Another example of that bookend structure in ancient literature

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by Neil Godfrey

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but here’s another instance of that bookend/concentric/ring/chiastic structure that once upon a time a long time ago I thought was evidence of divine inspiration when I saw it in the Bible. I posted an example from Suetonius recently. This one is from Josephus and his book Antiquities of the Jews. It is set out and discussed by Steve Mason in his commentary on Josephus’s Life. Life has a structure that mirrors the Antiquities, Mason shows. So without the details that he mentions to fill in much that is generalized here, here is the structure of Antiquities.

Prologue (1.1-26)

PART I: First Temple {Ant. 1-10)

A. The Lawgiver’s Establishment of the Constitution (1-4)

Antecedents: Creation to the deaths of Isaac and Rebecca; Abraham the first convert (vol. 1)—in Mesopotamia

Antecedents: Jacob and Esau to the Exodus (vol. 2)

The Judean constitution: summary of priestly laws (vol. 3)

Forty years in desert, rebellion to the death of Moses; summary of the law as constitution (vol. 4)

B. First Phase: senate, kings, and high priests of Eli’s descent (5-8)

Conquest of Canaan under Joshua (vol. 5)

Conflicts with Philistines under Samuel and Saul (vol. 6)

Zenith of the first monarchy: the reign of David (vol. 7)

The reign of Solomon and division of the kingdom (vol. 8)

C. Second Phase: decline through corruption of the constitution (9-10)

Problems with neighbors to the fall of the Northern Kingdom (vol. 9)

CENTRAL PANEL: Fall of the first Temple; the priest-prophet Jeremiah and prophet Daniel assert the Judean God’s control of affairs and predict the Roman era. Decisive proof of the Judean code’s effectiveness.

PART II: Second Temple {Ant. 11-20)

A. Re-establishment of the aristocracy through the glorious Hasmonean house; its decline (11-13)

Return of Jews under Cyrus to Alexander the Great (vol. 11)

Successful interaction with the Ptolemaic world from the death of Alexander; translation of the LXX; Tobiad story; the Hasmonean revolt (vol. 12)

Zenith of the Hasmonean dynasty with John Hyrcanus; monarchy and decline to the death of Alexandra (vol. 13)

B. Monarchy writ large: Herod (14-17)

The end of the Hasmoneans; Roman intervention in Judea; Herod’s rise to power; benefits to the Judeans (vol. 14)

Herod’s conquest of Jerusalem; building projects and dedication of Temple (vol. 15)

Herod at the peak of his power; his domestic conflicts (vol. 16)

The end of Herod’s life; his son Archelaus (vol. 17)

C. World-wide effectiveness of the Judean constitution (18-20)

Judea becomes a province; Judeans in Rome; Roman rule to Agrippa I; Herod’s descendants; Gaius’ plan fails and he is punished; Asinaeus and Anilaeus in Babylonia (vol. 18);

Detailed description of Gaius’ punishment; promotion of Claudius; career of Agrippa I; the Roman constitutional crisis; Judeans in Alexandria (vol. 19)

From the death of Agrippa I to the eve of the revolt; the conversion of Adiabene’s royal house in Mesopotamia; causes of the revolt; concluding remarks (vol. 20)

Epilogue (20.259-68)

Mason, Steve. 2001. Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary, Volume 9: Life of Josephus. Leiden: Brill. p. xxiv

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5 thoughts on “Another example of that bookend structure in ancient literature”

  1. Hi Neil

    I hate to be the gad-fly yet again, but there is always a risk that we impose chiastic structures on literary entities (poems, chapters, whole books), and that our desire to find order and pattern unconsciously twists the text into the shape we want to believe is already there. I know that you are extracting this from Steve Mason’s introduction to Josephus’ Life, but I am really having a problem seeing the chiastic structure at all.

    It is usual in defining chiastic literary structures to mark the sections as A-B-C – C’-B’-A’, and in doing so show that A & A’, B & B’ etc, have a parallel/reflected/inverted meaning that relates them to each other. While you don’t do this (or Steve Mason doesn’t), the typesetting neatly indents every line (= each volume) and thereby gives the impression of very precise chiastic correlation of the two sections. And yet when one examines the individual lines, there is no obvious reflection/parallel/inversion of content in the apparent chiastic pairs. In Part I’s section B, the first section is “Conquest of Canaan under Joshua (vol. 5)”. The last section of Part II’s section B – is “The end of Herod’s life; his son Archelaus (vol. 17)” Why would we consider these to be meaningful chiastic pairs? I can’t see it.

    The chiastic structure can perhaps be the result of the analyst’s very subjective definition of a line/volume/chapter/section. For example, your Part I, section A is defined as “The Lawgiver’s Establishment of the Constitution” and you define it’s chiastic opposite – Part II, Section C – as “World-wide effectiveness of the Judean constitution.” Sounds very convincing. But is the main thrust of those final volumes really to demonstrate the “world-wide effectiveness of the Judean constitution”? Is that a fair summation of those volumes? I can see nothing in the content of volumes 18-20 that justifies that sort of defining overview, nor anything that significantly mirrors the content of volumes 1-4 of Part I, section A.

