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What is 'chiasm'?

Chiasm is a literary technique by which the contents of a portion of text are structured in such a way that they could be laid out in a ">" shape...

A) This is an example of a chiasm
    B) which has been reformatted to illustrate the concept
        C) that each element in a chiasm corresponds to another element
            D) except, perhaps the central element, which is often being emphasized. 
        C') Otherwise each element corresponds to another element in the chiasm
    B') and if you were to reformat the whole thing in a '>' shape it would be clear
A') that it is in fact a chiasm.

...so A corresponds to A', B to B', C to C', etc. Sometimes there is a central element, in which case, the chiasm often points the reader to that central element, where the emphasis of the entire chiasm lies.

A more Biblical example

I found this by doing a quick Google search for "chiasm Bible". The author of the site claims that Genesis 3:5 – 3:22 is a chiasm.

A) You will be like God, knowing good and evil (5)
    B) They made coverings of fig leaves (7)
        C) Wife as yet unnamed (8)
            D) Adam questioned (9)
                E) Eve accused and questioned (12-13a)
                    F) Serpent accused (13b)
                    F') Serpent’s curse (14)
                E') Eve’s curse (16)
            D') Adam’s curse (17-19)
        C') Wife is named Eve (20)
    B') The LORD God made them tunics of skin and clothed them. (21)
A') Man is like one of Us, to know good and evil. (22)

Pretty cool, eh?

My concern

Here is my concern. I'm looking at the "chiasm" I just included, and I'm wondering... what happened to verses 6, 10-11, and 15? Maybe they were insignificant to the chiasm so they weren't included... So then, how do we decide which verses to include in our chiasm and which to leave out? Do we just tinker with the text until we are able to "make something work"? Then I'm wondering, why doesn't it start at verse 4, or verse 1? Do we just pick a convenient verse that allows us to call it a chiasm? Aside from verse selections, the text has to be summarized in just the right way to make it look chiastic. This whole procedure can quickly begin to sound more like eisegesis than exegesis.

To make matters worse, it is relatively easy to "see" a chiasm where none exists. To prove my point, I went to Bible Gateway and typed in some random book+chapter+verses and fit them into chiastic structures. There are three examples provided below. These are not actual chiasms! I made them up to show how easy it is to succumb to "chiasmania." Again, take note that these chiasms are artificial and are not to be trusted!

Ephesians 2:5-12:

Formerly dead (5a)
    God made us alive in Christ (5b-7)
        By grace (8a)
            Through faith, which is a gift (8b)
        Not by works (9)
    God made us alive in Christ (10)
Formerly dead (11-12) 

James 2:6-14:

James confronts those guilty of showing partiality (6-7)
    The royal law (8)
        You are a transgressor! (9)
            Whoever stumbles in one point becomes guilty of the whole law (10)
        You are a transgressor! (11)
    The law of liberty (12)
James confronts those guilty of showing partiality (13-14),

Luke 4:13-19:

an opportune time for the devil (13)
    Jesus' mission field (14)
        Jesus the teacher (15)
            Jesus prepares to read (16)
                Isaiah was handed to Him (17a)
            Jesus prepares to read (17b)
        Jesus the preacher (18a)
    Jesus' mission field (18b)
the favorable year of the Lord (19)

Again, I literally made these by just randomly picking some book+chapter+verses off the top of my head, typing them in at Bible Gateway to see what they said, and then forcing them into a chiastic structure. There is no reason to think any of these were actually intended to be chiasms.

My question

When we think we are seeing a chiasm in the Biblical text, how can we be sure that we are actually seeing something that was intended by the author, and not just imposing our own chiasmaniacle agenda on the text? Is there an exegetical procedure for identifying a chiasm that can help us to ensure that we are being faithful to authorial intent?

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What a great question! –  Gone Quiet Jun 24 '13 at 1:29
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+1 awesome question. –  Daи Jun 24 '13 at 15:56
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4 Answers 4

You asked,

"How can we ensure a given 'chiasm' was inten[ded] by the author, and is not merely [a] fanciful[, self-imposed] eisegesis?" and

"Is there an exegetical procedure for identifying a chiasm that can help us to ensure that we are being faithful to authorial intent?"

