BCP Psalter Notes (Translations & Traditions)

The aim of this blog post is, after fumbling around with this issue for the better part of two decades, to document something of the history of the Psalms of David, as they appear in the present addition of the American Book of Common Prayer (1979).

Speaking of the Psalms, have you ever wondered why, in some presentations of the psalter, the versification differs from that of other renderings? (For example, in the English Standard Version–beloved of evangelical believers–Psalm 7 has seventeen verses, but in the Roman Catholic Douay-Rheims, eighteen.) Along the way, I will account for that discrepancy (at least in part), as well.

As a traditional Anglican (at least aspirationally), I can say that the Psalms are a foundational part of my life. They feature prominently in virtually every Episcopal worship service. They form the core of the Daily Office. They are the staple of my devotional practice. For any scholar or thinker interested in the historical context of poetry in the history of Western culture (as I, again, aspire to be), the Psalms are an important instance of this literary genre.

Hence, my motivation to produce this brief article.

As Marion Hatchett narrates in his Commentary on the American Prayer Book (see especially pp. 55-–3), the history the BCP Psalter begins before the first ever English Prayer Pook popped into existence in 1549. It was in 1535 that Miles Coverdale translated the Psalms for the newly minted English translation of Holy Writ called quite simply the Great Bible. It is this translation of the Psalms (revised by Coverdale in 1539) which was included in Cranmer’s 1549 Prayer Book.

As Hatchett points out, however, this psalter was (in the venerable words of Fight Club) actually something of a “copy of a copy of a copy.” It translated the Latin Vulgate’s translation of the Greek Septuigint’s translation of the original Hebrew. So it is that the Scottish Prayer Book of 1637 opted in favor of the groundbreaking King James Version of the Psalms instead, as this iteration leapfrogged directly back to the original Hebrew itself.

With Elizabeth’s revision of the BCP in 1662, the conservative voices prevailed, however: while agreeing to adopt to the KJV (or, as it is known on the other side of the pond, the Authorized Version) for the Epistles and Gospel lessons for the Sunday lections, they nevertheless insisted on retaining Coverdale’s rendering of the Psalms.

In astonishing fact, this trend has remained in force until the present day. The 1979 American book itself retains Coverdale’s psalms, albeit in heavily redacted form, so as to conform it much more closely to the original Hebrew.

And finally to the point about versification discrepancy. While Coverdale’s original work was based on the Latin, he nevertheless was more “Hebraic”—more “renaissance humanistic” as opposed to “medieval traditional”—in some ways. For example, he opted against the LXX’s move to render the incipits of the Psalms as the first verse of any given Psalm. Take, for example, Psalm 7, the first verse of which in the ESV is “O LORD my God, in you do I take refuge….” In contrast to this, the LXX has this line (in Greek) as verse two. Most Catholic bibles follow this tradition, whereas most Protestant ones (including Coverdale & the BCP) don’t.

So in some ways Coverdale was quite de rigeur for his time, and in another ways quite antiquated.

(One final issue: how did the versification of the Psalter come about in the first place? To this question I will perhaps address a future blog post.)

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