Chiasmus in Mark 1:21-28

For those who are interested, Mark 1:21-28 is a perfect example of a simple chiasm in the gospel of Mark. A chiasm is a specific instance of chiastic structure (or chiasmus), a literary device in which words or themes are repeated in inverse-parallel order: A-B-B-A or similar pattern. The words “chiasmus” and “chiastic” are drawn from the Greek letter “chi”, which is written like the English letter “X”. Like the letter “chi”, a chiasm moves toward its center, and then away from it again. Chiastic structures are common in Mark, as they are in other Greek and Latin literature.

Here is the chiasm in Mark 1:21-28

A – Location – They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. (v. 21)

B – Teaching with Authority – They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. (v. 22)

C – Unclean Spirit – Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, (v.23)

D – Dialog – and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” (v. 24)

D – Dialog – But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” (v. 25)

C – Unclean Spirit – And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. (v. 26)

B – Teaching with Authority – They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching–with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” (v. 27)

A – Location – At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. (v. 28)

What good does it do to see the literary structure of the pericope (i.e. literary unit of thought) ?

For one thing, seeing how the author organizes his material gives you some insight into how he understands its meaning. We see, for example, that Jesus’ authority applies not only in academic and intellectual spheres of life, but even over the powers of evil.

Most of the action in the first part of the chiasm belongs to Jesus and his disciples; they enter the synagogue and teach.  In the second half of the chiasm, most of the action is a response to Jesus: the demon comes out, the people are amazed, and Jesus’ fame spreads.

The chiastic structure itself shines a spotlight on whatever is at the center of the “X”. In this case, it is the ironic confession of Jesus as the Holy One of God. The evil spirit knows the truth about Jesus even if the rest of the world does not. The center of the chiasm is a dramatic confrontation with evil, and Jesus will in fact overcome the evil spirit.

Mark is greatly concerned with the question of who Jesus is. Announcing that Jesus is the Holy One of God based on acts of power alone is inadequate. Thus, Jesus commands the demon to be silent. Later in his gospel, Mark will show us who Jesus is, primarily in the great confrontation with evil that takes place at the end of the gospel, the story that ends with a bloody cross and an empty tomb.

You don’t have to know the structure to see these things, but it helps.

Demonic but Accurate but Incomplete


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