Acrostic



ACROSTIC ə krôs’ tĭk (Gr. ἀκροστιχίς, from ἄκρος, top, extremity, and στίχος, line of verse.) A poem in which the first letters of consecutive lines or stanzas form words, or an alphabet.

The OT contains fourteen acrostic poems, in which the twenty-two letter Heb. alphabet appears, with slight variations, at the beginning of:

Each line, of 1 line vv. (Lam 3)

Each line, or each half of 2-line vv. (Pss 111, 112)

Each v.: every second line of 2 line vv. (Pss 25, 34, 119, 145; Prov 31:10-31; Lam 4).

Every second line, or each half of 4-line vv. (Nah 1:2-10)

Each v.: every third line of 3-line vv. (Lam 1, 2)

Every fourth line, or every two vv. of 2-line vv. (Pss 9, 10, 37)

A strophic arrangement, in which each letter begins three successive vv., appears in Lamentations 3 (total, 66 vv.); or eight successive vv., in Psalm 119 (total, 176 vv.).

The order of letters in the Sem. alphabet is now known to date back to Mosaic times (15th cent. b.c., Ugarit), confirming the possible antiquity of the acrostic Psalms 9, 25, 34, 37, 145 and their claim to Davidic authorship. Psalm 10 must then go with 9, since the two form one acrostic.

Acrostics aid in memorization. Awareness of acrostic structure has also assisted in the textual restoration of vv. such as Psalms 25:5, 19; 34:7; 37:28; and 145:13; the original text of Nahum, however, apparently incorporated only a portion of an acrostic in 1:2-10.

The NT contains no acrostics. Early Christians, however, used the fish as a symbol of Christ, because ̓ΙΧΘΥΣ, fish, is the acrostic of ̓Ιησου̂ς Χριστὸς Θεου̂ ̓Υιὸς Σωτήρ, Jesus Christ God’s Son, Savior.

Bibliography

R. H. Pfeiffer, Introduction to the OT (1948), 544, 545, 630; N. K. Gottwald, Studies in the Book of Lamentations (1954), 23-32.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

a-kros’-tik: The acrostic, understood as a short poem in which the first letters of the lines form a word, or name, or sentence, has not yet been proved to occur in ancient Hebrew literature. The supposed examples found by some scholars in Ps 2:1-4 and Ps 110:1-4 are not generally recognized. Still less can be said in favor of the suggestion that in Es 1:20 four words read from left to right form by their initials an acrostic on the name YHWH (compare Konig, Einleitung 293). In Byzantine hymn-poetry the term acrostichis with which our word "acrostic" is connected was also used of alphabetical poems, that is poems the lines or groups of lines in which have their initials arranged in the order of the alphabet. Acrostics of this kind are found in pre-Christian Hebrew literature as well as elsewhere in ancient oriental literature. There are twelve clear instances in the Old Testament: Psalms 25; 34; 37; 111 f; 119; 145; Pr 31:10-31, and La 1-4. There is probably an example in Psalms 9 and 10, and possibly another in Nab 1:2-10. Outside the Canon, Sirach 51:13-30 exhibits clear traces of alphabetic arrangement. Each of these fifteen poems must briefly be discussed.

Pss 9 and 10, which are treated as one psalm in Septuagint and Vulg, give fairly clear indications of original alphabetic structure even in the Massoretic Text. The initials of 9:1,3,5 are respectively ’aleph, beth, gimel; of 9:9,11,13,15,17 waw, zayin, cheth, Teth and yodh. Ps 10:1 begins with lamedh and 10:12,14,15,17 with qoph, resh, shin and taw. Four lines seem to have been allotted to each letter in the original form of the poem. In Ps 25 all the letters are represented except waw and qoph. In 25:18 we find resh instead of the latter as well as in its place in 25:19. In 25:2 the alphabetical letter is the initial of the second word. The last verse is again supernumerary. There are mostly two lines to a letter. In Ps 34 all the letters are represented except waw, 34:6 beginning not with it, as was to be expected, but with zayin. The last verse is again a supernumerary. Since here and in 25:22 the first word is a form of padhah it has been suggested that there may have been here a sort of acrostic on the writer’s name Pedahel pedhah’el, but there is no evidence that a psalmist so named ever existed. There are two lines to a letter. In Ps 37 all the letters are represented except `ayin which seems however from Septuagint to have been present in the earliest text. As a rule four lines are assigned to each letter. In Psalms 111 f are found two quite regular examples with a line to each letter. Ps 119 offers another regular example, but with 16 lines to a letter, each alternate line beginning with its letter. Vs 1-8, for instance, each begin with ’aleph. In Ps 145 are found all the letters but nun. As we find in Septuagint between 145:13 and 14, that is where the nun couplet ought to be:

"Faithful is the Lord in his words And holy in his works,"


As this rapid survey will have shown, this form of acrostic as employed by Hebrew writers consisted in the use of letters of the alphabet as initials in their order, at regular intervals, the distance between two different letters ranging from one to sixteen lines. Once each letter is thus used three times, in another case eight times. The corruption of the text has in some cases led to considerable interference with the alphabetical arrangement, and textual criticism has endeavored to restore it with varying success.

These alphabetical poems have been unduly depreciated on account of their artificial structure and have also been regarded for the same reason as of comparatively late origin. This latter conclusion is premature with present evidence. The poems in La undoubtedly go back as far as the 6th century BC, and Assyrian testimony takes us back farther still for acrostic poems of some kind. Strictly alphabetical poems are of course out of the question in Assyrian because of the absence of an alphabet, but there are texts from the library of Ashur-bani-pal each verse-line in which begins with the same syllable, and others in which the initial syllables read together compose a word or sentence. Now these texts were written down in the 7th century BC, but may have been copied from far earlier Babylonian originals. There can be little doubt that oriental poets wrote acrostic at an early period, and therefore the use of some form of the acrostic is no clear indication of lateness of date. (For these Assyrian acrostics compare Weber, Die Literatur der Babylonier und Assyrer, 37.)

LITERATURE. In addition to authorities already cited: Konig, Einl, 58, 66, 74, 76, 399, 404, 419, and Stilistik, etc., 357 ff, Budde, Geschichte der alt-hebraischen Litteratur, 30, 90, 241, 291; article "Acrostic" in HDB (larger and smaller) and Hastings, Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, and Jewish Encyclopedia; commentaries on Ps, Nah, Pr and Lam; Driver, Parallel Psalter; King, Early Religious Poetry of the Hebrews, chapter iv.