, in any case, a client king of the Yhwh, the true king—that qualifies and challenges any current occupant of the throne?

As much as a scholar working within the historical method would deny that any of the psalms were written to be placed in the mouth of Jesus, it is nonetheless a true statement that the psalms were written (or edited) in such a way that they can be seen as the words of any suffering righteous person and that they refer to an aspirational messianic king of the line of David.

But the historical method is not the only approach that modern scholarship offers. In recent decades the historical method has been joined by other methods that expand our view on the text by asking different questions that complement the historical ones but open other lines of inquiry. Reader-response and reception history take seriously how readers would have heard these texts and look for evidence about how they were actually received, understood, and put into practice. These are particularly fruitful approaches for what we’re talking about. Again—these shouldn’t be seen as an either/or, either we use one approach or we use another; rather, the most edifying perspective is a both/and. There is no single right answer about what a biblical text means—there are a multitude of questions that can be asked, some questions are better than others, and taking the answers to the better questions together can help us gain clarity about what we see in the text and how we act as a result of it.

If we come at this question—is it legitimate to read the psalms in the voice of Jesus or the church—from the direction of reader-response and reception history, we will discover some fascinating material to put into the mix.  The first question we will tackle is whether it is appropriate to read individual psalms as the voice of a community. We’ll take this on first because it is the easiest to answer: according to the psalms themselves, the answer is a resounding yes! Specifically, in and amongst the Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120-134), there are psalms that invite all of Israel to hear themselves in the “I” and “we” of the psalms:

If it had not been the Lord who was on our side —let Israel now say—If it had not been the Lord who was on our side, When our enemies attacked us… (Psalm 124:1-2)

“Often have they attacked me from my youth” —let Israel now say—“Often have they attacked me from my youth, Yet they have not prevailed against me. (Psalm 129:1-2)

The easy slippage between the singular “I,”  plural nouns like “tents of the righteous,” and collective nouns like “Israel,” “house of Aaron,” “those who fear the Lord” in a text like Psalm 118, supports the notion that even psalms written in the singular are intended to evoke the whole community’s experience. Moving outside the Psalter, Isaiah’s servant songs function in a similar way—although they are written about an exemplary individual, internal clues show that their author intended them to refer to the whole community as well: “And he said to me, ‘You are my servant,/ Israel in whom I will be glorified’” (Isaiah 49:3). Thus, the psalms themselves invite their readers to investigate plurals as singulars and singulars as plurals.

Next, let’s look at the more complicated question about hearing the psalms as the voice of a particular individual. The place to start is by turning our attention to the superscriptions—those brief taglines that appear before the psalms in most translations.[It’s worth noting that some liturgical translations of the psalms—like those found in the Books of Common Prayer—leave these out.] As we discussed in our initial look at the psalms back in chapter XX, there are a couple of different kinds of superscriptions. There are those that identify the collections that were edited into the final form of the Psalter. There are others that identify tune names or are directed to the leader of the Levitical choir. Then, there are contextualizing superscriptions—superscriptions that attempt to locate certain psalms within a particular event in the life of David or another biblical figure. These are the earliest examples of prosopological interpretation of the psalms: before the canon was even closed, the psalms have been interpreted by placing them in the mouth of a specific individual expressing that person’s thoughts and feelings in the midst of a given experience. Most scholars believe that the superscriptions were not original to the psalms; they were not part of the process of composition but rather are part of the editorial work of the unknown Levites or priests who gathered these poems into collections and wove those collections together into the book that we now have. An important piece of evidence that supports this is the freedom in the Septuagint to alter and add superscriptions in ways that other parts of the biblical text are not altered.

Thirteen psalms receive historical notes in their superscriptions connecting them to events in the life of David, most of which are described in the books of Samuel; a fourteenth (Psalm 30) is unclear:

We see a lot of these historical superscriptions at the beginning of the psalter—in that initial “Book of David” collection. Even though there are many connections between these superscriptions and events listed in the biblical books as we have received them, there are enough differences to make us wonder if the editors were looking at a different version of these books. Second, the connection between the psalms and the referenced events varies in quality amongst them. For instance, the connection between David’s repentance and Psalm 51 is a great one. Liturgically speaking, Psalm 51 is considered the penitential psalm par excellence, and is eminently appropriate for this episode in David’s life. The connection between the betrayal of the Ziphites and Psalm 54 is a bit more puzzling. Despite these curiosities, these superscriptions set a pattern that would be extended both farther and deeper. Farther in the sense that David was not the only biblical figure to whom specific psalms were assigned. (I leave aside here those referring to David, Asaph and the Korahites here because these superscriptions are best seen as referring to collections rather than being prosopological connections of the sort we’re discussing here.):

The anonymous figure in Psalm 102 is interesting because it suggests a process: read the psalm, construct a emotional profile based on the content, then consider who and where in the biblical records such a person might be found. For Psalm 102 at least, the first few steps have been accomplished, but the process as a whole has not been completed.

The Septuagint, though, that translation into Greek by Egyptian Jews in the 3rd or 2nd century BC, took this idea and added to it (The bolded words in this chart shows what is in the Hebrew; the regular type is what was added in the Septuagint’s psalter):

So—what do we make of all of this?

The evidence that we see here tells us that people started interpreting the Psalms prosopologically—hearing them in the voices of particular people at particular times—early in the collecting and editing of the Psalter. They were pre-eminently tied into the life of David, but other biblical figures received attributions as well. This trend only increased as time went on. The evidence of the Septuagint shows that the editors of that tradition were comfortable doing both things: connecting more psalms with events in the life of David, and connecting them to other people and events including post-exilic people (like Haggai and Zechariah) and situations (the resettlement of Israel).

The psalms themselves invite us to hear and pray them in our voices and in the voices of biblical figures. Understanding how the early church found Jesus within them requires us to take a deep dive into David which we’ll do next.

PC: The Psalms and the Wisdom Literature

Following on the heels of the previous post that introduces the idea that reading more Bible helps you interpret better, here’s an exploration of how reading the wisdom literature in the Bible can help you pray the psalms better.

Wisdom literature is an ancient genre, older than the biblical writings. We possess Egyptian and Babylonian wisdom texts from the third millennium BC—some two thousand years before King Solomon and his scribes. Originating in early scribal circles at royal courts, wisdom literature offers advice on how to live life best including how to survive the complexities of court intrigue. Often a mix of ethical instruction and sound moral philosophy, its authors traced its source back to two related sources. The first was, of course, the wisdom of the gods, but the second was the order and patterns perceived in the natural world: revelation of the gods’ divine ordering of things. To be a successful sage, then, was to observe the natural world and to draw from it lessons for how the gods intended humans to behave. Wise living and righteous living went hand in hand. When wisdom arrived in Israel—initially brought by the scribes Solomon attracted to himself—it came from these international sources; the section entitled “Sayings of the wise” in Proverbs 22:17-24:22 appear to be a Hebrew translation of the Egyptian “Instructions of Amenemope” written during the times of the Ramsesside pharaohs (roughly 1300-1075 BC). In the early Solomon collections, Proverbs 10-22:16, we see the same themes appearing as in the Egyptian and Babylonian sources. As it matured, the wisdom tradition adapted to the Israelite religious environment and took on some new themes relating to God of Israel.

Stylistically, it’s worth noting how the proverbs were written. The early maxims appear in a very familiar format—a two-line thought where the second line either restates the first, states the contrary of the first, or continues the thought of the first.

Restating (Proverbs 19:8) Contrary (Proverbs 15:1) Continuation (Proverbs 16:4)
“To get wisdom is to love oneself;
To keep understanding is to prosper.”
“A soft answer turns away wrath,
But a harsh word stirs up anger.”
“The Lord has made everything for its purpose,
Even the wicked for the day of trouble.”

