The Triumvirate of Psalms Study

As I embark on writing my MTh dissertation I have had to put into practice some of the best advice I have ever been given regarding reading. I can’t remember exactly who I heard give this advice, but it has shaped my reading ever since.

reading4The advice was that instead of spending all your time reading your favourite authors, spend some of that time reading the people who have influenced your favourite authors. The example of Tim Keller was given as he is a hugely popular author. The observant reader, however, will notice that Keller frequently references and quotes C. S. Lewis in many of his books. Thus, the advice was to not just read Keller, but also Lewis.

As I have turned my attention to a dissertation on the Psalms I have had to look beyond my favourite commentators on this most celebrated section of Scripture; I have had to read the authors who have influenced them. As I have done so I have found that there are three scholars who have cast their shadow over modern Psalms study, the triumvirate of Psalms study if you will.

If you wish to find out why your favourite commentator on the Psalms writes the way he does on the Psalms, the likelihood is that you will find your answer in the work of one of these three scholars.

Herman Gunkel

The first of these scholars is Herman Gunkel (1862-1932).

Gunkel’s major contribution to biblical studies was the development of something called Form Criticism. The aim of this type of biblical investigation, in Gunkel’s own words, was to ‘strive to overhear the innate, natural division of this type of poetry’ (Introduction to the Psalms, pg. 7). The result of this work was the rise of types of Psalms. Gunkel was the one who developed an understanding that there are psalms of praise, thanksgiving, lament, and that these are understood as originating from individuals and communities.

Despite a degree of revision and augmentation over the years (and by different scholars) Gunkel’s categories continue to provide the framework within which Psalms study takes place. This is evident by browsing any introduction to any Psalms commentary today.

Sigmund Mowinckel

The second scholar, Sigmund Mowinckel (1884-1965), was a student of Gunkel’s.

Mowinckel’s influence on Psalms study surrounds what the scholars call Sitz im Leben. This is German for ‘life setting’. In other words Mowinckel was concerned with the historical situation out of which each individual psalm arose. He was consumed with the context of the Ancient Near East’s religious ceremonies and what light they could shed on the religious life of Israel (out of which he argued many if not all the psalms had arisen). Through thorough historical work, and some imaginative reconstructions Mowinckel was proposed a variety of religious celebrations as the Sitz im Leben of the Psalms.

These arguments have had a lesser impact on popular treatments of the psalms than Gunkel’s contribution, and we should be grateful for that as much of Mowinckel’s work is challenged or discredited by scholars today. Nonetheless, there are things to learn here with regard to the Psalms and their origin which can be helpful.

Gerald Wilson

The final scholar is the late Gerald Wilson (1945-2005).

Wilson altered the face of Psalms study during the 1980s with a plethora of publications that effectively argued for a canonical reading of the Psalms. The most important of which was undoubtedly his PhD dissertation published in 1985. Wilson’s premise was that the book of Psalms should not only be read as 150 individual poems, but also as one whole book. In particular he argued the monarchy of Israel provided the contours to follow as royal Psalms (one of Gunkel’s categories) could be found at significant junctures of the book.

In my opinion, on the whole Wilson offers a solid and convincing argument (although not all scholars would agree). However, academically speaking, this is a relatively new theory and so it is not yet a complete one. But a discussion of the Psalms (indeed of Scripture as a whole) in light of Wilson’s work is certainly in vogue currently.


If you wish to find out why your favourite commentator on the Psalms writes the way he does on the Psalms, the likelihood is that you will find your answer in the work of one of these three scholars. Their work has shaped Psalms study for the past century, and I dare say will do so for the next century!

However, it must be acknowledged that their work is not always the easiest to find, never mind read. Therefore, next week I will give my top five commentaries on the Psalms. These will undoubtedly be more accessible than the work of the triumvirate of Psalms study, and yet will inevitably be indebted to them too.


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