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  • The Book of Psalms Through the Lens of Intertextuality
  • Duane L. Christensen, (retired)
The Book of Psalms Through the Lens of Intertextuality, by Beth LaNeel Tanner. Studies in Biblical Literature 26. New York: Peter Lang, 2001. 207 pp. $54.95.

As a revision of her doctoral dissertation at Princeton Theological Seminary, this book displays the usual limitations of that genre. Though a bit trendy in nature, the book reflects a significant personal journey into the larger field of literary criticism. It is a serious attempt to move beyond the methodology of form criticism, which has dominated the study of the Psalms for some time. Tanner explores the Psalms in relation to other texts within the Bible as a whole, in the light of current discussions of intertextuality in secular literature.

Tanner anchors her study in the post-structuralist literary theory of Julia Kristeva, who focuses on the text as “a mosaic of quotations,” which absorb and transform other texts. She does not limit herself to Kristeva’s system of literary criticism, however. Rather she places Kristeva’s work within a larger context, which includes the writing of Harold Bloom, Roland Barthes, Michael Riffaterre, Jonathan Culler, and Gérard Genette. Though this methodological decision provides the occasion for the writing of the book, it brings problems of its own. Kristeva’s definition of a text as “a zone of marks and intervals whose decentered inscription puts into practice a polyvalence that cannot be reduced to a unity” (p. 6) is so abstract as to be useless in this particular study. Moreover, the concept of “bricolage” does not add much that is not already conveyed in more familiar terminology concerning themes or motifs presented as “a mix of materials” (p. 53). The Psalms are not the product of a primitive writer who lacks tools “conceptualized and procured specifically for his project,” as the term bricoleur suggests. The Psalms are carefully contrived numerical and musical compositions of a highly sophisticated nature. The appearance of what Tanner describes as “a disorganized tangle of disassociated poems” (p. 54) says more about the sorry state of affairs on the part of modern interpreters of this body of literature than it does about the literature itself.

The study consists of a discussion of the Psalms as a whole (chapter 2), which is followed by four exegetical studies: Psalm 90 (chapter 3); the Yahweh-Malak Psalms (47, 93, and 95–99) (chapter 4); Psalm 112 in relation to Proverbs 31:10–31 (chapter 5); and Psalm 88 in relation to Judges 19 (chapter 6). The last two chapters present a welcome contribution of “feminine investigation” to the study of the Psalms.

In her discussion of the Psalms as a whole, Tanner makes her case for intertextual study of the Psalms. In the first place, “the metaphorical imagery makes the text open to multiple interpretations by the reader” (p. 50). In particular, it is useful to set the poems here “side-by-side with narratives either in the Bible or in the life of the ancient or modern reader” (p. 52). As Tanner observes, the superscriptions of approximately 77 percent of the Psalms invite the reader to explore such a relationship, in spite of the fact that these comments were apparently added by the hand of a later editor. A second type of intertextuality within the biblical text is the use of the Psalms within the New [End Page 147] Testament. Here Psalm 22 provides a particularly useful example in relation to the passion narrative in the Gospel of Mark. In like manner, Psalms 8 and 110 are explored in relation to 1 Cor 15:12–34 and Eph 1:2–23. Tanner carries the discussion still further in terms of Paul’s use of Psalm 19 and the catena of quotations from the Psalms in Romans 3:10–18. Although Tanner criticizes those who “make connections in random readings of texts” in their attempts to explore the intertextual process (p. 72), she does not avoid that problem altogether in her own study of the specific psalms she has selected.

Tanner’s study of Psalm 90 is the strongest chapter in her book. Starting with a poem...

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