The Structure of the Psalms

A 3000-year general history on the Book of Psalms numbering and divisional systems.

The structural development of the Book of Psalms has an interesting and complex history.

The results are the examination of documents spanning a 3000 year time period. The reader will be journeying through Hebrew, Greek, Syriac, Latin and English texts. Don’t worry. You don’t need to know the languages itself to join in this expedition. This work is designed for both the researcher and the passionate lay reader. Many pictures will be provided that will assist. One can marvel at the beauty of the handwritten text without understanding it.

The findings show that the Psalms began as an unordered list with no assigned numbers. The arrival of the Greek translation called the Septuagint brought about a numbering scheme for the Book of Psalms. The Septuagint also limited to the Book of Psalms to 151 poems, though this was not adhered to by other traditions which went up to 155. Verses were not introduced until much later. Verses were covered in a previous article titled, A History of Chapters and Verses in the Hebrew Bible.

As demonstrated by the Dead Sea Scrolls, the order of the poems in the Book of Psalms was not established in the early centuries. This happened after the widespread acceptance of the Septuagint later on.

The Septuagint assignments of numbers and order were assumed by the Latin translators, which in turn had an influence on the English Bible tradition.

The headers introducing most of the Psalms are the most controversial and misunderstood. In regards to the headers only, we are not so sure today on the meaning behind the original Hebrew or even the Greek translation. This has led to a multitude of interpretations even within the English Bible translation tradition.

These are mere generalities and the readers of this blog prefer details and substantiation. The following is how the above conclusions were arrived at.

How this conclusion was arrived at

The focus was on comparing the Hebrew, Syriac, Greek, and Latin manuscripts for building a framework.

The Book of Psalms is a large compilation and to examine the details of each and every Psalm would be a major ambition. So this project has been reductionistic to save time and resources. Psalms 9 and 10 as found in the English Bibles serves as the basis for this study, and more general information is provided for the rest. There are two caveats though, no Dead Sea Scroll text has been found that contains Psalms 9 and 10. We have to simply live with that and work with other manuscripts that are available. Secondly, the references to the Psalms in the Talmudic writings have been ignored because of the time involved.

The Book of Psalms was originally written in Hebrew, but the greatest influence of the divisions, numbering and the modern English name of this Book can be found in the Greek edition called the Septuagint. This Greek translation is old—the first one appeared around 250 BC.(1)See A Brief History of the Septuagint for more information Greek was the universal language of government, the courts, and trade in the middle east from 200 BC to 300 AD. It was critical to learn Greek for both commercial and financial success. Greek held prominence similar to English in the international community today. The Septuagint was the authoritative text for Jews who lived in Egypt and the Roman Empire. The available manuscripts for this Greek translation outdates almost every Hebrew Bible text except for the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The prominence of the Book of Psalms in the narrative of human history

The Book of Psalms, whose poems were first collated around 970 BC, is one of the oldest collections of poetry/hymns on the human record. Sure, there are older ones such as Ludlul-Bel-Nimeqi — an Akkadian narrative developed around 1700 BC with themes similar to that of the Book of Job.(2)see Ludlul-Bel-Nimeqi by Joshua J. Mark Or Homer’s work The Iliad which has entertained children and adults for almost 2700 years. Neither of these works reflects the depth of the human soul on the themes of joy, loss, deceit, war, peace, love, yearnings, awe, the divine interplay between God and man, and mysteries of life that the Book of Psalms invokes in the hearts of readers.

The power of human emotion somehow transcends from the original Hebrew into almost every known language of the world. The Book of Psalms demonstrates that great poetry has a magic unto itself that overcomes language and cultural barriers.

Authors of the Book of Psalms

The main contributor to the Book of Psalms was King David (1010–970 BC). Out of the 151 Psalms in the Christian Bible today, 73 are traditionally understood to be produced by him. The rest were produced by various Israelite authors: even one accredited to the great leader Moses.(3)Wikipedia entry for Psalms

How the Book of Psalms received its English name

The Hebrew name for the Book of Psalms is תהילים‎, Tehillim, which means praises.

The Greek translators translated this collection of poems as ψαλμοί Psalmoi which then was adapted by the Latin translators as Liber Psalmorum and then anglicized as the Book of Psalms in all the English Bible versions.

The order of the Book of Psalms in the various Bibles throughout history

The ancient Hebrew editors squeezed the Book of Psalms in between II Chronicles and the Book of Job in their third section of writings called the Ketubim (Writings). This is the place for tertiary writings. They had less authoritative power than the writings of Moses (the Torah) or the section allotted to the Nevi’im (The major prophets of ancient Israel. The minor prophets were relegated to Ketubim). (4)see the Hebrew Bible listing at Wikipedia for more information The Jewish people call the collection of the Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketubim the Tanakh.

