Wednesday, August 29, 2007

How to Pray the Psamls(10)

Number Four: Modern Historical-Critical Method.
Let us first of all observe that modern Biblical criticism, what is often called ‘historical criticism’ or ‘historical-critical method’, has been, historically speaking, largely a Protestant phenomenon and consequently less liturgically shaped than Catholic or Jewish tradition. Thus if you pick up a standard commentary, you will generally not find much help in reading the Psalms liturgically, even if the commentator admits that the original setting of the Psalm was liturgical. The fact is that much, if not most, of historical criticism finds its justification in an anti-Roman polemic. Scholars in this school are trained to reject the idea that the Church has the final authority in the interpretation of scripture. One of the most influential scholars of the Old Testament, Julius Wellhausen, was quite openly critical of Catholicism and Judaism; some would say he was anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish. There was no shame in such a position: in the nineteenth century northern German academy, Catholics and Jews were assumed to have gotten it wrong. It was the task of the scholar to rediscover the original meaning of scripture, lost by Jewish and Catholic accretions.
This is not to suggest that the findings of historical criticism are all to be discarded. But we must read them with open eyes and with caution. Much as they are touted to be objective, they, like any other position, contain cultural biases.
The problem worsened in the 20th century, the era of the so-called ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’. The infamous thinkers in this movement are generally considered to be Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. They urge us to look at texts for evidence of hidden agendas. The message is: "don’t trust authors—they tell us half-truths in an effort to preserve their own power." For us in the 21st century, living in a culture permeated with this sort of thought, it becomes very easy to justify tossing out pieces of scripture on any bit of suspicion. One can see immediately that this sort of thought is in league with historical criticism that aims to question the motives of the authors of scripture itself, whether we understand the author to be the Church, or St. Luke, who for example, is often accused of covering up for his cranky pal St. Paul.
A prime example that will sum up many of the problems of historical criticism applied to the Psalms is the beloved Miserere. The key lines are:
…in sacrifice you take no delight
burnt offering from me you would refuse
my sacrifice, a contrite spirit.
For most modern critics, these lines are the heart, the crux of the theology of this Psalm. Literal sacrifices, the slaying of a bull, the pouring out of its blood and the burning: all of this is a great mistake, so the reasoning goes. What matters is the inner conversion experience, here expressed as contrition, our recognition of ourselves as sinners.
My suggestion to you is this: that those who come to this conclusion about this Psalm do so not because this is the only objective reading of this text. They read it this way because it thus serves as a critique of temple-based Judaism and by analogy, as a critique of Roman Catholic priesthood and sacrificial theology of the Mass.
But this interpretation hits an inevitable snag at verses 20-21, where we find out that the Psalmist hasn’t forsaken sacrifice after all. Verse 21 reads:
Then you will be pleased with lawful sacrifice,
burnt offerings wholly consumed,
then you will be offered young bulls on your altar.
Now if the thrust of the Miserere is the abolition of sacrifice, how can we read these lines? The usual answer is a perfect example of the hermeneutics of suspicion. The solution is to say that they don’t belong at all—that they were written by a priest who realized that as the presumed original Psalm stood, he would soon be out of a job and on the street if everyone started praying it. So he composed the last two verses and calculatedly transformed this lament of a pious Israelite into yet another kowtow to the establishment. What’s more, nobody protested because priests had power.
Needless to say, I personally think that these last lines are in fact the thrust of the Psalm. The key word is lawful. No lawful sacrifice can be offered at the time the Psalm is composed because the temple has been destroyed, and this happened because the people sinned.
Now even if you do not plan to read any standard commentaries on the Psalms, you are affected by these behind-the-scenes polemics. This is because, among other reasons, we today pray the Psalms in translation and so we rely on translators for our interpretations. Now, translations are done by scholars of the Bible, and scholars of the Bible are trained in historical-critical method, and this means that interpretations will tend to be biased in this direction. Let me just offer one particular example, courtesy of the Grail translation, the one we use at the monastery.
Like the New American Bible, the Grail often transposes verses when the translators think the re-arrangement makes better sense than the manuscript evidence. But I frequently question the results. In Psalm 50, for example, God assembles Israel, as well and the heavens and the earth, and takes his place before them as judge. He divides the people into two camps: Israel and ‘the wicked’. This is not an easy Psalm to understand. God seems to criticize Israel for thinking that the sacrifice implies any physical need on God’s part, whereas the wicked are condemned outright for disobedience.
But the title the Grail translation gives for this Psalm makes no such distinction between Israel and ‘the wicked’, and instead merely states that the Psalm is "God’s judgment on formalism." To bring this point home, the translators have moved God’s judgment of the wicked from verse 21 to the end of verse 7. Now the Psalm has God condemning both Israel and ‘the wicked’ under the same charge. Never mind that the very next verse has God telling Israel: "I find no fault with your sacrifices!" Now, this shift by the translators could be judged a theological tour de force worthy of St. Paul in Romans 2; or, as I contend, it could be a very bad and presumptuous idea. The Psalm goes from being a condemnation of disobedience to a condemnation of (quote-unquote) "formalism," a concept, by the way, which is not Biblical. Let’s not forget that God commanded sacrifices.
Not coincidentally, this decision on the part of the Grail puts Israel, not just ‘formalism’, under God’s sentence. Part of the anti-Roman polemic of the Reformation involved an analogy: just as Jesus, and especially, Paul, supposedly attacked Jewish formalism in worship and law observance and replaced it with true spiritual worship, so Reformers saw it their duty to break with Catholic liturgy, especially its sacrificial elements, in order to replace it with preaching of the Word or personal piety. This is again, not to say that the Reformers had nothing at all good to say about the interpretation of scripture, only to say that we once again often have the cards stacked against us when we want to get a positive sense of the connection between Psalm and liturgy.

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If I, who seem to be your right hand and am called Presbyter and seem to
preach the Word of God, If I do something against the discipline of the Church
and the Rule of the Gospel so that I become a scandal to you, The Church, then
may the whole Church, in unanimous resolve, cut me, its right hand, off, and
throw me away.

Origen of Alexandria
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