the chicken(poetry) or the egg(prose)?

Paul Zellmer zellmer at
Thu Sep 3 23:25:12 EDT 1998

Bryan Rocine wrote:

> waddaya think?
> For most of us prose is "regular talk"(however careful) and poetry is sort
> of a marked use of language, sometimes downright strange.  We learn prose
> first and read it most.  We think of poetry as the more formal and special.
>  Might
> the opposite be in some ways true in the language of the Hebrew Bible?  I
> know poetry has the rhythm and the heavier concentration of the clever
> devices of parallelism, terracing, inclusio, etc.  But it has the freer
> variation in use of verb forms.  It has the more abbreviated style of
> colloquial speech.  Prose is the more
> "convention-driven" when it comes to the arrangement and function of clause
> types.  Poetry probably came first, right?  And then came prose as a new
> and
> special literary dialect.  Didn't the cultures surrounding Israel record
> their national literatures in poetry?  Aren't certain poems in the HB
> considered the oldest portions of the corpus?  And so, by recording their
> chronicle in prose, might we not infer that Israel actually
> (artificially?)created a fresh and therefore strong convention?  To the
> ancient's ear, might not the prose have been the more formal sounding?
> Shalom,
> Bryan


I think we would have to define what is being discussed here.  (All of this response
is my opinion only, by the way.  I'm working only on a "gut feel" based on what I have
seen in my limited exposure to languages and what we find in the Tanakh.)

If you are referring to the *spoken* history of the Hebrew language, I would doubt
that poetry preceded prose.  It is possible, of course, for poetry to have come
first.  (I am reminded of an old Star Trek episode where a culture spoke only by
making references to people in epics.)  But somehow I picture the people speaking
prose and then using poetry, with its special characteristics, for better expressing
emotions and for memorizing stories of significant events.  It is this memory function
that I see as driving the early predominance of poetry in the Tanakh.

Orally, I see poetry as very likely a mnenomic.  And then, since one would only spend
time memorizing things he would expect to repeat and since once form of repetition is
writing, it is not out of line for that first things written would use the same
mnenomic form as was used orally.  It would only be after recollection of important
items using the oral tradition was significantly replaced the use of the written
tradition that the device used to aid the oral tradition would fall out of normal

So, no, I see it unlikely that prose would be considered "formal sounding" to the
Hebrews.  Rather, I see the recorded and preserved history of a culture that moved
from a predominantly oral tradition of preserving important records to a written

Paul and Dee Zellmer, Jimmy Guingab, Geoffrey Beltran
Ibanag Translation Project
Cabagan, Philippines

zellmer at

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