“Commentaries on Psalms”: Insights from a Workshop

The Faculties of Catholic and Protestant Theology at Vienna University were filled with scholarly engagement on Monday, June 5th, 2023, as the workshop on “Psalm Commentaries” took place. Organized by the “Arbeitskreis Rezeption des Alten Testaments” (AKRAT) and the “Forschungszentrum Religion and Transformation” (RaT) this event explored the concepts of Jewish and Christian Psalm commentaries, both in scholarship today and in the reception history. Hosted at the Faculties of Catholic and Protestant Theology at Vienna University (with the possibility of hybrid participation), the workshop offered an impressive lineup of experts specializing in various Psalm commentaries and a stimulating academic environment.

By focusing on Psalm 14 and 53, renowned scholars shared their insights on their work on historic or their own Psalm commentaries. The first three presentations of the workshop discussed the work on contemporary Psalm commentaries. The second half of the workshop focused on the reception history of Psalms 14 and 53. Throughout the workshop, participants addressed several central questions:

  • How do the concepts of commentaries and their realization intersect in concrete examples?
  • What explanations can be offered for the duplicity of Psalms found in the Psalter?
  • How does the Jewish and Christian reception history influence the interpretation of the Psalms?
  • Is historic and literary research on the Psalms a “neutral” ground for interpretation?
  • To what extent do the interpreters‘ contexts shape their interpretations?
  • What new or critical perspectives can the reception history of these texts offer for contemporary interpretations?

Marianne Grohmann (Old Testament, University of Vienna), who is currently participating in a collaborative Psalms Commentary for the series International Exegetical Commentary on the Old Testament (IECOT), opened the floor by providing insights into her work on Psalm 53. During her verse-by-verse interpretation, she highlighted the unique characteristics of the psalm and emphasized its combination of wisdom reflection and prophetic lament. The main part of the psalm, verses 2 to 5, reflects on human beings, particularly the “fool” (nābāl), and polarizes good and evil. In verse 6, there is a change in time and tense announcing the downfall of evildoers. While the last verse, verse 7, concludes with a wish for deliverance from Zion, which can also be seen as a form of prayer, most of the text does not fit the traditional definition of prayer. The IECOT commentaries combine synchronic and diachronic analysis, followed by a synthesis. Grohmann highlighted that Psalm 14 and 53 belong to different literary settings, the first Davidic Psalter and the Elohistic Psalter (Ps 42–83), which affect their themes and tone. There is a difference in the emphasis on the names of God used in each Psalm. Unlike Ps 14, Ps 53 solely uses the word “God” (ʾœlohı̂m) and not the Tetragrammaton YHWH that appears in Ps 14.

Subsequently, Benjamin Sommer (Hebrew Bible, Jewish Theological Seminary New York) reflected on his role as a commentator writing for the Jewish Publication Society (JPS). He believes that writing a commentary is an act of pedagogy, and everything scholars do is a form of teaching. He emphasized the importance of understanding the audience and tailoring the commentary to different readers, including rabbis, Jewish educators, ambitious laypeople, and even non-Jewish scholars. While the JPS commentary series does not require exhaustive examination of every theological and text-critical matter, it does encourage addressing those issues that significantly influence the interpretation of the psalm. By including detailed information in the footnotes, Sommer prioritizes the needs of the non-scholarly reader while also providing material that will captivate scholarly readers.

Via Zoom from Jersusalem, Marc Brettler (Hebrew Bible, Duke University) discussed his article “A Jewish Historical-Critical Commentary on Psalms: Psalm 114 as an Example.” Brettler highlighted the changing landscape of Jewish and Christian scholars‘ involvement in biblical studies. He noted that Jewish and non-Jewish scholars now have more opportunities to collaborate, and the lines between Jewish and non-Jewish critical biblical scholarship have blurred significantly. He emphasized the importance of distinguishing between the Jewishness of the author and the audience, stating that the latter is more significant. Since Psalm texts are used in liturgical contexts, Brettler hints in his commentary toward Jewish culture and included Jewish sources, such as medieval commentaries.

In her session, Constanza Cordoni (Jewish studies, University of Vienna) explored the rabbinic exegesis of Psalms 14 and 53 in Midrash Tehillim, which is a collection of interpretations of single Psalm verses. The presentation highlighted the unique hermeneutic strategies used in rabbinic readings, such as verse segmentation, focus on single words, linking unrelated passages, and multiple readings of word forms. Cordoni explored the identities of the fool and the wicked mentioned in the psalms, which the Midrash associates with biblical characters like Esau, Haman, and King Nebuchadnezzar. The presentation concluded with a discussion of the double psalm problem, where Psalms 14 and 53 are seen as representing two voices rather than redundancy.

