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

Earliest Christian Expectations of the Psalms

When we glanced at the Chronicler’s portrayal of the Davidic Temple worship entourage, we noted the prophetic ("seer") credentials of Asaph, the patriarch of prophetic hymnody. Our canonical Psalter includes twelve compositions attributed to Asaph. One of them is Psalm 78. The writer of the First Gospel quotes from that psalm to explain why Jesus taught characteristically in parables: "Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: ‘I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world’" (13:34-35, NRSV). Although Matthew here does not cite from an OT prophetic book, he can claim that a prophet spoke the cited words because Asaph, one of the Chronicler’s psalm-composing prophets, is the attributed author of this psalm. Or, alternatively, because (as we have seen) the contents of the whole psalter could be attributed to David as products of his divinely inspired prophetic compositional activity.[15] Either way, we find here an instance indicative of the way NT writers understood the Psalms as prophetic writings.[16]

According to the NT’s reading of the Psalms, then, what did the psalmist David generally communicate as a prophet? Occasionally David’s writings are understood as theological teachings, such as in Paul’s midrash on the Psalms in Romans 3:10-18 where the apostle constructs a catena of Psalms passages to support a key point in his theological argument.

But by far the predominant understanding of David as prophetic writer in the NT reads him not as a liturgical composer, nor as a theologian, but as a foreteller of the Messiah.[17] Of the fifty-four Psalms citations in the NT, the overwhelming majority are used to show fulfillment of prophecy or some other characteristic of Jesus that demonstrates him to be the Messiah. We find a parade example in Peter’s speech to the Jews congregated for the Pentecost festival in Jerusalem according to Acts 2:22-36. In that speech, Peter quotes from Psalm 16 and Psalm 110, referring to David as a prophet who in these psalms was referring to the resurrection of Jesus.

None of the Psalms passages that Peter cites actually predicts the coming of the Messiah, but this was typical of the way NT writers read the OT messianically. In their attempts to demonstrate that Jesus is the Messiah, they cited as authorities OT texts that in their historical context did not conspicuously refer to the messiah or make predictions about him. These rhetorical demonstrations of Jesus’ messiahship appeal to reason in order to bring the reader to assent. Here, Peter reads Psalm 16 such that it speaks of the Messiah as one who will escape death. Peter justifies that reading of the psalm by appealing to logic: it could not refer to David (whose name appears in the psalm’s superscription) since it is a public fact that David died and his remains abide still in a local grave. Jesus, however, was raised from the dead, and so it must be he to whom the psalm refers; he must be the Messiah. Peter’s proclamation rests squarely on the logic that flows from a certain way of reading the Psalms.[18]

In similar fashion elsewhere in the NT, the Psalms are read in a hermeneutical action so as to make the identification of Jesus as Christ. For example, the great majority of OT citations in the Epistle to the Hebrews are from the Psalms, which are cited some twenty-one times. In this manner, the NT writers established a hermeneutical tradition for Christian engagement with Jewish scripture that continued as the Christian movement further distinguished itself from rabbinic Judaism. We can trace a second-century trajectory of that hermeneutical tradition in the argument that Justin Martyr offers to his Jewish interlocutor Trypho. Of interest to us is Justin’s claim, like Peter’s, that one can know the Psalms refer to Christ by a process of rational reflection: for instance, since what Psalm 72 describes did not happen to David or Solomon, reference is more reasonably applied to Christ. [19]

The mindset regarding scripture and Christian meaning characterizes Justin and other Christian apologists in the 2nd and 3rd centuries of the Common Era. For the Christian communities of the first three centuries, a pressing need as far as reading scripture was concerned was to understand how the Jewish Scriptures could be read as attestations to the messiahship of Jesus. Accordingly we observe an interpretive expectation of the Psalms characterized by rationality for the sake of generating understanding. David wrote psalms which, when read according to a certain logic, make the true meaning of Jesus discernible. The Messiah is recognized by hermeneutics, which is an intellectual exercise. Here the Psalms as scripture meet an intellectual need.[20]

Further Expectations of the Psalms

The needs of the Christian church some three centuries later would be somewhat different. At that point the church was no longer seeking to distinguish itself from early rabbinic Judaism by showing Jesus’ messiahship from scripture. The polemics within the Church moved to struggles over how to best conceptualize the nature of Jesus Christ and his relationship to the Godhead. So by the late fourth century CE, intellectual hermeneutics had by no means disappeared from the scene but simply continued on in debates over other issues, as it has ever since. Yet another expectation of the Psalms—one perhaps more akin to the notions of spirituality that prevail today—became more prevalent in the writings of Christian theologians of late antiquity.

In the mid-fourth century, a certain Marcellinus had written to Athanasius, the patriarch of Alexandria, seeking to learn "the meaning contained in each psalm." In his letter-length response,[21] Athanasius wrote elegantly about the value of the Psalms for the Christian:

There is also this astonishing thing in the Psalms. . . he who takes up this book—the Psalter—goes through the prophecies about the savior, as is customary in the other Scriptures, . . but the other psalms he recognizes as being his own words. And the one who hears is deeply moved, as though he himself were speaking, and is affected by the words of the songs, as if they were his own songs (11).

