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The Septuagint Psalm Superscriptions (Part 1)

1st July 2005

I have been meaning to blog on some of my research on the Psalm superscriptions since I presented a paper at the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies annual meeting earlier this spring (see my summaries of the conference here, here, and here).

This will be the first of five posts on the Septuagint Psalm superscriptions that I will do over the next little while.

Superscripts in the Hebrew Masoretic Tradition

In the Hebrew Masoretic (MT) Psalter, 117 out of 150 psalms are preceded by a superscription, containing four possible types of information:

  1. Personal names (most often with the preposition ‏לְ ). Seventy three psalms contain David; other have Asaph (Pss 50; 73; 83); the sons of Korah (Pss 42; 44-49; 84-85; 87-88); Solomon (Pss 72; 127); Ethan (Ps 89), Heman (Ps 88), Moses (Ps 90), and possibly Jeduthun (Pss 39; 62; 77).
  2. “Genre” classifications (not form-critical genres), including non-technical (e.g., ‏ מִזְמוֹר “psalm” and ‏ שִׁ֥יר “song”; etc.) and technical terms (e.g.,‏ מִכְתָּ֥ם miktam, ‏מַשְׂכִּ֥יל maskil).
  3. Liturgical directions, including the phrase ‏לַמְנַצֵּ֥חַ “to the leader” (NRSV; “for the director of music,” NIV); and other obscure terms denoting melodies, musical instruments, and/or cultic procedures.
  4. Situational ascriptions relating individual psalms to David’s life (Pss 3; 7; 18; 34; 51; 52; 54; 56; 57; 59; 60; 63; 142).

The superscriptions are most likely not original to the psalms, but were added piecemeal before the compilation of the book. Some suggest the liturgical instructions may have been originally subscripts (cf. Hab 3:1, 19). The personal names in the superscripts reflect an old tradition and some of them may even denote actual authorship or perhaps more likely patronage (however, as we will see in my next installment, their first interpreters, i.e., the Greek translators of the Hebrew Psalter, did not understand the personal names as indicating authorship). David’s multiple associations with the origin of psalmody in Israel is very likely ancient (2 Sam 22:1-51; 1 Chron 16:7-43); though it also grew with time (the cross-references to David’s life in some superscripts are likely midrashic comments based upon this growing tradition). The primary significance for the superscripts is the light they shed on the composition and use of the book of Psalms in ancient Israel.

Superscripts in the Greek Septuagint

When one compares the superscripts of the MT and the Septuagint (LXX) one soon discovers a bewildering variety of differences, both qualitative and quantitative. By quantitative I mean actual differences in the superscripts — whether expansions, additions, or deletions — and by qualitative I mean differences in meaning in the translation. What I want to concentrate on are the quantitative differences. That is, the deletions, expansions, and additions found in the LXX superscripts. And the primary question that I want to pursue is what is the nature of the differences. That is, do they reflect a different Hebrew Vorlage [original] or are they inner-Greek developments? But before we move on to this discussion, I want to make two general observations on the character of the superscripts in the LXX.

One of the first things that you observe when examining the superscripts is that it is apparent that the translator had some difficulties with them. Frankly put, he just didn’t know what he was translating some of the time! His method of dealing with the terms he didn’t recognize varied. At times he relied on etymological renderings. So for instance, the translation of [probably a type of song in Hebrew] in 13 superscriptions is consistently rendered as συνέσεως “understanding” or “be prudent.” This equivalency is based on relating the Hebrew to the verbal root σύνεσις, “understand.” Other times, the translator employed (partial) transcriptions such as the rendering of ‏עַֽל־מָחֲלַ֗ת ; (“according to Mahalath” in NRSV) in Pss 53 and 88 are rendered ὑπὲρ μαελεθ. Other times the translator employed educated guesswork, such as the regular translation of ‏מְנַצֵּ֥חַ (“leader” NRSV or “director” BDB) as τὸ τέλος some 55 times in the Psalter. Here the translator evidently related the Heb to the nominal נֵצַח “eminence, enduring, everlastingness, perpetuity” (BDB). Despite the uncertainty that the translator had with his Vorlage, once he decided on an equivalence, he stuck with it. The titles (and to a lesser extent the translation as a whole) are a good example of a very formal — even stilted — translation. For instance, ‏לַמְנַצֵּ֥חַ— always gives rise to εἰς τὸ τέλος‚ “to the end,” ל+personal object is rendered as an articular dative (with the sole exception of לשלמה in Ps 72(71) which features Εἰς Σαλωμων instead), and על + object produces ὑπὲÏ? + genitive.

Second, once you dig a bit deeper into the superscripts, you notice that there is significantly more textual instability surrounding them compared with the rest of the translation. From a text-critical point of view, most of the quantitative differences in the superscripts are contested. More precisely, of the 24 expansions found in the LXX, 19 are contested and only 5 are uncontested; while the additions fair better with 10 uncontested and only three contested. Of course, just because an addition is not contested textually does not mean that it should be considered OG. The LXX is replete with examples of clearly secondary readings that have full textual support (The most famous is Psalm 14(13):3, which includes the text of Romans 3:13-18. This clearly was triggered by the fact that Paul quotes a chain of OT texts beginning with Ps 14(13):3 and them moving without comment to Ps 5.10, 139.4, 9,28; Isa 59:7, 8; Ps 35.2). What this does suggest is that the superscripts were treated with a bit more flexibility. This is likely because they were not considered as having the same authority as the text of the psalms themselves, but instead reflected an ongoing exegetical and liturgical (re)readings of the psalms. This conclusion is borne out by my analysis of the quantitative differences in the titles (that we’ll get to shortly), but also by later scribal practices that made a distinction between the superscripts and the body of the psalm.

My next blog on this topic will look at the additions and expansions including personal names in the Septuagint Psalter — at which point we’ll take a look particularly at the notion of authorship.

2 Responses to “The Septuagint Psalm Superscriptions (Part 1)”

  1. Codex Blogspot » Blog Archive » The LXX Psalm Superscriptions (Part 3) Liturgical Notices and the Psalms for the Days of the Week Says:

    [...] This is the third of a series of entries on the superscriptions in the Greek Psalter. Previous entries include “The Septuagint Psalm Superscriptions (Part 1)” and “The Septuagint Psalm Superscriptions (Part 2): Personal Names and Notions of Authorship.” [...]

  2. Codex Blogspot » Blog Archive » The LXX Psalm Superscriptions (Part 4) Situational Ascriptions Says:

    [...] This is the fourth of a series of entries on the superscriptions in the Greek Psalter. Previous entries include “The Septuagint Psalm Superscriptions (Part 1),” “The Septuagint Psalm Superscriptions (Part 2): Personal Names and Notions of Authorship,” and “The Septuagint Psalm Superscriptions (Part 3): Liturgical Notices.” [...]