Michael Turton on Marcan chiasms.
A distinctly Marcan literary device?
I would like to call attention to an intriguing project on Marcan literary structure undertaken by Michael Turton, known on some discussion boards as Vorkosigan. His Historical Commentary on Mark, which in my judgment would be better named as a literary commentary on Mark, puts forward the view that Mark wrote each pericope in his gospel as a chiasm.
The word chiasm itself derives from the shape of the Greek letter Χ (chi); it is used in genetics and anatomy to describe a true intersection as implied in that shape, but in literature to describe a passage whose structural elements proceed from the beginning of the passage to its center, then double back on themselves from the center to the end.
The easiest way to understand it is to see it in action. There is a well known chiasm in Matthew 8.14b-15:
Turton would call each of these lines a bracket. One of the brackets, C, stands by itself. The other brackets are paired, A1 with A2 and B1 with B2. He would also, by the way, tend to use the notation A and A', B and B', instead of my numbers. But the idea is the same.
Note how each bracket except the middle one is mirrored on the other side of the chiasm. The act of lying down in A1 contrasts with the act of rising up in A2. Likewise, the respective presence and absence of the fever are what bind B1 and B2 together. The center, C, is the turning point. The passage doubles back on itself, retracing in its route from center to finish the path already forged from start to center.
Michael Turton contends that the entire gospel of Mark was written in this fashion, pericope by pericope, line by line, and he illustrates his point in his excursus to chapter 1, in which he breaks the entire gospel down into its constituent chiasms.
He also lists ten rules for the construction of his Marcan chiasms, which for convenience I repeat here, though I highly recommend you read them for yourself on his site, since most of his rules come with examples:
The rules seem to group naturally into three groups, and it might be profitable to take a look at each group by itself.
Appendix: Josephan chiasms.
Within each group I will draw attention to each of its member rules at least once, and I here provide the reader with links to each for convenience:
Rule 1: The A2 of the previous pericope is always the A1 of the next one.
Rule 3: Marcan A brackets are almost always people shifting location.
Rules 1 and 3 fit together and consist of the observation that Mark usually moves his narrative along by having Jesus and his disciples change location. These scene changes, according to Turton, are simultaneously the end of one pericope and the beginning of another.
This observation I find quite useful. As one scans the gospel of Mark one does indeed notice that Mark likes to keep Jesus and the disciples moving along from location to location. Words with the prefixes εισ- (in or into) and εξ- (out or from) are very common in the seams between pericopes, as Jesus either enters or exits each locale.
I find in turn that this sense of movement dovetails with the situation that Mark presumes for Jesus and his followers throughout most of the gospel: They are homeless itinerants (confer Mark 10.28). How better to string together stories about a traveller than to mark each change of locale?
So rule 3 is, in my humble opinion, rather tight and quite Marcan:
Markan A brackets are almost always people shifting location.
I find rule 1 slightly less helpful:
The A' of the previous pericope is always the A of the next one.
My problem with this rule is that it appears to mask the fact that some of the A brackets are truly singular (describing only one movement) while others are actually plural (describing two or more separate movements). Take Mark 6.45-46, for example:
Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. And after he had taken leave of them he went up on the mountain to pray.
Turton groups this as one A bracket, though it contains at least two distinct movements (first the disciples into the boat, then Jesus up the mountain). Contrast this example with what is perhaps a more typical seam in Mark 6.12:
So they went out and preached that men should repent.
Only one movement in that A bracket. In most passages, then, one can say that the A2 bracket of the chiasm that is ending is simultaneously the A2 of the chiasm that is beginning. But there are some in which I would most naturally separate the two A brackets, making each pericope stand on its own instead of sharing a common seam.
Nevertheless, this observation does not nullify the overall force of the rule, and we might merely regard the plural instances as less elegant transitions than the singular rather than as wholesale exceptions to the rule.
Rule 4: Actions may constitute separate brackets.
Rule 5: Speeches, regardless of length, must be single brackets, so long as they are one speech directed at one audience.
