Abstract: Reversion defines a literary methodology in biblical narrative that entails returning to a prior or proper chronological point in the primary linear flow of a storyline. Inclusive in the term are various literary devices that have been categorized by their purpose, which include (1) historical insight reversion that rectifies a time displacement into the future or the past (2) elaboration reversion that allows for further elaboration on a preceding summary, (3) emphasis reversion that results in a second overlapping emphasis in addition to a primary emphasis, and (4) thematic reversion that realigns a deliberate chronological displacement brought about when stressing a thematic element.

Keywords: reversion, literary devices, bible, biblical, chronological, anticipation, recall, thematic


When reading and studying the biblical narrative, one can often find confusing passages that appear to be out of chronological order because such passages do not adhere to a strict linear chronology that is the most comfortable and common literary form for the modern reader. In an attempt to resolve this dilemma when it is found in specific locations in the biblical text, there are often suggestions of redaction, text misplacement, author error, and/or other explanations for the occurrence. At times, such passages may also be unnoticeable to any significant degree, but result in difficulty or impossibility in arriving at a proper interpretation. Many of these passages use a literary methodology that can be referred to as “reversion.” This article will discuss this methodology while identifying and explaining four specific categories of reversion that can be found in the biblical text, providing significant examples and explaining the similarities and differences between them.

The four categories of reversion under discussion here, best seen as four different literary devices, are historical insight reversion, elaboration reversion, emphasis reversion, and thematic reversion. The reason for the association of these four different literary devices with the use of the term “reversion” in their categorical classification is because they have a commonality with one another in their methodology: they all generally entail a reversion back to a previous or proper literary point of reference. Each of these four categories of reversion are also specifically named after the purpose that is generally associated with their usage.

Historical Insight Reversion

The first and most common type of reversion is “historical insight reversion,” found often in the biblical text. This type of reversion takes place after the writer first moves the narrative, generally rapidly, ahead into the future or backwards into the past, to provide further historical insight considered important by the writer for some reason. The text then, usually sharply and abruptly, reverts or returns again to the point in time that was being discussed prior, suddenly shifting in focus away from the literary time displacement without the need for any further elaboration of such. This type of reversion is generally concerned with returning to the focal time period after wrapping up a relevant historical insight. It is a reversion to rectify a time displacement, thus allowing the writer to then continue the narrative from the same point where it ventured off into the future or the past.

Historical insight reversion can be further divided into the two primary subcategories of “anticipation reversion” and “recall reversion,” with the former following an “anticipation” that has wandered forward in time and the later following a “recall” that has moved backwards in time. Both the terms anticipation and recall as used here should be understood as nouns relevant to the primary literary direction of time in the flow of the narrative, and not necessarily an allusion to the mental process of the biblical writer. This section on historical insight reversion will first explore the literary device of anticipation, which will then be followed by a discussion concerning recall.


Anticipation is the same literary technique referred to by others as “chronologoical anticipation,” which is a stylistic process frequently used by biblical writers to anticipate some of the events during the course of the story for convenience sake in order to prevent having to return to a subject disappearing from the scene.[1] Anticipation refers to a future that is still to come from the position of those at that literary point in the story where the writer begins to anticipate, but as actually in the literal past from the perspective of the writer (except in some rare cases where it is found in apocalyptic narrative). It first moves the narrative into the future in almost what one might see as a time displacement diversion from the main storyline, but is then soon followed by a reversion where the reader is returned to the prior point in the text to continue the primary story. Giet understands it as similar to overlapping slates on a roof.[2]

Even Augustine was well aware of a literary “anticipation” sometimes in the biblical text that is narrated at a point antecedent to its literal occurrence, for he discusses the use of such in his comments on various passages in Psalms, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.[3] This was especially when striving to resolve supposed chronological contradictions in the Gospels. The following passage suggests that anticipation was a generally understood literary device among Augustine and his peers that one needed to consider in scholarly biblical discussion and interpretation:

And if it be said, in answer to this, that the statement [Matt 27.52–53] is made by anticipation, so that the graves indeed are to be supposed to have been opened by that earthquake at the time when Christ was hanging on the cross, but that the bodies of the saints did not rise then, but only after Christ had risen before them—although on this hypothesis of anticipation in the narrative, the addition of these words would not hinder us from still believing, on the one hand, that Christ was without doubt the first begotten from the dead, and on the other, that to these saints permission was given, when He went before them, to rise to an eternal state of incorruption and immortality, there still remains a difficulty.[4]

Though anticipation is not generally difficult to spot in many cases, the biblical reader can miss it in some passages if he is not aware of this specific writing methodology. For example, at first it may seem that Mary, the mother of Jesus, left her pregnant relative Elizabeth before she gave birth to John if one fails to identify the use of historical insight reversion in the passage (Luke 1.56–57). Yet, the reality is that Mary stayed with Elizabeth until she gave birth (cf. Luke 1.36, 39). Giet warns that the lack of knowledge concerning the literary process of anticipation can result in incorrect interpretations.[5]

