Chiasm: A Key to the Clear Meaning of Scripture

Although it’s difficult to obtain these days, I would like to recommend Fr. John Breck’s intriguing book The Shape of Biblical Language. This book outlines and analyzes with copious examples from the text of Scripture exactly what it’s title conveys – that the text of the Bible has a shape, and that this shape of the text provides significant keys to understanding authorial intent. Specifically, the “shape of biblical language” is found in the pervasive use of the rhetorical form known as chiasmus, or simply “chiasm.” A chiasm is, as Breck defines it, a pattern in the text which “produces balanced statements, in direct, inverted, or antithetical parallelism, constructed symmetrically about a central idea” (pg. 18). I can’t go into specific examples here because the bulk of Breck’s 350 pp. are devoted to detailed analysis of a large number of biblical texts that exhibit a chiastic structure. The book has to be read for oneself if one is to see the great significance of chiasm for exegeting the text of Scripture.

Considering today’s widespread Evangelical belief in “objective” exegesis performed by Scientific canons of hermeneutics, one of the interesting features of chiastic structures is precisely that the shape of a given biblical text can help to drive the reader away from certain interpretations and toward the one the author himself intended. The problem is, of course, learning to read the Bible in the way it was itself composed rather than according to standards from alien modes of thought. Although the ancient educational system inculcated into children’s minds the ability to think in (and therefore to read and write in) chiastic structures, understanding and working with chiasms is not an explicit feature of the Western mindset. Breck does show some contemporary examples of chiasms in such sources as newspapers and journal articles, but it remains true that generally speaking we do not think like the writers of Scripture thought and wrote. It takes hard work to get into their mode of thinking and writing.

I’ve often been criticized for arguing that exegesis is a culturally-situated discipline and is therefore very much affected by cultural assumptions. In his closing chapter, Breck writes: “Part of the reason for the neglect of chiasmus by exegetes appears to be the Western penchant for narrative form and our lack of familiarity with concentric patterns of thought” (pg. 333). My questions, then, are two. First, if we do not read the Bible with a sensitivity to chiastic structures, don’t we run the risk of misinterpreting it? And second, if Scripture is written chiastically and our culture teaches us to think, read, and write non-chiastically, will not that conditioning have some sort of affect on our exegetical efforts?

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