Was The Gospel Of John “simply” Written Or Carefully Designed? (john 5.19-30)

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:

CHAISMThe 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?

Chaism in JOhn 5.19-30






















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© By Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, Ph.D.

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  1. jane z. mazzola

    So much rich food for thought.
    Thank you, as always.
    Jane M.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      You are most welcome, Jane.

  2. Pastor Richard P. Mendoza

    Just a note of an incorrect spelling in your first paragraph “chaism” when it should be “chiasm.”

    That is so, because here we meet an obvious and unquestionable example of an ancient form of literary design – chaism 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.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Thanks, fixed it.

  3. alfredo

    Thanks Dr. Eli. I just read the article and found it very interesting. It really makes sense. What about the other big themes that the 4th Gospel and the 3 “John” letters address, which are Love, Death and Life? Could it be that this author not only was very close to the Temple as , but also that he experienced love, death and life himself? In other comment, I was wondering why Lazarus’ experience with life after death experience was not recorded. Maybe it was. This 4th Gospel and the 3 letters could have been written by Lazarus, being himself the young rich in Mark 10:21 and also the beloved disciple. This beloved disciple was indeed a disciple of John the Baptist. He not only recorded what John said about Jesus increasing while John decreasing. (John 3:30) but also had to practically “disappear” and become an anonymous witness because of the fame that was around him after being raised from the dead. (John 12:9-11) This disciple records (John 20:7) in a very detailed way the napkin (sudarium) that was left in Jesus empty tomb… he just happened to have one on himself just a few days earlier! (John 11:44) No wonder he didn’t get into Jesus tomb at once even though he got there before Peter… Can you imagine going back to such place after being there for 4 days? Just wondering.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      All Gospels are originally written with reference to their authors. So are psalms for that matter and many other books in the Bible. Can this be Lazarus? yes of course. John 11 may fit perfectly into this hypothesis as well as things that you bring up. Jesus weeping bitterly at his passing also points towards that (beloved disciple).

  4. alfredo

    Thanks for this insight of such a Hebrew form of writing. Do you think that a fisherman of the 1st century could write this way? Don’t you think that this way of writing would come from a more educated 1st century Jewish man? Doesn’t the Gospel of John sound as if a theologian or a well educated man wrote it? When you think “outside the box” and you read this Gospel, you might find that who wrote it could well be someone who is not one of the “twelve”. Someone who is a witness of many things that Jesus did but is not a witness of all the things that Jesus did with the “twelve”. This writer “knows” first hand about life and death. He writes about it through all the Gospel. He also writes about being loved because he knows about being loved by Jesus with a Heavenly Love. Just as the young rich was loved by Jesus. (Mark 10:21) Just as Lazarus was loved by Jesus. (John 11:3) Everyone knew that Jesus loved this young man named Lazarus (John 11:36) Could a Galilean fisherman be known at the house of the HIgh Priest? (John 18:15-16) Maybe a wealthy young disciple is a better choice of knowing the High Priest and also knowing Nicodemus well enough as being able to have written in a very detailed fashion the account of Jesus and Nicodemus night encounter? (John 3)

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Alfredo, I agree. Read an article by Mark Kinzer on the Gospel of John and Temple in the “featured articles” section. He argues that the author was Jerusalem-based priest. Dr. Eli

  5. Chinedu Okafor

    I am quite happy reading the chiastic structure especially in the Gospel of John. It took me back to my theological studies on John too. Indeed the Johannine Corpus was composed according to the laws of chiastic parallelism rather than according to the laws of narrative. Chiastic parallelism of the Prologue, for examples offers us such a structural unit. In two units which share a number of parallel features, the first verse of I corresponds to the last verse of II, the second verse of I corresponds to the next to the last verse of II as Chiasm is a series (a,b,c) and its inversion (c,b,a) taken together as a combined unit.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Dear Chinedu, welcome to our study group. Blessings and peace, Dr. Eli

  6. Ryan

    I found your studies by looking for some educational materials on the Gospel of John. You Chiasm diagram reminded me of a slide I put together to give to explain the effects of Adam and Eve’s Relationship with God as expressed thru the OT and NT all in under 2 minutes:
    ->They became convinced that their way was better than God’s
    ->->They became self-conscious and hid from God
    ->->->They tried to justify and defend what they did
    In order to build a relationship with God, we must overcome the effects of Adam and Eve
    <-<-<-We must drop every excuse and every justification
    <-<-We must drop our pride and stop hiding from God, thinking He is unaware of what is going on
    <-We must become convinced that God's way is better than ours.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      What is the text of the chaism? 🙂 Thanks, Ryan.

