David and the Psalms – An Interview with Fr. Joseph Ponessa

Laurie Watson Manhardt
From the Jul/Aug 2006 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine

David and the Psalms is the fifth volume in the “Come and See” Bible study series published by Emmaus Road Publishing. This 22-week study explores the historical background of the Book of Psalms , beginning with the story of Ruth, the great-grandmother of David, and continuing with the lives of Saul and David, as presented in the First and Second Books of Samuel. This narrative approach demonstrates how many of the psalms are interwoven with the history of David and provides the reader with a deeper
understanding of both the psalms and the events from which they sprang.

Fr. Joseph Ponessa serves as a pastor in Eastern Montana. In addition to coauthoring the “Come and See” series, he leads Bible studies based on the series in area parishes and in his prison ministry. Fr. Ponessa holds a doctorate in Sacred Scripture from the
Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome , which requires its students to master at least nine languages. He is fluent in 13 languages, including Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Aramaic.

Fr. Ponessa, you’ve been a priest now for more than 30 years. How did you first come to recognize that God was calling you to the priesthood?

God spoke to a little fourth-grader out in the yard of his family farm in rural Montana in 1958 and said, “Be a priest.” Later, during the final four years of my theology studies at Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon, He spoke to me in a dream, saying, “Waver neither to the right nor to the left.” Finally, after ordination in 1974 back in Montana, God said, “Feed my lambs.”

After discerning that I was to be a priest, I decided that I wanted to be in Montana-my instincts are monastic, but my loyalties are local. Then, within those commitments, I dedicated myself to learning the Word of God. I hope that everything I have done has been in obedience to those directives from God.

What first sparked your interest in the Book of Psalms?

My Scripture teacher at Mount Angel was the brilliant Benedictine Abbot Bonaventure Zerr, O.S.B., who had a tremendous influence on a whole generation of Catholic scholars in the Pacific Northwest. Out of his classes came future doctors of theology, professors of patristics, and scholars of Scripture. I am merely one of a number who took his course on the psalms in connection with the study of Hebrew. It was in their original language that I learned to love the psalms, and I have prayed them in Hebrew ever since.

Later, when I went to the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, I was privileged to take a course on the Book of Psalms from the Latin American exegete Fr. Luis Alonso Schokel, S.J. By then, after having prayed the psalms in the original Hebrew every day for a decade, I was able to profit immensely from the lectures and insights of this great man, who had a tremendous influence on Scriptural studies in the Spanish-speaking world.

Given their antiquity, how are the psalms still useful for prayer today?

The psalms are around 3,000 years old, which makes them seem like part of the ancient world, but they are actually one of the principal thrusts toward the modern concept of the person. Pope John Paul II spoke and wrote extensively about the dignity of the human person. Tribal cultures do not exalt the individual, but the sense of personhood found in the Psalter is a tremendous advance in the growth of human consciousness. Be for e the psalms the human psyche was slumbering, but after the psalms we are awake. As Psalm 57:8 has it, “Awake, lyre and harp. I will awaken the dawn!”

You begin David and the Psalms with a look at the story of Ruth, the great-grandmother of David. What is the connection between the Book of
Ruth and that of Psalms?

Because Ruth is connected to the person of David, who in turn is connected to the psalms, the Book of Ruth is a kind of prose prologue to the Book of Psalms. It shows the family dynamics behind the collection. The fact that a Gentile woman is one of David’s great-grandmothers is very important, not only theologically (as the New Testament points out), but also culturally. Ruth sang the song “Wheresoever thou goest” not just once, but many times, and young David certainly knew this song. In a way, this song inspired the whole collection of psalms. This explains why the music and poetry of the psalms are not
narrowly Hebrew, but draw upon a larger circle of cultural influences. Hence, the songs of the great-grandmother bless her family and many generations to follow.

David’s authorship of the psalms has been debated in the past, yet David and the Psalms presupposes his involvement in writing them. What considerations were made in the decision to include an examination of his life in this study of the psalms?

Nearly half of the psalms-73 out of 150-bear the superscription “of David.” Scholars used to dismiss these titles as later additions to the text. (Indeed, the Church does not include these superscripts in the text of the liturgy.) More recently, however, Ugaritic texts discovered at Ras Shamra on the coast of Syria have shown that the language and style of the Book of Psalms belong to a period contemporary with David, or even a bit earlier. Therefore, the titles, even if added later, bear authentic testimony to the nature of the compositions. Jews have always connected the psalms with the life of David, just
as Christians have connected them with the life of Christ. These two approaches are not so different, since David prefigures Christ. So, today, we too can pray the prayers that King David prayed and the prayers that Jesus of Nazareth prayed.

How did the “Come and See” Bible study David and the Psalms come about?

About two year s ago, I was presented with the opportunity to produce a pastoral Bible study book on the Psalter. Because there is so very little available for Catholic Bible studies in general, and for the Book of Psalms in particular, it is my hope that such a book will prove helpful to many people.

Fr. Ponessa, you lead several Bible studies in local churches, and also in your ministry to prisoners. Tell us how you use the “Come and See” Bible study series.

I teach the high school CC D students in my parish using the “Come and See” series. This year we’re studying The Synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The daughter of a local minister recently visited the class, and I was pleased to see that the teens in my parish would invite one of their Protestant friends to visit our Bible study.

Also, the inmates in the penitentiary that I visit are currently using the same “Come and See” study. They watch videotaped wrap-up lectures after reading the scripture and commentary and completing their written study questions. When I went to visit the prisoners, they had all seen me on the videotapes and decided that I was famous. They all wanted me to autograph their Bible study books for them. I was happy to comply and told them that their autographed copies would one day command more on eBay.

When I returned the next week to teach the high school students, I said, “Look, you can study the Bible here and now. Or, you can ignore God’s Word, get into trouble, go to jail, and then study the Bible there. Take your pick!”

We all had a good laugh at that.

Laurie Watson Manhardt is coauthor of the “Come and See” Bible study series. She holds a Ph.D. in education from the University of Michigan.

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