This is very likely the most provocative post I have written to date, but it's getting in the way as I try to start working on the draft of my book and I need to think about it out loud.

This morning I was reading the psalms for Lauds in M. Basil Pennington's The Abbey Prayer Book (Ligouri, MO: Ligouri/Triumph, 2002), and I came across this passage from Psalm 147, vv. 19-20:

"He reveals his word to Jacob,
his statutes and rulings to Israel:
he never does this for other nations,
he never reveals his rulings to them."

Pennington is working from The Jerusalem Bible (1966). According to the New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV, 1994), the passage is just as categorical:

"He declares his word to Jacob,
his statutes and ordinances to Israel.
He has not dealt thus with any other nation:
they do not know his ordinances."

I don't know how you feel about it, but I have a hard time with claims such as these. It's important for my purposes because Psalm 147 (in the Vulgate, beginning at "Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem, Praise your God, O Zion!") is one of the texts that was (and, in the Roman Use, still is) sung every evening at Vespers in the Little Office of the Virgin. But is it a Christian prayer?

Yes, of course, it is; if, that is, you accept, as did the authors of the Little Office, not to mention Benedict and every other medieval Christian monastic rule, that the psalms may be read as prophecies uttered by David under the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit and that the subject matter of the prophecies is (as that great father of scholasticism Peter Lombard put it) "the whole Christ, that is, both the head and the body, the betrothed and His spouse."

The Lombard (d. 1160) goes on: "One should note that this part of Scripture [the book of Psalms] finds a place more frequently than others in the offices of the Church, for the whole of theology is summed up in this book.... For David, the most excellent among the prophets, has so clearly revealed to us the facts about Christ's passion and resurrection, His begetting by the Eternal Being, and other mysteries, facts which other prophets referred to obscurely and through enigmas, that he seems to be playing the role of an evangelist rather than a prophet."*

Well and good, yes? Well, yes, unless, that is, you no longer believe in prophecy or, at the very least, in the typological and spiritual reading of the Bible as practiced by Christians over the centuries up to and including Lombard.** Who does?

This is the stumbling block that I am struggling over as I try to think about how medieval Christians experienced the psalms. I could, of course, simply bracket the question, as most academics do. It doesn't matter whether we (modern scholars) believe that God spoke through David so clearly that in chanting the psalms it is as if we (Christians) were speaking the very words of Christ ("Deus, Deus meus, respice me, quare me dereliquisti?", for example); all we (modern scholars) need to do is to appreciate that medieval Christians thought that they were.

But what if, as Christians now, we want to pray the psalms? What do we do if we believe, as good Biblical scholarship tells us we should, that they are not prophecies, but songs written to be sung for the worship of Yahweh in his Temple? Can we still use them as Christian prayers?

As I write this I am, of course, all too conscious of the great weight of scholarship that has been brought to bear on the question of the authorship and interpretation of the scriptures, including the Psalms. Perhaps there is someone out there who has answered my question, but (quite frankly) I doubt it. Even to ask it directly is making me anxious, despite the fact that I suspect more than one of my readers has asked it him- or herself before.

Here's the problem. Either Jesus of Nazareth was who his followers believed him to be, not simply the Son of God, but the Son of the God who had revealed himself both in history and through the prophets to Israel, in which case the only correct way to read the scriptures recorded and preserved by his ancestors is as prophecies of His coming for the sake of the redemption of all humanity. Or he wasn't, in which case to read those scriptures as Christians must do in order to be Christians is (to put it mildly) theft, not to mention historically, culturally, contextually, and theologically wrong.

I told you it wasn't a new question. Nor is this the first time that I've ever thought about it. It's just that I still--after years of reading in the history of Christianity and theology--don't know how to answer it. I'm not even sure at the moment whether I've phrased it correctly. Many of Jesus' followers were themselves Jews, so to say that they "stole" the scriptures is hardly accurate. They, like Jesus, had grown up singing the psalms and reading the prophecies; these texts were "theirs" as much as any texts that we ourselves have not written can belong to us. Insofar as the Church as a body of believers inherited the texts from those first believers in Jesus as Christ, yes, the Old Testament is part of an authentic tradition and it is perfectly permissible, culturally, historically and theologically, to read the psalms as fulfilled in Christ.

But only if we believe that texts like the psalms do, in fact, speak prophetically or, at the very least, were inspired by the same God who became incarnate and whom we now worship in the three Persons of the Trinity. If we don't--if we read them as texts belonging rather to an older tradition more authentically represented by those who still consider them sacred but who do not accept Jesus as the Second Person of the Trinity or even the existence of the Trinity--then we're stuffed. And, no, it doesn't help simply to accept the psalms as Jewish texts that are generically wise about the human condition, comparable to similarly wise texts that Christians nevertheless do not consider divinely inspired (at least not in the same way).*** The whole point in the Christian tradition of praying the psalms is not only that these are the songs that Christ himself prayed as a Jew, but that Christ having come to fulfill the scriptures, they are also about Him.

