John Chrysostom on the Psalms

Georgi Parpulov
December 1, 2023


On opening any scholarly edition of an ancient literary work, one sees that the editor’s sources do not always concur. Thus, Alfred Rahlfs has noted on p. 220 of his Psalmi cum Odis that certain copies of Theodoret’s Commentary on the Psalms add the phrase ἐν ὕμνοις at the beginning of Psalm 79, changing its title from ‘Regarding Completion’ to ‘Regarding Completion in Hymns’.[i] Theodoret wrote at some point between 423 and ca. 466 CE, when he was bishop of Cyrrhus. Can we assume that a longer title for Psalm 79 was typical of the biblical manuscripts which circulated in his diocese?

The question is hard to answer. First, pre-modern writers made no strict distinction between precise quoting and free paraphrasing.[ii] Second, it is unclear if a writer quoting verbatim would reference a text-form generally known to his readers or just a manuscript he happened to consult at the time of writing. Third, different copies of a single work often have slightly different text: only some, not all Theodoretan manuscripts[iii] contain the phrase ἐν ὕμνοις.

‘In order to properly evaluate patristic citations, it is not enough to determine from a printed edition that a citation is actually a citationone must also go behind the edition to consider the stability of the manuscript tradition that underlies it’, Peter Montoro warned in an important recent paper summarised here. A small case study of mine validates his caution. I examined three of the oldest witnesses for John Chrysostom’s homily CPG 4413.2 (printed in PG 55, 155–167): the tenth-century D39293, D47341, and D50381 (which has lost some leaves and thus lacks the second part of Chrysostom’s text). In the course of his sermon, the great Antiochene preacher quoted, sometimes repeatedly, ten different psalm verses, two of them in an unusual form:

Ps 62:2 has ἐδίψησέν σε ἡ ψυχή μου ὡς γῆ ἄνυδρος καὶ ἄβατος καὶ ἔρημος (‘like a land waterless, untrodden, and desolate, my soul thirsted for you’), this wording being altogether unfamiliar to Rahlfs (p. 181).

Ps 41:3 has ἐδίψησεν ἡ ψυχή μου πρὸς τὸν θεὸν τὸν ἰσχυρὸν τὸν ζῶντα (‘my soul thirsted for the living mighty God’), as against ‘my soul thirsted for the living God’ in the critical text (p. 147).

The latter variant, which Rahlfs (p. 139) deemed secondary, is attested by several important manuscripts (Ra A, Ra 1219, Ra 55)[iv] and seems to echo the Masoretic Hebrew (Ps 42:2). As it happens, the person who copied one of the three codices which I compared[v] omitted the word τὸν ζῶντα at first (f. 188v) and wrote it when the same verse is quoted for a second time (f. 189r). While this may simply be due to momentary oversight, other divergences point to a general instability of textual transmission:

For the important variant in Ps 62:2, just one manuscript actually offers ὡς γῆ ἄνυδρος καὶ ἄβατος καὶ ἔρημος (f. 184v), whereas another has ὡς γῆ ἄβατος καὶ ἄνυδρος καὶ ἔρημος (f. 183r) and the third ὡς γῆ ἄβατος καὶ ἄνυδρος (f. 261v). Two codices (ff. 184v and 263r) add the word ‘thus’ in Ps 102:11: κατὰ τὸ ὕψος τοῦ οὐρανοῦ ἀπὸ τῆς γῆς οὕτως ἐκραταίωσεν κύριος τὸ ἔλεος αὐτοῦ ἐπὶ τοὺς φοβουμένους αὐτόν (‘as the sky is high above the earth, thus He strengthened His mercy toward those who fear him’). One (f. 183v) puts Ps 91:5 in the plural rather than the singular: ηὔφρανάς ἡμᾶς, κύριε, ἐν τῷ ποιήματί σου καὶ ἐν τοῖς ἔργοις τῶν χειρῶν σου ἀγαλλιασόμεθα (‘you, O Lord, made us glad in your work, and at the deeds of your hands we shall rejoice’). Rahlfs (pp. 256 and 241) knew neither of these variants.

Small though it is, my sample does show that there is no single Chrysostomian text of the Psalms but, rather, a range of variant readings attested by separate Chrysostomian manuscripts. Once they have been carefully evaluated, some may prove worth registering in the Editio critica maior of the Greek Psalter.

[i] All English quotes from the Psalms are based on the New English Translation of the Septuagint.

[ii] This problem was noted, for example, by John William Wevers in his edition of the Septuagint Book of Genesis (1974), p. 29.

[iii] Rahlfs explains his siglum Thtp on p. 21.

[iv] Rahlfs explains his siglum A´’ on p. 6.

[v] In D50381, this part of the text is lost.