- Jewish and Christian Approaches to the Psalms: Conflict and Convergence ed. by Susan Gillingham
This book brings together twenty papers presented to a conference on the Psalms at Worcestor College, Oxford in September 2010. The presenters [End Page 128] were Jewish and Christian scholars that met for three days, collaborating in a wide-ranging study of the Psalms, a part of the Bible that has bred controversy rather than collaboration for nearly the whole period of time since Judaism and Christianity went their separate ways. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls played a significant role in this new détente. Peter Flint’s lead chapter explores the discovery of Psalm scrolls at Qumran that add to those found in existing canon lists. Perhaps even more that the common interest in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the horror of the Holocaust has made this kind of camaraderie a must.
Rather than trying to describe all or even most of the elements in this book that make it of so much interest, I must make clear enthusiastically that this is not a typical proceedings of a highbrow conference. Its participants were indeed drawn from the crème de la crème of contemporary Psalm scholarship. But it is not merely a collection of scholarly papers with a common theme. Part 2, Reading the Psalter, was not as captivating to this reviewer as part 1, Jewish and Christian Responses to the Psalms, and part 3, Past Contacts and Future Perspectives.
There is in part 1 the kind of subject matter any thoughtful person that is drawn to the Psalms would delight to read. For example, the third chapter offers a conversation between the four medieval Jewish giants on whose shoulders Christian as well as Jewish biblical scholars stand. It is as though the Egyptian Saadia Gaon (882-942), Rashi (1040–1105), Ibn Ezra (1089–1164), and David Qimhi (1160–1235) sit at a table discussing how they interpret Scripture while the reader eavesdrops. In a delightful anachronism, Ibn Ezra has good things to say of the (Protestant twentieth-century) New International Version: “I am gratified that the New International Version translates the superscription [of Psalm 56] as I would: ‘To the tune of ‘A Dove on Distant Oaks.’”
Two chapters are devoted to that most problematic of psalms, Psalm 137, with its jarring conclusion, saying to Israel’s Babylonian captors, “Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” Part of Jonathan Magonet’s Jewish response to Gillingham’s Christian reflection that exhibits how medieval Christian interpreters allegorized this remark, disinfecting its venom, is to acknowledge that “the anger that arises in times of persecution or conflict also needs to find its expression before God, since for the religious mind everything must ultimately be offered to God” (87). This illustrates the point John Calvin made in his introduction to a commentary on the Book of Psalms: “It is an anatomy of all the parts of the soul.” [End Page 129]
In fact, though this is a Jewish-Christian conversation, it is not always a give and take, a polite conversation between the two partisans. Susan Gillingham, a Christian (I think–it isn’t always obvious!) describes how Psalm 137 was pondered in both Jewish and Christian traditions. Aaron Rosen describes how the Jewish artist Chagall wove together Jewish and Christian themes in church windows. John Sawyer offers a “Reception History Perspective” of the Psalms in both Jewish and Christian traditions. Indeed, he argues that this should be a whole new field of studying the Bible, recognizing its wide-ranging effects.
Part 3 offers two chapters that will surely interest those that are not aware how Ancient Near Eastern texts were known by Israel’s writers of the Psalms. In chapter 18 John Day presents six obvious parallels between Psalm 104: 20–30 and the Egyptian King Akhenaten’s “Hymn to the Sun.” He proposes that Akhenaten’s hymn became known to the Israelite that wrote this psalm during the Amarna period (14...