I will be back with more regular blog content as well, but things are particularly crazy with work, wrapping up some side-projects by the end of the year, and general holiday craziness with the family…
Hi, I’m Derek Olsen, creator of St. Bede Productions. I’m an Episcopal layman with a PhD in New Testament and a passion for the intersection of Liturgy and Scripture. Welcome to Episode 3 of the St. Bede Psalmcast, a podcast about the psalms in the Revised Common Lectionary, reading them in the context of the Sunday service and alongside the Church Fathers. Usually, I am talking about the psalm appointed for the upcoming Sunday but since canticles are scheduled in the psalm slot both last Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent, and this upcoming Fourth Sunday of Advent, I’m doing a general introduction to the Psalms as a way to introduce both this book of the Bible we’re studying and how I intend to approach it within this podcast.
Last time, I talked about two main topics, the lectionary context or why we read the psalms we do in the Sunday service, and the interpretive context or what we look for in them to help us interpret the psalms. This week, I’m going to talk about historical readings of the psalms and about a thematic interpretation of them.
Since we’re not the first Christians to read the psalms, what insights have others found within this text before we came along?
In case you’re wondering, this is a huge question. And by “huge” I mean that entire bookcases can and have been written on the psalms and on how they have been read in the church throughout our twenty centuries. There’s no way we can or should try to talk about all of this material, and so I’m choosing to focus in on a particular small slice of the Church’s interpretation. I’m focusing on a guy named Cassiodorus who was a sixth century political figure who retired from public life in order to start his own monastery on his family land in southern Italy.
Cassiodorus was living and working in a very precarious time with a lot of very touchy political currents swirling around; he essentially served as prime minister to what was left of the Roman Empire in the West under the Visigothic kings just around the time that the emperor of the Roman Empire in the East, ruling from Constantinople decided that it was time to take the empire back. The Visigoths had some fairly strong negative feelings about this plan and took steps to protect what was theirs including killing Roman bureaucrats whom they suspected of helping out the Byzantine Emperor. In fact, this was the fate of Boethius, who held one of the high roles that Cassiodorus took right after him. Boethius, like Cassiodorus was a learned Roman, thoroughly educated in rhetoric and philosophy, who—in the time that he was imprisoned and awaiting execution for possibly conspiring with the Byzantines—wrote a book called the Consolation of Philosophy which was to become the most important work of philosophy to come out of this time and place and which was widely read and very influential throughout the Middle Ages. I highly recommend reading it if you haven’t.
In any case, Cassiodorus got out before he lost his head and spent somewhere around a decade in Constantinople where he wrapped up his political affairs and started writing his big commentary on the Psalms. When he sat down to write, he had a whole host of books around him, though. Helpfully in one of his later works, he tells us exactly what he was reading while he was working: “Blessed Hillary, blessed Ambrose, and blessed Jerome have treated some of the psalms, but blessed Augustine in a scholarly manner more fully treated all. ” He also goes on to mention “the short book of Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, that he sent to Marcellinus as a sweet refresher after his illness…In it [Athanasius] gives various kinds of advice and reveals the excellence of that work in an edifying discussion that comfortingly mentions the various misfortunes of mankind and their remedies. ” In a very real sense, then, Cassiodorus is collecting in one tidy package the main interpretive tradition of the West with a dash of the East, and—furthermore—brings a monastic perspective mixed into it as well. So while he name-checks these guys, he’s also reading John Cassian, the great writer of Christian spirituality from the fourth century, and the desert fathers partly through Athanasius and his writings and brings their sensibilities to the text as well. As a result, this is the angle I’m going to be coming from—the early interpretive tradition of the West on the psalms with a particular focus on how the monastic tradition received and used them.
Drawing on this tradition, the Church Fathers saw three major things going on in the Psalms. First, they saw them as models of not just Christian prayer but Christian life as a whole, and believed that they had a special charism for healing and transforming the soul. This aspect is really brought out in the second half of Athanasius’s Letter to Marcellinus. Athanasius starts this section by insisting that the psalms are intended by God to teach us a particular pattern of life:
The whole divine Scripture is the teacher of virtue and true faith, but the Psalter gives a picture of the spiritual life. And just as one who draws near an earthly king observes the formalities in regard to dress and bearing and the correct forms of words lest, transgressing in these matters, he be deemed a boor, so he who seeks to live the good life and learn about the Saviour’s conduct in the body is by the reading of this holy book first put in mind of his own soul’s condition and then supplied with fit words for a suppliant’s use.
