Chiasms on the Brain?

I was recently asked some questions about chiasms: Are biblical scholars just bored and seeing things? Would ancient audiences have picked up on them? Is this a widely attested ancient Near Eastern device? Do lay Bible readers have any hope of seeing them or must they consult commentaries?

These are good questions. There are biblical scholars who are very suspicious of chiasms, especially of larger proposals that stretch over whole sections of texts or even whole books. I come down with those who see chiasms as a key structuring device in ancient literature. I would add that it’s not just ancient literature. I think it was a prof I had in college, Skip Hays, who suggested that The Great Gatsby has a paneled structure that is basically chiastic. There are plenty of examples of balanced structures in the world’s literature. Think of the Divine Comedy . . .

Anyway, in a world that didn’t use chapters, chapter titles (the chapter and verse numbers in the Bible were added later–they don’t come from the biblical authors), bold subheadings, and italics, authors seem to have employed chiastic structures, inclusios, and other devices that rely on the repetition of key words, phrases, or thematic concepts to structure their material.

There is evidence that early on the biblical texts were widely memorized, as well as evidence that they were regularly read aloud. I think it plausible that authors expected their audiences to recognize chiastic structures and inclusios formed by the repetition of key words, phrases, and concepts, and if they weren’t caught on first hearing (those accustomed to listening closely to texts being read aloud probably had more facility for hearing such things–I notice that my sons, who have heard us read aloud to them a lot, seem to catch more from a first reading than my wife and I sometimes do) they could be noticed in the memorization/meditation/recitation process.

This is not limited to the ANE, though, because chiasms are also widely attested in the NT. I see a chiastic structure in the whole book of Revelation.

A proposed chiasm is either convincing or unconvincing, isn’t it? We’re dealing with those points on the scale from impossible to unlikely to implausible to possible to plausible to likely to certain . . . Sometimes chiasms are more apparent if the texts are read in the original Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic, though if you’re reading a more literal translation you might still pick it up if you’re paying close attention and thinking hard about how the text hangs together. I think if you were to study a text really closely or memorize it in something like the NASB or ESV or NKJV, you might notice a chiastic structure . . . so commentaries are not the layperson’s only hope of seeing the structure that is there.

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