A network of highly cohesive details reveals the truth.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Chiasmus in Exegesis

Over at the Better Bibles Blog (BBB), Dan Sindlinger has posted Chiasmus and Bible translation. In my opinion, Bible translators should become quite thoughtful about the implications of chiasma for clear, accurate, and natural Bible translation. At the very least, the chiastic macro-structures of an original text must impact how we moderns paragraph our translations. We need to transfer the form from original to destination through some kind of transformation supportable by scholarship--we can't just ignore the form.

But, I don't want to talk about that. Go to BBB to talk about that.

What about exegesis?

Let me get your mental juices flowing by making some quick exegetical observations regarding John 6:35-40. And, before we get started, if you want some thought provoking input on chiasmus, take a pensive read through Chiasmus: An Important Structural Device Commonly Found in Biblical Literature By Brad McCoy. A thank you to davidr for commenting on BBB and pointing me to that article. It, in turn, pointed me to this Johannine text. Brad pulls together a number of observations about chiasmus that need to get into the heads of all exegetes. And he does so in a highly readable and concise way.

Now, an example--I've molded the NLT text into a chiastic form; it is as follows:

Notice that the A <--> A' elements incorporate the activity of seeing and the conceptual connection between eternal life and belief. Also, with B <--> B' notice the connection between not rejecting and not losing and the permanancy of eternal life. There's also the concept of judgment inherent in rejecting in B and last day in B'.

So, what exegetes need to learn to look for when dealing with a chiasmus is the lexical-semantic associations between various words. In other words, within the context of the original author (his cognitive framework), he expects his readers to make these kinds of connections. We (at least here in the US) make the same types of connections when we associate menu, candlelight, and waitress with atmosphere. We think of a romantic atmosphere. Using the word atmosphere in other contexts (say, a discussion of the European Space Program) will result in an entirely different sense of the word atmosphere. So, there's a particular context (or cognitive framework) within which we understand these words being associated with each other. The original author relies on those associations when building a chiasmus. And we, the readers, can rely on those associations to build our confidence that we have accurately exegeted the text.

Now, one of the key components of doing good exegesis is observing the form. At the very least, we have to see the chiasmus. However, I picked this text since it incorporates another formal element I've noticed--a paragraph heading before a chiastic form. The paragraph heading usually (perhaps always) semantically adheres to the central core of the chiasmus.

To illustrate:

In the text, we should see that there must be a connection between "the bread of life" and the fact that Jesus "[came] down from heaven". To the original audience there was an immediate connection between what is said here and the OT story of the manna in Exodus 16. John, being a skillful writer, has already placed the manna story into the mental context of his readers (see verse 31). This heading and associated chiastic core relight that mental context (it refires the same neural pathways so the reader's confidence in one specific interpretation grows). The reader should start to think that Exodus 16 is woven through this John 6 text. Getting at what the original author intends the reader to understand is what exegesis is all about.

To further strengthen that connection: observe how the OT story includes grumbling and then note that Jesus confronts the Jews in verse 43: "Stop grumbling among yourselves...".

There's a lot more to observe. However, I believe this section in John (6:25-59) is meant to convey the same message as Exodus 16; namely, "I will rain down bread from heaven for you...In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions." In that regard, note well that in John 6:63 Jesus clarifies to his disciples what had just happened between him and the Jews: "The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life." That is, the words are important. Many disciples turned away; however, note Peter's response: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." Again, there's a direct connection between Exodus 16 with the word 'instructions' and the 'words' word in John 6. This is called intertextuality; but that must wait for another post.

Did you notice the chiasm in the second to last sentence in the previous paragraph?


Blogger Mike Sangrey said...

Hmmmm...If it's not tacky to comment on my own post...

I just noticed that the central thought of the chiasmus alludes to the "follow my instructions" of Exodus 16, too. The interesting thing then is that the core thought of the chiasmus has Jesus performing both the roles of the manna as well as the "follow my instructions". That is so...ummmmm...very 'John' of the author.

1:35 PM  

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