The Psalms through Three Thousand Years: Prayerbook of a Cloud of Witnesses

By William L. Holladay | Go to book overview

9
The Psalms
for Jews, from the
First Century of the Common Era

As we turn from the New Testament to study the use of the Psalms by Jews from the first century of the common era until modern times, we move into a world with which too few people today are acquainted in detail. Present-day readers who are observant Jews may know parts of the story; by contrast, present-day readers reared in a Christian environment typically know almost nothing of the story. The ebb and flow of Jewish life in the last twenty centuries is far too often unknown territory; but it is a rich territory and deserves to be better known.

There is no way to offer more than a sketch of Jewish life during the extent of time in question, but we must at least touch the high spots in order to learn the place of the Psalms in that life.

Five major topics make up this chapter: (1) the fixing of the canon and text of the Jewish Scriptures at the end of the first century; (2) the dispersion of Jewish communities through the Middle Ages and into the modern period; (3) the use of the Psalms in Jewish liturgy; (4) the way that the Psalms were used in the Mishnah, Talmud, and midrashim, monuments of Jewish literature that arose in the Middle Ages from the second to the thirteenth centuries, particularly in Babylon; and (5) the debate over the nature of the Psalms and the commentaries that were written on the Psalms in Europe from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries. I close the chapter by touching more briefly on four further items: (1) Jewish translations of the Psalms into various vernaculars; (2) hymns taking their model from the Psalms; (3) the influence of the Psalms in art and music; and (4) the way the Psalms have entered into present-day Jewish secular life.

The fall of Jerusalem to the Romans in 70 C.E. was a shattering experience for Jews, fully as shattering to them as the fall of that city to the Babylonians had been in 587 B.C.E. And again, as with the catastrophe of 587 B.C.E, it was the destruction of the temple that was the focus of their tragedy. This time, however, the temple would not be rebuilt; from this time forward Jewish worship would center in the synagogue.

-134-

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