Dedicated to the writings of Saint Luke.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Reading Luke Chiastically

In the past thirty years, a number of scholars have shown that chiasmus is a structural tool of biblical rhetoric. Scholars readily acknowledge their prevalence even though they often find it hard to determine the shape of particular chiasmus. The documentation has not been persuasive because neither a good definition has been established nor a set of rules developed that can be uniformly applied. Consequently, chiastic structures that were apparent to ancient listeners are difficult for modern interpreters to define exactly even in the same pericopes. Furthermore, Ian Thomson has questioned whether chiastic structures can be shown to exist in macro settings which he defines as more than 15 verses. Thomson, Porter and Reed have asserted "to date a convincing set of criteria for how to identify chiasm has not been developed." In all this confusion, one fact stands out. As noted by Stock, ancient writings "did not make use of paragraphs, punctuation, capitalization and other synthetic devices to communicate the conclusion of one idea and the commencement of the next." Furthermore, chapters and verses did not appear in the New Testament until Stephen Langton added them in 1226 C.E. Thus Stock concludes that the chiasmus was "a seriously needed element of internal organization."

A chiasmus or inverted parallelism is a criss-cross pattern in which words, phrases, or whole paragraphs are introduced in the order A-B, or A-B-C, etc. and then resumed in the reversed order B-A, or C-B-A, etc. The word 'chiasmus' is derived from the name of the Greek letter chi depicted by the letter “x” used to designate the pivotal central component.

Although the origin of the chiasmus is not known, such literary structures have been found in Ugaritic poetry composed more than two thousand years before the Common Era. Charles H. Talbert is undoubtedly correct in his contention that books in the ancient Middle East were frequently written according to the laws of chiastic parallelism, and in his subsequent judgment that " . . . the very law of duality (i.e., parallelism) by which one part is made to correspond to another by either analogous or contrasting seems deeply rooted in Near Eastern mentality." Nils Lund stated: "Whatever the origin and spread of this form may be, one thing is certain: it has shaped to a very great extent the writings of the Old Testament, and it has passed over to the Greek New Testament as a sacred heritage of early Jewish Christianity."

Therefore it is not surprising that scholars would want to understand the nature of Hebrew literary compositions and the structural patterns that were employed in each literary unit. The methodology whereby the search for "specific organizational laws of biblical texts" is conducted is known as rhetorical analysis. It is distinguished from rhetorical criticism which examines the categories of classical rhetoric of the Greco-Roman world. According to Meynet, "Rhetorical analysis pretends that these compositions do not obey the rules of Greco-Roman rhetoric, but the specific laws of Hebraic rhetoric, of which the authors of the New Testament are the direct inheritors."

Breck who has asserted that chiasmus is the key to biblical interpretation states:

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.

Angelico DiMarco has catalogued a long list of canonical and apocryphal texts. I plan to discuss some of the chiastic passages appearing in the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles and explain not only the exegetical significance of chiasmus but also some of the rules that have been developed.

Copyrighted 2006


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