    I believe our brains are hardwired to find patterns in what we encounter (visual and metaphorical) which is why we have a tendency to see human faces (including You-know-who) in random patterns of clouds, mountains on Mars or toast – and to impute causality or intentionality to what are only random events. And it’s easy to impose patterns in our analysis of literary entities. We need to have a rigorous methodology to ensure that we aren’t simply seeing what we imagine is there.

    1. Hi Gadfly

      Chiastic structures were common in ancient literature and in my former life I was struck by their “amazingness” because they were in the Bible and I knew nothing about the general practice of literature of the day.

      The point is not to look for patterns (seeing what shapes we can find — a technique that our friend Joe Atwill who has been recently visiting us employs liberally) but for both meaning and aesthetic arrangement that is generated through the pairings. So in the case of the paired Conquest of Canaan and the death of Herod/rise of his son Archelaus, we see the same theme of dispossession and bestowal of rightful ownership of land tying the two narratives together.

      Admittedly (as you rightly point out) the brief rubric in the structure I copied from Steve Mason’s book does not explain that narrative theme in each of those sections, but it is evident when one glances at a copy of the key sections in Antiquities. You remind us of a point I have made often enough myself about our being hardwired to see patterns where there are none, shapes in the clouds, etc. But as you also point out there is no recognizable shape or pattern in those two headings used in the list so that does suggest that the devils are in the details that belong to a fuller discussion — as I have alluded to above.

      Unfortunately I do not have access to Mason’s commentary on Antiquities to present his own words on that particular pairing.

      As for the thematic structures of Antiquities in general (e.g. World-wide effectiveness of the Judean constitution) I confess I have full confidence in Steve Mason’s interpretative analysis given that he is probably one of the, if not the, foremost authority on Josephus today — and having more recently read his “new” book on the Jewish War of 66-70 I have no doubt about his insights into the works of Josephus. I know, appeal to authority and all that…. But I believe I can, with more time, present a fuller justification.

      Mason sets out the structure of Josephus’s Life which lists a similar set of topical headings. To give an idea of the detail that each of those headings represents in a fuller discussion I will add another comment with an extract from his commentary. As said, I do not have his Antiquities commentary but would expect a similar detailed discussion to lie behind the headings in the chiastic structure I have posted.

    2. Steve Mason’s discussion underlying brief headings depicting a structure in Life:

      Now, if we pursue the same sort of structure in the Life, an appendix to the Antiquities, we find remarkable parallels. As in the Antiquities, they are not precise, but they seem compelling nonetheless.

      Let us begin with the extremities. Life 1-12 and 414-30 both concern Josephus’ family and personal relationships. His brother (§§ 8, 419) and children (§§ 5, 426-27), for ex- ample, appear only in these sections. Priesthood and temple come to the fore in both places (§§ 1-2, 418-19). Josephus mentions his anonymous accusers in both (§§ 6, 416- 17, 424). If we extend the opening section to §§ 1-29, then both opening and closing take place in Jerusalem and Rome, whereas the intervening body of the work is set in Galilee. The only two occurrences of the phrase “render an account” (υπέχω λόγου) occur in the opening story of Josephus’ political life (§§ 13-6) and in the last segment of that narrative (§§ 408-9). In both cases, Nero is the one to whom the account must be rendered, by per- sons whom Josephus favors. The adjective “last” or “ultimate” (έσχατο?) appears only at §§ 18 and 409.

      The noun “provision” (or “forethought, thoughtful care”: πρόυοια) is a thematic term in the Life as in the Antiquities. But normally in the Life it concerns Josephus’ provision for the Galilee. Only twice—in bookend fashion—does it have a divine subject, referring to God’s watchful care over Josephus. He is providentially rescued from the sea at § 15, and from his accusers at § 425. Josephus also speaks of the personal dangers he faced (with κινδυνεύω) at the beginning and end (§§ 14, 416), as occasionally elsewhere.

      In the opening story of Josephus’ political career (§§ 13-6), Josephus goes to Rome in behalf of his priestly colleagues, but never actually sees Nero. Instead, he receives the requested benefit (ευεργεσία) from the emperor’s wife, Poppea (§ 16). This is remarkable in part because, although the noun “benefit” occurs in one other place (§ 60), the corre- sponding verb (εύεργετέω) occurs only at the end of the narrative (§ 429), and in connec- tion with the benefits of another emperor’s wife: Domitia Longina. It is conspicuous that Josephus should deal with emperors’ wives and their favors toward him at the beginning and end of his narrative.

      At both the opening and close of the central story (§§ 27, 412), and only in those places, Josephus explicitly refers the audience to the Judean War for a precise account.

