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A messianic reading of the Psalter?

April 1, 2009

Over on Phil’s blog John Anderson made the following comments:

Re: messianic reading of the Psalter. I can’t see it for two reasons: 1) I just don’t see it in the text; 2) Perhaps this is an unfair prejudice, but when I hear messianic interpretation of the Psalms, I hear Jesus in the Psalms, and I struggle very much to see that; 3) the messianic concept in Judaism is by no means clear or monolithic, so set against that backdrop, there are potential difficulties.

Before I begin to offer my thoughts I felt it best to open with the following observation of Joseph Ratzinger:

a. There is an Old Testament theology of the Old Testament, which the historian ascertains within the Old Testament and which has of course already developed a number of overlapping layers even there, in which old texts are reread and reinterpreted in the light of new events. The phenomenon of texts growing and developing in new situations, of revelation developing through a new interpretation of the old, quite substantially shapes the inner structure of the Old Testament itself.

b. There is a New Testament theology of the Old Testament, which does not coincide with the Old Testament’s own inner theology of the Old Testament, though it is certainly linked to it in the unity of the analogia fidei. We could perhaps on this basis even say in a new way what the analogia fidei between the testaments means. As we said, the New Testament theology of the Old Testament is not in fact identical with the Old Testament’s own inner theology of the Old Testament, as it can be historically discerned; rather, it is a new interpretation, in the light of the Christ-event, which is not produced by mere historical reflection on the Old Testament alone. By effecting such a change in interpretation, it is not however doing anything completely foreign to the nature of the Old Testament, approaching it only from the outside; rather, it is continuing the inner structure of the Old Testament, which itself lives and grows through such reinterpretations.[*]

I believe that this will help any answer by providing a basic method to approach our reading of the Psalter. The original meaning of the Psalms are certainly not messianic but are interpreted as such by the post-exilic Israelite community and then reinterpreted by the Jesus community in the light of the “Christ-event”.

*Ratzinger, J. (2005) God’s Word: Scripture, Tradition, Office. Ignatius Press. pp. 60-61

17 Comments leave one →
  1. April 1, 2009 2:59 pm


    I think I need to clarify myself a bit here (the response was hurried; that’s what happens when we are in the middle of putting my son to bed, watching Blue’s Clues, and then my wife [and I as well] are itching to watch American Idol).

    To be sure, my response is largely idiosyncratic. And much of this discussion, I feel, revolves around one’s hermeneutical trajectory. As a Hebrew Bible scholar, I see it much more my task to understand the literature of the Bible within its original context (inasmuch as that is possible), and to recognize its import and meaning still today (while attending to the recognition that Judaism is still a vibrant and authentic community of faith that holds these texts very dear). This trajectory begins in the NT and looks backwards. This, I believe, is what you try to outline with Ratzinger’s comments. One of my teachers at Duke, Richard Hays, has done much work in the “echoes” of the OT in the NT. I think there is much merit to what you point out. Meanings of texts change, adapt, and grow over time . . . no doubt . . . but I would still be reticent to say that a given interpretation always trumps or replaces another. To say that the emergent Christian movement interpreted the Psalter (or particular psalms) messianically is no doubt a true statement (indeed, they did the same with Isa 52:13-53:12, among countless other OT texts). I am on board with that as a legitimate way of reading. I am not, however, on board with saying that interpretation trumps all others.

    The other trajectory is from the OT to the NT, seeing the OT’s original message as concerned wholly with pointing to Jesus. I have tremendous difficulty with this line of interpretation. This is not to imply any denigration or jettisoning of Jesus—as Paul would say, mn genoito–but it does attempt to maintain the original concerns of the various OT books.

    The other issue I address is the presence of Judaisms (plural) during this time. Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Sicarii, Jewish-Christians, Christian-Jews, etc. etc. all had quite different views of things from within Judaism. For instance, the Sadducees appear not to have believed in a resurrection, whereas the Pharisees did. I am taking many of my queues here from the work of Gabrielle Boccacini (he labels this period “Middle Judaism”), Daniel Boyarin, and Alan Segal (see his Rebekah’s Children). The basic point is twofold: 1) Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism claim a twin birth from Israelite religion. They are siblings; they do not have a parent-child relationship. The decisive break between Judaism and Christianity does not come until much later. 2) Judaism of the time is far more complex and diverse; it is in no way a monolithic entity.