There are numerous other cases of historical insight reversion in the Bible (e.g., Gen 8.7–8; Jonah 1.15–17; Matt 2.15–16; 9.31–32; 22.7–8; 27.5–11; 27.52–54; Mark 1.28–29; 3.17–18; 5.7–9; 14.50–51; Luke 1.80–2.1; 3.18–21; 4.31–33; 4.37–38; 23.45–46; John 6.15–16; 8.1–2; 11.28–12.1; 12.23–24; etc.).[6]


Recall differs from anticipation as a literary movement into the past instead of the future. The writer has shifted the narrative into the past temporarily for reasons he sees as important to the primary storyline. Like with anticipation, Augustine was also aware of recall in the biblical text, except he referred to it as “recapitulation.”[7] His principle for using the term of “recapitulation” even for things never before discussed in the narrative is because he generally understood it in many cases as something that was omitted from its proper literary location in the chronological flow of the text. For example, he refers to both recapitulation and anticipation in the passage below:

For Matthew and Mark both introduce it [Jesus’ prophetic announcement of Peter’s denial] in a completely parallel order, and at the same stage of their narrative, namely, after the Lord left the house in which they had eaten the passover; while Luke and John, on the other hand, bring it in before He left that scene. Still we might easily suppose, either that it has been inserted in the way of a recapitulation by the one couple of evangelists, or that it has been inserted in the way of an anticipation by the other; only such a supposition may be made more doubtful by the circumstance that there is so remarkable a diversity.[8]

Augustine further discusses the use of recapitulation in his comments on other various passages in Genesis, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.[9] Again, like with his references to anticipation, this was frequently in order to resolve supposed chronological contradictions between the Gospels.

Here is an example of recall found in Matthew (and the complimentary passage in Mark 14.1–11):

[Present:] And it came to pass, when Jesus had finished all these words, he said unto his disciples, 2 Ye know that after two days the passover cometh, and the Son of man is delivered up to be crucified. 3 Then were gathered together the chief priests, and the elders of the people, unto the court of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas; 4 and they took counsel together that they might take Jesus by subtlety, and kill him. 5 But they said, Not during the feast, lest a tumult arise among people.

[Past:] 6 Now when Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper, 7 there came unto him a woman having an alabaster cruse of exceeding precious ointment, and she poured it upon his head, as he sat at meat. 8 But when the disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying, To what purpose is this waste? 9 For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor. 10 But Jesus perceiving it said unto them, Why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me. 11 For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always. 12 For in that she poured this ointment upon my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. 13 Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, that also which this woman hath done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her.

[Present:] 14 Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went unto the chief priests, 15 and said, What are ye willing to give me, and I will deliver him unto you? And they weighed unto him thirty pieces of silver. 16 And from that time he sought opportunity to deliver him unto them. (Matt 26.1–16)

Though Jesus mentions “two days” before the Passover in Matt 26.1, the Gospel of John places the anointing event in Matt 26.6–13 as probably having taken place six days before the Passover (John 12.1–8), which was a day before the triumphal entry into Jerusalem (John 12.12–15).[10] In Matthew, however, the triumphal entry took place in the text before the discussion here regarding the anointing (Matt 21.1–11). What Matthew and Mark (cf. Mark 14.1–11) have done here is take the reader back to several days prior to stress both the anointing for burial and the reason that Judas now went to the Pharisees. The anointing event with the rebuke was the catalyst that resulted in that betrayal by Judas. John explains that it was primarily Judas who had protested because he stole money from the community purse and thus the rebuke would have been more of an affront to him than the other apostles (John 12.4–6).[11] Augustine also takes note of this same passage in Matthew and Mark as a case of recapitulation and rejects any idea of a contradiction between the Johannine narrative and the Matthew-Mark account (cons. ev. 2.78.153).

There is another case of recall found in Genesis regarding the creation of a companion for Adam:

[Present:] And Jehovah God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a help meet for him.

[Creation past:] 19 And out of the ground Jehovah God formed every beast of the field, and every bird of the heavens;

[Recent past:] 19 and brought them unto the man to see what he would call them: and whatsoever the man called every living creature, that was the name thereof. 20 And the man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the heavens, and to every beast of the field; but for man there was not found a help meet for him.

[Present:] 21 And Jehovah God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; and he took one of his ribs, 22 and closed up the flesh instead thereof: and the rib, which Jehovah God had taken from the man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. (Gen 2.18–22)

What is really unique about this case of recall is that the writer has moved back into the historical past covering two different intervals of time (creation past and recent past) before snapping back to the present. The writer moves back into the past in order to provide historical insight that is important for the relevant section.

