Archive for the ‘Extra-Biblical Chiasmi’ Category



This post looks briefly at the tendency of both Homer  (author of the Illiad and Odyssey) and Mark (the Gospel of Mark) to answer questions – or comments – chiastically …

First, Homer, from here (note the nice clear matches 🙂 ):

… both Illiad and Odyssey contain a series of questions which is answered in exactly reversed order: Antinous’ three questions to Noemon (Od. 4.642-56); Hecabe’s several questions to Hector (Il. 6. 254-85); and, in the most elaborate example of this device, Odysseus’ seven questions to his mother Anticleia in Hades (Od. 11. 170-203). Here is an example quoted in diagrammatic form from Steve Reece:

Od. 11. 170-203:

A.  What killed you?  (171)

B.  A long sickness?  (172)

C.  Or Artemis with her arrows?  (172-73)

D.  How is my father?  (174)

E.  How is my son?  (174)

F.  Are my possessions safe?  (175-76)

G.  Has my wife been faithful?  (177-79)

G’.  Your wife has been faithful.  (181-83)

F’.  Your possessions are safe.  (184)

E’.  Your son is thriving.  (184-87)

D’.  Your father is alive but in poor condition.  (187-96)

C’.  Artemis did not kill me with her arrows.  (198-99)

B’.  Nor did a sickness kill me.  (200-201)

A’.  But my longing for you killed me.  (202-3)


Mark also liked to answer questions or comments chiastically.  Following are two examples:

Mark 3:22-30:

A    22  And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,”

B    and “He casts out the demons  /  by the ruler of the demons.”

B’   23  And He called them to Himself and began speaking to them in parables, “How can Satan  /  cast out  /  Satan?  24  “And if a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.  25  “And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.  26  “And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but he is finished!  27  “But no one can enter the strong man’s house and plunder his property unless he first binds the strong man, and then he will plunder his house. 

A’   28  “Truly I say to you, all sins shall be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter;  29  but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”  —  30  because they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.”

And, Mark 13:1-37:

1  And as He was going out of the temple, one of His disciples said^ to Him, “Teacher, behold what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!”
2  And Jesus said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone shall be left upon another which will not be torn down.”
3  And as He was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter and James and John and Andrew were questioning Him privately,

A    4  “Tell us, when will these things be,

B    and what will be the sign when all these things are going to be fulfilled?”

B’   [Me:  a list of signs:]    5  And Jesus began to say to them, “See to it that no one misleads you.  6  “Many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am He!’ and will mislead many.  7  “And when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be frightened; those things must take place; but that is not yet the end.  8  “For nation will arise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will also be famines. These things are merely the beginning of birth pangs.  9  “But be on your guard; for they will deliver you to the courts, and you will be flogged in the synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them.  10  “And the gospel must first be preached to all the nations.  11  “And when they arrest you and deliver you up, do not be anxious beforehand about what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but it is the Holy Spirit.  12  “And brother will deliver brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and have them put to death.  13  “And you will be hated by all on account of My name, but the one who endures to the end, he shall be saved.  14  “But when you see the ABOMINATION OF DESOLATION standing where it should not be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.  15  “And let him who is on the housetop not go down, or enter in, to get anything out of his house;  16  and let him who is in the field not turn back to get his cloak.  17  “But woe to those who are with child and to those who nurse babes in those days!  18  “But pray that it may not happen in the winter.  19  “For those days will be a time of tribulation such as has not occurred since the beginning of the creation which God created, until now, and never shall.  20  “And unless the Lord had shortened those days, no life would have been saved; but for the sake of the elect whom He chose, He shortened the days.  21  “And then if anyone says to you, ‘Behold, here is the Christ’; or, ‘Behold, He is there’; do not believe him;  22  for false Christs and false prophets will arise, and will show signs and wonders, in order, if possible, to lead the elect astray.  23  “But take heed; behold, I have told you everything in advance.  /// 24  “But in those days, after that tribulation, THE SUN WILL BE DARKENED, AND THE MOON WILL NOT GIVE ITS LIGHT,  25  AND THE STARS WILL BE FALLING from heaven, and the powers that are in the heavens will be shaken.  26  “And then they will see THE SON OF MAN COMING IN CLOUDS with great power and glory.  27  “And then He will send forth the angels, and will gather together His elect from the four winds, from the farthest end of the earth, to the farthest end of heaven.

