Chapter 1 of Introduction to Psalms by Hermann Gunkel contains the following quote:

The primary preliminary task will be to provide an overview of the entire material transmitted to us. The reason is self-evident. It cannot be satisfactory simply to observe the poetry of the biblical psalter. Rather, one must ask whether there are psalms or psalm-like poetry outside the psalter... [W]e cannot remain just in the cabinets of Israelite convention. We must also peruse the lyric of other nations of antiquity to see whether we perceive something similar. For decades we have recognized the extraordinarily rich cultic poetry of the Babylonians and Assyrians, from which many specimens have demonstrated a relationship to the biblical psalms that is more than superficial. It has long been recognized, but has not been satisfactorily taken to heart in Psalms research.

Is the author saying here that Psalms are cultic poetry (and that, conversely, all cultic poems are also Psalms)? What is his definition of a Psalm here?

  • Biblical hermeneutics is applied to the bible, not to the interpretation of meaning in religious literature in general.
    – Nigel J
    May 28, 2023 at 8:50
  • Every genre of biblical books can have comparative literature in ancient surrounding nations and babylon is very close to Israeli culture/literature. The author is not saying Psalms is cultic or pagan, but drawing the need to understand the original culture in which such literature were written by comparing the contemporary similar literature. The same is done with Proverbs.
    – Michael16
    May 28, 2023 at 9:45
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    Genre questions about books of the Bible belong on this site. I don't think this question is off-topic. Honestly I'm confused so many people think it's off-topic here...
    – curiousdannii
    May 28, 2023 at 13:39
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    Even for those of us who disagree with Gunkel on various things, he's an important figure for form criticism. This question could also probably be tagged as history-of-hermeneutics or historical-interpretation
    – curiousdannii
    May 28, 2023 at 13:52
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    @Michael16 I don't think that way at all, I'm just trying to understand Hermann Gunkel's definition of a Psalm. I probably wasn't clear enough about this in the question, but did he think there was anything "special" about the Psalms genre-wise or that they were "just" cultic poetry similar in genre to what you'd find in, for example, Babylon or Assyria? (Obviously, I'm ignoring the question of divine inspiration - I'm focused purely on whether Gunmen thought that they're the same basic genre). May 29, 2023 at 4:20

1 Answer 1


Yes, Gunkel is saying that Psalms are cultic poetry. However it should be understood that the adjective "cultic" here means relating to organized religion and public worship and not to a religious sect generally considered to be extremist or false.

The OP also asks if Gunkel meant that "all cultic poems are also Psalms." If the word psalms is not capitalized then the answer is yes, generally, although Gunkel does speak of poems that are "psalm-like" as well. Poems used in religious rituals are called hymns or psalms. But when the word is capitalized it refers specifically to one of the 150 poems/songs included in the Jewish Book of Psalms. Note that Gunkel follows this convention too: Psalms for the biblical ones and "psalms" for others. There are also biblical "psalms" that are not "Psalms." Examples include Jonah's psalm of thanksgiving reportedly written from the belly of the great fish (Jonah 2) and the song of Moses in Ex. 15. In addition, several Psalms are thought to be closely related to hymns to the storm deity in Ugaritic literature. Such examples are related to Gunkel's comment.

The definition of "psalm" implied in Gunkel's paragraph is the more generic one: poetry used as part of a religious rite, regardless of the religion.

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