What are Biblical Chiasms?

Question

What are Biblical Chiasms?

Answer

A chiasm, or chiastic pattern, is a poetic device. It is a style of writing that uses a unique repetition pattern for clarification and / or emphasis. It is a mnemonic device to aid in memorization. It is a literary device that can aid in clarification of the Biblical text and may even reveal an intensification of a particular topic. They aid in textual cohesion and continuity in the text and appear throughout Scripture. Needless to say, locating and understanding them may greatly enhance one's understanding of the Bible.

Chiasms are normally structured in various repeating structures such as a A-B-C . . . . C'-B'-A'. So essentially, a chiasm is a repetition of similar ideas, but not necessarily identical ones, in a reverse sequence (notice the ">" form below). It is a word play - inverse parallelism; first saying something forward and then saying something similar in reverse. Perhaps this example will assist one to understand a little better. Below compare the A to the A', the B to the B', and the C to the C'.

Let's make a delicious hamburger sandwich:

  • A. a thick fluffy bun on the top
    • B. mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise
      • C. Lettuce
        • D. a juicy Filet Mignon Hamburger
      • C'. Tomato [see C above, note that the items do not need to be exact, just similar]
    • B'. mayonnaise, ketchup, mustard [see B above, note that the order does not need to be the same, only similar. It also may only include 1 of the items, or even more items, etc.]
  • A'. a thin bun on the bottom

That's a yummy chiastic burger isn't it!

The main point of our chaism is the juicy filet burger (D above). However, while it is our center piece, the other items are needed to complete the delicious sandwich.

There may be multiple combinations of the above. For instance, we may have a top and lower layer of pickles, or a special sauce on the top bun and other sauces on the bottom, or even double burgers, etc. They can come in all shapes and sizes.

Chiasms are one of the tools the Holy Spirit inspired men to use to produce the Word of God. There are numerous chiasms in the Bible. Our Study Bible identifies many, but not nearly all of them. Please note that when we use the term chiasm in our Study Bible we are using it is very broad and loose terms to include some general parallelisms which we believe will still assist the student of Scripture to understand the text more clearly.

All types of parallelism:

(1) synonymous, in which the same sentiment is repeated in different, but equivalent words

(2) antithetical, in which the parallel members express the opposite sides of the same thought

(3) synthetical, in which the two members contain two disparate ideas, which, however, are connected by a certain affinity between them

(4) palillogical parallelism, in which one or more words of the first line are taken up, like an echo in the second

(5) perfect and imperfect parallelism, according to the equality or inequality of the number of words in each line

(6) introverted parallelisms or chiasms, etc. ^1

have a purpose. Each is inspired by the Holy Spirit - and are significant, as they each contain the message of the Gospel.

Happy hunting.

Footnote:

1. I. M. Casanowicz, Jewish Encyclopedia, "Parallelism in Hebrew Poetry" [edited].

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).