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A Definition of Functional Chiasmus

Kuruvilla Thomas K.
Bangalore (22/2/2017)


A "functional chiasmus" is a literary device that consists of a set of facts or ideas each of which is split into two portions. One portion of the set of ideas is presented in a particular sequence followed by the other portion of those ideas presented in the reverse sequence. A chiastic pivot (designated as 'X' or Chi) is placed between the forward and reverse sequences; the pivot is typically a core idea, headline sentence, or special or different in some way. The text of a functional chiasmus must be rearranged in order to be correctly interpreted.

A functional chiasmus is so named because this type of chiasmus is about function and not form; its function is to obfuscate the meaning of text and also because some function - by way of rearranging the text - must be performed in order to understand the text.

This definition is based on examples from the Bible and the definition may be updated as necessary if more examples are found. Functional chiasmi are only found in the Bible as far as we know.

Since it may be useful to see how a chiasmus is constructed,
Consider the following poem, as an example:

X   The story of Jack and Jill
A1  Jack and Jill went up the hill
A2  To fetch a pail of water.
B1  Jack fell down and broke his crown
B2  and Jill came tumbling after.

The poem has two main ideas: idea 'A' which is split into phrases 'A1' and 'A2' and idea 'B' which consists of 'B1' and 'B2'.

In order to convert the poem into a functional chiasmus, we designate the title as the pivot point 'X' and reorder the phrases in the following sequence:

A1 B1 X B2 A2

The initial parts of A and B are listed in sequence and the second parts are listed in reverse sequence and the pivot point X is placed at the centre.

So we get the functional chiasmus:

A1  Jack and Jill went up the hill
  B1  Jack fell down and broke his crown
    X   The story of Jack and Jill
  B2  and Jill came tumbling after.
A2  To fetch a pail of water.

Although we can get some sense of the poem from these jumbled phrases, the phrases must be reordered into their original sequence (X A1 A2 B1 B2) to get a coherent narrative.

Some additional definitions:

Subunit: Each combination of corresponding phrases is called a subunit. In the example, we have phrases A1 and A2 combining to form the subunit (A1, A2)

Pivot point: The phrase at the centre of the chiasmus is the pivot point 'X' or 'Chi' in Greek (from which we get the name Chiasmus). The pivot is usually placed at the top while reordering.

Parsing: Parsing a chiasmus is the process of splitting the text into parts so that the parts can be reordered. Parsing is not a straightforward task in the case of a functional chiasmus; some discernment must be applied to divine the extent of each subunit because of the varying length of the parts (parts can vary in length from one word to several verses or even chapters) and because correct parsing requires some prior knowledge or insight regarding the content of the text.

Ordering rules:

Ordering rules are rules by which the phrases of a parsed chiasmus may be rearranged.

Differences between a functional chiasmus and a regular chiasmus.

Chiasmi and the Bible

Regular Chiasmi are a commonly used organizing structure in both the Old and New Testaments in keeping with the literature of the time [1]. They can vary in length from a short phrase to entire books of the Bible.

Functional chiasmi are harder to spot but one simple example would be:

Matthew 7:6. "Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces."

Although this verse is not a pure functional chiasmus because it lacks a central pivot phrase, we can see that the phrases need to be rearranged to make sense; Pigs don't tear people to pieces.

It is possible that Functional Chiasmi are used to "seal prophecy" in the Bible - to obfuscate prophetic texts until the time for their revelation comes.

WARNING: Applying the functional chiasmus method to passages in the Scripture amounts to their alteration; please use all spiritual discernment while doing so. As far as we know, functional chiasmi are only found in certain prophetic passages whose truth must remain obfuscated until the time to open their 'seal' arrives.


[1] Chiasmus: An Important Structural Device Commonly Found in Biblical Literature By Brad McCoy


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