A’   [Me:  The ‘when question’ is answered:]   28  “Now learn the parable from the fig tree: when its branch has already become tender, and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.  29  “Even so, you too, when you see these things happening, recognize that He is near, right at the door.  30  “Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place.  31  “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.  32  “But of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.  33  “Take heed, keep on the alert; for you do not know when the appointed time is.  34  “It is like a man, away on a journey, who upon leaving his house and putting his slaves in charge, assigning to each one his task, also commanded the doorkeeper to stay on the alert.  35  “Therefore, be on the alert– for you do not know when the master of the house is coming, whether in the evening, at midnight, at cockcrowing, or in the morning  —  36  lest he come suddenly and find you asleep.  37  “And what I say to you I say to all, ‘Be on the alert!'”


I thought it a bit interesting. 

In our modern western culture, we have a tendency to answer questions in the order they’re asked.


If you’re interested, Mark 3:22-30 (the first Markan example above) is part of a larger chiasmus containing a number of smaller chiasmi:


Mark 13:5-23 (part of the second Markan example above) is also a chiasmus:



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I love this poem! 

‘The Tyger’ was written by William Blake in 1794.  Personally, I think he wrote it symmetrically – as a chiasmus.  If so, then his use of the word “symmetry” at the end of A and A’, referring to the symmetry of the tyger, carries additional and special meaning:  it may also refer to the structure of his poem. 

I might as well say it now.  In addition to the symmetry of the tyger and the symmetry of the poem, there is also a “fearful symmetry” between the ‘deadliness’ of the tyger and ‘beauty’ (“burning bright”,”symmetry”) of the tyger.  The two concepts are in stark contrast.  Opposed yet fused, conceptually battling.  Ultimately, this opposition raises a question for us regarding God:  “What immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry?” and, “Did he smile his work to see?  Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”  …  Ultimately the poem is raising the question of God, and Good and Evil – at least on the level of the animal kingdom … (e.g., Tennyson’s “… Nature, red in tooth and claw” ).

Here’s how I think Blake’s symmetrical poem works:

A and A’ are identical.  A perfect match.  A and A’ form ‘inclusions’, or book-ends, for the poem. 

B and B’ refer to a) skies, stars, and heavens, b) distant deeps, watered, and tears, and c) eyes and tears.  The poem begins ‘far away’, perhaps alluding to the mysterious dwelling place of God, or God’s mind, the tyger’s creator.  It also alludes to the problem of Good and Evil (“dare he aspire”, “dare seize the fire”, “spears”, and “tears”). In addition, B1 begins a metaphor of God as ‘blacksmith’, about to pound out his creation (“what the hand dare seize the fire”).  The fire being necessary to bend the blacksmith’s steel.

C1a and C’1a deepen the imagery of the blacksmith.  You can easily picture the “shoulder” in C1a at work with the “hammer” and “chain” in C’1a.  It’s the blacksmith’s own body that “art”(fully) creates the work.  The shoulder swings, the hammer strikes, the shape takes form. 

C1b and C’1b again continue the imagery of the blacksmith with “twist” – as might be done with hot steel – and “furnace”. 

C1b ends by referring to the formation of the tyger’s “heart”, while C’1b refers to the tyger’s “brain”, the driving forces within the tyger, giving it life and direction, mind and soul .  The ‘metal’ becomes animate.  …  Alive!