But that is not what the scriptures, including the psalms, say. They say things like: "He [that is, Yahweh] reveals his word to Jacob, his statutes and rulings to Israel; he never does this for other nations, he never reveals his rulings to them." Yes, yes, "Israel" here means "the Church"****--but what if it doesn't? What if it means exactly what it says, that Yahweh speaks only to Israel and to nobody else? I told you this was going to be a provocative post.

As I see it, we are beset here with the following options: a) the psalms are divinely inspired and speak directly, albeit prophetically, about Christ; b) the psalms are divinely inspired but say nothing about Christ (that is, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity), only Yahweh's love for Israel, defined not as the Church but as the people directly descended (as a people) from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; or c) the psalms are beautiful songs sung by the ancient Hebrews at the Temple which have inspired poets and authors for centuries, but which say nothing directly about God, any more than any other humanly-authored text. If c) is true, we're all in the same boat: Yahweh is simply one of many names that human beings have given to their experience of the divine. But I doubt very much that this answer would satisfy most Christians or Jews. So, we are left with a) or b).

You may say that it is a matter of faith which option we choose, but it is a very hard choice, indeed. Logically, theologically, one of the choices must be wrong (otherwise Christ's coming did not fulfill the scriptures and Jesus was not who his followers said he was). And here is where I really don't know what to believe. As a Christian, yes, I believe that God became incarnate as a human being so as to redeem humanity from its fallen state, but as a Christian sensitive to the authenticity of other religious traditions, including the Jewish, frankly, I'm stuck. It is very hard for me to read the psalms and not hear them as songs written to be sung to a God wholly other than the one whom I worship, a God concerned with only a single people, rather than the salvation of the whole of humanity. It is likewise hard not to think that maybe we Christians should not be singing these texts as if they were "ours" when they so clearly belong to another tradition as well. Think of it this way: either the Jews who believed in Jesus as the Son of God were right and he was the savior sent to redeem the human race, or we (all those of us who are not descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob***** and who now follow Christ) are worse than pagans because we have abandoned the faith of our ancestors (in Zeus, Apollo, Diana, Jupiter, Mars, Cybele, Isis, Mithras, Thor, Woden) for a lie.

Atheists may chuckle, but this is no laughing matter. Our very souls are at stake.****** Who is Yahweh and to whom has he revealed his word?

*Peter Lombard, Prologue to his Commentary on the Psalter, trans. A.J. Minnis and A.B. Scott, in Medieval Literary Theory and Criticism c. 1100-c.1375: The Commentary Tradition, rev. ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988, 1991), p. 107.
**And, indeed, for centuries thereafter. Christian Bibles still include the "Old Testament," after all. But why? And, no, I'm not a Marcionist. Read on.
***Here I'm fudging because of course one could argue that nobody writes anything without divine inspiration, all artistic work being dependent upon the workings of the Muse, a.k.a. the Spirit. Likewise, it is possible that the author of, for example, the Bhagavad Gita was divinely inspired; the problem is whether the expression of the divine is as clear (or the same as) there as it is in, say, the Gospel of John.
****Augustine elaborates in his commentary on Psalm 147 (Expositions of the Psalms, trans. Maria Boulding, vol. 6 [Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2004], p. 475): "We belong to Jacob, therefore, because we belong to Isaac and to Abraham, for the seed of Abraham is Christ. It is not I who assert this, nor any upstart teacher. The holy apostle himself teaches, 'Scripture does not say, To his descendants, as though indicating many, but as to one only: And to your seed, which is Christ' (Galatians 3:16). If there is one seed only, and one Jacob and one Israel, it means that all nations are one person in Christ. It follows that what was revealed to Jacob, to Israel, applies to all nations. The only ones not included and to be reckoned as gentiles still are those who refuse to believe in Christ and are unwilling to forsake the oleaster and be engrafted into the olive (cf. Romans 11:17)."
*****Just in case you're worrying, this is not a racial or a biological argument. I'm just trying to emphasize the difference between "Israel" as the historically continuous community of Judaism and "Israel" interpreted spiritually (see previous note) as the Church.
******And, no, it doesn't help to take Jesus as an example of a Good Man and not worry about whether he was actually divine. If he wasn't the Son of God who died on the cross and rose again from the dead, we aren't redeemed. Now, you could say we don't need redeeming, but then you will need to explain why it is we find it so hard to do good even when we know what the good is (a.k.a. the problem of original sin).


  1. Dodging the theological component (which, as an atheist, I am unwilling to address) this raises the interesting question of cultural appropriation. Can any culture "own" a tradition? Is that different from "owning" ideas that present themselves as facts (like the belief that the world is round, or that the universe is about 13.6 billion years old)? The Hopis take the position that they own their sacred traditions--the visual components, the stories, the music--and that non-Hopis should not record or share them. Can "New Age" religions ethically appropriate Native American elements? This arguably has even less justification that Christian use of Jewish traditions which, as FB points out, they initially inherited as their own. Do dead cultures and religions (Druids, for example) have a ethical right to remain dead, rather than being revived more or less (I suspect less) accurately by neo-pagans?

