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

By William L. Holladay | Go to book overview

18
Psalms
for Whom?

Having explored the issue of translation of the Psalms—that is, the issue of their transfer from one language to another—I raise the question of what might be called ecclesial transfer, that is, the transfer of the Psalms from one historical community to other subsequent communities.

One can raise the question most basically: For whom have the Psalms been written? The first and easiest answer is “For their first users and hearers.” As we learned in chapters 2 through 5, those first users and hearers were the people of Israel who lived in the period extending from perhaps the eleventh to the fifth centuries B.C.E. And, as we have seen, though not all the psalms presuppose a locale at either the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem or the post-exilic temple, most of them do. But as we know, the Psalms have had a life that has extended far beyond the context of the first users and hearers, and it is the problems raised by that extended life that I address in this chapter.

For Jews, as we have seen (chapter 9), the Psalms have had an extended life beyond the existence of any temple in Jerusalem—that is, beyond 70 C.E. For Jews in the centuries thereafter, the Psalms have been vehicles for personal and communal prayer in home and synagogue. That extension of usage by Jews beyond the period of worship in the temple could be sustained without any serious distortion or strain in the texts; the references to the king and to the temple could be understood to point toward the messianic age.

But two other extensions in the use of the Psalms have indeed brought strain. The first of these is their use by Christians: from the very beginning of the existence of Christian communities, Christians have retained the Psalms as a primary vehicle for their worship, to express their own distinctive experience, with all the questions of appropriateness and adequacy that that retention has raised. The second of these, which has become acute in our own day, is the question of the degree to which the Psalms are appropriate and adequate to express the experience of women, and how that experience might be heard. It is these two extensions of usage that I explore in this chapter.

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