Book Review: ‘Psalms Old and New’ by Ben Witherington III

Witherington, Ben III, Psalms Old and New: Exegesis, Intertextuality and Hermeneutics, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017.

I came to this book with great expectations, having benefited over the years from a number of Witherington’s New Testament commentaries—in particular his The Acts of the Apostles and Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians (3 volumes). I also found the subtitle full of promise as the subject of how the New Testament authors use the psalms is a fascinating and complicated mass of interpretative issues.

At the outset of this volume, Witherington implies that there is a straightforward continuity in scholarship on the psalms with the trajectory initiated by Gunkel and Mowinckel (p.2). In a short paragraph he glosses over nothing less than a paradigm shift in psalms scholarship initiated by Wilson’s 1985 The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter. This work is not mentioned in Witherington’s bibliography nor are any other works by Wilson. A more thorough examination of the bibliography reveals very little of the recent work on what some term the canonical approach. This approach is important not least because it is now the scholarly consensus with regard to both the formation of the Psalter and the form of the Book of Psalms.

This sidelining of the canonical approach is puzzling for a number of reasons, two of which are worth noting here. Firstly, the canonical approach is enormously rich in its broader implications for intertextuality. The intertextuality within the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) itself would surely have formed a promising point of departure for this study—as a minimum the New Testament writers stand in continuity with a community of faith that had continued to reread the psalms. Secondly, Witherington structures his book around the five-fold structure of the Psalter which implicitly affirms the recent paradigm shift. At the outset there is very little justification for why the five books of the Psalter are each treated in a separate chapter. The impression is that this is just to provide manageable ‘chunks’ of material.

By page 4, Witherington affirms by use of italics that “the Psalms, unlike various other parts of the OT, served four functions at once: . . .”. Whilst the four functions he goes on to state are sensible, this bold statement mutes important interpretive nuance and diversity in early praxis. The complex processes of writing, editing, forming of collections, combining collections and further editing over something like a millennium means that the fourfold functionality of the psalms is prone to oversimplifying the psalms. Such developments mean that psalms were used differently over time and by different parts of the Israelite, Judahite and Jewish communities, between the Monarchical period and the early Rabbinic period. Just how anachronistic this implied uniformity of fourfold function is, is revealed a few pages later, where Witherington identifies a fourfold Christian pattern where the four functions are alternatives and are not viewed as being simultaneously operative.

The second chapter is titled The Psalter in Early Judaism, and at this point the reader realises that there will be no space given to the shape and shaping of the Psalter despite the hermeneutical promise of such an endeavour. This short chapter rehearses some generic comments about the importance, or lack thereof, of the biblical psalms in the Qumran literature, the Apochrypha, etc. Witherington is at pains to dismiss Brooke’s rather unusual claims about a movement from poetry to history during the evolution of the Psalter. The best way to show how such an approach fails to account for the Psalter would, in my view, have been a thorough exploration of the one thousand year history of the psalms (the interested reader can find such exploration in, for example, Holladay’s The Psalms through Three Thousand Years and DeClaisse-Walford’s Reading from the Beginning).

Chapters three to seven consider the five books of the Psalter. Here Witherington is in his element as he explores how the New Testament picks up on specific psalms directly and exhibits more subtle intertextual dependence on the Psalter. These five core chapters contain a wealth of detail and Witherington explains carefully how he has built on the work of others as well as carried out his own extensive work (writing major commentaries on every book of the New Testament, for example). This near exhaustive re-examination of the use of the Psalms by the New Testament writers makes this volume essential for anyone wanting to understand this intertextual and inter-testament interpretive issue.

A key strength of all five main chapters is the careful exploration of the different ways in which the New Testament writers use the psalms. Sometimes the New Testament authors have been given hard time for not abiding by modern interpretive approaches and playing fast-and-loose with the Psalter. Witherington helpful considers the variety of approaches used by the New Testament authors and notes that much of their usage relies on a homiletical approach (see p.251, for example). This is the key element of the work which can be said to be new and it represents a genuinely useful insight.

Witherington helpfully points out that some of the usage of the Psalms relates to the identity of the resurrected Jesus as the Messiah and other usage is far more general, reflecting the life of Jesus’ followers in a world where following Jesus means experiencing suffering. On this latter point, Witherington seems to be advocating something like Brueggemann’s Typology of Function Approach although this is not considered. Throughout the book, the psalms are consistently viewed as poetry and the New Testament writers are judged to have appropriately developed and interpreted them in the light of the Jesus Event. Witherington’s exploration of the nuances of such interpretation heads of some of some dangerously naive approaches of reading the psalms. In a similar vein the appropriation of the imprecatory psalms is handled with care as Witherington explores these psalms as the words of those struggling in prayer and at times voicing prayers at odds with Jesus’ teaching.

There is still a question in my mind about the use of the five-fold structure of the Psalter. At one point (p.319), Witherington sounds either disappointed or surprised that he has not really found any clear difference in the use made of the psalms in the five books by the New Testament authors. I would have liked to have seen some clearer conclusions about Witherington’s findings in the light of different interpretive paradigms of the psalms but this is perhaps unfair given the scope of this book and the series to which it belongs.

 

 

Author: PsalterMark

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

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