Of Xmas and Other X-things

’Tis the season for getting upset about people using “X” in place of “Christ” in “Christmas.” I don’t deny that a good number of people do want to take “Christ” out of “Christmas,” but using “Xmas” isn’t really the way to do it; nor should “Xmas” be a huge issue to campaign against. Here’s why. The “X” is actually the Greek letter chi (pronounced “key”), which is the first letter of the Greek word “Christos” (Χριστός ), the one we call “Christ.” So “Xmas” is an abbreviated way, thanks to the Greek language, to say “Christmas.”

This X-like Greek letter comes up other places with respect to the Bible . . . like, for example, in the book of Daniel, specifically, in chapters 2–7. Its connection to these chapters isn’t as an abbreviation for “Christ,” but rather as a way to describe a literary structure. The block of six Aramaic chapters comprises a clearly structured group of stories. Take a look at the list below and see if you can identify the structure:

  • Nebuchadnezzar dreams about four earthly kingdoms and a fifth kingdom, God’s (ch. 2).
  • Faithful Jews (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) face death (in the fiery furnace) (ch. 3).
  • A proud king (Nebuchadnezzar) is humbled (ch. 4).
  • A proud king (Belshazzar) is humbled (ch. 5).
  • A faithful Jew (Daniel) faces death (in the lions’ den) (ch. 6).
  • Daniel dreams about four earthly kingdoms and a fifth kingdom, God’s (ch. 7).

Do you see it? Chapters 2 & 7 are similar, chapters 3 & 6 are similar, and chapters 4 & 5 are similar. The way scholars talk about this kind of reverse structure is by using a fancy word, chiasm (or chiasmus), from our Greek letter chi, that X-like letter with a reverse structure – you could fold it over on itself on the fulcrum at the middle.

What’s the point of doing this sort of thing? Well, unfortunately for us, no one in the Bible who used it bothered to explain its significance, so we’re left to figure it out on our own. The predominant theory is that the fulcrum – the center, pivot point – is the focus of the entire chiasm. All roads lead to it, as it were. It encapsulates the heart of the message.

In the case of Daniel 2–7, then, the center of the chiasm is chapters 4 & 5, which are both about God’s humbling of arrogant human kings. Why does God do this to human kings? Because, as the book of Daniel hammers home for twelve chapters, He alone is sovereign, and when human kings get the wrong idea about their dominion, He sets them straight. Every human king is subject to a higher King.

The chapters surrounding the center point of chapters 4 & 5 are also about the relationship between human and divine kingship (specifically, chapters 2 & 7) and about the way faithful people live in the tension between the two (specifically, chapters 3 & 6).

That much maligned little Greek letter can actually be quite meaningful, don’t you think?

11 responses to “Of Xmas and Other X-things”

  1. Wendy, I hope this is a rough draft of a subsequent book! These pages are well-done and making me think I might need to steal all your info and teach the Book of Daniel! Thanks for the hard work and good ideas. I’d forgotten about chiastic structure–great fun!

    1. Thanks, Judy. Maybe someday… 🙂

  2. “I don’t deny that a good number of people do want to take ‘Christ’ out of ‘Christmas,’ but using ‘Xmas’ isn’t really the way to do it; nor should ‘Xmas’ be a huge issue to campaign against.”
    This seems to be a common annoyance (people complaining about others using “Xmas”) this Christmas season.

    “What’s the point of doing this sort of thing?”
    I think another possible reason for such a structure is that might serve a mnemonic function, making it easier to memorize the passage(s). Once a reader has learned that the first three chapters are about “dream, then facing death, then humbling of a king”, then that gives them a subtle reminder that the next three chapters are going to be the same topics in the reverse order.

    1. Re: Xmas. Happily, I’ve seen lots of folks on FB talking about the legitimacy of “X-mas.” Hopefully the news will get out. 🙂
      Re: chiasm. Yup, I’ve heard that before, too, and I don’t see any reason why it’s not plausible. The same might be true of acrostic poems. Anything that helps the memory…

    2. I was srtcuk by the honesty of your posting

  3. […] that fun will have to wait until after I have myself some holiday fun (Xmas, to be exact). I’ll see you again about the time I’m ready to start working off those Christmas cookie […]

  4. […] to form the heart of his story. Remember the fancy word chiasm that we talked about way back in chapter 2? Chiasm is the way scholars talk about a story that folds over on itself at a center point, which […]

  5. […] 4 is also the third chapter in a literary structure that controls the book: the Aramaic chiasm of chapters 2–7. So when we move to chapters 5 and 6, we’ll want to compare the familiar […]

  6. […] into the apocalyptic/prophetic half of the book (chs. 7–12). It’s also part of the block of Aramaic text we’ve talked about before, and in this Aramaic chiasm, the story of Daniel in the lions’ den in chapter 6 stands opposite […]

  7. […] Chapter 7 is part of the (Aramaic) chiasm of chapters 2-7. Chapter 7 relates to chapter 2 (and chs. 3 & 6 are related, and chs. 4 & 5 […]

  8. […] (ch. 1, 8–12) and Aramaic (chs. 2–7). You’ll also surely remember (same drill: see here) that the Aramaic forms a chiasm. But why does the language switch back to Hebrew here? We aren’t […]

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