So—he’s saying here that if you want to know how Jesus wants you to live, the psalms will teach you about your soul, then give you the words to pray and to conform your life most closely to God’s will. Then, he does a quick run through the psalms, hitting certain ones and talking about what kinds of words they give us and what spiritual and general life situations they are particularly good for. He’s tapping into a thread here which goes deep into monastic practice. Evagrius Ponticus gives a long list of psalm verses to meditate upon in various circumstances; John Cassian sprinkles these liberally throughout his writings and this is the way Athanasius depicts Antony the Great, the father of monks, as he undergoes his trials in the desert—with a phrase or verse from the psalms on his lips at every turn. This was the path of life for the first desert monks; they would memorize the psalms and be constantly going over them as they went about their simple daily tasks. This is a thread through monastic tradition that reformers would continually go back to. Thus you get the very simple rule of Abbot Romauld for his Camaldolese order from the eleventh century which is very much a return to the desert practices; here’s the entire brief rule:
Sit in your cell as in paradise. Put the whole world behind you and forget it. Watch your thoughts like a good fisherman watching for fish. The path you must follow is in the Psalms — never leave it.
If you have just come to the monastery, and in spite of your good will you cannot accomplish what you want, take every opportunity you can to sing the Psalms in your heart and to understand them with your mind.
And if your mind wanders as you read, do not give up; hurry back and apply your mind to the words once more.
Realize above all that you are in God’s presence, and stand there with the attitude of one who stands before the emperor.
Empty yourself completely and sit waiting, content with the grace of God, like the chick who tastes nothing and eats nothing but what his mother brings him.
I don’t think there’s a whole lot to add there: the path you must follow is the Psalms—never leave it. This is the essence of St. Benedict’s Rule boiled down through the lens of the desert and put into bullet points. (Because the line there about “standing in the presence of God” is not only echoing what Athanasius just said, but is also riffing off chapters 19 and 20 of Benedict’s Rule on how you should pray the psalms in the Divine Office.)
Alright, so that’s the first major piece: the psalms as a source of deep wisdom on the pattern of the spiritual life.
A second major piece is that the psalms were understood as a microcosm of Holy Scripture. That is, if it shows up in the Bible, it shows up in the psalms. Athanasius likes to use the image of a garden here:
Each book of the Bible has, of course, its own particular message—[and he goes on to list what some of those are]— Each of these books, you see, is like a garden which grows one kind of special fruit; by contrast, the Psalter is a garden which, besides its special fruit, grows also some of those of all the rest. [And then he goes on to connect a wide variety of psalms to events in the historical books of the Old Testament.] You see then, that all the subjects mentioned in the historical books are mentioned also in one Psalm or another; but when we come to the matters of which the Prophets speak we find that these occur in almost all.
Here, of course, Athanasius is talking about witnesses to Christ, and he offers another long section where he connects the psalms up to a long list of items from the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. We’ll come back to this in a moment. So the psalms really do act as a microcosm. They contain all of the major genres of Old Testament writing from histories, to wisdom sayings, to legal material, to prophetic curses and destruction oracles, as well as promises of hope and salvation, and also both represent and prefigure a host of New Testament themes—recalling that the New Testament quotes more from the Psalms than any other book of the Old Testament.
The notion of the psalms as a microcosm was critical. Remember how much of the world was illiterate up until the time of the printing press. Most of the first monks, the desert fathers, didn’t know how to read. It’s a paradox to say that they based their entire lives on and around Holy Scripture when they couldn’t read—but they could memorize, and they did memorize. By hearing it read aloud by the few who could read, the monks—and other Christians throughout the ages too—would memorize the psalms so that they could constantly rehearse them, going over them constantly in their minds. (And when monks started learning to read in the medieval West they started with the psalms. The word for being literate was psalteratus—knowing your psalms.) So, if the psalter was understood as a comprehensive selection, kind of a Cliff Notes/Reader’s Digest Condensed Edition of the whole Bible, then that whole collection was of the size that it could be memorized by anyone who really put their mind to it and they would know that they had the heart of Scripture in mind.
