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Thursday, October 13, 2005

Translating chiasmus

Chiasmus (sometimes called chiasm) is a rhetorical structure of four parts in which the second and third parts are linked to each other and the first and fourth parts are linked to each other.

In whom should we have faith?

Many Biblical scholars believe that there is a chiasmus in Philemon 5. Those who find chiastic structure here base their conclusion on the frequent occurrence of chiasmus in the Bible and the theological implications within this verse. That is, does Philemon have faith in other saints as well as the Lord Jesus, or only in the Lord Jesus? Whether or not there is a chiasmus determines how the verse will be interpreted (Linguistics for Students of New Testament Greek). The formally equivalent NASB retains the form of the original Greek:

NASB Philemon 5 because I hear of your love, and of the faith
which you have toward the Lord Jesus, and toward all the saints.
The four parts of the structure in question are:
(1) love
(2) faith
(3) toward the Lord Jesus
(4) toward all the saints
The NASB wording seems to say that Paul has heard of the (2) faith that Philemon has toward two different referents (grammatical indirect objects), first (3) the Lord Jesus, and secondly, (4) all the saints. The use of the comma after "Lord Jesus," however, allows for the possibility that the NASB translators noticed chiastic structure here. If they did, the comma may have been intended to cause the reader to pause, to allow for the chiastic reading that Philemon's (1) love was toward (4) all the saints, while his (2) faith was toward (3) the Lord Jesus. One would doubt that translators would put such heavy responsibility upon a single punctuation mark, the comma, however. And even if they did, no English readers would know that the comma was intended to link parts (1) and (4), unless they had enough guidance or background in chiastic structures to be alert to the possibility of a chiasmus here. Normal rules of English structural interpretation call for an interpretation of the NASB reading to be linear, rather than chiastic, that is, that Philemon's faith is toward both (3) the Lord Jesus and (4) all saints.

Other versions which, similarly, do not make a chiastic reading of this verse clear are KJV, NKJV, RSV, Wms, JBP, REB, NJB, NAB, ISV, LB, HCSB, and ESV.

This list includes all of the most commonly used formally literal versions, that is, those which place a higher premium upon preserving the form of the original when possible, except for the NRSV, plus a few others which are not (JBP, REB, LB, NJB; the ISV promotes itself as "literal-idiomatic").

The non-chiastic translation in the ISV is unexpected, since one of its translators is Dr. David Alan Black who recognizes the chiasmus of Philemon 5, as noted on page 134 of his book, Linguistics For Students of New Testament Greek. Dr. Black correctly states:
"Failure to recognize chiasmus can sometimes lead to a misunderstanding of a passage (see Matt. 7:6 and Philem. 5)."
The NIV gives a chiastic reading, linking Philemon's (2) faith to (3) the Lord Jesus, and his (1) love for (4) all the saints:
NIV Philemon 5 because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints
The TNIV retains the chaism in translation but revises the word order to be closer to that of the underlying Greek:
TNIV Philemon 5 because I hear about your love for all his people and your faith in the Lord Jesus
Other versions which indicate the chiastic relationship between the first and fourth parts of the Greek of Philemon 5 are Barclay, Wuest, NRSV, TEV, CEV, NCV, GW, NLT, and NET. The NET footnote about the chiastic wording is interesting.

Books describing chiastic structure are:

The following webpages are devoted to Biblical chiasmus:

  • Chiasmus or Inverse Parallelism
  • Chiasmus Bibliography
  • What is Chiasmus?
  • Categories: , ,


    At Thu Oct 13, 11:00:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne E. McCarthy said...

    Hi Wayne,

    You might mention Χ 'chi' as the origin or the term - maybe it seems too obvious - sorry. (I had trouble with your posted links today.)

    I read an book entirely on the letter X this summer. Fun!

    My post for yesterday was on translation in 13th century Mongolia and comments give further details.

    At Thu Oct 13, 05:08:00 PM, Blogger Mike Sangrey said...

    Here are the corrected links:

    Bibliography (Chiasmus Scripture Index)
    What is Chiasmus?
    The XFiles


    At Fri Oct 14, 06:57:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

    Thanks, Suz, for the heads up on the links, and thanks, Mike, for the corrections. With people like you, how can I go wrong?!


    I have repaired the links in the blog post.


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