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Psalm 14 and 53 are nearly identical. Thrice Psalm 14 uses "LORD" (the Tetragrammaton) where 53 uses "God". 53 adds "according to the machalath style; a well-written song" to the superscription. Only one spot shows significant divergence:

Psalm 14:5-6
Psalm 53:5

They are absolutely terrified,
They are absolutely terrified,

...
even by things that do not normally cause fear.

for God defends the godly.
For God annihilates those who attack you.

You want to humiliate the oppressed,
You are able to humiliate them because God has rejected them.

even though the Lord is their shelter.
...

For a tabular representation of the two Psalms side-by-side, please see this gist.

Given these differences, can we know from the text which came first? Or can we determine if both came from an even more ancient source?

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The Psalms can be divided into 5 books marked by benedictions. For instance, Book 1 and Book 2 are separated by a verse that is usually included as a conclusion to Psalm 41:

Blessed is the LORD, God of Israel, from eternity to eternity. Amen and Amen.

So Psalm 14 is in the first and Psalm 53 is in the second book of Psalms. Psalm 40:14-18 (or 13-17 in most Christian translations) and Psalm 70 are also duplicates across those same books. This gives strong evidence that the two collections of psalms circulated independently before they were compiled into the current collection of 150 poems. So in many ways the question is which collection came first. Psalms 40 and 70 can also be used as evidence. (For a side-by-side comparison, see this gist.)

One notable difference between 14 and 53 is the later's reluctance to use the Tetragrammaton. In modern Judaism, there are prohibitions against speaking the name of God or writing unnecessary. It seems possible a version of the prohibition was developed before the Psalms were collected, which would indicate Psalm 14 is an older version. Indeed, the second book frequently avoids the name of God by substituting another word (often 'elohiym) where you might expect LORD to appear. So, for instance, Psalm 43:4 uses "O God, my God" (אלהים אלהי) which seems overly repetitive. Psalm 7:3, to pick a random example from the first book, reads "O LORD my God" (יהוה אלהי), which seems more natural.

Still, it doesn't appear the editor of the second book of Psalms mechanically elided the Tetragrammaton. Psalm 70 ends with "O LORD, do not delay." Meanwhile, Psalm 40 ends with "O my God, do not delay." So at least in that instance, the first and second books swapped preferences for how to address God. We also can only speculate why one name was preferred over the other. Perhaps the reason for using LORD was to distinguish the deity being addressed from the Canaanite El Elyon. In other words, it seems possible Psalm 53, which does not use LORD, is the older text.

Another clue is the addition of machalath in the superscription. We don't exactly know what it means, but it seems likely it's an aid to the musicians. While that could mean an editor removed this detail from Psalm 14, it's hard to know why. Scribes tend to be conservative in what they copy so it seems unusual for a word, especially a rare word appearing just twice in the Psalms, to be dropped altogether. In addition, Psalm 53 also adds maskiyl a far more common word to describe Psalms. A simpler explanation is that Psalm 14 was written down at a time when it was regularly performed so the additional musical instructions were not needed. It's interesting to note that Psalm 70 also adds more detail to Psalm 40's superscription, though it is not a musical instruction.

The divergent text near the end of the Psalms changes the entire tone. Psalm 14 puts God in the position of defending the godly, while Psalm 53 has him annihilating the people who are attacking Israel. (The literal phrase is “scatters the bones”, which is an image of utter defeat.) It's not wise to pick specific historical events to which these lines refer. At best we can speculate that "defending the godly" might have less impact when the audience is already defeated by their enemies.

On the whole, it looks as if Psalm 53 reworks Psalm 14 rather than the other way around. The substitution of "God" for "LORD" and the additions to the superscription suggest 53 is further from the oral tradition. To my reading, 53 is also more focused on violent revenge, which seems more fitting to a period when the Hebrew people were suffering military and political defeats. The simplest explanation is that Psalm 53 was a copy of Psalm 14.

