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Why are my Psalms all jumbled up?

by | Nov 8, 2023 | Religion | 0 comments

The Psalms are a collection of religious songs, poems, and prayers that are central to both Jewish and Christian liturgies.

But the numbering of the Psalms varies from Bible translation to Bible translation. If you are reading a Bible and you see something like Psalm 9 (9,10) or Psalm 45 (46), what you’re encountering is the divergence between the numbering systems.

The reason you’re getting the parenthetical is because the team who translated this particular Bible wanted to make sure the information was available for you to cross reference in different translations.

What is happening? I’m so confused.

We got into this pickle because the numbering of the Psalms differs between two ancient sources of Biblical texts: the Septuagint (LXX) and the Masoretic Text (MT).

  1. Septuagint (LXX): This is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which was produced between the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE for Greek-speaking Jews in Egypt. The Septuagint has its own numbering system for the Psalms, which in some cases combines certain Psalms that are separate in the Masoretic Text into one Psalm, or — even more fun — it will sometimes split apart Psalms that are combined in the Masoretic Text.
  2. Masoretic Text (MT): This is the authoritative Hebrew text of the Jewish Bible and was compiled by the Masoretes between the 7th and 10th centuries CE. The Masoretic Text serves as the basis for most modern translations of the Old Testament in Protestant Bibles.

The King James Version, the New International Version, the English Standard Version, and many other translations use the Masoretic Text.

The reason this matters is that if you’re doing any scholarly work, engaging in liturgical practices, or deep diving into scripture, it’s important to know that what you think is a Psalm in one text, maybe from a different Psalm in a different translation. If you’re speaking to people who do not necessarily all use the same Bible, you need to specify.

The Eastern Church generally follows the Septuagint, while the Western Church generally follows the Masoretic. I, personally, prefer the Eastern Orthodox Bible, for reasons I will dive into in another post.

But with that come some challenges in the Psalms because the differences are substantial, and I need to be mindful of my citations.

For example:

  • Psalms 9 and 10 in the Masoretic Text are combined into a single Psalm 9 in the Septuagint.
  • Psalms 114 and 115 in the Masoretic Text are combined into Psalm 113 in the Septuagint.
  • Psalms 116 in the Masoretic Text is divided into Psalms 114 and 115 in the Septuagint.
  • Psalms 147 in the Masoretic Text is divided into Psalms 146 and 147 in the Septuagint.

As a result of these and a few other such combinations and divisions, Psalms 10–147 in the Masoretic Text are numbered one to two psalms ahead in the Septuagint. From Psalm 148 to Psalm 150 (the final Psalm), the numbering in both texts matches.

Why are some Bibles different? 

I am no expert, but I’m fairly certain most Protestant Bibles use the Masoretic Text. You’ll really only encounter the Septuagint when you’re frolicking around in an Orthodox Bible. For most people, that’s pretty much never.

But if you stick with me, my podcast, and my upcoming daily devotional, you’ll encounter the Orthodox Bible and the Septuagint on a fairly regular basis.

The Orthodox Church prefers the Septuagint for a number of reasons.

First, historical precedent. The Orthodox Church is all about tradition and authenticity. The Septuagint was the first major translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into another language, and it was widely used in the Hellenistic Jewish communities and by early Christians, many of whom were Greek-speaking. The use of the Septuagint was well-established by the time the Church was forming its canonical scriptures.

Second, tradition. Early Christians, including the Apostles, often used the Septuagint as their scripture. Many quotations from the Hebrew Bible found in the New Testament are closer to the Septuagint’s wording than to that of the Masoretic Text. The Orthodox Church values this apostolic tradition and sees the Septuagint as a crucial link to the early Church.

Third, authenticity. The Orthodox Church regards the Septuagint as inspired and often sees it as reflecting the Christian understanding of Old Testament prophecy with more clarity than the Masoretic Text. They believe that the translators of the Septuagint were guided by the Holy Spirit and that the translation has a providential and sacramental quality.

Fourth, and perhaps most important, continuity. The Orthodox Church places a strong emphasis on the continuity of worship and doctrine. Changing the canonical text of the Old Testament to the Masoretic Text would represent a significant departure and disrupt continuity. 

In the next post I’ll share why I — a Quaker — prefer the Orthodox Bible.


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