Patterns in the Psalms: A New Direction in Computational Analysis of Biblical Poetry

Activity: Lecture / PresentationAcademic


Since the publication of Robert Lowth’s De sacra poesi Hebraeorum (1753) there has been a strong tendency in biblical studies to consider biblical poetry primarily as literary compositions. In Psalms research, literary structures such as parallelism received more attention than syntactic patterns such as various constituent orders (VSO, SVO etc.). Lowth’s view on sacred poetry was heavily influenced by Romantic ideas about language and poetry, but it continued long after the heydays of Romanticism. Irregularities, unexpected shifts, or the use of verb forms was often ascribed to poetic freedom. The presence of any regularity, for example in the use of verb forms, was denied or ignored.

In the second half of the twentieth century the attention for syntactic constructions increased, but often they were only discussed as support for theories about verse structure. We also see attempts to describe the verbal system in the Psalms and other poetic texts as a system that has little in common with the system in prose. These attempts continued the tendency to ascribe to poetry its own linguistic profile and character, and somehow followed the guidelines set out by Lowth.

The use of the computer as an analytical tool provides new opportunities to look for patterns in the psalms: in clause types, verb forms, participant shifts, and others. This requires a reformulation of the exegetical procedures and of the division of tasks between the linguist and the literary scholar. What is linguistic system and what is literary design? How far can one get in looking for patterns? Does the search for patterns do justice to the typical characters of poetic language?

In this paper it will be argued that, without denying the importance of literary analysis and the interaction between poetic and syntactic patterns, more “system” and “patterns” can be discovered in biblical poetry than often expected.

The presentation will draw upon examples from the research of the Eep Talsta Centre for Bible and Computer (ETCBC) and the SHEBANQ project on verb forms in the Psalms (Kalkman), Participant shifts in the Psalms (Erwich), in Jeremiah (Glanz) and in Jesaja 40–55 (Oosting), text hierarchical structures in Psalms (Talstra) and Lamentations (Bosman) and others.
Period4 Sept 20169 Sept 2016
Event titleIOSOT conference
Event typeConference
Degree of RecognitionInternational