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Childs on the growth of the Psalms Tradition

October 12, 2008
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The following is taken from B. S. Childs’ Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments pages 193-194.

One of the major modifications of Gunkel’s form critical approach which has occurred during the last decades has been the recognition of the multilayered quality of the Psalms which is no longer content to speak of a limited number of pristine forms. Whereas Gunkel was fully aware of psalms of mixed forms, he tended to regard such phenomena in a negative light as part of a process of deterioration. Increasingly the modern approach has moved in the opposite direction in seeing the change, growth, and loosening of the traditional conventions in a positive theological light as the best key to the new kerygmatic function to which each psalm has been assigned.

He goes on

One of the most widespread features in the growth of the tradition was a new eschatological interpretation of older material. Particularly ancient complaint psalms have been intertwined with material of a very different sort which renders the psalm as a whole in a different way. For example, in Ps. 102 verses 2-12 and 24-25a (ET vv. 1-11, 23-24a) show all the stereotyped features of an individual complaint psalm. However, the remaining verses 13-23, 25b-29 (ET vv. 12-22; 24b-28) focus on the future rather than the past, on ‘the generation yet to come’. Similarly Ps. 22.2-22 (ET vv. 1-21), which is a complaint psalm, has been coupled to a psalm of thanksgiving and has the effect of subordinating the sorrow of the complaint to the sure deliverance of the thanksgiving. Certain scholars (e.g. J. Becker, Israel deutet) have preferred to speak of a post-exilic redaction to explain the new eschatological dimension. However, regardless of how one explains this process of reinterpretation, the result is increasingly to give the Psalter an eschatological flavour.

I must confess that whilst I accept that “the growth of the tradition was a new eschatological interpretation of older material” I do not agree that there is any necessary reason to suppose a post-exilic redaction. I would prefer to find, as far as possible, a cultic solution.

At any rate, Childs continues,

A somewhat similar move can be discerned with the growth of the royal psalms. Much effort has been expended in trying to trace the influence of Ancient Near Eastern cultic tradition on the Hebrew Psalter (cf. Mowinckel, Widengren, Hallo), and this research has convincingly established the dependence of Israel’s psalmody upon prior ancient conventions. Especially has this been trus of the widespread Ancient Near Eastern royal ideology and the role of the king in an act of ritual enthronement. Yet it is also the case that scholars, such as Mowinckel, failed to discern adequately the great alterations which Israel effected on the common tradition. Israel continued to celebrate the righteous rule of its king long after the institution of kingship had been destroyed because the earthly king from the line of David had become a type of God’s messiah. Especially in Ps. 2 the psalm has been given an eschatological ring by emphasizing the kingship of God which God’s anointed rule merely represents. the xtravagent mythopoetic language of Pss. 45 and 72 continue to function in the Psalter because it is the rule of God which is being celebrated by means of reinterpreted imagery. The eschatological dimension emerges clearly in Pss. 89 and 132 where the promise of Nathan concerning David is actually cited.

There is much to agree with Childs on in this paragraph however, I do not agree that Mowinckel “failed to discern adequately the great alterations which Israel effected on the common tradition” especially when no evidence is cited by Childs. Moreover, it is important to recall that Mowinckel grounded the messianic and eschatoogical hope of Israel in the royal psalms. This has been picked up by F. F. Bruce who, in his article on Eschatology, mentions Mowinckel thus:

We cannot leave the Old Testament out of sight when we review recent literature on this subject; for the eschatological teaching of the New Testament is rooted in that of the Old. We must think, for example, of Sigmund Mowinckel’s great book, He That Cometh, now accessible to English readers in the excellent translation by G. W. Anderson (Blackwell, 1956). Mowinckel holds that at the annual New Year festival in Jerusalem the kingship of Yahweh was celebrated and the promises made by Yahweh to the house of David were recalled, but the contrast between the ideal embodied in these promises and the actual fortunes of the royal house became so painfully evident as time went on that the ideal was projected into the future and associated with the figure of that coming prince of the house of David who came to be known as the Messiah sagas phrase, with whose advent the expected Day of Yahweh would be inaugurated. Mowinckel has certainly identified one factor in the eschatology of the Old Testament, though not the only factor.

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