      Josephus devotes two digressions to his literary adversary Iustus of Tiberias: near the beginning (§§ 36-42) and near the end (§§ 336-67) of the book. The first digression is informal and unannounced, but may count as a digression because it is noticeably dispro- portionate in his crisp summary of factions at Tiberias. The latter is a formal, announced digression. In Iustus’ case, there are also secondary panels, so to speak, completing the story near the end of the book. Iustus’ final actions in the revolt are described at §§ 390- 93, 410. Josephus’ language in the earlier and later Iustus passages has numerous thematic and verbal parallels: bent on “revolutionary activities” (§§ 36, 391: νεωτέρων πραγμά- των); Iustus’ alleged bid to manufacture power for himself, to become Galilean general (§§ 36, 391-93); the Tiberians “proceed toward weapons” (εφ’ όπλα χωρήσαι) because of Iustus (a phrase occurring only at §§ 31, 391); Iustus’ alleged conflict with King Agrippa II (§§ 39, 355-56); sarcasm concerning Iustus’ education and literary talent (§§ 40, 336, 340); Iustus has written up an account “of these things” (§ 40: την’ιστορίαν των πραγμά- τωυ τούτων άναγράφειν; § 336: την περί τούτων πραγματείαν γεγραφότα); and Iustus’ attack on villages belonging to the Decapolis cities (§§ 42, 431-42; cf. 410).

      Josephus’ chief rival in the narrative, Ioannes of Gischala, is introduced at §§ 43-5, in a more or less favorable way, then at §§ 70-6, where he has turned rebel leader and begun to engage in mischievous opposition. His final bits of mischief come at §§ 315-16, where he advises that two of the Jerusalem delegates should go back to accuse Josephus, who has become alarmingly successful, in Jerusalem. Josephus leaves him outwitted and cowed, in his native Gischala (§ 372).

      When Josephus first approaches Tiberias in the narrative, he establishes himself at a village “four stadia from Tiberias” called Bethmaus (§ 64). For his last major conflict with Tiberias, he again sets himself up at a village four stadia from Tiberias (§ 322).

      Early on in the Galilean narrative, after he has surveyed the political situation, Josephus writes to Jerusalem for confirmation of his mandate (§§ 62-3). Near the end of his Galilean campaign, he writes again and receives confirmation of his mandate (§ 309; cf. 266-68).

      An important episode in the early narrative involves the plundering and burning of Herod Antipas’ palace in Tiberias, after which Josephus entrusts the plundered furnish- ings to Capella’s group (§§ 64-9). The incident is recalled near the end of the narrative, when Josephus is interrogated—as a stalling tactic, convenient for the narrative—in Tiberias as to the whereabouts of the plunder, and Capella’s group acknowledge their possession of it (§ 296).

      Josephus offers moralistic summaries of his virtuous command at § 80 and at § 259, in both cases noting that he left women unmolested (άνύβριστο<τ).

      — from pages xxiii to xxv in the Commentary on Life.

      1. I feel guilty for having put you to so much trouble with those two responses as my comment was meant as an relaxed caveat, rather than an assault on the issue of the chiastic architecture of The Antiquities.

        I still wonder about the scale of the chiastic structure involved. It makes sense to me that the material at the end of a piece is likely to have echoes of the begining, as introductions and summings up often share themes and language, but I wonder about all the material in between.

        From the writer’s point of view could, the author could really manipulate the chronological narrative he is dealing with to ensure that the very position in the overall narrative of certain events would underline their shared theme? And from the point of view of the reader, I am even more sceptical. Admittedly I have a lousy memory, so maybe I’m absolutely the wrong person to make a judgement, but I wonder whether anyone ploughing through the Antiquities would get to volume 17 and realize, consciously or unconsciously, that they had reached the chiastic twin of volume 5, which would have an impact on his/her understanding of the events …in some way or other (I mean, without a literal comparison being made).

        Perhaps what I’m really saying is that I can appreciate how chiastic arrangement of shortish sections – a short pericope, a poem or stanza, a chapter which elegantly presents a neat argument or a legal regulation etc – could have real impact on a reader. I am more sceptical of how this would work when the literary entity gets beyond a certain size, and the chiastic pairs are necessarily so far apart.

        But I’m not going to defend this position too strongly…. it’s really just idle pondering (but presented chiastically)

        1. No trouble at all. I enjoy a gadfly to give me opportunity to try to go into more depth in my posts and try to explain some stuff that I initially leave out for probably obvious reasons at first.

          Chiasms are a key to interpreting a text, too, and assessing its value as historical material in the case of some of the Lives of Suetonius, for example.

          It’s been a long time since I have read about this device and I cannot recall at the moment where it is referenced in ancient discussions of literature themselves, but I have an interlibrary loan on its way that I expect will be a good refresher and I may post more then.

          One point I recall (though it would not apply to Josephus’s Antiquities, and I do not recall if it was anything more than a suggestion by a modern author, ouch) is that in a text like Mark’s gospel the chiasmic structure acted as an aid to memory in oral performance. The author/performer would associate each chiasm with a section on a building’s triangular gable, for instance.

          More to come after that book arrives.

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