An Introduction

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Chiastic structures in:
Matthew 2 Corinthians Philemon
Romans Galatians 2 Peter and Jude 1 Corinthians
Philippians  1, 2, 3 John

1) What is chiastic structuring?
2) Criteria for a chiasm
3) How to detect chiasms
4) Importance and usefulness of detected chiasms


Chiasmus (from the Greek letter Chi: X), or chiastic structuring is a literary device often used by Old Testament and New Testament writers. They use it to build up to their main point and then back off from it in the reverse order (so that the parts 'cross over' like the members of the letter Chi - X).
                         D The main point the writer is making
                         D' lies at the centre.
A and A' may help to exegete each other, as may B and B', C and C'.



Three criteria that will enable one to know that a chiasm has been found are:

1) Parallel members (A & A', B & B', etc.) will have in common subject matter,
significant vocabulary, and/or phrases.

2) At least in Paul's letters the centre will be tightly parallel, phrase for phrase. (In long chiasms, say 40-plus verses in Paul, the balancing members at the extremities [like A & A'] may consist of two or three verses each.)

3) The centre will be the main point. (Very often the main point will have already been seen to be the main point by earlier commentators.)



1) The first step is often to notice two separated passages on the same subject or which use the same infrequently-occurring words, or words which are significant for the author's argument but which do not otherwise occur with frequency in the given section (e.g., such words might be 'God', 'Father', 'Christ', etc.).

2) The intervening material between the two passages is then scrutinized for parallel vocabulary and/or ideas which match each other step-by-step until a centre is reached. Generally the closer one comes to the centre the more precise the parallelism becomes, until it is frequently a phrase-for-phrase balancing.

3) At other times one may begin with a single verse which is itself a chiasm. Having established that there is a centre, one then extends the limits until no more effective parallelism of subject and/or vocabulary is to be found.

4) Occasionally balancing members are antitheses (e.g., A: The good live; A': The wicked die).

5) Sometimes (as in 1 Corinthians and Galatians) the end of one chiasm overlaps with the beginning of the next, indicating either (1) they are a literary unity and both came into fixed form at the same time, or (2) just possibly the overlapping verses are bridge passages written to join chiasms, one or both of which may have existed earlier and both were extended at each end so as to overlap (i.e., the original chiastic units would have been shorter than the form in which we have them now).  



Detected chiastic structuring can be of help to the textual critic, the source critic and the exegete in one or more of the following ways. (OX = Overall Chiasm; 1st 2o = First secondary chiasm, etc.)

Note: All chiasms indicated below are given in full under the heading of the given writing.

(a) It can help one to see the whole argument and its main point.
Chiastic unit Centre (i.e., main point)
     1 Corinthians:
            OX: 1.1-8.6a x 8.6b-16.24
                    For us:
                    One God, the Father, ...
                    One Lord, Jesus Christ, ...
            But not in all is this knowledge
     1st 2o: 1.1-3.11a x 3.11b-6.12
                    Only possible foundation: Jesus Christ
         3o: 1.1-24 x 1.24-32
                    To those who are called, Jews and Greeks:
                 Christ, God's Power and God's Wisdom
         3o: 4.1-15b x 4.16-6.11
                    I begat you in Christ: thus be imitators of me.
         2nd 2o: 6.1-8.6a x 8.6b-10.33
                    Apparently structured on Decalogue
                 (10th - 1st : 1st - 10th commandments)
         3rd 2o: 10.23-13.7 x 13.8-14.40
                    Love bears/hopes/believes/endures:
                 all else shall cease.
         4th 2
o: 14.31-15.45a x 15.45b -16.24
                    The First Man Adam became a living soul :
                 The Last Man a life-making Spirit

(b) If an entire writing can be shown to be chiastic overall, then it is more likely to be a literary unity (as opposed to a composite work).
1 Corinthians - see above, but also see f) and g) below.
    Philippians 1.1-2.24a x 2.24b-4.23 (also Galatians, Philemon, Jude, 2 Peter,
1-2-3 John)
    (But William Hollidays' arguments for the overall chiastic structure of Jeremiah may be a salutary warning that a final overall chiasm may not necessarily indicate an original unity or unitary origin.)

(c) One side of a chiasm may shed light on the meaning of the other side or even the meaning of the centre when either is in doubt.
    Romans 1.18-2.1b x 2.4b-8 - centre: the judging one (ὁ κρίνων). The scope of this chiasm, which
includes the clearly Gentile material of 1.19ff., calls into question whether the judging one is only the Jew, as, e.g., E. Käsemann and others maintain.

(d) One side of a chiasm may help to settle, or at least make more probable, a doubtful textual reading on the other side.
    1 Cor. 2.1-4a x 2.4b-8: 'Mystery' (μυστήριον) in 2.7 argues for 'mystery' in 2.1d (with J. Héring, H. Conzelmann, UBGNT 3rd ed., Nestle-Aland NTG 26th and 27th edd. and the NRSV), not 'testimony' (μαρτύριον
(as in RSV, NEB, BFBSGNT 2nd ed. and Nestle-Aland NTG 25th ed.).

