[Image: Opening of the Psalms, Aleppo Codex]



With the help of colophon-worthy manual labor from the students in my spring Technotexts seminar, my colleague Jeremy Botts and I have been collaborating over the last two months on a letterpress printing of a patch of biblical poetry. (As I plan to reflect on that project at greater length in a month or two, I’ll refrain from further discussion of its specifics for now.) The experience of hand-setting these poems has made palpable to me the classic questions of biblical poetry’s system of internal division and, in turn, proper technique for its visual display. Spend some time with multiple translations of the Psalms, for example (okay, that’s a hint about the project we’ve been working on), and you’ll quickly face disagreement among the translators about how particular poems should be divvied up. Full lines or half lines? Is that bit of text best divided into distichs (pairs of lines) or tristichs (trios)?  Might there be a stand-alone stich in the mix (or is there no such thing as a single line of Hebrew verse)? Should indentation be used to signal that some group of lines belong together in a series (as in lines that exhibit parallelism)? Rarely in the editions do the translators explain in prose notes their decisions about the organization of lines and verse paragraphs. Rather, their arguments about the structures of particular poems are rendered graphically through the organization of the words on the page. The “empty” space thus often plays an important role in suggesting how the lines work together (or don’t). Page design expresses structural and thematic interpretation.

I have been delighted to discover in the last week an author that shares my concern for these issues and whose writing offers helpful terms for its discussion, including the one noted in this post’s title (and to which I’ll turn in good time below). I’m speaking of F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp  (hereafter “D-A”), a professor of Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary. If all goes well, I’ll be contributing a review of his 2015 OUP tome, On Biblical Poetry, to a fall issue of Books and Culture. I’ll reserve that space for an overall assessment of D-A’s methodology and conclusion. For now, it’s enough to explain his general ambition: to expand his reader’s appreciation for the nature and structure(s) of biblical poetry beyond the device of parallelism (though he offers lots of wise words about the effects of parallelism as well). In other words, he would push us beyond the work of Bishop Lowth. Our present concern, the visual display of biblical poetry, is particularly important to his efforts in the first chapter to establish the “facticity” of the line in Hebrew poetry.

Did the ancient Hebrew poets have a notion of the line akin to our modern one? This might seem like a silly question to some readers, but we must bear in mind that unlike ancient Greek verse, Hebrew poetry lacks a normative meter. Biblical scholars have been hunting this phantom for centuries, and D-A rightly argues that we ought to spend our time elsewhere. The absence of such a guiding principle, though, makes the discernment of lineation problematic, as D-A explains at considerable length. If Hebrew poetry is (and has always been) lineated, how does one know where lines begin and end? There’s no prophetic, scribal, or rabbinic equivalent to the Greek or Roman theoreticians of verse. No Hebrew Aristotle kindly corroborating our observations about the principles of poetic construction.

Where to look, then, for confirmation that there was an ancient notion of biblical poetry and that it was made of lines? Among other resources, D-A cites the ancient and medieval manuscript traditions of the Hebrew Bible. D-A observes that manuscripts frequently employ different columnar and stichic strategies for the presentation of verse. For example, consider the first and second chapters of Job in the Leningrad Codex, the oldest complete Hebrew Bible ms. in Hebrew (ca. 1008 CE). Notice the column arrangement for chapter 1 (to the 21st “verse” in the ):

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Now chapter 2 (plus the end of ch. 1):

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So 3 columns = prose and 2 = verse (as seen in the image of the Aleppo Codex’s Psalms above). These books do not contain other internal cues signalling the shift. This is not just a medieval phenomenon, of course; modern books like this one (Mary Shelley’s The Last Man) also don’t pause to explain in words that a formal change has occurred:

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The cue to the reader in the Leningrad and Aleppo codices, as well as numerous still older texts, that the text has switched to verse happens through a manipulation of the “metascript,” a term that D-A borrows from the cuneiform scholar, Margaret Green:

[W]e in the west are so accustomed to seeing lineated verse in writing that it is easy to forget that neither the graphic display of verse in writing nor the specific convention of lineation […] are themselves inevitable or ubiquitous. Special formatting for verse in writing, whatever its nature, is a “metascript” convention of the kind that is “always incorporated into a writing system.” Such conventions, though peripheral to a writing system’s main visual component, the grapheme, nonetheless, provide readers with important, supplementary information like the direction of writing, word division, punctuation, paragraphing, and so on that is “essential to the writing system.” […] [Metascripts] are technologies, practices (for writing) that arise and take on meaning only locally, in culturally and historically specific environments.

As D-A observes, metascripts such as the addition of spacing between words and punctuation marks serve as aids to reading. They simplify the process of discerning the words–as compared to the reading of scriptio continua. But D-A’s examples and analysis also demonstrate that metascripts are not simply helpful to reading: they can also affect our understanding of what we are reading and influence our visual and perhaps manual navigation of the text. To return to the issue with which this post began, we can also recognize that the metascript of indentation can comprise an essential component of “unspoken” (or, at least, unfootnoted) scholarly argument about the structure of biblical poems.

