Stirring the Pot: Do You Preach the Superscriptions of the Psalms?

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For some reason unbeknownst to me, English translations of the Psalms decided not to number the superscriptions of the Psalms. This breaks with other printed practice, since the superscriptions are numbered in printed editions of the Hebrew text as well as the Greek and Latin translations. The verse numbers are not original to the authors of the individual Psalms, nor are they original to the collection of the Psalter. The verse references were added in the middle ages. For some reason, early English translators decided not to number the superscriptions, and they remain unnumbered down to the present. The problem with not numbering the superscriptions is that it gives the impression that they don’t belong with the biblical text.

Not only do the superscriptions go unnumbered, translations often put them in a different font, whether in small caps (such as in the ESV) or a smaller font (such as in the NASB and NIV), but one way or another the superscriptions are marked off as being somehow different from the rest of the text of the Psalm. This is fine, as long as it doesn’t result in the superscription being ignored.

My fear is that many serious students pay as much attention to the superscriptions as they do to the boldface subheadings some editors of modern translations have inserted into the text of the Psalms, that is, none! Concluding that the “real text” of the Psalms is not what the editors have added, serious students skip straight to verse 1, ignoring all that irrelevant prefatory text up top.

Some teachers of the Bible have also presented theological or literary arguments against interpreting the Psalms in light of the superscriptions. Worse still, some modern scholars have invented a whole set of supposed “genres” for Psalms, then their labels become procrustean beds on which the Psalms are made to lie. So instead of interpreting the texts as they stand, taking into account all the textual evidence present, they bring in a controlling theory of how the Psalms are to be classified, then they read the Psalms in light of their theory.

I have no interest in dissecting these arguments except to say this: the choice to ignore the superscriptions of the Psalms is nothing less than a radical text critical decision to exclude from consideration evidence that is in the text. We have no manuscript of the Psalms that lacks these superscriptions. Let me say that another way: every manuscript of the Psalms in our possession has the superscriptions. It is true that there are places where the superscriptions vary from one another, just as there are textual variants all over the rest of the Bible. But we have no warrant at the level of textual evidence to ignore the superscriptions of the Psalms.

These Psalms are not abstract installments in the world’s poetic registry. No, these Psalms are to be interpreted in the context of the canon, and the superscriptions are there to guide readers as to where the Psalms fit in the canonical story.

So here’s my conclusion: Are you a world-renowned Old Testament textual critic who has consciously decided that on the basis of your analysis of the manuscript evidence you cannot accept the superscriptions as belonging to the inspired, original text? Fine. Don’t preach them. But if that isn’t why you don’t preach the superscriptions, then my question for you is this: what reason can you give for ignoring part of the inspired text?

Preach the word! All of it. . .

Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).