The Study of Classical Hebrew Poetry: Parallelism

I believe Michael O’Connor coined The Standard Description of Hebrew Poetry as a label for the basic framework by which most contemporary scholars analyze Hebrew poetry. This method has two basic components – parallelism and meter – which are combined to analyze the structure of a poem, ie versification, stanzas, etc. In this post I will give a brief survey of parallelism, leaving meter for another post.

The modern history of parallelism conventionally begins with Bishop Robert Lowth (De Sacra Poesi Hebraeorem Praelectiones Academicae, 1753 translated into English as Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews, 1815, and more systematically presented in the introduction to his commentary on Isaiah). As O’Connor remarks, Lowth is not to be credited with the discovery of parallelism itself, rather his contribution is in developing the connection of parallelism to poetic meter and versification. Lowth is also credited with coining the term parallelismus membrorum (parallelism of members). Lastly, Lowth’s work led to the recognition that the prophets also wrote in poetry, thus the corpus of Biblical Poetry was not limited to the Psalms.

Lowth assumed that Hebrew poetry had meter, but that its exact nature had been lost with the ancient pronunciation. However, the building block of Hebrew poetry was what he called the “sentential form”, that is, a unit of poetry usually corresponds to a simple sentence. This is then followed by one or more parallel sentences of equal length which either repeat, vary, or amplify the same idea, each member in the first unit having a complement in the following ones naturally creating a metrical cadence. Lowth further defines three basic types of parallelism: synonymous, antithetic, and synthetic.

This forms the basis for the Standard Description. Hebrew verse is analyzed as groups of lines (or better, cola) which are further subdivided into member units based on the parallelism across cola. For instance, Is 40:3:

c’ a’ b’ c b a
מְסִלָּ֖ה לֵאלֹהֵֽינוּ בָּעֲרָבָ֔ה יַשְּׁרוּ֙ דֶּ֣רֶךְ יְהוָ֑ה פַּנּ֖וּ בַּמִּדְבָּ֕ר ק֣וֹל קוֹרֵ֔א
a-highway-for-our-God in-the-desert make-straight the-way-of-the-Lord prepare in-the-wilderness a-voice-cries:

This verse is a bicolon (“A voice cries” seems to be outside of the poetic structure, at least based on the parallelism). The two cola are identified by their constituent parallel elements, which do not continue into Is 40:4. The parallelism is synonymous since each member in the first colon has a synonym in the second. Note that these members are not necessarily in the same order, nor is a member necessarily comprised of a single word.

George Buchanan Gray (The Forms of Hebrew Poetry, 1915) agreed basically with Lowth that Hebrew poetry contained meter, but that no system to his time described such meter satisfactorily. Building from Lowth, he pointed out that while the first two categories of parallelism are straightforward, the last (synthetic) had become a catch-all for any parallel element other than a simple synonym or antonym. He also added the category of incomplete parallelism, in which an element in one colon has no exact parallel in the second. For instance, Is 60:2:

c’ a’ c b a
לְאֻמִּ֑ים וַעֲרָפֶ֖ל אֶ֔רֶץ יְכַסֶּה־ הַחֹ֨שֶׁךְ֙ כִּֽי־הִנֵּ֤ה
the-people and-thick-darkness the-earth shall-cover The-darkness For behold::

Again, based on the parallelism, it appears that “For behold:” is outside of the poetic structure. Notice how the b-element (“shall cover”) has no complement in the second colon (this is also called ellipsis or gapping in the current literature). It should also be noted that Gray is the one who introduced the system of using letters (a.b.c. ||  a’.b’.c’) to mark the parallel members.

As is often the case in scholarship, later scholars have multiplied or modified Lowth’s categories of parallelism. Thus you will find reference to climactic parallelism, stair-step parallelism, etc. James Kugel has argued against the idea of simple synonymous parallelism, suggesting instead that the second parallel element always builds or adds to the first, and is never merely symmetrical.

Advances in the science of linguistics have also influenced the study of parallelism. The pioneer was Roman Jakobson (see Selected Writings: Poetry of Grammar, Grammar of Poetry, 1981), who states succinctly that “the poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection to the axis of combination”. Jakobson sees the hallmark of poetry to be the organization of language on all levels – phonetic, morphological, syntactical, lexical, phraseological – into characteristic types of patterns. Thus he saw parallelism in Hebrew poetry not as an oddity, but as the syntactic counterpart to regular metrical patterns.

Jakobson’s influence can be seen in the work of Adele Berlin (The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism, 1985) who seeks to move beyond Lowth’s static categorization to describe the ways the different levels of language interact. Edward Greenstein, Terrence Collins (Line-Forms in Hebrew Poetry, 1978) and Michael O’Connor (Hebrew Verse Structure, 1980) have also analyzed parallelism at the level of syntax.

Lastly, Kugel’s discussion of parallelism came in the context of the argument that parallelism is not the defining feature of Biblical poetry, that poetry cannot be so easily distinguished from prose, and therefore that poetry itself is not a useful category for describing Biblical literature. He argues that poetry has no perceptible meter distinct from prose, that many so-called poems have weak or no parallelism, and that prose writers make use of parallelism as well. However, Jakobson considered poetics to be a function of all language, thus it should not be surprising to find poetic structures in prose. Thus, it seems to be an overstatement to argue against a category of Biblical poetry. However, what has resulted from Kugel’s criticisms is greater recognition of a continuum from prose to poetry.

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4 Comments on “The Study of Classical Hebrew Poetry: Parallelism”


  1. [...] Bekins at Balshanut has two nice posts on Hebrew Poetry.  One on parallelism and the other on the controversial topic of meter.  Check them out; it will be worth your [...]

  2. John Hobbins Says:

    Pete,

    Thanks for the concise summary.

    I really should send you some of my work on this ancient hebrew poetry, published and unpublished (and all available online on my site). You might find it interesting.

  3. Peter Bekins Says:

    John, I have gone through some of the stuff on your site. I was going to link to you, but I figured anybody who makes it to my site probably knows your site anyway.


  4. [...] If you are not familiar with parallelism or would like to see a explanation, check out this post. [...]


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