But it didn’t just go one direction either. As M. J. Toswell writes about St. Bede, no matter what biblical text he was interpreting, his first mental stop was always at the psalms. So not only were the genres and themes of the Bible contained in the psalms, but the memorized and interiorized psalms themselves became a lens through which to look at the rest of Scripture. So that’s the second major piece: the psalms as the distillation of Scripture.
Third, the Church Fathers saw the Psalms as the clearest possible expression of the thoughts and feelings of Christ himself. If the Gospels communicate the outward being of Jesus, then the psalms communicate the inner being of Jesus. One of the ways they got there was by focusing on the person of David, by tying the psalms directly and tightly to him as a person, and then as a prophetic type of Jesus. So David both foreshadowed Jesus as the messianic king, and was his direct ancestor since Jesus was literally from the line of David. Because of this connection, because of the prevalence of the “I” language in the psalms, especially those psalms that contain things that connect to the text of the Gospels themselves, the psalms were understood as prophetic outpourings of Jesus own thoughts, prayers, and feelings.
By the time you get to Cassiodorus, you have a certain nuance on this because—let’s face it—we don’t want to connect everything that the psalms say directly to Jesus. There are some bits in there that ought to make us uncomfortable, and that we do want to distance some from the thoughts of Christ. So, one of the things that Cassiodorus focuses on in his thorough reading of the psalms is taking up whose voice is saying which lines. He’s actually borrowing some techniques from the interpretation of drama, here, almost envisioning the psalms as Classical plays and determining who has which speaking parts. Cassiodorus tends to split things up between a cast of three characters: David the prophet, Christ, and the Church. So, a lot of psalms are connected with just one of these. For instance, Psalm 25 which we covered in the first show, was entirely a psalm spoken by the church. Others, like Psalm 22, are put entirely in the mouth of Jesus. But then you’ve got something like Psalm 18 where he says this:
This psalm cannot be allotted to a single spokesman. In the first section, the prophet speaks, giving thanks because God’s devotion has deigned to free him from serious dangers. In the second, the Church speaks. Before the Lord’s coming she endured countless calamities, and subsequently He took pity on her. He granted her the healing of the holy incarnation, and by the gift of baptism He gathered the Christian people from the whole world. In the third part [of the psalm], the voice of the Saviour glides in like the dew of mercy. Here His strength and power are described with most beautiful allusions. In the fourth, the words of the Catholic Church again emerge, and the gifts of the Godhead are praised with great joy.
So he’s got this whole play thing going on where it’s passing back and forth between different speakers and such. And that’s one way he makes sense of the I/you/we language that we see so much in the psalms. That’s the third major approach to the psalms, then, that the Church Fathers took—that it reveals the thoughts and feelings of Jesus and opens up his heart and mind for our imitation and practice so that we too can acquire the mind of Christ by grounding ourselves in the psalms.
That having been said, I also need to take a moment and point out a problem here. A lot of psalms—especially individual laments—talk a lot about enemies, the wicked, the treacherous, and so on who are persecuting or trying to kill the psalmist. Now, if you make the speaker Jesus, then the natural and obvious identification of these enemies is “the Jews.” And, as a result, in Cassiodorus, in Athanasius, in Augustine, you see a lot of hate directed at “the Jews.” This is a direct result of the “us” and “them” language that occurs throughout the psalter. So—there’s a virulence encoded into the very basic heart of this fundamental pattern of Christian spirituality that we have to name, be aware of, and say “no” to. Can you keep that idea of Jesus as the one speaking and praying the psalms, and not make “the Jews” the bad guy and lapse into anti-Semitism? Absolutely. But we’ve got to be aware of the problem too. I’m sure will get deeper into this as we go along, but it’s worth keeping an eye out for.
