A Health Warning!

The aim of this website is to provide some help to better understand the text of scripture. Recognition of the literary structure is an important part of this. However, we need to be careful not to impose patterns from our own imaginations – whether chiastic or some other pattern.

Here is a quote from I H Thomson’s book, “Chiasmus in the Pauline Letters”. Journal For The Study of The New Testament Supplement Series 111, Sheffield Academic press, Sheffield, 1995.

“The main purpose of this study is to show how the identification and analysis of chiasmus in the Pauline letters is a far more valuable and precise tool in the exegete’s hands than many have previously realised. However, some of the earlier work in this whole field has left an unfortunate legacy that makes it essential to approach it very carefully indeed.

Thus, until recently, the perception has been widespread that the study of chiasmus in the New Testament is little more than the esoteric pursuit of a few enthusiasts, whose exuberance in the ‘discovery’ of chiasms of astonishing complexity in almost every page of the New Testament seems to know no limits. It is not surprising that this has provoked an often justifiable backlash of scholarly scepticism among the more cautious, who feel that many such chiastic patterns tell us more about the ingenuity of the commentator than about the intention of the original author” (p 13).

After a few years of debating chiasmus here are some suggestions for to discern a pattern that is meaningful and not imagination.

  • The section of scripture is defined by repetition of key words/phrases i.e. bracketed or book-ended.
  • The pattern is characterised by  repetition of keywords, and phrases or by opposites (chiasmus based only on concept rather than exact repetitions are more difficult to agree on).
  • if key phrases are inverted (“heaven and earth” v “earth and heaven”) this is strong evidence.
  • The chiasm has a balanced symmetrical shape.
  • The centre – often a regular parallelism – is highly significant.
  • the whole unit makes sense.
  • the unit respects other textual features.
  • Broken patterns may nonetheless be significant.

Read and re-read the passage carefully and seek to hear  what the Word is conveying. If there is not a chiastic pattern then the task is to search out what is the actual structure. Good chiastic patterns can be readily seen by others and this increases our confidence that we have discovered a truth.

One thought on “A Health Warning!”

  1. Hi – I very much appreciate the enthusiasm you have for the chiastic and other literary structures in the Bible. You refer to these structures as a thing of “beauty” and I believe that is correct. Good for you for seeing that!

    I have read a number of books about chiastic structure (see my web article http://www.bible-discernments.com/joshua/books_about_chiasms.html) and am always confounded when I see a different literary structure than what is presented in these books. These are the experts of which I am supposedly one. And I have certainly made my share of mistakes over the years.

    I have concluded that our loving Lord speaks to each person individually – what one person needs to receive may be totally irrelevant to the next person. So when our little brains discover a structure in the Bible, possibly we should be giving more credit to the Lord for bringing that discernment to our attention. Just because I see a structure one way and another in a different way, who am I to suggest mine is more correct? And yet that is not only what I do but what others do as well!

    There are other reasons for seeing the structure differently including the many translations of the Bible, inattention to details, and our personal theologies. If we all knew the ancient Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic, the translation issue would be irrelevant. And I think your forum here will help address the details issue.

    But I believe that the question of theology should not be overlooked. There are so many very intelligent people that each read and understand the Bible with their unique understandings. I want to be able to receive their discernment and then thank God for that wisdom, whether I agree with it or not. Possibly I will be woken in the middle of the night to realize that the other author had a great point that I had minimized – it has happened to me before.

    As a case in point, I was recently reading a chiasm based on Mark 1:1-15. The author apparently has a different theology regarding the Holy Spirit than I do, so his structure was different. Is his theology the truth or is mine? I don’t want to get into that, but simply say that he has had a different revelation of some Biblical truths than I have. And so I bless that man and ask the Lord to reveal to me any corrections that He wants to make. Thank you Jesus.

    All that to say, I want to thank you for developing this website. I once had plans to do the same but never did. Be blessed in all you do.
    Tom Clarke

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