Monday, 19 March 2012

Limits to conversation, the role of scholarship

I am so appreciative of Bayard.
- Look, here I have written a book, and I so want to read it.
- What! You wrote a book you haven't yet read?
- That's the truth of it. I have written the book I wanted in my hands to learn Hebrew poetry. Now perhaps I can read it and learn more of the poetry and cohesive memory that is the Psalter.

I received an article on psalms scholarship recently and I was challenged as to why I was not approaching the psalms in the form and fashion of the researchers in the first 70 years of the last century.

Remember I said I must be prepared to change (two posts ago) and I could have listened (last post). (Count that as prophetic - telling the truth about my reality).

The article is The Psalms and Israelite worship by J. H. Eaton in Tradition and Interpretation, Essays by Members of the Society for Old Testament Study Ed. G. W. Anderson, Clarendon Press 1979.

What do I think I am doing forming a book about the psalms as I have these past 6 years without more interaction with the scholars reviewed by Eaton?

I cannot be independent of scholarship. On the contrary, I am quite dependent on it. I am as dependent on scholarship as I am on science. I use a car to get places, but when I write about a journey, it is to recall it to mind, not to justify the science that allowed my trip. I am grateful that there is elemental calcium in broccoli and cheese, but when I eat, I am grateful to enjoy the flavour and texture. Similarly, when I write on the psalms, I enjoy them and the recalling to mind that they accomplish. I don't necessarily interact with an area of specialization about which I might not know much. I am grateful for the scholars but there are things scholars do that I am not interacting with.

But I listened and I am grateful for the article and the challenge. Reading it reminded me of many paths I chose not to follow when I began to work through a close reading of the psalms. I read Gunkel, Mowinkel, Dahood, and Weiser among others early in the project, but when I read Craigie who was responding in part to Dahood (Word Biblical Commentary Psalms 1-50), I saw as I had seen before that some suggestions of scholarship are not received by all scholars. Craigie (from whom I learned in Calgary before his untimely death) and others I have talked to feel that Dahood was a bit over the top in his assessments of Ugaritic influence. And I admit that I could not spend the time anyway to master this subject area.

I was intrigued with Gunkel's form and genre suggestions, because I like taxonomies. But I was not able to see a sufficient precision to this approach. Classification and decompositional techniques, I knew from my experience in programming, are not completely reliable explorations of a complex problem space. But analysis is satisfying, so in my work translating Psalms, Job, Song of Solomon, Ruth, Lamentations, Qohelet, and a few other bits and pieces of TNK, I chose to analyze by word. I try also to imagine sound and rhythm (e.g. Psalm 44 with its many first person plurals, or Psalm 145 with the repetitive kaf). In this I was following Rabbi Jonathon Magonet - little knowing where I was going at first, but confident that there was an end point for my learning. Magonet (A Rabbi reads the Psalms) particularly pointed me to word recurrence as the means of finding the frames for meaning. He illustrated this at Oxford with Psalm 137 in 2010.

I also chose not to follow a theological interpretation as Terrien does in his posthumous commentary (2003). His strophe structures are different from mine as are some suggested by Gunkel (e.g. Psalm 69 discussed by Leslie Allen in JBL Vol. 105, No. 4 Dec., 1986, The Value of Rhetorical Criticism in Psalm 69.) They diverge because I am looking first at word recurrence as a means of framing and reading the poems. I am assuming that word recurrence is a measure of the poem's coherence. I think this is a reading strategy that anyone, scholar or non-scholar, with a feel for form in language can follow. (Terrien unfortunately does not contain the Hebrew text so there is no possibility of seeing the why of some of his decisions.)

Perhaps my approach borders on the literary approaches to the Bible taken by Frye, Bloom, Fisch, and Alter. I have in my work responded occasionally to Alter's detailed notes. I find him frustrating at times when he writes "The Hebrew is crabbed here" and doesn't say why. Though I admit that, as do Rosenberg and Zlotowitz, Alter also says - "whoever is translating this Hebrew is guessing". And I appreciate just how difficult this is - as Eaton points out on his first pages -"it is often doubtful whether a verb refers to past, present, or future". And there are plenty of other things about the ancient language that one might doubt.

I read through Eaton's paper with some care. In it I see the discussions and changes of mind that have taken place as scholars consider possibilities for original usage of the psalms. In my work, I am not considering ancient rituals, festivals, and liturgies because they don't reveal why I read the psalms - or even why the psalms were so loved (as is evidenced by their usage in the NT and the many manuscripts found of the psalms among the Dead Sea scrolls. In the NT, the psalms are more often alluded to than any other part of Scripture. There are more manuscripts of the Psalms in the DSS than any other book of TNK.) No one falls in love with the reconstruction of an ancient liturgy - especially when it is, as Eaton notes, "speculative". There is, he writes "little coherent information about the rites of the Temple preserved..." and "the psalms will not yield all their secrets to this systematic classification" (As an expert in systems, I am also suspicious of the adjective systematic).

But I have looked at Neale and Littledale to see reception history from the 4th to the 19th century in Christian liturgy and comment. Liturgical performance is important to me, but again, it is not the subject matter of my writing.

I was sympathetic to Eaton's concluding meditation on the individual psalms though I have drawn a different conclusion in that I think the Psalter is written for the creation of community in a covenant of mercy. The reason I note this is from a sequential reading culminating in the use of the term xasidim in Book 5, repeated three times in Psalm 149.