  7. Dolores Luthi

    Thank you for the explanation of chiasm. I have never read anything like that before. I have an English BA and have a terminology book. However, the more I hear and listen, the more I desire to proceed with studies. I am in Hebrew Unit B and shall soon be in the beginning Greek language. This study is very interesting. I do not understand why they call the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit the Trinity, but this lesson gives an interesting perspective on how to view the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Thanks, Dolores! Keep up the good work with your studies with eTeacher! From Hebrew to Greek! Way to go! Dr. ELi

  8. […] в подробности. Если вы читаете по английски, то в этой статье можно увидеть хороший пример одной из разновидностей […]

  9. […] that this was the author’s intention and was part of his careful design that we saw earlier (Was the Gospel of John “simply” written or carefully designed?). One possibility is that John intentionally wanted us to know that conversations that began in […]

  10. Rosina

    Dear DR Eli, Chiasm…a new word and a new understanding of the Word. Wow, this has really opened up the bible for me. Thank you

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Rosina, let’s keep learning together!

      Dr. Eli

  11. Wesley "Dr Ley" Rose

    Indeed, this is a topic that should interest any true student of historical theology and or interpretative methods of investigating the scriptures. It is much more exhilarating and edifying than such pursuits as structural criticism – although seemingly similar is much different. Additionally, such insight and understanding can truly help reveal the thoughts behind a text as well as the depth and scope of seemingly simplistic delineations of thought. Much has been propounded by scholars of all ages with respect to the workings and ideologies of the gospel of John. In some cases it has proved both perplexing and and challenging to the school of theology in general. This, then, is an important element of the makeup of this gospel message and the intent and purpose of the narrative for all audiences. I’m captivated by this tool…

  12. Dr Denis Callaghan

    Thanks Brother Eli,
    For reminding me that I had learned these lessons some forty years ago ago in my studies of the Torah. You may address this in future studies but we are able with find without much effort this structure in e.g.
    A. Genesis
    B. Exodus
    C. Leviticus
    B. Numbers
    A. Deuteronomy

    And so on in the Prophets and in the Writings (Psalms).
    One of my Hebrew professors indicated that only in the Divine Writ is this chiastic structure found. I was a rather young man at the time 15 or 16 and took his word on the matter.
    Thanks again for reminding me that the first lessons are the most important.
    Dr Denis O’Callaghan

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Dear Dr. Denis, O’Callaghan, thank you as always for your comment. My only correction (I think I am accurate in this) is that chiasms are not found ONLY in Hebrew poetry. To my knowledge they are also present in such Hellenistic epic works as Odyssey and Iliad. Once again I do not know enough about the subject to be truly knowledgeable, only to be dangerous. 🙂 I think people did argue that God’s beautiful design is seen in the complexity of Holy Scripture’s composition. In a sense this a very Islamic argument (similar to the kinds of things that are said about suras of Q’uran). While I think that ultimately God does get all the credit, after all he gave and defined the very sense of what is beautiful, we must recognize that chiastic structures are characteristic of authorial (human) design as well. Yours as always, Eli

  13. Osvaldo Vena

    I am glad that Chiasm (or chiasmus) is being re-discovered in the North American academic scene. Coming from Latin America, as I do, I have done considerable work on NT texts utilizing Chiasm. It certainly helps in unraveling the meanings offered by the text…

    Osvaldo Vena

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Dear Dr. Osvaldo Vena,

      many thanks for your comment. I am grateful for your participation in our study group and your general concern for justice and peace in the Middle East. Best wishes to you and your family in upcoming celebrations! Dr. Eli

  14. […] Last time we talked about an ancient literary device that we call today – chiasm. Before you read this section, make sure to review the prior (Click here to do so – Was the Gospel of John “simply” written or carefully designed?). […]

  15. Drs, Charles van den Berg

    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)

    1. Drs, Charles van den Berg

      corrected: A B C DD C B A

    2. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      I can see that. That is another way to break up the chaism.

  16. Drs, Charles van den Berg

    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 .

  17. Drs, Charles van den Berg

    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??

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      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

      1. Drs, Charles van den Berg

        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.

  18. Jeff Martin

    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.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      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

  19. Ramón Sánchez

    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.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      As always great feedback and points to consider together.

  20. Kristine Holland

    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.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      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.

  21. Birdie Cutair

    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.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      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.

      1. Birdie Cutair

        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.

        1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

          You are most welcome!

      2. Cheryl Durham

        When you say it was “Christianized” and deJudaized, do you mean the writing or the interpretation?

        1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

          I mean interpretation and translations or more precisely interpretation that informed translations (and following that of course visa versa).

  22. Sonia Willats

    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!

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Dear Sonia,

      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

  23. Michelle

    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!

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      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!

  24. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

    This study group is very effective, because of great content, yes, but also because of great comments of its near one thousand participants. Please, make your thoughts known to the rest of us by posting your comment. Once you submit a comment, I will approve and respond to it within hours.

    1. Cheryl Durham

      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.

      1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

        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.