Many incorrect interpretations have developed over this passage when the use of recall reversion has gone unnoticed. For example, Sailhamer has incorrectly concluded that God created at least some of the animals before Adam, they were created in response to God’s declaration that it is not good for man to be alone, and that Adam’s naming of the animals was also a search for a suitable partner.[12] However, it is nonsensical to suggest that God was foolishly creating animals in an attempt to find a companion for Adam. The text simply implies that the animals were brought to him so he could name them, and that while doing so it became noticeable that there was not a suitable mate for Adam. The animals already had their companions after their own kind, and it was only Adam who did not, which may have made Adam feel quite isolated among God’s creatures. It was only after Adam named all the animals that God remarked how it was not good for man to be alone.

Though the terms “anticipation” and “recall” are accurate in describing the passage that anticipates or recalls, these terms if used alone merely stress the movement away from the linear storyline at the expense of the importance of the reversion that always follows. In fact, the literary anticipation generally cannot even exist unless it is followed by a reversion that formulates the anticipation. In other words, it is the reversion that creates the literary anticipation passage by reverting back to a prior point in the storyline. It only becomes a break from the chronological storyline by the reversion. In addition, literary recall frequently cannot even be identified as such without the reversion that generally makes it noticeable, and then often only when the passage is compared to complimentary accounts such as in the Gospels, or other hints from other sources. There is probably quite a bit of recall reversion throughout the biblical text that will never be discovered.

Nevertheless, a proper understanding of historical insight reversion with its subcategories related to anticipation and recall is crucial in order to properly interpret the biblical text in some places. For example, it allows one to convincingly correlate what at first might seem to be contradictory passages in the Gospels with less concern about the fluctuation from a strict chronological linear storyline. In the words of Augustine:

For of what consequence is it in what place any of them [the four Gospel authors] may give his account; or what difference does it make whether he inserts the matter in its proper order, or brings in at a particular point what was previously omitted, or mentions at an earlier stage what really happened at a later, provided only that he contradicts neither himself nor a second writer in the narrative of the same facts or of others? (cons. ev. 2.21.51)[13]

Elaboration Reversion

Elaboration reversion takes place when the writer provides a short summary statement, but then reverts back to a prior point just before that summary in order to offer a secondary overlapping but longer narrative to elaborate in much more detail the simplicity of that first primary statement. This is best understood as creating a split in the storyline that begins each section at the same point and after the elaboration generally ends each section at a mutual point of a restored storyline correlation. The difference between historical insight reversion and elaboration reversion is that the former reverts to the proper chronological point and then moves on without further need of comment on the anticipation or recall while the later returns to the point where the summary began in the narrative in order to elaborate on that same summary in more detail or explanation. For example, a case of elaboration reversion can be found in Jonah below:

And Jonah began to enter into the city a day’s journey, and he cried, and said, Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown. (Jonah 3.4)

The People of Nineveh RepentThe King Proclaims Repentance
And the people of Nineveh believed God; and they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them.

(Jonah 3.5)
And the tidings reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.

7 And he made proclamation and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything; let them not feed, nor drink water;

8 but let them be covered with sackcloth, both man and beast, and let them cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in his hands.

9 Who knoweth whether God will not turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not?

(Jonah 3.6–9)

When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. (Jonah 3.10)

Note how the writer first stresses the city’s repentance that takes place after Jonah delivers his prophecy of doom (Jonah 3.5). However, with the beginning of Jonah 3.6, the narrator reverts back to Jonah 3.4 from which he begins a secondary chronological flow from that prior point in the text in order to elaborate on the first summary section. This passage can be easily misunderstood if one fails to understand that elaboration reversion has taken place here. Ellison notes how some have found a contradiction between the fast that was first declared in Jonah 3.5 and what appears to be the king’s subsequent proclamation of a fast in Jonah 3.7.[14] Even those who may not see a contradiction in the narrative might easily misinterpret this passage as signifying that the people all began repenting first and then the king joined their ranks, shoring up the rest of the population. However, with the literary device of elaboration reversion here it is best understood as the king repented and the majority of the people generally all followed in obedience to his proclamation. Ellison makes an interpretative suggestion of what is basically close to elaboration reversion when he remarks, “A very common feature of Hebrew narrative is to mention the outcome first and the way it came to pass afterwards. This could easily be the case here.”[15]

In addition, though this passage is first and primary an example of elaboration reversion because the second passage actually elaborates on the first, it also contains some elements of emphasis reversion (that will be discussed below) in which there is a different emphasis in each of the two sections. The first emphasis here is on the reaction of the city as a whole with a focus on the people repenting, while the second emphasis is on the personal actions and repentance of the king who calls for a national repentance. The writer here stresses the circumstances of the city’s repentance as brought about by the diligent actions of the king when he heard about Jonah’s warning.

