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The balance of verse with verse, an essential and characteristic feature in Hebrew poetry. Either by repetition or by antithesis or by some other device, thought is set over against thought, form balances form, in such wise as to bring the meaning home to one strikingly and agreeably. In the hymns of the Assyrians and Babylonians parallelism is fundamental and essential. Schrader takes it for granted that the Hebrews got this poetic principal from them (Jahrbuch für Protestant. Theologie, i, 121); a common Semitic source, in days long before the migration of Abraham, is a likelier hypothesis. The Syriac, Vulgate, and other ancient versions, recognized and to a certain extent reproduced the balance of verse with verse in the Bible. Not until the sixteenth century did Hebraists speak of it as a poetical principle, essential to the Hebrews. It was then that Rabbi Azaria de Rossi, in his work The Light of the Eyes, first divided various poetic portions of the Bible into verses that brought out the fact of parallelism and of a fixed number of recurrent accents. Schöttgen ("Horæ Hebraicæ et Talmudicæ", Dissertatio vi, Dresden, 1733, vol. I, p. 1252), though erring in that he calls it absurd to speak of iambs and hexameters in Hebrew poetry, deserves the credit of having first drawn up the canons of parallelism, which he calls exergasia (exergasia, the working up of a subject, Polybius, X, xlv, 6). According to these canons Biblical prose differs from Biblical poetry solely in that the poet works up a subject by reiteration of the same idea either in the same or in different words, by omission of either the subject or the predicate, by antithesis of contrary thoughts etc. Bishop Lowth (De Sarca Poesi Hebræorum, 1753; Isaiah, 1778) based his investigations upon the studies of Schöttgen and coined the term parallelism. He distinguished three kinds of parallelism: the synonymous, the antithetical, and the synthetic. His conclusions have been generally accepted.

I. Synonymous Parallelism---The very same thought is repeated, at times in the very same words. The following examples, being close translations of the original text, will better illustrate Hebrew parallelism than does our Douai version which (in regard to the Psalms) has reached us through the medium of a Latin translation of the Septuagint Greek:
(a) Up have the rivers lifted, Jahweh,
Up have the rivers lifted their voices,
Up the rivers lift their breakers.
--Ps., xcii, 3 (Hebrew, xciii).

(b) Yea, in the night is Ar-Moab put down,
set at naught;
Yea, in the night is Kir-Moab put down,
set at naught.
--Is., xv, 2.

II. Antithetical Parallelism--The thought of the first line is expressed by an antithesis in the second; or is counterbalanced by a contrast in the second. This parallelism is very common in the Book of Proverbs:
(a) The tongue of the wise adorneth knowledge,
The mouth of the fool blurteth out folly.
Prov., xv, 2.

(b) Soundness of heart is the life of the flesh,
Envy is the rot of the bones.
--Proverbs 14:30.

III. Synthetic Parallelism---The theme is worked up by the building of thought upon similar thought:
(a) Mightier than the voices of many waters,
Mightier than the breakers of the ocean
In the high place is Jahweh.
--Ps., xcii, 4 (Hebrew, xciii).

(b) Know ye that Jahweh he is the Lord,
He hath made us; his we are;
His folk are we, yea, the flock of his pasture.
--Ps., xcix, 1 (Hebrew, c).

IV. Introverted Parallelism (named by Jebb, in "Sacred Literature", sec. 4). The thought veers from the main theme and then returns thereto.
Only in God be still, my soul.
From Him is my life;
Only He is my rock, my salvation,
My fortress. I totter not.

How long will ye set upon a man,---
Will ye dash upon him, all of you?
Only to thrust me from my height they plan,
As from a toppling wall.
They love the lie; they bless with the lips;
And in their hearts they curse.
Only in God be still, my soul.
From Him is my life;
Only He is my rock, my salvation,
My fortress. I totter not.
--Ps. lxi, 2-7 (Hebrew, lxii).

V. Stair-like Parallelism---The thought is repeated, in pretty much the same words, and is developed still further:
Jahweh shall guard thee from all evil,
Jahweh shall guard thy soul;
Jahweh shall guard thy coming and thy going
From now for ever more.
--Ps. cxx, 7-8 (Hebrew, cxxi).

VI. Emblematic Parallelism---The building up of a thought by use of simile:
Jahweh, my God, early I seek Thee;
My soul doth faim for Thee;
My flesh doth faint for Thee;
Like a land of drought it thirsts for Thee.
--Ps. lxii, 2, 3 (Hebrew, lxiii).

Parallelism may be seen in distichs or tristichs. In fact, scholars are now coming round to the theory that the principle of balance and counterbalance is far more comprehensive in Hebrew poetry than are the above-named parallelisms. Each individual line is a unit of sense, and combines with other such units to form larger units of sense. Recent scholars, like Zenner, have found an almost endless variety of balance and counterbalance of words with words; of lines with lines, either of the same strophe or of an antistrophe; of strophe with antistrophe or with another strophe etc. In fact, this wider application of the principle of parallelism or balance in the study of Hebrew poetry has enabled modern scholars to go far in their efforts to reconstruct the metres of the sacred writers.


SCHLÖGL, De re metrica veterum Hebræorum (Vienna, 1890); DÖLLER, Rhythymus, Metrik und Strophik in der Biblsch-Hebräischen Poesie (Paderborn, 1899); GRIMME, Grundzüge der Hebräischen Akzent-und Vocallehre (Fribourg, 1896); ZENNER, Die Chorgesänge im Buch der Psalmen (Freiburg im Br., 1896); ZENNER AND WIESMANN, Die Psalmen nach dem Urtext (Münster, 1906); KAUTZSCH, Die Poesie und die poetischen Bücher des Alten Testaments (Leipzig, 1902); BRIGGS, Psalms (New York, 1906); BICKELL, Metrices bibl. reg. exempl. illustrat. (Innsbruck, 1882), Carmina V. T. metrice (Innsbruck, 1882); GIETMANN, De re metrica Hebræorum (Freiburg im. Br., 1880).

About this page

APA citation. Drum, W. (1911). Parallelism. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Drum, Walter. "Parallelism." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 11. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Thomas J. Bress.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. February 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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