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I have asked a series of questions recently about the superscripts at the top of the Psalms.* They tend to include technical notes about performance, (possible) allusions to authorship, notation of the context in which they were written, and probably sometimes other things. They seem to be fairly dense with uncertain terminology.

My understanding is that these headings aren’t original to the psalms. They refer to the author in the third person at times, and many of them re-use similar phrases, as if they were added at the same time by the person compiling them. They’re there in the LXX (albeit sometimes oddly translated), so they must be fairly early additions. I realize there is controversy about which psalms were written when, but is there any consensus about when the superscripts (please correct me if there’s a better term) came about?


*I linked to a set of my own questions there because I haven’t found other questions about this on BH.SE. If I've missed any, please add them.

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  • If you are referring to such things as "A Psalm of David", Judaism treats these as part of the Psalm itself, which is why our verse numbering often differs from Christian Bibles. To know, for example, whether the Psalm was written by the sons of Korach or King David, for example, is pretty important to appreciating the text. For example, Ps. 3 says that it is a psalm of David when he fled from Absalom, his son. That is very important because it is a psalm praising G-d. David understood that when extraordinary things happened to him, good or bad, it was because G-d was communicating something. Jun 24 '15 at 20:36
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There seems to be no consensus as to just when the superscripts were added to the psalms, other than that they were probably not all added at the same time, and that they were not always fixed but evolved, not being considered sacred in the way the psalm texts were.

I looked up Mark S. Smith's paper, 'Taking Inspiration:Authorship, Revelation, and the Book of Psalms', published in Psalms and Practice (edited by Stephen Breck Reid). On page 245, he cites a paper 'Psalm Titles and Misrashic Exegesis' by BS Childs. I do not have access to Child's paper, but Smith quotes him as suggesting that the superscriptions ought to be dated between the Book of Chronicles, which does not cite the superscriptions, and the Cave 11 Psalms scroll which does.

This site dates Chronicles to about 450-400 BCE, but says that earlier and later dates have been suggested. Wikipedia, citing Steven L McKenzie (1-2 Chronicles), says the period 350–300 BCE is most likely.

This site says the Cave 11 Psalms scroll has been dated paleographically to the late Herodian era, that is somewhere between 30 and 50 CE.

On the basis of Childs' research, as cited by Smith, the psalter superscriptions were probable added between 450 BCE and 50 CE. Of course, the LXX version of Psalms may have been written up to 200 years before the later date, but we do not have an early LXX manuscript and can not say how early it included the superscriptions.

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I'm not sure what Childs means by saying Chronicles does not include inscriptions, 2 Chronicles is narrative, so it always gives a backstory for why/when the Psalms are used, whether or not those are included in an inscription in the Psalms or not. 1 Chronicles 16 quotes Psalm 96, 105 and 106 giving a backstory of their use that is not included in inscriptions in Psalms---which might suggest the inscriptions are older than Chronicles (otherwise why didn't the scribe add at least an "of David" assuming that David wrote them since he told the priests to use them?).

And we have older OT books that include an inscription - like 2 Samuel 22 which has the same inscription that we find in Psalm 18. Some superscriptions like that are obviously ancient - that of course doesn't mean they all are.

The answer is really "we don't know." But scholars like to make their guesses sound like fact.

As far as I know we don't have any manuscripts of Psalms that do not include the inscriptions, but the oldest complete book of Psalms we have is from 400AD (there are fragments from Qumran which dates around the time of Christ). The Septuagint (thought to have been made around 285-246 BC) adds inscriptions not found in the Hebrew text, which would suggest to me that even the "newest" inscriptions at least pre-date that time.

Regardless of how old the inscriptions are, we also have to consider that they record the oral tradition of when the Psalm was made (and by whom). While I would consider some oral tradition highly suspect (such as that surrounding the garden of Eden), oral tradition from Israel's more recent history is far more likely to be accurate. We have found that indigenous people with no written language have far more accurate oral tradition in some cases than would have been suspected. Why should the Israelites, who had written records be inferior in this respect? In conclusion, I think there is good reason to take the inscriptions seriously.

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