Today we come to a very interesting text in John 5.19-30. If you have been reading this commentary carefully you may be surprised to find that I took such a long text for consideration all at once instead of dividing it up on many smaller pieces as I usually do. That is so, because here we meet an obvious and unquestionable example of an ancient form of literary design – chiasm and one of the many functions of chiasm is to help the interpreter to clearly see where the literary unit begins and where it is brought to a literary conclusion. It is easier to first show a diagram how chiastic structure looks like and then to attempt to explain it. The literary unit when analyzed has the following structure:
The sentence either word by word or at the very list in thought by thought is repeated in the beginning and in the end of the literary unit. It is as if the original author goes from A1 to B1, from B1 to C1, from C1 to D1. But then all of the sudden the original writer of the text switches gears and moves backwards in the exactly the same order (D2, C2, B2, A2).
If you have never heard of such a thing called chaism do not be alarmed, most people living in the modern times and reading modern literature have not. Yet a simple google search will uncover a huge literary and interpretive field that makes use of interpreting the Bible with the help of finding all kinds chiastic structures throughout the Bible seemingly omnipresent.
Before we even begin to wet our feet in the Chaistic interpretive ocean, please, allow me the privilege of a disclaimer. When it comes to finding chiasms in all imaginable places in the Bible I am a skeptic. I come kicking and screaming before I acknowledge that when looking at a given text we are indeed finding ourselves in the presence of chiasm. For example, many scholars have sought to show that the entire Gospel of John (not to mention other books) follow this kind of ancient literary bit, rhythm and structure – we today call chaism. Up until now, however, within my study of John I have not yet been persuaded that the Gospel of John is indeed structured as such, when it comes to its entire 21 chapters. I feel that often times interpreters tend to fit the biblical facts into their own theories and not vice versa as it should be.
However, after this lengthy disclaimer, by a chiastic skeptic like myself I must admit that I am finally persuaded that John 5.19-30 is indeed structured as a clear cut chiasm. Not only are thought-by-thought parallel repetitive structures are present, but my positive identification of it as a true (and not apparent) chiasm is safeguarded by word-by-word clear repetitive occurrences as well.
This week I would like you to get a basic grasp on what chaism means, next week I will show you how to interpret it responsibly. So make sure you come back in a week to see the update to this study. And, yes, you should be proactive and look up the word “chaism” or “chiastic structure” on the web. So here it is, can you see my point?
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© By Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, Ph.D.
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Join the conversation (50 comments)
Eli, you shows an A B CC B A chiasm. I also see a powerful other A B C B A chiasm.
A The Son can do nothing of Himself ( 19-23)
(can do nothing without)
B An hour is coming and now is , when the dead shall here the voice of the Son (24-25)
(an hour is coming – the dead shall hear his voice)
C And He (the Father) gave Him ( the Son) authority to execute judgment (26-27)
B An hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs shall hear His voice (28-29)
(an hour is coming – the dead shall hear is voice )
A I can do nothing on My own initiative (30)
(can do nothing without)
corrected: A B C DD C B A
I can see that. That is another way to break up the chaism.
Some of the key in the search on the internet:
While the interchangeable terms chiasmus and chiasm are common in modern technical literature, other terms appear, including symmetrical alignment, envelope construction, epandos, concentrism, extended introversion, the chi-form, palistrophe, recursion, ring structure, and introverted parallelism .
Eli, you keep me thinking, and I am extremely stimulated to think farther through you. You say that a chiasm is a reversed parallelism. However, you have three types of parallelism. Synonymous parallelism (corresponding) Antithethisch parallelism (adversative) Synthetic parallelism (additional).
In John 5.19-30 we have to do with a chiasm as a reversed synonymous parallelism. However, is a chiasm also possible as an antithetic parallelism or as a synthetic parallelism. If that is the case, you can give an example of??
Dear Charles, I think you ought to ask these questions of the real experts in chiastic structures 🙂
Remember… I remain chiastic skeptic and therefore do not usually spend much time figuring the intricacies of this out. BUT… I would very much welcome if you can research and inform the group of your findings! Blessings and with much appreciation for your quality input, Eli
Eli, I am also skeptical about the search of chiasm in each part of the Bible, as some do. However, the thought of linguistic capabilities and structures, makes really used structures more clearly. So, if the next item, I will provide information.
I think there should be a new category of literary structure in Biblical Studies called “Bracketing”.
I have found examples of chiasm in the Bible, though very rare, but I do not see it here. It is obvious that verse 19 and verse 30 are parallel and form a bracket. But the other parallels are stretched.
There is no parallel for verse 20. Verse 21 and verse 26 offer a better parallel than the other option. It almost works. If only verse 27 was switched with verse 28 then it would work.