By the way, if you or any other readers of BH beta haven't already read an excellent overview of chiasmus' importance in the interpretation and exegesis of the Bible, I encourage you to do so. See "Chiasmus: An Important Structural Device Commonly Found in Biblical Literature," by Brad McCoy. McCoy's monograph seems to me to be quite thorough, well balanced and well documented, with footnotes galore [1 and 2, below].

In answer to your first question, eisegesis, as you point out, can be problematical, though biblical scholars in general and Hebrew- and Greek scholars in particular-- despite their fallibility--can often provide useful guidance and correction, since both they and us (in their absence) can be guided by the Holy Spirit.

R. W. Emerson said,

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."

In answer to your second question , manias of any kind (i.e., foolish consistencies; seeing chiasm, for example, where there is none) seem to be antithetical to good hermeneutics and exegesis. On more than a few occasions, seemingly well-meaning Christians have gone off the deep end by mounting a hermeneutical hobby horse and riding it to death, thereby upsetting their faith and the faith of others. Balance is the key.

These hobby-horse Christians may justify or rationalize their seeming obsession with an unwarranted method of interpretation by saying, "But God revealed it to me!" That attitude, however, is fraught with peril, especially when they ignore the interpretations of respected, reputable scholars whose interpretations are at odds with theirs.

A simple recognition that 1.) chiasmus was part and parcel of the Hebrew mind, and that 2.) its primary use was to organize texts and make them more memorable, are two guiding principles that go a long way, I believe, in keeping us on the "straight and narrow," interpretively. These two factors, if you will, comprise the forest. What about the trees?

Chiasmus is but one tool of many in the rhetorical panoply of biblical writers. A tool is a means to an end, which in biblical interpretation is to enable any servant of the Word to handle correctly, or "rightly divide," the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). We should not expect, on balance, to find chiasmus everywhere, any more than we should expect to find irony, sarcasm, litotes, metonymy, synecdoche, or any other figure or trope everywhere.

One tree in the forest of interpretation, then, could be familiarity with the real thing. Just as FBI agents hone their skill of spotting counterfeit money by scrutinizing the real thing, so too should biblical interpreters develop the ability to distinguish true chiasmus from pseudo-chiasmus by finding and studying the genuine article, as you have done.

Here is where biblical scholars who have specialized in identifying the genuine article can be invaluable resources for exegetes. Even pagan rhetoricians from the Greek and Roman traditions (e.g., Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Isocrates, Longinus)can provide us with insights into figures of speech that both Jews and Gentiles used.

Interestingly, Jesus himself gave us some principles of interpretation, one of which was, ironically enough, the principle that He used more than occasionally, and it involved deliberate obfuscation so as to expose the spiritual blindness and deafness of unbelievers:

"To you [, my disciples] has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest [my teaching] is in parables, so that SEEING THEY MAY NOT SEE, AND HEARING THEY MAY NOT UNDERSTAND"(Lk 8:10b)!

In John 6, after Jesus called Himself "the bread of life," the Jews started arguing among themselves about how in the world this Jesus could give them His flesh to eat. Then Jesus hammered home His point by saying,

" . . . Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourself. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life . . .. My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him" (vss. 52-56).

In verse 63 of the same chapter, however, Jesus in His response to His disciples' complaint about His having used such "a difficult saying," patiently interpreted for them His teaching. He said,

"It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life."

Jesus was saying in other words, "Don't interpret all of my words literally; sometimes I am speaking figuratively, so interpret my words spiritually!"

Jesus also teaches us that each of His parables has a central idea/point/thesis, and that being overly literal in our interpretation of them can cause problems. Frequently He would patiently explain His parables to the inner circle of His disciples to ensure they got the point He was making.

