Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon
In the late 1960s, a young Latter-day Saint discovered that an ancient form of Middle Eastern poetry was found throughout the Book of Mormon, suggestive of its ancient Semitic origins. This poetical form, chiasmus, a type of inverted parallelism, reaches highly artistic heights in the Book of Mormon and is difficult to ascribe to chance. Yet the information available to Joseph Smith when the Book of Mormon was translated provided nothing to guide him in crafting such structures. Could this be part of a growing body of evidence for ancient Semitic origins for the text? This page is one of several pages in a suite of "Frequently Asked Questions about Latter-day Saint Beliefs" maintained by Jeff Lindsay, a Book of Mormon aficionado who takes full responsibility for this work, which is neither sponsored nor endorsed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
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Chiasmus is a form of parallelism used as a poetical structure in some ancient writings from the Middle East and Greece [note 1]. The word chiasmus derives from the Greek letter chi (X) which symbolizes the top-to-bottom mirror image reflection achieved by elements of text. An example of a very simple chiasmus is found in Psalms 124:7:
The example from Isaiah 2 shows that the pattern can be complicated with groups of parallel elements (abc) treated as a single element. The conjugate elements in a chiasmus (e.g., b and b') can be related in several ways - direct repetition (synonymous parallelism), contrasting ideas or terms (antithetic parallelism), complimentary concepts (synthetic parallelism) in which one item completes or compliments the other, and more. Through such techniques, very sophisticated structures can be created (see Ludlow, op. cit., pp. 31-39). In major passages of chiasmus, the most important regions tend to be the central or pivotal point (the focal point) in the middle of the chiasmus, and then the ends (top and bottom).
Chiasmus was a common form of presenting ideas among those with literary skills in the ancient world and was used to create powerful poetry. This form, however, was not widely appreciated as a hallmark of ancient writing in the middle east until this century. Some historical background is provided by John Welch in his classic and ground-breaking article, "Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon," BYU Studies, Vol. 10, No. 1, 1969:
Chiasmus appears to have begun as a structural form which then developed into an intriguing rhetorical device which has been used sporadically in prose and poetry by many authors for nearly three thousand years. Nevertheless, the awareness of such a form, except in isolated cases, remained a part of the intellectual subconsciousness of modern Western Europe until frequent chiasmal passages were discovered in the Bible. Since that time in the mid-nineteenth century, there have been several reputed scholars, mostly theologians, who have published on the subject. Their works indicate that, although some chiasms appear in Greek, Latin and English, the form was originally Hebrews and dates at least to the eighth and tenth centuries B. C. in Isaiah and in the Psalms....
The rediscovery of chiasms in the Bible can be credited to three theologians of the nineteenth century: Robert Lowth, John Jebb and John Forbes. Lowth (Robert Lowth, De Sacra Poesi Hebraeorum Praelectiones Academicae, translated by G. Gregory, Andover, Mass., 1829 [available online via Google Books]), the Bishop of London, and Jebb (John Jebb, Sacred Literature. London, 1820 [available online at Google Books]), the Bishop of Limerick, both wrote 300-page volumes describing Hebraisms in the holy scriptures. But their emphasis is almost entirely placed on poetical imagery and direct parallelisms, and only Jebb pays much attention to epanodos (the name he used for chiasmus). In 1854, however, John Forbes (John Forbes, The Symmetrical Structure of Scripture, T. Clark, Edinburgh, 1854) completed a much more extensive study.... With the publication of this book, it is possible to begin speaking of relatively widespread awareness of chiasmic forms in the Bible. A wave of other writers followed Forbes, and in 1860 a section on chiasmus was finally added to T. H. Horne's famous encyclopedic Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures (T. H. Horne, 3 Vols., 11th Edition: London, 1860). This marks the recognition of the form as genuine and significant.
John Welch has slightly revised some earlier conclusions about the possibility that Joseph could have known anything about chiasmus. The virtually impossible is not just highly improbable. His article, "How Much Was Known about Chiasmus in 1829 When the Book of Mormon Was Translated?" appears in FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 15, No. 1, 2003 (download the PDF version for best results). Welch notes that it was theoretically possible but highly unlikely that Joseph could have known about chiasmus. He considers many historical details regarding the information on chiasmus in Joseph Smith's day.
Concerning Robert Lowth, one student of chiasmus e-mailed me the following note in 1998:
Lowth's lectures were delivered at Oxford in the 1740's and published, in Latin, in 1753. Despite the fact that all educated people of the time read (and wrote) Latin, his comments on parallelism passed pretty well unnoticed. Much more attention was paid to the exotic nature of near eastern customs which he described. This latter interest fit in with the growing fascination with the "sublime."
