That is the theme of an international conference to be held at Oxford University, September 22-24, 2010. The locale and lineup of speakers is as good as it gets: John Barton, Bill Bellinger, Adele Berlin, John Day, Peter Flint, Erhard Gerstenberger, Susan Gillingham, Knut Heim, Frank-Lothar Hossfeld (who will read the paper the late Erich Zenger had prepared for the conference), David Howard, Dirk Human, Philip Johnston, Corinna Körting, Jonathan Magonet, Aaron Rosen, Klaus Seybold, Elizabeth Solopova, Nancy deClassé Walford, and Geza Vermes. For more information, go here.
The study of the Psalms is in a sweet spot at the moment. Our understanding of the Psalms continues to be enriched by examining them against the background of Sumerian, Akkadian, and Egyptian analogues, and in the light of ANE iconography. Thanks to discoveries made at Qumran, it is now clear that the Psalter as preserved in the MT and the LXX, with precisely those psalms and no others and in that specific arrangement is the end-result of a history in which Psalm collections came in various shapes and sizes, each of which repays study (the MT and LXX Psalters also differ in large and small details). We now know that Second Temple Judaism was multiform to an extraordinary degree, the foundational texts thereof consisting of a common core of texts which nonetheless circulated in far from identical textual shapes, alongside of which a number of additional texts might be deployed with equal or greater intensity to meet halachic, metanarrative, and liturgical needs. Besides the "non-canonical segments" (an anachronistic designation) of manuscripts like 4QPsf, 11QPsa, and 11QPsb, it is clear that a variety of liturgical texts as old or almost as old as the most recently composed Psalms in the MT Psalter are attested at Qumran. The study of the Psalter(s) in terms of redactional unity, a book whose components relate to each other in purposeful ways, continues to lead to a variety of insights.
Last but not least, the immense history of reception of the Psalms is just beginning to be explored not apart from, but in connection with, the foregoing. It is also the case that the Psalms are beginning to be read for all they are worth in terms of their response to the fundamental dilemmas of life - ordeals of various kinds, personal and collective, self-inflicted dissonance (sin), the gap between expectations and reality in terms of divine providence - without assimilating that response to Jewish and Christian adjustments of later periods. On the other hand, transpositions of the hopes, fears, and solutions the Psalms set forth attested in the history of their reception are valued in their own right without insinuating that the transpositions are invalid because they are Jewish as opposed to Christian, the opposite, or without a firm mooring in either tradition of interpretation. It is a brave new world.
Among the papers I would love to hear is by a newcomer to the field, Aaron Rosen. The title: “When I Paint I Pray: Marc Chagall and the Psalms.” Was Chagall a believer? I'm not sure he was. But we pray, not necessarily because we already believe, but because we want to believe. Even if God is unresponsive to our plight, he should be responsive, and we pray on the basis of that ineluctable truth. "I believe; help thou my unbelief!"