The Skeptical Chiast

The lectionary essays I’m working on involve texts that some scholars identify as chiasmic, composed in an “A – B – B – A” (those are letters, not “Abba”) pattern of inverted parallelism. I’m intrigued by these claims, some of which come from scholars I know well and greatly respect (“know well and greatly respect” forming a cheap illustration of the phenomenon: verb – adverb -adverb -verb) — but I’m very reluctant to accept the claims they make about chiasm in the New Testament.

Let me stipulate at the outset that I accept the premise that ancient rhetorical culture was more accustomed to recognizing such structural devices than are contemporary readers. We can assert with certainty that the ancients knew of chiasm, because they wrote about it in the rhetorical handbooks. We can find examples of chiasm in non-biblical ancient literature. To all of this, a firm “yes.”

On the other hand, the claims that contemporary scholars make about chiasm often conflict with one another, and despite widespread interest in the phenomenon, no interpretive proposal seems to have convinced a broad constituency of scholarly readers (even within the pool of chiasm-alert scholars). When you combine the uncertainty of the interpretive conclusions with the astonishing claims made on behalf of this device (it sometimes seems like the Philosophers’ Stone of biblical rhetoric, resolving all interpretive conundrums, clarifying textual enimas, whitening teeth and freshening breath), I respond with resolute caution.

So, first, let me suggest that the smaller the scale of the chiastic structure one proposes, the greater the likelihood that one has correctly identified deliberate chiasm. I’’m not suggesting that someone can’t, or oughtn’t, or wouldn’t, compose a large-scale chiasm (say, the Lukan travel narrative, perhaps) — just that the longer the composition, the more difficult it would be for ancients or moderns to sustain chiastic structure, and the less obvious such a structure would be to general audiences. Ancient readers would be better attuned, yes; but they would still be quicker to pick up a short chiasm — look at Isaiah 55:8-9 for an example, where the prophet contrasts human thoughts and ways with God’s ways and thoughts — than a very long chiasm. The probability of recognizing chiasm declines as the chiasm becomes more subtle. If an author smacks you over the head with inverted parallelism by shouting repeated keywords and by making a very pronounced contrast between the elements, we have a very clear example; but the more that the author relies on inference and allusion, the less reason we have to assert with certainty that we’re encountering deliberate authorial chiasm.

Second, I suspect that there was more of what we might infelicitously call “informal chiasm” than biblical scholarship can comfortably deal with. In a rhetorically-sophisticated culture, one wouldn’t need to set up flashing neon keywords to tip off careful readers, nor would one expect that absolutely everyone would recognize absolutely every chiasm. And an ancient storyteller might have in mind a very rough chiastic structure — “I’ll begin in Galilee, muck around a while in various intervening territories, have a central section in Jerusalem, then conclude the narrative in Galilee again” — of the sort that doesn’t lend itself to the kind of minute analytical overkill that funds arguments in biblical interpretation. Many proposed chiasms parse the text at such a level of detail that the nuances actually undermine the force of the argument by revealing just how the critic must strain to account for every conjunction, verb tense, and definite pronoun. That’s a besetting problem of the biblical guild, not an argument against the existence of examples of biblical chiasm; but when an interpreter complies with disciplinary expectations of comprehensive rigor (disproportionate with the likely rigor of the author’s compositional coompulsiveness), the whole endeavor goes off the rails.

So chalk me up as skeptical about proposed examples of large-scale biblical chiasm, until someone shows me an example for which there’s general approbation among critical readers, ideally including some of the ancients, and which displays its evidence with an appropriate tone of indeterminacy and humility. I’m sympathetic to the premise, and confident that there’s probably something there, just cautious about accepting grandiose claims on tenuous grounds.

On a peripheral point, does anyone know where to obtain reasonably-priced beer in Princeton? I made only one stop becase I was in a hurry, but it seemed the sort of place I’d ordinarily expect to find sensible prices. The six-packs I saw, however, were consistently priced a dollar or two more than comparable beers in Evanston. What am I missing?

Jonathan helpfully advised:

Dear Professor Adam,

Long time reader, first time commenter. I noticed on your blog that you were wondering about places to find cheap beer in the Princeton area. Frankly, I would avoid all liquor stores in Princeton Borough at all costs (e.g., Community Liquors, Princeton Liqours, etc.), since their prices are much too high. The one crucial liquor exception is the Princeton Corkscrew wine shop on Hulfish, which is superb. When buying bottled beer, instead I normally head to:

1) Joe Canal’s on Route 1 South, in the Hooters, Shop-Rite, Men’s Wearhouse shopping center. Their prices are not great, but certainly lower than in Princeton Borough, and their selection of foreign beers and decent domestic ones is ok.
2) Wegman’s grocery store near Target on Route 1 South. Again, cheaper than Princeton but less selection than Joe Canal’s for about the same price.

I hope this helps get you started.

Jonathan Soyars

PS: I am a recent PTS MDiv grad and an incoming ThM student in New Testament, also at PTS. I look forward to seeing you around campus and town.

[Thanks a million, Jonathan. I gritted my teeth and bought over-priced beer again yesterday; it was the end of the day, and I wanted to get home promptly to feed the dog, so I stopped at a Borough venue. I picked a six-pack of Tsingtao, which for some reason was less expensive than Sam Adams — almost what one would have paid in Illinois. But I’ll go to Wegman’s soon, and will check out Joe Canal’s too.

And I look forward to meeting you — perhaps a cup of coffee at Mackay someday, or at a downtown establishment?]

I missed Don’s (other link here) comment earlier:

I think it was Danna Fewell who said that any biblical scholar worth her salt could fake a chiasm.

But who am I to complain too much — I “found” a chiasm in Isa 25 and that gave me a structure for a whole chapter of the dissertation.

Glad you’re settling in well in Princeton — but I only know where to get good beer in Richmond.


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