Christians, Jews, and Psalm 1

(This is Neil.) As you may have noticed, I haven’t been posting all that much, in part because it is Lent. But I’d like to begin looking at the Psalms. Here, drawing on a recent article by the Anglican theologian Mike Higton, we’ll look at Psalm1 in the light of Christian-Jewish dialogue. We should note that the Catholic-Jewish dialogue has had its difficult moments – perhaps, most recently, regarding the Good Friday prayer in the 1962 missal. It isn’t hard to imagine some frustrated Catholics wondering, “Why should they care about how we pray?” (And, if it is, one can perform a Google search.)

Of course, there are very good answers to that question. But, likewise, some Catholics might wonder why we should read Scripture alongside Jews. Wouldn’t we just end up with nothing more than a catalogue of our unavoidable differences? To briefly answer that question, we can turn to the Pontifical Biblical Commission’s The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible. Christians will say that Jesus Christ fulfilled the Israelite Scriptures, but that document tells us that we should imagine this fulfillment as both continuity and discontinuity. It isn’t a matter of absolute continuity, because the Christian interpretation of the Old Testament is a “retrospective perception,” made in light of the events of the New Testament, which lets us “discover in the text an additional meaning that was hidden there.” (For “additional,” another translation would read “surplus of.”) It isn’t a matter of absolute discontinuity, either, because the Christian interpretation “fully appropriates the great themes of the theology of Israel”: Jesus Christ universalizes the “blessing given to Abraham” and does not erase it.

Imagining fulfillment as both continuity and discontinuity opens the space for dialogue. If we were to instead imagine this fulfillment as absolute continuity, we would have to conclude that the Jews were incapable of reading their own texts (instead of merely being incapable of perceiving its “additional meaning” in the light of Christ). If, however, we were to imagine this fulfillment as discontinuity, we would have to suggest that the rupture between the Testaments is so great that Judaism only appears to us as the darker background against which the light of Christ might shine. In either case, there would be no point for dialogue with the supposedly blind or superseded Jews. But grasping that fulfillment is both continuity and discontinuity allows us to see that “Christians can and ought to admit that the Jewish reading of the Bible is a possible one, in continuity with the Jewish Sacred Scriptures from the Second Temple period, a reading analogous to the Christian reading which developed in parallel fashion.”

Both readings are “irreducible,” but Christians “can, nonetheless, learn much from Jewish exegesis practiced for more than two thousand years, and, in fact, they have learned much in the course of history.” And Jews can learn from Christian exegetical research as well. But perhaps this only becomes clear when we turn to particular passages of Scripture.

So let us turn to Psalm 1:

Happy those who do not follow the counsel of the wicked, Nor go the way of sinners, nor sit in company with scoffers.

Rather, the law of the LORD is their joy; God’s law they study day and night.

They are like a tree planted near streams of water, that yields its fruit in season; Its leaves never wither; whatever they do prospers.

But not the wicked! They are like chaff driven by the wind.

Therefore the wicked will not survive judgment, nor will sinners in the assembly of the just.

The LORD watches over the way of the just, but the way of the wicked leads to ruin.

Mike Higton begins his article by describing three possible interpretations of the Psalm. First, we can imagine Israelite reciters associating the “tree planted near streams of water” with the trees found in the temple precincts and then recalling that “temple-flavored imagery had been used to speak about the security provided by Torah.” Thus, the Israelite could conclude that wisdom is surely found in the knowledge passed down from parents to children, but also through the course of a life regulated by participation in temple rituals, and that it is mostly firmly anchored in the Torah of God.

But Christians will read the Psalm through a Christological lens. Thus St Augustine:

“Blessed is the man who has not gone off in the counsel of the ungodly.” This should be understood to be about our Lord Jesus Christ, the man of the Lord. “Blessed is the man who has not gone off in the counsel of the ungodly,” as the earthly man did [i.e. Adam, see 1 Corinthians 15:47], who gave in to his serpent-deceived wife, and transgressed the commandment of God. “Nor stood in the way of sinners.” For although he entered the way of sinners, by being born as sinners are, he [our Lord Jesus Christ] did not “stand” in it, because the enticements of the world did not hold him.

This Christological reading is not one held by every Church Father (see Basil and Hilary and Ambrose), but for Augustine and much of the West, it is the literal meaning of the text, reached without any obvious strain. Once one presupposes that Jesus Christ is the wisdom of God, this reading seems obvious.

