The book of Psalms is probably the most famous book in the Christian canon. Verses from the Psalms can be found in private letters, on Christian t-shirts, and even on shareable internet memes. However, the notoriety of the Psalms is not new.
This book appears to have been a favorite of the Apostles—its words are often cited in the writings of the New Testament. This book was also important to the Qumran community of ancient Israel: scholars have found more citations from and manuscripts of the Psalms than any other biblical book among the Dead Sea Scrolls.
When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, did the Psalms read the same as in our modern Bibles? Definitely yes. But in a few isolated places, there are differences worth knowing about—a handful of differences that influence how the book of Psalms is translated into English. Here are three of these differences.
Affliction from whom? (Psalm 119:71)
Psalm 119 is known for its glorious praise of God’s perfect word, so it is somewhat surprising to find a remark about affliction within this lengthy Psalm. In agreement with the KJV, most modern translations of Psalm 119:71 read:
It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn your statutes.
The psalmist does not name a particular persecutor. The best option in the context is probably the “proud” mentioned two verses earlier (119:69). However, the CEV translation mentions that the affliction was from God himself:
When you corrected me, it did me good because it taught me to study your laws.
The CEV translators were not “adding interpretation” into the text of Scripture. No, in this instance, the CEV follows a reading found among the Dead Sea Scrolls—in the Great Psalms Scroll, to be precise (called 11QPsa). The ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) and a handful of medieval manuscripts also have this reading. It is very likely that the author of Psalm 119 meant to acknowledge that his affliction came directly from God.
God, angels or gods? (Psalm 138:1)
God’s salvific actions should lead every believer to praise him. This fact was no less true for the author of Psalm 138. The author says that because he has been rescued by God’s right hand, his life has been preserved (v. 7). The psalmist here wants to praise God with his whole being—to whoever will listen. Thus the NLT, along with most modern translations, reads,
I give you thanks, O LORD, with all my heart; I will sing your praises before the gods.
One might ask, “Before which gods?”—or, “Do the ‘gods’ even exist?” The NIV resolves this issue by placing quotation marks around the word “gods” as if to suggest that the author is simply presenting a façade. In other words, the author wants to praise God even though he is in a foreign land with “false gods” (an interpretation taken by the Amplified Bible, for example).
Another attempt to resolve this issue can be found in the CEV, CSB, ISV, and NET. These translations replace the word “gods” with “heavenly beings” or “angels,” which follows the reading of this verse found in the ancient Septuagint.
But it is also worth noting that 11QPsa preserves two readings. One reading verifies “before the gods” while the other reading, “before [the] Lord God” is completely unique. This unique reading resolves any issue found in this verse—but is more than likely a correction made for such a purpose.
Fearfully made or a fearful Creator? (Psalm 139:14)
Psalm 139:14 is one of the most famous verses in all the Psalms. This verse is often cited to validate the worth of every human being. The ESV serves as a good representative of the standard translation of this verse:
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.
However, the ISV translates this verse as if God is the subject instead of humanity.
I praise you, because you are fearful and wondrous! Your work is wonderful, and I am fully aware of it.
The translators of these two versions are not offering differing interpretations of the same Hebrew words, words into which God placed some intentional ambiguity. No, they are following different underlying texts. The ESV follows the standard Masoretic Text (MT) while the ISV is following a reading found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (specifically in 11QPsa.)
While this is once again a unique reading, in this case it is also the oldest available, and the text of 11QPsa bears no signs of corruption here. Thus, this is a possible case where the Dead Sea Scrolls have preserved a more original reading than the otherwise excellent (but “younger”) Masoretic Text.
The fame of the book of Psalms will continue forever. It is not surprising that most manuscripts of the Psalms are extremely similar. Still, this does not mean that the differences do not matter or that we do not have more to learn from examining ancient manuscripts (called “Old Testament textual criticism”). As archeologists continue to unearth more documents, I am confident that this information will only help us to understand God and his word better.
This article was originally published in the January/February 2022 issue of Bible Study Magazine. Slight adjustments, such as title and subheadings, may be the addition of an editor.
- The Dead Sea Scrolls: 9 Common Questions, Answered
- What the Dead Sea Scrolls Reveal about the Bible’s Reliability
- 3 Ways the Dead Sea Scrolls Revolutionized NT Studies
Mobile Ed: AR305 The Dead Sea Scrolls (12 hour course)
Regular price: $449.99
Dead Sea Scrolls Bible (DSS)
Regular price: $7.99
The Dead Sea Scrolls Today
Regular price: $13.99
Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls
Regular price: $39.99
Christian Beginnings and the Dead Sea Scrolls
Regular price: $17.99
The Dead Sea Scrolls: A New Translation
Regular price: $18.99