If this looks familiar, it should! This is the exact same kind of poetic structure and parallelism that appears in the psalms.

The two-line form means that there is no room for gray area in the contrary statements: “A wise child makes a glad father, but the foolish despise their mothers” (Prov 15:20); “Folly is a joy to one who has no sense, but a person of understanding walks straight ahead” (Prov 15:21); “The righteous are delivered from trouble, and the wicked get into it instead” (Prov 11:8); With their mouth the godless destroy their neighbors, but by knowledge the righteous are delivered” (Prov 11:9). The result is that wisdom literature features a lot of rhetorical binaries: the righteous/the wicked; the righteous/the godless; the wise/the foolish. The terse structure gives no opportunity for nuance. There are no “wise but misguided” or “people making hard choices” or “basically good people who made a few dumb mistakes” in these two-line maxims: you’re either wise or foolish, righteous or wicked. The psalms are going to share this characteristic—remember it, it’s going to be important later on.

Another feature of these maxims is a clear but simple moral code: do what is righteous and things will go well for you; do what is wicked and you will face the consequences: “The righteousness of the blameless keeps their ways straight,/but the wicked fall by their own wickedness./The righteousness of the upright saves them,/but the treacherous are taken captive by their schemes” (Prov 11:5-6). “The perverse get what their ways deserve,/and the good, what their deeds deserve” (Prov 14:14). In one sense, this is common sense borne out of observation of human nature playing itself out in societies with a healthy belief in retribution. If you kill or defraud someone, his family is going to come looking for you and things won’t end well for you! This retributive justice doesn’t necessarily come from a divine source—it’s just the natural course of things playing themselves out. However, the principle is also expressed theologically: “The eyes of the Lord are in every place,/ keeping watch on the evil and the good” (Prov 15:3). “The Lord is far from the wicked,/ but he hears the prayers of the righteous” (Prov 15:29).

From these brief couplets it is not hard to extract a pair of simple principles: 1) the righteous will receive a reward for how they act; 2) God rewards the good. The fusion of these two gets expressed in a number of proverbs: “Misfortune pursues sinners;/ but prosperity rewards the righteous” (Prov 13:21). “The righteous have enough to satisfy their appetite,/ but the belly of the wicked is empty” (Prov 13:25). “In the house of the righteous there is much treasure,/ but trouble befalls the income of the wicked” (Prov 15:6). “The reward for humility and fear of the Lord/ is riches and honor and life” (Prov 22:4). On one hand this makes a lot of sense: keep your nose clean, work hard, and you will earn the rewards of your labors. Act like an idiot, be lazy, cheat and defraud people, and you’ll get what’s coming both in retribution and from shirking honest labor. On the other hand, this can set up a theologically treacherous premise based on simplistic logic: if you are righteous, God will reward you with wealth; if you are wealthy you must therefore be righteous. Or, if you do good, good things will happen to you; if bad things happen to you, you must have done something wrong.

It’s worth noting that there’s push-back against this notion in Proverbs itself, recognizing that wealth isn’t always the fruit of righteousness and holds its own dangers: “Better is a little with righteousness/ than large income with injustice” (Prov 16:8). “Riches do not profit in the day of wrath,/ but righteousness delivers from death” (Prov 11:4). “Those who trust in their riches will wither,/ but the righteous will flourish like green leaves” (Prov 11:28). “The rich and poor have this in common:/ the Lord is the maker of them all” (Prov 22:2)  “Better to be poor and walk in integrity / than to be crooked in one’s ways even though rich” (Prov 28:6).  These maxims qualify and question an easy equation between righteousness and wealth.

This notion presented by the maxims that God rewards the righteous with riches and ease and punishes the wicked with poverty and problems has been labeled “wisdom orthodoxy” by modern scholarship. Not all wisdom literature is packaged in these two-line maxims, though. There are also hymnic structures present in the wisdom literature. The opening chapters of Proverbs (Proverbs 1-9) are in poetic hymn form. While the two-line thought structures still show up in some of the hymnody, the longer format allows for more nuanced theological thought. That’s what leads to a direct challenge to this wisdom orthodoxy.

The book of Job is a wisdom book that tackles the simplistic wisdom orthodoxy, challenging it by constructing a hypothetical situation. A folk-tale like frame introduces us to Job, the prototypical righteous man. He is rich, he is righteous, he does all the right things and has all of the material benefits that wisdom orthodoxy promises. He is a cartoon figure of “the good guy.” But then, through no fault of his own, everything is taken away from him: his wealth, his family, and his heath. His three remaining friends come to console him. After sitting in silence together for seven days and seven nights, the cartoony introduction comes to an abrupt end as Job breaks out in a stylistically and theologically complex wisdom hymn describing his woe and proclaiming his innocence. His friends respond by insisting that he had to have done something wrong for so much ill to befall him. They go back and forth until finally God steps in with some poetic splendor of his own. God reveals that the problem is their paradigm; both Job and his friends are stuck in the same narrow, wrong-headed framework. Returning to the wisdom theme of observing the principles of creation, God directs Job to observe the presence of chaos within the creation, both in the natural world as well as in human affairs. If chaos is created into the fabric of things, no easy or trite formulations—like a simplistic wisdom orthodoxy—will ever be able to account for the complexities of real life. A final return to the cartoonish frame almost blunts the power of the poetry by having God restore all of Job’s riches.

Along with Job, Ecclesiastes likewise challenges wisdom orthodoxy by casting doubt on its easy equations. More skeptical and pessimistic in outlook, Ecclesiastes warns against any attempts to correlate actions too neatly with results. At the end of the day it advocates an appreciation of the simple joys of life accompanied by virtue—not because of any divine benefits thereof, but because virtue is the better path. Taken together, Job and Ecclesiastes represent a stance of “wisdom in revolt” that offers a canonical alternative to wisdom orthodoxy potentially extracted from Proverbs.There’s further development to the wisdom tradition that is important for its connection with the Psalms.

The Apocrypha—those books related to the Old Testament known to the early church in Greek and not Hebrew—contains two later wisdom texts, the Wisdom of Solomon and The Wisdom of Jesus Ben Sirach (also referred to as Sirach or Ecclesiasticus). If you remember, the earliest wisdom literature identified the initial source of wisdom as the gods or God and its secondary source as the observation of creation. These later books, composed by Jewish believers around 180 BC (Sirach) and between 100 BC and AD 50 (Wisdom of Solomon), identify that initial source of divine wisdom with the Old Testament generally and the Torah specifically. If you want to know what “righteousness” ought to look like, study the Torah and its legal and ethical demands. Study the prophets and the histories, and see how the wise leaders of the past acted in accordance with God’s will.

Reading through the wisdom literature will help you pray the psalms better for several reasons. First, there is a deep relationship between the wisdom hymns and the psalms. Indeed, some psalms are best understood as free-floating wisdom hymns. Consider the start of Psalm 49:

Hear this, all you peoples;
give ear, all inhabitants of the world,
both low and high,
rich and poor together.
My mouth shall speak wisdom;
the meditation of my heart shall be understanding.
I will incline my ear to a proverb;
I will solve my riddle to the music of the harp.

Why should I fear in times of trouble,
when the iniquity of my persecutors surrounds me,
those who trust in their wealth
And boast of the abundance of their riches?
Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life,
there is no price one can give to God for it. (Psalm 49:1-7)

This is clearly rooted in the wisdom tradition. It uses the technical terminology of wisdom found in such writings: “wisdom,” “meditation,” “understanding,” “proverb,” and “riddle”. It also addresses familiar themes, the rich and the poor, the righteous and the wicked, putting one’s trust in God rather than wealth. Another wisdom psalm starts like this:

Do not fret because of the wicked;
do not be envious of wrongdoers,
for they will soon fade like the grass,
and wither like the green herb.