Rule 6: Speeches may be broken up if there there appears to be a natural demarcation between two parts, when the audience has shifted.
Rule 7: Actions plus speeches may be a bracket.
Rule 8: Actions plus speech followed by actions or descriptions are never a separate bracket.
Rule 9: Where the text turns back on itself, usually by way of explanation, a new bracket is indicated.
Rule 10: Where a verse involves a movement from one place to another, positing an interval of time between, a new bracket is demanded.
Rules 4-10 are bracketing guidelines: When is it permissible and when is it impermissible to jump to the next bracket? Of these rules, numbers 4 and 7 are worded loosely (with may, not must), number 6 is an exception to number 5, and number 8 essentially says that any given bracket will never sandwich speech between actions or descriptions. Number 9 tells us what to do with explanatory material (form a new bracket), and number 10 seems a logical offshoot of number 3, except that now we are merely moving to the next bracket within a pericope, not to the next pericope.
These bracketing rules seem less useful to me than the rules on the seams. I am not certain that Turton always follows them in his chiasms, or that they always can be followed.
For example, let me draw attention for a moment to rule 9, which says:
Where the text "turns back on itself" — usually by way of explanation — a new bracket is indicated.
Turton helpfully includes an example of this phenomenon, to wit, Mark 5.25-28 (emphasis mine):
And there was a woman who had had a flow of blood for twelve years, and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse. She had heard the reports about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. For she said: If I touch even his garments, I shall be made well.
The "For..." signals the beginning of a new bracket.
And, true to form, at that part of the text of Mark he has two separate brackets, divided at the word for (Greek γαρ).
But do we not have much the same situation in Mark 1.16? Turton has the whole verse as a single bracket (emphasis mine):
And while he was going about by the sea of Galilee he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting about in the sea. For they were fishers.
The for in Mark 1.16 backtracks to explain why the brothers were casting into the sea of Galilee, just as the for in Mark 5.28 backtracks to explain why the woman was touching the garments of Jesus. Why then do we not make two brackets of Mark 1.16? But to do so, of course, would spoil the symmetry, since the second half of the passage offers no such explanation for James and John as the first half offers for Simon and Andrew. Perhaps rule 9 is more Turtonian than Marcan.Furthermore, many times those brackets that belong neither to the center nor to the seam of the chiasm seem weakly connected. Let me offer Mark 11.11-27 as an example. It consists of three distinct chiasms:
Now, Turton admits that he has difficulty with the first chiasm in this portion of text, and that is to his credit, for it is unclear how his first A bracket does not violate rule 10:
Where a verse involves a movement from one place to another, positing an interval of time between, a new bracket is demanded.
The A bracket in question runs as follows:
And he went into Jerusalem, into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve. And the next day, when they had gone out of Bethany, he grew hungry.
This bracket looks like two or even three in one. Into the temple in Jerusalem is the first part; out to Bethany is the second part; and from Bethany on the next day is the third part. Each of these transitions involves a movement from one place to another with some interval of time between, and therefore demands, according to rule 10, a new bracket. Yet Turton has them all in one.
Moreover, I am not certain that the B brackets in each chiasm serve any real function besides getting us from the seam to the center. Here is the first pair of B brackets:
What is the connection? Is it seeing against hearing? That seems weak. It looks like almost any passage from any author could be constructed chiastically with a standard of relation as slight as this. And make no mistake, some good might come from such an endeavor with other authors, but I do not think that it would have anything to do with discerning the mind of the author. But at least these two appear to fare better than the next pair of B brackets:
I for one fail to see what these two lines have so in common that they belong in corresponding brackets. If these two lines fit into the same bracket pair, virtually any two lines will fit into the same bracket pair. The process seems arbitrary at times. Here is the last pair of B brackets:
I can see the general relationship between the withered fig tree and faith, but I cannot see why these two particular lines share in that relationship any more intrinsically than any pair of lines from this pericope. The following combinations seem just as fit to me:
Both of these pairs correlate faith with the withered tree just as the original pairs do, but both of these pairs cross B with C brackets. The only purpose for these brackets appears to be connecting the seams with the center. As such, the brackets themselves look arbitrary.