Subsequently, Uta Heil (Church History, University of Vienna) presented her work on the digital critical edition of the psalm commentary attributed to Athanasius of Alexandria. This commentary is primarily transmitted within Catena manuscripts, making it a challenging puzzle to piece together. Regarding the interpretation of Psalm 14, Heil discussed different historical and theological perspectives present in the commentaries. For example, she mentioned Diodore of Tarsus, who connected the psalm to the time of Sennacherib’s attack on Jerusalem and also argued for a wider, general meaning based on Paul’s citation of the psalm in Romans 3, attributing the negligence of God to all human beings. Moreover, Heil addressed the the efforts of the Church Fathers to make it a Christian text by delivering christological interpretations of the psalm. For example, Theodoret saw a double meaning, referring to the salvation during the siege of Jerusalem and the manifestation of Christ’s adventures. Defining the border between the Christianizing of the Hebrew Bible and the Anti-Judaism of many Ancient Christian commentators stays a challenging subject of research.

Finally, Susan Gillingham (Biblical Studies, Oxford) explored some similarities between Psalms 14 and 53 and how they have been interpreted throughout history. Both Psalms begin with a description of a fool and end with the deliverance of God from Zion. In Jewish tradition, Psalm 14 is attributed to David and seen as a prophecy about the destruction of the first temple, while Psalm 53 is associated with the destruction of the second temple. Gillingham highlighted differences between the Psalms, for example, regarding the length and content of the superscriptions. Moreover, Psalm 53 has a more “bloodthirsty” ending that motivated eschatological speculations in the reception of the Psalm. Subsequently, Gillingham first showed how the differences are visible in illustrations from the reception history of the two psalms and then presented one musical adaptation for each of the Psalms.

The six presentations sparked fruitful discussions, revealing several connections between them. There is a long-standing tradition of commentaries on the Psalms, where both Jewish and Christian authors, throughout history, have displayed a sensitivity to the multivalence of Psalms 14 and 53. Rabbinic literature is well-known for presenting manifold interpretations side by side, while the Church Fathers also recognized multiple layers of meaning and approached the texts from historical and theological perspectives. Although modern exegetical methods differ from those in the past, contemporary approaches also acknowledge the inherent polysemy of poetic psalm texts.

The act of interpretation begins within the Bible itself. For example, Benjamin Sommer suggests that Psalm 14:7 may be an example of innerbiblical interpretation. Additionally, Psalm 10 can be understood as a commentary on Psalm 14, offering a closer examination of the “fool” (“there is no God” in 14:1) which appears in the character of the “wicked” (rāšāꜥ; Psalm 10:4) in Psalm 10. Moreover, the collection and arrangement of the Psalms already serve as an act of reception, implying certain interpretations. This aspect becomes crucial in understanding the duplicity of Psalms 14 and 53. They emerge as two distinct texts that derive significance from their dialogue with other psalms within their literary context.

It is worth noting that contemporary psalm commentaries are also shaped by their respective contexts of origin. Different commentary series impose varying requirements on the authors, influenced by the intended readership of the commentary. Jewish exegetes, for example, often engage more explicitly with older Jewish interpretive traditions, as this aligns with the expectations of their readers. The problematic history of anti-Jewish interpretations has likely influenced Christian authors to approach their commentaries on the Psalms with a lesser emphasis on exclusivity within a Christian framework. Thus, the context of origin shapes the concrete formulation of psalm commentaries. Therefore, it remains to reflect on one’s cultural affiliation in the exegetical work.

Finally, the participants also engaged in a discussion regarding the challenges of incorporating reception history into one’s exegetical work. Given the vast amount of material available, it becomes nearly impossible to provide an exhaustive account of all the receptions. This raises the question for commentators of which criteria should be used to determine which aspects of reception history to include in their commentary. Furthermore, a question arose regarding the extent to which reception history genuinely enhances our understanding of the biblical texts, or if it instead necessitates a distinct interpretation since it arises from a different contextual framework. Both perspectives hold validity and may even coexist simultaneously, contingent upon the specific artifact under examination.

In conclusion, the workshop offered an opportunity to reflect on the genre of psalm commentaries throughout the centuries. The workshop’s innovative approach contributes significantly to the understanding of the history, objectives, and methodologies of biblical commentaries. The positive feedback of the participants further emphasizes that the workshop served as a successful forum for fostering interdisciplinary and interreligious dialogue on biblical commentaries.

Article´s photo by Erich Foltinowsky

RaT-Blog Nr. 10/2023

  • Arnim Janssen-Wnorowska is a University Assistant (prae doc) at the Department of Old Testament Studies and Biblical Archeology at the University of Vienna. He is writing his dissertation on the Book of Lamentations and the cultural memory of emotions.

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