Review of Robert Wright, The Psalms of Solomon
Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

Robert Wright, The Psalms of Solomon: A Critical Edition of the Greek Text (Jewish and Christian Texts in Contexts and Related Studies, 1; London/New York: T & T Clark, 2007).  Pp. xi + 224.  Hardcover, US$125.00.  ISBN 978-0-567-02643-4.


Robert Wright’s book is the only complete critical edition of the Greek text of the first century B.C.E. Jewish hymnbook known as the Psalms of Solomon. It also contains an English translation adjacent to the Greek that seeks to convey the meaning of the original, with occasional literal or explanatory readings in the footnotes. The book also includes a history of each Greek manuscript, a discussion of all scholarship on the Greek text and Syriac translation, and a biography of all published critical editions and studies on the Psalms of Solomon.

The Psalms of Solomon is a collection of eighteen poems that contain an eyewitness account of the Roman General Pompey’s 63 B.C.E. destruction of Jerusalem (PssSol 2, 8). At some point in antiquity, the poems became associated with Solomon, likely on the basis of the reference to the “Son of David” in PssSol 17:21.  

The composition is important for understanding Jewish and Christian theology. It contains a pre-Christian reference to resurrection (PssSol 3:12) and what is widely considered the locus classicus for a belief in a Davidic messiah (Psalms of Solomon 17). The work is a particularly important text for understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls. Psalms of Solomon 8, for example, recounts Jewish religious disputes similar to those described in such works as 4QMMT. The Davidic messiah of Psalms of Solomon 17, moreover, is almost identical to the Davidic messiah in several Qumran texts (4Q504; 1Q28b; 4Q252 4Q174; 4Q161; 4Q285; cf. 4Q246). The Psalms of Solomon was written in Hebrew, but only survives in Greek manuscripts that date from the tenth to the sixteenth centuries C.E. It was later translated into Syriac, and appended to the Christian hymnbook known as the Odes of Solomon. The composition was quite popular in antiquity and is listed in the catalog of the fifth century C.E Codex Alexandrinus and numerous canon lists in several languages to the 13th century. 

The Greek text of the Psalms of Solomon is sometimes difficult to read. Several passages suggest that the translator was not fully conversant with the Hebrew language (e.g., PssSol 2:13; 4:6, 12; 12:2-3). The Greek translator at times appears to have improperly vocalized the original unvocalized Hebrew text (e.g., PssSol 2:25, 26), or closely adhered to Hebrew syntax, which occasionally results in an awkward or confusing style that is difficult to translate (e.g., PssSol 3:7-8a; 17:b-9). Because there is nearly a millennium between the Psalms of Solomon’s composition and the dates of the extant manuscripts, Wright recognizes that it is impossible to reconstruct the “Greek translational autograph.” Instead, he adopts a cautious approach to text critical matters and seeks to produce an intermediary state of the text that best explains the extant manuscripts. He even includes a few readings that are lexically impossible, but which explain the origin of the manuscript readings (for an example, see his notes to PssSol 8:6, 11; 15:5). Overall, Wright’s Greek text is very similar to the widely used edition of Alfred Rahlfs (Septuaginta id est Vetus Testamentum graece iuxta LXX interpretes [Stuggart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1935] 2. pp. 471-89), but includes three manuscripts discovered subsequent to its publication.  Wright also includes new readings from MS 629 (Codex Casantensis), whose leaves are nearly unreadable. At Wright’s request, The Center for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts at Brigham Yong University, Provo, Utah, successfully used “Multi-Spectral Imaging” to uncover 80-90% of this text.

Wright’s critical edition includes occasional readings from the Syriac manuscripts, often accompanied by English translations. With the exception of Joseph Trafton’s The Syriac Version of the Psalms of Solomon: A Critical Evaluation (SBLSCS, no. 11 [Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1985]), this version has been neglected as a potential source of textual and historical information. Because the Syriac contains several Greek loan words and differs from the Greek in only sixty-two (approximately 10%) of the Psalms of Solomon’s verses, most scholars consider it a “daughter” translation. Nevertheless, because the Syriac text is often close to Manuscript 253 (Vat. Graeci 336), which preserves the earliest form of the Psalms of Solomon’s Greek text (see further Robert Hann, The Manuscript History of the Psalms of Solomon [SBLSCS, no. 13; Chico: Scholars Press, 1982]), it is possible that it may in some instances preserve the Old Greek more accurately than any of the Greek manuscripts. One such example is found in Psalms of Solomon 2:1, which Wright translates as follows: “When the sinner contemptuously used his battering ram to smash down the fortified walls, you did not interfere.” The Syriac reads: “In his arrogance the lawless one cast down strong walls on the feast day, and you did not restrain him” (Syriac MS 10hl reads “feast days”). If the Syriac in this instance is based on a Greek exemplar, it may furnish valuable historical information concerning the exact date of Pompey’s siege. Wright has performed a valuable service by making these readings available alongside the Greek text.

During the final stage of production, Wright traveled to all the libraries, museums, and monasteries housing the Greek and Syriac manuscripts to check his readings. In the process, he either filmed or obtained new digital color photographs of all 350 leaves of the Greek and Syriac manuscripts. In the process, he discovered, with the assistance of Sabastian P. Brock of Oxford University, that the short passage in British Museum Syriac MS “S” (Add. MS 17134) is not, as previously held, part of the textual history of the Psalms of Solomon, but an intertextual note by Jacob of Odessa that was likely written from memory. For a modest fee, purchasers of Wright’s critical edition can obtain a CD containing color photographs of all the Psalms of Solomon’s Greek and Syriac manuscripts for research and teaching purposes. This combination of a printed critical Greek text, English translation, and CD makes Wright’s book an essential purchase for any scholar or student interested in textual criticism, pseudepigrapha, or the history and literature of the Second Temple Period.

Kenneth Atkinson
University of Northern Iowa
Cedar Falls, IA 50614-0501