    That said, on the issue of messiah, at Qumran there are arguably two messiahs–a Davidic and a Priestly one. The Christian community saw Jesus as messiah. Jewish-Christianity (and Judaism to this day) continue to wait for the returning Elijah to signal the messianic era. The concept of a messiah is perhaps equally as diverse as the Judaisms of its time.

    Suggested reading:
    Shaye Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah
    Alan Segal, Rebekah’s Children
    Daniel Boyarin, Dying for God
    Sigmund Mowinckel, He that Cometh—for you Mowinckelians out there, a volume of his on the messiah concept.

    I hope that clarifies things some (but somehow, I suspect it has not).

  2. April 1, 2009 4:17 pm


    Thanks for the clarification, I think I agree with you (see here and here).

    He that Cometh is a cracker!

  3. Rob Kashow permalink
    April 19, 2009 7:20 am


    New to the blogosphere, just up and coming. I appreciated your tackling of this issue in a canonical fashion. I look forward to reading more in the future.

    Rob Kashow

  4. May 2, 2009 8:39 am

    Thanks for the encouragement Rob.

  5. May 9, 2009 5:21 pm

    Wow, one of the top posts. Dealing with my ‘heresy’! ha!

    And while I am appreciative of Childs for very much, I must admit I have become a bit more agnostic about the canonical method as having ultimate, final say. Reinterpreting is no doubt an important part of the development of various traditions, the canon, etc. . . but I am beginning to think that such a method ultimately feeds solely into Christological/messianic/NT interps of OT material, to the detriment of the OT itself.

    Or maybe I’m just in a surly mood!

  6. Rob Kashow permalink
    May 23, 2009 12:32 am


    1) How do you handle the Psalms of David that are obvious not David?

    2) How do you handle the removal of the anointed one in Ps 89 and the absence of the anointed one in Pss 90-100 (where YHWH is King), only to have the Davidic King return in 101?

    3)How do you hand the phrase, εισ το τελοσ (excuse the lack of final sigma, I need to download more Greek fonts) that superscript many of the Psalms? Currently I am the research assistant for Chris Seitz and he told me a story of a time he worked at Yale (once upon a time) with Hays and Hays commented that he thought this was a hint at the Qumran’s messianic reading of the Psalter (Seitz and Childs noted to Hays that this had already been observed by Aquinas and Calvin).

    These all are some serious issues for you not seeing any Messianic trajectories in the Psalter. Even for the Jewish tradition who do not believe in Jesus as Messiah read these Psalms as speaking of a future anointed one. Of course, you probably have thought through these issues, so I’d be interested in hearing your answer to some of these questions.

  7. May 25, 2009 11:47 am

    Hey Rob . . .

    A few brief responses (it’s 6:30 AM, and I still haven’t woken up yet).

    I should clarify. I am not meaning to say contemporary Jewish messianic readings of the Psalter are incorrect or ill-informed. What I am saying, though, is that in the final shaping of the Psalter (in a given historical context where it began to achieve its final form–which I take to be post-exile, perhaps even Persian era. To be sure, the Qumran stuff confuses this a bit, but it is also not unfeasible, given other evidence of Qumran’s use of ‘Scripture,’ to see them having a different collection. I still struggle with this every now and then. See one of the first posts on my blog (click my name) for a discussion on dating the final form of the Psalter–I think it is the methodology post). In that context, I do not think the hope being shaped by the Psalter was a messianic one.

    That said, whether the Psalms are or are not Davidic is of no real consequence. They have been shaped that way by the authors/compilers of the text, and presumably they carry great import then. I am above all a final form reader and interpreter, but not in the way Seitz is (for instance, his work on Isaiah).