There is also another case of elaboration reversion in Jonah that begins with the brief summary statement, “And Jehovah prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights” (Jonah 1.17), but follows with a elaboration in Jonah 2.1–2.10.[16] An additional example of elaboration reversion begins with 2 Chron 35.1, which reads, “And Josiah kept a passover unto Jehovah in Jerusalem: and they killed the passover on the fourteenth day of the first month.” After this verse, the text starts again at the same point as 2 Chron 35.1 did, creating a split of two storylines consisting of a brief summary in 2 Chron 35.1 and then an elaboration of that in 2 Chron 35.2–19.[17] As these examples show, elaboration reversion is a valid literary methodology that should be considered and pondered in biblical interpretation. The best way to identify elaboration reversion is to keep in mind that the second section elaborates upon the first.

Emphasis Reversion

The biblical writers also sometimes use a literary device that is best referred to as “emphasis reversion.” Like elaboration reversion, emphasis reversion causes a split in the storyline, but with a different purpose. Instead of first offering a brief summary and then reverting back to the place that functions as a mutual starting point for both that summary and its overlapping elaboration, emphasis reversion first offers one primary emphasis and then reverts back to a mutual starting point for both that first emphasis and another completely different second emphasis. The primary objective of this literary device is to offer two different emphases or stories that usually run somewhat parallel to each other and overlap in places. The order of the emphases may be important, for the first emphasis of this literary device appears to be more significant than the second. At the end of both emphases, the text of each then generally comes together at a mutual finish point, continuing the storyline as one chronological linear flow that works with both emphases if there is a continuation of the storyline after the two emphases. For example, the following is a passage that uses emphasis reversion:

Then Jonah prayed unto Jehovah his God out of the fish’s belly. (Jonah 2.1)

Jonah's Response to GodGod's Response to Jonah
2 And he said, I called by reason of mine affliction unto Jehovah, And he answered me; Out of the belly of Sheol cried I, And thou heardest my voice.

3 For thou didst cast me into the depth, in the heart of the seas, And the flood was round about me; All thy waves and thy billows passed over me.

4 And I said, I am cast out from before thine eyes; Yet I will look again toward thy holy temple.

5 The waters compassed me about, even to the soul; The deep was round about me; The weeds were wrapped about my head.

6 I went down to the bottoms of the mountains; The earth with its bars closed upon me for ever: Yet hast thou brought up my life from the pit, O Jehovah my God.

7 When my soul fainted within me, I remembered Jehovah; And my prayer came in unto thee, into thy holy temple.

8 They that regard lying vanities Forsake their own mercy.

9 But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that which I have vowed. Salvation is of Jehovah.

(Jonah 2.2–9)
And Jehovah spake unto the fish, and it vomited out Jonah upon the dry land.

(Jonah 2.10)

And the word of Jehovah came unto Jonah the second time, saying, 2 Arise, go unto Nineveh, that great city, and preach unto it the preaching that I bid thee. (Jonah 3.1–2)

The first emphasis is found in Jonah 2.2–2.9, which consists almost entirely of a psalm. It is important to note that in Jonah 2.2–7 everything is in past tense, including Jonah’s deliverance. The psalm comes from the memory and voice of Jonah as he describes in poetical form something that he has already experienced. Landes seems to understand this well when he writes the following:

The tense meaning of the verb forms . . . is consistently preterite, and no linguistic machinations can legitimately turn them into presents. The psalmist is not alluding primarily to his present condition, nor does the praise he now sings constitute the prayer he spoke in the situation the psalm portrays; but rather he recalls an already experienced affliction which evoked from him a cry for help, and from Yahweh a beneficent response.[18]

Jonah continues by then declaring from a present state of deliverance that he believes the Ninevites do not deserve any mercy due to their sinful behavior (Jonah 2.8), but that he will, nevertheless, deliver the prophetic warning as he has vowed (Jonah 2.9) (a vow that he probably made before being delivered). He then exclaims in praise that salvation comes from the LORD, inferring that it is because God has saved him from his hopeless circumstances.

Because one is generally inclined to read narrative in a strict chronological manner, when arriving at Jonah 2.10 without a knowledge of emphasis reversion in play, it presses a predisposed conclusion that something is amiss since this is the first time the narrative literally remarks that the fish vomited up Jonah onto the dry land. This makes it seem like everything that is described in the psalm happened before this important chronological event. Most modern scholars, literary critics and commentators have responded to this by insisting the psalm is misplaced (that it should instead come after Jonah 2.10 rather than before it) and/or that it is an interpolation by a later redactor or editor.[19]

However, Landes and others have instead forced a chronological consistency with Jonah 2.10 by asserting that this psalm was uttered from the position of Jonah as saved from drowning in the sea by the fish, rather than understanding the deliverance as having taken place after his regurgitation from the fish onto the dry land.[20] But in order to make this work, it must also account for the preceding declaration that “Then Jonah prayed unto Jehovah his God out of the fish’s belly” (Jonah 2.1 ASV, italics added). Thus Landes imagines two prayers, saying, “In the sequence of events following the prophet’s ejection from the ship, we are also to understand that he prays, not just once, but twice. The text of the first prayer is not given, but it is explicitly referred to in verses 2 and 7 of the psalm.”[21] Thus he feels Jonah prayed while drowning, then prayed again in the belly of the fish with that second prayer being the psalm itself.[22] Contrary to the position of Landry and others, it is difficult to imagine Jonah feeling safe, secure and saved in any sense while still in the belly of the fish, and without the supposed chronological problems, it is doubtful that many would perceive this assumed solution as the meaning of the passage.

