Chiasmus: An Important Structural Device Commonly Found in Biblical Literature -- By: Brad McCoy

Journal: Chafer Theological Seminary Journal
Volume: CTSJ 09:2 (Fall 2003)
Article: Chiasmus: An Important Structural Device Commonly Found in Biblical Literature
Author: Brad McCoy


Chiasmus: An Important Structural Device Commonly Found in Biblical Literature

Brad McCoy

Introduction to Chiasmus

Chiasmus (or chiasm)1 is an important structural device/form2 commonly found in ancient literature and oratory, both secular and sacred.3 Robert Norrman’s concise definition, which affirms that chiasmus involves “the use of bilateral symmetry about a central axis,” well describes its basic essence.4 However, the present author’s definition of chiasmus as “the use of inverted parallelism of form and/or content which moves toward and away from a strategic central component” intentionally goes beyond Norrman’s statement in that it more explicitly mentions the literary dynamics of chiasmus in its fullest technical sense.

Chiasmus has been found as early as the third millennium B.C. in the organization of certain Sumero-Akkadian and Ugaritic texts.5 The first specific use of the term chiasm in reference to the dynamic of rhetorical development by means of a parallel inversion of thematic topics is found in the writings of the fourth century B.C. Greek rhetorician Isocrates.6 The term chiasmus originated from the Classical Greek verb chiazō, which means “to mark with two lines crossing like a χ [chi].”7

In its most general sense, chiasmus involves inverted parallelism between two or more (synonymously or antithetically) corresponding words, phrases, or units of thought. Examples of this basic dynamic would include the contemporary saying, “Winners [A] never quit [B] and quitters [B’] never win [A’],” as well as the biblical description of Christ in Revelation 3:7: He who opens [A] and no one shuts [B], and shuts [B’] and no one opens [A’]. This type of inverted parallelism between corresponding components can take place at a micro level (within a single sentence) or at a macro level (within the broad flow of a large discourse).

While chiasm inherently involves inverted parallelism, it takes this parallelism, in a sense, one step further.8 Although some would apply the term ...

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