    Regarding the anointed one, I think you hit the nail precisely on the head–YHWH is King, not the Davidic king. That is precisely what the Psalter is seeking to communicate. I find, however, Gerald Wilson’s work on this topic (see his The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter or his “Shaping the Psalter . . . ” in McCann edited The Shape and Shaping of the Psalter, 1993). The movement in Book IV is a retroactive glance BACK (see the unique mentions in the Psalter of Moses, Abraham, Jacob, etc.). I argued a similar point in my SBL paper in Boston in the Book of Psalms section in 2008, with a new nuance for understanding Book IV, especially its ending. Wilson, and deClaisse-Walfrod as well, see the return of the Davidic king (more sporadically and less often, though), in Pss 101ff. as present to be sure, but also as evidencing a change in the Davidic character. Now it is David who calls upon and leads the people to praise YHWH (which they see especially in the closing paeon of praise 145-150). I have argued in my SBL paper (which I hope to submit for publication when time permits) that a shift occurs in Book IV when compared with Book III where titles previously ascribed to David (servant, chosen) are applied instead to the patriarchs (and Moses). Thus there is a movement to the past.

    I am assuming your question three involves the LXX. Again, I am speaking here about the final shaping of the Psalter in a given, plausible context.


  8. May 25, 2009 6:30 pm

    John, I think I would have to see your paper to see more where you are coming from. Would you mind sending it to me? RobKashow [at] gmail [dot] com

  9. May 25, 2009 8:10 pm

    Rob, I’ve edited your email so you don’t get spam. Have you read Mitchell’s work on the eschatological programme in the Psalter?

  10. May 27, 2009 12:31 am

    Thanks Richard, I didn’t think of that.

    I’m yet to read this work, but it keeps popping up. This is the title put out by Sheffield, right? Do you recommend?

  11. May 27, 2009 12:32 am

    BTW, I finally figured out how to hyperlink my name to my blog, it was in the profile options.

  12. May 27, 2009 7:54 am

    Rob, Yep that’s the one, it’s excellent.

  13. May 27, 2009 2:37 pm


    I would recommend reading Mitchell alongside Gerald Wilson’s seminal The Editing of the Hebrew Psalter. You will get two different takes on Books IV and V; see which you find most convincing. For me, Wilson wins.

    BTW, thanks for reading my article. Thoughts?

  14. May 27, 2009 7:54 pm

    John, have you read Wilson’s later articles in which he modified his view from his original statement in Editing?

  15. May 28, 2009 3:00 am


    I have read some of Wilson’s later stuff, but I am curious how you see him as revising his position. Not to disagree, just curious your take on things. And what pieces of his you are referring to.

    Editing was published in 1985. In 1993 he had an essay entitled something like “Shaping the Psalter” in the McCann edited Shape and Shaping of the Psalter, where I would argue he does not move away from his earlier work at all but rather refines it, arguing for purposeful shaping into five books by the placement of royal psalms at the seams in Books I-III, and for a series of interlocking frames that connect the the various collections and books together, as well as the entire Psalter being united through a wisdom frame. I know he also has written a separate piece on wisdom psalms at the seams, and that McCann has argued to carry Wilson’s theses forward, looking at the opening psalms in Books I-III as also already demonstrating the problem of exile and difficulty with the Davidic monarchy.

    Not to disagree (and I am open to being proven wrong), but what I have read of Wilson (and much of subsequent Psalms scholarship) has been a refinement of his earlier theses and not abandonment of them.

  16. May 31, 2009 1:15 pm

    John, apologies for the delay in responding. I am referring to Wilson’s “King, Messiah, and the Reign of God: Revisiting the Royal Psalms and the Shape of the Psalter” in The Book of Psalms edited by Flint and Miller and his “The Structure of the Psalter” in Interpreting the Psalms: Issues and Approaches edited by Firth and Johnston. He has not abandoned his earlier formulation but he has refined it to allow for a larger role for David in the Psalter’s shape which is a subtle move away from his earlier work though by no-means a substantive U-turn.

  17. June 12, 2010 1:45 am

    Psalm 22 clearly depicts…a sceen of rejection to the point of crucifixion..and Yeshua quoted from it on the cross.

    Shalom to the true Jewish…not to the deceivers

    it is time to speak up…how can anyone possibly believe that Yeshua/Jesus is the Messiah? my own mother told me Jesus is a liar, other times she says he never existed….
    …i have searched…and i know the truth;
    Messianic…to believe the 1 Messiah makes one spiritually Jewish
    By david7israel
    shalom and thanks friend/s the undying question…who is a true Jew, atheist’s born Jewish are declared Jews…but there is only one that is considered definately not Jewish…Isaiah 53 says that one will come who will be despised and rejected…will we reject the one that accepts this one?

