Chiastic Structure

chiasm 1

Q. Some verses of the Scripture bear specific structures, such as 22 verses of a certain chapter in Psalms, Lamentations etc. each of which begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet in order, but some other are rather difficult to identify, such as chiastic structure which the OT writers often used. Is there any rule in how to identify and establish such a structure, in particular the central event which would then bear the main theme of the structure?

A. I am not a bible scholar, only a small church pastor, so my knowledge of the chiastic structure is limited. I can tell you only the few things I learnt. The rest you have to study up yourself.

For the benefit of other readers, the chiastic structure, or chiasm, is a literary device in which a series of ideas is presented and then repeated in reverse order. A simple biblical example is Mk 2:27:
• The Sabbath was made for man,
• and not man for the Sabbath.

A famous secular example is Kennedy’s quotation:
Ask not what your country can do for you,
• Ask what you can do for your country.

The structure in both is ABB’A’, with AB reflected like in a mirror as B’A’. Some structures are more complicated with many layers, but essentially they are like a ring with the opening and closing completing a circle. The name chiastic comes from the Greek alphabet chi, which looks like the English letter X, with the left half reflected in the right half, or top reflected in the bottom.

What are some basic rules? I use the formula in swearing an oath “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” as a memory aid:

The Unit. Since the structure is purposely built into the design by the author to highlight his emphasis, it must be “discovered” by carefully observing the literary unit rather than imposed by the reader. The unit may be as short as one sentence, a paragraph, a chapter, or as long as the whole book. So there may be micro as well as macro chiastic structures.

The Whole Unit. You must deconstruct the whole literary unit to expose the chiasm. You cannot leave out some parts which do not fit your proposed structure. That is a sure sign that you are trying to force the text to fit your mold.

Nothing but the Unit. Besides not taking away any parts to force fit, you cannot add in your own ideas or change the meaning of words to come up with a nice structure. Only the author’s thoughts are allowed, not yours.

Simplicity. The last rule is not from law, but logic – Occam’s or Ockham’s razorthe simpler the better. This philosophical principle states that given two possible explanations for an occurrence, the fewer assumptions you have to make, the better that explanation is. God gave the Bible to everyone, not just scholars. He wrote it such that ordinary folks like you and me can know Him and His truth. So to adapt Occam’s razor to chiasm, the simpler the structure, the better. Of course the biblical author can have a complex structure in mind too, it’s just less likely if the Bible is for the average person and not academics.

Other than these basic rules, I don’t know much about the art of deconstruction. I am an engineer and logician by training, not a poet; a left-brain and not a right-brain thinker. I can recommend two books which might help you:

The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis-Malachi by David Dorsey
The Companion Bible by EW Bullinger

Beyond this I don’t have much to offer. Hope this helps.

Temple Tax and Greatness? (4 of 5)

Matthew 17 24-27 d

(Continued from yesterday)

I tried to adopt the historical-grammatical approach, but my view is at odd with others:-
e) If Jesus is just to demonstrate humility, kenosis etc., then why did He also pay the tax for Peter? He could simply pay His own. I think He demonstrated to the disciples the rule of the Kingdom of God that whoever wished to be the greater had to serve others, and He exemplified serving Peter by paying for Peter. The immediate preceding text (Mk 9:33-34) tells that inside this house were not only Peter, but all disciples. Before entering the house, they had just argued who was the greatest. The immediate following text (Mk 9:35-37 / Mt 18:1-5) talks about the same thing, so the temple tax incident is the core of the chiastic structure and should revolve around this theme.
Which interpretation is correct?

I have problems about your inserting Mt 17:24-27 in between Mk 9:33-34 and Mk 9:35-37 and calling them immediate preceding and following texts. You yourself noted that the temple tax incident is recorded only in Mt 17:24-27 and not other gospels. Its immediate preceding text is Mt 17:14-21 on the healing of a boy with a demon, and 22-23 on Jesus foretelling His betrayal and resurrection. Its immediate following text is Mt 18:1-6 on rank in the kingdom.

Mk 9:33-37 on who is the greatest is one single unit. It’s immediate preceding text is Mk 9:14-29 on the healing of a boy with an evil spirit, and 30-32 on Jesus foretelling His death and resurrection. Its immediate following text is Mk 9:38-41 on whoever is not against us is for us.

Although the immediate preceding texts of Mt 17:24-27 and Mk 9:33-37 are similar, the immediate following texts are different. You cannot simply insert Mt 17:24-27 into Mk 9:33-37, split the latter into two halves, and call them Mt 17:24-27’s preceding and following texts. Of course they are talking about greatness, because they are actually one unit! Matthew is Matthew and Mark is Mark. You can’t mix the two. It is an artificial construct, and the chiastic structure simply does not apply. I will deal with chiasm in a separate post.

(To be continued)