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Psalm 151 and the Dead Sea Scrolls

Psalm 151 infrared image
Infrared photograph of a version of Psalm 151 from Qumran (11Q5).

The discovery of the first Dead Sea Scrolls near Qumran in 1947, and subsequently many more near Qumran and at other sites in the Judean desert, has revolutionized biblical studies. For example, several scrolls offer new insights on the formation and contents of various books that we now call biblical.

In the traditional Hebrew Bible, the Book of Psalms contains 150 psalms, but some early Bibles—namely, the Septuagint and Syriac Bibles—include Psalm 151 and Psalms 152-55.

Psalm 154 is represented in two Qumran scrolls: the Great Psalms Scroll and the Apocryphal Psalm and a Prayer for King Jonathan. Psalm 154 is a wisdom poem, which may be classified as a call to worship. One feature is the personification of Wisdom as a woman (verses 5 onward), which also occurs in the Hebrew Bible (Prov 8:34) and in the book of Sir 1:15. Psalm 155 is also found in the Great Psalms Scroll and may be described as a psalm of thanksgiving that incorporates a plea for deliverance. It contains a large amount of biblical vocabulary and is reminiscent of Ps 22 and Ps 51.

Psalm 151 is the last psalm in the Septuagint (Greek) Psalter and is accepted as canonical by all the Orthodox churches. Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, this psalm was known only as a single composition in the Septuagint and in the Latin and Syriac translations made from it. A Hebrew copy of Psalm 151 is found in the Great Psalms Scroll, but as two separate compositions—Psalms 151A and 151B.

The discovery of Psalms 151A and 151B among the Qumran scrolls is important for several reasons. As in the Septuagint, the Great Psalms Scroll Psalter ends with Psalm 151. Although the Hebrew text differs from the Greek in many ways, this “Qumran Psalter” shows that by the Common Era some Jews were using a collection of Psalms that also closed with Psalm 151. Having both the Hebrew original and the Greek translation provides important insights on the technique used by the translator. Reworking his source material, he condensed Psalms 151A and 151B into one Greek psalm of seven verses, changing the order of several verses and omitting some material. Additionally, Psalms 151A and 151B (Hebrew) and 151 (Greek) are the only psalms considered to be autobiographical in terms of clearly relating to actual events in David’s life. While some superscriptions to Psalms 1-150 include similar references to David, the actual texts of those Psalms never mention him.

A comparison of the superscriptions in the Great Psalms Scroll and the Septuagint shows the Dead Sea Scroll version to be more Davidic. The Septuagint—although ascribing the Psalm to David and mentioning his encounter with Goliath—declares it to be “outside the number” (of the book of Psalms). This seems to reflect later editors’ concerns about the place of Psalm 151 in the Greek Psalter, in the early centuries of the Common Era, when the form now represented by the Masoretic collection of 150 psalms was becoming increasingly influential for Judaism.

Psalm 151 Version Comparison

Psalm 151 A and B in 11QPsa

Psalm 151 in the Septuagint

(Psalm 151A)
Hallelujah! A Psalm of David, son of Jesse.

This psalm is autographical, ascribed to David (but outside the number), after he had fought with Goliath in single combat.
1 I was smaller than my brothers,
and the youngest of my father’s sons,
so he made me shepherd of his flock
and ruler over his little goats.
2 My hands fashioned a reed pipe,
and my fingers a lyre;

1 I was small among my brothers,
and the youngest in my father’s house;
I would shepherd my father’s sheep.

2 My hands made a harp;
my fingers fashioned a lyre.

and so I gave glory to the LORD.
I said in my mind:
3 “The mountains cannot testify to him,
nor can the hills proclaim—
lift up my words, you trees,
and my compositions, you sheep.

3 And who will tell
my Lord?  The Lord himself; it is he who hears.

4 For who can announce, and who can declare,
and who can recount my deeds?
The Lord of everything has seen,
the God of everything has heard, and he has paid attention.
5 He sent his prophet to anoint me,
Samuel to raise me up.
My brothers went out to meet him,
handsome of figure, handsome in appearance.
6 Although they were tall of stature
and handsome because of their hair,
the LORD God did not choose them.
7 But he sent and fetched me from behind the flock
and anointed me with the holy oil,
and he made me prince of his people

and ruler over the sons of his covenant.

(Psalm 151B)
At the beginning of po[we]r for [Dav]id,
after God’s prophet had anointed him.

4 a It was he who sent his messenger

4b Then he took me from my father’s sheep,
4c and anointed me with his anointing oil.

5 My brothers
were handsome
and tall, but the Lord was not pleased with them.

6 I went out to meet the Philistine,
and he cursed me by his idols.
7 But I drew his own sword; I beheaded him,
and took away disgrace from the people of Israel.

1 Then I s[a]w the Philistine,
throwing out taunts from the r[anks of the enemy].
2 …I…the…

  • Peter W. Flint

    Peter W. Flint holds the Canada Research Chair in Dead Sea Scrolls Studies at Trinity Western University, Canada. His publications include The Dead Sea Psalms Scrolls and the Book of Psalms (Brill, 1997), The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible (HarperOne, 1999), and The Meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls (HarperOne, 2002). He is also the coeditor of the Cave 4 Psalms Scrolls and is preparing the Book of Psalms for The Oxford Hebrew Bible and a new edition of the Cave 11 Psalms Scroll for the series Dead Sea Scrolls Editions.