While Jesus never used a figure of speech or any literary unit without consciously knowing how and why He did so, the same cannot be said, I believe, of the human writers of the Bible. Perhaps more often than not they did know; at other times, however, the wording that the Holy Spirit chose trumped their own preconceptions about how and why they were writing as they did. Remember, each writer was, as Peter reminds us, being borne along by the Holy Spirit, as a boat's sails catch the wind and bear the boat along its course (see 2 Peter 1:20-21).

Scripture is, after all, God-breathed and not man-breathed, although the human writers God used to pen His word were not automatons to whom God dictated! Ultimately, in answering the question "What was the author's intent in this passage?" we need to go beyond the human author and to the Divine Author! Will we always be successful? No. Should that prevent us from trying? No.

The human authors' educational backgrounds, their facility with languages, their personalities, temperaments, and the significant others in their lives--all these factors and more informed the original manuscripts, and God in turn has miraculously, preserved His word, ever since the writer of Job first put quill to parchment.

One final thought. God has a remarkable way of using His word to accomplish His purposes in the lives of people. Even if an active preacher or teacher is way off base in his or her interpretation of a given scripture (with the exception of clearly erroneous doctrine), God has a way of using His word to accomplish His purposes and to bring glory to Himself and blessing to others.

God's sovereignty in these matters does not therefore give us license to play fast and loose with the Scriptures. Again, they need to be "rightly divided," exegetically and hermeneutically. Keep in mind, however, no one person or one denomination has a corner on the truth in this regard, and Church schisms have occurred over arguments about relatively insignificant differences in interpretation, with perhaps well meaning people on both sides making theological mountains out of what are in fact molehills.

Even then, God can still bring good out of evil, but I'd like to think He'd prefer that we stick to His plan A, which often involves agreeing to disagree agreeably! We all, at times, need to pick our battles wisely and lovingly.

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I think I'm missing something. On the one hand, you (rightly IMO) criticize people who say "But God revealed it to me!" -- but then you build your analysis on what you think the holy spirit told you? How do you reconcile that? –  Gone Quiet Jun 24 '13 at 18:39
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Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Could you perhaps edit your post to make your answer to my question more explicit? I'm not sure whether you're saying "yes" or "no," or what exegetical procedure you're proposing, exactly. I think you have some good thoughts, but it's hard to follow as a Q&A. In the mean time, I'll read the article you linked. –  Jas 3.1 Jun 24 '13 at 18:41
    
@MonicaCellio: Allow me to clarify. Sometimes the very folks who say "God revealed it to me" stick to their guns in spite of there being reputable proof to the contrary. In the multitude of counselors is safety (Pr 11:14)--though not infallibility! I said the Holy Spirit CAN provide guidance and correction; sometimes, however, we erect self-imposed barriers to His ministry of guiding us into all truth (Jn 16:13). I for one do NOT have a special "in" with the Holy Spirit. He indwells me, to be sure, but then He also indwells some God-gifted scholars, whose interpretations can be spot on! –  rhetorician Jun 24 '13 at 21:23
    
@Jas 3.1: You're welcome. I'll do my best to edit my answer to make it more clearly "on point." I do agree, by the way, with virtually all of your own answer. On one thing, and one only, we made need to agree to disagree agreeably. When it comes to authorial intention, the ultimate Author of the Bible is God, not fallible men (see 2 Pe 1:20,21). Again, the Scriptures are God-breathed , not man-breathed. Accurate interpretation comprises, perhaps, equal measures of both science and artistry, both of which require the Spirit's enabling and guiding (Jn 16:13). –  rhetorician Jun 24 '13 at 21:58
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@rhetorician I see Scripture as "God-Spirited"; a perfect product of humans being led by the Spirit in their communication. As such, I am nervous of any claims to God intending to communicate something through the human author's words which the human author did not intend to communicate. That sounds more like puppetry than partnership to me. I'd love to discuss further if you are ever interested. –  Jas 3.1 Jun 24 '13 at 23:40
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Here are a few proposals. I'll update this post as I learn more, or delete it if a better answer is posted that addresses these points.

