Reflections on reaching 700.

The contributions to this blog have come in the main from those of us who are following the Bible Companion bible reading planner – Those of us who follow this planner will read the Old Testament once and the New Testament twice in a year, beginning in January at Genesis, Psalms and Matthew. To a large extent this explains the sequence of scripture passages as they have appeared.

When we started we had no idea of how commonly we would see chiastic structures. Now we have over 700, How many are the result of “chiasmus mania” and how many are really there? One test is to compare the chiasms we think we have discovered from personal study, with chiasms published in scholarly books and journals.
I H Thomson in his book, “Chiasmus in the Pauline Letters” (Journal For The Study of The New Testament Supplement Series 111, Sheffield Academic press, Sheffield, 1995) has five chiasms that have been developed from the original Greek text in a very thorough and rigorous way. We (three contributors) have discovered all five of these independently from daily Bible reading and study with an almost exact match ( Romans 5:12-21, Galatians 5:13-26, Ephesians 1:3-12, 2:11-22, Colossians 2:6-19).

J Breck in his book, “The Shape of Biblical Language” (SVS Press, New York, 1994) includes a sequence of over 60 chiasms covering the whole of the Gospel of Mark. We have posted 17 chiasms for the Gospel of Mark (so there is a long way to go!) from 7 different contributors. How do they match up? Seven of the 17 are pretty much identical (Mark 5:1-17, 6:1-7, 10:13-16, 32-45, 12:18-27, 41-44, 32-37). In three we have the same overall structure and divisions but with a different centre (Mark 10:2-9, 10:46-52, 12:28-34). In one we have the same centre but the chiasm does not extend out as far (Mark 13:7-13). Two others are subunits of Breck’s larger chiasms (Mark 3:1-5, 31-35). Three others roughly overlap Breck’s structures (Mark 1:16-29, 7:1-13, 10:23-27), and for one there is no equivalent (Mark 1:14-17).

What can we learn from this “experiment”? Without claiming any special powers of deduction enthusiastic Bible readers can recognise quite detailed patterns and this gives us a measure of confidence that we are on the right track.

But there is always room for debate and challenge. It seems critical to find the correct centre of the chiasm so where we have a different centre from Breck we should review.

How many of the 700 are valid? Some will need to be revised or dropped in the light of better understanding. Some may be subunits of larger patterns, and no doubt many others are incomplete. Clearly we have posted a broad range from major to minor.

How many of the 700 are key to understanding the particular scripture is for bible students to decide for themselves – this site is simply about sharing thoughts on the Word of God. The goal I believe is not to satisfy some rigorous set of rules about whether a chiasm is there or not, but to read and read and re-read in order to discern the train of thought of the passage of scripture and so “rightly divide the Word of God”.

Some questions addressed:
Chiastic patterns rightly discerned, as other literary features of scripture, are an integral part of the revelation of the Word of God, so recognising these patterns is not superimposing something artificial on the text, rather we are discovering features of the Word as the Lord has written it.

Sadly some dismiss the idea of literary structure as academic. However, the concept is quite easy to grasp and we don’t need to be erudite or even know the original languages. For those who want to follow closely the train of thought of Scripture then attention to structure is essential. The original scriptures were not written with the grammatical signposts that we now have in our translations, such as paragraphs and full stops, and there were no chapters or verses. Scholars conclude that literary structures such as inverted parallelism acted as interpretive signs for the original audiences of the prophets. In contrast, chapters and verses have been “imposed” upon the text, and even though we find them useful they cannot be relied upon to tell us how to rightly divide the word of God.

Once the chiastic structure has been recognised, far from the text seeming awkward and repetitious the text becomes elegant and beautiful. Parallel pairs will help interpret each other. The middle section draws out the main point and usually leaves us in no doubt as to what the passage is all about.

Chiasmus is not a sort of secret Bible Code, although it is often hidden by inaccurate translations which may obscure the occurrence of repetitions of key words and phrases, and sometimes obscured by the numeric verse divisions which imply linear progression.

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