Where does Psalm 151 come from?
The majority of our Bibles present us with 150 psalms, numbered from 1 to 150. This is because the Hebrew Bible recognizes only 150 psalms in its canon of Scripture, on which our various translations are based. Yet various manuscripts of the Septuagint, that Greek translation of the Hebrew text, add a hundred and fifty-first psalm. In fact, it is the codex Synaiticus (4th c.) which gives it the number 151. Thus, it was thought that this psalm was a Greek composition.
It was not until 1956, during the archaeological excavations at Qumran, that this hundred and fifty-first psalm was revealed. Indeed, an incomplete scroll of psalms (11QPs) was discovered in cave 11, more precisely, thirty-six psalms, whole or fragmentary, forming part of the canonical collection, as well as eight psalms, pseudo-Davidic, forming a small extra-canonical collection. This scroll is dated to the beginning of the first century CE. Now, in the extra-canonical psalms, the Hebrew original of our psalm 151 has been found, more precisely two psalms have been found, let us call them Psalm 151a and Psalm 151b, one of which is the original of the first part of the Greek version, and the other is the original of the second part of the Greek version; unfortunately, of Psalm 151b, we have only the very beginning, the rest being truncated.
What does this mean? The Greek version of our psalm 151 is an amalgam and synthesis of two Hebrew and extra-canonical psalms. This would explain the somewhat abrupt sequence of the Greek version: mentioning that David has made a musical instrument, it suddenly moves on to sending a messenger to anoint him with oil, and suddenly David is meeting the Stranger to behead him. The original Hebrew version allows us to understand the sequence better: Psalm 151 describes a David who is a shepherd of his flock, who makes a musical instrument to praise God's greatness, marveling at the beauty of creation and noting that nature is incapable of praising itself; this is his mission, until the prophet Samuel comes and chooses him in the name of God, preferring him to his bigger and stronger brothers, to be the leader of his people, the people of the covenant. Then Psalm 151b, another psalm, begins with the sequence where David must confront a Philistine, the giant Goliath; the Greek version of the psalm refers to this as the Stranger. By amalgamating these two psalms concisely into one, the Septuagint made it more difficult to understand them.
Psalm 151a is an echo of 1 Samuel 16:1-13 where Yahweh sends the prophet Samuel to Jesse in Bethlehem to choose a new king in place of the disgraced Saul, and after meeting with the first seven sons of Jesse, chooses the eighth, the youngest, the one who was tending the flock, and who played the zither, we will learn later, to anoint him. As for Psalm 151b, it is an echo of 1 Samuel 17:50-51 where David slays the Philistine Goliath with his slingshot, then running to stand over him, he seizes the giant's sword, pulls it from its scabbard before cutting off his head.
There is a consensus among scholars that, although the Hebrew psalms 151a and 151b were found at Qumran, they are not a composition of the Essenes. It is believed that the canon of the 150 psalms was fixed as early as the 2nd century BC. But it was normal to find in the prayer book of the pious Jews the canon of the 150 psalms, as well as other apocryphal prayers such as the prayer of Manasseh and Psalm 151 because of their spiritual value. These Hebrew Psalms 151a and 151b may date to the 3rd c. BCE (F. M. Cross, David, Orpheus, and Psalm 151: 3-4, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 231(1978)69-71). As for the Greek translation that amalgamated and somewhat truncated them, it must date back to no later than the middle of the 2nd c. BCE, when it was completed. The author of the translation is aware that it is not part of the canon of the 150 psalms, since he explicitly writes that it is not numbered.
