Palindromes and Chiastic Structures

I’m sure many readers know the term palindrome—a sequence of letters, words, or numbers that read the same backwards as forwards (from Greek palin again + dromos road, route, course). This is what we find in the photos below and in the word madam, for example.




And I’m sure some readers are familiar with chiasmus (derived from chi, χ, the 22nd letter in the Greek alphabet, resembling the English X)  or chiastic structures. For those who don’t know, these are patterns used in literature, each one forming its own inclusio. For those unfamiliar, the photos above provide a window to conceptualize this linguistic device. This is because any sequence of six numbers the same forwards as backwards must always have the last number the same as the first, the second the same as the second to last, and the middle two identical. In similar fashion, chiastic structures are formed with the last line of the prose repeating the same motif as the first (sometimes verbatim), and alternating lines in between containing their own related matter.

Here is one example of a chiasmus from the New Testament—the “love” chapter, specifically 1 Corinthians 13:8-13:

A …but have not love
– B …whether propheciestonguesknowledge
— C …for we know in part…prophesy in part…but when that which is perfect has come…
—– D …when I was a child…but when I became a man I gave up childish things
— C’ …now we see…imperfectly…but then face to faceknow in part…then know fully…
– B’ …but remains these three: faith, hope, and love.
A’ …but the greatest of these is love.

Both A and A’ have the same subject, but the first line is the antithesis, the last the thesis. In B we find three charismatic gifts that will pass away, while in B’ are three that will endure. C describes a “now” and a “then” and C’ is a variation of the same. D juxtaposes things done as a child with the grown man who discards childish ways. This entire chiasmus uses the classic Hebraic argumentation (kal va-chomer) of the lesser to the greater (a minori ad majus), broken up into sections.

Chiastic structures are found throughout both the Old and the New Testaments. Once discovered, they can provide a great way to memorize these sections.


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