It seems to me that these words become like a mirror to the person singing them, so that he might perceive himself and the emotions of his soul, and thus affected, he might recite them. . . And so, on the whole, each psalm is both spoken and composed by the Spirit so that in these same words, as was said earlier, the stirrings of our souls might be grasped, and all of them be said as concerning us, and the same issue from us as our own words, for a rememberance of the emotions in us, and a chastening of our life (12).

Athanasius has acknowledged the intellectually hermeneutical value of the Psalms, but he has gone on to point out a spiritual quality of the Psalms perhaps more relevant to the well-being of the Christian soul. Through the remainder of the document he continues to elaborate on this soul-nurturing quality in the Psalms at great length:

Thus, as in music there is a plectrum, so the man becoming himself a stringed instrument and devoting himself completely to the Spirit may obey in all his members and emotions, and serve the will of God. The harmonious reading of the Psalms is a figure and type of such undisturbed and calm equanimity of our thoughts. . . In this way that which is disturbing and rough and disorderly in [the soul] is smoothed away, and that which causes grief is healed when we sing psalms (28).

In Athanasius’ letter we observe an expectation of the Psalms that is minimally hermeneutical and overwhelmingly psychological. (This is not to deny that hermeneutical thinking is psychological, but rather here "psychological" designates the individual soul’s experience of emotions, security, relationship, and wholeness.) In his letter to Marcellinus, this Greek Father turns to the Psalms as a spiritual force that brings the physical dimension or body of the worshipper into conformity or harmony with the soul through singing.[22] Athanasius shows an expectation of (what we would call) a psychological effect from the Psalms. He regards certain songs as antidotes or therapy for emotional and psychological threats to the soul’s (in Greek, the psyche’s) well-being:

It was for this reason that he [the Lord] made this resound in the Psalms before his sojourn in our midst: so that just as he provided the model of the earthly and heavenly man in his own person, so also from the Psalms he who wants to do so can learn the emotions and dispositions of the soul, finding in them also the therapy and correction suited for each emotion (13).

Athanasius intends this therapeutic use of the psalms in a fairly straightforward way:

Let us say you stand in need of a prayer because of those who have opposed you and encompass your soul; sing Psalms 16, 85, 87, and 140. Or you want to learn how Moses offered prayer—you have Psalm 89. You were preserved from your enemies, and you were delivered from your persecutors. Sing also Psalm 17. You marvel at the order of creation, and the grace of the providence in it, and the holy precepts of the Law. Sing the eighteenth and the twenty-third. When you see those who suffer tribulation, encourage them, praying and speaking the words in Psalm 19. Should you become aware that you are being shepherded and led in the right path by the Lord, sing Psalm 22, rejoicing in this" (17).[23]

During the first several centuries CE, Christians had a need to read the Jewish scriptures, including the Psalms, so as to work out theological teaching (particularly christological) and hermeneutical polemics with Jewish readers of scripture. Those were the generations during which the Christian faith faced the challenges of self-definition, vis-a-vis emerging rabbinic Judaism and various Greco-Roman religious and philosophical movements. For Christian readers of the Psalms in the late fourth century that was no longer the most pressing need, as Athanasius attests. Rather, the needs of the individual soul and its nourishment came to the forefront—a focus virtually absent from the NT reading of the Psalms. This change in Christian use of the Psalms—from the NT's rational hermeneutics, to Athanasius' psychological spirituality—traces the beginnings of the notion of "spirituality" relative to Christian scripture that has come to prevail in the reading and study of the Psalms for quite some time and continues widely in our own time.[24]

What Do We Learn from This?

To review: As a result of interpretive prompting made possible by the addition of the Davidic superscriptions, the Psalms could provide an entrée to pious reflection for Jews of the later Second Temple period. Simultaneously the Psalms also had meaning for the corporate liturgical constituency of ancient Jewish communities, as indicated in Chronicles and the 11QPsa. Among emerging Christian communities, the Psalms were also available for exercises in rational hermeneutics arguing for Christ as the subject of scripture. According to later Christian fathers, the Psalms could also shape the soul’s growth towards the divine likeness. All of these uses of Jewish and Christian scripture have continued from antiquity to the present day.

Our brief sampling has examined only a tiny fraction of the enormous range of early and Jewish and Christian biblical interpretation. But even from these few examples ,it is evident that since its inception the history of biblical interpretation has been marked by a great variety of expectations of what scripture is and means. Study of the history of biblical interpretation teaches that, from the beginning, the Bible has spoken to multiple social, intellectual, and psychological dimensions of the people that read it as scripture.

This should not surprise us. When we consider the function of sacred texts associated with virtually any religion that has them, we find that this sort of multidimensionality is characteristic of those writings as well. The capacity to speak with authoritative relevance to the multiple dimensions of human existence seems to define, at least in part, the phenomenon we call "scripture." The history of its interpretation is the record of the Bible’s influence affecting the lives of individuals, the policies and laws of societies, and the teachings and practices of church and synagogue .


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