(e) If only the main body of a writing is chiastic, then the non-chiastic portions may have a different (quite possibly later) origin by the same or another hand.
Col. 1.12-2.6a x 2.6b-3.17: These apparent limits make 1.1-11 and 3.18-4.18 of
   questionable origin.
Rom.1.1-8.17 x 8.18-15.33+16.25-27: (1) This reinforces the case for taking Rom.
    16.1-24 as not being part of the original letter. (2) Since the doxology of
    16.25-27, widely deemed to be of Marcionite origin, is chiastic against 1.1-6,
    this calls into question the extent to which 1.1-6 represents what Paul himself
2 Cor.: Gunther Bornkamm's breakdown of 2 Corinthians
    1.23-5.1a x 5.1b-7.16 (excluding 6.14-7.1) 2.14-7.4 (excluding 6.14-7.1)
   8.1-22a x 8.22b-9.15 8 and 9 as separate letters
10.1-11.31a x 11.31b-13.10 (omit 13.11-13) 10-13

(f) A chiasm which is complete when a portion within one side or at the centre is omitted may indicate that the non-included portion is a later interpolation.
2 Cor.1.23-5.1a x 5.1b-7.16 (excluding 6.14-7.1) confirms that 6.14-7.1 is an
a conclusion readily reached on other grounds.
1 Cor 9.21-27+10.23-26 x 10.26-11.1
1 Cor. 9.8-10.7 x 10.21-11.15 (incomplete at centre)
   These two chiasms appear to indicate that at least 10.8-20 and possibly 10.1-22 (as argued by Héring, J. Weiss, Goguel, W. Schmithals, etc.) is an interpolation. But note that the materials in question include the following chiasms: 1 Cor 10.6-9a x 9b-11and also 10.15-22a x 10.22b-11.2; in the Overall Chiasm: 10.1-13 corresponds to 7.1-6 and 10.14-32 to 6.13-20. Thus perhaps the interpolation was by Paul himself, imperfectly worked in.
Taking the separation of materials concerned with the oral reports from those dealing with the Corinthians' written questions (as analysed by J. C. Hurd, Jr, The Origin of I Corinthians) along with the discerned chiasms (see (a) above), it seems likely that Paul had 1 Cor. 6.12-16.24 roughed out (with 1 Cor 13 as the intended centre) before he received the oral reports which caused him to add 12.1-6.11 plus 11.17-34 (the oral report materials).

(g) Two halves of a chiasm separated by materials in between may sometimes indicate that the entire chiasm existed as a unit prior to the present writing, being intentionally split by the writer of the present work.
Matt. 5.1-7.29 x 22.15-24.35: That the Sermon on the Mount antedates the composition of Matthew has long since been argued by Jean Héring. 'Dieu, Moïse, et les anciens', Révue d'histoire et de philosophie religieuses (Strasbourg, 1941), p. 201, n. 15. We would suggest that the whole unit was initially developed from the short Beatitudes and Woes as found in Luke 6.2-26m to form a kind of Two Ways document (the Way of Life: Sermon on the Mount, Matt. 5-7, and the Way of Death: Woes section, Matt. 23) akin to the Two-Ways sections of the Epistle of Barnabas and the Didache.
  (see Chiastic Structuring in the Sermon on the Mount).
    (Incidentally, although Matthew contains many very lengthy complete chiasms, I have been unable to find a convincing overall chiasm.)

(h) Where one can demonstrate an overall chiasm and a continuous set of secondary chiasms (plus perhaps subsidiary levels, too), then this increases the likelihood that the writing was intended to be heard many times and that the author was carefully and seriously theologizing and not simply writing to a situation ad hoc and unsystematically.
1 Corinthians (see under (a) above)
Galatians (work of John Bligh, Galatians in Greek [University of Detroit Press,
    Detroit, 1966] and Galatians:A Discussion of St Paul's Epistle [St Paul
    Publications, London, 1969])
   OX: 1.1-4.4c x 4.5a-6.18
       2o:   1.1-20a x 1.20b-3.4 (I)
              3.5-4.4 x 4.5-4.31 (II)
       5.1-21b x 5.21c-6.18 (III)
         3o:       1.1-4c x 1.5-1.12 (1)
                    1.6-20a x 1.20b-3.4 (2)
                2.11-16b x 2.16c-3.4 (3)
             3.5-18c x 3.18d-29 (4)
                 4.1-4 x 4.5-10 (5)
                 4.11-19 x 4.20-31 (6)
                 5.1-7b x 5.8-13 (7)
                 5.13b-21b x 5.21c-6.2 (8)
                    5.22-6.8a x 6.8b-18 (9)
    (Bligh also finds a continuous quartan series, with the chiasms beginning to scatter at the quintan level. Up through at least the tertiary level his chiasms are soundly based by our criteria.)
    The completely balanced structure of Galatians (overall chiasm, three secondaries and nine tertiaries) reinforces the idea that 1 Corinthians, with its four rather than three
secondaries, was written in two stages, as indicated in (f)