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

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

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

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

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

The Late Second Temple Era

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

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

Of David.

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

The superscription to Psalm 60 reads,

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

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

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

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

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

He [David] placed singers before the altar,

to make sweet melody with their voices.

He gave beauty to the festivals,

and arranged their times throughout the year,

while they praised God's holy name,

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

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

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

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

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

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 .

[1] A partial list of such works would include

Barrera, Julio C. Trebolle. The Jewish Bible and the Christian Bible: An Introduction to the History of the Bible. Translated by Wilfred G.E. Watson. Leiden: Brill; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.

Bray, Gerald Lewis Bray. Biblical Interpretation: Past and Present. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Blowers, Paul M. ed. The Bible in Greek Christian Antiquity. The Bible Through the Ages, volume 1. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame, 1997.

Coggins, R.J. and J.L. Houlden, eds. A Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation. London: SCM Press, 1990.

Fowl, Stephen ed. The Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Classic and Contemporary Readings. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1997.

Grant, Robert M., with David Tracy. A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible. 2nd edition, revised and enlarged. Philadelphia : Fortress Press, 1984.

Hagen, Kenneth ed. The Bible in the Churches: How Different Christians Interpret the Scriptures. 2nd edition. Milwaukee, Wis.: Marquette University Press. 1994

Hauser, Alan J,. and Duane F. Watson, eds. A History of Biblical Interpretation. Volume 1: The Ancient Period. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.

Hayes, John H. ed. Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation. Nashville: Abingdon 1999.

Jeffrey, David Lyle, ed. A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993.

Kugel, James L. and Rowan A. Greer. Early Biblical Interpretation. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986.

McKim, K. Historical Handbook of Major Biblical Interpreters. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1998.

Norton, David. A History of the English Bible as Literature. Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Old, Hughes Oliphant. The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church. 3 vols. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998-99.

Smalley, Beryl. The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages. 3rd ed. (rev.) Oxford: B. Blackwell, 1983.

Yarchin, William. History of Biblical Interpretation. A Reader. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.

[2]Cf. Ps 41:13, 72:18-20, 89:52, and 106:48. For details on this editing process see G. H. Wilson, The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter (Chico: Scholars Press, 1985), and the essays in The Shape and Shaping of the Psalter, ed. J. Clinton McCann (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993).

[3]See e.g., Brevard Childs, "Psalm Titles and Midrashic Exegesis," Journal of Semitic Studies, 16 (1971), pp. 137-150. Childs is representative of the guild when he dates the historical superscriptions to sometime between the fourth and second centuries BCE.

[4]Multiple appearance of poetic lines can be found in the parallels between Ps 31:2-4 and Ps 71:1-3, and between Ps 40:14-18 and Ps 70:2-6.

[5]Childs, "Psalm Titles," 149.

[6]The Hebrew (MT) Psalter attributes 73 psalms to David. The Septuagint (LXX) Psalter attributes 83 to David. See A. Pietersma, "David in the Greek Psalms" (Vetus Testamentum 30 [1980] 213-26).

[7]More manuscripts of the Psalter were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls than any other biblical book.

[8]Translation taken from J. Sanders, The Psalms Scroll of Qumran Cave 11 (11Qpsa). Discoveries in the Judaean Desert 4 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965) 92, adjusted with M. Chyutin, "The Redaction of the Qumranic and the Traditional Book of Psalms as a Calendar," Revue de Qumran 16 (1994) 376-95.

[9]J. Kugel suggests that "the Davidic [authorship] claim was strengthened and extended the more that the Psalms themselves were perceived as revealed Scripture . . ." in his essay "Topics in the History of the Spirituality of the Psalms" published in Jewish Spirituality volume 1 From the Bible through the Middle Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1986-87) 135.

[10]See Chyutin, "Redaction."

[11]See also 1 Chron 6:31-48; 15:16-24; 2 Chron 35:15a.

[12]This is one of the most frequently observed features of the Chronicler’s work. For a review of scholarship see H.G. M. Williamson 1 and 2 Chronicles (The New Century Bible Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982) 28-31.

[13]Note that the liturgical occasions listed in the 11Q Psalms scroll poem match the list of occasions for all-Israel sacrifices in Numbers 28-29.

[14]My point does not depend on whether or not the Psalms were sung at any worship services at Qumran or even at Jerusalem. Rather, I am taking my cue from the obvious association between David’s musical craftsmanship and the worship services of the Second Temple period. On the question of liturgical singing at Qumran, E. Schuller suggests "[T]he more that we see the worship of the community of the Scrolls as fundamentally priestly in orientation and rooted in temple milieu . . . the more likely it is that singing of psalms --a temple practice -- would have been carried over into a non-temple context" in her paper "The Use and Function of Psalms from Qumran: Revisiting the Question" presented in 2000 at the Orion Center for the Study of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Associated Literature in Jerusalem.

[15]A third possible reason for Matthew’s attribution of this quote to a prophet appears in some Greek mss where the word "Isaiah" follows "prophet" in v 35.

[16]To our modern reading, which is so governed by genre distinctions, prophecy comes from prophets and is found in biblical books that bear their names. But in the Second Temple period "to call a book ‘prophecy’ is to say that God speaks through it—and thus the Psalms too can be ‘prophecy’—rather than to say that it should be read with certain generic expectations in mind" (John Barton, Oracles of God. Perceptions of Ancient Prophecy in Israel after the Exile [New York: Oxford University Press, 1986] 143).

[17]On the tradition history behind the NT presentation of David as a prophet see J. A . Fitzmyer, "David, ‘Being Therefore a Prophet . . .’" (Catholic Biblical Quarterly 34 [1972] 332-39).

[18]For a more complete analysis of the exegetical logic operative in Peter’s speech with special reference to relevant midrashic background see D. Juel, Messianic Exegesis: Christological Interpretation of the Old Testament in Early Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988) 135-150.

[19]Dialogue with Trypho, Chapter XXXIV.

[20]It goes without saying that intellectual exercises from scripture were not the exclusive domain of ancient Christian interpreters, as the vast corpus of rabbinic halakhic and aggadic exegesis attests.

[21]Translation taken from Athanasius: The Life Of Antony And The Letter To Marcellinus, translated by Robert C. Gregg (New York: Paulist Press, 1980).

[22]The explicit and implicit regard Athanasius had for scripture is not exhausted by our observations of reference to spiritual nurture in Marcellinus. For a fuller treatment of Athanasius and Christian scripture see T. Work, Living and Active: Scripture in the Economy of Salvation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002) 36-50.

[23]Ancient Greek-reading Christians read the Psalms in the LXX translation, which combines Psalm 9 and 10 into one (i.e., Psalm 9). From that point thereafter every number of the Psalms in the LXX is one less that the number in the MT Psalter until Psalm 147. There the LXX makes two psalms (146 and 147) out of one (MT Psalm 147). The Latin Vulgate followed the enumeration established by the LXX.

[24]The question of the personal, psychological dimension in Israel’s use of the Psalms during biblical times requires careful examination lest contemporary psychological notions of spirituality be imputed to the mindset of the ancients. On this see G. W. Anderson, "‘Sicut Cervus’: Evidence in the Psalter of Private Devotion in Ancient Israel" (Vetus Testamentum 30 [1980] 388-97).




Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.