Chiastic structure

Chiastic structure

Chiastic structure (also called chiastic pattern or ring structure) is a literary device[1] for chiasmus applied to narrative motifs, turns of phrase, or whole passages. Various structures of chiasmus are commonly seen in ancient literature to emphasize, parallel, or contrast concepts or ideas. Examples of chiastic structures are the A,B,C...C,B,A pattern and the ABBAABB…ABBA pattern. Chiastic structure s are sometimes called palistrophes,[2] chiasms, symmetric structures, ring structures, or concentric structures.

These often symmetrical patterns are commonly found in ancient literature such as the epic poetry of Odyssey and Iliad. Various chiastic structures are also seen in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, where biblical writers used chiasmus to give meaning to their writings or to highlight details of particular importance.

When read left to right, up to down, the first topic (A) is reiterated as the last, and the middle concept (B) appears twice in succession (Also, the middle concept could appear just once)



The term chiastic derives from the mid 17th century term chiasmus, which refers to a crosswise arrangement of concepts or words that are repeated in reverse order. Chiasmus derives from from the Greek word khiasmos, a word that is khiazein, marked with the letter khi. From khi comes chi.[3]

Chi is made up of two lines crossing each other as in the shape of an X. The line that starts leftmost on top, comes down, and is rightmost on the bottom, and vice versa. If one thinks of the lines as concepts, one sees that concept A, which comes first, is also last, and concept B, which comes after A, comes before A. If one adds in more lines representing other concepts, one gets a chiastic structure with more concepts.[citation needed]

Mnemonic device

Oral literature is especially rich in chiastic structure, possibly as an aid in memorization. In his study of the Iliad and the Odyssey, Cedric Whitman, for instance, finds a chiastic structure "of the most amazing virtuosity" that simultaneously performed both aesthetic and mnemonic functions, permitting the oral poet to easily recall the basic formulae of the composition during performances.[4]

Use in Hebrew Bible

A notable example in the Torah is the chiastic structure running from the middle of Exodus through the end of Leviticus. The structure begins with the covenant made between God and the Hebrew People at Mount Sinai, as described in the Torah, and ends with the admonition from God (YHWH) to the Hebrews of what will happen if they will not follow his laws, which is also a sort of covenant. The main ideas are in the middle of Leviticus, from chapter 11 through chapter 20. Those chapters deal with the holiness in the Tabernacle and the holiness of the Israelite people in general. The chiastic structure points the reader to the central idea, that of the expected holiness (set-apartness) of the Israelite people in everything they do.[citation needed] In David Dorsey's book and in his teaching, he poses that the chiastic structure provides a former of interpretive control by the authors of the various books in the Hebrew Scriptures.[citation needed]

Book of Genesis

In the Book of Genesis, the beginning of chapter 4 uses the ABBAABB…ABBA chiastic structure. This structure is used to contrast concepts A and B, which are usually closely related, but very different. First, concept A is mentioned once. Then B twice, A twice, etc., until the structure ends with a final A. The format points the contrast between the two ideas.[citation needed]

The ABBAABB…ABBA pattern emphasizes the contrast between the two sons of Adam, Cain and Abel. The Torah describes their names, their occupations, and their offerings. Cain is mentioned first, then Abel twice, then Cain twice, and so on. The structure draws attention to the differences between Cain and Abel, pointing out the essential difference in their personalities.[citation needed]

Book of Daniel

In 1986, William H. Shea proposed that the Book of Daniel is composed of a double-chiasm. He supports the theory that the chiastic structure is emphasized by the two languages that the book is written in: Aramaic and Hebrew. The first chiasm is written in Aramaic from chapters 2-7 following an ABC...CBA pattern. The second chiasm is in Hebrew from chapters 8-12, also using the ABC...CBA pattern, however, Shea represents Daniel 9:26 as "D", a break in the center of the pattern.[5]

Use in New Testament

Based on the theories of David Dorsey, while considering the lack of punctuation and spaces in the earliest textual sources of the New Testament, David Buckwalter proposes that the chiastic structure of the New Testament is a form of punctuation keyed on the words used in the original Greek texts. In the original Greek, these structures would have been clear to its contempory audience, however they are not so apparent in modern translations. Like Dorsey's analyis with the Hebrew Bible, Buckwalter also believes that the New testament chiastic structure serves as a form of interpretive control.[citation needed]

ABC…CBA pattern

The ABC…CBA chiastic structure is frequently used to emphasize to the inmost concept, i.e., C, the concept that appears either twice in succession or only once, showing that the other ideas all lead up to the middle idea or concept.