While chiasmus is now increasingly recognized as a hallmark of ancient Semitic writings, it does not prove anything per se, for chiasmus does occur in some modern texts by accident. In fact, one can force a weak, contrived chiasmic pattern to fit into many texts if one is willing to work hard enough. However, if a passage shows a chiasmatic structure that is related to and enhances the meaning of the text, that is tightly and densely woven into the text, with consistent multiple layers, then one may suspect that such a passage was crafted rather than accidental.
So what the probability is that a given chiasmus occurred by chance rather than being intentional? One publication applies careful statistical reasoning to address this issue. The work is that of Boyd F. Edwards and W. Farrell Edwards, "Does Chiasmus Appear in the Book of Mormon by Chance?," BYU Studies, Vol. 43, no. 2, pp. 103-130 (2004). The authors find that examples of chiasmus in the Book of Abraham or the Doctrine and Covenants are likely to be due to chance, but several well-known examples of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon appear to be intentional with a high level of confidence. They also provide useful background information and other insights. Well worth reading! Their analysis technique is applied later in examining the possibility that an apparent chiasmus in a letter from Joseph Smith to his wife, Emma, was merely due to chance (68% probability of being unintentional in that case). See Boyd F. Edwards and W. Farrell Edwards, "Does Joseph's Letter to Emma of 4 November 1838 Show that He Knew about Chiasmus?," Dialogue: A Journal Of Mormon Thought, Dialogue Paperless: E-Paper # 4, August 26, 2006, online at https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/physics_facpub/572/.
Valuable resources for research and understanding of chiasmus at ChiasmusResources.org, including details of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon, Bible, some Mesoamerican literature, etc., and more information on criteria for identifying deliberate chiasmus.
An excellent scholarly resource on chiasmus in the Middle East, the Book of Mormon, and elsewhere is the book, Chiasmus in Antiquity, edited by John Welch. Be sure to read John Welch's chapter, "Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon."
Some other useful resources include the video of John Welch's lecture, "Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon" - a masterful 54-minute lesson that could be a valuable resource for a class or any serious student of the Book of Mormon.
Also see John Welch's chapter, "What Does Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon Prove? in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, pp. 199-224.
2012 Update: Another useful resource on chiasmus and many other forms of ancient Hebrew poetry in the Book of Mormon can be read in part using Google Books (but buy the book and read it all!). I refer to James T. Duke, The Literary Masterpiece Called the Book of Mormon (Cedar Fort, Springville, UT, 2004). See in particular the chapter on chiasmus.
On the impact of chiasmus on Book of Mormon studies, see Robert F. Smith, "Assessing the Broad Impact of Jack Welch’s Discovery of Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 16/2 (2007): 68–73, 98–99.
Interestingly, The Book of Mormon, which claims to have its literary roots in the ancient Middle East, shows many excellent examples of what appear to be deliberate, crafted chiasmus. The examples are strong enough that they are difficult to explain if we assume that Joseph Smith (or any other person in the 1820s) wrote the book himself. In my opinion, there is simply no way a poorly schooled farm boy in that era could have crafted sophisticated examples of an ancient writing form that was probably completely unknown to him. And even if chiasmus had been understood then and even if Joseph had been able to craft examples of it in his text, he and his followers would surely have pointed out its existence as evidence of authenticity. In fact, chiasmus was not searched for and discovered in the Book of Mormon until the late 1960s, when LDS scholar John Welch learned of scholarly work on chiasmus in antiquity and hypothesized that the Book of Mormon might contain examples as well [note 4]. His findings were truly surprising, revealing that clear, distinct, and elegant passages of chiasmus existed in the Book of Mormon. Since that time, many chiasmic structures have been found. See, for example, Donald W. Parry's The Book of Mormon Text Reformatted According to Parallelistic Patterns, FARMS, Provo, Utah, 1992, which also includes an excellent essay on Semitic poetry in general and the role of chiasmus.
Several brief examples of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon include:
(Men will drink damnation to their souls unless)
The use of parallelism in this passage emphasizes the danger of transgression (sin) and the importance of remembering the name that we are to take upon us, Christ.Consider also an interesting example in Alma 41: 13-14:
O, my son, this is not the case; but the meaning of the word restoration is to bring back again evil for evil, or carnal for carnal, or devilish for devilish--
(a,a) GOOD for that which is GOOD;
(b,b) RIGHTEOUS for that which is RIGHTEOUS;
(c,c) JUST for that which is JUST;
(d,d) MERCIFUL for that which is MERCIFUL.
