The Literary Development of John 13–17: A Chiastic Reading
by Wayne Brouwer
(SBLDS 182; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2000). Pp. [v] + 185. $45.

Scheduled for publication in CBQ (2001).
Reviewed by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D., Los Angeles, CA  90045

Brouwer’s 1999 dissertation at McMaster University, directed by Prof. Adele Reinhartz, contains some excellent background materials on the definition and nature of chiasm, the distinction between micro-chiasm and macro-chiasm, and the use of chiasm in ancient literature. His own outline of the chiastic structure of the Johannine Farewell Discourse is printed twice (pp. 9-10 and 117-118), but unfortunately never on one page or facing pages, so that one could see it all at once. Some of the details of his proposed structure (exactly which verses belong to each segment) are not entirely convincing, but his analysis successfully shows that the evangelist used a macro-chiastic structure in composing John 13–17 overall.

After an extensive introduction that previews much of the book’s argument, Part I shows that chiasm, although not often described by ancient rhetoricians, was a common literary device as early as Homer. For analyzing micro-chiasms, Brouwer presents the method of Ian Thomson (Chiasmus in the Pauline Letters; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995). Although no one disputes the existence of micro-chiasms, Thomson and others question whether macro-chiasms (more than about 15 verses) really exist. Did ancient authors intentionally structure large blocks of material with a central focus and chiastically balanced parallelisms, or are any such perceived parallels merely the products of modern scholars’ imaginations? Brouwer suggests using the nine criteria of Craig Blomberg ("The Structure of 2 Corinthians 1-7," Criswell Theological Review 4 [1989], pp. 3-20), for a clear and rigorous assessment of macro-chiasms (p. 40).

In Part II, Brouwer first presents a few samples of micro-chiasms in both Testaments (some as short as one verse, others as long as Eph 1:4-10 and Gal 5:13–6: 2), and then uses Blomberg’s criteria to analyze whether certain longer biblical passages are really macro-chiasms, as sometimes proposed. Although some fail to meet the criteria, Brouwer finds that others do, such as Dan 3:13-30, Luke 18:18-30, Judges 3:12-30, Gen 6:10–9:19, and the whole book of Ruth.

The heart of Brouwer’s work is in Part III, "A Chiastic Reading of the Johannine Farewell Discourse." His initial overview finds enough repetition and reflexive parallelism in John 13–17 to conclude that the whole was intentionally arranged in macro-chiastic structure. He then claims to test his own chiastic proposal against all nine of Blomberg’s criteria, although he glosses over several important criteria in one paragraph or less. In particular, for criterion #5 he asserts, "the vast majority of terms, phrases, and concepts that are found in parallel segments are only found in those parallel segments" (p. 120). This claim, however, runs contrary to the list of parallels he had given earlier (p. 93), many of which occur in non-parallel segments of his own proposed structure. Blomberg’s criteria #1 and #7 receive the longest and most detailed discussion. For criteria #1 ("Other approaches to literary development must prove problematic"), he focuses on the well-known difficulties of 14:31 and 16:5. In each case, he compares some synchronic and diachronic interpretations of others, and argues that a chiastic reading best explains why a later redactor left these textual difficulties in place. For criterion #7 ("Chiastic segments must follow natural breaks in the text"), he considers many possible breaks in the text, but unfortunately does not correlate these explicitly enough with the eleven subsections his own chiastic proposal. Finally, Brouwer critiques the work of three other scholars, arguing that their chiastic outlines of John 13–17 are not subdivided enough (with only five to seven subsections, in contrast to his eleven), or that they do not connect the chiastic center sufficiently with the first and last sections. However, some of his criticisms apply also to his own proposal. For example, while a major strength of his own thesis is the extra detail he provides in subdividing John 13:36–16:33 into nine different sections, his sections A (13:1-35) and A1 (17:1-26) remain so large that they obviously violate Blomberg’s criterion #5 ("Both the verbal and conceptual parallelisms should use words and ideas not regularly found elsewhere within the proposed chiasmus").

Brouwer’s desire to see all nine of Blomberg’s criteria for macro-chiasms fulfilled in John 13–17 has led to some exegetically questionable decisions. For example, wanting to have the "love commandment" in the first, middle, and last sections (to fulfill criteria #8) causes him to argue that the first section goes all the way to 13:35, thus ignoring the "natural break" after 13:30 (a violation of criterion #7). Also, needing 17:1-26 to function exclusively as the chiastic parallel to 13:1-35 leads him to claim, "the prayer in chapter 17 is neither the climax nor the summary of the discourses. Instead, it functions to conclude the discourses as a sort of reflection to the footwashing scenes…" (p. 169). Yet could not Jesus’ prayer function both as a macro-chiastic parallel to the footwashing and as a summary of the rest of the discourse? Indeed, Brouwer provides many examples of words and themes of chapter 17 that are paralleled not only in chapter 13, but also throughout chapters 14–16.

Overall, Brouwer’s goal of combining the results of diachronic and synchronic analyses of the Farewell Discourse is admirable, and he has clearly shown the value of analyzing larger literary units for their macro-chiastic structure. Paradoxically, Brouwer’s thesis might be more persuasive in its details if the Farewell Discourse were not required to fulfill all of Blomberg’s criteria perfectly. It could still be a macro-chiasm even if the evangelist did not compose these chapters to conform too rigidly to chiastic guidelines alone.

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