Appointed As

Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis


ACLS Emerging Voices Fellowships program


Stanford University

PhD Field of Study

PhD, Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, Brandeis University

Dissertation Abstract

"Sing to the Lord a New(-ish) Song: The Psalms of the Egyptian Hallel Across Two Thousand Years"

Popular and academic treatments alike usually portray the biblical Book of Psalms as a fixed and stable literature, a collection of 150 discrete compositions that were joined together in antiquity to create a unique larger work. According to this view, the essential identity of the Psalms is an ideal abstraction, the critical “best text” against which individual manuscripts are judged for their fidelity or corruption.
This ideal text, however, was not the one used by the majority of readers throughout history, who interacted with manuscripts that exhibit a profound and beautiful diversity of readings and configurations. Thus, this dissertation takes a fundamentally different approach, following recent disciplinary movements in Book History and Material Philology and utilizing tools and models developed in evolutionary biology. It proposes a new characterization of the Psalms’ nature and history that is firmly rooted in the Psalms as phenomena that are always and necessarily instantiated on material objects.
I use the Psalm series known as the Egyptian or Passover Hallel (Psalms 113–118) as a representative example to demonstrate the perennial diversity and changeability of the Psalms. The bulk of the dissertation presents a comprehensive survey and analysis of the textual history of the series. Chapters cover each of the main manuscript populations that witness to the Psalms: the medieval Hebrew manuscripts of the biblical Book of Psalms (dating from the 10th to the 17thcentury CE), translations into Greek, Latin, Coptic, and Syriac from late antiquity (2nd to 10th c. CE), and the Dead Sea Psalms Scrolls (3rd c. BCE to 1st c. CE). A final chapter uses literary clues within the texts of the Psalms themselves to discern processes of their development and transmission in times before the earliest extant manuscripts.
The study finds no single text of the Psalms, nor grounds on which to defend one. Rather, pluriformity and variance characterize the manuscript populations in each period. Medieval Psalters share more or less the same sequence of words and lines but divide them into different numbers of Psalms at different locations. No fewer than 60 distinct division schemes of the Egyptian Hallel alone occur within the population of medieval Psalms manuscripts, numbering between three and eleven Psalms. Segmentations found in manuscripts of the ancient translations into Greek, Coptic, Latin, and Syriac differ one from the other and all from the received Hebrew Psalter, but show uniformity within their separate lineages. Variable segmentation is also evident among the Dead Sea Psalms Scrolls, which further vary in the size, order, and contents of their Psalms collections and contain Psalms that were not included in the biblical Psalter. Finally, an analysis of parallels between Psalms in the Masoretic Psalter points to long histories of adaptation and reuse prior to the manuscript record.
Considering this persistent and inalienable diversity in populations of Psalms manuscripts, this study suggests that it is time to abandon singular or ideal concepts of the Psalms in favor of definitions that portray them as a collective or categorical phenomenon, akin to a biological species. Like a species, the full potential of Psalms literature cannot be expressed in any single exemplar, and like a species the Psalms are constantly changing—co-evolving alongside material, technological, and socio-cultural factors in ever-changing contexts of transmission. Although every bit of text must have originated at some point in time, our manuscripts attest to no original and no final form, only a long process of reuse, revision, and reformulation in the hands of many reading and writing communities.