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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Psaltery

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an Anglicism of the Greek ψαλτήριον , is used in the A.V. as the rendering of two Hebrew words, both of which signified stringed instruments of music to accompany the voice. In our treatment of them we observe a strictly archaeological line of investigation. See Kitto's note on Psalms 92, 3, in his Pictorial Bible; Bible Educator, i, 70, 215; and (See MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS).

1. נֵבֶל, or נֶבֶל, nebel, is so rendered in the A.V. in all passages where it occurs, except in Isaiah 5:12; Isaiah 14:11; Isaiah 22:24 marg.; Amos 5:23; Amos 6:5, where it is translated viol, following the Geneva Version, which has viole in all cases except 2 Samuel 6:5; 1 Kings 10:12 ("psaltery"); 2 Esdras 10:22; Sirach 40:21 ("psalterion"); Isaiah 22:24 ("musicke"); and Wisdom of Solomon 19:18 ("instrument of musike"). The ancient viol was a six- stringed guitar. "Viols had six strings, and the position of the fingers was marked on the finger-board by frets, as in the guitars of the present day" (Chappell, Pop. Mus. i, 246). In the Prayer-book version of the Psalms, the Hebrew word is rendered "lute." This instrument resembled the guitar, but was superior in tone, "being larger, and having a convex back, somewhat like the vertical section of a gourd, or more nearly resembling that of a pear... It had virtually six strings, because, although the number was eleven or twelve, five, at least, were doubled; the first, or treble, being sometimes a single string. The head in which the pegs to turn the strings were inserted receded almost at a right angle" (Chappell, i, 102). These three instruments psaltery or sautry, the viol, and the lute are frequently associated in the old English poets, and were clearly instruments resembling each other, though still different. Thus in Chaucer's Flower and Leaf, p. 337

"And before he went minstreles many one,

As harpes, pipes, lutes, and sautry;"

and again in Drayton's Polyolbion, 4:356

"The trembling lute some touch,

some strain the viol best."

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The word psaltery in its present form appears to have been introduced about the end of the 16th century, for it occurs in the unmodified form psalterion in two passages of the Geneva Version (1560). Again, in North's Plutarch (Them. [ed. 1595], p. 124) we read that Themistocles, "being mocked... by some that had studied humanitie, and other liberall sciences, was driuen for reuenge and his owne defence, to aunswer with greate and stoute words, saying, that in deed he could no skill to tune a harpe, nor a violl, nor to play of a psalterion; but if they did put a citie into his hands that was of small name, weake, and litle, he knew wayes enough how to make it noble, strong, and great." The Greek ψαλτήριον , from which our word is derived, denotes an instrument played with the fingers instead of a plectrum or quill, the verb ψάλλειν being used (Eurip. Bach. p. 781) of twanging the bowstring (comp. ψαλμοὶ τόξων, Eurip. Ion, p. 173). But it only occurs in the Sept. as the rendering of the Heorew nebel in Nehemiah 12:27 and Isaiah 5:12, and in all the passages of the Psalms, except Psalms 71:22 (ψαλμός ) and Psalms 81:2 (κιθάρα ), while in Amos 5:23; Amos 6:5, the general term ὄργανον is employed. In all other cases νάβλα represents nè bel or nebel. These various renderings are sufficient to show that at the time the translation of the Sept. was made there was no certain identification of the Hebrew instrument with any known to the translators.

The rendering νάβλα commends itself on account of the similarity of the Greek word with the Hebrew. Josephus appears to have regarded them as equivalent, and his is the only direct evidence upon the point. He tells us (Ant. 7:12, 3) that the difference between the κινύρα (Heb. כַּנּוֹר , kinnor) and the νάβλα was that the former had ten strings and was played with the plectrum, the latter had twelve notes and was played with the hand. Forty thousand of these instruments, he adds (Ant. 8:3, 8), were made of electrum by Solomon for the Temple choir. Rashi (on Isaiah 5:12) says that the nebel had more strings and pegs than the kinnor. That nabla was a foreign name is evident from Strabo (x, 471) and from Athenaeus (iv, 175), where its origin is said to be Sidonian. Beyond this, and that it was a stringed instrument (Athen. 4:175), played by the hand (Ovid, Ars Amn. iii, 327), we know nothing of it; but in these facts we have strong presumptive evidence that nablo and nebel are the same; and that the nablet and psalterion are identical appears from the glossary of Philoxenus, where nablio = ψάτης, and nablizo= ψάλλω. and from Suidas, who makes psalterion and naula, or nabla, synonymous. Of the psaltery among the Greeks there appear to have been two kinds-the πηκτίς , which was of Persian (Athen. 14:636) or Lydian (ibid. p. 635) origin, and the μαγάδις.

The former had only two (ibid. 4:183) or three (ibid.) strings; the latter as manly as twenty (ibid. 14:634), though sometimes only five (ibid. p. 637). They are sometimes said to be the same, and were evidently of the same kind. Both Isidore (De Origg. iii, 21) and Cassiodorus (Proef. in Psal. c. 4) describe the psaltery as triangular in shape, like the Greek Δ, with the sounding-board above the strings, which were struck downwards. The latter adds that it was played with a plectrum, so that he contradicts Josephus if the psaltery and nebel are really the same. In this case Josephus is the rather to be trusted. St. Augustine (on Psalms 32 [33]) makes the position of the sounding-board the point in which the cithara and psaltery differ; in the former it is below, in the latter above the strings. His language implies that both were played with the plectrum. The distinction between the cithara and psaltery is observed by Jerome (Prol. in Psal.). From these conflicting accounts it is impossible to say positively with what instrument the nebel of the Hebrew exactly corresponded. It was probably of various kinds, as Kinmchi says in his note on Isaiah 22, 21, differing from each other both with regard to the position of the pegs and the number of the strings. In illustration of the descriptions of Isidorus and Cassiodorus reference may be made to the drawings from Egyptian musical instruments given by Sir Gard. Wilkinson (Anc. Eg. ii, 280, 287), some one of which may correspond to the Hebrew nebel. Munk (Palestine, pl. 16, figs. 12, 13) gives an engraving of an instrument which Niebuhr saw. Its form is that of an inverted Delta placed upon a round box of wood covered with skin. Abraham de Porta-Leone, the author of Shilte Haugibborim (c. 5), identifies the nebel with the Italian liuto (the lute), or rather with the particular kind called liuto chitarronnato (the German mandolinle), the thirteen strings of which were of gut or sinew, and were struck with a quill. (See HARP).

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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Psaltery'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/p/psaltery.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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