NCE Minute: Parallel Passages in Swedenborg’s Works

Anyone who reads Swedenborg for long enough—and that could be for as little as a few minutes—soon discovers that the great Swedish theologian repeats himself. Readers today, both new and long-experienced, find this deliberate practice of his to be somewhat challenging. We are not used to such repetition in written works, though we endure it in countless other forms, media advertising being an omnipresent example. There can be no question that Swedenborg believed the repetition of an idea in different contexts and with different illustrations and nuances to be a powerful teaching and communicating tool. 

However, many of these repetitions are not spontaneously generated and fresh expressions of a previously stated idea. They are clearly passages that were deliberately copied by Swedenborg from one place to another—usually from an earlier work into a later one, but sometimes even from one part of a work to another. Some passages were so useful to his discussion that he copied them more than once. After all, a lot of his theological text must have been very difficult to create—especially the indexlike and heavily biblical material; it is quite understandable that when possible he would lift a riff from an earlier book rather than write it again from scratch. He even created careful indexes as he went, in order to make it easier to find those definitive passages and copy them over to new locations.

The two types of repetitions (the spontaneous restatements and the deliberate copyings) are sometimes lumped together under the single label “parallel passages.” It might be better to follow the lead of the compiler of the six-volume concordance of Swedenborg’s works, John Faulkner Potts, and call the deliberate copyings “repeated passages” to distinguish them from those passages where an idea simply crops up again in discussion. But since the term “parallel passages” has become standard, the Swedenborg Foundation’s New Century Edition (NCE) has retained it. 

Tables of parallel passages in the NCE are drawn in large part (with respectful acknowledgment) from the tables composed by other scholars. As part of the process by which the NCE tables are compiled, each parallel is reexamined for fitness, and entries that NCE editors consider of marginal value are discarded. Parallel passages that have been missed by others are also added.

In its tables, the NCE tends to include only the deliberate copyings, the true “repeated passages.” Though two passages may have similar content, and may therefore be considered in some sense “parallel,” they may still not show signs that Swedenborg was looking at the one as he wrote the other. They rate inclusion only if, in a more-than-random way, the material is presented in largely the same sequence, and (if applicable) with the same illustrations or biblical quotations or cross-references to his own books. 

So what is the point of all this careful labor of compilation, one might ask? Generally, parallels serve to show Swedenborg the Editor at work. They give us an idea of how he assembled and shaped his books. Sometimes the parallel passages differ negligibly: Swedenborg may have randomly chosen to capitalize different words in the two versions, for instance. But sometimes one version of a passage may shed light on the significantly different content of another, or reveal how Swedenborg reshaped his material in transposing it. Readers who take the time to explore the parallel passages table in an NCE volume will usually find that some striking information is available there.

For example, True Christianity contains an extended passage of “additional material” at the end of the main text (§§794–851). Here one can read a great deal about the spiritual world as Swedenborg saw it. He reports on the fate of the theologians Luther, Melanchthon, and Calvin; the Dutch; the British; the Germans; and various religious groups. An examination of the table of parallels in True Christianity reveals that at the beginning of this passage, Swedenborg began drawing heavily on material he had already composed for various other works. The table is fairly simple and straightforward up to §794, but then it explodes with references to his unpublished diary, Spiritual Experiences; to the unpublished Draft of “Supplements”; and to the published work Supplements itself. (For a discussion of the changes Swedenborg made to the arrangement of this material as he copied it over, see the translator’s preface to the New Century Edition of True Christianity, pages 19–21.)

A more focused comparison of parallel passages can also reveal important details one would otherwise miss, such as text that has been lost because of an error. For example, in New Jerusalem 35:3 we find this statement:  

Whatever is accepted by our will becomes part of our life and our consequent understanding.

 But if we check the parallel passages table, we see that Swedenborg copied this passage from Last Judgment 39:16. The text there reads (with boldface added) 

Whatever is accepted by our will becomes part of our life: 3161, 9386, 9393. It follows then that we are human because of our will and our consequent understanding.

The length of the printed Latin for the text shown in boldface equals exactly one line, and the comparison of the parallels suggests that when the text from Last Judgment was being copied to New Jerusalem, the eye of either Swedenborg or the typesetter must have skipped from near the end of one line to a comparable position on the line below. This error resulted in the omission of a portion of the intended text (the portion here indicated in boldface) from New Jerusalem.

An example of parallel passages in two of Swedenborg’s Latin first editions,  Last Judgment 39:16 (top) and New Jerusalem 35:3 (bottom). The portion of the text that was inadvertently omitted when the passage was copied from Last Judgment to New Jerusalem is shown in yellow highlight. 

Thus the parallel passages tables provide a method of cross-checking the text. It is not often necessary to consult the tables for this purpose, but when it is, the parallels provide our best means of knowing what Swedenborg meant—a way of asking the author himself.

On the whole, this is the function served by the parallel passages tables: they are a way of asking the author for more information about what he intended in his writings. They are a gathering of evidence that can help us understand what he found most important to say and that can show us how he labored to say it more and more clearly as time passed. So next time you read an NCE Deluxe volume, take a few minutes to look through the parallel passages table at the back. You never know what you might discover about the book you have just read. 

This article was adapted and expanded from material supplied by Jonathan S. Rose.

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