The Septuagint has a different classification system. The editors broke the format into three categories. The first one was the Pentateuch (The anglicized Greek word for the five books of Moses). The second was poetic and wisdom literature which included the Book of Psalms. It is sandwiched between Job and Proverbs. The third was the histories of Israel which went from Joshua to III Maccabees. The last category was the prophets. Both major and minor prophets were lumped into this section.

The Latin Vulgate agrees with the Septuagint ordering system. This framework was adopted by the later English Bible translators.

The internal structure of the Book of Psalms

A Dead Sea Scroll called the Great Psalm Scroll which was copied around 30 – 50 AD has a substantial amount of Psalms, but not all. However, given by what is found in this scroll, the order and number of Psalms are different than what is found in the present English Bible traditions. The different order may be a distinctive of the Qumran community that copied the Psalms, or, could be that the order within the Psalms had not been settled by this period.

The English Book of Psalms traditionally contains 151 psalms. This was not always the case in history. There has been up to 155.(5)Qumran Psalms Scroll A good explanation for these differences can be found by a Dead Scroll specialist named Peter W. Flint in his article Psalm 151 and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

What are the extra Psalms 151b – 155? Here is a composition of these texts. Psalms 151-155 translated by W. Wright, 1886

The method to demonstrate the start and end of a Psalm

The Great Psalm Scroll

The Great Psalm Scroll identified the beginning of a poem by spacing and often a small attribution to the author. They did not use numbers to divide the Psalms. This device came later.

Psalm 138
The start of Psalm 138 in the Great Dead Sea Scrolls

One of the distinctives of the Great Psalm Scroll was the reverence for the holy name of God (the tetragammeton). The copyists believed it unholy to alter the original calligraphic script for the personal name of God and so the left it in the much older Hebrew writing style:

Psalm 138-2
Psalm 138 Dead Sea Scroll with the Sacred name of God in Paleo-Hebrew.

The Greek texts

These ancient christian manuscripts which contained the Book of Psalms were examined: Codex Vaticanus 1209 (@315AD),(6)Codex Vaticanus Online pg. 628 Codex Sinaiticus (@345 AD),(7)Codex Sinaiticus online and Codex Alexandrinus (@420 AD).(8)Codex Alexandrinus online image IDs, 143222 and 143223. Manuscript handwritten pages 534–535

Both the Vaticanus and Sinaiticus has each Psalm numbered. The Sinaiticus goes a step further and colors the header text in red. The Codex Alexandrinus has all the Psalms numbered but the headers are not so easy to distinguish. The physical condition of Codex Alexandrinus is lower than the two mentioned above. Codex Alexandrinus lacks the aesthetic beauty of its two other counterparts.

Psalm 9 Codex Sinaiticus
A portion of Psalm 9 from Codex Sinaiticus (Image from the Codex Sinaiticus Project)

All of them emphasize the chorus line called a dipsalma (a pause between two verses so that different parts of the choir could properly harmonize in singing the Psalm).

It is clear that the numbering system in use with the Psalms today comes from the Septuagint but it is unclear when the Greeks started this tradition. We know it began before the 300s because both the Codex Vaticanus and Sinaiticus contains them. However, none of the New Testament writings contain any numbered Bible references. Similarly, the Jewish Aramaic community does not cite such a tradition either throughout the Mishnah or Gemarrah – the two main pieces that constitute the Jewish Babylonian Talmud.

The Latin

Two Latin texts examined from the 900s: Codex Toletanus,(9)Codex Toletanus Pg. 356 and Theodolphianus,(10)Codex Theodolphianus 147r have no numbers assigned to any poem.

The Syriac

Three Syriac texts were looked at, though I will not make comments about two them on the issue of numbering and order. They are the product of collations from the 1800s provided by Western-based scholars. These texts show modern influences in reference to structure. The first text is the UBS Syriac Bible, 1979. This Bible can be traced to the Arabic scholar, Samuel Lee, in the early 1800s. The Second one is the Urmia edition which also traces its roots to the 1800s.

There are only a handful of ancient Syriac Old Testament manuscripts available. One manuscript, the @750 AD Codex Syro-Hexaplaris Ambrosianus(11)Codex Syrohexaplaris Ambrosianus Pg. 526 is the only one available online and so we will have to settle for this one. The text has the Book of Psalms marked by a Syriac number. There is also Latin numbering and verses on the outside of text, but this is likely a later addition.