To be fair, there are indeed times when the corresponding brackets match almost eerily. Take Mark 3.20-31a, for instance:
While I am a little put off by the relative brevity of C1 as compared to the length of C2, the B brackets are a fine fit; the accusation of having an unclean spirit responds to Jesus allegedly being beside himself. Furthermore, Mark had to go out of his way to create this echo, using one of his most awkward explanations after the fact (since the accusation would logically precede the long demonological speech that Jesus delivers). So there are some cases in which Mark appears to be striving for some structure akin to what Turton presents us. I am just not convinced that Mark always strives for these kinds of structures, or that Turton has completely pegged the Marcan repertoire.
Let me at this juncture remind the reader of rule 5:
Speeches, regardless of length, must be single brackets, so long as they are one speech directed at one audience.
Let me also remind the reader that rule 6 allows an exception to that rule:
Speeches may be broken up if there there appears to be a natural demarcation between two parts, when the audience has shifted. This typically takes place when there is a shift from an address to persons present in the narrative, to a general saying, often signaled by a formula like "Truly I say" or "But I tell you...."
Finally, let me call attention to Mark 14.41-42:
Turton divides this monologue across two brackets, but do rules 5 and 6 allow it? There is no change of audience, is there? Both halves appear to be directed specifically at the disciples; neither is a general statement directed at the Marcan readership. There is certainly no but or truly I say to you kind of statement to mark off the new bracket for us.
It appears to me that either these two rules are poorly worded or we have a genuine exception to these two rules. Conversely, we have already seen an example of a bracket that could have been broken in two at the words truly I say to you. I refer to Mark 3.23-29, which Turton has as one bracket (emphasis mine):
And he called them to him, and said to them in parables: How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom is unable to stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he is not able to stand, but is coming to an end. But no one can enter the house of a strong man and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man; then indeed he may plunder his house. Truly I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the holy spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.
While rule 6, worded permissively, allows us to divide this speech at the shift, in this case to do so would not work. Such flexibility, along with the ability to either break or reinterpret the rules, gives the impression that we could have made a chiasm work here almost no matter what was thrown at us.
I cannot offer any examples against rule 4 (emphasis mine):
Actions may constitute separate brackets.
This rule is worded permissively, not restrictively. In other words, it tells us what we as literary critics are allowed to do, but does not compel us to do so. A permissive rule allows of exceptions which do not have to be spelled out.
Nor can I offer examples against rule 7 (emphasis mine):
Actions plus speeches may be a bracket.
It too is worded permissively, not restrictively.
Rule 8 is worded restrictively (emphasis mine):
Actions plus speech followed by actions/descriptions are never a separate bracket.
And Mark 11.31-32 may break the rule:
And they argued with one another: If we say from heaven he will say: Why then did you not believe him? But shall we say from men? They feared the people, for all held that John was a real prophet.
The first action is arguing with one another. Then we have speech between the opponents of Jesus. Then the second action is fearing the people. (If it be argued that fearing the people is really not a separate action, but rather an explanation of the previous dialogue, then this bracket would seem to violate rule 9: When the text turns back on itself, usually by way of explanation, a new bracket is indicated.)
Rule 2: All Marcan chiasms have twinned centers. Many of the centers contain more complex
In rule 2 Turton deals with what he calls his complex Marcan centers. His structures always have doubled centers; accordingly, he would claim that the sample chiasm that I identified in Matthew 8.14b-15 could not be Marcan, since it has only a single center. If it were Marcan, according to Turton, it would have had C1 and C2, not C by itself.
Furthermore, each of the paired center brackets can often be
broken down even further within themselves to reveal other complex
patterns. On this page I will mark those subbrackets, as it were,
with lowercase letters (a, b, c). It is
interesting to note that two of the three principal patterns that
Turton identifies for these more complex centers are nonchiastic.
The chiastic center is
All Markan chiasms have twinned centers. Many of the centers contain more complex ABBA, ABAB, or ABCABC structures.
