Has Psalm 156 Been Found?

With Images of MS RNL Antonin 798

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James H. Charlesworth
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , October
     160 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In James H. Charlesworth’s monograph, prepared with the assistance of Brandon L. Allen, he asks the titular question: Has Psalm 156 Been Found? Over the next one hundred or so pages, Charlesworth answers his rhetorical question with a resounding yes: he repeatedly suggests that the manuscript RNL Antonin 798 is an ancient Jewish pseudepigraphon related to the non-Masoretic Davidic Psalms 151–155.

RNL Antonin 798 is a medieval manuscript that was placed in the Cairo Genizah in late antiquity. In the late 19 century, it was purchased by the Russian Archimandrite Antonin. The manuscript joined approximately 1,200 manuscripts in the Antonin Collection and was entrusted to the National Library of Russia (RNL) in Saint Petersburg (then Leningrad), where it remains today. The RNL has not digitized this manuscript, so Charlesworth’s images of the manuscript (courtesy of the RNL) in his appendix disseminate the manuscript to the public at large for the first time.

In Charlesworth’s first chapter, he translates and annotates Psalms 151–155, which he suggests are related to the text of MS RNL Antonin 798. While translating, he probes different literary techniques and biblical references. Through an analysis of their language of composition, manuscript history, and attribution to David, Charlesworth suggests that these hymns predate 70 CE. He emphasizes that while only Psalm 151 is attested in the Septuagint, Psalms 151, 154, and 155 are found in the Qumran Psalms Scroll and are written in Hebrew; therefore, they predate 70 CE. On the other hand, Psalms 152 and 153 are only attested in Syriac. While Charlesworth suggests that they may have originally been Hebrew and predate 70 CE, he does not definitively prove these claims. Interestingly, he notes their “poor poetic character” (10) which may suggest that these postdate 70 CE. The author’s clear translations of these Hebrew and Syriac psalms are an impressive testament to his skill and resources.

Charlesworth directly addresses MS RNL Antonin 798 and translates the text in chapter 2, again focusing closely on literary techniques and biblical parallels. After his translation, he explores whether this is a “Psalm of David,” a Davidic pseudepigraphon. He notes (among other factors) that many of the Masoretic Psalms that are attributed to David do not explicitly reference David, while MS RNL Antonin 798 repeatedly identifies David by name. Therefore, he concludes this is a “Psalm of David.” Furthermore, he points to line 1.23, which claims David is “above the angels.” Charlesworth suggests that this is an early iteration of the “exalted status” that is later attributed to others, for example, Enoch, Melchizedek, Jesus, and Hillel.  

In his third chapter, Charlesworth (re)addresses five issues: the number of psalms in the text of the manuscript (some argue as many as four psalms exist), the 2nd century date, Davidic attribution, relationship to Qumran, and his proposed new name, “Psalm 156.” He convincingly suggests that the manuscript should be dated between 165 and 63 BCE (but urges his readers not to be “positivistic,” 66). He suggests that the references to the celebration of the elimination of idol worship demonstrate the text was composed after the Maccabean revolt (163 BCE) and before Pompey’s campaign (63 BCE). Charlesworth reconstructs a provenance for the manuscript, arguing that this hymn predates the Qumran community, was stored in the “Qumran Library,” and was discovered among other non-canonical psalms. Then, the hymn made its way from Jerusalem to Cairo and later the Genizah thanks to Karaites, a non-Rabbinic sect that was sympathetic to non-Rabbinic psalms and was present in both Jerusalem and Cairo. His argument is inspired by other Qumranic texts found in the Genizah (the Damascus Document and Testament of Levi) and Qumranic language found in the manuscript. He also defends the name “Psalm 156” by arguing that it is a Second Temple Hebrew Davidic pseudepigraphon and that the attribution follows in the scholarly tradition of numbering non-Masoretic Psalms 151–155. I think Charlesworth’s most convincing defense of the name “Psalm 156” is that this attribution will help rescue this manuscript from obscurity and raise awareness of it in biblical studies and the scholarly community at large.

While there is a brief conclusion, chapter 4 operates in lieu of a more expansive conclusion and explores the importance of MS RNL Antonin 798 for the Hebrew Bible, early Judaism, and Christian origins.

So, has Psalm 156 been found? I think that an important ancient manuscript containing a hymn has been found, but perhaps not a psalm. The attribution of Psalm 156 to MS RNL Antonin 798 strikes me as overly sensationalist, since the hymn does not appear in any canonical traditions, contrary to the connotations of the attribution. Furthermore, many other noncanonical hymns have surfaced at Qumran and they have not been numbered. While Charlesworth initially asks in his title whether Psalm 156 has been found, by the end of his book he is confident that he has found it in MS RNL Antonin 798.

Nevertheless, Charlesworth raises thought-provoking questions for this peculiar manuscript. By providing a detailed translation and publishing images of this underexamined ancient Jewish hymn, the author has written a useful resource for biblical and Qumranic scholars, as well as scholars of early Judaism and Christianity. This monograph ultimately rescues this manuscript from near obscurity and demonstrates the valuable parallels that the hymn has to the Hebrew Bible, Dead Sea Scrolls, and the New Testament.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Malamud is a doctoral student of religion at Boston University.

Date of Review: 
May 15, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James H. Charlesworth is George L. Collord Professor of New Testament Language and Literature and Director and Editor of the PTS Dead Sea Scrolls Project.


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