In literary texts with a possible oral origin, such as Beowulf, chiastic or ring structures are often found on an intermediate level, that is, between the (verbal and/or grammatical) level of chiasmus and the higher level of chiastic structure such as noted in the Torah. John D. Niles provides examples of chiastic figures on all three levels.[6] He notes that for the instances of ll. 12-19, the announcement of the birth of (Danish) Beowulf, are chiastic, more or less on the verbal level, that of chiasmus.[7] Then, each of the three main fights are organized chiastically, a chiastic structure on the level of verse paragraphs and shorter passages. For instance, the simplest of these three, the fight with Grendel, is schematized as follows:

A: Preliminaries

  • Grendel approaching
  • Grendel rejoicing
  • Grendel devouring Handscioh
B: Grendel's wish to flee ("fingers cracked")
C: Uproar in hall; Danes stricken with terror
C': Uproar in hall; Danes stricken with terror
B': "Joints burst"; Grendel forced to flee

A': Aftermath

  • Grendel slinking back toward fens
  • Beowulf rejoicing
  • Beowulf left with Grendel's arm[8]

Finally, Niles provides a diagram of the highest level of chiastic structure, the organization of the poem as a whole, in an introduction, three major fights with interludes before and after the second fight (with Grendel's mother), and an epilogue. To illustrate, he analyzes Prologue and Epilogue as follows:

A: Panegyric for Scyld

B: Scyld's funeral
C: History of Danes before Hrothgar
D: Hrothgar's order to build Heorot


D': Beowulf's order to build his barrow
C': History of Geats after Beowulf ("messenger's prophecy")
B': Beowulf's funeral

A': Eulogy for Beowulf[9]

Paradise Lost

The overall chiastic structure of Milton's Paradise Lost is also of the ABC…CBA type:

A: Satan's sinful actions (Books 1-3)

B: Entry into Paradise (Book 4)
C: War in heaven (destruction) (Books 5-6)
C': Creation of the world (Books 7-8)
B': Loss of paradise (Book 9)

A': Humankind's sinful actions (Books 10-12)[10]

See also


  1. ^ eds, Tremper Longman III & David E. Garland, general (2009). Daniel-Malachi (Rev. ed. ed.). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan. p. 129. ISBN 9780310268932. 
  2. ^ The term "palistrophe" was coined by Sean E. McEvenue, in The Narrative Style of the Priestly Writer, Biblical Institute Press, Rome, 1971.
  3. ^, ed. "Chiasmus". Oxford University Press. Retrieved 2011. 
  4. ^ Cedric M. Whitman. Homer and the Heroic Tradition. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1958.
  5. ^ Shea 1986
  6. ^ Niles 1979, p. 924-35
  7. ^ Niles 1979, p. 924-25
  8. ^ Niles 1979, p. 925-6
  9. ^ Niles 1979, p. 930
  10. ^ Leland Ryken, "Paradise Lost by John Milton (1608-1674), " in Kapic, Kelly M.; Randall C. Gleason (2004). The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics. Westmont: InterVarsity. ISBN 978-0-8308-2794-7. 


  • Shea, William H. (1986). "The Prophecy of Daniel 9:24-27". In Holbrook, Frank. The Seventy Weeks, Leviticus, and the Nature of Prophecy. Daniel and Revelation Committee Series. 3. Review and Herald Publishing Association. 

Further reading

  • The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis-Malachi, David A. Dorsey, Baker, Grand Rapids, 1999
  • Review of The Literary Structure of the Old Testament: A Commentary on Genesis-Malachi, The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Terrence A. Clarke, Sep 2001
  • The Elusive Covenant: A Structural-Semiotic Reading of Genesis, Terry J. Prewitt, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1990
  • The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, Bart D. Ehrman, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1993

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