Greek inscriptions and the textual history of the psalms
The use of passages from the Book of Psalms as decorative motifs is a common practice today, but this is by no means a new phenomenon. Indeed, inscriptions of the psalms played an important cultural role in the Greek-speaking world, as far back as the beginning of Christianity and up to the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. In the Summer 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Dimitrios Papanikolaou of the Democritus University of Thrace examines the history of these inscriptions in his article, “Second Life for the Psalms.” He explores their development, function, and even what they can teach us about the oldest Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible.
While Greek inscriptions of biblical passages can be found from the central Mediterranean to Asia Minor and the Levant, by far the most common passages used were from the Book of Psalms. The roots of this practice go back to the first century, mostly in Jewish contexts. However, beginning in the third century, the use of the Book of Psalms began to dominate this practice, making up over 95 percent of inscriptions from the Hebrew Bible. Such inscriptions were commonly used in mosaics, building façades, and even jewelry. While these inscriptions played a major role in decoration, according to Papanikolaou, they also had another function:
“There is a connection between the presence of psalms in postclassical Greek inscriptions and the popular belief in certain psalms’ apotropaic (protecting from or repelling evil) nature. This is especially the case with Psalm 91 and with Psalms 29:3; Psalms 46:7, Psalms 46:11; Psalms 118:20; Psalms 121:8, which frequently appear in inscriptions.”
Although these inscriptions from Psalms are often abridged, or even completely rephrased, they have a lot to teach us about the textual history of the Greek translations of the Book of Psalms. Particularly before the ninth century, these decorative motifs are among the oldest known Greek translations of these psalms. In some cases, they even predate the oldest extant Greek biblical manuscripts, such as the Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Vaticanus, or Codex Alexandrinus. Psalmic inscriptions have much to offer about both the importance of the psalms in the life of these ancient peoples, but also the history of the biblical text.
To learn more about the history and function of the Book of Psalms in the Greek world, read Dimitrios Papanikolaou’s article “Second Life for the Psalms” published in the Summer 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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