(d')Therefore, my son, see that you are MERCIFUL unto your brethren;
(c') deal JUSTLY,
(b') judge RIGHTEOUSLY,
(a') and do GOOD continually; and if ye do all these things then shall ye receive your reward;
(d'') yea, ye shall have MERCY restored unto you again;
(c'') ye shall have JUSTICE restored unto you again;
(b'') ye shall have a RIGHTEOUS judgment restored unto you again;
(a'') and ye shall have GOOD rewarded unto you again.
This passage begins with double elements in the first half (good,good; righteous, righteous; etc.). Double elements also occur in the second half, but they are now expanded into two series of single elements (d',c',b',a') and (d'',c'',b'',a''). This demonstrates a skillful use of parallelism. The attribute of mercy may be given emphasis in this passage.
The early writings of Nephi contain multiple examples of chiasmus; in fact, Noel Reynolds suggests the entire first two books of Nephi appear to have organized based on chiasmus (Noel B. Reynolds, "Nephi’s Outline," in Book of Mormon Authorship: New Light on Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds [Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1982], 53–74). More recently, Dennis Newton has examined 15 large chiasms in Nephi's writings and showed with over 99% confidence that they are intentional. Further, he shows that Nephi uses chiasms to advance a particular theme, demonstrating strong internal consistency and further strengthening the case that they are intentional literary devices, not the result of chance. See Dennis Newton, "Nephi's Use of Inverted Parallels," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 22 (2016): 79-106.
Perhaps equally interesting is the structure of the Book of Mosiah, which may be organized into a complex chiasmus that focuses on the Messianic teachings of Abinadi, and puts emphasis on the powerful teachings of Benjamin and Mosiah (see Welch, BYU Studies, 10/1 (1969):82):
A King Benjamin exhorts his sons (1:1-8) B Mosiah chosen to succeed his father (1:10) C Mosiah receives the records (1:16) D Benjamin's speech and the words of the angel (2:9-5:15 ) E People enter into a covenant (6:1 ) F Priests consecrated (6:13) G Ammon leaves Zarahemla for the land of Lehi-Nephi (7:1-6) H People in bondage, Ammon put in prison (7:15) I The 24 gold plates (8:9) J The record of Zeniff begins as he leaves Zarahemla (9:1) K Defense against the Lamanites (9:14-10:20) L Noah and his priests (11:1-15) M Abinadi persecuted and thrown in prison (11-12) N Abinadi reads the old law and old Messianic prophecies to the priests (13-14) N' Abinadi makes new prophecies about Jesus Christ (15-16) M' Abinadi persecuted and killed (17:5-20) L' Noah and his priests (18:32-20:5) K' Lamanites threaten the people of Limhi (20:6-6-26) J' Record of Zeniff ends as he leaves the land of Lehi-Nephi I' The 24 gold plates (21:27, 22:14) H' People of Alma in bondage (23) G' Alma leaves the land of Lehi-Nephi for Zarahemla (24) F' The Church organized by Alma (25:14-24) E' Unbelievers refuse to enter covenant ( 26: 1-4 ) D' The words of Alma and the words of the angel of the Lord (26-27) C' Alma the Younger receives the records (28:20) B' Judges chosen instead of a king (29:5-32) A' Mosiah exhorts his people (29:5-32)
I have noticed that there are other elements which could be included with some of the groupings above. For example, for A and A', we could also note that Mosiah 1:1 speaks of "continual peace" in the land, attributable to King Benjamin's efforts, while the end of the book speaks of "continual peace through the land" (Mosiah 29:40) as a result of the system established by Mosiah the Second and the work of the judge, Alma. Chapter 1 also begins with Benjamin getting old and facing death (1:9), which motivates his farewell address, while Mosiah ends with the deaths of the Alma the Elder at age 82 and Mosiah the Second at age 63 (29:45,46), following the account of his major address in Chapter 29.
For many additional examples of chiasmus from the writings of Nephi, see the article, "Nephi's Convincing of Christ through Chiasmus: Plain and Precious Persuading from a Prophet of God" by David E. Sloan, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Volume 6, Issue 2, 1997. Also see Russell Anderson's Chiasmus Page and Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon: A Remarkable Literary Art at ComeToZarahemla.org, where the chiastic structure of First Nephi is discussed.
I have long felt that the highlight of the Book of Mosiah was the Messianic preaching of Abinadi, with the sermon of King Benjamin at the beginning being of great importance as well. Only recently did I learn that the entire Book of Mosiah fits into a well designed chiasmus that puts Abinadi's teachings at the focal point, with secondary emphasis on the teachings of King Benjamin and King Mosiah at the beginning and end of the book. The pattern seems unlikely to have been accidental or contrived, but is logical, enhances the meaning of the text, and is consistent over many parallel levels.
