Why Are the Psalms Numbered Differently?

by Jimmy Akin

in +Religion, Bible

While the Bible is divided into chapter and verse today, these divisions developed over time and were not in the original manuscripts, with few exceptions.

One exception is the book of Psalms, which is divided into 150 different chapters, each of which is a different psalm. Those divisions are original, because this was the hymnbook for the Jewish Temple, and the different psalms were different hymns.

So it’s ironic that different editions of the book of Psalms today do not have the same chapter numbers.

You may have had the experience of seeing a reference to a quotation from one of the Psalms, going to your Bible to look it up, and finding that the quotation is not there!

What’s going on?

It may be that the quotation actually is there, but one psalm before or after the one you looked up.

For example, suppose you wanted to look up the famous line:

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.

This is famed as the first verse of Psalm 23. But if you look it up in certain Bibles–like the Douay-Rheims–you won’t find it there. Instead, it’s the first verse of Psalm 22.

The explanation is that there are different ways of numbering the Psalms, and different Bible (and other documents) follow different numbering system.

One numbering system is that used by the Hebrew Masoretic text. This is the version used by most modern Bible translations.

Another is that used by the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint. This version was inherited by the Vulgate and thus by the Douay-Rheims.

Because both numbering systems are in circulation, Catholic sources often use both systems, which is why you’ll see references like “Ps 23[22]:1″ (or “Ps 22[23]:1″, depending on which numbering system they’re treating as primary).

Okay, fine. There are different numbering systems for the Psalms. But what makes them different?

The answer is that the Hebrew numbering sometimes combines (splices, joins) a psalm that is reckoned as two psalms in the Greek numbering–and visa versa.

Let’s take a look at how that happens.

(Note: I’m not assuming anything about whether one version is joining two psalms that were originally separate or whether it is dividing a psalm that was originally one. Simply for the sake of clarity, I’ll describe what you’d see in the Hebrew version first and then what how things would appear if you looked for the equivalent passage in the Greek version.)

The first time the numbering varies is when the Hebrew psalms 9 and 10 are joined as the Greek psalm 9. That causes the Greek numbers to be one less than the Hebrew numbers for most of the book, which is why the Hebrew 23rd psalm gets reckoned as the Greek 22nd psalm.

The same thing happens when the Hebrew psalms 114 and 115 are joined as the Greek psalm 113.

“Oh, no!” you may be saying to yourself. “Now they’re going to be off by two numbers!”

Well, they would be, except the very next Hebrew psalm–116–is divided into two in the Greek numbering, resulting in Greek psalms 114 and 115. So now the Greek numbering is only one psalm behind the Hebrew numbering again.

Whew!

Since both the Hebrew and Greek editions of the book of Psalms both have 150 entries, though, how do they get joined back up again?

That happens when we hit Hebrew psalm 147, which also is divided into the Greek psalms numbered 146 and 147.

With that resolved, the two numbering systems can now march arm-in-arm through the final three psalms: 148, 149, and 150.

Here’s a handy chart to keep it straight:

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{ 6 comments }

DianeSchwind June 22, 2012 at 6:26 am

So why did the Greeks feel the need to change them? Just wondering. Thanks!

Howard June 22, 2012 at 8:32 pm

 @DianeSchwind That is an unwarranted assumption.  Both the Hebrew and Greek translations are the work of Jews, not Greeks, with the translation into Greek being made in the 3rd Century BC.  I’m not sure how far back in history the difference in numbering dates, but the Masoretes, from whom we have the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible, come from a thousand years (or a little more) later.  Although everyone agrees that the Psalms were originally written in Hebrew, that does not imply that the Masoretic division of the Psalms was the original one. 

Historian June 25, 2012 at 11:48 am

The Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible is TOTALLY accurate in the Hebrew language editions of the Scriptures.
In fact, THERE IS A TALMUDIC TRACT THAT DISCUSSES JUST HOW THE TEXT MUST BE COPIED BY THE TRANSCRIBER. IF EVEN one LETTER OF THE TEXT IS WRITTEN WRONG, THE entire COPY MUST BE DISCARDED AND BURIED IN A GRAVE YARD–AND./OR PUT INTO A GINEZA (ARCHIVAL ROOM FOR WORNOUT/MISTRANSLATED TORAH SCROLLS).
I find that reading the TEHILLIM (Psalms) in THE ORIGINAL LANGUAGE SO MUCH MORE REWARDING THAN HAVING TO PLOW THROUGH inaccurate ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS!

Adonais June 22, 2012 at 11:43 am

And it the numbering’s not confusing enough when you’re looking for Psalm 23 [22], the Douay also interprets the famous line as “The Lord ruleth me.”  If you want him as your shepherd in Ps. XXII, you need a Douay-Confraternity edition.  ^_^

Howard June 22, 2012 at 8:19 pm

 @Adonais Very true!  I prefer the Douay-Rheims in principle, but as a convert, certain of the Psalms will just never sound right to me except in the King James Version. 

Nunzio June 25, 2012 at 6:22 am

Although I love the Shakespearean English of the KJV  Bible, every Catholic and Biblical scholar should have a Douay-Rheims Bible.  It’s the most accurate English translation.  Not only have whole books (Deuterocanonical) been eliminated and words changed from Protestant versions, some newer Catholic versions have changed the wording. And words have meaning. For example, Luke 1:28, the angel Gabriel, greets Mary with, “Hail, full of grace…”.  In the KJV its, ” Hail, thou art highly favoured…”.  That big difference helps explain how Catholic’s  view Mary, and Protestants don’t.  Again, words have meaning, and every time they’re changed, the original intent is changed.

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