[b-hebrew] chiasmus and topic

FPutnam at biblical.edu FPutnam at biblical.edu
Mon Mar 8 16:29:33 EST 2004

Hi, Joe.

Great topic!

I am delighted to hear that you are working on the basis of verbal 
parallels, and encourage you to pursue this approach, rather than the 
far-too-common topical labels used by scholars (which tend to demonstrate 
their ingenuity at developing chiastically correspondences that 
conveniently fall into chiasms). <wry grin> I also encourage you to base 
your work on work on *explicit* verbal parallels, rather than semantic 
domains. The latter are certainly a legitimate linguistic function, but 
are too open to the manipulation that (once again) demonstrates scholarly 

IMHO, we need to be extremely cautious in attempting to discern the 
general significance of any [chiastic] structures, as well as of any 
particular example thereof. Does a chiasm emphasize the terms in the 
means, in the extremes, or in some combination thereof? Without a good 
deal of input from cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics, as well as 
materials from comparative literature--especially literature where we have 
some control over the sources--we are merely guessing when we say, "The 
author used a chiasmus here because ..."  Adele Berlin's discussion of the 
signficance of [so-called] word pairs in light of psycho-linguistic 
research into word association illustrates this point.

Finally, from time to time, I notice chiasms in student papers (e.g., the 
order of a list of nouns on page 3 is reversed on page 7, or two verbs are 
used a second time, but in the opposite order). I have not kept score, but 
I can confidently say that few students to whom I have pointed this out 
realized that they had created a chiasm (well, one or two have done it 
just to see if I would notice). When the chiastic words are closer to each 
other, the student usually says something like, "I just changed the order 
for variety". [This doesn't prove anything, it merely illustrates the need 
for great humility when assessing the significance of literary forms from 
a world long ago and far away.]   :-)


Frederic Clarke Putnam, Ph.D.
Professor of Old Testament
Biblical Theological Seminary
Hatfield, Pennsylvania

More information about the b-hebrew mailing list