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Asbury Bible Commentary – A. Recent Study of the Psalter
A. Recent Study of the Psalter

A. Recent Study of the Psalter

Two European scholars, Hermann Gunkel and Sigmund Mowinckel, writing mainly in the first three decades of this century, have exercised dominant influence on modern study of the Psalms. Gunkel pioneered the method of “form criticism” in the study of the Psalms, in numerous separate studies and then in a major commentary (Die Psalmen übersetzt und erklärt, published in 1926), along with a later introduction to the Psalms (Einleitung in die Psalmen, completed and published in 1933 by his student, J. Begrich, after Gunkel's death). His method has now been applied to virtually the entire Scripture. This approach to the Psalms takes its name from Gunkel's contention that it was possible to discern basic literary types in the Psalms, each having its own form (common inner structure, flow, and treasury of ideas), arising out of and shaped by its own setting in the worship/cultic life of the community. He identified five main psalm types (Gattungen) or genres: (1) hymns, (2) communal laments, (3) royal psalms, (4) individual laments, and (5) individual songs of thanksgiving, along with several minor types.

Gunkel emphasized the study of the psalms within the context of the other OT songs and particularly within the literary and cultural context of the ancient Near East, notably Egyptian and Babylonian materials. From such inquiry Gunkel concluded that virtually the entire Psalter had its traditional source in the cult, thus radically altering the traditional understanding of the settings for many psalms. The Davidic psalms of Book 1, for example, were in his judgment individual complaints originally reflecting different specific rites or situations in the cult such as incubation rites, prayers for healing, and exorcism of demons. Psalms that are traditionally taken as messianic Gunkel saw as spoken by and to the king in songs analogous to the royal hymns of Babylon and Egypt and reflecting a view of divine kingship common to those cultures. Gunkel's work in many ways was simply the culmination of earlier critical study of the psalms, but his discernment of distinctive psalm types and the anchor of these types firmly in the temple cult was programmatic for following studies, including eventually those by evangelical and Wesleyan scholars.

Sigmund Mowinckel's work, The Psalms in Israel's Worship (Nashville: Abingdon, 1967), appeared in English in the sixties but was first published in six volumes from 1921-24 as Psalmenstudien. Mowinckel extended Gunkel's early work by seeking to tie individual psalm types and the present psalms much more specifically to their cultic settings. He sought to reconstruct as fully as possible the liturgical contexts that produced the psalms and in which they were used. Mowinkel concluded that an Israelite autumn New York Festival was the major source of the psalms. Relying heavily on the Babylonian Akitu festival, he reconstructed a celebration in which Yahweh died and rose in conquest of the forces of Chaos and was enthroned, confirming his kingship and continuation of the cosmic order for another year. In his Psalms (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), Artur Weiser extended Gunkel's work much as Mowinckel had done but reconstructed an autumn covenant renewal ceremony rather than a divine enthronement festival.

While later scholars have worked under the influence of these pioneers, findings of Gunkel and Mowinckel have attracted substantial critique and refinement. The failure of the OT to mention explicitly any of the major festivals or cultic events thus reconstructed as exercising pervasive influence on the Psalter and in the life of people has been pressed by persons like Roland de Vaux (Ancient Israel, 502-6). Thus many who continue to see significant evidence of cultic influence in the Psalter refrain for lack of clear evidence from detailed reconstruction of the events. Placing the inner theological frame of reference of the OT more clearly over against the assumptions of Israel's Canaanite and larger ancient Near East setting leads others to part company with the “myth and ritual” orientation in Gunkel's and Mowinckel's work and pursued avidly by some of their successors in Psalms research. This commentary shares these critiques.

In addition, even though Gunkel's idea of the psalm types and their common forms seems obvious, once pointed out, further research has demonstrated the difficulty, if not actual inability, of establishing clearly the common literary form alleged for each major type, such as the royal psalms or the hymns. While there are many common rhetorical and structural features among the works grouped under a particular type, there is also considerable variation, stretching the forms many times beyond recognition. And the types themselves prove open to question. The “laments of the individual,” for example, turn out in many cases neither to be “laments” nor to be really tied to “individuals” standing apart from the community of Israel (e.g., Ps 130).

One reason for these difficulties is that Gunkel's literary categories derived as much from larger European literary studies as from the Bible itself. The superscriptions of the psalms themselves and other references in them together with their own subject matter should provide the most promising source material for discerning such psalm types, if they exist.

No scholar I am aware of has made more headway than Hans-Joachim Kraus at attempting thus to discern and group psalm types/genres on the basis of the text's own awareness of these matters. His work is most accessible to the English reader in the introduction and commentary of Psalms 1-59. This volume, a translation of the fifth (1978) edition of volume 1 of his German work is particularly noteworthy. In a radical departure from his stance in the first four editions of that work and in several other of his previous studies, Kraus here works from a thoroughgoing critique of Gunkel at numerous points (see esp. pp. 38-43). The following presentation of psalm types reflects at many points this work by Kraus (Psalms 1-59, 43-62), as do the resulting psalm groups expounded theologically in the commentary below. Numerous psalms are of “mixed types” (e.g., Pss 19 or 66), eluding easy categorization but still much illuminated by the attempt. Still others do not fit easily into any category known yet. These will be located in a type without extended defense, with the awareness that we still have much to learn about such matters and with the attempt to let the text speak for itself in each song, our discernment of its “type” notwithstanding.