Jeff, I am so glad you researching this. Please, keep our study group update. About bracketing – if I understand you correctly there is already a term for this – inclusio. Every chiasm is inclusio, but best I can tell not every inclusio is not chiasm. Let’s keep us thinking together! Dr. Eli
I think this subject marks a significant milestone in the series and deserves different focus points. It will be impossible for me to cover all the areas I wish to reflect upon but for a starter I’ll just ponder on the following:
1. Assuming chiasm is a valid writing strategy or style, is it only a means of writing or a means of conveying meaning? That is, is chiasm part of the communication structure or only a given way of communication? Is chiasm some kind of poetry or prose or chant or is it a communication aid aimed to help the public who reads to understand or remember what is written.
2. Is chiasm used for other written themes or was it developed for religious texts such as the Bible.
3. Is chiasm a written reflected image of a previous oral structure or is it a totally written technique.
Is chiasm subject of the message or object of the message, that is, it is a tool or a mean or is it part of the message.
4. Can chiasm be a memorizing aid for a given written text or for emphasis of selected themes or is it used across any text whatever the written message?
I think that at least we have to take a position, an assumption on at least some of these questions among others in order to proceed to examine any given use of chiasm in religious texts including the Bible. For if we don’t at least assume a position we may end making interpretations of the finished furniture based on the hammer used to fabricate it. And that may mean that we try to explain how a stone seat was carved using a wooden hammer over an iron chisel and things like that.
In this case, I think the context is almost as important as the text, thus chiasm has to be part of or fit into an interpretative thesis that conveys a sense of what chiasm was used for before using it to interpret any message of the Bible.
Finally, I really like this approach you propose for its my preliminary understanding that chiasm is related with human way of transmitting meaning and fixing it in memory in the transition from an oral mentality to a written one. If my opinion proves sensible, chiasm may be related to consciousness and thus, to a relative definition of the self vs God (me Tonto, you Kimo Sabe) and then chiasm may have a profound meaning after all.
As always great feedback and points to consider together.
I write. I recently wrote a piece that had the pattern 11, 11, 11, 3. It was not planned that way. It seemed to want to be written that way. Therefore this discussion makes me question the ancient writers inner mind as they wrote. Is this a pattern that Yahweh places upon their mind, His fingerprint of authority and ultimate penmanship, His program?! Thanks, I connect and understand.
Kristine, I think that any literary composition take a talent and skill that comes from one God almighty. We must therefore recognize that such gifts were given by God to all kinds’ people. Chiastic structure is not limited to either Jewish or Christian texts.
I have learned about chiastic parallelism in my Hebrew course. It is interesting to not that it was used also in the Greek literary writings.
Birdie, thanks for your comment. I don’t count Gospel of John written in Greek as Greek literature, I think personally, think its Jewish literature that with time was Christianized and de-Jewishized in some very important aspects. My research and writing has to do with returning the Gospel of John home so to speak. Now having said that let me comment also about Greek literature – the chaistic structure was basically used all over the place including the real Greek literature. These often symmetrical patterns are commonly found in ancient literature such as the epic poetry of Odyssey and Iliad.
Thank you so much. I quite agree. I really see the gospels as more culturally Hebrew and really would like to interpret them for that standpoint rather than the Greek language of the day.
You are most welcome!
When you say it was “Christianized” and deJudaized, do you mean the writing or the interpretation?
I mean interpretation and translations or more precisely interpretation that informed translations (and following that of course visa versa).
Dr Eli, this is BRILLIANT! You have exposed a beautiful gem, and it is time for me to return to my bible and see what you have brought to light. I asked you to deal with the relationship between God the Father and The Son, (if the text gave rise to such a discussion) and here it is in all it’s beauty!
as always thanks for encouragement. Hang on… this is so deep and beautiful. We are ONLY in the John 5!!!! More to come… I am fired up! (so that you know). Dr. Eli
One question, if I may, Dr. Eli, even though I know you’re going to give a lot more information on this subject in a week. (And I am eagerly waiting your next post, for this has piqued my curiosity enormously!) 🙂 🙂 🙂
How does chiasm and parallelism work together? I had heard there were parallelisms in the Bible, but I had never heard of chiasm before. Does one find parallelisms within a chiastic structure? Or are they never found together?
Thanks for all you share with us!
This is an excellent question. Once again you are talking to chaiastic skeptic :-). I checked around on the web and seems like the answer to this question is that these concepts are not mutually exclusive and can be present in both. I am hard to get though… so some examples they showed did not convince me, but I can see that these can easily fit together.Now… if you think about it Chaism is a reversed parallelism!
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I love the chiasm explanation, never heard that before. I was thinking that rather than just a “chiasm”, the structure shows the movement of the Hebraic worldview. It moves unlike Greek that defines in categories.
There is no question that Hebraic patterns of thought are very different from Greek ones. However, it is a serious mistake to suppose that Hebraic matrix was not Hellenized in other words that it is purely Hebrew in character. There was already so much interaction and inter-influence that we simply can not make that sharp distinction responsibly.