Trust in the LORD, and do good;
so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.
Take delight in the LORD,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Commit your way to the LORD;
trust in him, and he will act.
He will make your vindication shine like the light,
and the justice of your cause like the noonday. (Psalm 37:1-6)

Do you notice the difference between them just from the few verses of each that I have cited here? The second, Psalm 37, appears to represents a wisdom orthodoxy perspective in line with the general stance of Proverbs. As you continue through the psalm you will find this initial suspicion confirmed by verses like these:

Our steps are made firm by the LORD,
when he delights in our way;
though we stumble, we shall not fall headlong,
for the LORD holds us by the hand.

I have been young, and now am old,
yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken
or their children begging bread.
They are ever giving liberally and lending,
and their children become a blessing. (Psalm 37:23-26).

I live in urban Baltimore. Every morning when I drive my daughter to school we pass through at least four intersections where I know there will be homeless people on each corner, walking the lines of traffic, begging bread. I could assume that they are “the wicked,” that their condition is their fault because of laziness, addiction, or unrighteous life choices. While those assumptions might hold true in some cases, another alternative is to see this psalm borrowing the simplistic aphorisms of wisdom orthodoxy. Wisdom orthodoxy is not wrong to state that the way of righteousness—living life in accordance with wisdom, virtue, and God’s will—is a better path than competing alternatives. But we can also recognize that the promises of divine assistance for the righteous are part of a rhetorical strategy designed to make this way look more attractive rather than a value-judgment upon the poor and afflicted.

Psalm 37 is rightly read against the context not only of the wisdom orthodoxy of Proverbs, but also the wisdom in revolt tradition of Job, Ecclesiastes—and its canonical cousin Psalm 49. The riddle that Psalm 49 promises to address in verse 4 is precisely the question of wealth. Echoing themes from Ecclesiastes, it observes the fleeting nature of riches and all human possessions:

When we look at the wise, they die;
fool and dolt perish together
and leave their wealth to others.
Their graves are their homes forever,
their dwelling places to all generations,
though they named lands their own.
Mortals cannot abide in their pomp;
they are like the animals that perish. (Psalm 49:10-12)

The fact of mortality renders wealth existentially irrelevant. Fidelity to God, on the contrary, is of enduring value.

Reading the breadth of the wisdom literature helps us pray the psalms better because it helps us recognize some important things about language and rhetoric.  First, binary language in the psalms—good/bad, righteous/wicked, rich/poor—is the rhetorical heritage of the wisdom literature. It is inherently simplistic and reductive. We need to acknowledge that just because binaries are required by a scheme of two-line parallels does not mean that either our thinking or theology need to be similarly simplistic. Second, assertions based in wisdom orthodoxy (“The righteous shall be kept safe forever,/ but the children of the wicked shall be cut off” Psalm 37:28b) should be read for what they are: hyperbole intended to encourage us to lives of godly virtue. They are not, however, the only biblical perspective. The wisdom in revolt tradition both in and outside the Psalter is a biblical witness that stands against this problematic notion that seeks to intertwine faithfulness and wealth.

PC: The Psalms and the Old Testament

One of the big arguments I’m making in Psalming Christ about how the Church Fathers prayed the psalms and what we can learn from them is the basic concept that the single best way to get better at reading Scripture is to read more Scripture. Since I’m also approaching this from the standpoint of modern biblical scholarship and how and why it reinforces the patristic wisdom, I’m spending some time talking about the relationship between the Psalms at the Old Testament in order to build the case that you be able to pray the Psalms better the better you know the Old Testament. In service of that, here’s a discussion of the relationship between the Psalms and the Old Testament as we know it.

I realize that I’m covering a lot of ground fairly quickly in this section. What are parts that don’t make sense or connections that don’t click?

When I learned the faith as I was growing up, I inherited a fairly simple model of understanding how the Bible came together. As it’s laid out, it moves in roughly chronological order: Genesis talks about the beginning of things, Revelation talks about the ending of things and everything more or less falls in line from there. The main historical thread moves through the first seven books (the Heptateuch) which gets the Israelites into the Promised Land and up to the point of having kings, then the books of Samuel & Kings take up the thread until the Exile in 587 BC, then Ezra and Nehemiah take over with the apocryphal Maccabees as the bridge between the Old Testament and New.

My general unconscious assumption was that the order that was followed was more or less the order that things were written in.

I didn’t worry much about the question of authorship. I had been told that Moses wrote the Torah—the first five books—on the strength of Deuteronomy (“When Moses had finished writing down in a book the words of this law to the very end…” Deut 31:24). I assumed that the prophets had written their prophetic books, and that was that.

As I got older, though, a thought occurred to me. I knew that the Israelites were a group of nomadic herdsmen; I couldn’t see them carrying libraries of books lashed onto the backs of donkeys as they moved from one pasture ground to another. As I started exploring and learned more about cultures, technologies, and the development of the Bible, I realized that my simplistic model need to be revisited and revised.

In the Ancient Near East (and most other places too!) the technology of writing is tied to two other technologies: agriculture and the monarchy. It makes perfect sense if you think about it—herdsmen can count their cattle just fine, but once you start having crops that are stored and a governmental structure that requires formal taxation, you need to be able to keep written records. Once you start using writing to keep track of who owes what when, it makes sense to start writing down other things too, gathering the collective wisdom of what works and what doesn’t so you are not constantly reinventing the wheel (whether metaphorically or literally!).

The historically plausible way to understand the composition of the Bible takes the social and technological factors into account and connects them with clues in the biblical account itself. King Solomon’s reputation for wisdom makes a lot more sense when you recognize that the biblical account itself identifies him as responsible for a wave of technological, engineering, and social innovations learned from Israel’s neighbors. Modern scholarship suggests that a scribal school established at Solomon’s court was likely the beginning of formal record-keeping and literacy in ancient Israel. Hence, the wisdom literature like the book of Proverbs may be some of the earliest biblical material committed to writing. Once the Temple was constructed—under Solomon—material regarding temple policies and sacrificial practices were likely written down as well. We know that historical records were kept from this point too: there are scattered references to some texts that were incorporated into the Samuel-Kings accounts like “the book of the Acts of Solomon” (1 Kings 11:41) and, once the kingdom split into two after the death of Solomon, “the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Judah” (1 Kings 14:19) and “the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel” (1 Kings 14:29).

Thus, the beginning of the writing of what would become our modern Bible likely started in the reign of Solomon (960-930 BC?) with some of the wisdom literature, some of what would become legal material, and the start of the histories. What makes this even more complicated is that we know there was a significant amount of oral tradition being handed down as well in parallel. After all, that’s how nomadic herdsmen actually do carry their collective memory around—through stories and songs, not bookshelves perched on donkeys! The stories of the patriarchs and the judges would have been told and memorized around campfires. Legal practices and community norms would likewise have been handed down verbally. Last but certainly not least for our purposes, songs would have been composed and transmitted that combined many of these different things together. It’s no accident that the lost books that describe historical events before the reign of Solomon—the Book of the Wars of the Lord (Numbers 21:14) and the Book of Jashar (Joshua 10:13)—are poetic; every time they are cited, they give a snippet of a song.