I also think there is a more than accidental reason that there are 4 acrostics in Book 1 and 4 in Book 5 and 4 in Lamentations, including the tension between the individual and corporate identity. Rashi notes this tension when he considers Psalms 42-44 as one Psalm. (Rashi appears not to be on Eaton's horizon.) Eaton raises this question for me: when did Messiah appear as a hoped for individual in the tradition. And there is a corollary - how do we avoid imposing our understanding of the individual as over against the community's voice. I know this is controversial and I can be moved to and do write about some analogical interpretations. But this is also not my direct reason for writing, but it is closer.

I expect a critical reading of my glosses and notes from my reviewers. (Some of them are really jarring.) I also expect to do more research, but the painting is largely laid out on the canvas, and I will be limiting my changes to corrections within the bounds of my constraints, removing or adding comments, and a few short essays to negotiate an odd to an even page. If you are interested further ...- I know it is too much work and too much to ask anyone, but the canvas is available, if you are interested. (Send me an email or leave me an email on the comments of this post and I will point you to a review copy.)

So what am I doing? I am doing some things that I have not seen in my survey of the literature. I may well have missed them - but that's the situation. I have focused on the text and the internal connections between and among words, letters, and phrases. I have found this an exercise that is valuable to me as an English reader and also as one who learns Hebrew slowly.

Where are the publications on the psalms that show the internal structures of the poetry in Hebrew and English? They may be there, but I have not found them. Mechon-Mamre and books like the Comparative Psalter (Kohlenberger) come closest for me - both being diglots. But neither highlights recurrence or prosody. I have looked at Fokkelman, O'Connor, Kugel, and recently, Fishbane - and I probably would benefit by rereading the first three since I looked at them when I was an infant.

I will certainly listen to conclusions about philology, rhetoric, structure, history, and theology that are somewhat less than 'tentative' or 'speculative'. (I will even listen to the tentative, for such must be my conclusions.) But there is only so much time, as Bayard reminds us, and at least I have the beginnings of a virtual bookshelf where I can place the polemics, articles, and books on the psalms or poetry that I skim, read in part, or not read, or read and forget.

For the record, my critic said that I was not 'dead on arrival' as are some 'articles that are aimed only at tenure' (those were his words, not mine). I don't need tenure. I am not writing for any external purpose save the love that has been shown to me in this remarkable poetic history, and I continue to have fun - because God likes this poetry too. I think that is a good motivation for sharing the fun I am having.

Mind you, there is always the possibility that having spent my life in database and systems analysis, I am writing in the wrong field, and engaging in special pleading.  But that's the way with poetry and religion. I could not help earning a living, and I could not help being inflicted with the same problems as everyone else who lives, scholar, cloth, or lay, including the need to discover who and what I am. It is through the psalms that I continue in this walk.

Books, authors, and articles referred to in this brief:
Allen, Leslie C. (JBL Vol. 105, No. 4 Dec., 1986) The Value of Rhetorical Criticism in Psalm 69.
Alter, Robert (2007) The Book of Psalms, A Translation with Commentary.
Bayard, Pierre. (2009). How to talk about books you haven't read
Bloom, Harold. (1988) The Song of Songs, The Book of Job... and others.
Craigie, Peter C. Word Biblical Commentary, Psalms 1-50.
Dahood, Michael. (1968). Psalms 1-150 Anchor Bible Commentary (3 volumes).
Eaton, J.H. (1979). The Psalms and Israelite Worship. In Anderson, G.W. Tradition and Interpretation.
Fisch, Harold. (1988). Poetry with a Purpose.
Fishbane, Michael. (1995). Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel.
Fokkelman, J. P. (2000). Major Poems of the Hebrew Bible, Vol II Psalms and Job 4-14.
Frye, Northrope.  (1982) The Great Code: The Bible and Literature.
Gunkel. (1998). P.S.A.L.M.S. completed Begrich translated Nogalski.
Kohlenberger, John R. III. (2000). A Comparative Psalter (Hebrew, RSV, NETS, LXX).Kugel, James L. The Idea of Hebrew Poetry.
MacDonald, D. R. (Bob). (2013 in process) Working Title: Seeing the Psalter, Patterns of Recurrence in the Poetry of the Psalms. (500 pages)
Magonet, Jonathon. (2004). A Rabbi reads the Psalms.
Mowinkel, Sigmund. (1962, 2004). The Psalms in Israel's Worship.
J.M. Neale and R.F. Littledale. Commentary on the Psalms from primitive and mediaeval writers: and from the various officebooks and hymns of the Roman, Mozarabic, Ambrosian, Gallican, Greek, Coptic, Armenian, and Syriac rites.
O'Connor, M. Hebrew Verse Structure.
Rosenberg, Martin and Zlotowitz, Bernard. (1999). The Book of Psalms.
Terrien, Samuel. (2003). The Psalms, Strophic Structure and Theological Commentary.
Weiser, Arthur (1955-62), The Psalms, Translated by Herbert Hartwell.


  1. Antithetic Structure in Biblical Hebrew Poetry - J Krasovec (Supplements to Vetus Testamentum ) Leiden 1984
    Superb book on among others, Psalm 73 and Book of Job. : "The general principles of genre and cult seem to serve most researchers as a substitute for their lack of linguistic-stylistic investigations." page 38

  2. Anon! Thanks. I see it online and will check it out.