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?

  • 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 '18 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 '18 at 13:34
  • 3
    This question is being discussed on meta.
    – user2672
    Jul 4 '18 at 18:58
  • 1
  • IMO this is on-topic but too opinion based.
    – curiousdannii
    Jul 6 '18 at 7:03

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).

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:

Chiasmus (or chiasm) is an important structural device/form commonly found in ancient literature and oratory, both secular and sacred.1

Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza makes the case Revelation is arranged chiastically around the center in Chapter 14. In support of her conclusion she states how this type of structure was widely used in literature, formed the rule for Greek drama, Roman poetry, and could be seen on coins, and art:

Moreover, the pattern is a widely employed pattern in the literature of antiquity. It is especially interesting to note the affinity of the structure of Rev. with that of a Greek drama.. According to the compositional rules of tragedy, the climax falls near the center of the action, and the denouement comes near the end. The narrative poetry of republican Rome follows the same compositional rules. Students of the literature of Israel and Judaism have found the same structural pattern. The pattern is also present in the visual art of the time. Two examples appear to be especially interesting for the understanding of Rev. Two Roman coins of 35-36 C.E. bear images of the temples of Divus Augustus and Apollo. These temple images exhibit the balanced structure ABCDC'B'A'. Even more significant with respect to Rev. is the fact that the golden candelabra which appears on the arch of Titus in Rome consists of a centerpiece paralleled on either side by three pieces and thus exhibits the pattern ABCDC'B'A'. Internal and external evidences thus support our reconstruction of the architectonic pattern of Rev.2

A chiasm highlights the main theme while pairing supporting thoughts. Each supporting thought has a primary and secondary purpose:

  • Primary purpose: Support and/or explain the main theme
  • Secondary purpose: Support and/or explain its corresponding partner

Therefore exegesis where the writer has employed this device must first identify the main theme of the passage. Next, all other thoughts must be given a secondary position and understood in relation to the main theme. Finally, supporting thoughts must further be constrained and understood by it's partner.

McCoy gives examples of the covenant with Abraham and the prologue of John:3

A:  Abram’s age (17:1a)
 B:  The LORD appears to Abram (17:1b)
  C:  God’s first speech (17:1c–2)
   D:  Abram falls on his face (17:3)
    E:  God’s second speech (emphasizing “names/kings/nations”) (17:4–8)
     X:  God’s third/most important speech (emphasizing “the covenant”) (17:9–14)
    E’: God’s fourth speech (emphasizing “names/kings/ nations”) (17:15–16)
   D’: Abraham falls on his face (17:17–18)
  C’: God’s fifth speech (17:19–21)
 B’: The LORD goes up from Abram (17:22–23)
A’: Abraham’s age (17:24–25) 

A: The Word with God (1-2)  
 B: The Word's role in creation (3)  
  C: God's grace to mankind (4-5)  
   D: Witness of John the Baptist (6-8)  
    E: The Incarnation of the Word (9-11)  
      X: Saving faith in the Incarnate Word (12-13)  
    E': The Incarnation of the Word (14)  
   D': Witness of John the Baptist (15)  
  C': God's grace to mankind (16)  
 B': The Word's role in re-creation (17)  
A': The Word with God the Father (18)

McCoy expounds on the importance of recognizing an author's use of chiasms:4

In regard to the Gospel of John, scholars have proposed a plethora of theories concerning its content and organization in effort to explain certain literary rough spots and supposed inconsistencies in the chronological and geographical flow of the narrative of the book. These theories include the important suggestion by Bultmann (which has been revised in various ways by different scholars since his time) that chapters five and six have somehow been displaced from their original order. Recognition of the broad chiastic structure of the Gospel readily explains apparent difficulties such as this one without resorting to speculative redaction of the order of large blocks of its text.

While several specific chiastic proposals for the discourse structure of the book have been suggested, the point being made here is that this paradigm of its overall arrangement of material nicely explains otherwise confusing aspects of its organization and content.63 In addition, a chiastic analysis of its overall literary structure transforms any erroneous perceptions of the book as a disorganized literary patchwork to the correct understanding of it as an ingeniously constructed integrated whole which has been justly described as “arguably the theological and literary masterpiece of the Church’s canon.”64
63.See Ellis, The Genius of John. Jeffrey L. Staley, A Rhetorical Investigation of the Implied Reader in the Fourth Gospel, SBLDS, vol. 82 (Atlanta: Scholars, 1985), like Ellis, argues that the bulk of the book is a large macro-chiasm patterned after the chiastic structure of the Prologue.
64. Breck, The Shape of Biblical Language, (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1994), 193

Exegetically, the main theme of the Prologue is to make children of God:

12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13) [ESV]

All supporting thoughts should be considered in this light. Therefore, the initial creation establishes the authority and ability of the Word to give humans the right to become children of God (itself a work of creation) and unifies the Prologue as the Word which was with God in the beginning is there at the end:

A - In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. (John 1:1-2)

A' - No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known. (John 1:18)

The Prologue serves an introduction which causes the reader to question, how one obtains the right to become children of God while laying the foundation for the answer: everything is done by the Word. The implied ending is the Word will bring the children of God to see and be with God.

1. Brad McCoy, Chiasmus: An Important Structural Device Commonly Found in Biblical Literature. p 18 [Chafer Theological Seminary]
2. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, The Book of Revelation Justice and Judgment, Fortress Press, 1985, p. 176
3. McCoy, pp. 28-29
4. McCoy, pp. 33-34

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

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