All of this suggests that metascripts are not simply devices that help us to decipher other signs (viz., the grapheme). Instead, metascripts are often an integral part of how we mean. They are part of the reading matter. Paradoxically, “empty” spaces–at the beginning and ending of paragraphs, in the indention of poetic lines–can shape how we understand the combinations of marks that precede or follow them. The metascript is a powerful concept for analyzing the influential surroundings to what is normally seen as “the text”–one worth filing alongside McGann’s “bibliographic code” and Genette’s “paratext.” We need to keep our eyes on them.

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3 Thoughts to “Metascripts”

  1. Jeremiah Coogan

    I look forward to learning more about the letterpress project!

    A few things related to metascripts:
    First, a similar observation about the rhetorical power of text layout has been made with reference to the so-called hymn at Phil 2.6–11. See: Peppard, M. “‘Poetry’, ‘Hymns’ and ‘Traditional Material’ in New Testament Epistles or How to Do Things with Indentations.” JSNT 30, no. 3 (2008): 319–342.
    Second, it might also be helpful to none the rabbinic prescriptions in the Mishnah and Babylonian Talmud about how passages of biblical verse should be written. These discussions focus on “inset hymns” (poetic material within prose narrative) such as Exod 15.1–21, Deut 32.1–43, Jg 5, and 1 Sam 2.1–10. The concern is how to mark the generic shift “typographically”. Not infrequently, though, Masoretic manuscripts don’t altogether follow these prescriptions.
    Finally, there are two different systems of punctuation and line division in the Masoretic tradition: one for Psalms, Proverbs, and Job—the other for the other twenty-one books. Whatever the historical origins of these two systems, they become genre markers. For a number of rabbinic readers, these two systems of punctuation and line division are understood as marking the distinction between ‘verse’ and ‘prose’ books of the Bible. (Although, of course, significant portions of the prophets are in Hebrew verse, and books like Qoheleth and Lamentations are entirely or almost entirely in verse.)

    1. Rhg

      All superb recommendations for reading and reflection here, Jeremiah. Thanks! I’ve had a chance to read Peppard’s piece; Jeremiah has billed him well as a careful interrogator of metascripts. Here are two passages that discuss the presentation of Philippians 2.6-11 in modern scholarly editions:

      It is salient to notice that the presenters of Paul’s authorial speech act never explicitly explain to the addressees of NTG what their illocutionary act of indenting is, like they do with all the other sigla in their presentational speech act. Nowhere in the detailed introduction to Novum Testamentum Graece, nor in Metzger’s Text of the New Testament (1992), nor in Aland and Aland’s Text of the New Testament (1989) does anyone tell the reader for what reason certain texts are indented and others are not. One possible justification of this lack of explanation is that the reasons for indenting certain texts in New Testament epistles are a part of what Bourdieu would call ‘the epistemological unconscious’ of the discipline of biblical studies.

      Another possible justification of this lack of explanation is that NTG expects us to understand its illocutionary act of indenting by analogy with the other texts that are indented. NTG perhaps relies relies on the iconicity of the indentation to guarantee that the readers will unconsciously interpret Phil. 2.6-11 as both poetic and traditional material, since the vast majority of indented texts in the NTG are precisely that: quotations of traditional poetic material from the Hebrew Bible or Greek Septuagint. Just as the iconic raising of the hand needs no explanation in an academic setting, neither does an indentation need an explanation in NTG; from repeated use in the same context, the iconic indentation has been established as an institutional fact. But it is just these qualities of the illocutionary act of indenting—its unremarkability, its iconicity and its location in our epistemological unconscious—that allow it to smuggle surreptitiously more rhetorical force into the guild of biblical scholarship than has been acknowledged.

      And one more passage on the meaning of metascriptural decisions:
      The indentations thus function a bit like the red ink in an evangelical’s ‘red-letter’ edition Bible: just as red-letter editions iconically emphasize the most authoritative material for believers (the words of Jesus), so does the indenting of certain passages iconically emphasize the most authoritative material for scholars (the older strata of tradition).

      There’s more to say about the textual features that Peppard notices, and perhaps Jeremiah is the one to say it…

  2. PJK

    Really interesting Rhg. I confess I hadn’t read about metascripts before, but have wondered about the lineation of Hebrew poetry especially in the Psalms. For what it’s worth, one modern metascriptural convention that popped into my head was the use of screen space in texting. Now that smartphones are the norm, texting makes use of speech “bubbles” that appear opposite sides of the screen, back and forth, as the two texters speak. I suppose that structure helps represent to the users not only the distinctness of the two speakers but also their physical distance from each other.

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