Psalm 151 in history
Since the earliest Latin translations (vetus latina) of the psalms were made from the Greek text, Psalm 151 is among them. It is also present in the Peshitta (late 4th c.), that Syriac version of the Bible, as supernumerary psalms. It is also found in the Armenian, Coptic, and Ethiopian versions. At the end of the 4th century, St. Jerome (347 420) undertook a new Latin version that would become the Vulgate. But his first version of the psalms was based on the Greek text, and thus included Psalm 151, which became the Gallican Psalter, because it was widely used in Gaul; it was only later that he made a new translation based on the Hebrew text, from which Psalm 151 was excluded. In churches where the liturgical language is Greek and the Septuagint is used, it is understandable that Psalm 151 is well known: Athanasius of Alexandria (298 376) mentions it, truly believing that this psalm was written by David; likewise Apollinaris of Laodicea (310 390) and Isidore of Pelusa (died 450) seem to consider it canonical. It was not until the 13th century that it was definitively eliminated from the psalter in the Latin churches.
But in 1759, the Syriac version of 11QPs 151 was reported by Giuseppe Simone Assemani (1687 1768), who was in charge of Christian manuscripts in the Vatican Library, and was finally published in 1887 (W. Wright, Some Apocryphal Psalms in Syriac, Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archeology, 9(1887)257-266). In 1930, Martin Noth (Die fünf syrisch überlieferten apocryphen Psalmen, Zeitschrift für die altestamenliche Wissenschaft, 48(1930)1-23) devotes a study to it.
Today, Psalm 151 is still present in several Orthodox Churches, such as the Armenian Apostolic Church, which uses it in its Pentecost liturgy, and the Ethiopian and Eritrean Churches, which use it on Good Friday night. It is absent from Protestant and Catholic Bibles, being considered apocryphal. However, with the impetus of the whole ecumenical movement over the past few decades, it has reappeared in a number of translations, such as the Revised Standard Version (RSV, 1957) the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV, 1989), and the French Ecumenical Translation of the Bible (TOB, 1978).
-André Gilbert, Decembre 2018
According to 11Qs 151a-b found at Qumran, David, in an autobiographical form, relates that his father made him a shepherd of the family flock, and that he, seeing the beauty of nature, made himself a musical instrument to give glory to God with his songs. It was at this time that Samuel came to choose him, in preference to his brothers who were taller and more handsome, to become the leader of the covenant people. In the context of the third century when the Greeks controlled Palestine, this emphasis on David's musical talents has been seen as a way of countering the Greek influence of Orpheusism and the myth of Orpheus, an inspired musician and singer who is said to have composed countless hymns, capable of charming all of nature, supposedly prophets of the mysteries of Orpheus; David could do the same. Similarly, the fact that Yahweh ignored the tallest and most beautiful to choose the smallest and youngest, can be seen as a satire of the Greek emphasis on bodily beauty. As for 11QPs 151b, it was meant to celebrate the military victory of the little David over the giant Goliath and the Philistine army; it was a sort of challenge to the Seleucid dynasty (312-63 BCE), especially to the persecutions of Antiochus Epiphanes (215 - 164 BCE).
The Septuagint text merges the two Hebrew psalms and truncates them to the point of being almost incomprehensible. After mentioning an autobiographical story and the fact that he was the youngest, it mentions that David made a musical instrument for himself while he was shepherding his father's flock, without it being clear why. When he asks the question about who will make the announcement to the Lord, it is hard to understand why this question is asked. When he tells of the coming of God's messenger to take him away from his role as a shepherd and anoint him with oil, it is not clear for what purpose. Finally, when he moves on to the episode of Goliath, everything is transformed and the whole thing becomes a religious conflict with the Stranger and his idols, and his elimination is a way of keeping religious purity. Thus, on the one hand, this story would be almost incomprehensible without a knowledge of 1 Samuel 15-16, and on the other hand, the context is no longer the influence of Greek orphism, but probably the problem of immigration.
Note: The English translation from the Greek text is from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). In a third column, we have placed the two Hebrew psalms (151a and 151b) found at Qumran which would be the origin of the Septuagint text. As they are more developed, we have tried to synchronize them with their Greek parallel, while keeping their own verse number; note that 151b is very fragmentary, presenting only its beginning.
Scroll of Psalms from Cave 11 at Qumran