And now perhaps we are at an impasse. The Christian will tend to read the Psalm Christologically, the Jew simply will not. And there is nothing more to say. But Higton pushes us further. He has us read a third exegesis – that of Luther:

Whatever is said literally concerning the Lord Jesus Christ as to his person must [also] be understood allegorically of a help that is like him, and … tropologically of any spiritual and inner man against his flesh and the other man. Let this be made plain by means of examples. Blessed is the man who walks not [in the way of sinners] (Ps 1:1). Literally this means that the Lord Jesus Christ made no concessions to the designs of the Jews and of the evil and adulterous age that existed in his time.

Luther will later say that the Psalm’s description of the wicked as chaff “applies to the Jews first of all,” because “they have no fixed home but at every moment are exposed to such a wind,” their “minds are carried in all directions by the wind of many doctrines,” and “on the Last Day they shall be scattered by the eternal stormwinds of the unbearable wrath of God.”

We instinctively flinch at Luther’s exegesis, especially given recent history, but it forces a question upon us: Is this the terminus of any Christological reading of the Psalm? Of course, we can immediately reply that Luther’s exegesis has to do with other exegetical principles – his sensus literalis must always be a sensus propheticus, referring to Jesus Christ, and it is here clearly combined with his belief that “Salus extra Christum non est.” Furthermore, Luther (and later Protestant interpreters) emphasize justification by faith alone and think badly of Jewish adherence to the law (see the work of Uwe F.W. Bauer here [PDF]). But, still, Uwe Bauer reminds us that Catholic exegetes have also historically failed to recognize the Psalm as anything but Christian, not granting that this is a text “in the first place by and for Jews.” And the question remains: Is any Christological reading of the Psalm inevitably going to be anti-Judaic? If that is so, despite the beautiful claims of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, there can be no dialogue. There is no possible space for a Jewish voice.

Higton suggests that the Christian exegete stop at this point and ask again, “Well, what does happen if I take Psalm 1 to be about Jesus?” He notices that in the Psalm the wicked appear to at first be rather substantial: they have a “way” and have “company,” after all. But appearances can be deceiving. Jesus had nowhere to “lay his head” (Mt 8:20) and he reveals that the true tree that “yields its fruit in season” is the Cross. Jesus’ “way,” despite its seeming instability, is the only way to survive judgment. Higton notices that this particular reading remains Christological but “would already have been possible within the Hebrew canon.”

After all, this exegesis opens up a horizon already found in Job, Ecclesiastes, or other Psalms, where the final prosperity of the righteous is hoped for even though we now see the apparent stability and “prosperity of the wicked”: “They are free of the burdens of life; they are not afflicted like others” (Ps 73:3, 5). Furthermore, the way of the cross need not be opposed to the “law of the Lord” for “not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law” until heaven and earth pass away (Mt 5:18) and Jesus’ commandments to love God and neighbor as oneself are what the whole law has depended upon (Matt 22:40). So, Higton says, “the Christian reading need not be seen in opposition to the field of possible Jewish readings, but as a particular position within that field.”

But, wait, it isn’t this easy to reconcile Christology with Jewish readings. The Jewish reader, Higton says, can retort that the way of the righteous involves “the continuity and stability of people and observance” and the “material conditions” of law, people, and land. The Jewish reader can gently accuse the Christian of reducing the Torah by “spiritualizing” it. And when the Christian reader responds by suggesting that there is already a “trajectory” in the Old Testament “whereby land and temple are relativized or redefined in favor of delight in and obedience to Torah,” the Jewish reader can sigh and claim that this is the usual Christian path of individualization and internalization. Higton supposes: “Once again, the Jewish interlocutor might say, Torah is being too easily spiritualized by the Christian reader.”

What is the resolution? Higton does not intend to sketch a “path toward consensus.” Instead, we can imagine the Scriptures – and the voices of Christian and Jewish readers – yielding abundant and unexpected fruit through conversation freed from the control of a single tradition. Christians, for instance, will have to question their interpretation of the righteousness of the Jesus who never followed “the counsel of the wicked.” We Christians will also have to get beyond the usual (sometimes, unfortunately, seemingly obvious) binaries – one of which, posing the material conditions of Jewish communality against an individualized and internalized Christian faith, has deep roots going as far back as Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette’s 1811 commentary on the Psalms. This doesn’t mean giving up Christology. It means working out the implications of Christology in the presence of the Jewish people whose God is the God of Jesus Christ. This means giving space for a Jewish voice, which means admitting the possibility of Jewish exegesis, which, in turn, means understanding that the Christian interpretation of the Old Testament manifests both continuity and discontinuity.