When one is aware that emphasis reversion is taking place here, it allows for a correct interpretation of the passage as the supposed chronological problem disappears. There was only one real prayer by Jonah, which was prayed from the belly of the fish, and the psalm is not that prayer.[23] We are never given the exact contents of the actual prayer Jonah prayed in his turmoil, though some of what it might have contained can be vaguely inferred from the psalm, such as crying out for help and making a vow to God. The psalm uttered by Jonah is a reorientation psalm of praise and thanksgiving in hindsight of Jonah’s traumatic experience they led to his calling out to God in his despair and the results that came about from doing so. It explains what he went through, how he prayed for God’s help, and how God delivered him back to a place of safety. It is Jonah’s story, thoughts and feelings garbed in the beauty of exquisite poetical verse about his dramatic and transforming experience. This poetical masterpiece most likely represents some of what Jonah expressed to God right after having been delivered onto dry land again, but was then possibly later composed in a more literal form for cultic worship.[24] It seems by using Jonah’s psalm here, the writer wants to transport the reader into the emotional aspect of Jonah’s experience that he or she might feel his despair, renewed hope, and then joy of eventual deliverance in an intimate way that is best conveyed through the genre of poetry.

This case of emphasis reversion in this passage is more complex than most because the majority of the first emphasis consists primarily of a psalm rather than normal narrative text. Overall, to somewhat simplify this, the first primary emphasis follows Jonah 2.1 by using the psalm as a first-hand poetical descriptive from Jonah regarding his experience, including the actual act of praying as mentioned in Jonah 2.1 with an inferred position of deliverance onto dry land. The second shorter emphasis simply focuses on the actual described deliverance rather than just the inferred deliverance of the first. In addition, it tells the story from the point of the narrator with a focus on God’s response to Jonah’s prayer. The second emphasis might be short, but because of its brevity it stresses its points more strongly. However, in both emphases, Jonah is found standing again upon the dry land. When taking both emphases into account, they present a somewhat transformed Jonah who is prepared to finish the task given to him of God despite his continual belief that the Ninevites do not deserve God’s mercy.

As demonstrated above, the author of Jonah positioned the psalm (probably composed by Jonah, maybe even with the help of a skilled psalmist) at exactly the perfect place within his narrative for his strategic literary purpose, for he did not want it to follow Jonah 2.10. He sought to first allow the reader to feel Jonah’s emotions and experiences in the psalm alongside Jonah from the perspective of having already been delivered from both the sea and the fish, before then bringing the reader back to the voice of the narrator that directly accounts Jonah’s deliverance by God in the second emphasis.

Here is another example of emphasis reversion, also found in Jonah, that is even more apparent, though it has also caused many an interpretative dilemma because of an unawareness that it is taking place here:

Who knoweth whether God will not turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we perish not? (Jonah 3.9)

God Spares NinevehGod Reasons With Jonah
3.10 And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil which he said he would do unto them; and he did it not.

4.1 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry.

2 And he prayed unto Jehovah, and said, I pray thee, O Jehovah, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I hasted to flee unto Tarshish; for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and abundant in lovingkindness, and repentest thee of the evil.

3 Therefore now, O Jehovah, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.

4 And Jehovah said, Doest thou well to be angry?

(Jonah 3.10–4.4)
5 Then Jonah went out of the city, and sat on the east side of the city, and there made him a booth, and sat under it in the shade, till he might see what would become of the city.

6 And Jehovah God prepared a gourd, and made it to come up over Jonah, that it might be a shade over his head, to deliver him from his evil case. So Jonah was exceeding glad because of the gourd.

7 But God prepared a worm when the morning rose the next day, and it smote the gourd, that it withered.

8 And it came to pass, when the sun arose, that God prepared a sultry east wind; and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted, and requested for himself that he might die, and said, It is better for me to die than to live.

9 And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death.

10 And Jehovah said, Thou hast had regard for the gourd, for which thou hast not labored, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night:

11 and should not I have regard for Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?

(Jonah 4.5–11)

Note how after Jonah 3.9, the writer moves forward chronologically through Jonah 3.10–4.4 and narrates God sparing the city and Jonah’s reaction, but then when arriving at the beginning of Jonah 4.5, he reverts back in time again to the end of Jonah 3.9 from which Jonah 4.5 begins (rather than following chronologically after Jonah 4.4). This is fairly certain since in Jonah 4.5 not only does Jonah depart from the city (making it unlikely he was mad at God for sparing Nineveh before he even left), but Jonah is then found waiting for the city’s destruction (that was supposed to take place at the end of 40 days (Jonah 3.4)), apparently still unaware that God has decided to spare the city.