    And despite FB;s prudent avoidence of the racial angle, it is there, barely under the surface. Does someone who is Native American genetically, but who is raised off-reservation and outside their culture, have more of a claim to owning or understanding their tribes tradition than an Anglo child who was raised on the reservation and grew up living the traditions?

  2. My first blog comment ever...

    First, I am not sure if your interpretation of vv. 19-20 is correct. My New American Standard Version writes the verses as follows:

    "He declares His words to Jacob,
    His statutes and His ordinances to Israel.
    He has not dealt thus with any nation;
    And as for His ordinances, they have not known them.
    Praise the Lord!"

    I think this phrasing (potentially) makes clear what is a possible interpretation of your two phrases - the past tense. It seems here that the author is saying that at the point of writing (but not commenting on any future point), God has not dealt with other nations like he has dealt with Israel (which I think that both Jews and Christians would agree to). While is it possible that the text means "never has and never will", I do not believe that is at all clear from the text. So just as you want to say textually, this part of Scripture doesn't say "Church", I also don't think that textually, "it says, that Yahweh speaks only to Israel and to nobody else."

    Obviously, I have only dealt with your specific example, and not with your larger point, which I take to be that if Jesus is God revealed in Scripture, then one and only one possibly interpretation is possible, and if he wasn't, then Christians have committed a theft of the texts.

    Obviously, at some level, I do think that this is a point of faith , albeit one backed up by text. See e.g., John 1:43-45, John 5:39, Luke 24:25-27, Acts 3:18, 1 Pet 1:10-12, Rom 1:1-3, Rom 16:25-27). These texts form the sticking point between Jews and Christians.

    It is interesting to note that some of these texts imply that the Prophets wrote their texts, not only about current conditions (ie Israel as Israel), but also about the future (ie Christ). If this is true, than Christians actually follow the original intent of the authors.

    Your last paragraph, I think, contains three different parts. First and in no particular order, you return to this idea of "ownership" of the psalms. To me, the psalms belong to at least four distinct groups: Jews, Christians, Muslims and B'Hai. I am not sure why they can't belong equally and in different ways for all four. The idea of using the texts as ours, based on our assumptions and interpretations, and used for our purposes does not necessarily have to cast a normative statement on their use by other groups. In other words, for you particularly, your interpretation matters, but that does not necessarily translate to a statement upon the validity of another group's interpretation for themselves.

    As a side note, I do not understand what it means for a religion to be "authentic." I have never gotten that term in pretty much any context.

    Third, you ask, what if the New Testament is a lie? But what if the Old Testament is a lie as well and the Gita is the actual truth? Or what if they are all (useful) lies constructed to control societies? In those cases, I would say that if you feel compelled to believe the Gita or nothing, then you probably are then Hindu or atheist.

    I do not see why this makes me worse than the pagans though. I did not abandon the faith of my ancestors as I am (in some ways) the Christian of my parents. While obviously someone in my ancestry changed I do not see how their choice, (hopefully) freely made, informed and rational, impinges me. If anything, it simply puts me back on the same plane as the pagans, which is the plane of believing in a lie.

    And if I believe a lie, then I am no worse off. But I do believe that ultimately (perhaps after a lengthy term in hell), every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess. (Rom. 14:11). And those that confess Jesus as Lord shall be saved.

  3. If you are puzzled by this quandary, you're in good company. So was the Apostle Paul (in Romans 9-11). He ends on a note of mystery, asserts that "All Israel will be saved," and does not let go of the fact that Jesus is the Messiah. It's a good example I think.

    I consider the purely literary interpretation the least effective option, and the academic world suffers for trying to extract one to avoiding these larger questions. As George Steiner said in a review of The Literary Guide to the Bible:

    "The separation between a theological-religious experience of Biblical texts and a literary one is radically factitious. It cannot work. That is to say that the plain question of divine inspiration... must be faced squarely. The author of Job.. was not producing 'literature.' Nor were those who bore witness to the 'darkness upon the earth' the evening of Good Friday. A literary elucidation of such texts is legitimate and can be helpful, but only... if it tells us that that which it omits is the essential."

    (quoted in Theological Exegesis: Essays in Honor of Brevard Childs, p. 16 - a helpful resourse.)

  4. Badger, very good comparative examples! And, millinerd, I entirely agree. A purely literary interpretation is not the answer. Christian, this is the problem that I see with arguing that the psalms "belong equally and in different ways [to] all four": on what grounds? If the psalms are scripture and, therefore, by definition divinely inspired, they demand a normative claim. Christ cannot be both the Messiah promised in the scriptures and not, like Schroedinger's cat. As soon as we make an interpretation, we open the box. Your rereading of vv. 19-20 proves this: either "Israel" says "Church" or it doesn't, however much we may argue tenses or translations. Which, by the by, in itself, begs the question of whether we can read the scriptures in any language other than the original, taking us back to Badger's observation on cultural appropriation. Translation, by definition, *is* cultural appropriation in arguably its most potent form.

    "If this is true, then Christians actually follow the original intent of the authors": yes, of course, but this is the whole problem. Jews and Christians disagree about what that intent was.

    As an aside, nobody in hell will ever bow the knee to God: that is what hell is, obdurate refusal to worship, making it its own punishment.


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