Psalm 151 in Anglo-Saxon England (forthcoming in RES)

My article “Psalm 151 in Anglo-Saxon England” has been accepted for publication in the Review of English Studies. This essay presents the first sustained examination of the apocryphal psalm in early England, focusing on manuscript witnesses and the two extant Old English gloss translations. Below are the abstract and introduction to the article.

The Psalms were a central aspect of Anglo-Saxon religious and biblical learning, and for this reason they have garnered much attention in recent scholarship. Yet the apocryphal, supernumerary Psalm 151 in particular would benefit from greater sustained attention. By focusing on this individual psalm, the present article situates the apocryphon within its intellectual, material, and literary contexts. In the first part of this essay, the surviving patristic and medieval evidence for learned attitudes toward the psalm in relation to the rest of the canonical Psalter are discussed, as well as the manuscript witnesses in Anglo-Saxon England. In the second part of this essay, focus is turned toward the two surviving Old English gloss translations of Psalm 151 in the Vespasian and Eadwine psalters. More specifically, it is suggested that the Vespasian gloss translation of Psalm 151 is yet another unidentified Old English poem.

In the last chapter of his Enarrationes in Psalmos, commenting on Psalm 150, Augustine discusses the number, organization, and unity of the Psalter. He writes: ‘Hunc quinquagenarium triplum habet centesimus et quinquagesimus numerus, tamquam eum multiplicauerit trinitas. Vnde et hac causa non inconuenienter intellegimus istum numerum esse psalmorum’ (‘The number 150 contains this fifty three times, as if it were multiplied by the Trinity. Therefore, and for this reason, we know that this number of the Psalms is not inappropriate’). Indeed, this understanding of the number, threefold organization, and unity of the book of Psalms continued through the medieval period. But beyond this distinct structure, there was another psalm that circulated in the late antique and medieval periods: the apocryphal Psalm 151, attributed to David and relating his youthful rise to fame as the victor against Goliath.

The apocryphal and supernumerary character of Psalm 151 did not hinder its widespread transmission, which in many ways mirrors that of the canonical Psalms. This text was presumably composed in Hebrew (though it is not included in the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible) before the second century BCE, was translated into a shorter Greek version and incorporated into the Septuagint (LXX), and was later translated into Syriac and Arabic from the Greek. The Septuagint provides the heading: ‘Οὗτος ὁ ψαλμὸς ἰδιόγραφος εἰς Δαυιδ καὶ ἔξωθεν τοῦἀριθμοῦ ὅτε ἐμονομάχησεν τῷ Γολιαδ’ (‘This psalm is written by David, and outside the number, when he fought Goliath in single combat’). In its transmission to the West, the psalm was translated from Greek in Old Latin versions of the Bible, was taken over into the Roman Psalter, and was subsequently incorporated into manuscripts of the Vulgate. Following the Septuagint, the standard heading in the Latin Vulgate (from Old Latin) reads: ‘Hic psalmus proprie scriptus David et extra numerum cum pugnavit cum Goliad’ (‘This psalm is written by David himself, and outside the number, when he fought with Goliath’). To this cluster of textual versions of Psalm 151 may be added the various medieval translations into vernacular languages, including Old English.

While numerous studies have focused on the Psalter generally, and some on individual psalms, little scholarship (and no single study) has focused on Psalm 151, which stands out as a singular case in the larger scope of Anglo-Saxon receptions of biblical materials. What is revealed through this examination is that Anglo-Saxon interactions with the apocryphal psalm are found across a range of significant learned enterprises, including material culture, commentary traditions, and vernacular translations. Presented first are the broad outlines of the reception and circulation of the psalm, highlighting its presence in the intellectual landscape. The first section examines attitudes toward Psalm 151 in commentaries, while the second section presents the material evidence of manuscripts. The third section focuses on the two Old English translations in the Vespasian and Eadwine psalters, which depict innovative intellectual and literary engagements with the psalm. More specifically, evidence suggests that the glossator of Psalm 151 in the Vespasian Psalter sought to create an Old English poem in translating into the vernacular.

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