The Titles of the Psalms: Original?

I’ve gone back and forth while contemplating and studying the titles of the psalms (i.e. Ps. 18’s For the choir director [NLT]).  Were these titles written by the original author of the psalm?   Are they original or later additions?  Are they canonical and inspired?  By way of summary, here are what a few psalm scholars say.

Goldingay doubts the canonicity of the titles (Psalms 1-41 in the Baker OT commentary series p. 26-29).  Longman says they are historical and reliable, but not canonical (How to Read the Psalms, p. 41; cf An Introduction to the Old Testament, p. 215).  Westermann wrote that the titles were part of the dynamic and ongoing tradition of Israel (Praise and Lament in the Psalms, p.257-258; several other authors say the same).  Mays says the titles “were not part of the original text, and were probably built up rather than prefixed in toto” (Psalms, p. 11).   Many “higher” critics say the titles are midrashic additions and absolutely not part of the canon.   While many of these above authors have made some solid comments concerning the origin of the titles, I think Mark Futato’s approach is the best (in Interpreting the Psalms: An Exegetical Handbook, pages 119-122).  Here it is – I’ll deal with the canonical aspect in a later post.

“The titles are canonical although not necessarily original.  It seems that at least some of the titles to individual psalms are not original to the text but were added later.”

He gives these reasons for his view that they are not necessarily original but later editorial additions.

1) The titles are written in the third person and thus have an editorial bent (he cites Kidner’s Psalms 1-72, p. 33).  Furthermore, I (spl) might add, they all have a similar grammatical style while the psalms themselves do not always have a similar style.

2) Only 116 psalms have titles in the MT (the Hebrew Bible) while the LXX (the Septuagint – not to mention other OT translations/collections) has titles for all but two psalms, proving that there was a certain “fluidity” in the titles even during the later stages of scribal collections of the psalms.

3) Psalms 14 and 53 are most likely two different versions of the same psalm – they are nearly identical in content, and the titles are almost the same.  The differences can be attributed to an editor of some sort.  “The difference in titles suggests that the titles were added independently and, therefore, that at least one of the two was added after the original composition of the psalm.”

4) This one is an additional reason for the non-original view of the titles, found in Goldingay’s commentary (cited above).  Goldingay notes well that using titles was not the norm in the ANE; furthermore, he writes, using titles is not something we really see elsewhere in the OT.

I think Futato (and others with this view of some sort) is on to something.  If any book/collection in the OT has clear editorial work, it is the Psalter!  For example, while Psalm 69 has “to/of David” in its title, in 69.35 there is a pretty clear postexilic theme.  Also, Ps 72.20 is a clear editorial note: The prayers of David son of Jesse are ended (NRSV).  Finally, we can be pretty certain that the earliest and latest psalms span around 1,000 years – the collection was an ongoing thing at least to some extent.  There are of course more things to note as far as the editing of the psalter, these are but a few.

This shouldn’t trouble us too much, for this kind of editorial work is also found in the Pentateuch (and elsewhere) which talks about Moses’ death and the approximate location of his grave (Deut 34.5ff).  Therefore, I agree with Longman when he (with the late Ray Dillard) says the Psalter “was a dynamic, growing, and changing book during the canonical period” (An Introduction to the Old Testament, 219).  This is part of its beauty!  It is quite time bound on the one hand, on the other it in a way transcends time.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

6 Replies to “The Titles of the Psalms: Original?”

  1. Very cool stuff. I would like to pick up Futato’s handbook when I have the chance.

    BTW – an article you should read is by Bruce Waltke entitled something like “Subscripts, Superscripts, or both?” – I believe it was published in JBL a few years back. I believe he argues that several of the superscripts were originally subscripts of the previous Psalm which “migrated” to the next Psalm over the course of canon formation. He’s working off the idea of a colophon in other ANE writings which came at the end of a work. It’s a really interesting and intriguing read.


    1. I have heard of it; several sources I read mentioned it, and others also suggest that some titles might be a sort of ANE footnote to the previous psalm.

      Futato’s book is great. Good stuff.



  2. I read Futato’s book for Psalms and Wisdom class last year. It is my favorite introductory book on the Psalms. I also like how he demonstrates how to go from text to sermon with Psalm 29.

    I think that part of the reason why scholars are starting to reconsider the canonicity of the titles is because more work is being done on the overall message of the Psalms. Futato and the late Gerald Wilson have contributed much to the discussion. I am also looking forward to Dr. Godfrey’s book on the Psalms coming out. He gives his theory on the overall message. I have already listened to his lectures on this and it is good stuff.


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