Literary structure (chiasm, chiasmus) of the Bible
What is literary structure?
Literary structure is one of ancient rhetorical techniques. Literary structure has been utilized in many texts of various cultures. Especially in the Bible, we can find a lot of literary structures from the book of Genesis to the book of Revelation.
Though the word "literary structure" is sometimes used in a broader context, in this document, "literary structure" means a structural rhetorical technique which is composed of several corresponding text pairs.
Frequently utilized literary structures can be classified in two types. One is chiasmus (chiasm) and the other is parallelism.
Chiasmus is a nesting structure in which the first part of a text corresponds to the last part, the second part corresponds to the second-last part, and so on. Examples of ABBA chiasmus structure is shown in Fig 1.
Figure 1. Example of a Simple Chiasmus (Matt. 5:45)
In this example, "the bad" and "the unjust" correspond because meanings of those words are similar. And "the good" and "the just" correspond because of same reason.
By connecting corresponding text parts, figure of "X" appeared. In Greek alphabet, "Χ" was pronounced as "Chi". Therefore this type of literary structure is called "Chiasmus".
Although the example in Fig 1 is composed of corresponding word pairs, longer text parts such as phrases, sentences, paragraphs, pericopes (pericope is small story unit in Bible Studies), and also one whole book can become corresponding text parts.
Moreover, the number of corresponding pairs are not limited. For instances, ABCCBA or ABCDDCBA structures are also included in chiasmus.
Chiasmus structure has one variant type. That is called "Concentric structure". Though some scholars regard chiasmus and concentric structure as the same type, others differentiate those two types.
Concentric structure is similar to a chiasmus but contains an unpaired central part, as in ABCBA or ABCDCBA. Fig 2 shows example of concentric structure which is composed of fifteen text parts (seven corresponding pairs).
Figure 2. Example of a concentric structure which is compose of pericopes (Mark 8:22-10:52)
Table 1. Relationships between corresponding text parts in Fig 2.
Healing the visually impaired
Jesus is Messiah
Foretelling death and resurrection
Persecution and life
Who enters into the kingdom of God
Evil spirit and child
By utilizing concentric structure, the central text parts is emphasized as center of the relevant parts. In Fig 2., the concentric structure clarifies that the foretelling of death and resurrection is central theme.
The other type, parallelism is simple repetitive pattern, such as ABAB or ABCABC. An example is shown in Fig 3. As you know, most of lyrics of modern pops also have same structures.
Figure 3. Example of a parallelism structure (Luke 11:31-32)
There are several merits for utilizing those literary structures. For instances,
Literary structures clarify the divisions of text parts and text units.
Corresponding text parts show non-explicit relationships between described objects.
The focal point or central theme of relevant text are clarified (especially in case of concentric structure).
With regard to theological interpretation of the Bible, identification of literary structures enables clear interpretation for readers.