1. Chiasmus is a way of structuring a literary unit... if it is not a literary unit, then it is not a chiasm.

Given the purpose of chiasmus -- to organize a literary unit, to make the literary unit more memorable, and perhaps, to emphasize the central point of a literary unit -- I propose that we can begin by assessing whether or not the text contained within an alleged chiasm is actually a complete literary unit.

For example, if an alleged chiasm starts in the middle of one sentence or paragraph, and ends in the middle of another sentence or paragraph, it is not actually an authorially-intended chiasm. The chiasm must span an entire coherent literary unit -- no more, no less. (Please note, however, that this literary unit could be a single sentence, several paragraphs, or even an entire book in length.)

2. Chiasmus is a way of structuring an entire literary unit... if the entire literary unit cannot be included in the chiasm, then it is not a chiasm.

Given that chiasmus is used to organize an entire literary unit and make the entire literary unit more memorable, it would not make sense for significant portions of the text to be unrelated to the chiasm. I propose that we can quickly evaluate whether we may be looking at a chiasm by assessing whether or not all of the text contained within an alleged chiasm actually fits into a chiastic structure.

For example, if an alleged chiasm fits 80% of the text in a literary unit into a chiastic structure, but 20% of the text has to be excluded in order to make it look chiastic in structure, it is not actually an authorially-intended chiasm. The chiasm must account for the entire literary unit, not just selected portions of the text. (Please note that this does not imply that every word must have a parallel, but major concepts and points of focus cannot be excluded simply for convenience.)

3. Chiasmus is a way of structuring a text to make the text itself more memorable... if the reader has to rewrite the text in order to make it look chiastic, it is not a chiasm

Given that chiasmus is used to organize a text to make it more memorable, it would not make sense for the reader to have to re-write the entire thing in overgeneralized terms in order to make it look chiastic, because then the reader would have to (A) memorize the chiasm with the rewritten text, and then (B) somehow connect that back to the text to be memorized.

For example, the saying, "I mean what I say and say what I mean" may be considered chiastic, since the text itself creates a chiastic parallelism:

I mean
    what I say
    and say
what I mean

However, if I were to say, "I often think to myself about the state of affairs in America and wonder why God has not yet wiped us off the face of the planet. I'm glad He hasn't -- don't get me wrong, but let's face it: things are getting pretty bad here." An interpreter might call this a chiasm on the basis of:

the state of things in America is troubling
    God's judgment on America
    God's judgment on America
the state of things in America is troubling

...but notice here that I had to rewrite the original words in order to create structural and linguistic parallels. While this does aide in making it look chiastic, it would not aid a reader in memorizing the original text -- in fact, it makes it harder, because now they have to memorize two texts. The chiasm must make the original text more memorable through structural and linguistic parallelism without requiring a rewriting of the entire text.

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I'm curious how you apply this to the Genesis passage in your question above. There is a strong pattern in chapter 3 of serpent -> woman -> man : man -> woman -> serpent : serpent -> woman -> man. Are elements of that properly called a chiasm? –  Soldarnal Jun 24 '13 at 21:58
    
Also, how do you regard seemingly over-arching chiasms like Luke-Acts where the narrative has a direction, even if the pieces do not correspond 1:1 with each other. In Luke everything heads towards Jerusalem. In Acts everything heads away. Is that not chiastic? –  Soldarnal Jun 24 '13 at 21:59
    
@Soldarnal Regarding Genesis 3, if we just restrict our inquiry to verses 9-19 I see a movement of blameshifting from the man to the woman to the serpent, and then God addressing them in reverse order. I suspect that what we have here is simply a retelling of a story that had a particular sequence of events. However, the section fails the criteria I have proposed here (not to mention that its "focus" would be on the cursing of the serpent, which seems odd given the author's reason for writing), so I don't think we're looking at a chiasm so much as a sequence of events and narrative flow. –  Jas 3.1 Jun 24 '13 at 23:22
    
