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 about how  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.

I have added an asterisk* to posts where reference to academic articles or books are made either in the post or in a comment. 

6 thoughts on “A Health Warning!”

  1. This is the big chiasm that I found in notes from talks by David Miles (my old minister from AFES days).
    If I can send you a word document, I have arranged this in is chiasm format, with the smaller chiasms in each sections, highlighting some common words that also bring out the chiasm.

    A. 1:1,2 Opening salutations
    B. 1:3-7 Beware those who want to be teachers!
    C. 1:8-11 Right use of the law
    D. 1:12-17 Jesus Christ, salvation & a doxology
    E. 1:18 Fight the good fight
    F. 1:19-20 Beware false teachers!

    G. 2:1-10 Theological first principles
    H. 2:11-3.1a Women/wives in relation to men/husbands
    I. 3:1b-13 Elders: bishops/overseers, deacons – should “rule/lead” the house” blamelessly to be a good witness

    J. 3:14-16 The basis of Timothy’s conduct in God’s house
    K. 4:1-5 Heresy re the body: food & marriage
    L.(X) 4:6 Paul’s central concern: Timothy will be a good minister of Jesus Christ by words of faith & good teaching
    K’. 4:7-11 Heresy re the body: exercise
    J’: 4:12-16 The nature of Timothy’s conduct

    I’ 5:1-25 Elders: Widows – should “rule/lead the house” irreproachably to be a good witness
    H. 6:1-2 Slaves/bondservants in relation to masters

    F’. 6:3-10 Beware false teachers & those who want to be wealthy!
    E’. 6:11-12 Fight the good fight
    D’. 6:12-16 Jesus Christ, security & a doxology
    C’. 6:17-19 Right use of wealth
    B’. 6:20-21a Beware false teaching!
    A’. 6:21b Closing salutation

  2. A poetic structure that is not apparent in the English is revealed in the hebrew within Psalm 150
    It outlines the purpose of deity within His intention of revelation within men and women so starts with Yahweh, El, 1a,b and then proceeds to Ones with breath, Yahweh 6a,b then finally Yahweh alone – all and in all. 6c

    6 translated as all of them the breath she shall praise יה הללו יה s4a (hebrew MSS – scripture4all.org)

    A Yahweh 1a Praise you 1a
    B El 1b Praise you him 1b
    B’ Let everything that hath breath 6a she shall praise 6a
    A’ Yahweh 6b Praise you 6b
    C Yahweh 6c

    let every thing that hath breath: this is an interruption to the structure of the psalm, with no parallel couplet in the english, but in the hebrew the parallel is יה הללו יה The couplet being the joining of all that once had breath now becoming the extension of El, now Yahweh Elohim! through a bride, and then finally Yahweh stands by Himself. 6c

    1. The more I read the more it becomes clear that chiasmus was well know in the ancient world, and is written about in Russian and Chinese literature to name just two I have come across. Mary Douglas wrote about ring composition in ancient Greek literature as well as scripture. But one thought, if scripture represents the oldest literature then inverted parallelism, ring composition and chiasmus have their orgins in the wisdom of God’s revelation.

    2. The book, “Chiasmus in Antiquity,” contains essays by various authors describing the use of chiasmus in Sumero-Akkadian writings, Ugaritic writings, and Aramaic Contracts and Letters.

  3. This is just a general comment:
    1. There seems to me to be a more frequent use of chiasmus in heavenly proclamations than in normal writing.
    2. Even when a chiasmus does not exist, students of chiasmus become more sensitive to the relationship of phrases.
    3. Conversely, students of chiasmus become so used to seeing the structure, we tend to forget that it is really foreign to our day (except simple couplets) and is evidence of the antiquity of the documents we are reading.

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