‘A Journey of Two Psalms’ by Susan Gillingham

Susan Gillingham, A Journey of Two Psalms: The reception of Psalms 1 & 2 in Jewish & Christian tradition, Oxford: Oxford University Press (2013).

Those who follow the more academic literature on the psalms will know that Susan Gillingham has already made some highly significant contributions to psalms scholarship. She is the author of The Poems and the Psalms of the Hebrew Bible and the Psalms Through the Centuries: volume 1. She has also edited Jewish and Christian Approaches to the Psalms, as well as authoring a number of papers on diverse aspects of the psalms.

Her Journey of Two Psalms is important for two major reasons. Firstly, such a thorough attempt at exploring the reception history of biblical material has rarely been attempted. Secondly, Psalms 1 and 2 are increasingly seen as central to the very nature of the Psalter because of the new consensus that they are in some sense a purposeful introduction to the Psalter.

Some people of faith seem wary of reception history because of a largely groundless concern that readers born centuries after the appearance of a text impose an alien interpretation upon the text. Rather, we can turn to reception history as an aid to help prevent us from making precisely this error. By seeing how interpreters have understood and made use of a biblical text we can see what is illuminating and helpful on the one hand and what is perhaps anachronistic on the other. In so doing we can be more alert to our possible misreadings. Reception history also has the wonderful bonus of taking a wider collection of interpretive media than more traditional approaches. In Gillingham’s book, for example, the liturgical use, visual exegesis, musical interpretation and ‘imitation’ of these two psalms is considered. This ensures that a rounded interpretative range, beyond that of just the theological elite is considered. No one, least of all Susan Gillingham, is claiming that reception history replaces more traditional biblical exegesis and hermeneutics, but rather there is much to complement these approaches when we look at the psalms through the centuries.

In the first half of the book, Gillingham looks at the broad sweep of commentary on Psalms 1 and 2. This is broken down into chapters titled: ‘Ancient Judaism’, ‘Early Christianity’, ‘Rabbinic and Medieval Judaism’ and ‘From the Early Middle Ages to the Reformation’. Gillingham examines the evidence for these two psalms being viewed as, in some sense, a pair. She notes that in Jewish works of the earliest periods the two psalms are seen as being united by a concern with the Temple, whilst later they are unified by a concern with Jewish piety and identity against opposition from outside the community. Gillingham helpfully explores how different Christian contexts lead to the use of these two psalms to address the quite different concerns on diverse interpreters.

In the second half, Gillingham notes that psalms 1 and 2 play a very small role in either Jewish or Christian liturgy through the centuries. In visual exegesis, by contrast, these two psalms are prominent. In many cases, so Gillingham argues, the ‘two psalms are often illuminated in a connected, complementary way, with contrasting themes which together open up a visual gateway to the Psalter as a whole’. The selective musical interpretations, examined by Gillingham, almost exclusively focus on these two psalms as individual entities. As Gillingham notes, however, this probably has more to do with the nature of musical composition than a necessary disconnection between these two psalms. To a large extent the paraphrases and translations of these two psalms also tend to see them in their individual light, rather than making much of the literary or potential thematic links between them.

Gillingham’s conclusions are in three areas. The first concerns the importance of the theme of the Temple in Psalms 1 and 2. There are grounds for seeing this theme as important in both psalms, as well as the Psalter as a whole. Interestingly, reception history does not reveal as strong a role for this theme as I expected (and one wonders whether this might have taken Gillingham by surprise too). The second topic coheres with the first – how the theme of the Temple is handled might be perceived as a divisive issue for Christian and Jewish hermeneutics. This has indeed been the case for nineteen hundred years, but more recently there has been a more nuanced and constructive dialogue of this theme. Thirdly, and for this reader most interestingly, is the contribution to the debate over the possibility that Psalms 1 and 2 are a deliberate entrance to the Psalter. This possibility has reemerged over the last thirty years because of the emergence of a canonical hermeneutic to psalms interpretation which has seriously challenged the hegemony of the form-critical approach.

Gillingham should be commended on the clarity of argument in this work, and the shear volume and diversity of the necessary research. This study is essential reading for anyone who wants to keep abreast of the shifting consensus on interpretive paradigms for reading the Psalter.

Gillingham closes her book with a defence against those who suggest that reception history is ‘Biblical Studies in Holiday’. It seems to me that this study makes the case that the refreshment from such a holiday might well stimulate useful work in the study of the Scriptures shared by Jews and Christians.

Author: PsalterMark

Psalm addict, disciple, son, husband, father, academic, theologian, cacti grower, steam enthusiast and ale drinker

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