HyC Adventures
The Poetics of Perception
Beauty of Structure in the Four Gospels

 

 

Beauty of Structure in the Four Gospels

In this piece I present four examples of chiasmus, with one chiasmus selected, seriatim, from each of the Four Gospels.

1. Jesus Among His Own People:

A And coming to his own country,
 He taught in their synagogue
,
  

 B Insomuch that they were astonished and said,
   Whence hath this man this wisdom and these mighty powers
?
  

    Is not this the carpenter’s son?
   C Is not his mother called Mary?

    And his brethren, James, and Joseph, and Simon, and Judas?
     And his sisters, are they not all with us?
  
 B'  Whence hath this man all these things?
 And they were offended in him. But Jesus said unto them,

  
A' A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country,
  And in his own house.

These verses are from Matthew 13:54-57.

Compare A and A', and then B and B'—words and phrases in bold face indicate parallel elements. Note the subtle alteration in A and A': the first and second lines are inversely parallel to the last and next-to-last lines, and note that “synagogue” = house of worship.

Since C usually marks a turning point, a favorable reaction in B is contrasted with the hostile reaction in B'. And, to accentuate their parallel relation, both B and B' begin with the word “Whence.”

Also noteworthy is how the family terms crisscross in C: in the odd-numbered lines, 1 and 3, we find male members, whereas in 2 and 4 we find “mother” and “sisters.” Not only is the central section C framed by two questions, but four more questions are posed, one after the other, in C itself.

Superb craftsmanship in four short verses, n’est-ce pas?

In the following analysis, of Mark 2:13-3:8, Nils Lund paraphrases the scriptures dealing with Christian’s attitude toward Jewish Law. Again, note the clear correspondences in the parallel sections.

 

2. Jesus by the Seaside:

 By the seaside: “all the multitude.”
  
  Scribes and Pharisees: Why eat with sinners?
  Justifying example: A proverb about the physician.
  
   Jesus’ disciples and the Pharisees: Why not fast?
   Justifying example: A proverb about sons of the bride-chamber.
  
    The guiding principle: The new patch on the old garment.
  
    The guiding principle: The new wine in the old skins.
  
   Jesus’ disciples and the Pharisees: Why do it on the Sabbath?
   Justifying example: David and the priests.
  
  Pharisees and Herodians: Is it lawful on the sabbath day?
  Justifying example: the sheep in the pit (Matt. 12:11).
  
 By the seaside: “a great multitude,” with other details.

 

3. Jesus in the Synagogue:

(Luke 4:16-21)

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up,
And entered as his custom was on the sabbath day into the synagogue,
A   And stood up to read.
   And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Isaiah,
   And he opened the book and found the place where it was written,
 
     “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me
      To preach good tidings to the poor:
       He hath sent me to proclaim to the captives release,
     B   And to the blind recovering of sight,
       To send the crushed into release,
      To proclaim
     The acceptable year of the Lord.”
 
   And he closed the book,
   And gave it back to the attendant,
A'  And sat down,
And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fastened on him,
And he began to say unto them, etc.

 

4. Jesus as the Bread of Life:

The following passage, from John 6:48-58, has a truly elegant chiasmic structure.
  
A: “I am the bread of life.
 B: Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.
  C: This is the bread which comes down from heaven,
   D: that a man may eat of it and not die.
    E: I am the living bread which came down from heaven;
     F: if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever;
      G: and the bread which I shall give for the life
       the world is my flesh.”
       H: The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying,
        “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
        I: So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly I say to you,
         unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man
         and drink his blood, you have no life in you;
       H': he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has
        eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.
      G': For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.
     F': He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood
      abides in me, and I in him.
    E': As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father,
   D': so he who eats me will live because of me.
  C': This is the bread which came down from heaven,
 B': not such as the fathers ate and died;

A': he who eats this bread will live forever.”
  
As in the foregoing examples, compare A and A', B and B', and take note of all the parallel correspondences.

And . . .

Imagine, if you will, ripples on a still pond—but, in this case, they are rippling inwards rather than outwards. A and A' form the outermost ripple, B and B' the next, and so forth: moving, gathering momentum, undulating toward the center, with each antiphonal pair heightening our awareness, one after the other, until we reach the center, which is I, and resonate with its augmented meaning.

For a discussion of how this passage weaves its way into the context of an even more extensive chiasmic structure, see John Breck, The Shape of Biblical Language, 182-84.

The first three chiastic structures are from Nils Lund, Chiasmus in the New Testament, p. 235, 303, and 236. The Bread of Life chiasmus is from John Breck, The Shape of Biblical Language, pp. 182-83

 

 

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Chiasmus: An Introduction
Iconic Reading
Whitehead's Use of Chiasmus in PR
25 Chiasmi by Eihei Dogen
The Gospel of John: A Miracle of Composition
Amazing Literary Grace: St. Paul's Hymn to Love
Beauty of Structure in the Four Gospels
Dogen's Use of Chiasmus in Shobogenzo
Chiasmic Beauty from the Mists of Chinese Antiquity
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