Ellison remarks how the usual view is that Jonah left the city knowing that God would spare the city and that he then waited to see if God might change his mind again.[25] Though Ellison disagrees with this view, he thinks that maybe Jonah was waiting for something to happen that might provide further clarity of God’s ways. These are the types of incorrect interpretations that can arise when one is unaware of emphasis reversion in the passage. For another example, Robson remarks, “The non-death of Nineveh provokes Jonah’s ire and prompts a death-desiring outburst (4:3). A few narrative moments later, Jonah is keen for self-preservation, building a ‘shelter’, delighting in a shade-giving plant.”[26] Instead of recognizing the chronological problem here, Robson instead sees it as relevant to Jonah’s fluctuation back and forth in desiring his own life and death.

When emphasis reversion is taken into account, one is able to perceive that in the first emphasis the author of Jonah tells the story of Jonah preaching, the city repenting, God deciding not to destroy the city, and Jonah then becoming angry. In the second emphasis, the narrator then reverts back again to the point where the city repented (Jonah 3.9), continuing the story again in another manner with Jonah 4.5 and the verses that follow, but now instead focusing on God reasoning directly with Jonah to help him understand his mercy and to prepare him for what God is about to do in sparing the city. There is some overlap in these two emphases as there usually is in emphasis reversion. For example, the question in the first emphases about being angry probably was meant to bring back to Jonah’s mind the question narrated in the second emphasis about being angry about the gourd and God’s response in that situation. Unlike other cases of emphasis reversion, the book ends after the two emphases, probably adding to the difficulty that has obscured the recognition of the reversion methodology being used in this passage.

Here is another brief example of emphasis reversion, but found instead in the New Testament:

I was daily with you in the temple teaching, and ye took me not: but this is done that the scriptures might be fulfilled. (Mark 14.49)

The Disciples FleeThe Young Man Flees
And they all left him, and fled.

(Mark 14.50)
And a certain young man followed with him, having a linen cloth cast about him, over his naked body: and they lay hold on him;

52 but he left the linen cloth, and fled naked.

(Mark 14.51–52)

And they led Jesus away to the high priest: and there come together with him all the chief priests and the elders and the scribes. (Mark 14.53)

Emphasis reversion as a literary device is quite genius in its ability to offer two different important emphases in which the focused points, lessons and/or messages of each might be lost, unclear or diluted if morphed together into one chronological linear flow as is found in most of the narrative text in the Bible. It allows the biblical author to stress different important insights as necessary with a more pointed focus that he could not readily do so effectively otherwise. It provides that writer with a methodology of telling the story while also creating a means for the audience to perceive much more by shifting perspectives with two different emphases. It allows the reader to ponder both emphases individually and then together for a much more insightful experience.

Unfortunately, there is little awareness of emphasis reversion as a literary device and it is not commonly known among interpreters, resulting in incorrect interpretations with muddled complexity as shown up above. It can also sometimes cause a misconception that the storyline is not in its proper chronological order, leaving one to incorrectly suspect that certain passages may have been altered in some way from their original state. A failure to identify emphasis reversion when it is used in the biblical text also makes it difficult to detect the distinct stresses being conveyed.

The easiest way to identify emphasis reversion in the biblical text is to look for it when one comes across a passage that at first seems to be chronologically perplexing and more challenging that other passages, as if somebody moved the text around, like in the examples explored up above. Due to modern reader expectations in storytelling, a passage with an emphasis reversion should at first seem confusing. However, in order to be true emphasis reversion, there must be a mutual starting point from which both the first original emphasis and the secondary emphasis can each begin. In addition, generally if there is text after the second emphasis, then there must be a verse one can identify that acts as a valid mutual continuation point for both chronological flows.

When one encounters emphasis reversion, it is not a good idea to force a merger of the two different sections or emphases in an attempt to create a chronologically accurate harmony of all the actual points between them since that is sometimes nearly impossible to determine with any absolute degree of certainty. It is each of the two emphases or sections on their own that are the important part of the insight when emphasis reversion is in play, making it more beneficial to focus instead on the chronological aspect as it relates to each emphasis separately.

