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3944Re: [lxx] Re: numbering the psalms

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  • Joel Kalvesmaki
    Jan 22, 2013
      As James mentions below, I've done some research on number symbolism. I'll
      register here some comments and questions, to supplement those from James
      and Bob.

      First of all, I'm really happy to see some interest in the general culture
      of numeration. There has been quite a lot of work on the culture of
      arithmetic, geometry, and the other mathemata, but not a lot of work has
      gone into the culture of ancient numbering, which doesn't have the cachet
      more complex disciplines garner.

      What types of literary units were numbered throughout the ancient
      Mediterranean? I can think of the numeration of books (say of Homer), but I
      don't think I've yet run into pre-Christian numeration of literary units
      smaller than books. OK, I take that back. There were ancient pre-Christian
      lists that provided how many papyrus lines a work would take up. (Scribes
      charged by the line.) This bit of evidence has been recently used in an
      interesting point-counterpoint between Kennedy 2010 and Gregory 2012,
      concerning whether Plato structured his dialogues numerically.[1] I side
      with Gregory. But even if there is something to Kennedy's idea, he is
      working with a numeration that reflects the medium, not the internal
      literary organization. And that's a big difference from the Psalter
      numeration we're discussing.

      OK, this has just inspired another counterexample. We know that lines of
      poems were numbered (see above; the practice is attested elsewhere). If the
      Psalms were considered to be poetry, why weren't the lines also numbered?
      Or were they? Has anyone here encountered ancient or medieval references to
      line numbers in the Psalms?

      I have one more counterexample--prognostic texts, where numbers were used
      to locate answers to sets of thrown dice or lots. But let's set that aside
      for now. The stuff is really tough to date, and a discussion of
      purpose/function would take us too far afield. But it nevertheless reminds
      us that we should address this question more broadly in the context of all
      literature (prose, poetry; secular, religious; 2nd c. and before). If
      there's a general absence of literary-unit numeration, one has to wonder
      why. And if not, which texts? It would be important to see why some texts
      get numbering and similar ones don't.

      I've mentioned in personal correspondence with Dr. Yarchin my best
      explanation for the data, which might be worth summarizing and extending
      here. The sources mentioned by Kraft and Yarchin place Psalm numeration
      squarely in the 2nd century. One asks, of course, why? A basis in number
      symbolism is to be discounted. This phenomenon appears in the 4th century,
      perhaps the 3rd (I await the edition of the newly discovered homilies on
      the Psalms by Origen <http://www.themedievalacademyblog.org/?p=914>, to
      find out if 4th c. exegetes were being inspired by O). My best guess is
      that 2nd-c. numeration served to facilitate shared selective reading. The
      best context to look for an explanation would be liturgical practice, where
      one finds both selective reading and a shared need. (No doubt scholars of
      the 1st c. would need to read and discover passages selectively, but there
      was no need for this to be a shared activity. In marking up texts from
      their library, a writer needed to merely to devise an arbitrary system of
      discovery. We have parallels in the marginalia of medieval manuscripts and
      archive documents.)

      This being a discussion list, it seems appropriate to offer one more
      speculative explanation. What if Psalm numeration developed in response to
      the transfer from scroll to codex around the 1st c.? It seems that the
      scroll format would lend itself well to preservation of individual verses
      and couplets of the Psalms, because one need not stick to a specific line
      width in composing a column. In fact, a scroll might visually preserve cues
      that would facilitate quick discovery of individual Psalms in liturgical
      use. But a codex, with pages of fixed width, seems to require either a book
      with perfectly cut pages, the waste of space on the page (expensive), or,
      to save money, the transformation of poetry to a prose form. We see
      examples of the prose-formatted Psalms in PYale 1 (see Bob Kraft's
      useful chronological
      list of papyri <http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/rak/earlylxx/earlypaplist.html>).
      Unfortunately, I don't see any examples of early scrolls (only codices)
      with the Greek psalms, so I can't test this hypothesis. My codex
      speculation doesn't replace my earlier liturgical explanation, but it
      pushes that liturgical practice to a time before the move from scroll to

      This is guesswork. I hope others corroborate these intuitions or show them
      as utter balderdash.

      Best wishes,


      [1] Kennedy, John Bernard Jnr., *Plato’s Forms, Pythagorean Mathematics,
      and Stichometry<http://personalpages.manchester.ac.uk/staff/jay.kennedy/Kennedy_Apeiron_proofs.pdf>
      *, APEIRON: a Journal for ancient Philosophy and Science (Online Journal),
      2010. Responded to by Andrew Gregory, "Kennedy and Stichometry—Some
      Methodological Considerations" Apeiron (2012): 157-79.

      Joel Kalvesmaki

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