15.11.24, Daley and Kolbet, eds., The Harp of Prophecy

Main Article Content

David Meconi

The Medieval Review 15.11.24

Daley, Brian E., and Paul R. Kolbert, eds. The Harp of Prophecy: Early Christian Interpretation of the Psalms. Christianity and Judaism in Antiquity, 20. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2015. pp. xvi, 332. ISBN: 978-0-268-02619-6 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
David Meconi
Saint Louis University

With the modern explosion of hymnals and worship aids, it is comforting to remember that the only song book the Church has ever officially embraced remains the Psalter. The prayer life of the early Christians revolved around the Psalms. These songs of praise quickly became the Church's prayer book throughout the day and across the seasons, words not only contemplated in quiet, but proclaimed communally in song. The singing of the psalms was first found in Hellenistic synagogues, and Christians in the region known today as Syria seem to have been the first to chant them antiphonally. The first generations of churchmen thus instructed Christians to find "the depths of each psalm's meaning not simply from the top of their heads or the tip of their lips" (Diodore of Tarsus). Saint Augustine (whose teacher and bishop, Saint Ambrose of Milan, promulgated the West's chanting of the Psalms) admitted that he could not hold back his tears; and far in the in the Egyptian desert, Abba Philemon admitted that he was unwilling to ever be too far "from the sweetness of visions about which the Psalms speak, embracing all of scripture."

As part of the University of Notre Dame's Christianity and Judaism in Antiquity series, Brian Daley (S.J.) and Paul Kolbet have gathered topnotch scholars together to produce a contemporary reflection on an ancient practice--the first Christians' approach to and assimilation of the Psalms. Including twelve essays by as many scholars, this volume aims to show the depths and the uses of the ancient Psalter. Daley (Notre Dame) opens this collection with an excellent essay on "The Aims and Strategies of Early Christian Interpretations of the Psalms" (11-28). His colleague at Notre Dame, Gary Anderson, appears next with his "King David and the Psalms of Imprecation" (29-45), wherein Anderson argues that the psalms are to be prayerfully "performed" and the figure of King David offers those praying today a mimetic metaphor in whom "we will have clothed the raw emotion of imprecation with the apparel of David's character" (42). In a very cleverly titled "Restringing Origen's Broken Harp" (47-74) Ronald Heine (Northwest Christian University) reconstructs some supposedly-authored catenae from Origen to bring about an even greater "harmony"in the great third-century Alexandrian's psalm commentaries.

Co-editor Paul Kolbet (Yale Divinity School), appears next with an essay (75-96) on Athanasius and how the psalms came to play a meditative, moral and pastoral in a "holistic"amelioration of the physical and the psychic, a practice we still see today in any monastery or priory where the bodily enacting of choral prayer, with all its meaningful gestures and postures, unifies the daily ordo. In his examination of Evagrius Ponticus (97-125) Luke Dysinger (O.S.B., St. Andrew's Abbey, Valyermo, CA) asserts that this great desert theologian richly explained the movements and symbols of the psalms in terms of the soul's own return to God, thus reading the psalter as "a miniature iteration and reflection of the universal cosmic journey toward reunion" (117).

The next three essays all orbit Psalm 44 (45) and the nuptial imagery of the royal wedding between divinity and humanity. Nonna Verna Harrison (St. Paul's School of Theology, Kansas City) treats Basil of Caesarea's commentary (127-48), David Hunter (University of Kentucky) lifts a heavy load with Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine (149-74), while Ronald Cox (Pepperdine University) compares Cyril of Alexandria with Theodore of Mopsuestia (175-90) on their various treatments of this allegorical antitype of Christ and his Church. What makes these three essays so wonderful is how together they offer an accurate glimpse not only into patristic exegesis, but also into the differences between Latin and Greek, as well as between what scholars have traditionally understood as the differences between Alexandria and Antioch (which is challenged in the very next essay). Be that as it may, this first-rate section shows how the first Christians desired to find Christ's love for his ecclesia everywhere in the psalms.

In his brief essay on Theodoret (191-203), John J. O'Keefe (Creighton University) emphasizes how often the binary distinction "Antiochene" and "Alexandrian" actually fails when looking at Theodoret's discovery of Jesus Christ in psalms he is clearly not treating in a standard "Antiochene" fashion. Michael Cameron (University of Portland) continues his fine work on Augustine by highlighting how the Bishop of Hippo saw the Totus Christus as the hermeneutical framework by which to best understand the psalms (205-26), while Michael McCarthy, S.J. (Santa Clara University) sustains this needed look into Augustine's theology with his "An Ecclesiology of Groaning" (227-56). Together these two contributions serve as excellent explanations of both Augustine's reading of scripture, as well as his theology of the Church, reminding us how much work can still be done in his Enarrationes in Psalmos. Finally, Paul Blowers (Emmanuel Christian Seminary) handles Maximus the Confessor's theology of the psalms (257-83) masterfully, showing how Psalm 59 serves as a much later instance of how the ancient practice of reading the psalms as the propaedeutic to contemplative ascesis endured for centuries--surely an invitation to our own day.

These twelve leading scholars capture well the early Church's appreciation and appropriation of Israel's songs. All of the essays are clear and able to be read on a variety of levels--an unusual work that could be used with advanced undergraduates in the history of biblical exegesis, or in a graduate course examining the use of the psalms in Christian antiquity. Given how a majority of the work included here grew originally out of a 1998 conference, some of the secondary literature is a bit dated, but nothing to keep this collection from being a standard work when looking at the prayer and the performance of the psalms throughout ancient Christianity.

Article Details