By the time of the prophets (the 8th through the 6th centuries BC), some of the legal material was written, but some of it was still oral. When they reflected on the “law of God” and on God’s covenant, it was likely this mix they were referring to. That’s the irony here—some of the prophetic reflection on the Law likely pre-dates certain portions of it actually being written down! We know that these traditions were documented more fully as time went on; Proverbs refers to “the officials of King Hezekiah” (Prov 25:1) which reflects some active scribal work during his rule (715-687 BC), and the “Book of the Law” found in the temple at the time of Josiah (640-609 BC) strongly parallels sections of Deuteronomy.

Most scholars see the Exile in Babylon (597-538 BC) as an incredibly formative time for the written Old Testament as we know it. This is likely when the oral traditions were captured and written down lest they be forgotten forever, and the scattered written accounts were collected and edited into something more like the books we have today. We get a sense of everything coming together in the Book of Nehemiah. After the return from Exile and the rebuilding of the Temple, Ezra gathers the people together and reads to the whole populace the “book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel” (Neh 8:1-8). We then get a prayer to seal the renewed covenant from Ezra that summarizes the contents of the book in Nehemiah 9:6-38. The narrative begins with creation and continues through the prophets and the Exile down to their present day (444 BC). At this point we can say that most of the Old Testament was in the form that we know it.

Ok—so what does all of this have to do with the Psalms and how we pray them? A couple of points.

First, the psalms are poems. Poetry is capable of being passed down a long time before it is committed to writing. When a poem or psalm was composed and when it was written down may be two very different dates.

Second, David is thoroughly connected with poetry, singing and the psalms, both in the text of the Psalter in its final edited form and in the historical books which refer to him as musician (1 Samuel 16:14-23) and a divinely-inspired poet (2 Sam 23:1-2). We know that some compositions attributed to him were preserved in the lost Book of Jashar (2 Samuel 1:18). This suggests that a collection of his songs were likely written down in Solomon’s time in that first flourishing of Hebrew literacy. (This is probably the source of the “Songs of David” collection that form the core of the first parts of the Psalter.)

Third, many of the psalms are connected to the Temple in some way. Because the Levites were in charge of singing psalms during the sacrifices there had to be a body of material for them to sing. Furthermore, other psalms were composed in or for the Temple: some are probably the written accounts of vows of thanksgiving promised to God if he would get their author out of a tight spot; this seems to be the impetus for Psalms 66 and 116, telling of God’s deeds that accompanied a sacrifice of thanksgiving.

Fourth, it’s entirely possible that some of the psalms reflect religious oral traditions that were captured first
in their psalm form before they found written expression in the Law or the histories or other places. The prophets—many of whom were both priests and poets (like Isaiah and Ezekiel)—may have been more influenced by the psalms which they had and knew rather than the form of the Law and Histories as we know them which were written after their time.

The bottom line is this: the Psalms are a collection of religious poetry that contains all of the same genres to the Old Testament does—legal material, wisdom material, prophetic material, historical material. We should think of the psalms as being composed in a dynamic relationship with the emerging books of the Old Testament. Some of the later psalms are riffing off of written material; some of the earlier psalms pre-date the finished books that we know. (This is obviously the case with Psalm 18 which is incorporated completely in 2 Samuel 2-51!) The psalms contain unsystematic crystallizations of bits of the religious tradition that stretch from the beginning of the Temple and written Hebrew culture in the days of Solomon down to the return from Exile and the building of the new Temple a span of roughly 600 years. Just as there are both relationships and tensions between certain biblical genres (sometimes the prophets enforce the Law; sometimes they appear to critique it) so the psalms contain some of these relationships and tensions between one another and with the larger biblical material.

PC: Theological Challenges in the Psalms 1

I’ve been furiously writing since I’m coming up on a deadline for Psalming Christ. I put up a section on Patreon yesterday for those who support me, but I thought I’d put this up here too, because I need some feedback. I’m tackling a touchy issue—how to address some of the theological challenges that modern Christians are bound to encounter in the psalms. Here, at the risk of offending many, I tackle what may be a favorite psalm, discuss my problems with it, then how I come to terms with praying it.

Please—let me know what you think.  Does it bother you? Does it offend you? Or, conversely, does it help you? Let me know!

(The next Liturgical Look Forward will follow later today…)

After years of negotiation, Psalm 91 and I have finally come to an arrangement. I promise to pray it faithfully when it comes around in the psalm cycle; it—in turn—has agreed to be about feelings.

The reason why this accord was necessary is because I find Psalm 91 to be one of the hard psalms in the psalter to pray. I realize that this may well be an unusual psalm to have problems with; there are no babies getting their heads bashed in (Ps 137), no calls to slay the wicked or a desire to hate with a perfect hatred (Ps 139), nor even a wish to bathe my feet in the blood of my enemies (Ps 68). No—my issue is the picture it paints of the divinely-charmed life. Consider the first several verses:

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;
he will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
or the destruction that wastes at noonday.

A thousand may fall at your side,
ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
You will only look with your eyes
and see the punishment of the wicked. (Ps 91:1-8)

The picture it paints is of the blissful protection of the faithful by God, whatever may come.

I have dutifully read this psalm for years. It is one of the standard psalms for the Compline office (Night prayer) which means that I sometimes pray it several times each week. Now, I’m certain that there are people who love this psalm deeply—and I’m not trying to take that away from anyone. It is beautiful; it is comforting. Perhaps it’s due to my own issues and temperament, my own lack of absolute trust, but I take exception to the literal sense of the text: trust in God, and you will be protected from all harm. That faith in God will act as some kind of magic charm that will save you from all adversity.

In the Episcopal tradition, the psalms can be prayed through every month with set psalms assigned for morning and evening prayer of each day; Psalm 91 is appointed for use at Morning Prayer on the 18th of each month. On the night of July 17th, 2015, a White Supremacist hoping to spark a race war opened fire at a Bible study inside Mother Emanuel Baptist Church in Charlotte, murdering nine and wounding three others. The next morning, the lectionary forced me to pray Psalm 91.

I couldn’t.

Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honor them.
With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation. (Ps 91:14-16)

While I respect the literal sense of the biblical text—the basic meaning of the words on the page—I do not know a way to pray this psalm in its literal sense and to believe it. Because, to take this psalm literally means one of two things: either God failed those nine people in his promise to protect them, or that they were not faithful enough, not good enough, not loving enough for God to honor that promise—and I simply refuse to believe that.

Psalm 91 is just one of a number of psalms that promise tangible, material benefits to the faithful. Some psalms promise physical safety and security to devotees who keep God’s covenants. Alternatively, other psalms request such aid and protection, often promising vows of sacrifices or praise of God in the midst of the assembly in return.

What do we do with these? How do we understand these promises and requests?

Part of the art of biblical interpretation, the work of hermeneutics, is figuring out how to hear these words for the up-building of our faith and those around us. Do we try to take these texts literally—at their word—and how do we understand the results when the hoped-for outcome does not happen?

One approach to hermeneutics uses the image of a three-legged stool: that Christian understanding of God’s ways is rooted in Scripture, tradition, and reason—and that all three are necessary. (A formulation attributed to Methodist founder John Wesley—the Wesleyan Quadrilateral—includes “experience” as a fourth part.) Sometimes this “three-legged stool” is invoked in order to discount the importance of Scripture, suggesting that if our experience doesn’t match what we read in the text, Scripture can and should be jettisoned and our own reason (or experience) should become our primary guide in the spiritual life. But that’s not what this phrase means, and is not how it was intended to be used. Rather, Scripture is always the foundation, and the other two (or three) help us as we wrestle with it: tradition (how the Church has read this text in the past) and reason (how we think through the text as informed by our own God-given mental faculties and assisted by the Holy Spirit) guiding our encounter with the Word of God.

