In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Psalms

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Annotated Study Bibles
  • Dictionary Treatments
  • Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Introductions
  • Anthologies and Symposia
  • Bibliographies
  • Surveys of Scholarship
  • Multicultural Readings of the Psalms
  • Rhetorical and Literary Approaches
  • Theological Approaches
  • Psalms and Ethics
  • Psalms and Preaching
  • The Psalter as Spiritual/Prayer Resource
  • Psalms and Qumran
  • The Psalms and Ugarit
  • Psalms and Gender

Biblical Studies Psalms
Stephen Breck Reid, Rebecca Poe Hays
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 May 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • 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, but this approach still viewed 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 post-Gunkel approaches to the book of Psalms that attend to matters such as the poetic language and the relationship to other ancient Near Eastern poetry and imagery. While many scholars still utilize form-critical language to discuss the Psalter, they tend to examine each psalm as a distinct literary composition and product of Israel’s religious tradition rather than forcing them into specific genres and corresponding life settings.

General Overviews

Aguilar Chiu 2014, Bellinger 2012, deClaissé-Walford 2004, Jacobson and Jacobson 2013, and Schnocks 2014 provide book-length introductions to the Psalms. Brown 2014 and Gerstenberger 2001 offer more abbreviated introductions but cover the same basic topics. Anderson and Bishop 2000 uses a form-critical method that 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. Crenshaw 2001 describes the origin of the Psalms and key approaches to the literature. Brueggemann and Strawn 2014 introduces the Psalms with a more theological-rhetorical slant.

  • Aguilar Chiu, José Enrique. The Psalms: An Introduction. New York: Paulist, 2014.

    The first half of this concise introduction presents the reader to the general issues of interpretation such as numbering, various collections within the Psalter, psalm titles, Hebrew poetry, and theology. The second half introduces the major form-critical categories with representative psalms as illustrative. Only a limited space is devoted to the development and shape of the Psalter.

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

    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, William H., Jr. Psalms: A Guide to Studying the Psalter. 2d ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012.

    A revision of Psalms: Reading and Studying the Book of Praises (1990). Provides a short book-length introduction to the research questions that emphasizes the form-critical, literary, and poetic aspects of Psalms study.

  • Brown, William P. “The Psalms: An Overview.” In The Oxford Handbook of the Psalms. Edited by William P. Brown, 1–23. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    Explores the Psalms as poetry, the structure of the Psalter as both collection and book, and the function of psalms. Brown then surveys the use of psalms at Qumran, in the New Testament, in Judaism and early Christianity, and in the Protestant Reformation, which then sets the stage for the rise of historical-critical exegesis. The article includes notes and short bibliography.

  • Brueggemann, Walter, and Brent A. Strawn. From Whom No Secrets Are Hid: Introducing the Psalms. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2014.

    An introduction that attends to how the Psalter challenges people of faith with the presentation of a “counter-world” of trustful fidelity, abundance, ultimate dependence, abrasive truth telling, hope, lively remembering, and normed fidelity. The book is organized around these themes with various psalm texts chosen to illustrate each theme.

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

    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).

  • deClaissé-Walford, Nancy L. Introduction to the Psalms: A Song from Ancient Israel. Atlanta: Chalice, 2004.

    Provides a short book-length introduction to the research questions that emphasizes the shape and shaping of the Psalter.

  • Gerstenberger, Erhard S. “The Psalter.” In The Blackwell Companion to the Hebrew Bible. Edited by Leo G. Perdue, 402–417. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

    Describes the rise of form criticism with issues of genres and their settings. Then outlines methods beyond form criticism with an emphasis on linguistic concerns and literary criticism. Other topics that dominate Psalms research include socio-liturgical research, feminist interpretation, iconography and ancient Near Eastern materials, anthropological studies, and redactional criticism as well as the perennial issue of the theology of the Psalter. Includes a short bibliography.

  • Jacobson, Rolf A., and Karl N. Jacobson. Invitation to the Psalms: A Reader’s Guide for Discovery and Engagement. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013.

    A basic introduction to Hebrew poetry and imagery, the various types of psalms, and the contexts out of which they emerged.

  • Schnocks, Johannes. Psalmen. Grundwissen Theologie 3473. Paderborn, Germany: Schöningh, 2014.

    Provides the basic elements of an overview but incorporates the insights and research of Bernd Janowski (anthropological reading) and Erich Zenger (psalms and Psalter exegesis).

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