The most powerful and beautiful example of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon - and perhaps anywhere! - is Alma 36. The structure is strongly chiastic, but there are some very sophisticated and elegant perturbations which have been the subject of careful and lengthy analysis (Welch, 1991, Welch, 1989, and Brown, 1988). In his essay, "A Masterpiece: Alma 36," Welch (1989, 1991) presents several levels of chiasmic structure. Here I reproduce the overall structure, which is Level 1 in Welch, 1991. In addition, he analyzes the complete text to show the extensive chiasmic detail, including fascinating relationships between larger paired sections and the subtle use of weaving factors (transitions) that provide remarkable unity and a smooth flow of thought throughout the chapter. Welch also assess the degree of chiasticity, showing that this is not a contrived example or chance occurrence but fits objective criteria for intentional and deliberately crafted chiasmic structures. Finally, a comparison of other accounts of Alma's conversion story in the Book of Mormon show that only this one is presented in chiasmic form, indicating that this passage, crafted about 20 years after the initial experience he describes, had been carefully reorganized to yield a masterful and poetical statement of his conversion.
So here it is, Welch's outline of the overall structure of Alma 36. (Again, this is only scratching the surface of the rich structure in this chapter, but what a scratch!) Only the key phrases and concepts (sometimes paraphrased) are shown, with the verse number. The text of Alma 36 is at LDS.org.
(a) My son, give ear to my WORDS (1) (b) KEEP THE COMMANDMENTS of God and ye shall PROSPER IN THE LAND (2) (c) DO AS I HAVE DONE (2) (d) in REMEMBERING THE CAPTIVITY of our fathers (2); (e) for they were in BONDAGE (2) (f) he surely did DELIVER them (2) (g) TRUST in God (3) (h) supported in their TRIALS, and TROUBLES, and AFFLICTIONS (3) (i) shall be lifted up at the LAST DAY (3) (j) I KNOW this not of myself but of GOD (4) (k) BORN OF GOD (5) (l) I sought to destroy the church of God (6-9) (m) MY LIMBS were paralyzed (10) (n) Fear of being in the PRESENCE OF GOD (14-15) (o) PAINS of a damned soul (16) (p) HARROWED UP BY THE MEMORY OF SINS (17) (q) I remembered JESUS CHRIST, SON OF GOD (17) (q') I cried, JESUS, SON OF GOD (18) (p') HARROWED UP BY THE MEMORY OF SINS no more (19) (o') Joy as exceeding as was the PAIN (20) (n') Long to be in the PRESENCE OF GOD (22) (m') My LIMBS received their strength again (23) (l') I labored to bring souls to repentance (24) (k') BORN OF GOD (26) (j') Therefore MY KNOWLEDGE IS OF GOD (26) (h') Supported under TRIALS, TROUBLES, and AFFLICTIONS (27) (g') TRUST in him (27) (f') He will deliver me (27) (i') and RAISE ME UP AT THE LAST DAY (28) (e') As God brought our fathers out of BONDAGE and captivity (28-29) (d') Retain in REMEMBRANCE THEIR CAPTIVITY (28-29) (c') KNOW AS I DO KNOW (30) (b') KEEP THE COMMANDMENTS and ye shall PROSPER IN THE LAND (30) (a') This is according to his WORD (30).
Note the focal point of this story, the key element in his conversion story: Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As Welch notes, Alma shows that it was not the angel or his suffering or the prayers of others that caused his conversion. It was not until he remembered that his father had taught of the atonement of Christ and then exercised faith to call upon Christ that his conversion occurred, bringing a rapid change in which guilt and the pains of hell were replaced with joy and a taste of heaven. I find this story to be powerful and moving, and knowing the underlying chiasmic structure greatly enhances my appreciation of this marvelous text.
Critics, of course, will complain that (i') is out of place. Actually, the structure that Alma is using is somewhat more complex and elegant than can be shown with the simple synopsis presented above. The full structure can only be presented by treating the entire text. (E.g., there are other small chiasmic structures and other forms of parallelism within the overarching structure.) This results in Level 2 that Welch explores in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon (it is also shown in Welch, 1989). In the expanded analysis, components (i) and (i') above become part of a larger grouping of text labeled as (E) and (E'), which I show below (those wanting to see the full grouping are referred to Welch's publications.
E (end of verse 3):
for I do know that whosoever shall put their TRUST IN GOD shall be
SUPPORTED in their TRIALS, and their TROUBLES, and their AFFLICTIONS and SHALL BE LIFTED UP AT THE LAST DAY
E' (verses 27 and 28):
And I have been SUPPORTED under TRIALS and TROUBLES of every kind, yea, and in all manner of AFFLICTIONS;
yea, God has DELIVERED me
and from bonds,
and from death;
Yea, and I do put my TRUST IN HIM,
and he will still DELIVER me.