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  • This answer is so comprehensive that I would find it difficult to write an alternate without plagiarising much of your thoughts and reflections here. However, I'd add that your observation about the LORD/God variances is applicable to their respective Books of Psalms; both texts are surrounded by similar formulations for God. Indeed, Psalm 41 is a clear watershed between the two terms. Whichever text came second was edited to fit within its larger Book, and so to me it's not so much a question of 'which Psalm' as it is 'which Book' came first. If you answer one question you've answered both. – Steve Taylor Dec 7 '20 at 10:07
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    @SteveTaylor: That was my conclusion as I wrote this answer too. Hadn't planned on answering at all, but it just kept nagging at me. I also recorded a podcast episode on the topic. – Jon Ericson Dec 7 '20 at 17:53
5

It's always difficult to know which of two sources came first when the only evidence is the differences between them. But here is an argument for Psalm 53 coming first, at least in the sense of likely preserving an earlier sense that was lost from Psalm 14.

We don't really know whether differences stem from manuscript traditions or from different varieties of oral performance. However, in this case, the graphic similarity is very close:

      שם פחדו פחד            כי אלהים בדור צדיק  עצת  עני תבישו כי יהוה  מחסהו
      שם פחדו פחד לא היה פחד כי אלהים פזר        עצמות חנך הבשתה כי אלהים מאסם

Apart from the insertion of לא היה פחד in Psalm 53 and the insertion of צדיק in Psalm 14, every single word corresponds exactly to a word in the other psalm, sharing one or more letters with it even when the sense is different.

Moreover, the insertions of לא היה פחד and צדיק can be explained within the frame of written transmission. The word פחד appears twice in Psalm 53 (שם פחדו פחד לא היה פחד), so the scribe could have omitted the words by accidentally skipping from one to the next. While it's not impossible for two oral versions with and without this clause to exist, this is one of the classic cases of scribal errors (homoioteleuton).

The insertion of צדיק in Psalm 14 is possible to explain in this way. The word preceding צדיק in Psalm 53 is פזר, meaning "dispersed," while in Psalm 14 the preceding word is the graphically similar בדור, "in the generation." However, there is an extremely rare verb in Hebrew, בזר (appearing in Psalms 68:31), that has the same meaning as פזר, "dispersed." The scribe of Psalm 53 might have chosen to replace בזר with the more common synonym פזר. If so, it's possible that a scribe in the tradition of Psalm 14 read the original בזר as בְּדֹר (a very common word), making the psalmist say "God is in the generation," prompting the question, in which generation? So the scribe had to add צדיק, "in the righteous generation."

This could have also prompted some of the other changes in the following words. There is no longer a mention of the verb "disperse," so חנך (those who encamp around you) become עני (the poor); not wanting to say of the poor "God has rejected them," מאסם becomes מחסהו, "God is his shelter."

This is mostly conjecture, but I think that this is a point in favor of the text of Psalm 53 being closer to the original sense, and closer to a text that existed somewhere higher in the chain of transmission of Psalm 14.

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  • Very interesting suggestion ba, and provocative as well! I do agree with you that this verse and its parallels in 53 is probably key to solving the OP's enigma. I also see that 14 reads much better than 53, and that its worded very awkwardly in the latter. Also the meaning of חנך is not entirely clear, and I haven't seen any satisfying interpretations. If were going this route I would speculate the חנך itself is a corruption of the parent text from where it was copied (the original perhaps read שנאך=your enemy). In any case, +1. – Bach Dec 8 '20 at 19:31
  • Very interesting answer and more compelling than mine as it focuses on the Hebrew itself. I might be misunderstanding, but it sounds like your explanation of the Psalm 14 insertion depends on a common text rather than one Psalm copying the other. Is that accurate? – Jon Ericson Dec 8 '20 at 21:55
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    @JonEricson Yes, mostly because, as you already noted, the change of "LORD" to "God" is probably later, so if Psalm 14 is secondary, obviously it didn't copy from the version with "God" in it. But a common source with בזר isn't absolutely critical, depending on how likely you think it is for פזר -> בדר to have happened directly, vs. how likely my unattested conjecture is – b a Dec 9 '20 at 0:21

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