I offer Mark 1.14-21a as an example of this flexibility:
I rather think that Turton has nailed the structure of this
passage. Surely Mark intended to match the callings of the two
sets of brothers point for point. But this structure is not actually
a chiasm in any way, except for the fact that the seams both
entail movement (into Galilee in A1, into
Capernaum in A2), and I have already indicated
my approval of how Turton treats the pericope seams. But the heart
and indeed greater part of the passage is utterly nonchiastic.
But let us run with the rules at any rate. Perhaps they apply across the board in Mark even if labelling them chiastic is not always apt. Let us peruse an example of a more chiastic center in Mark 6.1-6 as Turton would have it:
Note that D1 and D2 each have two subbrackets, a and b. I want to point out that these subbrackets do have a logic to them. The a brackets have to do with family relationships; the b brackets oppose scandal with honor. These relationships seem far from arbitrary, and appear to strike at the heart of the message of this Marcan passage.
It is only fair to note, however, that a Marcan scholar by the name of John Dart has written a book called Decoding Mark in which he analyzes the gospel chiastically and determines that Mark never has doubled centers. Here then is Mark 6.1-6 as Dart would have it:
Note the rather different structure at the heart of the chiasm. I want to point out that the central brackets do have a logic to them. The D bracket is the turning point of the whole pericope; the C brackets have to do with family relationships and also oppose carpenter with prophet as the true profession of Jesus. These relationships seem far from arbitrary, and appear to strike at the heart of the message of this Marcan passage.
In other words, two chiastically incompatible systems (one with doubled centers and the other without) produce two different yet logical patterns. Of course, Turton misses the correspondence of carpenter and prophet, while Dart misses the correspondence of scandal and honor.
It is important to realize that each of our analysts must miss at least one of these correspondences, for the brute fact is that Mark has arranged these important points in two different orders at the center of his pericope. The first sequence is carpenter, family, scandal; the second sequence is prophet, honor, kin. If we were to match the elements by letter we would have a-b-c and a-c-b. Turton and Dart have both taken care to line up family and kin, but then each had to make a choice as to which of the other matching pairs was going to stay, and which was going to go.
Note that not even a nonchiastic
Truly awkward, and very rough on the dialogue in ways that seem inconsistent with rules 5 and 6.
Had Mark really been thinking in terms of a good chiasm he could surely have worked all this out! But he did not, leading me to suspect that he was not necessarily trying to create a chiasm, at least not of the particular variety that Turton suggests in his rules.
It would weaken the chiastic thesis somewhat if one could apply the same or very similar rules to authors other than Mark and come up with chiastic structures. In what follows I have tried to arrange passages from Josephus into chiasms. I have had to change only rule number 3, since Josephus, not writing about an itinerant preacher in particular, does not tend to connect his paragraphs with movement from one locale to the next. Rather, his connections are changes from one political event to the next, or from one crisis to the next.
Read the following chiasms, then, and decide for yourself whether they are logical. Then decide whether you think Josephus intended to write chiastically like this, and whether Mark and Josephus were following the same plan (since one of the passages below uses a doubled center).
Josephus, Antiquities 18.4.1 §85-87:
The A brackets oppose the rebel Samaritan leader with the official Roman leader, Pilate, and also enclose the whole episode in a political context. The B brackets contrast coming together with being put to flight. The C brackets are action and reaction in turn, and also center wholly around what took place at the village.
I submit that this chiasm is at least as well constructed and logical as very many that Turton identifies in his study.
Josephus, Antiquities 20.5.1 §97-99:
This chiasm is fascinating to me because it employs one of the two nonchiastic complex centers that Turton allows. Was Josephus as quirky as Mark?
Cuspius Fadus dominates the A brackets. Theudas occupies the B brackets, which respectively summarize his attempt and his failure. The C brackets form the center. The a subbrackets turn a prophetic act into a wild attempt. The b subbrackets turn many deluded into many slain.
Are we tapping into the thoughts of Mark or Josephus? Or are we getting a bit too creative as literary critics? Iudicet lector; let the reader judge.