Saturday, July 7, 2007

Bible Book: Psalms

Summer is my only time to really focus on writing, so I'm working hard now on the follow-up book to the Latin Via Proverbs book which I published last summer. It will be a collection of sayings from the Latin Vulgate, organized grammatically, just as in the first book. Over the past two days, I've been pulling verses, or parts of verses, from the book of Psalms to include.

One of the problems I face with the Book of Psalms in Latin is that there are MULTIPLE versions of the Psalms in Latin. So, that is what I thought I would do my post on today, since it gives some insight into the nature of the Book of Psalms in the Hebrew Bible, and also to the fascinating story of the Vulgate and the Latin tradition of Bible translation.

The "psalms" are songs, intended for musical accompaniment. The name itself, "psalm," is a Greek translation from the Hebrew, meaning "song played on a stringed instrument." There is a detailed article at wikipedia about the types of songs contained in the book and their intensive use in both Jewish and Christian worship.

In the Roman Catholic tradition, the old Liturgy of the Hours - matins (vigils, nocturns), lauds, prime, terce, sext, none, vespers, and compline - provided a schedule for the recitation (the canonical hours) of psalms throughout the day.

Written originally in Hebrew, the Psalms were translated into Greek and included in the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible). Then, in the second century C.E., the Greek version of the Psalms was translated into Latin. This is the so-called "Itala" or "Old" Latin Psalter (Psalterium Vetus) translation, and it survives only in the form of quotations found in the ancient Church fathers, along with some limited manuscript evidence.

Then, in the late fourth century, Pope Damasus asked Jerome to revise the Old Latin translation of the Psalms, making corrections so that it matched the Septuagint (Greek) version more closely. This became known as the "Roman Psalter" (Psalterium Romanum) but Jerome was very unhappy with the results. He believed that the version he was revising was itself so full of errors that the project of revising it was simply misguided. Yet the Roman Psalter is still used in the Vatican, even today.

Jerome then did another version, starting from scratch, using this time the famous Hexapla edition of the Bible, created by the great scholar Origen, which gave Jerome access to multiple Greek translations of the Hebrew, along with the Hebrew text itself. This second version by Jerome is now referred to as the "Gallican Psalter," and it is included in the Vulgate Bible. You can find many beautiful medieval psalters based on this text online, such as the lovely Burnet Psalter. Here is an initial image from the Burnet Psalter showing King David, the putative author of many of the psalms, kneeling with his harp before an altar.



Finally, Jerome completed a third version of the Psalter, done directly from the Hebrew, the "Versio juxta Hebraicum," "Version according to the Hebrew" (Jerome at this point was living in Bethlehem, where he had learned Hebrew; Jerome settled in Bethlehem in the year 388 and he died there in 420). This version of the Psalms is used by scholars today as a way to understand the Hebrew text as it existed in the late fourth century, although the Latin translation itself has no official role in the liturgy of the Catholic Church and it is not part of the Vulgate Bible.

In 1945, Pope Pius XII sponsored a new translation of the Psalms, called the Novum Psalterium, the "New Psalter." Although it is based on the Hebrew, it uses a classical Latin style, rather than imitating the style of the Hebrew in the Latin. This neo-classical Latin version of the Psalms has had both its defenders and its critics, although it is increasingly less well-known since the Catholic Church issued yet another translation in 1969, the Nova Vulgata version, or "New Vulgate" version. This one follows the Hebrew text and also imitates the style of Jerome's Gallican psalter. It is this verison which is printed today in the Roman Catholic liturgy.

The Psalms are truly beautiful, in whatever language you read them. Many phrases from the King James version of the Psalms in English are among the gems of the English literary tradition.

Meanwhile, here is a random quote from the King James version of Psalms - although I've not provided chapter and verse number here, you'll find it easy to Google the words and look up the King James version online (if you are reading this post via RSS, you'll need to visit the blog in order to see the script in action):

If all goes well, I should have one or more Bible books to report on each day over the rest of the summer!

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