Hippolytus (d. 236 AD) on the Psalter

Hippolytus (bishop in Rome around 220-236 AD) wrote quite a bit for the benefit of the early church; many of his writings have been recovered and translated.  One particular fragment I found fascinating is his short introduction to the Psalter (found with other writings of his in Ante Nicene Fathers, V.199ff).  I’ll summarize his brief discussion here – notice how he wrestled with many of the things we still wrestle with today.

1) Authorship.  Hippolytus disagreed with some in his day that David wrote all the psalms.  He notes a tradition that Esdra “collected in one volume, after the captivity, the psalms of several [persons]….”  In other words, “as they are therefore the words of so many thus collected together, they could not be said by any one who understands the matter to be by David alone.”

2) More on authorship.  He suggests, following a Hebrew scholar he does not name, that when one psalm has an inscription (i.e. of David) the “inscriptionless” psalms following it were also written by that author.  This, he posits, is how the collector put the Psalter together.  Hippolytus does write that he isn’t certain here, but says it is plausible.

3) On the inspiration of the Psalter: “It is entirely the voice and utterance of the most Holy Spirit.”

4) On the number of psalms (150):  He says the three 50’s reflect the Sabbath of Sabbaths – that is, the new beginning, the eighth, “of a really new rest that remains above the Sabbaths.”  The 50th, the 100th, and the 150th psalm, Hippolytus notes, all contain clear gospel praise reflecting the fulfillment of the Sabbath.  He also suggests that the 5 book division of the Psalter reflects the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the Bible).

5) On the order of the psalms: They “are not found in regular historical order.”  Instead, the collector/redactor ordered them for a higher purpose than historical chronology, namely, the theology reflected in the numbering and content of the psalms.

6) On music: David was a gifted singer and composer, Hippolytus writes.  The psaltery’s (Hebrew: nabla) sound was “high” and came from the upper parts of the instrument, which was fitting for the psalms, because they lift our minds beyond the music to heaven.  Thus we should not “suffer ourselves to be borne down by the pleasure of melody to the passions of the flesh.”  In a beautiful way, he reflects the order and glory of psalm-praise to the beautiful melody of Christ’s sinless life. Christ “maintained in all things, as it were, harmony towards the Father” (he quotes Is 53.9 and John 3.31).

There are quite a few implications of Hippolytus’ remarks on the Psalter.  First, these things should be consulted and discussed by OT critics/scholars of every stripe.  Second, this small fragment of an intro to the Psalter reminds us that many of these church fathers were brilliant scholars who would make many of us look like twittering school children!  Third, these writings are a great testimony to the Word of God.  The early church had a 5-book, 150 psalm Psalter which they understood to be written ultimately by the Spirit of God as a Christian collection of praise to God for the gospel.  There are more implications; these are just three.  Any more come to mind?

Speaking of early church history, I just noticed that T. Oden edited a sort of devotional that contains brief portions of the early church fathers.  It is called (fittingly), Ancient Christian Devotional: A Year of Weekly Readings. Click the link and you’ll be able to see a preview of the book – looks pretty good.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

3 thoughts on “Hippolytus (d. 236 AD) on the Psalter”

  1. An Ancient Christian Devotional is awesome! I’ve had that idea, but never followed up on it.

    This sort of brief coverage of an early Christian writing or writer is nice. Bits and pieces of history for people to get. More of us should be doing this.

    Good job.

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  2. Some people say that the farther in time we are removed from a historical time period or document the more difficult it is for us to understand it. However, as I reflect on the implications of what you wrote concerning Hippolytus’ comments on the Psalter, I find comfort in the fact that our contemporary struggles with the Psalter existed back in his day as well. This shows, at least to me, that we are not worse off in our interpretations of this ancient book.

    Shane, I want to be just like you when I grow up. =)

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  3. Thanks guys.

    Brad: it is comforting that there is a clear exegetical/interpretive parallel way back there in church history. The continuity is an amazing testimony to Jesus’ words: the gates of hell will not prevail against the church!

    your fellow “beggar” (in Luther’s sense of the term)

    shane lems

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