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  • Paratextuality Between Materiality, Interpretation and Translation: The Case of Psalm Incipits in Jewish Late Antiquity
  • A.J. Berkovitz (bio)

The field of Book History binds together the destiny of books and their readers. As a principle, it posits that the material reality of a text will have an impact upon the way in which readers engage with it; and that, in turn, the way readers engage with a text will shape its material representations. This interpretive schema has produced volumes of thought-provoking and persuasive academic literature.1 This article joins this tradition of discourse by exploring the complicated relationship between the opening words of compositions within the Hebrew Psalter and the late ancient Jews who read them. In particular, it examines the various interpretive frameworks that Hebrew- and Aramaic-literate Jews who lived between the years 70-650 CE in Roman Palestine and Sassanian Persia imposed upon the opening words of a psalm. These readers could understand a psalm—or verses from it—in light of its opening words. But they could also read against those words, ignore them or rewrite them. By mapping this diversity of practice, I hope to highlight the importance of considering historical readers when thinking about the dynamic relationship between material texts and those who used them. Where possible, we ought not reconstruct presumed readers solely on the basis of material remains. And further, material texts should be mapped for use with reference to multiple kinds of readers and reading practices.

Methodological Remarks

Of the poems that populate the canonical Hebrew Psalter, 116 of them begin with words that clearly differ from the poetic style that characterizes the Psalms. Modern bibles almost always segregate these opening words, or ‘titles’, from the rest of the psalm. The NRSV, among other translations of [End Page 31] the Bible, goes one step further and does not mark them with a verse number at all. These words or ‘titles’, which I will call incipits (see an example at Figure 1) throughout this article, often supply data such as the musical setting, the “author function,”2 a rhematic function,3 or circumstances under which the text that follows was composed.4 Psalm 52:1-2 seems to provide an example of an incipit with the potential for all four functions. It begins in a prosodic manner:

For the leader, a maskil5 of David, when Doeg the Edomite came to Saul and said to him, ‘David has come to the house of Ahimelech’

Only after delivering this information does the text move to poetry:

Why do you boast of your evil, brave fellow?God’s faithfulness never ceases.Your tongue devises mischief,like a sharpened razor that works treacherously

(Ps 52:3-4).6

These incipits are paratexts, material that surrounds a work—such as titles, dedications, endnotes, illustrations etc.—and attempts to shape the experience of its readers.7 As biblical scholars rightly note, many of these opening words were added to the psalm they adorn well after the poem was composed.8 Whether they are actualized and in what manner, I argue, depends on readers, their exegetical needs, and their cultural conditions.

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Figure 1.

Psalm 67:1-4 in the Aleppo Codex

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The Psalter provides a distinctive lens through which to examine the dynamic relationship between historical readers and incipits as paratexts. Like other biblical books, Psalms existed in material form from the times of the Second Temple period and onwards. The earliest extant fragment of what would eventually develop into the canonical Psalter dates to ca. 150 BCE.9 Ancient readers of the Psalter could memorize its layout while holding, reading and rolling physical scrolls. Some of these readers, additionally, left traces of their interpretive conclusions as well as the habits that underpin them in the texts that survive antiquity, texts that exist apart from the material Psalter. In other words, we need not guess based on the material form of a scroll how those in the ancient world interacted with sacred texts. They tell us. Furthermore, only the Psalter contains both small literary units— often under twenty verses long—and incipits that might govern them...


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