When we read these psalms alongside the Church, we read them with and through the Christian experience of martyrdom. The nine faithful gunned down in Charlotte that dreadful night were neither the first nor the last to be killed for their faith or in its exercise. Every Christian sanctoral calendar recognizes the presence of martyrs through the centuries: those witnesses who would rather die than betray the faith. The formative years of the church in the first few centuries of its existence were scarred by persecution and death which did not hinder its growth but, paradoxically, accelerated it leading Tertullian to proclaim “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.[Paraphrase of Apology 50.13. Technically the line just says “the seed is the blood of Chistians” but the common expanded version conveys what Tertullian intended.]” Indeed, in those early days martyrdom was seen as a primary means of imitating Christ. Let’s not forget the very origins of our faith—the confession of a crucified Messiah by twelve apostles who, according to church tradition, all likewise suffered martyrdom with the exception of John who died in exile.

Speaking of Jesus himself, it’s not an accident that Psalm 91 plays a central role in the stories of his temptation as told by both Matthew and Luke (Matthew 4:1-11|Luke 4:1-13). The way I read these stories, not only is Jesus rejecting the temptations directly offered by Satan—sustenance, safety, and power—but also the literal meaning of the psalm itself. Jesus turns his back on a reading of the psalm that promises security and protection to those who align themselves with God’s will; instead he calls his followers to daily take up their cross and follow him. If Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God—and Christianity insists that he is—then we cannot read the psalms in a way contrary to the experience of Jesus, the righteous sufferer.

Since this is the grounding of the Christian tradition and experience, we have to be able to read the language of this psalm in more than literal ways. Be careful here: I’m not suggesting that we ignore the literal sense. I do believe that God helps and protects those who call on him. But I also acknowledge that that’s not always the way things work out, and that such a result should not be attributed to a lack of faith or integrity on the part of the fallen. It’s not our place to judge the fidelity of others. Rather, we need to be open to other ways to hear these texts, and understand God’s faithfulness towards us.

The way that I’ve made peace with Psalm 91 is to hear it as a description of how the experience of faith can make us feel—has made me feel. There are times in our religious experience where we feel so completely covered by the love of God that we feel as if nothing in the word can touch us, when we experience so directly Paul’s words that nothing can sever us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39). I hear Psalm 91 not as a contract—believe in God and God will keep you safe—but as a description of the way that faith can make us feel—intoxicated with the love and presence of God.

Latest PC section up on Patreon

The latest section of Psalming Christ is up over on Patreon. I’m demonstrating what a close reading of the text looks like, informed by the methods assumed by Benedict and taught by Cassiodorus. It starts like this…


Cassiodorus, Benedict, and the anonymous Master are introducing their monks to a kind of reflective, ruminative reading of a text that occurs at the speed of memorization. That is, it is extremely slow and focuses on details of the text. Reading at this speed and level of attention is not something that modern people are used to—especially not those of us who have to take in large amounts of information every day. As a result, we have to relearn the skill of close reading: reading that pays attention to the grammatical and rhetorical features of a text and that pauses at points to ask questions and double-check our assumptions.

Let’s try a close reading of a psalm—one we know well—and start asking it some questions. Here is the beginning of Psalm 23, perhaps the best-known and best loved of them all:

1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3 he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.

4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me. (Ps 23:1-4, NRSV)

Let’s notice a few things up front: first, this translation (like most of them) breaks the psalm into poetic lines. As we discussed before, lines are important sense-units in the psalms specifically because of parallelism; where the line begins and ends is an important part of the thought-structure because it helps us see which words and phrases and ideas are being put into parallel with one another. In the oldest surviving Hebrew manuscript of the psalms, the Great Psalms Scroll from Qumran, each verse is written out on its own line. While the scribe could have fit more words on each page if the words had been written continuously, the line breaks are deliberately retained precisely because they have meaning.

Second, this translation includes a gap between verses 3 and 4. Recognize this for what it is—an interpretive editorial insertion meant to tell us something about the text. That is, this silent decision on the part of the editors suggests that verses 1-3 and verse 4 belong together in a way that verses 3 and 4 don’t. An interpretive recommendation is being suggested by means of the white space. Is worth noting at this point how much leeway editors have in arranging a text. Most of the punctuation that we see in the Psalms is an editorial decision—it’s not in the original Hebrew.

Right up front, the first verse raises two basic questions. . . .

Read the whole post on Patreon.

PC: Biblical Scholarship and the Spiritual Life

One of the more complex issues that I’m tackling in Psalming Christ is the gap between patristic spirituality and a modern encounter with the biblical text informed by responsible scholarship. The bottom line here is that patristic and early medieval readers had a different view of the Scriptures than we currently do; many of the agreed-upon principles on modern biblical scholarship explicitly reject patristic assumptions and methods. So—how can we gather the riches from both and apply them in a nuanced way to the spiritual challenges we face today?

That’s what I’m wrestling with here and in a few subsequent sections. I will likely have to rework this material a couple of times to get it right and to strike the proper balance between competing goods. Thus, PLEASE comment on what strikes you as being helpful and what is confusing or what questions it still leaves you with. Some lingering questions MAY already be addressed in future sections, but it really helps me as a writer to know how readers who don’t live inside my head experience this stuff.

Ok—enough setup; here’s the section…

One of the greatest gulfs between the time of Benedict and Cassiodorus and our own is the rise of modern biblical scholarship. Benedict and Cassiodorus could assume certain things that they had learned from the tradition about the Bible—assumptions that we can no longer accept so easily. As we get into the psalms themselves, let’s start with a quick look at the differences between the two and how that makes our task both more complicated and more rich.

Benedict and Cassiodorus started with the fundamental assumption that the primary author of the entire Scriptural text was the Holy Spirit. This has several important implications for reading.

First, it means that they did not posit a discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments: they were two parts of a single seamless entity. A word or phrase in one place could be seen as intentionally referring to the same word or phrase appearing anywhere else within the Bible. More than that, the use of certain words and phrases in different places was deliberate. A central task of the interpretive process was to understand how the web of meanings stretched across and throughout the all of Scripture.

Second, following the interpretive principles laid down by Origen of Alexandria and developed by the broader tradition, all of Scripture has a spiritual meaning. That is, every verse, every phrase, every word is not happenstance or accident, but is composed in order to lead you deeper into the mysteries of God and into God’s own self-revelation to you. That’s not to say that there were no errors in Scripture. Indeed—Origen and others identified quite a number of contradictions and logical problems with the literal meaning of the biblical text.[1] However, Origen contended that these apparent errors were themselves intentional: they served as signposts to the fact that a deeper spiritual truth was hidden behind the letter of the text.

Third, because of multiple layers of meaning to the text, the Bible could not be read in a simple and straight-forward way. Not all people are prepared to handle all spiritual truths. There are some truths that require a more mature spirit. As a result, the biblical text itself conceals or veils certain meanings for two key reasons—so that the unworthy will not discover them and the unready not be scandalized by them, and so that those who are ready and worthy will experience delight and the thrill of discovery when they find them. The Holy Spirit itself had hidden these meanings within the text and would guide readers to them when they were ready to receive them.

We will look at these reading practices in more detail at a later point—here it’s sufficient to name a few of these in order to illustrate some of the differences between how they perceived the Scriptures then and the way they are looked at now.

Modern biblical scholarship is rooted in the scientific study of the Scriptures. While that phrase might conjure up a rather ridiculous vision of men in white lab coats pouring out test-tubes on a Bible in an attempt to analyze it, it means something more serious than that. Biblical scholars are people who have devoted their lives to the investigation of the text of Scripture and the world—or thought-worlds—that produced it. Some of them are faithful Christians. Some are faithful Jews, or Muslims, or Hindus, or may hold no religious beliefs at all. Whether a scholar believes Christian truth-claims about the text is not the point; academic scholarship of the Bible is intended to be as objective as possible to the degree that a scholar’s research should be compelling to others whether they hold religious beliefs about the text or not.

