Wednesday, May 31, 2006

When Psalm titles were longer ...

It might be tempting to suppose that, because MT ascribes 73 psalms to David and the LXX 84, there was a tendency to add ascriptions to David to the psalms.

I would like to speculate about a contrary tendency to remove authorship ascriptions. The particular piece of evidence I would adduce for this comes from the ‘Psalms of Ascents’.

In MT these psalms share the title שיר המעלות 'song of the ascents', except Ps. 121, which reads שיר למעלות 'song to/for the ascents', by the simple change of one letter. Further ascriptions of authorship to David (122, 124, 131, 133) have been arranged more or less symmetrically either side of the central psalm 127, which is ascribed to Solomon. On either side of Ps. 127 the tetragrammaton occurs 24 times (I think this observation goes back to Hengstenberg).

However, this careful arrangement may have been produced by removing ascriptions to authors. The unusual structure שיר למעלות in Ps. 121 is the clue. In the Qumran text 11Qpsa we have a lacuna just at the beginning of Ps. 123 followed by דויד למעלות 'David to/for the ascents'. The lacuna is most naturally filled by the word שיר 'song'. Thus the whole title would read שיר דויד למעלות 'song of David for the ascents'. The use of the preposition lamedh 'to/for' is clearly necessitated by the fact that the construct-genitive relationship cannot be used here: 'song of David of the ascents' is not possible.

Thus it seems that MT's 'song for the ascents' in the title of Ps. 121 is a structure that can best be explained by the existence of an earlier authorship ascription. Of course, it is not possible to know what name may have been there previously. As often, MT suggests a previous history, but does not allow us to identify what that history is.

This, alongside the obscurity of information within the titles, would be another argument for some antiquity to traditions of information that formed the titles.


  1. I want to say first, thanks for forming this blog to discuss these important issues. These issues are very complex, but are important for exegesis of the Word of God. So thanks again.

    Your point about the removal of ascriptions is well received, but I do have a question.

    Are you saying that due to stylistics, scribes removed ascriptions to authors? So MT Ps 121 orginally had an ascribed author. But besides the similarity to Ps 123 with the lamed construction (in DSS), what other evidence can be adduced? If the MT tradition suggests a prior text history, wouldn't we expect at least one tradition to have the ascription (either DSS or LXX at this point)? That way we could know whether there is a true variant in the MT tradition of Ps 121. But because there is no real difference in the text traditions in Ps 121 (LXX translates all titles with the genitive "song of stairs or ascents"), it seems that we would be better off seeing the MT reading of Ps 121 as reflecting the primary reading. It seems to me that we should focus on the true differences between the texts before we attempt to see the previous history of the MT. At this point I can not see the differnce so I tend to think that this text has no "pre-history."

    On the other hand, how should we think about the two missing Davidic ascriptions in LXX Ps 121 (MT 122) and 123 (MT 124)? If the tendency is for LXX to add ascriptions, how should we view places where LXX has a minus? Which text should be considered primary? It seems that LXX has a different Vorlage here, and when compared to the overall trend of the LXX to have more ascriptions, that these two minuses should be accepted as primary, and the additions as secondary, maybe for the same stylistic reason you originally put forth. Just a thought.

  2. John,
    Thanks for your encouragement. My conjecture has no inspiration or strong confirmation, though it does have limited explanatory power (explaining a lamedh in MT to Ps. 121).

    I don't see why if a tradition suggests a prior textual history that textual history must be extant in some form. However, I tend to maintain that sources, however well reconstructed, are ultimately unknowable.

    I would agree that the reading of MT in Ps. 121 is the 'primary reading'. It is 'primary' because there is no real reading that is earlier even if we do not maintain that the title in MT formed part of the psalm from the moment it was first sung.

    The purpose of my conjecture was simply to raise a question mark over the view that titles tend to grow over time.

    There are indications that material in titles could be deleted. For instance, the Syriac Psalms, though made from something similar to MT, tend to obliterate the titles in MT to replace them with their own material.

