The Bible in and as History: Psalms with Reflections at the Top of the Hill

Wenceslas_Hollar_-_The_PsalmsApologies for the length of time between posts.  I will be rushing to catch up on my publishing schedule and get through the multitude of books I have actually read through as we approach October and the New Testament.

After more than Six months of reading I reach Psalms, and the middle-point of the Bible(or at least the middle point of the King James Version, if one includes various ‘Apocrypha’ I’d still have a ways to go…).  So today’s post will, while highlighting a few interesting things about Psalms, also highlight ‘thoughts so far’, and perhaps a few comments about the King James Edition in particular.

Psalms is of historical interest in terms of analysis of its origins and use, less-so its content.  Essentially Psalms is a collection of lyrics to songs, most of which centre around praising god and prayer.  In this it is perhaps comparable to other works which collect songs of a religious or ceremonial nature(the lost Chinese Book of Songs springs to mind), and seems one of the more common sorts of  works preserved from antiquity.

The use of a particular Psalm is sometimes outlined by their title; be it for praise, a traditional ode to a virtue, etc.  Their lyrical usage in religious worship readily dates back to the time of their collection.  Textual analysis suggests an origin over a period of several centuries ending in the 2nd Century BCE.  It seems a majority were composed in Judea with relation to worship in the temple, though a number are obvious post-exile in origin.  The question of their editing is a bit mysterious, but may probably be ascribed to clerics during the early second temple era, in which a ‘cannon’ of sorts could be established from both traditional and recent sources in terms of liturgy and performance.

There composition thus set in BCE, their use by later Christians is also of interest.  Many of the major Christian denominations make the recital or singing of the Psalms a habitual ritual, the intent being to rotate through them over the course of a week.  In the early centuries of the Church, the capacity to recite the entirety of Psalms was considered a prerequisite to be a Bishop, a sort of assumed education.

The usage of the Psalms in this regard carried forward into the English Church which was producing the King James Bible, and thus we can view them in translation as functional.  They were intended to be sung or recited or performed in some manner habitually.  Indeed, one thing I observed was that many of the most well known lines from the Bible come from Psalms.  “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.  He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.”  is the start of Psalms 23 for example.  There infusion and reference in the New Testament, as well as into popular poetry and fiction of the last several hundred years is a testament to their application in the popular consciousness.

It is probably that for many people, Psalms formed the part of the bible they would be most personally familiar with.  It was something they would recite on a regular basis, and not something read to them by a priest.  Even as children they would get a ready instruction in the exact text of this section of the bible.  Here we see than the influence of this cultural touchstone on later art, even of a secular nature.  Plenty of references in Psalms make there was within other poetic works.

So halfway through and a few thoughts.  With Psalms, and proverbs which is to follow, I have books which are interesting in their historical context without so much their actual content.  This gives me some time to consider the work itself aside from it’s content.  I am reading the King James bible, but what exactly is it?

King James, obviously, refers to the King under whose authority the translation was undertaken, King James VI & I, so called for being the 6th James of Scotland and the First of England.  In brief;

The Famous Henry VIII had broken away from the Catholic church, both to have control over his own marriage affairs, and because, with seizure of various monastic lands and goods, it was very profitable.  This occurred in the context of the emerging Protestant reformation, in which Germanic, and other, authorities were supporting various people who were aiming to separate from or reform the church, Martin Luther being the most famous of course.  Thus it was that Henry’s son, Edward VI, was raised in a protestant tradition.  He died early, and this heralded Mary I, his Eldest Sister, to ascend the throne.  She was a die-hard catholic, and her persecutions of Protestants gave her the name ‘Bloody Mary’ among her enemies.  She died without Issue, and the political situation resulted in protestant Barons and others marshaling to put Elizabeth I on the throne.  A Period of strife continued.  Planned invasions from Spain.  Political infighting at home.  Elizabeth died without Issue as well, and her ministers were keen to assure a Protestant on the throne, thus James VI of Scotland, who fit the bill and was descendent from Henry VIII’s oldest sister, ascended the throne.

There had been translations of the Bible into English before, but they were viewed as having potential errors, both in the sense of just not being ‘the best’ and in the sense of making translation choices that were not preferred by the new church  Thus was a complicated bit of politics to result in the creation of the bible translation I am now reading.  I’ll carry on with more of it’s particular history in the next post, in which we will look into the future, and the wisdom tradition;

 

Next time: Proverbs!

 

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