The purpose of the academic study of the Bible is to examine its disparate writings within the historical, linguistic, social, and intellectual contexts where they were created and the impact they had on later readers and interpreters of the texts. That is, whether a scholar believes that God was at work in the writing or not is beside the point: the fact remains that any given section of the biblical materials is a text written down by a particular person in a particular language at a particular time in history which was then edited by other culturally-bounded people who included it within a broader set of texts that has eventually come down to us as “the Bible.” Biblical scholars study all of the various particularities that I have listed here—and more—in order to arrive at a better understanding of what the human author intended to communicate and how its various editors and readers would have received it. In short, biblical scholars approach the Scriptures as they would any other ancient work of literature that has exerted important influence on human thought and action. Just as one can analyze Homer’s Odyssey or Iliad regardless of belief in its gods and heroes, the same sort of intellectual tools and techniques can be used to analyze the Scriptures.

Generally speaking, the academic study of the Scriptures diverged from the exclusively religious study of the Scriptures around the middle of the nineteenth century in German universities. Ever since then, with increasing degrees of self-understanding, rigor, and sophistication, academic scholarship has existed apart from purely faith-based perspectives on the Scriptures. Paradoxically, despite its distancing itself from religious truth-claims, academic biblical scholarship still remains in close contact with the faith and faith communities. Many academic scholars are also seminary professors—they teach future clergy and lay leaders. Indeed, some academic scholars are themselves clergy or lay leaders in a variety of Christian churches. Some scholars focus their work towards the academic community (“the guild” as we call it), others focus it towards faith communities, and still others do both.[2]

How does modern biblical scholarship differ from patristic thinkers like Cassiodorus and Benedict?

In truth, the starting place is entirely different. The scientific study of the Scriptures begins by bracketing out any notion of supernatural agency in the composition of the text. That’s not the same as denying it—rather, divine inspiration is not something that scientific processes are able to detect, assess, or evaluate. Instead—just as a literary scholar would approach the Iliad—it begins with the indisputable truth that the books that make up the Old and New Testaments were written down by human authors within human societies, and that they were edited, transmitted, and understood in certain ways by their original communities and by the communities that inherited them. This different starting place challenges many of the assumptions held by Benedict and Cassiodorus.

First, biblical scholars do not analyze the Old and New Testaments as a seamless whole. Indeed, Hebrew Bible and New Testament/Early Christian Literature are usually separate departments in the academic world. One factor that contributed to the seamless feel experienced by Benedict and Cassiodorus was that of translation: in their bibles there was no linguistic difference between the Old and New Testaments because they had both been translated or edited by a single man (Jerome) into a single language (Latin). Every act of translation is an act of interpretation; since Jerome also believed that the Holy Spirit was the originator of both testaments, he translated in such a way to bring out the similarities and to reinforce the presence of common and interconnecting phrases. Far from experiencing the Bible this way, modern scholars encounter each book in its original language, noting the presence of older Hebraic forms more related to the Ugaritic language spoken by the neighboring Canaanites, more recent Hebrew flavored by the Akkadian of the Babylonian Exile or Aramaic of the Persian period. The New Testament, of course, was written in Koine Greek, a wide-spread trade dialect of Greek used throughout the Mediterranean region, and also shows a familiarity with the Old Testament in its Greek translation, the Septuagint. Not only are the Scriptures not read as a whole, individual books are analyzed for seams in the text that indicate where and when earlier collections of material have been brought together.[3]

That’s not to say that there aren’t literary connections or cross-references across the Testaments. There certainly are. In particular, New Testament authors took great pains to make reference to Old Testament principles, passages, and prophecies in order to demonstrate the continuity between Jesus and the promises made by God through out the Hebrew Scriptures. What makes these challenging is that some of the references are not, in fact, to the Hebrew text; by the 2nd century BCE the Jewish community in Alexandria, Egypt had translated their Scriptures into Greek and had included some additional books as well.[4] Because of textual divergences, misinterpretations of archaic Hebrew phrases, or other reasons, the text of this Greek translation, the Septuagint, is sometimes different in content and meaning from the Hebrew text traditions that we have inherited. Jerome, who was familiar with both the Hebrew and Septuagint texts, could simply make these differences go away in his translation. Modern scholars, on the other hand, focus on the text as it was first written which leads to the next point.

Second, where Origen, Benedict, and Cassiodorus had sought out a multiplicity of levels of meaning within the biblical text, the scientific study of Scripture has a different purpose and orientation. Classical historically-focused scholarship has centered on the principle of “authorial intent.” It asks the very specific question, what did the original human author intend to communicate to his readership when he wrote these words? In order to answer this question, scholars look at the historical situation of the text’s composition, the culture at the time as it can be best reconstructed, linguistic cues, related texts, and analogous texts from neighboring cultures. For instance, a scholar investigating Psalm 29 might look at it in relation to Canaanite hymns written in the Ugaritic language, looking for commonalities and differences in the kinds of images, meter, or turns of phrase used. This approach discards later meanings imposed back onto the text. Thus, a scholar looking at the book of Ezekiel would seek to discover what the historical Ezekiel meant by the phrase “son of man (Heb: ben-adam)” rather than assuming a connection to Jesus based on the christological title “son of man (Grk: huios tou anthropou)” found in the gospels.

Third, the emphasis on authorial intent foregrounds the literal meaning of the text. Modern scholarship rejects spiritual or allegorical interpretations unless there is something in the text that specifically indicates their presence. The kind of veiled reading performed by Benedict and Cassiodorus would be considered a form of over-reading the text by many scholars—twisting the original meaning in order to find meanings not intended by its author. For centuries, biblical scholarship, born out of Reformation arguments, rejected traditional allegorical interpretations by insisting on the perspecuity of the Scriptures. That is, Reformers and biblical scholars alike insisted that the intended meaning of the biblical text was clear and obvious; regular people could have access to the clear meaning of Scriptures apart from mediation by the Church and its clergy. The focus of scholarship was uncovering the single objective meaning of the biblical text.

It would be great if a single text had only a single objective meaning. We could find out “the right answer” once, and never have to worry about it again! Unfortunately, neither people nor texts work this way in reality. Biblical scholarship has kept step with advances in literary and linguistic theory, and in the last several decades have backed off from the notion that there is a single correct objective meaning. Newer fields and methods like reader-response and reception history have recognized that texts can have a life of their own apart from authorial intent and that communities can find legitimate meanings within texts that their authors would never have considered. In fact, it is some of these newer methods that have led scholars to take a second look at patristic and medieval reading practices that earlier generations of scholars had rejected out of hand.[5]

[[Edited to include this from the comments: Furthermore, there is an irony inherent in the academic project’s insistence on the perspecuity of the Scriptures. The academic study of the Scriptures sought to do away with the notion that a particular and specially educated class of readers—the Roman Catholic priesthood steeped in the principles of patristic, scholastic, and allegorical interpretation—were the only ones able to correctly interpret the biblical texts. Scholarship did this through its appeal to the plain sense of the text and the importance of the literal meaning grounded in authorial intent. However, the literal meaning grounded in authorial intent is not as clear or plain as it might appear to be. To do this correctly requires a specialized knowledge of the Ancient Near Eastern or competing forms of Second Temple Judaisms’ historical and intellectual contexts that prompted the writing (and editing) of the books in the first place; knowledge only found and mediated by the academic guild. Hence the irony: one body of specialized readers has been replaced by another! ]]

