When I was a soldier in the American army in 1946, there was distributed at the chapels, I believe by the courtesy of the Gideons or the Y.M.C.A, a small edition of the Scriptures that would fit in our Ike-jacket pockets, and I took one. It was not, however, a full Bible—it was simply the New Testament and the Psalms. I knew, of course, that the rationale for this edition was a matter of economics and convenience. A full Bible that could have fitted in my pocket would need to have been printed on India paper, an impractical measure for the thousands of copies to be offered to members of the armed forces. But still, subliminally or not so subliminally, the edition suggested that the New Testament and Psalms were all that was really needed. And theologically untrained though I was at the time, the matter bothered me. Why is the Old Testament only represented by a single book?
From my vantage point today I know that 1946 was not the only year when an edition of the New Testament and Psalms appeared: only recently I received a volume containing the New Testament and Psalms in the New Revised Standard Version.1 Indeed in the eighth century, in the Balkans, a sect emerged called the “Bogomils”; they accepted only the New Testament and the Psalms, holding the rest of the Old Testament to be the work of the devil. For this belief and others the group was declared heretical by the church.2
But, in a way, the answer to my question as a soldier is obvious: the book of Psalms has held a unique place in the lives of both Christians and Jews—the Psalms have been a primary vehicle for worship. For two millennia this collection of 150 individual psalms has helped to shape the public and private worship of Jews and Christians; I am not aware of any other body of religious poetry that has been so influential for so long a period of time, and for such a variety of religious communities.
The uniqueness of the Psalms has always been recognized. Athanasius, who was a bishop in Alexandria, Egypt, in the fourth century, wrote a letter to a man named Marcellinus, who was perhaps a deacon in the church in Alexandria; Marcellinus, during an illness, had set himself to study the Bible and wanted guidance from Athanasius on the Psalms. The bishop wrote, “All Scripture of ours, my