And I know that he WILL RAISE ME UP AT THE LAST DAY, to dwell with him in glory.
Welch notes that E and E' contains triplets such as "supported under trials, troubles, and afflictions" as well as "prison, bonds, and death." The former triplet appears in the center of E (and is repeated in E'), while the latter triplet stands in the center of E'. Both sections also discuss trust in God and being lifted up at the last day.
My comments: Alma 36 contributes to the literary value of the Book of Mormon. The indisputable existence of intricate, deliberate, and artful chiasmus in the Book of Mormon raises a big question about it's origin: how could it possibly be the product of an early nineteenth century writer? To me, this piece of evidence is one of many that demands that we at least seriously consider the possibility that the book is a document from antiquity.
Another example is nearby in Alma 34:9:
Alma 13:2-9 is another gem from the writings of Alma. As James Duke recently noted in "The Literary Structure and Doctrinal Significance of Alma 13:1-9" (Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 5, No. 1, 1996), this passage contains a main chiasm with four shorter chiasms and four alternates, along with other poetical forms. The full passage follows:
The structure of the main chiasmus is:
1 And again, my brethren, I would cite your minds forward to the time when the Lord God gave these commandments unto his children; and I would that ye should remember that the Lord God ordained priests, after his holy order, which was after the order of his Son, to teach these things unto the people.
2 And those priests were ordained after the order of his Son, in a manner that thereby the people might know in what manner to look forward to his Son for redemption.
3 And this is the manner after which they were ordained--being called and prepared from the foundation of the world according to the foreknowledge of God, on account of their exceeding faith and good works; in the first place being left to choose good or evil; therefore they having chosen good, and exercising exceedingly great faith, are called with a holy calling, yea, with that holy calling which was prepared with, and according to, a preparatory redemption for such.
4 And thus they have been called to this holy calling on account of their faith, while others would reject the Spirit of God on account of the hardness of their hearts and blindness of their minds, while, if it had not been for this they might have had as great privilege as their brethren.
5 Or in fine, in the first place they were on the same standing with their brethren; thus this holy calling being prepared from the foundation of the world for such as would not harden their hearts, being in and through the atonement of the Only Begotten Son, who was prepared--
6 And thus being called by this holy calling, and ordained unto the high priesthood of the holy order of God, to teach his commandments unto the children of men, that they also might enter into his rest--
7 This high priesthood being after the order of his Son, which order was from the foundation of the world; or in other words, being without beginning of days or end of years, being prepared from eternity to all eternity, according to his foreknowledge of all things--
8 Now they were ordained after this manner--being called with a holy calling, and ordained with a holy ordinance, and taking upon them the high priesthood of the holy order, which calling, and ordinance, and high priesthood, is without beginning or end--
9 Thus they become high priests forever, after the order of the Son, the Only Begotten of the Father, who is without beginning of days or end of years, who is full of grace, equity, and truth. And thus it is. Amen.
One reason why this chiasmus is difficult to spot is that many of the key words occur in several places in the passage. The multiple occurrences are at least partially due to additional chiasms or other literary forms intertwined in the main chiasmus. For example, verses two and three contain a short chiasm:
Duke also discusses the special significance of the word "rest" as the turning point of the chiasm, which is in harmony with other scriptures about the priesthood and the "rest" of God (esp. Doctrine and Covenants 84:19-24), which refers to eternal life. Alma used the word "rest" four times just prior to the present chiasmic passage (see Alma 12:34-37) and four times in the concluding portions of his discourse (Alma 13:12,13,16, and 29). The "rest" of God is possible only through the Atonement of Christ through faith and repentance (Alma 12:37; see also Alma 40:11-12; 3 Nephi 27:19; Enos 1:27). The chiasmic structure of Alma 13:1-9, coupled with Alma's use of the word "rest" before and after this passage adds to the power and meaning of the text in a way that can only be described as poetry. That's exactly what chiasmus is - an ancient form of poetry.
A recently discovered chiasm is found in Helaman 6:7-13, which reports the sixty-fourth year of the Reign of the Judges. According to Chapter 66, "Chiasmus in Helaman 6:7-13" of Reexploring the Book of Mormon (John Welch, ed., Deseret Book, SLC, UT, 1992, p. 230), the main features of this chiasm can be listed as follows:
Commentary on this passage is given in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, p. 231:
This composition is remarkable in several ways. First, the report itself is beautifully executed. Words, phrases, and ideas that appear in the first half are repeated with precision and balance in the second half. This entry exhibits both fine quality and admirable length.