@Soldarnal Regarding Luke-Acts, I suspect what we see there is a (very significant) Divinely-guided movement in events, which the author faithfully represents. I wouldn't classify that as "chiasm" since it seems to be more of a theological presentation of God's movement toward and away from the Jewish center of religion, and less of a technique for organization, memorization, and emphasis of the central element. In other words, the movement in the text exists because of the movement in the order of events, not because the author was arranging the text for memorization, etc. –  Jas 3.1 Jun 24 '13 at 23:28
    
@Soldarnal But I should probably also reiterate that I'm sorting through this topic myself, so I'm not claiming to have all the answers. Or any of the right ones. :) This is just where I'm at with it at this point in time. –  Jas 3.1 Jun 24 '13 at 23:41
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"Seeing" chaismus where it does not exist IS a problem, but overreaction to that problem by closing one's eyes to the possibility of chiasmus anywhere is not the solution. As a beginning place to validate validating the existence of genuine literary chaismus in a given passage...see Craig Blomberg's article in the Criswell Journal of Theology on the structure of the first seven chapters of 2 Corinthians. In this article Craig suggests a list of objective standards to apply in order to validate the genuine use of chiasmus.

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Hi and welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics. Could you summarize the objective standards in that article? That way this answer helps people who don't have access to the article. (Is this it? If so, could you edit a link to it into your answer?) Thanks! –  Gone Quiet Jul 4 '13 at 21:27
    
Thank you very much Dr. McCoy. That article was exactly the sort of thing I was looking for. As Monica mentioned, it would be very much appreciated if you could summarize (and link) the criteria from the article in your answer. Once you've done that, I'll accept it. –  Jas 3.1 Jul 4 '13 at 21:58
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You seem to be thinking of chiasm as a binary – something that is either there or not there. In reality there is a spectrum of chiasms that exist in the Bible on the scale of a single verse or an entire book.

Imagine you're a literary theorist looking at poetry written in English. Your method shouldn't be to take two random lines from a random poem and ask: “rhyme or no rhyme?” In poetry you have internal rhymes, half-rhymes, accidental rhymes, slant rhymes, eye rhymes, and many others. Rhymes exist within a stylistic context as a way of enriching a piece of writing. Whether or not a rhyme was intended by an author is secondary to how the rhyme affects the sound and impact of the piece at hand.

Whenever I'm writing a formal essay, I try to end on an idea or a theme that I started with – chiasm. These chiasms aren't mathematical chiasms, but reflect a writing style which is natural to me. Chiasm is way of achieving clarity or poetic beauty and providing a sense of closure – this can be used on the scale of a single sentence, chapter or a book. I would argue that the chiasm you found is valid in the sense that it is one point on a spectrum of chiasms in the Bible and is representative of a format and style commonly employed.

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Thank you for the attempt, but honestly, that was not what I asked. I specifically asked how we could determine whether an alleged chiasm was intentional by the author. –  Jas 3.1 Jul 5 '13 at 2:13
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@Jas3.1, I actually think intentionality is a spectrum of possibilities as well...In some places a chiasm may have been planned out and executed as a specific strategy by the author and in other cases it may have emerged because of stylistic habits or some subconscious intent of the author and every possibility in between. At the end of the day authorial intent is a tricky idea for any text (unless you can just ask the author and even then...), especially in a text as culturally and historically distant to us as the Bible. –  Amichai Jul 5 '13 at 2:30
    
I am specifically interested in the former (where a chiasm was planned out and executed as a specific strategy by the author) and not the latter (where a chiastic structure emerged because of habits or subconscious tendencies.) –  Jas 3.1 Jul 5 '13 at 2:38
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If you just have the idea at the start and end with differing amounts in the middle, that sounds more like an inclusio than a chiasm. –  Frank Luke Jul 5 '13 at 3:24
    
@FrankLuke: Good point. A good definition and biblical illustrations can be found at <kevinfannystevenson.blogspot.com/2014/02/…; Don –  rhetorician Jun 24 at 17:38
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