In This Article Psalms

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Annotated Study Bibles
  • Dictionary Treatments
  • Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Introductions
  • Anthologies and Symposia
  • Bibliographies
  • Surveys of Scholarship and Reception History
  • Theologies of the Psalms
  • Psalms and Qumran
  • Form Criticism
  • Form, Structurelle, and Rhetorical Criticism
  • Canonical and Redaction Criticism
  • Psalms and the Ancient Near East
  • Multicultural Readings of the Psalms
  • The Psalter as Spiritual/Prayer Resource
  • Psalms in Contemporary Use

Biblical Studies Psalms
Stephen Breck Reid
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 September 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 September 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0099


The location of a book in the canon gives the reader clues to the genre and interpretation of the book. The Jewish canon places the poetry of the book of Psalms as the introduction to the division of the bible known as the Ketubim (writings). The Christian canon(s) place the Psalter between Job and Proverbs, accenting the Psalms’ place among the wisdom texts. Scholarly consensus understands the Psalter as a collection of collections of sung poetic prayers that range over a wide period of authorship, provenance, and redaction. Associated with ongoing worship in Israel, most psalms were continually reapplied to new situations. The earliest psalms antedate the period when Israel and Judah were ruled by an indigenous king, the monarchy (1030–583 BCE), and the latest are from the period defined by the cultural and political hegemony of Greece, the Hellenistic period (323–63 BCE). The book of Psalms functioned as the prayer book of the second temple period (521 BCE–66 CE) and the repository of poetic instruction. The first audience of the completed book is the emerging population of what was then the Persian province of Yehud during this period. Prior to the rise of form criticism in the early 20th century, scholarship focused on the Psalms as expressions of individual religious poets, much as Keats, Dickinson, or Countee Cullen. Form criticism shaped by the work of Herman Gunkel focused on the social location of the various literary genres in the cult. However, form critics still approached the Psalter as assemblage or medley without structure or order. During the mid-20th century a focus emerged with an interest in the shape and shaping of the Psalter. The rise of postmodernity has led some to pursue a post-Gunkel approach to the Psalter.

General Overviews

Anderson and Bishop 2000 uses a form-critical and theological method, which works with the literary genres of the Psalms as an organizing rubric. The discussions are embellished with theological reflections relevant to the genres represented in the Psalter. Craven 1992 combines form-critical approaches with the traditions of prayer. Bellinger 1990 focuses on the literary and poetic aspects of the Psalter. Crenshaw 2001 describes the origin of the Psalms and key approaches to the literature. Day 1992 provides introductions to the contents, a survey of the important critical issues, and a rich but succinct survey of recent scholarship and fairly extensive bibliography. Fohrer 1993 and Seybold 1990 provide form-critical introductions. Gunkel 1998 establishes itself as the groundbreaking form-critical introduction to the Psalter. Seybold 1990 updates the form-critical work of Gunkel and provides a snapshot of Psalms studies.

  • Anderson, Bernhard W., and Steven Bishop. Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today. 3d ed. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000.

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    A substantial revision of a classic form-critical and theological book first published in 1974. It continues to press the importance of a form-critical reading of the Psalms.

  • Bellinger, W. H., Jr. Psalms: Reading and Studying the Book of Praises. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1990.

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    Provides a short introduction to the research questions of the day, emphasizing the literary and poetic aspects of the Psalter with some attention to the theological claims embedded there.

  • Craven, Toni. The Book of Psalms. Message of Biblical Spirituality 6. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992.

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    This introduction to the Psalms focuses attention on issues of spirituality.

  • Crenshaw, James L. The Psalms: An Introduction. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001.

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    Part 1 describes the origins of the Psalter through the examination of individual collections and related deuterocanonical and noncanonical psalms. Part 2 surveys four approaches to the Psalms: (1) Psalm as prayer, (2) the Psalms as source of historical data, (3) Classification by types, and (4) more detailed examination of four selected Psalms (24, 71, 73, and 115).

  • Day, John. Psalms. Old Testament Guides. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992.

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    Chapters treat the Psalter as a collection of different literary genres: lament, royal psalms, and praise and thanksgiving, and there is a chapter covering other genres, such as psalms of confidence, wisdom psalms, Torah psalms, historical psalms, entrance liturgies, and pilgrimage psalms. Other chapters are on the autumn festival, the composition of the Psalter, and the theology and reception of the Psalms in Judaism and Christianity.

  • Fohrer, Georg. Psalmen. De Gruyter Studienbuch. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1993.

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    This study book contains three major parts: (1) basic questions such as the song genres of the Psalter, the scientific significance of the Psalms, the text and translations of the Psalms, and the interpretation of the Psalms; (2) brief examinations of genres such as hymns, laments, songs of thanksgiving; and (3) an essay on the theology of late biblical Psalms (particularly Psalm 73) that evidence a temple cult and an emerging Torah piety.

  • Gunkel, Hermann. Introduction to Psalms: The Genres of the Religious Lyric of Israel. Translated by James D. Nogalski. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1998.

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    Originally published as Einleitung in die Psalmen: Die Gattungen der religiösen Lyrik Israels (1933). This is Gunkel’s classic treatment of form-critical categories: hymns and individual thanksgiving songs, communal and individual complaints, and royal psalms, as well as smaller genres such as the pilgrimage song. He further provides a treatment of the songs about YHWH’s enthronement, prophetic elements in the psalms that framed the debate in the early 20th century. His closing essays, “The History of Psalmody,” “The Collection of Psalms,” and “The Superscriptions of the Psalms” all address more current matters of debate.

  • Seybold, Klaus. Introducing the Psalms. Translated by R. Graeme Dunphy. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1990.

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    Originally published as Die Psalmen: Eine Einführung (1986). This comprehensive introduction describes topics of Psalms study such as origins, functions of literary types, and history of transmission and reception. It is designed for college or seminary classroom use.

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