Finally, in C2 and C’2 we arrive at the the terror of the tyger, the tyger in motion – it’s “dreaded grasp”, it’s “hand”, it’s “feet”, it’s “grasp”, it’s “clasp”.  “Dread” is used in both sections; “deadly” is used in C2 and its rhyming with “dread” plays in the reader’s mind as happy remorse – the beauty of rhyme embracing the tyger’s killing instincts – echoeing again the dilemma of both good and evil in creation.

And so then, there it is.  We have arrived at the end of a chiastic center of Blake’s “Tyger”.  From distant God to destroying Tyger.  Traversing both art and fear, creation and destruction. Life and death.

And questions of  Good and Evil.     :

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

A beautiful poem.

I suppose one other point.  Some think that the Lamb in this poem might refer to Jesus (the “Lamb of God”).  Hmmm.  If so, I can’t help thinking, who then the tyger? 



Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?



In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?

On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?



And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?


And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?



What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?

What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?



When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,

Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?


Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

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A few years ago I read the book, “The Shape of Biblical Language – Chiasmus in the Scriptures“, written by Father John Breck.  This morning I picked up John’s “Scripture in Tradition:  The Bible and Its Interpretation in the Orthodox Church“.  Chapter 5 is entitled, “Chiasmus as a Key to Biblical Interpretation”.  Below are a few select quotes from that chapter:


From the early nineteenth century through the middle of the twentieth, scholarly attention focused especially on the contributions and limits of historical-critical approaches to biblical interpretation.  In recent years, interest among exegetes has shifted to various forms of literary analysis.  Although the results have been mixed (much of the effort has been expended to correct false or one-sided conclusions drawn by other scholars), certain specific contributions have been especially helpful in clarifying the meaning of scriptural passages by locating the center of the author’s interest and thereby pinpointing literal sense of a given text.

The most significant of these, to my mind, is the contribution made by a small number of biblical scholars, beginning in the mid-eighteenth century with the works of the Anglican hierarch Robert Lowth and continuing today with studies by scholars such as John Gerhard, Charles H. Talbert, and especially Peter F. Ellis.  These studies base their interpretation of biblical texts on a form of literary analysis that investigates the concentric parallelism or chiastic (also called “chiasmis”) structures of biblical passages.

It seems obvious that any writing should be read according to its linear progression, from beginning to end, as we read a novel or newspaper article.  In antiquity, however, a linear reading of a text was very often complemented by another kind of reading.  This reading follows the laws of what is call “chiasm” or “chiasmus,” a rhetorical form based on concentric parallelism.

…  Chiasmus is a rhetorical form developed on the basis of parallelism.  But it takes parallelism an important step further by creating a movement that is in essence concentric.  Although any passage reads in linear fashion, from beginning to end, it can also incorporate another movement:  from the exterior to the interior, from the extremities toward the center.  In this way, meaning is developed from the beginning and end of the passage toward the middle.  Accordingly, the ultimate meaning of a chiastically structured passage is expressed not at the end, in what we understand to be the “conclusion.”  The real meaning or essential message of the text is to be found rather at its center.

This chiastic way of composing and reading a literary text, so that meaning develops from the extremities toward the center, seems to have originated in the Semitic world at least three thousand years before Jesus Christ.  It is found in ancient Akkadian and Sumerian texts, and it spread from these to the Greek world.  The epics of Homer, for example, are chiastically structured, as, presumably was much of the oral tradition that underlies them.  Writers of both the Old and New Testaments used chiasmus extensively   Although it seems not to have been taught in rhetorical schools after the beginning of the Christian era, chiasmus nevertheless appears throughout the ages, down to the present day.

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Chiasmus was not used exclusively by Biblical writers.  It was used by others as well. 

John W. Welch‘s book ”Chiasmus in Antiquity” is an excellent book for viewing possible chiastic structures from cultures outside of Israel.  It’s a good starting point for understanding chiasmus outside of the Bible.

Here are the chapter titles:

I particularly enjoy Welch’s cover which features the following chiastically arranged artwork.  Nice … :

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