Codex Syro-Hexaplaris Ambrosianus
The start of Psalm 9 from Codex Syro-Hexaplaris Ambrosianus

The Leningrad Codex

Next to the Dead Sea Scrolls, this is one of the earliest complete Hebrew copies of the Tanakh available. It was completed in 1008 AD by the hand of Samuel ben Jacob in Cairo, Egypt.

This Codex, unlike the Great Psalm Dead Sea Scroll, has a Hebrew number assigned to each poem. This Codex follows the numerical pattern already established by the Septuagint with a few exceptions.

Psalm 9 Leningrad Codex
Beginning of Psalm 9 in the Leningrad Codex

When the Hebrew numbering system was added to the Masoretic texts is not known. Historians generally believe this became entrenched by Rabbi Solomon ben Ismael around 1330 AD. This is much later than the publication of the Leningrad Codex.(12) The Hebrew Bible as found at the Catholic based New Advent website.

Latin Texts

Codex Tolentanus (950 AD)(13)Codex Toletanus Pg. 356 and Codex Theodolphianus (950 AD)(14)Codex Theodolphianus 147r do not have any numbering system for the Book of Psalms. This may have been for artistic reasons that the numbers were excluded. More has to be researched on the Latin texts to see if numbering was consistenly omitted from the Book of Psalms.

The problem of Psalms 9 and 10. Were they intended to be separate or different poems?

There is a difficulty between the Septuagint and the Masoretic texts like the Leningrad Codex on the numbering of Psalms 9, 10, and 11. The Hebrew Leningrad Codex breaks Psalm 9 into two poems while the Septuagint does not. At least from what can be seen from the Latin Codex Theodolphianus (@950 AD), the medieval Catholic Church followed the Septuagint structure.(15)Codex Theoldolphianus online The modern English Bibles follow the Septuagint structure via Latin influence.

The Hebrew stops at 9:21, and begins a new poem at 9:22, while the Greek continues it as the same poem.

It has been contended that Psalm 9 and 10 poem is an acrostic. It apparently uses each letter of the alphabet in a unique order until the end of the poem. It cannot easily be seen and I have my doubts as there are 7 missing letters from this poem.(16)Ronald Benun is an *independent community scholar* (I am unsure what that means) who proposes this interpretation.

The Septuagint may be correct on this one. There is no header in the Hebrew that defines a start of a new poem at 9:21. There is a musical interlude called the sela in Hebrew, and translated as a dipsalma in Greek at this point. The poem is one entity. It should not have been separated into two because of the sela.

The Headers

Most poems listed in the Book of Psalms has a traditional header as a preface to them. One will frequently see at the start of a poem: by David, For the director of music, song of ascents, A contemplation of Asaph etc. On other occasions it can be a lengthy explanation of the Psalm such as Psalm 9 “For the director of music. To the tune of “The Death of the Son.” A Psalm of David.”(17)Psalm 9 NIV.

These were not penned as part of the poem by the original author but added later by an editor. This must have done early because there is no ancient manuscript without them.

The Psalm 9 header has an inconsistent history and translations are highly variable. It is an interesting facet in the Book of Psalms. This problem applies with more headers in the Book of Psalms but these potential instances have hardly been investigated for this article.

The muth-labben

The greatest reason for this variety is the original Hebrew. The Hebrew introduces Psalm 9 with: לַמְנַצֵּחַ, עַל-מוּת לַבֵּן. Lamnazecha, a’l-muth labben. The problem here is we don’t know what this line, especially מוּת לַבֵּן muth labben means. There is no definitive dictionary or historical artifact that can enlighten the translator. Because of this, translators throughout the centuries have arrived at different conclusions.

If one is to take מוּת לַבֵּן muth labben literally here, it could be understood as death to a son. However, this is not the theme of the Psalm itself which starts with an emphatic note of thankfulness. Muth labben is more likely an idiom related to a musical rite or instrument, but this is a calculated guess.

The New International Version Bible translation translates the header as:

For the director of music. To the tune of “The Death of the Son.” A psalm of David.(18)NIV as found at Bible Gateway

The NIV is ignoring the Greek altogether and translating literally from the Hebrew. The concept of music is in the right direction, but “death of a son” doesn’t fit.

The English Standard Version (ESV) takes a more cautious approach and does not even attempt to translate מוּת לַבֵּן muth labben:

To the choirmaster: according to Muth-labben. A Psalm of David.(19)ESV as found at Bible Gateway

Given the ambiguity of the idiom, the ESV translation is the proper approach.

