When I begun to study biblical structure in the early 1980's, I had no idea that it would cause me to rethink my entire approach to the Scriptures. The importance of literary structure took on a deeper meaning, both in terms of my teaching experience and personal study of the biblical text. The journey that begun many, many years ago, has proved thus far to be heuristic worth for properly understanding the literary structure that the original authors encoded in the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures.
Many biblical scholars now recognize that scriptural authors wrote their documents according to carefully predetermined plans. The most influential, yet subtle feature of an author's work in relating theological concepts with an historical context, is the overall framework within which they arranged their subject matter. Some would call this as the literary context. Perhaps a more accurate term would be to call it as the "literary structure" of the passage.
When one speaks of structure, it is the total set of relationships within a biblical passage. No close reading and its proper interpretation of a biblical text is possible without an awareness of its ancient literary structural encoded markings in the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures.
In a culture wherein words, sentences, paragraphs, and episodes were not separated, but ran together, there was a need for literary devices to signal the beginning and end of smaller and larger literary units. Whereas in modern literary context, such boundaries are designated by chapters, subheadings, chapters, paragraphs, and punctuation, the ancient literary techniques relied heavily upon repeated key words, phrases, ideas, or word assonance. They used these techniques to frame their subject matter at the start and finish of a thought unit.
An important ancient technique of organizing material was by reverse parallelism. Today, this structural form is called chiasmus (pronunciation: ki-AZ-mus). The term chiasmus (also sometimes spelled as chiasm), is derived from a Greek verb that means to "mark with two lines crossing like an "X" (chi, the 22nd letter of the Greek alphabet). Chiasmus is also known as antimetabole, epanodos, inverted parallelism, reverse parallelism, syntactical inversion, thought inversion, and turn around.
A fundamental principle in chiasmus is not to think linear, but concentric. Western culture has been trained to think differently than the literary patterns laid down both in the ancient Near Eastern and the Greco-Roman civilizations. Chiasmus also shows up in ancient Sanskrit, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian texts. It appears in ancient Chinese writings, including the Analects of Confucius.
Westerners outline subject material with an ever increasing alphanumeric system that harmonizes with the progressive thoughts of a speech or a book (i.e., I, II, III; A, B, C, etc.). However, do we stop and ask ourselves whether or not this form of outlining actually does justice to an ancient biblical passage, chapter, or book which was written in a very different language spanning 2000 to 3500 years ago? An improved approach to outline a chiastic structure is to use repeating numbers or alphabetical characters, and thus conforming to the literary structure. However, such an outline pattern is admittedly alien to Western thought. But for those who wish to study the principles of chiasmus and apply them to their scriptural studies, the rewards will be considerable. An example of this outlining may be illustrated by using Genesis 17:1-25.
A Abram's age (1a)
B The LORD appears to Abram (1b)
C God's first speech (1b-2)
D Abram falls on his face (3)
E God's second speech (Abram's name changed, kings; 4-8)
X God's Third Speech (Covenant of circumcision; 9-14)
E' God's fourth speech (Sari's name changed, kings; 15-16)
D' Abraham falls on his face (17-18)
C' God's fifth speech (19-21)
B' God "goes up" from Abraham (22)
A' Abraham's age (24-25)
In the above illustration, the propositions A, B, C, D, and E are reflected in the reversal propositions E', D', C', B', and A'. The author constructed this literary pattern to draw attention to the importance of the central thought: X: God's Third Speech (Covenant of circumcision).
An often overlooked chiasmus is found in John 11:25-26 wherein the propositions A, B, and C are again reflected in the reversal propositions C', B', and A'. Jesus' words revolve around the ascensive conditional clause "even if he dies."
Jesus said to her,
A I am the resurrection and the life
B the one who believes in Me
C he will live
X even if he dies
C' and everyone who lives
B' and [everyone who] believes in Me
A' will never die. Do you believe this?
Chiasmus refers to an author's purposeful literary structure whereby he produces balanced statements in direct, inverted, or antithetical parallelism all of which symmetrically encompasses a central idea or theme. The abrupt repetition by which the last elements of the first half of the system become the first elements of the second half draws attention to the central point. Chiasmus essentially involves two key elements: inversion and balance. Chiasmus also involves a central and climactic element: the "X." The uniqueness of chiasmus lies in its focus on a pivotal theme or concept, around which all the other propositions are developed. The propositions may compare, contrast, or complete each of the flanking elements.
Under no circumstances should it be inferred that the ancients applied repeating letters or numbers, or that ancient manuscripts were written with indentations in order to exhibit embedded chiastic structure. The graphic method of presentation is merely a modern device adopted to eliminate unnecessary explanations and to render a complicated subject easier to grasp with minimum of time and effort.
A Brief History
The modern study of chiasmus in biblical exegesis dates back to John A. Bengel in the 18th century. Lund notes: "To Bengel . . . belongs the credit of having first grasped the significance of chiastic forms in the writings of the New Testament and of having applied the principle to exegesis" (Chiasmus in the New Testament, pp. 35-36). In his fifth volume of Gnomon of the New Testament, Bengel wrote: "Often there is the greatest use in the employment of this figure, and it is never without some use, viz., in perceiving the ornament, in observing the force of the language; in understanding the true and fuller sense; in making clear the sound exegesis; and in demonstrating the true and neat analysis of the sacred text" (p. 399).
Chiastic structures are all too often passed off in scholarly literature as mere literary niceties, a structural tour de force which serves only aesthetic ends. Too little consideration has been given to the possible exegetical significance of such a literary device in the proper interpretation of biblical passages.
In recent years, several significant works exemplifies chiasmus at their basic core. For example, Gaechter in his commentary on Matthew, Bailey in his work on the Lucan parables, and Miesner in his study on the missionary journeys narratives in Acts have pioneered in giving attention to chiasmus. The examples page further validates this genuine literary device and cites several other examples. For more examples, please see the X-Files. I also offer a brief bibliography of many examples of chiasmus in theological books and journals. Further bibliographies are also available in the books I suggest for further reading on the subject of chiasmus.