Most Bibles typeset the verses as interminable columns of prose. But if you want to remember these verses, you need to unlock the hidden rhythms. Break the paragraphs into poetry.
In the original languages, these texts are more like poetry than prose. We can’t recapture all that poetry in English, but we can capture more than you think.
Rhythmic lines are so much easier to remember. Not only do you speak these rhythms, you also see them. Seeing the rhythms laid out on the page adds another layer of memory assistance.
Look again at today’s verse. You’re looking at one of the best-kept secrets about the Bible. The Bible has rhythm.
The Bible was written in an oral culture, a culture that largely depended on the spoken word. Human speech has a natural, loose rhythm. In an oral culture, speakers make these rhythms even stronger.
They organize their thoughts into words and phrases that play off each other, back and forth, rising and falling. Their audiences expect these rhythms, listen for them, and remember them.
In our culture, we associate rhythm with entertainment: nursery rhymes, popular music, rap. Advertising jingles.
Our serious work avoids rhythms. Doctors don’t want to sound like Dr. Seuss.
But oral cultures depend on spoken rhythm for serious work. Jesus preached in rhythm. The Gospel writers composed with rhythm.
Free the “Verses” Back Into a “Poem”
You want to speak these verses with rhythm.
Almost every Bible translation imprisons these verses into long, solid columns of compressed text. But why do we call them verses? Don’t verses mean a poem?
Poems never translate well. Most rhythm, like rhyme, is lost in translation. But with the Bible, we can still find the back-and-forth rhythm of the phrases.
The first modern scholar I know of to unlock these Bible rhythms was Marcel Jousse, a French priest in the early twentieth century. In 1925, his book The Oral Style revealed that beneath the prose of the Gospels, even in translation, the phrases rise and fall with strong rhythms.
Back and Forth Rhythms
Let’s look again at our first verse, Luke 2:1. Normally, that verse would look like this:
And it came to pass that in those days there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled.
But I’ve freed these words into a more natural, back-and-forth rhythm:
And it came to pass
that in those days
there went out a decree
from Caesar Augustus
that the whole world
should be enrolled.
Do you hear how the phrases interlock? The first phrase rises, creating tension. The second phrase falls, resolving the tension.
“And it came to pass … that in those days.”
“There went out a decree … from Caesar Augustus.”
Just as the phrases can combine into couplets, the couplets can combine into larger stanzas. The entire first couplet asks a question: What came to pass? The second couplet gives the answer: the decree of Augustus.
Speak With Rhythm
Every verse in this book has been set with rhythm. As you read, use the layout to help you see and speak these rhythms. You’ll see couplets and triplets.
The first line of this couplet rises, creating tension,
The second line falls and resolves the tension.
The first line of this triplet rises, creating tension,
The middle line begins to fall,
But only the last line resolves the tension.
Sometimes, you’ll see a set of four lines. I’m not sure Jousse would approve of this. He only talked about groups of twos and threes. But sometimes, it seems to me that a line really “introduces” a triplet:
And someone says, in a rising tone,
“I’m saying something that rises even further,”
And only now does the tension begin to fall,
And this third line completes it.
You May Find Better Rhythms
So what rules have I used to break up these verses into groups? Here’s the secret method: whatever sounds good.
Meaning, there isn’t any secret method. If you find a better rhythm for a cluster of verses, change it! And let me know!
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