    I was very tempted to say something before about the absence of 'David' in the LXX of Pss. 121(122) and 123(124) but am glad that someone 'bit'! The absence of 'David' in the LXX titles could be explained as simple assimilation to the surrounding titles. It may not be possible to know whether this had occurred already in the LXX's Vorlage or whether it occurred during the translation or transmission of the LXX.

  3. As with many of the issues in textual criticism, all we can do is judge probability based upon evidence. Personally, I'd like to see if there is any corespondence between genre, meter, or age of the psalm and the pressence/ absence of the "ascriptions" in MT/LXX. Alas, my thesis requires that I spend time with Epiphanius rather than on such whimsical pursuits.

  4. Ah, Epiphanius! I liked reading Osburn on the text of his Apostolos.

    I'm sure something could be done to correlate dates, genres and metres of psalms, though none of these three issues is uncontroversial.

  5. PJW:
    "In MT these psalms share the title שיר המעלות 'song of the ascents', except Ps. 121, which reads שיר למעלות 'song to/for the ascents', by the simple change of one letter. "

    Not quite. Yes, the change is of a single letter, but it's not a change from "of" to "to" or "for" (which both differ in English from 'of' by one letter and a transposition). It's a change from "of the" to "of/to/for."
    In fact, the meaning can be essentially the same in either case:
    'song of the ascents' to
    'song of ascents'

    Witness the usual use of Lamed to ascribe a Psalm TO David, but translated into English it's a Psalm OF David.

  6. Thanks for your good response, but I want to follow up on two points.

    First, you said: I don't see why if a tradition suggests a prior textual history that textual history must be extant in some form. However, I tend to maintain that sources, however well reconstructed, are ultimately unknowable.

    I am not sure what you mean here. Your second sentence seems to rule out your first one altogether. I thought text criticism was in the business of collating the actual variants found in the various traditions of mss and deciding between them on the basis of probabilities. A "suggested" pre-history in the sense that you seem to be using it means a text's hypothetical history because no "real" witness to the reading that you suggest exists. DSS Ps 123 may suggest a pre-history to Ps 121, but with no other witnesses, this reconstruction, to your own admission, is conjecture. I am not against conjecture altogether, but in the case of Ps 121, there does not seem to be the need for it because the text is intelligable as it stands, even with the lamedh.
    Also, your subsequent paragraph arrives at this point as well when you say, "It is 'primary' because there is no real reading that is earlier even if we do not maintain that the title in MT formed part of the psalm from the moment it was first sung." I agree with you here, although, no evidence exists for the absence of the Psalm title. All of the mss have them, even though the traditions differ with one another on the wording.

    Again, I appreciate your overall thesis. What I am saying does not disprove it at all. I am simply trying to gain more clarity in my own mind on this issue.

    Second, your last paragraph interests me. Does "simple assimilation" explain the absence of "David" in the first two LXX Psalm titles of the Psalms of ascent? I could see this solution as being more plausible if LXX left them out altogether, but the later half of the songs includes them so assimilation to surrounding titles does not work either way, because I am saying the same thing, except I guess I am saying the assimilation moves in the opposite direction. A later tradition adds the first two in assimilation to the later two.

    Also, to my knowledge, I can see no way to explain these minuses through transmission of LXX or translation of LXX, so this explanation seems improbable to me.

    I suggest a different Vorlage for the translator at this point. Do you see a problem with this conclusion? The stylistics point that you raised in the beginning could be the cause of the inclusion of the two titles in the first place. In my thinking, the minuses of "David" in these titles seem to be the original readings which caused their eventual inclusion in the MT tradition. I cannot as easily explain their omission if they were in the text originally. Just some thoughts, but I love talking about these issues.

    Unrelated to the above, but can you think of places in LXX and MT where a variant in Ps titles will have theological significance? I can only think of Ps 95 (94), where MT lacks the ascription to David, but LXX has it, and the author to the Hebrews picks this up in 4:7. I guess I would consider this example to be significant for inerrancy, but I am not sure what you think about that.