Second, since the chiasm encompasses the entire report for the year, this unifying structure strongly suggests that the account was written as a single literary unit that Mormon copied verbatim from the Large Plates of Nephi into his abridgment. Apparently the contemporary historian used chiasmus to record an extraordinary year in the annals of his people. The report documents a great change that occurred during the sixty-fourth year involving prosperity, free travel, and peace between both the Nephites and Lamanites. Significant trade and peace treaties must have been entered into in order for this kind of peace and prosperity to occur, since before this time, restriction on travel was the norm in Nephite society, as is evidenced by Mosiah 7:1; 8:7; 28:1; Alma 23:2; 50:25; and Helaman 4:12. Official decrees of this type may be related to the misharum edicts of the Near East that typically proclaimed freedom for slaves and granted "equity" for the land. In addition to marking an unprecedented turning point in Nephite history, using chiasmus would insure against additions to or deletions from the text, since any alteration would be strikingly apparent.
Third, and most remarkable, the center of this chiasm involves two individual words. At the very apex, the words "Zedekiah" and "Lord" stand parallel to each other, which is intriguing since the Hebrew word for "Lord" constitutes the theophoric suffix -yah at the end of the name "Zedekiah." [The Hebrew name Zedekiah can mean "The Lord is righteousness."]
The chiasm in Helaman 6:7-13 is best understood by considering the Hebrew meaning of Zedekiah, evidence that the chiasm was originally constructed in a language with Hebrew origins or elements. Apparently, the poetical structure was well preserved in the English translation. One may ask how many original chiasms in the Book of Mormon were clouded by translation into English. Some chiastic elements may have involved Hebraic word plays or relationships between pairs of words with common roots or sounds. Such chiasms may not be translatable into English.
In 2008, during an evening when we were reading in the Book of Mormon, my youngest son, Mark, spotted an possible example that I hadn't seen discussed before. This was in Helaman 16:1-6, as I discuss in a post at Mormanity. Take a look and let me know what you think!
John Welch offers the following analysis in his classic 1969 BYU Studies paper (vol. 10, no. 1), p.75:
"[T]here exists no chance that Joseph Smith could have learned of this style [chiasmus] through academic channels. No one in America, let alone in western New York, fully understood chiasmus in 1829. Joseph Smith had been dead ten full years before John Forbes' book was published in Scotland. Even the prominent scholars today know little about chiasmic forms beyond its name and a few passages where it might be found. The possibility of Joseph Smith's noticing the form accidentally is even more remote, since most biblical passages containing inverted word orders have been rearranged into natural word orders in the King James translation. And even had he known of the form, he would still have had the overwhelming task of writing original, artistic chiasmic sentences. Try writing a sonnet or multi-termed chiasm yourself: your appreciation of these forms will turn to awe. If the Book of Mormon then is found to contain true chiasmal forms, should it not be asserted without further qualification that the book is a product of ancient Hebrews culture?"
He has since toned down that assessment, given the remote possibility of some European sources having made it to Joseph Smith's area, but it remains rather improbable.
A related perspective comes from John W. Welch in "What Does Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon Prove?" in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins (ed. Noel B. Reynolds, Provo: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1997, pp. 218-219:
A further element in this calculation is the degree to which Joseph Smith might have learned about chiasmus from sources in his so-called information environment in Palmyra, New York, or more precisely, in the neighborhood of Harmony, Pennsylvania, where he dictated most of the Book of Mormon to his scribe Oliver Cowdery in the spring of 1829. Since no library existed within that region of the Susquehanna Valley, one cannot assume that Joseph Smith would have had access to any of the British books that in the 1820s were beginning to comment on various forms of parallelism in biblical literature. None of those books were published in the United States, and it is only remotely possible that one or two of them made their way to the United States in Joseph Smith's lifetime. No definite listings of the titles by John Jebb or Thomas Boys have been found in any American libraries before 1829. And even if Joseph Smith had somehow learned of the concept of chiasmus, he would still be presented with the formidable task of writing-or rather, dictating-extensive texts in this style that was unnatural to his world, while at the same time keeping numerous other strands, threads, and concepts flowing without confusion in his dictation. The low probability that Joseph Smith was conscious of chiasmus in any respect tends to enhance its evidentiary value as an indicator of other origins (presumably Israelite) for this aspect of the book's style.
A few non-Latter-day Saint scholars have been impressed by the presence of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon. See, for example, Angelico Salvatore di Marco, review in Revista Biblica 31 (1983): 377-81; David Noel Freedman, in his preface to Chiasmus in Antiquity, 7-8; and Stanislav Segert, review in Catholic Biblical Quarterly 46 (1984): 336-38 (all examples cited by William J. Hamblin, Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, citations on p.498).