    the last post was on Islam…please check it out if your interested

    the question do we know..who is the 1 Messiah? the temple is destroyed…Moses said there is no forgiveness/atonement from sin without the shedding of blood” Leviticus 17:11th verse

    Isaiah said one would come be rejected and lay down his life as a lamb for our sins, and would later be exaulted isaiah 52 last paragraph and chapter 53

    we can make excuses not to believe Moses and Isaiah..but then truely we are no longer spiritually Jewish

    or we can know we were not lied to …and that before the temple was destroyed..the blood atonement had been fulfilled…and the new religions developed that reject Moses command calling it archaic or whatever, and Isaiah’s promise…are truely not Jewish no matter what they call themselves…and even demand that those that believe Moses and Isaiah (including Messianic Jews) are no longer Jewish.

    This entry was posted on June 12, 2010 at 12:05 am and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. Edit this entry.

    One Response to “Messianic…to believe the 1 Messiah makes one spiritually Jewish”
    david7israel Says:

    June 12, 2010 at 12:05 am | Reply edit

    Shalom, Yes, I happen to be a Jew, born and became Bar Mitzvah too. That was when I was given a copy of our Jewish Scriptures, and they led me to the truth, both from the Hebrew and the English too.
    that mention Channukah- an ancient story but a modern battle

    1. I speak to this and to another who writes from South Africa and is determined to stop ‘Messianic Jews’ and the very concept of them.

    2.It is time to stand up for truth, thanks. Why take the closest thing we have had to a prophet with a message from God, or a Jewish Priest in the last 2000 years…the legend of the burning oil, in all these years and tag it to Christianity?

    Interesting from another, the one I consider a dear teacher from South Africa.
    I have been through many turns, ups and downs as of late and may well die this week Thursday. I wish to hear from you with some little help.
    I have been out of touch with you for over a year. And your zeal fascinates me. Like Rabbi Saul who became the Christians leading writer as renamed Paul, spoken of in the goyim’s book of Acts, who killed and helped kill the ‘messianic Jews’ not like you who says Christians are fine to believe in their Messiah, as long as they dont claim to still be Jewish if came from Jewish decent.
    How does a Jew become not born to a Jewish mother?
    How does a Jew that believes Rabbi Schneerson was the Messiah become a non Jew for believing wrongly? Rabbi Schneerson was not born in Bethlehem from eternity Micah 5 verses 1 and 2.
    He was not born a son given, almighty God, wonderful in counsel (yet he was a great counselor), the prince of peace. Isaiah 9 verses 5 & 6.
    He was not the one that was to be exaulted after he first was marred more than any man, and would shut the mouths of kings and be rejected by his own people and die as a lamb for their sins. Isaiah 52 last paragraph and chapter 53(although he was very favored as he sent out his followers to get other Jewish to leave their beliefs and their parents food as not kosher enough so they would refuse to eat with them even a passover seder).
    He didnt claim to be a prophet or a priest…Why take the closest thing we have had to a prophet with a message from God, or a Jewish Priest with our blood atonement sacrifice Leviticus 17 verse 11 as stated “For it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul.” in the last 2000 and disregard all this for something from the lost temple, meaning Hashem failed or we as many rabbis declare, our sins had the temple destroyed.
    Jonah our cherished prophet, was called to be a bringer of truth to the gentiles. Was he wrong to do this?
    We may disagree, because the Messiah is my best friend, you pride yourself in honesty and to print even that which you disagree with as long as they dont have web reference to ‘missionaries’ regardless of their references and statements.
    In highest regards, David

    Comment by David Alan Ben Israel | February 23, 2010 | Reply

    3.I am sorry about your divorce from your wife, and sorry that i did leave out the reference under Rabbi Schneerson..the one to be exalted …Isaiah 52 the last paragraph and chapter 53. (put in in this article)
    I wish you every happiness and for me pray
    please and send what you may
    thanks again David fromt he USA.

    p.s. How will we know our Messiah? the only footnote in my Jewish Scriptures from the Harkavay Edition is under Zechariah 12 verses 9 & 10 “When we shall see him whom we have pierced, we will mourn as a mother mourns for her only lost child.”
    the footnote amazingly states, this is talking about Israel….how can Israel have pierced Israel and mourn for Israel when they see Israel, like a mother mourns for her only lost son?

    dont ever be a gentile…be a true Jew…thanks David

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