    I am still an MDiv student in the States, but I am an aspiring OT text critic, and I hope to enter a PhD program in the Spring.

  7. Daniel,
    I agree entirely that there is no difference in meaning between שיר המעלות and שיר למעלות. My translations exaggerated the differences so that those with elementary Hebrew could follow. Although their meaning is identical these two titles allow different expansions. In particular שיר למעלות is the one that allows other words to intervene between שיר and למעלות.

    I therefore conjectured that such a construction occurred in this context because there had previously been an intervening name. I argued this on the analogy of 11Ps-a to Ps. 123.

    let me clarify, but please excuse me if some things just sound like reiteration:

    My conjecture about a pre-history to the text cannot be verified and therefore cannot be 'known' to be correct. Any prior form of the text suggest by it is therefore 'ultimately unknowable'.

    This does not stop one from concluding that as a matter of probability, judged from our position, odds on there was an earlier, lengthier, form of the title.

    I agree that the text is perfectly intelligible as it stands. My conjecture seeks merely to offer an explanation for its form, just as one might explain a Hebrew form by saying that it is North Israelite (which is to make a statement about likely pre-history).

    My suggestion that the absence of the name David in LXX Pss. 121(122) and 123(124) could be explained by assimilation stems from the view that assimilation is more likely to occur when we have a whole number of adjacent similar titles. The Psalms of Ascents, with a whole sequence of similar titles, may provide a more fertile context for assimilation than other parts of the Greek Psalter.

    I would go on to say, however, that whether the difference between MT and LXX is to be explained by translation, transmission or difference of Vorlage is a judgement of probability not a question of knowability.

    I guess that not even the tradition of MT merely ascribes to David the psalms with his name at the top. For instances, Pss. 9 and 10 are linked (by a loose abecedarian structure) and the title of 9 can therefore be thought to do duty for 10 too.

    Remember that the Leningrad codex has a different numeration of the psalms from the received Masoretic one. The Aleppo codex, however, does not enumerate the psalms in the margin. See here for pictures of Pss. 120 and 121 with their contrasting titles in the right hand column.

  8. PJW:
    "Remember that the Leningrad codex has a different numeration of the psalms from the received Masoretic one."

    Interesting--can you tell me more so I'll have something to remember?

  9. You can see the numbers just under the Arabic numerals for each psalm in the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. The numbers agree with modern numeration until Pss. 114-115. These two psalms receive a single number (114) and our 116 becomes Leningrad's 115. Numbers continue one below ours, with the result that the number of the last psalm is 149.

  10. You may want to check out my series of posts on the LXX Psalter superscriptions here. While there are some cases where the LXX omits something from the MT, I would think that the general tendency is for the addition of material in the superscriptions. This is really apparent when you look at the daughter versions of the LXX.

  11. Does this have anything to do with the odd MT practice of numbering Psalms 114 through 118 as:

  12. Oops,
    got deleted and missed PS 117 on the rewrite:

  13. No. I think that they just avoid writing the sequence 5-10 since 5 is he and 10 is yodh and together they make the word yah, which is the divine name. 6-10 (where 6 is waw) is avoided since the sequence yw is naturally read as the divine element yo found in personal names, e.g. Joshua.

  14. Tyler,
    Thanks for your excellent link and for all the information you provided on your blog. I'd highly recommend these posts to others.

    I may well be happy to concur with the conclusion that there is a general tendency to add information to titles. However, in making this generalization we should not lose sight of the possibility for the opposite tendency. People tend to assume that scribes did not omit information.

    Despite Didymus I still incline to thinking that many of the LXX superscriptions are addressing authorship.

  15. A very interesting blog, and one that I wish to submit a comment to, if I may.
    The imminent commentator, Rashi hints that the reason for the first of the series of 15 begins שיר למעלות is because this was the first step that the levites used to assend towards the rest of the other 14, hence the prefix letter "ל" menaing "to" the steps.
    Shmuel Shimshoni