Here is part of what Dr. Freedman has to say:
The more extended uses of chiasm raise further questions. As with much of literature, especially poetry, ambiguity and obscurity are inherent in the form and content: chiasm only adds to the uncertainty and mystery. Scholars now recognize chiasms beyond the simple type described above, chiasms which involve passages of verse or prose ranging in length from a few sentences to hundreds of thousands of words. This more complex form of chiasm is not merely grammatical but structural or intentional; it systematically serves to concentrate the reader's or hearer's interest on the central expression. The number of such chiastic constructions which satisfy both sets of criteria: inversion and balance on the one hand, and climactic centrality on the other, is substantially less than the simpler mechanical variety. But wherever they are present, these structures may add novel perspectives and unexpected dimension to the texts in which they appear.
There is yet a further extension of the term chiasm. Even more difficult and controversial issues arise when chiasm is defined in terms of thought and theme, rather than the more visible words and patterns. Inevitably a large subjective element enters into these discussions, and the presence or absence of chiasm on this level can become almost a voter's choice.
Scholars, therefore, may range between separated areas of research in their approach to chiasm. On the one extreme, the phenomenon itself can be described or defined rigorously, so that it is verifiable and often self-evident; while in this sense it is part of a deliberate pattern of composition, it nevertheless leaves the wider world of symbolism and significance to others. At the other end of the spectrum, definitions and limits are hard to determine, and speculation is rife; but large issues of meaning and intention can be raised, and important questions about the nature and significance of extended literary pieces are considered. The study of these great chiasms has enormous implications for analysis and interpretation, but the wider the scope and the more extended the reach, the less certain the results necessarily become. In the end, neither approach will escape if carried to extremes.
Only a book with many varieties of presentation can display the present state of chiastic studies. While a great deal of important work has been done across the many domains of ancient literature, the study of ancient literary techniques is still in ferment and flux. A common fund of axioms and assumptions and a single sure-handed methodology are yet to be established. The present volume reflects accurately both the ferment and the progress which is being made on a variety of fronts, and is all the more to be welcomed for bringing together the results of research in different literatures of antiquity. The editor is to be commended for his catholicity and courage, and for his own original contributions in several domains including a unique treatment of the Book of Mormon. His introduction to the whole work is indispensable. [emphasis added]
--David Noel Freedman
Dr. Freedman has been called one of the world's foremost scholars on the Bible. You can also read about him on Wikipedia. He passed away in 2008.
Of course, scholars aren't exactly lining up to be baptized as Mormons. But once Mormonism becomes helpful in obtaining tenure, perhaps that will change quickly. ;)Please note that chiasmus can occur by chance, and often does. Just because one can pick out a few words in a passage that find a chiastic order does not mean that the author was consciously crafting chiasmus. There is a huge difference between a compact, extensive, meaningful chiasmus such as Alma 36 and an accidental one found in a random text, just as a few random splashes of paint spilled on a canvas are in a different category than, say, the Mona Lisa. John Welch addresses this issue in his article, "Criteria for Identifying and Evaluating the Presence of Chiasmus," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Volume 4, Issue 2, 1995. Welch has warned that some Latter-day Saints have taken the chiasmus issue way too far, finding chiasmus everywhere when it may not have really been intentional chiasmus. Detailed insight into the issue of chance chiasmus versus intentional chiasmus comes from a thorough statistical analysis by Boyd F. Edwards and W. Farrell Edwards in a significant scholarly work, "Does Chiasmus Appear in the Book of Mormon by Chance?," BYU Studies, Vol. 43, no. 2, pp. 103-130 (2004).
Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon is evidence of an ancient origin, not conclusive proof. It is just one of several complex forms of literary parallelism that are common to other ancient Semitic writings. If these examples are real and nonrandom, then it becomes increasingly probable that the Book of Mormon is not a nineteenth century writing, but is a translation of an ancient text representing, at least in part, a highly developed literary tradition. Chiasmus is part of the intellectual evidence for accepting or believing in an ancient origin to the text. For some critics, it is so convincing that they must resort to arguing that Satan inspired the chiasmus in the text in order to deceive people. An example is found in a book by Loftes Tryk, The Best Kept Secrets in the Book of Mormon, Redondo Beach, CA: Jacob's Well Foundation, 1988 (see the review by Bill Hamblin et al.). Tryk argues that the Book of Mormon is packed with elegant examples of chiasmus and other complex structures. "Even a very high native intellect would not account for a computer-like selection of images which have been fitted into the story with such knife-edge precision. The closer we examine the Book of Mormon's literary character, the greater burden will be placed on the theory of an unaided creation. There are too many complex uses of symbolism and of sophisticated literary form in it" (Tryk, p. 82). He notes that the chiasms of Alma 42 are "a formidable piece of writing," perhaps "unequaled in brilliance anywhere else in literature" (p. 84). Tryk argues that the only reasonable explanation is supernatural origin - but he ascribes that supernatural power to Satan. I find that a pretty wild argument, especially when much of the chiasmus - like the Book of Mormon itself - is designed to focus our attention on Christ as the Redeemer and Savior. Look at Alma 36, for example. What honest Christian can help but rejoice to see the forgiving power of Christ so beautifully taught and so majestically crafted into poetry? The Book of Mormon is a Christ-centered book, teaching us to look toward Christ - the Christ that we read of in the Bible, not "some other Christ" as critics often try argue - for salvation, for grace, for forgiveness, to be baptized in His name and follow Him. I don't think anyone can honestly read the Book of Mormon without realizing that it confirms the Bible and teaches of Christ.
The Book of Mormon does have a divine and ancient origin, having been prepared by prophets of the Lord Jesus Christ in ancient Central America who knew our day and edited its content to be of value to us. Understanding chiasmus helps us understand its message, a message centered on Christ.
1. Chiasmus in Antiquity, Hildesheim: Gerstenberg, 1981, as cited by J. Welch, "Chiasmus in Alma 36," FARMS Working Paper WEL-89a, Foundations for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, Provo, Utah, 1989. [BACK]
3. John W. Welch, "A Masterpiece: Alma 36" (or see the archived original chapter, with better formatting) in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, ed. J.L. Sorenson and M.J. Thorne, Deseret Book Comp., Salt Lake City, Utah, 1991. [BACK]
Chiasmus Resources from John Welch -- great collection of information, tools, and resources on chiasmus by the scholar who found it in the Book of Mormon, Dr. John Welch.
"Does Chiasmus Appear in the Book of Mormon by Chance?" by Edwards and W. Farrell Edwards in BYU Studies, Vol. 43, no. 2, pp. 103-130 (2004). The link includes the article and some related resources. A must read!
Poetic Parallelisms in the Book of Mormon: The Complete Text by Donald Parry, 2007, available free online at the Maxwell Institute. Here the text of the Book of Mormon has been reformatted to highlight many of its parallel structures, including chiasmus. A useful visual tool for exploring parallelism in the Book of Mormon.
Chiasmus: An Important Structural Device Commonly Found in Biblical Literature (PDF) by Brad McCoy, an excellent survey of scholarship on the importance of chiasmus in the Bible.
Nephi's Convincing of Christ through Chiasmus: Plain and Precious Persuading from a Prophet of God by David E. Sloan, from Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Volume 6, Issue 2, 1997.
Dennis Newton, "Nephi's Use of Inverted Parallels," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 22 (2016): 79-106.
Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon: A Remarkable Literary Art at ComeToZarahemla.org.
Be sure to see John Welch's lecture, "Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon."
Criteria for Identifying and Evaluating the Presence of Chiasmus by John Welch, from Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Volume 4, Issue 2, 1995.Nephi's Outline," in Book of Mormon Authorship: New Light on Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1982), 53–74.
"Chiasmus in Mayan Texts" by Allen J. Christenson, Ensign, Feb. 1972.
Robert Lowth, Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews (orig. De Sacra Poesi Hebraeorum Praelectiones Academicae), translated by G. Gregory, Andover, Mass., 1829, available online via Google Books.
John Jebb, Sacred Literature. London, 1820, available online at Google Books. See for yourself if the discussion of "epanodos" there could have been used to create Alma 36 and other masterpieces of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon. Start on page 65.
Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, edited by Noel Reynolds (Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1997). This is on the MUST IGNORE list of all self-respecting anti-Mormon critics. It's loaded with powerful essays that turn the tables on our critics, giving them what I see as insurmountable difficulties in defending their theories for the origins of the Book of Mormon. This explores alternate theories of the Book of Mormon's origins, details of the translation of the book, summarizes key issues regarding evidence, and explores several key issues in depth, including chiasmus, wordprint analysis of the Book of Mormon, (and it even cites the thesis of my wife, Kendra Lindsay, who did wordprint analysis of the Pauline epistles in completing her requirements for a Masters degree in statistics), and explores the authenticity of the Book of Mormon as a Mesoamerican record. Deals with many major issues as well as lots of little gems (like "sheum" in the Book of Mosiah being an authentic ancient Akkadian term for grain, which may have been a word imported by the Jaredites). Over 500 pages of well-written and documented fun.Jeff Lindsay's home page