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What Is a Chiastic Structure?

By Laura Metz
Updated May 23, 2024
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A chiastic structure, also known as a ring structure or chiastic pattern, is a literary device used to emphasize parallel ideas. Chiasms are considered a branch of form criticism. Examples of chiastic patterns can be seen in many books, including classics such as the Bible and "Paradise Lost."

Form criticism, which analyzes the patterns of literature, is used primarily to study the Bible. The theory was originally established by Herman Gunkel in the early 1900s. This type of analysis, however, is not limited to studying the Bible. Biblical examples of chiastic structure include Ecclesiastes 11:3-12:2 and Matthew 23:11-12.

Chiastic structure follows a simple pattern; for example, ABBA or ABA. In the ABA form, the middle line, B, is emphasized. Occasionally the pattern is expanded, such as the ABCBA pattern, which still emphasizes the middle line.

In a chiasm, or chiasmus, the root word is repeated, although its form frequently changes. For example, the word “run” could be repeated as “runner”, “ran”, or even “running.” This is evidenced in Matthew 23:11-12: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” The verbs “exalt” and “humble” are each used twice, but in two forms.

Pairs of chiasms are linked together to form a chiastic structure. These chiasms serve as bookends to the sentence or passage. Chiastic patterns can have an infinite number of chiasms, so long as they follow the proper formula. A longer ring structure would follow the pattern ABCDCBA or ABCDDCBA.

The term ring structure serves as a simple illustration for the workings of a chiastic structure. In a chiasm, the pattern goes in a circle, or ring, from A to B and back to A. This makes chiasms easy to observe and use.

A chiasm is a fairly simple literary device and is used without being noticed. For example, the saying “Quitters never win, and winners never quit” follows the ring structure. The word “quit” is represented by the letter A, and “win” by the letter B, providing a perfect ABBA structure.

Chiastic patterns have been used for centuries. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche employed this literary technique when he said “Is man one of God’s blunders, or God one of man’s blunders?” As a proper chiasm, the first half of the question makes one statement, and then the second flips that statement upside down.

The ring structure can be observed repeatedly throughout the Bible. For instance, William H. Shea believes the entire book of Daniel follows the chiastic pattern of ABCCBA. In this example, each piece of the chiasm may be several sentences long. Similarly, some scholars consider the entire book of Genesis a giant chiasm.

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