Tuesday 15 April 2008

A Study of Psalms 1-3

A Study of Psalms 1-3.

To begin, an assignment like this one, where one is to study differences between the same text in many translations, one must be careful to choose translations that will have significant differences, and which also prove insightful for both the person
studying, and the reader. In fact, this assignment is almost an attempt to create a mini commentary on the first three Psalms. Therefore in an attempt to do this task some justice, I have looked at a number of translations and commentaries, and chosen a few of each to work from. I will list them here for ease of reference in the rest of the paper.
  • Jerusalem Bible (JB)
  • New Jerusalem Bible (NJB)
  • Berkley Version (BV)
  • Tenak (Jewish) (T)
  • Revised English Version (REV)
  • Tyndale OT Commentaries, Psalms 1-72, Derek Kidner
  • Daily Bible Study Series, Psalms, George Angus Fulton Knight
  • The Psalms Volume I, W.E. Barnes
  • The Psalms, Joseph Addison Alexander
  • The Psalms, Rev. Dr. A. Cohen
From these ten sources I could easily write an exhaustive book on just the first three psalms. However, I must limit my discussion due to the limited scope of this paper. We will begin with some general discussion on the choice of my sources, then look at the surface features of both translations and commentaries. We will then examine a chart that compares some of the variations of word usage, and attempt to explain some of them. Finally, a section examining new insights and appreciation of these Psalms now that this study is complete.

The process
of choosing translations for an exercise like this was not an easy one. I wanted texts to work with that had significant variations, but that I still considered better good translations. I specifically chose the "Jerusalem" family of translations because I knew that they used "Yahweh" for God rather than the title, "The LORD", "The Lord", or "God" in most places, which makes for an easy place of variation. I also chose NJB, as well as the JB versions to see if there had been much change in the poetry section when this translation was updated into more modern language. I also chose an older translation of the Tenak (Jewish Bible) so as to have an older English language version without having to use the King James Version. Then I rounded it out with the REV and the Berkley (a lesser-known translation) to have a greater variety in sources.

For the commentaries, I chose the Tyndale which is my favorite and the series I am building, and then a variety of other ones at the Library that looked interesting.

Before we begin an actual look at the surface features of these Psalms, I have a side note that needs to be considered. These Psalms, like most of the Old Testament were written in order to be heard. These texts were written to be spoken, sung, or heard in worship. They were not originally written in to be read, but to be spoken. So though we may look at features of the texts, in their original audiences these would have been of little or no importance, if they were even there.

Surface features vary with each transl
ation, even within the "Jerusalem" Family of JB and NJB they are not identical. Some surface features are strictly editor or publisher preference such as single column text like in the JB and NJB, or the double column that we have in B, T and REV. Even the verse numbering in the JB has it on the inside of the page, while all 4 others have it on the outside of the text, as a superscript. As can be seen in Chart #2 (please see the following page), two out of the three translations of the commentaries add a "Book 1" title before the first Psalm. As can also be seen in this chart, 3 of our translations and 4 of our commentaries give titles to each of these Psalms. A unique feature of the Tenak is that it includes the subtitle/superscript "A Psalm of David while he fled…" in Verse 1 where the other 4 translations have it as a separate part of text, and the JB, NJB and REV all have it italicized. It should also be noted that the B, T and REV all have "Selah" in Psalm 3, and they have it right justified in the text, to indicate breaks or pauses. While both the JB and NJB have translated this into English as "Pause" again in Italics and at the outer edge of the page. We could keep looking at surface features, but let's move on the actual text.
I would now like to draw you attention to Chart #1. This chart is intended to draw your attention to some of the more striking differences in wording between the five translations. It should be noted that for each of the words chosen, there is overlap in more than one translation, and I think that if a greater number of versions were used, we would find it even more so. I think the most striking difference can be noted in the final line of this chart, for in 3v8 we have rescue, salvation and victory. Each derived from the same word, yet each can be read with strikingly different interpretations. Kidner believes that this change in focus is a lead into the rest of the Psalms; saying we have no victories worth having outside of God. This is a switch from the earlier "I" focus to a focus on "God's people" an outward focus. An interesting feature to notice is the consistency in translation in the individual version as can be seen in 1v1, and 2v12. In each translation is it kept consistent, it is the same word in the Hebrew in these two verses, and it appears 26 times in the Psalms. (An interesting aside: the Greek equivalent to this word is used in the 'Sermon on the Mount'.) As you pursue this chart it becomes obvious that there is some level of choice in the translation process. This leads a scholar to wonder why they chose the words that they have in each of these instances. I have included one instance where all 5 translations used the same word. In 2v8, and there are numerous synonyms in English that one could think of: inquire, request and petition … that could just as easily fit into this text. Another area where 4 out of 5 translations use different words is in 3v1. Again here, they express similar things, but they have different levels of intensity: having many foes, numerous, and countless. The last one obviously has a much heavier weight upon a person. I think that the words charted are the most unusual, and in my opinion an omission has been made with respect to the 1v5 line in chart #1. Here in the REV they just make a generic reference back "they", where in each of the other 4 translations it is obvious that they are talking about the evil doers, wicked, or ungodly. I believe a stronger word should have been used in this verse in the REV.I believe that the translator's choice in words has more to do with personal preference and their intention for how the Psalms will be used than actually just trying to reflect the original words. For if they were just trying to reflect the original words, then we would not have the need to as many versions and different translations that we have. In doing a study of Judges 19-21 last fall, I used 36 different translations in charting differences in wording and phrasing. So one could easily make this an almost endless task for any passage they chose to study deep enough.