It’s not hard to see from this quick look why some churches and church leaders take issue with the scientific study of the Scriptures: scholarly findings can and do overturn some dearly-held traditional assumptions about both the Scriptures and the faith. An obvious case is that of authorship. Linguistic and historical clues suggest that some books of the Bible are not written by the people to whom they are attributed including parts of Isaiah (as mentioned in the note), Ecclesiastes, the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus), and Daniel to name just a few. Most pertinent for our purposes, the Davidic authorship of the Psalms is denied by most scholars; we’ll dig into this a little later. If the attributions are incorrect, that casts doubt upon principles of inerrancy. Furthermore, if a work like Daniel, ostensibly written in the 6th century BCE and prophesying historical events in the future, was actually written in the 2nd century BCE and the events prophesied are in its author’s past, not future, what does that say about the reliability of the Scriptures?[6]

[[Furthermore, modern scholarship has overturned a traditional caste of privileged readers—the priesthood and its study of historical patterns of interpretation—and replaced them with a brand-new caste of privileged readers: academic scholars. And this new privileged caste exists entirely outside of the control of religious bodies. For some people and debates, this is a good thing! For others, it increases the wariness with which these techniques are viewed.]]

Thus, on one hand, when confronted by the differences between traditional beliefs and modern findings, some church communities respond by rejecting modern analytical techniques altogether or by allowing only a few carefully circumscribed methods to be used. On the other hand, some academics take an untoward delight at attacking religious beliefs and practices as a result of their research and freedom from ecclesiastical controls.

Because of these challenges to traditional belief, for many years the Roman Catholic Church was among the number of churches rejecting the academic study of Scripture, rightly noting that academic biblical scholarship had started in Protestant universities with an eye to undercutting the historic teaching of the Roman Catholic magisterium about the Scriptures. However, since Pius XII’s encyclical Divino afflante spiritu (1943) and Vatican II’s reiteration of its principles in the constitution Dei Verbum (1965), Roman Catholics have joined with Mainline Protestants in recognizing the importance of the scientific study of the Scriptures to the life of faith. The trick now is figuring out how this works, connecting the spirituality of the Church Fathers with the insights of modern scholarship when the two have diverging understandings of important principles.

[1] For instance, just in the first few chapters of Genesis, Origen notes that light was created several days before the sun and moon raising questions about how light exists without light sources and how days could be measured without the movement of sun and moon. Too, he wonders that an all-knowing God with no form or image could wander through a garden, crushing grass with his (formless?) feet and not know where his creatures were hiding.

[2] For example, I do both. My earlier work on Cassiodorus and the psalms, Honey of Souls, is perfectly acceptable to the guild: I do not make any faith-claims of my own or require that my readers hold any. It is neutral with regard to one’s personal belief. This book is different—I am writing it for people with a spiritual interest in seeing the psalms as Christian prayer and, thus, I write it as a Christian who prays the psalms.

[3] A classic example is the book of Isaiah. The first 39 chapters are largely the work of Isaiah, son of Amoz, writing in the 8th century BCE. However, from chapter 40 on, the tone, style, and language shift, and the content addresses the sitution of the Jewish Exiles in Babylon after the Edict of Cyrus in 515 BCE allowed them to return to their homeland. Most scholars see this Second Isaiah as being written in the time it addresses, the late 6th century. While not written by Isaiah, son of Amoz, it shares many of the same theological beliefs that he advocated and the two bodies of material belong together theologically and thematically. And, some scholars debate whether there’s a Third Isaiah (Isa 60-66) stuck in there too!

[4] Those additional books are referred to either as the Apocrypha or the Deutero-canonicals. Jerome was not a fan of them, believing the Hebrew texts to be the best, but the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican churches still read them as being part of the Bible.

[5] For the sake of full disclosure, my dissertation and first book, Reading Matthew with Monks, is based on these methods and looks at what modern scholarship can learn from early medieval monastic readers

[6] Actually in this case, it means nothing at all about the accuracy of prophecy or Scripture. Daniel is not a prophetic book trying to foretell the future, but is an apocalyptic book giving hope to the persecuted Jewish people of the 2nd century BCE by reminding them that God is in control of history, no matter how dire things look now. That’s why the Jewish Bible includes Daniel among the Writings, not the Prophets.

PC: Benedict and Cassiodorus

If you’ve been following along with the Psalming Christ snippets, then you’ll have figured out that we’re heading here. Essentially, I’ve established that Benedictine spirituality is “a thing,” but that as important, useful, and helpful as Benedict’s rule is, it’s not enough—and was never intended to be. Rather, it is part of a living and lived tradition and we need some supplementation to figure out what Benedict was intending with his regulation. Here is where I make the connection between Benedict and Cassiodorus and why understanding Cassiodorus—or at least his concepts—is important for getting at the heart of a robust Benedictine spirituality…

The only source of information that we have about the life of St. Benedict is that found in Book 2 of the Dialogues by St. Gregory the Great (d. 604). A monastic admirer of Benedict, Gregory features Benedict as an example of spiritual wisdom and grace amongst a host of vignettes of other holy men who earn less space within the treatise. While the whole of the Dialogues makes for great reading, I want to direct our attention to how Gregory starts his discussion of Benedict. Classical canons suggest that a writer describing the life of a famous individual must start with his parentage and education. As a trained rhetorician, Gregory follows this pattern, and writes this of Benedict:

“He was born into a free-man’ family in the district of Nursia and was sent to Rome to study the liberal arts. But he saw that many of the students there had fallen into vice. So, hardly had he entered the world than he recoiled from it, fearing that the worldly knowledge he had just begun to acquire would suck him down entirely into its bottomless whirlpool. He renounced study, put aside his father’s residence and fortune and, desiring to please God alone, he went in search of the monastic habit in order to live a holy life. Thus he quitted his studies, learnedly ignorant and wisely unskilled.”

The key things here are that Benedict turned his back on the learning that could be got at Rome and did so for a very particular reason—that he had seen it cause many students to “[fall] into vice.” As a result, he forsook Rome and its schools, going into the wilderness “learnedly ignorant” and “wisely unskilled,” a neat set of parallel phrases that Gregory as an author no doubt took delight in. I imagine Gregory also had in mind an important turn of phrase at the end of the Rule’s prologue where Benedict lays out his purpose: “Therefore we intend to establish a school (schola) for the Lord’s service” (RB Prol.45). The unlearned holy man becomes the schoolmaster of souls.

Gregory’s introductory passage accomplishes two things. First, it recalls the Life of St. Antony. In that work, penned by the learned Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria (d. 373), he too takes pains to point out that the Antony (d. 356)—regarded as the true founder of monasticism—was unlearned. Thus, Gregory portrays Benedict in the same way: untutored but in spite of that—or indeed even because of it—much wiser in the ways of God than the ways of humanity.

Second, Gregory acknowledges the existence of an important cultural gap. There was no such thing as secular learning in the Italian 6th century. All learning was pagan learning. That is, the ways that students were taught to read, write, and speak were based in the great epics of pagan Greece and Rome and attendant literature: Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorpheses. There was no comparable Christian educational literature. Even the great Christian rhetoricians like Augustine and Jerome made embarrassed apologies for the Christian Scriptures—that its grammar and styling seemed rude and barbarous in comparison to its pagan counterparts, that its rhetorical faults highlighted the unlearned wisdom of its authors (pointing back to the description of Peter and John in Acts 4:13). As Christianity spread and made inroads among the learned classes, this problem came to a head. Some authors, like the North African Tertullian (d. 240), the father of Latin-language theology, famously thundered “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Other authors like Origen (d. 253) and St. Augustine of Hippo (d. 430), borrowed a passage of Exodus to speak of the “despoiling of the Egyptians,” arguing that if the Children of Israel could take wealth from their pagan neighbors for their own benefit, so too Christians could borrow Greco-Roman learning, strip it of its pagan character, and repurpose it for the instruction of Christian readers and thinkers.