Thematic Reversion

Thematic reversion takes place after a biblical writer has deliberately introduced a thematic displacement that is out of chronological sequence. This is after an entire self-contained section of narrative is altered chronologically for a purposeful thematic reason and the author does not bother to explain this to his readers. In other words, the writer knows that the narrative is not in strict chronological order, but wishes to stress a thematic emphasis or point. Once the purpose for the thematic displacement is complete, a reversion takes place allowing the narrative flow to return to a correct chronological linear flow. A good example of thematic reversion is where Luke changed the proper chronological order of the last two temptations of Jesus in his encounter with the devil (Luke 4.1–13) from that found in Matthew (Matt 4.1–11).[27] Many seem to favor the hypothesis that it is due to a thematic emphasis related to the temple and/or Jerusalem in Luke’s Gospel.”[28]

The temple cleansing by Jesus in John that moves that entire event to the beginning of his ministry in contrast to the Synoptics that all place it at the end may also be a case involving thematic reversion when it later returns the text to its proper chronological flow. The majority of contemporary scholars believe that there was only one cleansing rather than two different ones, but that John moved it from the end to the forefront of Jesus’ ministry for a thematic purpose.[29] The reason the early temple cleansing in John is not classified as historical insight reversion (anticipation) is because it is thematic in purpose and is not there to provide historical insight to the surrounding text.

The reversion that follows thematic displacement may be one of the most difficult types of reversion to discover, for it seems almost impossible to spot unless another account is available for comparison. It is likely that there are many cases in the biblical text that will never be identified.

Final Thoughts on Reversion Literary Devices

Reversion is a general term that allows for categorization of various stylistic literary devices that necessitate a return to a prior or proper chronological point in the narrative storyline. This article has identified and explained four specific categories of reversion found in the biblical text, offering various examples and discussing the similarities and differences between those categories, which include (1) historical insight reversion that rectifies a time displacement caused by anticipation or recall, (2) elaboration reversion that splits the storyline to provide further elaboration on a preceding summary, (3) emphasis reversion that splits the storyline in order to present a second emphasis overlapping somewhat with a primary emphasis, and (4) thematic reversion that realigns a chronological displacement that was deliberately brought about when stressing a thematic element.

An understanding of reversion as a literary device is critical in many areas of the Scriptures in order to arrive at a proper interpretation. Whenever a case of reversion is identified, in general it allows for a more exact analysis of such a passage. Hopefully, this article has served its purpose in directing scholarly gaze in such a direction in order to encourage further exploration of reversion and elicit greater contributions to this exciting area of study.


1. S. Giet, “Un procédé littéraire d’exposition : l’anticipation chronologique,” RÉAug 2 (1956): 243–44, citing Alberto Vaccari, “La Parabole du festin de noces.–Notes d’exégèse (‘Mattieu’, XXII, 1–14),” RSR 39 (1951): 138–45.

2. Giet, “l’anticipation chronologique,” 247.

3. Augustine generally uses the Latin praeoccupo for “anticipation,” but anticipo on at least one occasion. See en. Ps. 105.14; ep. 164.3.9; cons. ev. 2.19.44; 2.21.51; 2.23.54; 2.30.70; 2.40.87; 2.42.90; 2.44.92; 2.75.145; 2.77.151; 3.1.2; 3.2.5; 3.13.46; 3.19.56;. Abbreviations for Augustine’s works in this article include de civitate dei (civ.); de consensu evangelistarum (cons. ev.); de natura et gratia (nat. et gr.);enarrationes in Psalmos (en. Ps.);epistulae (ep.) tractatus in evangelium Iohannis (Io. ev. tr.).

4. Augustine, ep. 164.3.9, italics added.

5. Giet, “l’anticipation chronologique,” 243. Nolland, accepting Giet’s position on the presence of anticipation in ancient literature, argues that John’s imprisonment in Luke 3.19–20 is just such a case, thus asserting that there is not an attempt by Luke “to eliminate John from Jesus’ baptism as a way of marking the sharp distinction between the epochs of salvation occupied by the respective figures” despite the opinion of many commentators who think there is (J. Nolland, Luke 1–9:20, vol. 35a of World Biblical Commentary [Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1989], 156). Instead, he holds that it is Luke rounding off the story about John by anticipation before moving forward with the emphasis on Jesus. However, though at first Luke 3.19–20 may seem to be a use of anticipation, it is in fact instead a case of “topical conversion” (not covered in this article), that consists of first covering one topic (in this case John the Baptist) before switching to another topic (in this case Jesus). In fact, all of Luke 3.15–19 took place after the baptism, probably while Jesus was in the wilderness, for Luke 3.15–18 correlates with the interaction of John with the inquiry team of priests and Levites from Jerusalem (compare John 1.19–27 with Luke 3.15–16). Luke 3.20 effectively moves the spotlight on the stage of the drama from John back to Jesus, reverting chronologically to begin again with Jesus at his baptism.

6. In citations for historical insight reversion in this article, they will consist of the verse in which the anticipation starts through to the verse where it reverts back to primary storyline.

7. Generally the Latin recapitulo.

8. Augustine, cons. ev. 3.2.5, brackets and any italics in the quotation have been added.

9. cons. ev. 2.17.39; 2.47.100; 2.78.153; 3.6.24; 3.7.27; 3.9.36; 3.13.42; 3.13.50; 3.19.56; 3.25.70; 4.3.4; Io. ev. tr. (Io. 6.5–44) 25.5; civ. 16.5. nat. et gr 38.45.

