5

Whether or not chiasmus is something intended by an author or whether it is simply serendipity is a question about which there is no settled opinion. People disagree. Some see it everywhere and are sure it is intentional while others never see it if pointed out and consider the apparent structure simply a happy coincidence. But for the enthusiasts I'm wondering what the value of such a structure might be exegetically? In other words, what difference does it make if a passage is chiastic?

Other than as a memory aid what is the alleged hermeneutical significance of chiastic structure?

6
  • 1
    This answer tries to map John as a chiasmus. It's well known that John is ordered differently than the other gospels. I wonder if the fact of being a chiasmus is a better explanation of the ordering than saying John uses a different chronology. If it is, then there's a possible answer.
    – b a
    Jul 4, 2018 at 13:03
  • Kenneth E. Bailey with his hermeneutics points out chiasm in the Gospels in his book: Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008).
    – Perry Webb
    Jul 4, 2018 at 13:34
  • 3
    This question is being discussed on meta.
    – user2672
    Jul 4, 2018 at 18:58
  • 1
  • IMO this is on-topic but too opinion based.
    – curiousdannii
    Jul 6, 2018 at 7:03

2 Answers 2

6

Wilfred Watson writes that "the basic function of chiasmus is to relieve the monotony of persistent parallelism", but also discerns two more specific functions:

  1. "Structural functions", where chiasms are used to mark the beginning (Hab. 2:1), end (Job 30:31), or middle of a poem (Jer. 2:27–28). It can also link the components of a strophe (Nah. 1:2).

  2. "Expressive functions". For instance, a chiasm may be used in a merism (a pair of contrasting words to indicate an entirety, e.g. "heaven and earth") (Isa. 40:26b). It can also be used to express the reversal of the present state (Zeph. 3:19). Negation or prohibition can be marked by chiasm (Prov. 25:6), as can antithesis or contrast (Prov. 10:3).

(All examples are taken from Watson, Wilfred G.E, 1984: Classical Hebrew Poetry: A Guide to its Techniques. JSOT Supplement Series 26, pp. 206–207. See there for more.)

Typically, if you want to understand a poem, you should be able to explain the whole thing in its entirety — with regards to structure, poetic device, and meaning. If you can make sense of one verse, but the explanation yields major problems in its surroundings, the explanation is probably incorrect. When chiasm is spotted, this helps in several ways:

  • It explains that there may not be any parallelism in the section;
  • It gives hints as to the division of the poem in larger units, since chiasms tend to mark beginnings, ends, or middles;
  • It gives hints as to the meaning of the section (through merism, reversal, negation, or antithesis).
3

Brad McCoy defines chiasm as "the use of inverted parallelism of form and/or content which moves toward and away from a strategic central component" and says:

In its most general sense, chiasmus involves inverted parallelism between two or more (synonymously or antithetically) corresponding words, phrases, or units of thought1

John Breck states it is important to distinguish between chiastic form and the authentic chiasmus:

For an authentic chiasmus produces balanced statements, in direct, inverted, or antithetical parallelism, constructed symmetrically about a central idea.2

The chiastic form may aid in memorization, but the primary purpose is to highlight the most important idea the writer intends to convey:

By detecting genuine chiastic patterns, as distinct from various parallel arrangements, we discover the “pivot” or central theme about which the author has developed other related elements in concentric symmetry. By failing to observe and appreciate that symmetry, we tend to misread the “conceptual center” and consequently to distort the author’s message. But we also miss the sense of balance and intensity that chiasmus provides. While it original purpose seems to have been mnemonic, facilitating memorization through repetition of ideas around a central theme, its chief merit is to convey poetic beauty and theological meaning through literary forms.3

R. Alan Culpepper gives an example of John's Prologue:4

A: The Word as theos with God (1-2)  
 B: Creation came through the Word (3)  
  C: We have received life from the Word (4-5)  
   D: John the Baptist was sent to testify (6-8)  
    E: Incarnation and the response of the world (9-10)  
     F: The Word and His own (Israel) (11)
      G: Those who accept the Word (12a)
       X:  He gave authority to become children of God (12b)  
      G': Those who believe the Word (12c)
     F': The Word and His own (believers) (13)
    E': Incarnation and response of the community (14)  
   D': John the Baptist's testimony (15)  
  C': We have received grace from the Word (16)  
 B': Grace and truth came through the Word (17)  
A': The Only Begotten theos with the Father (18)

The key statement is believers are children of God. The seven pairs of supporting statements function primarily to surround this statement in facts rather then aiding in memorization.


Notes:
1. Brad McCoy, Chiasmus: An Important Structural Device Commonly Found in Biblical Literature. p 18-19 [Chafer Theological Seminary]
2. John Breck, The Shape of biblical Literature, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1994, p. 18
3. John Breck, Biblical Chiasmus: Exploring Structure for Meaning, Biblical Theology Bulletin, Volume 17 Issue 2, May 1987, pp. 73-74
4. R. Alan Culpepper, The Pivot of John's Prologue, New Testament Studies, Volume 27, Issue 1, October 1980, p. 16

1
  • Can you possibly add a primary source for your first sentence/assertion? Thanks.
    – Ruminator
    Jul 4, 2018 at 18:18

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.