Let's take 1 Tim 3:16 as an example among many others, where Paul wrote or quoted (ESV):

Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:
  He was manifested in the flesh,
    vindicated by the Spirit,
      seen by angels,
  proclaimed among the nations,
    believed on in the world,
      taken up in glory.

My question is this, how did the Bible translators determine whether a passage is poetry or not? Is that because the original texts are indented too or something, so that it looks like a poem? Or is it fully based on the early translator's decision? Who's the first guy to say, "this passage from here to here is a poem"? Thanks


2 Answers 2


Is that because the original texts are indented too or something, so that it looks like a poem?

No. The old manuscripts (at least as far as I am aware) do not indent poetry. However, since there are so many, I would advise looking up one of the projects that is digitizing the manuscripts so you can see them for yourself.

Edit: you can view a number of manuscripts online at this page (http://www.csntm.org/ ). There are a lot of manuscripts here, though I did note one just now that may be indenting, though without being able to take the time to translate, i can't tell if the passage in the image is poetic. Source: http://www.csntm.org/Manuscript/View/Rahlfs_964

Or is it fully based on the early translator's decision?

A) At some points, it is an issue of interpretation. For example, some Christians that hold to Exclusive Psalmody (the view that only the book of Psalms should be sung during corporate worship) deny that Philippians 2:5-11 is poetic in nature, and so would like to see it treated as straight exposition.

Edit: Here is a link to Brian Schwertley's defense of Exclusive Psalmody, in which he argues against against the idea that there are hymn fragments in the NT http://www.reformedonline.com/uploads/1/5/0/3/15030584/exclusive_psalmody.pdf

Dr. Gordon Fee also wrote a piece questioning whether Philippians 2:5-11 is a hymn fragment, though I don't know if he is an Exclusive Psalmodist. http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/bbr/philippians_fee.pdf

B) In other cases, it's an issue of where recognizing that the biblical author is quoting from a poetic source. If you're quoting from the Psalms, for example, then you're certainly quoting poetry.

C) Another angle to consider is that just like we have certain poetic styles in English (and other languages), so does the Hebrew and Greek. While my Hebrew is quite rusty, I seem to recall that Hebrew poetry has a slightly different vocabulary and grammatical structure as compared to non-poetic Hebrew. When a translation committee sees these signs, they in turn give it a special indentation in the translated work to mark it as poetry.

Edit: citations of specific grammatical differences in Hebrew: Taken from "A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew" by C.L. Seow ISBN 0-687-15786-2 --

  1. The absence of the article in poetic Hebrew is, in fact, quite typical. (page 88)
  2. Excursus E covers poetic Hebrew (pages 157-159) and its idiosyncracies: one example -- "In Hebrew poetry, a single preposition in one line may also govern a noun in the parallel line." (page 159)
  • When this was originally written it may have been OK, but over here at BH.SE we have requirements for showing your work (don't just tell us what you know, tell us how you know it). I'd really love to see you edit this to give some sources and develop/explain your ideas more fully, as they are much appreciated.
    – Dan
    Apr 2, 2014 at 22:33
  • No problem. My answer indeed was over at the previous stack exchange. Apr 3, 2014 at 1:16
  • Dr. Fee and I are from the same Christian tradition (Assemblies of God). I doubt he is an exclusive psalmodist. BTW, thank you for using that term. I was aware of the concept but had never heard that term before.
    – Frank Luke
    Apr 3, 2014 at 13:24

I can't speak to poetry in the NT, as I am not familiar with the distinctives of Greek poetry. But I would like to expand on @malachi1990's excellent answer by mentioning some of the characteristics that set Hebrew poetry apart from prose.

English poetic text can often be identified by two primary linguistic characteristics: rhyme and rythm (or metre). The Hebrew poets didn't use those techniques necessarily, but they did have a similar convention. It is called "parallelism". One way to describe the parallelistic construct is that, rather than rhyming the final word in alternating phrases, the Hebrew hymns "rhyme the meaning" of the phrases (so to speak). In other words, the poems use a balanced repetition of ideas, so that the second phrase in a couplet parallels the thought/meaning of the first phrase. There are a number of different types of parallelism, such as:

  • "synonymous" - where the same meaning is restated in different words,
  • "antithetic" - where a contrasting idea is presented
  • "synthetic" - where an idea is advanced and expanded

Examples of these and other types can be found in this article from the Asbury Bible Commentary. The same article also discusses rythm in Hebrew songs, but I won't elaborate on that here.

Given this background, I would not be surprised if the same rhetorical devices might be evident in the NT, given that authors, such as Paul, read and spoke and sang fluent Hebrew, and so NT hymnody might reflect that influence. However, I have never made a careful study of that, so I can't say for sure.

  • 1 Tim 3:16 is not poetry, it is rhetorical prose. Greek poetry has a fixed sequence of long and short syllables, of which there is no trace here.
    – fdb
    Apr 8, 2014 at 9:34
  • @fdb - you speak authoritatively, so I assume you have training in this matter that I have not. However, I do read Koine Greek, and this passage in the original language defintely appears (to my untrained eye) to bear a rhythmic cadence that is hard not to call poetic. Perhaps you could provide some justification for your conclusion.
    – kmote
    Apr 8, 2014 at 14:33
  • I really do not see how you can judge the “cadence” of a text in a language which (as you admit) you do not know. The rules of Greek poetry can be found in any Greek grammar. Or you can look up M L West, “Introduction to Greek metre”, Oxford 1987.
    – fdb
    Apr 8, 2014 at 14:48
  • 1
    @fdb You misread me. I do know Greek. I do not consider myself an expert, but I have formally studied it for years -- Koine Greek, which is the language of the NT. (ML West, by contrast, studied Ancient Greek, which is as distant from Koine as Shakespeare is from modern English.) The point is that Jewish NT Christians were more likely to have derived their poetic inclinations from Hebrew psalmody than from the Illiad.
    – kmote
    Apr 8, 2014 at 15:20
  • 1
    @fdb- (Note: It is generally considered good form on this site to cite your sources, rather than referring to some purported "copious evidence".) As documented in Wikipedia the preponderance of evidence indicates "Qumran Hebrew" was spoken in 1st CE and "Mishnaic (or Rabbinic) Hebrew" was spoken for several centuries thereafter.
    – kmote
    Apr 15, 2014 at 16:50

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