What is a chiasm?

Q. Can you explain what a “chiasm” is?  I often hear people use the word when they’re talking about things in the Bible, but I’m not quite sure what it means.

Simply stated, a chiasm is an arrangement of materials into nested pairs.  For example, in a simple, four-part chiasm, the first and last elements would be paired with each other, and the middle two elements would also be paired together:

God created mankind
in his own image,
in the image of God
he created them.

Sometimes interpreters label the parts of a chiasm with capital letters to show these relationships more clearly:

A  God created mankind
B  in his own image,
B  in the image of God
A  he created them.

The word chiasm comes from the Greek letter chi, which looks like an X.  If you go from top to bottom down this letter, it’s wide, narrow, narrow, wide–that’s why the letter is used for the name of this arrangement.

Hebrew authors considered chiasms to be an especially  elegant and refined kind of literary creation, so they occur often in the First Testament.  Since most of the New Testament authors were Jews, many chiasms are found there as well.

As illustrated above, brief chiasms can be found in lines of poetry.  But chiasms can also be used on a larger scale.  Psalm 103 as a whole, for example, is a five-part chiasm.  (In a chiasm with an odd number of parts, the middle element stands alone, giving it a particular emphasis.)  This psalm begins with an extended call to praise the Lord; it makes a short assertion about God’s reign; it describes God’s character; it makes another short assertion about God’s reign; and it ends with another call to praise the Lord.

In the gospel of John, the account of Jesus’ arrest and trial is arranged as a seven-part chiasm:

A The Jewish Leaders Demand Execution
B Pilate Speaks with Jesus About Kingship
C Pilate Declares Jesus Innocent; The Jewish Leaders Shout for Barabbas
D  The Soliders Beat and Mock Jesus
C Pilate Declares Jesus Innocent; The Jewish Leaders Shout for Crucifixion
B Pilate Speaks With Jesus About Authority
A Pilate Agrees to the Demand for Execution

The account of the crucifixion is then arranged as another seven-part chiasm:

A Jesus is Brought to the Place of Execution
B Pilate Refuses the Jewish Leaders’ Request to Change the Inscription
C The Soldiers At the Cross Cast Lots for Jesus’ Clothes
D  Jesus Entrusts Mary into John’s Care
C The Soldiers At the Cross Give Jesus Wine to Drink
B Pilate Grants the Jewish Leaders’ Request to Speed the Executions
A Jesus is Taken from the Place of Execution

Sometimes even longer stretches of narrative are arranged as chiasms.  For example, the account of Noah and the flood is an extended nine-part chiasm, with a key theological emphasis in the middle element:

A  Noah’s actions in building the ark
B  God addresses Noah:  “Go into the ark”
C  Noah and the animals enter the ark
D  The flood waters rise
E  God remembers Noah
D  The flood waters fall
C  Noah and the birds verify that the flood has ended
B  God addresses Noah:  “Come out of the ark”
A  Noah’s actions in offering sacrifice

In Genesis the lives of Abraham and Jacob are also related in nine-part chiasms, and chiasms are used to structure many other narratives and poems throughout the Bible.

So learning to recognize chiasms can give us many insights into the structures, themes, and emphases of biblical writings.  The only danger in knowing about chiasms is a tendency to want to find them everywhere in the Bible.  They’re not exactly everywhere.  But they certainly are used frequently.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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