Saturday, December 09, 2006

The new magical imperial toolkit: percentages, prose and poetry ::

I've decided, now I am (at last) home from SBL (Washington, DC, USA), family (Exmouth, Devon, UK) and the Aotearoa New Zealand Association for Biblical Studies (Christchurch, South Island, NZ), I need a bit of a rest! But I also need to blog, because as I discovered in the middle of the year an empty blog breeds unsubscribers. So, over the next week or so I will gradually post the guts of my paper from ANZABS.

Biblical Hebrew Poetry

Biblical Hebrew (BH) poetry is both beautiful and problematic.

The beauty rings echoing in the ears even of those who read it in translation, yet the problems are not minor.

Firstly, the very existence of BH poetry is denied. Scholars have argued (quite cogently and somewhat convincingly) that there is simply no distinction between prose and poetry in the Bible. And, if there is no distinction, then there is no poetry, since the concepts "poetry" and "prose" are each helpfully defined as being "not the other"!

Secondly, and if we admit that BH poetry does in fact exist: Which texts are which? How do we know? This problem is specially poignant for a student of biblical prophecy, no two editors seem ever able to entirely agree on which parts of a prophetic book are which.

So, thirty years ago (a couple of weeks back on the occasion of the Imperial annual festival of biblical studies, SBL) David Noel Freedman made his presidential address. In those days high profile SBL presidents like (most prominently) Muillenberg, in 1968, had used this opportunity to launch new approaches to biblical studies.

In his paper "Pottery, Poetry and Prophecy" Freedman claimed:
We have devised recently a mechanical test to separate poetry from prose in the Bible, and preliminary tests show that it will work efficiently in most cases.
How deliciously "modern" this quote now sounds, with its talk of a "mechanical test" - actually electronically mediated - and working "efficiently". With its stress on numbers and testing this is biblical studies fit for a world of managers!

In his paper Freedman leaves the nature of the test undefined, though earlier that year Radday and Shore had published results of counting the article (as a percentage of its potential carriers "nouns, adjectives, and numerals... (and) certain toponyms"). They showed that this percentage (of articles to potential articles) was significantly different between halves of books that scholarship often sees as divided (by genre or origin),3 and also between prose books and poetic books.

In 1983 Andersen and Forbes published counts for every chapter in the Bible of what were becoming known as "prose particles":
These figures demonstrate clearly that at chapter level the percentage these particles form of the total number of words neatly distinguishes prose from poetry with a high degree of accuracy.

By 1987 Freedman was quantifying this (in "Another Look at Biblical Hebrew Poetry"):
So, by the end of the 'eighties the stage was set and the empire of biblical studies was being promised a magical new toolkit that would deliver the "holy grail" of distinguishing "scientifically" between BH prose and poetry (thus proving the existence of Hebrew poetry).

Coming soon: Part 2 - the "boy" examines the imperial toolbox...

1. D.N. Freedman, "Pottery, Poetry and Prophecy", JBL 96 (1977), 5-26. [return]
2. Y.T. Radday & H. Shore, "The Definite Article: A Type and/or Author Specifying Discriminant in the Hebrew Bible", Association for Literary and Linguistic Computing Bulletin 4 (1976), pp.23 31. [return]
3. Except the book of Zechariah, which did not show a significant difference (see also below). [return]
4. D.N. Freedman, "Another Look at Biblical Hebrew Poetry", in E.R. Follis (ed.), Directions in Biblical Hebrew Poetry (JSOTS 40; Sheffield, 1987), p.16. [return]

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