Psalms - Context & Authorship

Robert Alter says: "The Prose narratives of the Hebrew Bible, despite the sundry links with the surrounding literatures that scholarship has identified, are formally innovative in striking ways. Indeed, it is arguable that at least as a set of techniques and conventions, they constitute the most original literary creation of the Biblical writers. Psalms, on the other hand, ... were common in Egypt and Mesopotamia and in Syro-Canaanite literature. We know this literature chiefly through the trove of texts found at the site of Ugarit, on the Mediterranean coast of present-day Syria, dating roughly from 1400-1200 BC - several centuries earlier than the main body of Biblical writings. ... Some scholars have gone so far as to claim that a few Psalms are essentially Hebrew translations of pagan poems ... Although God is often entreated in Psalms as a compassionate god, healer of broken hearts, and sustainer of the lowly, a good many of these poems represent the deity as a warrior god on the model of the Canaanite Baal, riding through the skies with clouds as his chariot, brandishing lightning bolts as his weapons." Thus, Ywhw sometimes appears as the chief god superior to his own minor deities.

"The writing of Psalms was a persistent activity over many centuries. The Davidic authorship enshrined in Jewish and Christian tradition has no credible historical grounding. It was a regular practice in the later Biblical period to ascribe new texts to famous figures of the past."

David might have written a small number; but, says Alter: " ... some scholars even doubt David's historicity. ... Many of these poems appear to have been written at some indeterminate point during the four centuries of the First Commonwealth (approximately 996-586 BC). Many others offer evidence in their themes and language of composition in the period of the return to Zion (that is  after 457 BC) (cf Psalm 136.1). ... Qumran indicate(s) that some sort of psalm writing was still a literary activity in the last two centuries before the Christian era. ... The Septuagint ... completed during the Third Century BC already has virtually the same contents ... as the canonical Hebrew collection ...". On the other hand, some scholars date all but a handful of Psalms to the Maccabean period.

Apart from Davidic assignment, Psalms are attributed to Asaph (primarily historical), The Sons of Korah (a family of Temple singers, cf. 2 Chronicles 20:19), Solomon and even Moses.

Most were composed for use in the Temple cult although Leviticus provides no mandate for songs or liturgical texts. They are a mixture of worship and personal songs and some contain political material; they are also included by the redactor in, for example, Hannah in 1 Samuel 2. Psalm 137 is actually an anti-psalm.

Partly taken from:

Alter, Robert: The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, W.W. Norton, 2007


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