|Introduction to The Book of Psalms
This collection of religious poems is
known in Judaism as “The Book of
Praises.” Among Christians, it is
called “The Book of Psalms.” The
word “psalm” is a Greek word meaning
a song sung to musical
accompaniment. The Book of Psalms
is often referred to as the Psalter.
According to Charles Ryrie, the Book
of Psalms is itself divided into five sub-
books, the length of each more or less
determined by the length of ancient
scrolls. Each of the five books within
the Book of Psalms would fit on one
scroll, just as each of the five books of
the Law would.
Book I: Psalms 1-41.
Book II: Psalms 42-72.
Book III: Psalms 73-89.
Book IV: Psalms 90-106.
Book V: Psalms 107-150.
The numbering of the Psalms in the
Vulgate is slightly different from Dr.
Ryrie’s divisions above. The Vulgate
Psalter combines Psalms 9 and 10
from standard English translations.
Psalm 147, in turn, is divided in the
Vulgate into two separate Psalms.
Thus, many English favorites, such as
Psalm 23, are numbered differently in
the Latin. I have added the standard
English numbering to the beginnings
of each of the Psalms effected by this
difference, for the reader’s
The work, originally written in Hebrew,
was translated into Greek in the 3rd
Century before Christ. In the 3rd
Century of the Common Era, the great
Christian scholar Origen created The
Hexapla, a multi-columned version of
what we know of as The Old
Testament, as a way of correcting the
errors that had crept into the text at
the hands of copyists through the
Jerome, who translated the Old
Testament into Latin between 383 and
405 CE, used Origen’s Hexapla in
creating his translations. Jerome’s
text, then, represents the high-water
mark of classical, Latin-based, biblical
scholarship. It became the standard
Bible of the Western church for
several hundred years.
There are two versions of the Psalter
associated with Jerome’s translations.
In the first version, he revised and
corrected an existing Vetus Latina, or
“Old Latin,” translation of the
Septuagint, the earlier Greek
translation, which had become the
Bible of the Christian church. Not
totally satisfied, he decided to craft
another translation from the Hebrew
itself. This decision led Jerome,
already a middle-aged man, to study
Hebrew at the feet of Jewish rabbis, in
order to pass Hebrew scripture on
more faithfully to Christian readers.
Both versions of the Psalms survived,
each one playing the prominent role in
various different locations. In Gaul,
present-day France, Jerome’s
Septuagint translation of the Psalms
was used most commonly in the Old
Testament. Alcuin, an English scholar
called to Charlemagne’s court,
standardized the so-called Gallican
Psalter for the Church at large. It
became the definitive Vulgate Psalter
thereafter, though the other
translation also survived.
(Continues in second column --->)
|ISBN # 978-0-9644609-9-7
ISBN # 978-0-9644609-8-0
©2009, John G. Cunyus
All Rights to the English Translation
and Commentary Reserved.
All Rights to Cover art Reserved.
Latin text from “The Latin Vulgate.”
Biblia Sacra Iuxta Vulgatam
Versionem, Fourth Revised Edition,
edited by Roger Gryson,
© 1994 Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft,
Stuttgart. Used by permission.
| (Introduction, Continued)
Because the Gallican Psalter was
based on the Septuagint, it more
accurately reflects the Book of Psalms
as the first generation of Hellenistic
Christianity would have known it. The
Hebrew-based Psalter would have
been unknown to non-Jewish
Christians of the early centuries. For
such Christians, the Bible existed in
Greek, rather than Hebrew.
Some ask, why translate a
translation? What advantage is there
in studying the Latin, when the original
language, Hebrew, is still available?
The answer lies in the historical nature
of the Bible. It exists in its original
languages, certainly. Yet it also
existed profoundly in Greek, Latin, and
many other languages as well.
To understand historical persons and
events more clearly, it helps to
understand scripture as they did. Most
of Jesus’ contemporaries and followers
knew the Bible in Greek, rather than in
Hebrew. Later, when Rome’s empire
divided and Western Europe was
increasingly cut off from the
mainstream of ancient civilizations, the
Bible existed in Latin.
An illustration may help. Though the
book of Psalms had existed for
centuries in Hebrew, it existed in
Hellenistic culture from the 3rd Century
B.C.E., as the Septuagint, the Bible of
most of the early Christian Church.
The Greek word “Christ” translates the
Hebrew Masiach, meaning “anointed
one,” or “king.” Thus, the Septuagint
Psalter, rendered by Jerome into the
Latin Gallican Psalter, is filled with
Reading the Septuagint or Jerome’s
translation of it, one sees immediately
how early Christian preachers could
speak about Christ using the Psalter
as a source.
Modern English translators for many
centuries have taken pains not to use
the Greek word “Christ” in the Psalter.
“Christ” has taken on too specifically
Christian a meaning, obviously, to
render it a fair translation of the
Nevertheless, “Christ” was the word
used, both in Greek-speaking
synagogues and early Christian
ecclesias. They literally could not
avoid talking about “Christ” if they
talked about the Psalter at all.
Such a sense of the Psalms as an
intensely Christological book has
vanished, largely, from contemporary
Yet the Greek and Latin texts use the
word Christ throughout. Perhaps
reading their version of the Psalms will
give more profound insight into who
Christ is, at least as the original core of
Greek and Latin speakers understood
January 1, 2009
"Out of many available
translations of the Psalms into
English, I find your translation
the best: it is a very close,
translation of the Gallican
Psalter – so good that it can
not only help to disambiguate
the more difficult passages in
the English texts but also help
those whose Latin is not good
enough to be able to trace the
intricacies of these early
renderings into English.
Since your translation is so
extraordinary among the
existing Modern English texts, I
wrote a section in my book
devoted to it . . ."
John Paul II Catholic
University of Lublin, Poland