Search the Site



What are chaisms in the Bible?


Q. What do scholars think about chiasmus, especially the larger ones?

A. I think well-crafted examples of these word patterns in the Bible are admirable and fun to find—especially the longer ones!

Scholars rightly arch an eyebrow when colleagues strain to identify chiasmus (ky-AZ-mus) or chiasms, also called ring compositions. Critics say chiasms exist mostly in the eye of the beholder, but recognition of the forward-then-backward wordplay within the text has its rewards.  

Chiasms have a game-like quality that I liken to palindromes in prose. The palindrome may go back to the Garden of Eden when the first male introduced himself: “Madam, I’m Adam.” And why do skeptics today disbelieve in Satan? They say the “devil never even lived.”

Anyone pleased by the pithy rhythm of Mark 2:27, no less by its wisdom, is also enjoying a Jesus saying formed as a micro-chiasm.  (I moved “made” in this NRSV translation to reflect the word order in Greek.)

A   The sabbath

  B    for humankind

    C    was made, 

  B’   not humankind for

A’   the sabbath. 

For larger chiasms, many key words used in the first half of a story or teaching—names, synonyms, antonyms, catchwords, etc.—will re-appear in the second half in roughly reverse order. The mid-point of the chiasm is often the point of the episode or teaching.

For example, Luke’s story of The Shepherd and Angels (Luke 2:8-20) has a tight center wherein lies a key phrase—“on earth peace”—at the midpoint, verse 14. (The words translated “glory” and “favors” in that sentence have the same root in Greek, a legitimate link-up in chiasms.) Likewise, in verse 13 the words “angel” and “heavenly” hitch up in verse 15a with “angels” and “heaven.” A third Greek word—ginomai, “suddenly”—appears both in verse 13 and verse 15a, but goes untranslated in the latter.

Greek rhetorical handbooks ignored chiasms when describing classical standards of literature. Chiasms evidently belonged to a popular genre. Because illiteracy was commonplace in the Hellenistic world, written works were read or recited to listeners. It is speculation, but chiastic patterns imbedded in the text may have been a mnemonic aid for storytellers.

  • John Dart

    John Dart is the former religion news editor at Christian Century (2000-2014) and the Los Angeles Times (1967-1998).  His latest book is Decoding Mark (Bloomsbury, 2003).