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Recent Trends in Psalms Study

February 22, 2008
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 The most remarkable features of Psalms studies since 1970 are (1) the paradigm shift in interpreting the Psalter, which is now read more and more as a unified collection, (2) the paradigm shift in interpreting Hebrew poetry, which is now read more and more syntactically, (3) and the exponential growth in the number of different approaches to individual psalms and psalm types. Each of these has its great advantages, which have been touched upon above.

Each has potential pitfalls, as well. In the first area, the greatest dangers are those of subjectivity and over-generalization. This approach must develop proper methodological controls and also be able to articulate the results of its investigations with clarity and with sufficient specificity as to be meaningful. Research in this area must proceed along at least four fronts. (1) Macrostructures: Most of the research to date is devoted to this level, and it needs to continue. However, it alone cannot answer the questions definitively. (2) Microstructures: More attention needs to be devoted to the intricate networks of lexical and other connections between and among individual psalms and psalm groupings, including the redactional dynamics where preexisting collections begin and end. (3) Semantic Fields: The semantic-field approach employed by Jerome Creach promises to yield useful results and should be employed with various key lexemes. (4) Parallels: Further research on other Biblical collections (e.g., Proverbs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, the Twelve), as well as extra-Biblical ones (e.g., Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Qumran) should offer further insights and controls.

In the area of Hebrew poetry, the attention to syntax must be wedded to semantics and poetics in the pursuit of meaning, as we have argued above. Attention to syntax, by itself, will yield an understanding of the workings of Hebrew poetry, but it cannot yield a complete picture of the meaning of poetic lines, let alone entire poems.

In the area of different approaches, the danger is that over-compartmentalization of the discipline of Psalms study will result in few or no checks and balances on interpretive approaches. This is true of Biblical studies at large: increasing specialization in every discipline can lead to scholars of one viewpoint talking with others who agree with them and no one else, and the salutary effects of critical review is sometimes missing. The exponential growth in approaches to the study of the psalms reflects the post-modern times in which we live at the end of the twentieth century: any and all approaches to a text – and any and all conclusions about a text – are deemed to be equally valid. However, the search for authorial meaning and intent, despite the difficulties associating with recovering these, should not be abandoned in the ever-expanding embrace of new approaches, and each should be subjected to critical review, not only in terms of conclusions reached but also in terms of the validity and usefulness of the approaches themselves.

Psalms studies are vibrant and flourishing in 1999, compared to their status in the academy a century ago. They have taken their place in the mainstream of Biblical studies, and have grown exponentially. For the most part, they have reflected the larger trends visible elsewhere in Biblical studies since 1970. And, at the turn of the millennium, when many people are looking for eschatological signs, the message of eschatological hope in the Psalter is as fresh and as relevant ever.

Full text can be found here: “Recent Trends in Psalms Study” by David M. Howard

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