“Whoever has anything to say, let that person say it once, or carry the discourse regularly forward, but not repeat forever. Whoever is under the necessity of saying everything twice shows that one has but half or imperfectly expressed it the first time.” So Alciphron objects to Hebrew parallelism in Herder’s “Vom Geist der ebraischen Poesie” (quoted in Janowski, Arguing with God: A Theological Anthropology of the Psalms , 15).

In Herder’s dialogue, Eutyprhon rebuts this complaint, but the complaint highlights the oddity of Hebraic parallelism, and hints that it might be something more than a literary device.

Janowski thinks so:

“The parallelismus membrorum is based on the idea of ‘symmetrical completeness,’ the idea that the whole always consists of a plurality of parts and is linguistically expressed by placing complementary or contrasting elements in relation to one another.” In the Hebrew Bible, wholes are often expressed in pairs - not “cosmos” but “heaven and earth”; not “humanity” but “male and female”; not knowledge but “knowledge of good and evil” (14).

He quotes Hartmut Gese: “The defining structure of Hebrew poetry, the . . . so-called thought-rhyme, is not only an external characteristic. The double, intensifying formulation brings the apprehension and comprehension of a thing in a dynamic process. Only the double represents completeness . . . and ever thesis has an antithesis, as right has left . . . . Order is displayed in showing symmetry. The antithetical parallelism expresses the whole on the basis of contrasting part. The synonymous does not repeat the same with different words, but rather completes the statement, intensifying it to fullness and wholeness, while the explicative-synthetic constructs the entire statement from its individual parts” (15).

Parallelism points to a particular conception of truth, according to which a) truth is not expressed in simple, undifferentiated axioms but in perspectival doubles and triples and b) truth comes to be in time, not in a singular first statement but in the unfolding of a statement, restatement, and sometimes a third statement.

Articles by Peter J. Leithart