Ask a Scholar: Pericope and Chiasm

Todd D. Moore

Dear Ask a Scholar,

Can a pericope have more than one possibility of a chiasm?

- Jose Munoz, Seventh Day Adventist Theological Seminary

Answered by Todd D. Moore, staff scientist in commercialization at Merck & Co., Inc. He received a bachelor of science in biology from Delaware Valley College, an additional bachelor of science in Bible and pastorology from Pillsbury College, and a master’s in Biblical studies from Biblical Theological Seminary. He has lectured extensively on Biblical subjects at churches in the Bucks County, PA area. His website features a growing collection of chiastic structures.

Yes, but first a few definitions are in order so that everyone understands what we are discussing.

In literary or rhetorical analysis, a “pericope” is a set of sentences or verses that forms one coherent and self-contained unit. Such a unit is normally evident as a paragraph, episode, or story that contributes to the overall composition. The word itself is transliterated from the Greek, perikoph, referring to the general form of a passage or section. (Its plural, by the way, is “pericopae.”) A good illustration is the “Pericope Adulterae” - the pericope of the adulteress in John 7:53-8:11. This famous episode from the life of Jesus is debated among textual critics as to whether it was actually present as part of the original writing of the author (since this pericope is not found in some of the oldest manuscript evidence).

“Chiasm” (short for “Chiasmus”) is a figure of speech, a form of parallelism, derived from the likeness to the crossing in the Greek letter chi, X. In this figure, the order of the literary units is reversed from one half of the compositional structure to the other. The units (which may be words, sentences, paragraphs, or themes) are composed such that they correspond to one another, but in inverted order. The smallest, most basic, chiastic structure looks like ABBA in form. An example of this is Matthew 7:6 where we should understand that it is dogs that attack and pigs that trample:

A. Do not give dogs what is holy,

B. and do not throw your pearls before pigs,

B’ lest they trample them underfoot

A’ and turn to attack you.

However, more extended forms of this concentric parallelism may be observed in ancient literature. One famous example is the Flood Narrative in Genesis 6:10-9:19 that extends many units until the middle (“But God remembered Noah”) before reversing upon itself:

A    Noah and his sons (6:10)

B        All life on earth (6:13a)

C            Curse on earth (6:13b)

D                Ark (6:14-16)

E                    All living creatures (6:17–20)

F                        Food (6:21)

G                          Animals in man’s hands (7:2–3)

H                             Entry into Ark (7:13-16)

I                                   Waters increase (7:17–19)

J                                         Mountains covered (7:20)

 X                                             God remembers Noah (8:1)

J’                                        Mountains visible (8:5)

I’                                      Waters decrease (8:13-14)

H’                                Exit from Ark (8:15-19)

G’                          Animals in man’s hands (9:2)

F’                        Food (9:3–4)

E’                    All living creatures (9:10a)

D’                Ark (9:10b)

C’            Blessing on earth (9:13–16)

B’        All life on earth (9:17)

A’    Noah and his sons (9:19)

Reference -

This example also happens to be an example of a pericope in which there is more than one chiasm. In this case, it is a smaller chiasm embedded around the same core:

α    Seven days waiting to enter Ark (7:4)

β        Second mention of seven days waiting (7:10)

γ            40 days (7:13,17)

δ                150 days (7:24)

 x                    God remembers Noah (8:1)

δ’                150 days (8:3)

γ’            40 days (8:6)

β’        Seven days waiting for dove (8:10)

α’    Second seven days waiting for dove (8:12)

There are other examples in which parts of one chiastic structure partially overlap with parts of another independent rhetorical structure. An example of this overlap may be found in Exodus 11-12. See page 8 of my “From Bondage to Redemption.”

However, by far the most common way in which more than one chiasm may be found in a pericope is when several smaller chiastic structures are used as sub-parts to make up the main chiastic structure of a pericope.

Romans 2:1-16 is a good example:

A. Gentile Hypocrisy Judged

            1.         a. One Judging                                    

                        b. Judge Another

                        b’ Condemn Self                     

                        a’ One Judging

            2.         a. God’s Judgment (Objective Aspect)                                                 

                        b. Present Query (Re: Objective)

                        b’ Present Query (Re: Subjective)

                        a’ God’s Judgment (Subjective Aspect)                       

B. Universal Judgment (General)

            1. Impartiality Expressed

            2.         a. Positive Example

                        b. Negative Example    

B’ Universal Judgment (Specific)

            2’         b’ Negative Example

                        a’ Positive Example

            1’ Impartiality Expressed

A’ Jewish Hypocrisy Judged

            1’         a. Gentile Sin

                        b. Penalty

                        a’ Jewish Sin

                        b’ Penalty


            2’         a. God’s Judgment (Subjective Aspect)

                        b. Present Gentile Standard

                        b’ Present Gentile Standard     

                        a’ God’s Judgment (Objective Aspect)

This type of structure can get even more complicated when the author embeds regular ABAB parallelism on top of the chiastic ABBA structure (e.g., Romans 8:1-16). Such composition brings multiple aspects of the author’s thinking into the interpretive limelight as variations on each theme come to the fore.

For details and more examples see:

* * *   
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