The Thematic Reading
So, as we address each psalm I’m going to ask “How do we read this psalm on this day?” I’m going to be asking how the words on the page come to life and gain specific meaning in relation to what’s going on around them. When I do this, I’m tapping into both modern scholarly theories of reading and interpretation but also into the long practice of the Christian past.
Modern literary types—and my approach is more literary than anything else—tend to locate the home or key meaning of a given text not in the text itself, but in the reading of a text within a particular reading community. Now—let me just say—phrasing things this way can make some Christians start to get really nervous.
When I was raised, as a Lutheran, I was taught that a text of Scripture had one meaning and that the meaning of the text was stable so that we could get doctrines from it, and we could all know and agree on true doctrine because it was what the biblical text plainly said. Modern biblical scholarship, which also rose out of Protestant and especially Lutheran roots, for a long time also held to this notion: there was one correct meaning of the biblical text and that was the one thing that the human author intended when he wrote it down. Thus, to interpret the Bible correctly meant to uncover the historical circumstances in order to understand what that one author meant at that one point in time.
How, then, can we talk about finding a meaning within a community and still be able to hold that the Bible is the authoritative inspired Word of God? A passage from 2 Timothy often gets thrown around when we talk about interpretation and inspiration so let’s just glance at that for a moment: “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” (2 Tim 3:16-17, NRSV). So—what’s the point? That we be built up so that we can do every good work. The purpose isn’t the text, it’s the people. The purpose is the community. We read the Old and New Testaments of the Bible within the Body of Christ in order that every single member of the Body of Christ can be led more deeply into the Mind of Christ, so that we can witness to a hurting world that God—and especially what he has done for us in the person of Jesus Christ—loves us (each one of us), loves the whole human family, loves the whole creation which he made, and is reconciling it all back to himself, and recalling us all to the principles of mercy, justice, and love in which, by which, and for which everything was created. That’s what we’re about. That’s why we read this book. So that as individuals and as communities we can reflect the truth of God’s love and the reconciliation brought through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection in how we live, in how we work, in how we love, in how we speak. And if we’re not doing that; if that’s not what we’re focused on, then we need to give up on this book and go read Moby Dick or something…
So, we read the Bible together and it comes alive as we read it together in a community, a community bound together by the sacraments—in being baptized into Jesus, in the Eucharist as we take the Body and Blood of Christ into ourselves as physical and spiritual sustenance—and as we interpret it as we live it out in all the various places that we go.
If we want to get all technical again, the phrase I really like to hang on to is the idea of the sensus plenior. That’s the term that the French Roman Catholic scholar Henri de Lubac and his friends brought back in the mid-Twentieth century to talk about the fullness of meanings within the biblical text. There isn’t just one true meaning, there isn’t even just one way to read, but there are multiple readings of each passage and they mean and matter as they help us to live into being the loving people of God.
We’re out of time or else I’d talk you through how John Cassian lays this out for us in the Conference on Spiritual Knowledge from Abba Nesteros which is the fourteenth conference found in Book II of John Cassian’s Conferences. I’ll put a link to that in the show notes, and to some of the other things that we’ve been talking about so you can look at those if you’d like to.
So, to recap—as we engage each psalm, we will look at it in the context of everything that’s going on around it: that it’s being read or sung within a Eucharist, that it’s relating to the other texts and materials appointed for that particular day that occurs within a particular season of the church year and especially that this is all occurring in the middle of a community that has been drawn together by and for the love of God.
So, that was the conclusion to our quick two-part overview of the Book of Psalms. Hopefully that gave you a better sense of what we’re reading, how we’re reading it, some things to look for as you read, and a sense of the companions with whom we’re going to be reading it as we go along. Enough of the introduction stuff—for the next show we’re going back into the psalms, I believe, with Psalm 147.
If you enjoyed today’s show, please tell your friends about it and leave a review on iTunes to help more people find it. You can find more of my thoughts at www.stbedeproductions.com and follow me on Twitter. Until next time, I’m Derek Olsen for St. Bede Productions. The path you must follow is in the Psalms—never leave it.
I was recently asking a friend if a book existed that treated on the psalms exactly like you are doing here (and especially in episode 001) … and now I’m getting one, in serial form! Dankegon!