The Greek

This line was translated as: εἰς τὸ τέλος ὑπὲρ τῶν κρυφίων τοῦ υἱοῦ ψαλμὸς τῷ Δαυιδ eis to telos huper ton kruphion tou psalmos to Dauid. Unfortunately, the Greeks caused more problems than solutions with their translation of this difficult Hebrew passage.

Εἰς τὸ τέλος eis to telos is frequently used throughout as a header in the Psalms. This is the Greek equivalent for the לַמְנַצֵּחַ lamnazecha. No one is exactly sure what it means either in the Hebrew or the Greek. In the Greek it can be literally understood as to the end but this hardly helps in understanding its context within the Psalms.

A recently published translation of the Septuagint, titled A New English Translation of the Septuagint translates εἰς τὸ τέλος eis to telos as, Regarding completion. Others understand to the end as in the end of the world and the coming of the Messiah. The apocalyptic theme doesn’t fit with the poems but, as will be shown later, has been popular in various editions.

The second part of the header of Psalm 9 isn’t any easier to comprehend except that this is the only occurrence in the Book of Psalms, . . .ὑπὲρ τῶν κρυφίων τοῦ υἱοῦ ψαλμὸς τῷ Δαυιδ . . .huper ton kruphion tou psalmos to Dauid. A New English Translation of the Septuagint translated it as, “Over the secrets of the son. A Psalm. Pertaining to David.”

The Syriac

The Syrians took the most liberty in translating the Book of Psalms headers. This is partly due to the translators using the Septuagint as their basis. The basic premise today is that the headers were influenced by a commentary on the Psalms by Theodore Mopsuestia. Not every manuscript from the Syriac manuscripts are the same either, and it is hard to trace this back to one author. There is more variety in the Syriac headers than in the Greek or even the Latin.

For example, Andrew Oliver translates the header on Psalm 9 from a Syriac text which is the same as the United Bible Society’s 1979 version.

A Psalm of David. — The session of the Messiah, and his reception of the kingdom, and frustration of the enemy.

This UBS Bible quotation is based on a Syriac edition collated and edited by Samuel Lee in 1826. What earlier manuscripts Mr. Lee used is not known at this time.

For the really inquisitive, here are pictures of the actual Syriac text he drew from:

Syriac Psalm 9 from Samuel Lee edition
Syriac Psalm 9 from the Lee edition.

However, this is not representative of all the Syriac texts. The Urmia edition has a completely different take.

Syriac Psalm 9 Urmia edition
Syriac Psalm 9 Urmia edition

Unfortunately, an English translation has not been properly prepared for the Urmia edition. The Urmia text was published around the same time as Samuel Lee’s edition. A superficial reading demonstrates the text is more conservative and non-messianic.

Any Syriac reader will push for the earlier documents Codes Syro-Hexaplaris Ambrosianus (@750 AD) and this one once again has a different header for Psalm 9:

Psalm 9 Header from the Codex Syro-Hexaplaris Ambrosianus

The translation reads, “For completion on account of the hidden things of the son. A Psalm of David.”(20)My translation The Ambrosianus text literally follows the Greek.

The Latin

The Latin manuscripts researched for this article reflect the same inconsistencies found within the Hebrew, Greek, and Syriac texts. The difference is found in which ancient Latin Bible the manuscript adhered to.

  • The Vetus Italica— a collation of second-century Latin Biblical quotes stitched together into a cohesive narrative has: “In finem propter occulta filii, psalmus ipsis david,”(21)Bibliorum Sacrorum Latinae Versiones Antiqua seu Vitus Italica D. Petri Sabatier. Book II. 1742 Unto the end, for the hidden things of the Son, a Psalm by David about these things.
  • The renowned philologist for his time, Santes Pagnino, tried to correct this problem in the 1400s when he compiled Liber Psalmorum, Hebraice. He took a middle path and translated it as “Victori super Muth-labben Canticum Davidis”For the Victor, about the Muth-labben, a Song of David.(22)Liber Psalmorum, Hebraice Joannis Konig. 1662
  • The Codex Theodolpianus (@950 AD) took from the Latin version credited to Jerome “victori super morte filii canticum david”(23)Gallica. Bibliothèque nationale de France For the Victor, about the death of a son, a song of David.
  • The Codex Toletanus, created around the same time as Theodolphianus, simply ignored any header at all.(24)Codex Toletanus Pg. 356


Charles Sullivan is a researcher and writer on topics of textual criticism, linguistics, theology, Christian mysticism and philosophy. He also frequently likes to delve into contemporary social and ethical issues from a faith perspective.

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