How Were Biblical Psalms Originally Performed?

Ancient music and the Biblical psalms


We can learn from Assyrian depictions of ancient musicians a good deal about how Biblical psalms might have been performed. The meditative, introverted lute player on this eighth-century B.C.E. relief from Samal in modern Turkey, for instance, can give us an idea of what the performer of a wisdom psalm may have looked like. Photo: Vorderasiatisches Museum Berlin/Photo Thomas Staubli.

Biblical psalms have throughout millennia been an important part of traditional Jewish and Christian worship. In synagogues and churches around the globe, psalms are sung today as they were two or three thousand years ago. Or are they? How much do we really know about how Biblical psalms were originally performed? What might a psalm performance have looked like in the First Temple period, around 900 B.C.E.?

By examining available evidence, Thomas Staubli of the University of Freiburg, Switzerland, ventures to answer these intriguing questions in his Archaeological Views column “Performing Psalms in Biblical Times,” published in the January/February 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

To be sure, there are no ancient music notations to inform us on the music arrangements of psalms in Iron Age Israel. What’s more, even though the collection of Biblical psalms as we know it from the Hebrew Bible was established quite late, the oldest psalms were likely composed already in the 14th century B.C.E., from which we have no adequate documentation from Israelites themselves. Finally, given the Biblical prohibition against graven images (Exodus 20:4), we do not possess depictions of people performing psalms. Because of this absence of direct evidence, Staubli focuses on comparative material, suggesting that we can learn much by simply taking a look at the Levantine neighbors of the early Israelites.

“The Bible does not tell us much about how psalms were originally performed. Archaeology and extra-Biblical texts, however, can shed some light on the music and dance that accompanied psalms in Biblical times,” summarizes Staubli his approach to the puzzle.

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“Among the Levantine parallels to the Biblical psalms is the famous text corpus from Ugarit on the northern coast of modern Syria,” explains Staubli, referencing the so-called shuilla or the Akkadian “lifted-hand” petition prayers to different deities. Like many of Biblical psalms, these ritual prayers contain in their rubrics designations of the genre, the function of the prayer, or descriptions of ritual enactments. Two examples read as follows:

It is the wording of a lifted-hand to the god Enlil-banda. You do the ritual with either a ritual arrangement or an incense burner.

It is the wording of the lifted-hand prayer to the goddess Ishtar. Its ritual: In an inaccessible place (lit., where the foot is kept away) you sweep the roof, you sprinkle pure water, and you lay four bricks at right angles to one another. You heap twigs of the Euphrates poplar (on the brazier), and you kindle the fire. Aromatic plants, scented flour, and juniper wood you strew. You pour out beer. You do not prostrate yourself. This recitation before Ishtar you recite three times. You prostrate yourself, and you do not look behind you.1

There can further be no doubt that psalm singers were accompanied by players on musical instruments, which we can find depicted on numerous stone reliefs around the Levant (see image above).

Discovered on Elephantine, an island at the very southern border of ancient Egypt, the following fourth-century B.C.E. papyrus manuscript (P.Amherst 63) reveals that Yahweh was indeed seen as a music lover. Composed within the local Jewish community in Aramaic language but recorded in an Egyptian cursive script, it translates as follows: “Drink, Lord (YHWH), from the bounty of a thousand basins; be inebriated, Adonai, from the bounty of men. Musicians stand in attendance upon Lord (Mar): a player of the bass lyre (nevel), a player of the lyre (kinnor).”2

To learn more about ancient music and enactments of Biblical psalms, read the full Archaeological Views column “Performing Psalms in Biblical Times” by Thomas Staubli in the January/February 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. Examining both pictorial and written sources, Staubli reveals how psalms were likely performed in times of King David, who is credited with composing many of the Biblical psalms.


BAS Library Members: Read the full article “Performing Psalms in Biblical Times” by Thomas Staubli in the January/February 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.



1. Adapted from Alan Lenzi (ed.), Reading Akkadian Prayers and Hymns: An Introduction, Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011, pp. 241 & 284. From ancient times, lifted hands are an expression of prayer (or greeting).

2. Adapted from Richard C. Steiner and Charles F. Nims, The Aramaic Text in Demotic Script: Text, Translation, and Notes (self-published, 2017), p. 48.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Can Abecedaries Be Used to Date the Book of Psalms?

Does a Cylinder Seal Impression Depict the Oldest Musical Scene in Israel?

Ancient Clay Tablet Offers New Insights into the Gilgamesh Epic


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  • David says

    Did anyone look in the Bible?
    Psalm 150
    1 Praise the Lord.[a]

    Praise God in his sanctuary;
    praise him in his mighty heavens.
    2 Praise him for his acts of power;
    praise him for his surpassing greatness.
    3 Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet,
    praise him with the harp and lyre,
    4 praise him with timbrel and dancing,
    praise him with the strings and pipe,
    5 praise him with the clash of cymbals,
    praise him with resounding cymbals.
    6 Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.
    Praise the Lord.

  • Wyman says

    Most respectfully Sir
    Psalms 138:2  I will worship toward thy holy temple, and praise thy name for thy loving kindness and for thy truth: for thou hast magnified thy word above all thy name. 
    Mal 3:6  For I am the LORD, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.

  • REV says

    Very Good. Always wondered how the worship Jesus did has so little interest. I did read someplace that the music of the Church of South India is the most ancient. It is musically very rich. Also of interest from the textual evidence of the Dead Sea Scrolls, there were many Psalm copies identical to Ps 1 – 90 and then scattered diversity. The Psalms were in flux in Jesus day. Many new ones being written and passed around until the canon closed. Every synagog could be expected to have a choir and musicians. Long after that Jewish and Christian music changed into forms we know today.

  • nisaruddin says

    All original past Heavenly Revelations starting from The Book of Abraham,The Torah of Moses,The Psalms of David, The Gospel of Jesus are Mentioned in The Last and Final Revelation,The Holy Quran Revealed to the Last Prophet Muhammad, who came in the Series of past Prophets.All Prophets formed One brotherhood.Religon got perfected in and as islam by God in The Final Revelation.All Prophets were muslims/Monotheists.None was an idolator.All submitted their selves to the One true God of all Mankind.Please read Holy Quran with an Application of Mind to unravel the Truth.Best Translations are by Mr Marmaduke Pickthall [an englishman] and another by Mr abdullah yousuf Ali which is in english/other world languages with meanings in detail.And do Reform yourselves/Christians as Holy Quran Superseded Bible as The Law.[As a Lawyer I have done a lot of study and painstakenly went to the depths of Divine Knowledge and found the aforementiond truth]

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