Tuesday, February 6, 2018

How to Find Where Literary Units Begin and End Within the Bible

If you are one to either identify or read about chiasms in the Bible, I have a question: are there clearly identified boundary markers that indicate where the structure begins and ends? I have just completed that task for myself, approximately 1,000 literary units which include 10,800 of the 31,100 verses in the Bible. In the process, I had to make some modifications and I'm glad I did—the resulting changes were often much more profound. In essence, I believe this exercise corrected some mistakes that I made.

Now that is a mouthful so I need to explain. In the Bible, literary units are similar to a paragraph. In the English language, well-designed paragraphs identify a logical block of text with each paragraph presenting a common topic. In the Bible, each literary unit contains one or more literary devices such as a chiasm, a list, an alternation, etc. Therefore, I am recommending that every chiasm, list, alternation, etc., should be identified with its boundary markers.

In the ancient languages of the Bible, paragraph marks did not exist. Instead, boundaries were placed in the text to mark off where the common topic began and ended. In that way, the discussion started, the topic was discussed, and then the discussion ended. There are three types of boundaries: frames, beginning markers, and ending markers.

I suspect that the frame is the most easily understood of the three types of boundaries. You may have sometimes heard of them as bookends for they act like a structure that holds a series of books in place. Frames are sometimes the exact words in both the first and last appearance. More often they are the same theme which are expressed using similar words. Sometimes the two themes are opposites.

Two examples may help clarify the frame. In Leviticus 18:1-5, the words, ‘I am the Lord your God.’ appear as a frame in verses 2 and 4; the literary structure between those is an alternation. Note also that the words in verse 5 are a concluding summary, an integral part of the literary unit but not part of the frame.

As another example, please look with me at the literary unit for Luke 10:27-37. After the introductory summary in verses 27 and 28, the man asked Jesus “And who is my neighbor?” in verse 29. Then in verse 36, Jesus asked “Which of these three do you think proved to be a neighbor?” Both parts of the frame are essentially the same question. In this way, the boundary of the literary structure is identified.

Beginning Markers
The most common way that boundaries appear is by the use of beginning markers. Imagine writing a 20-page paper without paragraphs. Instead of paragraphs, suppose you wrote the words “Next topic:” whenever a new topic was discussed. In the same way, beginning markers clearly identify a literary unit.

I first read about beginning markers in Dr. David Dorsey’s book, The Literary Structure of the Old Testament, 1999. In the illustration at the right, the boundaries of the first literary unit are identified by the two beginning markers.

For example, if the literary structure is a chiasm about Jesus speaking at the Sea of Galilee, a beginning marker might first identify that Jesus crossed over to the other side of the lake, and a second beginning marker might be a change of speaker because the Pharisees challenged Him. I am calling His crossing the lake a change of location and the challenge by the Pharisees a change of speaker. There are twenty types of beginning markers in my database—change of location and change of speaker are two of the more common ones.

Ending Markers
The least common type of boundary marker that I've seen is the ending marker. These also are identified in Dr. David Dorsey’s book, The Literary Structure of the Old Testament. My analysis to date is 35% of the entire Bible whereas Dr. Dorsey's analysis is limited to the Old Testament. There are some small differences between our two approaches.

In the illustration on the right entitled Three Literary Units, the middle literary unit does not have either a beginning or an ending marker. Instead, the ending marker of the previous structure along with the beginning marker of the subsequent marker are used to identify the boundaries of that middle structure.

An example of an ending marker occurs in Mark 1:38 where Jesus stated, “Let us go somewhere else …” to the disciples. In the Old Testament, it is stated that, Thus Moses finished the work in Exodus 40:33. I have identified both of these ending markers as a concluding marker.

I strongly encourage those of us that perform literary analysis of biblical structures to identify the boundary markers. If you would be interested in my list of beginning and ending markers, please email me at Tom@ThomasBClarke.com. I will then send you an excerpt from my forthcoming book entitled Pattern Analysis Handbook as well as a notification when the book is available for purchase.