Thursday, April 07, 2005

Michael Turton has gone to a great deal of trouble to show how Mark's Gospel follows a chiastic structure.

Chiasmus is a rhetorical device whereby the author arranges his work such that phrases or words are placed in a structure where the initial use of terms is reversed in both position and meaning to give greater contrast. Here’s an example from Cicero:

“Romans hate private luxury but public display, they love.”

The contrast is between hate and love; private and public wealth. The word chiasmus comes from the Greek letter chi, which is a cross. You can invent phrases that exhibit this easily enough. Generally speaking, in an inflected language, like Greek and Latin, where you can alter word order freely, producing this sort of thing is even easier than in English. Around the turn of the last century, when critical editions of the classical poets were still up in the air, chiasmus was one of the things debated ad infinitum in august journals such as the Classical Review. If a chiasmus was alleged that didn’t quite work, then scholars would suggest another reading on the strength of it.

So the two central features of a chiasmus structure are the inverted order and the opposite meaning. You can do it with phrases too:

“John entered the room;
He sat down at the table;
He got up from the table.
He left the room.”

This is pretty clumsy and ugly and underlines just how hard a rigid phrase driven chiasmus is going to be. To make it look nice, you would have to relax the rules but that means your chiasmus is not going to be recognised easily and there is absolutely no point in doing it. Worse, interpreters can also relax the rules and start finding chiasmus all over the place where they don’t really exist. A common way to relax the rules is to expand from the normal ABBA structure to ABCCBA or ABCBA or even ABCDCDCBA. Another way to do it is to allow the different clauses to be radically different lengths. Finally you can completely relax the meaning of antithesis.

Here’s an example, plucked at random from The Oxford Book of Sixteenth Century Verse (1991), page 321:

A: Fond of delight,
B: A satyr standing by gave it a kiss
C: as it like sweet had been
C: Feeling forthwith the outward burning power Wood with the smart,
B: with shouts and shrieking still He sought his ease in river, field and bower
A: But for the time his grief went with him still.

Ok, so I’ve destroyed the scansion but that is not a problem in prose. Likewise the clauses are not equal, but that is OK too according to the relaxed rules. But I’m pretty pleased with the antitheses between ‘delight’ and ‘grief’, ‘standing/kiss’ and ‘shouts and shrieking’ and ‘sweet and ‘burning’. If all this seems a bit feeble, bear in mind that there really is no chiasmus here, I have just invented it.

Let me now to the alleged chiasmus structure in Mark’s Gospel, presented by Michael Turton. He has had to relax the rules quite considerably more than I did above to create his chiastic structure. So much so that no one before him as unravelled it. This is immediately a huge red flag. Are we to believe that Mark has gone to all this trouble to create something that no one prior to Turton has noticed?

All the rules have been relaxed. First we have ABBA, ABCCBA right the way up to ‘L’. We also have a few ABCDE(AB)F(AB)DCBA type structures which must break a record for complications. Turton needs to produce at least a dozen different patterns to get Mark’s Gospel to fit and even then he admits to being stumped by a few passages. As we are dealing with prose, metre is not an issue so Turton can break lines up as he pleases. There is nothing wrong with him doing this, but it does mean we lack a control we would have in poetry. We also have sections in a single chiastic structure that vary in length from less than ten words to almost eighty. In the whole piece, phrases go from five words to over a hundred. This massive variation in the length of his phrases means Turton has been able to avail himself of the near infinite number of permutations that he could have split Mark’s Gospel into. Given such a vast sample, it would be surprising if he could not come up with some sort of pattern, especially as he allows himself to use lots of different patterns in quite a short piece of prose.

Finally, we note that Turton interprets ‘antithesis’ in an extremely wide way. We are asked to believe that (to pick an example at random) “They began to be sorrowful and to say to him ‘Is it I?’” is the antithesis of “And he said to them ‘This is the blood of the covenant which is poured out for many’”. Or “When they had sung a hymn they went out to the Mount of Olives” is the antithesis of “And they went to place called Gethsemane” despite the fact that Gethsemane is on the Mount of Olives. I could go on, but the point is easily illustrated by picking things at random and asking if they can be described as antitheses. Remember, these phrases have been picked out by Turton from the near infinite number of permutations possible, and still the effect is feeble.

In short, it is clear that Turton has done nothing except split Mark’s Gospel up into lots of sections without actually managing to produce the promised chiasmic structure. His method is to find two statements that might be said to be antitheses and then shoehorn everything else in to create the desired pattern. Given the flexibility he allows himself, this cannot be all that hard to do. All his effort simply forms a terrible warning that, as the Good Book does not say, “He who seeks for patterns, will find them”.


biblemike said...

How sad the efforts some will make to appear more scholarly than they are. Whenever I read about someone stretching like this to prove a truly unnecessary point, I feel a sadness for them. With all the effort and creativity they have put into something so hollow, they could have better improved their self image by writng anything with truth in it.

Excellant anlysis and critique.

Stephen C. Carlson said...

That's exactly why I told Michael Turton on Ebla that whatever he does with it, he shouldn't call it "chiastic."

Sebastian Turton said...

Yes, I probably won't call it "chiastic."

PS, just realized I'm posting from my ten year old's blog. LOL.