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Crazy Chiasms

In this post I want to introduce you to a literary feature that we maybe spent 5 minutes on in seminary. And the more I learn about how the ancient mind worked, the more I'm convinced that they used this feature ALL. THE. TIME, which makes virtually hearing nothing about it in my formal education really pretty mind blowing.

It's called a chiasm. A chiasm is a Latin term that comes from the Greek χίασμα, "crossing." Note the first letter (Chi or Xi) which looks like an X. The idea of a chiasm as a literary device is that a statement, paragraph, even whole chapters or even books reverse themselves. A simple example is, "The first will be last, and the last will be first." Note how it begins with "first" then moves to "last," then it reverses itself: last, first. This happens is used for at least a couple of reasons. First, it makes memorizing something easier. In an oral culture, they actually learned to think and talk like this. Second, it can highlight an important point by making it the central part of the structure.

Like an arrow with a tip, a chiasm centers upon a main point:

Psalm 40 Chiasm

In this way, if you identify a chiasm in a text, you can know, objectively, what the author thought was the main point and rather than making up your own, you can use his!

But chiasms can also exist on a macro level, and when they do this, they completely change the way a text should be read. For example, a great debate has existed over how to read the book of Revelation. Should it be linearly, like a letter or cyclically like other forms of literature? Why would this matter? Because if it is read linearly, then it would appear that each event takes place sequentially until the end. However, if it is read cyclically, then it would appear that it is repeating the same thing over and over again. This in turn makes a profound difference on what we think the future will be like.

Scholar Warren Gage has spent years looking at the chiasms of Luke-Acts and John-Revelation. Those are both for their own posts, though I'll say just a bit here. Most scholars recognize some kind of chiastic relationship between Luke-Acts and as such it causes him to arrange his material to work with his chiastic purpose. So for example:

In this way, you can see that the text is organized to region, moving from the widest scope (Rome) to the narrowest (Jerusalem and the cross/ascension event). It then moves back out. This makes a profound difference in how we see all the material, and one can spend years thinking about it all.

What is less understood is that John and Revelation also form a chiastic arrangment. Almost impossibly, this works both from beginning to the end of the two books, but also between them. For now, all I want to show is a graphic representation of Revelation itself. The following chart is my own depiction of the work of Gage.

You can see in this that the central moment of Revelation is the war in heaven between Michael and the Dragon, and curiously, the same is true in John 12 in the war between Jesus and Satan (see John 12:31-32). In the case of Revelation's chiasm, we have over 50 parallels that are within only a verse or two on each side from the center with themes and words that repeat exactly. Combining this with other features of cycles of wars that are nearly identical, I've come to the conclusion that it is a literary mistake to read Revelation chronologically. But my purpose here is simply to demonstrate what a chiasm is and why it can and should matter to you.

For more on Chiasms, I have found two resources especially helpful over the years. 1. The Biblical Chiasm Exchange:

2. The work of Christine Miller:

Both of these sites have a ton of material that I hope you will find as helpful as I have.

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I'm a Christian, husband, father, son, brother, in-law, pastor, friend, fifth gen native Coloradan, published author, blogger, podcaster, radio host, CEO, mountain climber, biker, scholar, theologian, thinker, entrepreneur, amateur archeologist, conservative, lover of all things strange and supernatural, conspiracy theorist (yeah, that's not a bad thing), and ...

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