If we can discover that it is valuable to study Scripture with our Jewish brothers and sisters – that it frees us for a new accountability before the Word of God – perhaps then the answer to the question “Why should they care about how we pray?” will also become clear.

Sorry that I’ve gone on for so long. What do you think?

P.S. For a little more on “Scriptural Reasoning,” see my post here.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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4 Responses to Christians, Jews, and Psalm 1

  1. Meg says:

    My first thought is that the translation you have that pluralizes adam is not very helpful. I prefer “Happy is the one who…” which keeps the inclusivity of adam, but also makes it easier to see the Messiah – be he Christ or the still-awaited Messiah of the Jews.

    My second thought is to ask myself How did Jesus pray this psalm?

    I’ve been reading John Brook’s School of Prayer and am enjoying his approach to praying the psalms in the Daily Office. He reminds us that Jesus prayed the psalms, and that when we pray them, one of the ways we can enter into the prayer is to pray WITH Jesus to the Father – think how Jesus would have prayed these words.

    That might be a good approach for praying in company with the Jews.

  2. Neil says:

    Dear Meg,

    Thank you for your kind reply.

    As I am sure you know, the issue of translating Psalm 1 has been much discussed (see, for instance, the exchange between Frs Richard Clifford and Chrysogonus Waddell in Communio 22.4 [1995]). I used the NAB translation (“Happy those”) for two reasons.

    First, I anticipate that it is the translation that most of my readers will encounter in church (the NRSV, incidentally, also uses the plural; the NIV does not). Second, I don’t think that the use of the plural excludes the possible Christological reference. If we imagine that the disciples do come to share in the redemptive activity of Christ insofar as they are “in Christ,” we can still see the Messiah in the plural of “Happy are those.”

    I read your question “How did Jesus pray this psalm?” with great interest and now plan to read John Brook’s School of Prayer. I do think that it presents a good approach. But I am a bit cautious (coming from the Christian perspective).

    This is for three reasons.

    First, we should take care to remember that Jesus’ psychological experience, especially of prayer, will never be completely transparent to us.

    Second, our idea of praying with Jesus should never rely on a reconstruction of first century Jewish prayer, since we read the Psalm in the light of Jesus’ eventual death, resurrection, and ascension. Christian prayer will presumably be in some discontinuity with Jewish prayer during even Jesus’ life.

    Third, when we say that we “pray WITH Jesus” and “think how Jesus would have prayed these words,” we do not commit ourselves to an unnecessary sort of mimesis. There can never be an identity between our prayer and Jesus’ first century prayer. Instead, through discernment, we should strive to be “with Jesus” through sharing his faithfulness in prayer.

    Perhaps this caution is not needed.

    Thanks again for your very generous and interesting comment. And, of course, for reading.


  3. Meg says:

    I come late to the Daily Office, Neil, and Brook’s book is helping me learn how to find Christ in the psalms.

    It might not apply to Ps. 1, but the whole idea that I might learn more about Jesus by seeing his prayers to the Father (other than the obvious Lord’s Prayer) delighted me. So I tend to ask myself that question as I read.

    However, your caution was a good one — now that I look it up, I see I have misinterpreted Brook’s approach.

    Brook talks about how the sentence at the beginning of each psalm in the Office helps us to relate the prayer to Christ. He uses Ps 30 as an example:

    “The psalm can obviously be prayed by anyone as a psalm of thanksgiving to the Lord for deliverance from serious danger, but the sentence at the head of the psalm indicates how it can be prayed as the prayer of Christ: Christ gives thanks to his Father after his glorious resurrection. (Cassian). When we pray the psalm in this way, we pray with Christ on the morning of his resurrection.”

    He also emphasizes the Office as Liturgy – the prayer the Church offers to the Father, and that Jesus as Head of the Church is offering it with us.

    Thanks for making me go and look it up. :)

  4. Neil says:

    Dear Meg,

    Thanks for writing again.

    The quote by Brook is a very beautiful one. I will have to get his book – I suspect that you might see, at the very least, some excerpts from it on the blog by the end of the month.


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