Indeed, this educational gap was weaponized by Julian the Apostate (d. 363), the first and last Roman emperor after Constantine (d. 337) to try and restore paganism in the empire and displace Christianity. He issued an edict that all teachers had to believe what they taught. That is, those who taught higher education from the pagan epics had to be believers in them and in the gods they proclaimed, effectively barring Christians from educational roles and forcing the upper classes back into the thought-world of pagan antiquity. As Julian only remained in power for less than a year, this edict failed to have the long term effect he was looking for as it was swiftly repealed upon his death.

So—where was learning to be found for monks in the days of Benedict and beyond? As we have seen, Benedict himself was no help because none of the books he recommends assists their readers in the arts of reading itself. How should Christians read the Scriptures? What are the necessary tools for unpacking Scripture? What are the essential techniques for wringing spiritual meaning for monastics out of texts that appear to be speaking about history that happened centuries ago in an alien place and culture?

Jerome’s translations of Origen’s biblical commentaries provided a starting place but were not enough. Later monks would address this lack and the two best known would be Gregory the Great (d. 604) and the Venerable Bede (d. 725). Gregory’s Forty Gospel Homilies would become a staple of monastic libraries for centuries to come and would find their ways into sermon collections and breviaries to enrich the Church throughout the Middle Ages. Likewise, his Homilies on Ezekiel and his monumental Morals in Job would become standard works for interpreting the Old Testament. Bede would follow in his footsteps, pulling together commentaries on the New Testament Epistles, the Gospels of Mark and Luke, the Book of Revelation and parts of the Old Testament. However, sermons and commentaries alone did not suffice to teach the arts of reading. The solution to this problem penned by one of Benedict’s own 6th century Italian contemporaries, Cassiodorus.

In the first half of his life, Cassiodorus (d. 585) served the Gothic kings who ruled Italy throughout the first half of the 6th century, notably Theoderic the Great (d. 526). His family had held high positions for the previous two generations and Cassiodorus was no exception, rising to the highest civil position in the imperial bureaucracy of the West until the Eastern Emperor Justinian and his savage wars of reconquest brought an end to Gothic rule. During a time of exile in Constantinople and for the rest of his long life, Cassiodorus became a monk and—fired by the example of a school of Christian studies in the East—turned his considerable literary and intellectual talents to the creation of a Christian curriculum for educating his fellow monks.

He is best known in scholarly circles for a work called The Institutes of Divine and Human Learning which has long been considered his great contribution to keeping scholarly wisdom alive in the West. This work is divided into two books. The first is a survey of theological practice and literature—talking about the importance of Scripture, how it can be divided up, and identifying important commentaries and orthodox thinkers on each section. The second book is a crash course in the seven liberal arts: the trivium which are the initial three arts of reading (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic) and the quadrivium which are the four applied arts of mathematics (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). This work has long been considered his greatest contribution to intellectual history in the West as it passed down these seven arts to later ages, most notably through the Etymologies of Isidore of Seville (d. 636) who took this idea and expanded it into the first known Christian encyclopedia.

The Institutes are a great work, but—from the standpoint of the arts of reading, theology, and the spirituality of the West—lag in second place behind his most circulated and impactful work: The Explanation of the Psalms.

Benedict and the rest of the monastic movement saw the psalter as the heart of monastic spirituality. Every monastic rule devoted space to prescribing how the psalms should become a central text in monastic lives, though their singing and as models for all other forms of Christian prayer. Cassiodorus taught how to read them. He split the Gordian knot of the uncomfortable relationship between classical learning and Christian spirituality with a bold assertion: that the seeds of all seven liberal arts lay within the Psalms if one just knew how to look for them and find them. His Explanation of the Psalms in three volumes provided monastic learners with a complete road map to understanding the psalms, the arts of reading necessary to profitably interpret them, and the spiritual tools to turn the act of reading into a practice of prayer.

Because Cassiodorus’s legacy has been seen for centuries in the Institutes, Cassiodorus has long been considered a competitor of Benedict, an author advancing a more secular understanding of wisdom over and against monastic spirituality. Certainly this is the way the great monastic historian Jean Leclercq (d. 1993) saw the two—as rivals, each promoting a different aim for the unfolding of monastic life. When Cassiodorus’s key work is correctly identified as the Explanation of the Psalms rather than the Institutes, the true relationship between the two men becomes evident.

Rather than competitors, Benedict and Cassiodorus are the perfect complements to one another. Benedict provides the rules and structures that create the framework of a monastic life, a life focused on immersion in Scripture—the Psalms holding pride of place. Cassiodorus provides a invaluable guide that explains how the Psalms are read and understood from a Christian perspective with the help of the classical arts. Furthermore, he models what spiritual reading and praying look and sound like. Benedict brings the structure; Cassiodorus brings the method. Together they provide a foundation for a Scripture-shaped life in the monastic tradition.

History reveals that this is the way the relationship worked. When we compare the numbers of copies of the various manuscripts that have survived to the present day, when we hunt through the booklists of ancient monastic libraries, we find the confirmation that we are after. Judging by manuscripts, the Institutes made hardly a ripple in the early medieval world. Only XX copies of the Institutes survive. This is doubtless due in large measure to Isidore taking up the theme and running with it. He incorporated whole sections cribbed directly from the Institutes in his Etymologies and thereby made the Institutes redundant in the face of his much larger work.

The Explanation of the Psalms, on the other hand, is an entirely different story. Its nearest competitor, St. Augustine of Hippo’s Narrations on the Psalms survive in sixty-six medieval copies; almost twice that many editions of all or part of Cassiodorus’s Explanations survive! In addition to these 106 copies of the Explanations, material from the Explanations became a standard feature of the Carolingian glossed psalters. These books, used for both study and prayer, contained the psalms written in large letters in the middle of the page with explanations drawn from Cassiodorus, Jerome, Augustine, and other teachers written in small letters between the lines and around the margins of the page.  These glossed psalters were one of the teaching tools by which young monastics who were in the process of memorizing their psalms would learn to read and, as they grew more advanced, how to analyze and interpret the Scriptures.

Looking back at the editions of Cassiodorus’s Explanations that scholars can firmly date, almost half were written in either the 9th century or the 12th century. These spikes represent the 9th century Carolingian reform and the 12th century Monastic Reformation. The generations that renewed monastic vitality identified and copied Cassiodorus’s Explanations as a companion to a renewed focus on Benedict’s Rule and the principles at the heart of Western monasticism. When those reforming monks looked back, they identified Cassiodorus as a central resource for monastic learning.

So—what about us? As we stand at our own point in history, as many of us are drawn to the world of monastic spirituality, its rhythms and habits and patterns, is there something that Cassiodorus can teach us? However, we must approach him with a certain caution in mind. We live in a different time. Literacy and the arts of reading are deeply embedded within our societies. Our outlook on prayer is different from earlier periods. Modern biblical studies, drawing upon technological, archaeological, and theoretical advances, is vastly different in our day than those of Benedict and Cassiodorus. Many things they thought were true we now know to be false; many beliefs they treasured, we question. Nevertheless, the medieval world understood Cassiodorus and his teachings on the psalms to be an essential compliment to Benedict’s world. Does Cassiodorus still have something to teach us about reading and praying the psalms with renewed eyes and hearts?