10. The text in John might also imply that Jesus arrived in Bethany six days before the Passover and the meal with the anointing took place sometime later, but on the day before the triumphal entry.

11. This took place at Simon the Leper’s house with Martha serving the food and Lazarus eating with him (John 12.1–2). It does not say in John that the dinner was at the home of Lazarus, but only that it was in Bethany. In fact, it’s not unreasonable to consider the possibility that Simon the Leper may have been related to the trio (Lazarus, Martha, and Mary) by blood or marriage. It may or may not be the home referred to in other places (John 11.20, 31; also cf. Luke 10.38–42). There are not any real contradictions between these three accounts. The Luke anointing at Simon the Pharisee’s house is a totally different event that took place while his apostles were out ministering in other cities (Luke 7.37–50).

12. J. H. Sailhamer, “Genesis,” in vol. 2 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (ed. F. E. Gaebelein; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 47–8. In addition, his argument that the Hebrew for “formed” in Gen 2.19 cannot be understood as a pluperfect is simply of little meaning since the narrative of a recall generally moves back into the past and thus is not restricted to an appropriate tense that might normally be expected to maintain a chronological consistency with the primary narrative storyline.

13. In this passage, Augustine has the Latin term praeoccupo that he frequently uses for “anticipation,” but he does not use here the technical term recapitulo that is found elsewhere for his idea of “recapitulation.” Nevertheless, these two literary devices of anticipation and recapitulation are the point of his discussion here and elsewhere (cf. cons. ev. 2.19.44; 2.23.54).

14. H. L. Ellison, “Jonah,” in vol. 7 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (ed. Frank E. Gaebelein; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), 382.

15. Ellison, “Jonah,” 382.

16. However this becomes more intricate for it overlaps with a case of “emphasis reversion” that will be discussed below.

17. However, this gets even more intricate, for there is also a case of historical insight reversion (anticipation) taking place in 1 Chron 34.32–35.1.

18. G. M. Landes, “Kerygma of the Book of Jonah: The Contextual Interpretation of the Jonah Psalm,” Int 21, no. 1 (January 1967): 15.

19. According to Ellison, “Jonah,” 376; C. H. Bullock, An Introduction to the Old Testament Prophetic Books (Chicago: Moody, up. ed. 2007), 58; Landes, “Kerygma,” 3.

20. Landes, “Kerygma,” 4, 10, 12–3, 15–6, 22, 26; Bullock, Prophetic, 58; Ellison, “Jonah,” 376; J. E. Robson, “Undercurrents in Jonah,” TynBul 64, no. 2 (2013): 210; and others.

21. Landes, “Kerygma,” 15.

22. Also cf. Landes, “Kerygma,” 16–7.

23. “And he said” in Jonah 2.2 probably refers to what Jonah had to say about the matter, not what he prayed. It should be noted that when an actual prayer is introduced as in Jonah 4.2, it is a different verb being used that literally means “he prayed” rather than “he said” as in Jonah 2.2.

24. See Landes, “Kerygma,” 7–8.

25. Ellison, “Jonah,” 386–87.

26. Robson, “Undercurrents,” 210.

27. Hester remarks that the account in Matthew very likely conveys the original order based “on both textual and thematic grounds” and that it is Luke who has probably reversed the order (D. C. Hester, “Luke 4:1–13,” Int 31, no. 1 [January 1977]: 55). Bloomberg suggests that Luke is probably arranging this thematically rather than chronologically (C. L. Blomberg, “Matthew,” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament [ed. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007], 15–6). Hendriksen asserts the same (W. Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Luke [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978], 232). Nolland remarks that though some scholars argue that Luke’s order is original, most of them accept the priority of the Matthean order (Nolland, Luke, 177). Pao and Schnabel affirm Nolland’s claims (D. W. Pao and E. J. Schnabel, “Luke,” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament [ed. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007], 283).

28. Bloomberg, “Matthew,” 15–6; Hendriksen, Luke, 232–33; Hester, “Luke,” 55–6; Nolland, Luke, 179, 181; Pao and Schnabel, “Luke,” 283; and many others.

29. A. Chapple, “Jesus’ Intervention in the Temple: Once or Twice?” JETS 58, no. 3 (September 2015): 545. But Chapple and others still hold to what was once the dominant position, which argues that there are two different cleansings. Borchert considers the idea of two separate cleansings as a “historiographic monstrosity” and argues for a calculated thematic purpose of “bringing to the forefront the determinative nature of Passover in the work of Jesus” (G. L. Borchert, John 1–11 [Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996], 160–61, italics his). Barrett finds it improbable that there were two cleansings and leans toward the position that John’s placement of the cleansing at the forefront of Jesus’ ministry was for “reasons theological rather than chronological” (C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John: An Introduction with Commentary and Notes on the Greek Text [London: S.P.C.K, 1965], 163).

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