I like what Derek Kidner said in describing the Psalms. He states, "Its structure is perhaps best compared with that of a cathedral, built and perfected over a matter of centuries, in a harmonious variety of styles, rather than a Palace displaying the formal symmetry of a single all embracing plan." (p.7) The Psalms are a collection, gathered together in antiquity itself; as such they still have an amazing power to touch peoples hearts and lives today. In the same way Kidner's comments on Psalm 1 are equally fitting "The Psalm (1) is content to develop this one theme, implying that what ever really shapes a man's thinking shapes his life." (p.48) Thus the choice that is given in Psalm 1 of the godly way, or the ungodly, will really guide all we do.

As an interesting note, in my study of commentaries on the Psalms; there are differences and divergence. As seen above, Kidner sees Psalm 1 as the introduction to the books of Psalms, and thus it's universal appeal. Yet Cohen states:
"The First and second Psalms constitute an introduction to the Psalter, announcing a theme which is one of the main motifs that run through this book of the Bible. Man falls into two categories: the godly and the ungodly." (P.1)

Thus he sees the first two Psalms echoing a similar theme as the introduction to the book of Psalms. However, we need to look at yet a third opinion to get a more rounded view of the Psalms, especially Psalm 1. Barnes in his work states: "Ps 1 has no heading, and contains no suggestion as to its author, nor as to the date at which it was composed. It has no special 'Color': though it speaks of the Law (Torah), it is not legalistic in temper. In fact it is a paean on the eternal righteousness of God." (P.1)

Thus we see this Psalm as being unknown in origin or purpose, but heralding the themes found through the rest of the Psalms, and even the rest of the Old Testament, it is really an ideal introduction into a collection of writings. These writings include Lamenting, Entreating, Praising, Thanks Giving, Royal (performing and enacting), as well as Psalms of Instruction and Meditation, almost as if it appeared just to perform this purpose, of being universal in scope and feel.

After having done this study, I have a greater appreciation for the Psalms and their power in the oral format. Each day over the past few weeks I would recite these 3 aloud from different translations and feel them. Not just a passive reading of them but an entering into prayer, praise, and worship through them, meditating and reflecting on what they say and it's implication to my life, my heart, my Church, and to the Greater Body of Christ, the church. In fact I have a greater appreciation for monastic communities who still pray the "Liturgies of the Hours". According to the Rule of Saint Benedict, there are 157 Psalms read aloud on a weekly basis. So then the entire Psalter read every week all 150 Psalms plus some seven extra by those in monastic communities. I have thus come to value the power in the Psalms as balm for our hearts and spirits and my own need to be hearing them on a far more regular basis.



Kidner, Derek.
Psalms 1-72; Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries
Dowers Grove, IVPress, 1977

Knight, G.A.F.
Psalms; The Daily Bible Study Series
Philadelphia, St. Andrews Press, 1982

Barnes, W.E.
The Psalms Volume I,
London, Methuen & Co. LTD. 1971

Cohen, M.A.
The Psalms
London, The Soncino Press, 1988

Alexnander, Joseph Addison.
The Psalms
Grand Rapids, Baker House 1987

Bible Translations

Revised English Version 1952, Canadian Bible Society
Barkley Version
Tenak 1941
Jerusalem Bible 1966, Bantum
New Jerusalem Bible 1990, DoubleDay

(First Written for RS100E Old Testament Summer 2000.)

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