Major Book Reviews -- the Psalms through Three Thousand Years: Prayerbook of a Cloud of Witnesses by William L. Holladay

By Mays, James Luther | Interpretation, July 1994 | Go to article overview

Major Book Reviews -- the Psalms through Three Thousand Years: Prayerbook of a Cloud of Witnesses by William L. Holladay


Mays, James Luther, Interpretation


The Psalms Through three Thousand Years: Prayerbook of a Cloud of Witnesses, by William L. Holladay. Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1993. 395 pp. $35.95. ISBN 0-8006-2752-0.

The subject of this book is vast and various. The time covered is three millennia. The topic is the origin of psalms and Psalter, their use in the life and liturgies of Judaism and Christianity, and the problems and possibilities in this contemporary appropriation. Such a project is intimidating to contemplate. It spans a cluster of fields that belong to specialists and involves material that is daunting in its complexity.

Precisely because this is so, the book is needed. Those who use and interpret the psalms in contemporary religious communities need an introduction to the whole story of psalmody that will inform and orient their work. Introductions and commentaries that deal with the psalms in the context of Israel's history alone are not sufficient for the task. What has happened in the use of psalms in Judaism and Christianity prepares and informs the assumptions with which we use them as our praise and prayer today. Holladay's book is a telling of "the whole story" of psalmody. It is necessarily selective and admittedly personal, but it does provide an overview and perspective that is not elsewhere available.

The book has three parts. The first covers the origin of the individual psalms and the formation of the Book of Psalms. Four of five chapters are devoted to dating seventy of the one hundred fifty psalms in eras of Israel's history. The approach is historical-critical. The dominant interest is in locating a psalm in a particular period. Form-critical concerns play a minor role. Readers familiar with Holladay's work will know that he is characteristically sanguine about the competence of certain kinds of evidence and reasoning to reach plausible conclusions about the historical setting of biblical material. Clearly he thinks that the best way to tell the story of the psalms is to fit individual psalms into parts of Israel's story. Psalm 19 is pre-Davidic because it has an Egyptian parallel. Psalm 2 is Davidic because it contains connections with II Samuel 7. Psalms that contain the negative particle bal are from the north and, thus, are preexilic. So, too, is Psalm 133, because it mentions Mount Hermon. Connections between Psalm 1 and the Book of Jeremiah indicate that the psalm is preexilic, and so on. One has to wonder whether the nonspecialist, for whom the book is written, can follow and evaluate all this discussion about the dates of particular psalms. The reviewer finds it the least satisfactory part of the book. Holladay admits that it is all uncertain. Surely there is a better way to tell the story of the psalms and the Psalter to nonspecialists.

The second part of the book follows the story of the Psalms from the time of the Psalter's formation to the present.

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