What Does Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon Prove?
What Does Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon Prove?
John W. Welch
John W. Welch is professor of law at Brigham Young University and editor-in-chief
of BYU Studies.
Assuming that a text manifests a high degree of chiasticity
by solidly satisfying objective criteria that are generally agreed upon as
the factors that are present in a clearly chiastic passage, what does the
presence of this literary pattern in that text prove? Of what is it evidence?
As I hope to show in the following discussion, the existence of chiasmus in
a text proves many things. For purposes of this discussion, I assume that
readers are generally familiar with the concept of chiasmus; chiasmus was
first introduced into Book of Mormon studies in 1969 by my article, “Chiasmus
in the Book of Mormon,”1 which conveniently displays several
examples of this inverted parallel pattern of writing found in the Bible and
the Book of Mormon. I also assume that serious students will concern themselves
methodologically with the task of defining specific criteria by which one
may identify the presence of chiasmus2 and will engage themselves
epistemologically with the requirements of understanding the process of evaluating
and using evidence in general in the nurturing of faith.3 From
those points of departure, the present discussion can focus specifically on
the question, What does chiasmus in the Book of Mormon prove?
Rarely in Book of Mormon studies has a concept captured the imagination and
fascination of scholars and readers more than has the presence of chiasmus in
that book. The basic concept of chiasmus is readily grasped, and in certain
texts its presence can be easily and obviously demonstrated. Novice readers
may spot the clear and simple examples of chiasmus without difficulty, although
puzzling over the task of unraveling, digesting, and displaying the more complex
and sometimes nebulous examples of chiasmus challenges even the most sophisticated
literary analysts. Many people, in studying both the Bible and the Book of Mormon,
have found the search for chiasms to be almost irresistible. Some people are
intrinsically fascinated by the form and are propelled by the prospects of discovering
some new aspect of their text, of uncovering some new insight into its meaning,
or of adding some new level of appreciation for the possible organizing structures
that lie embedded behind the words of its passages. Some people, of course,
have gone overboard with this search, and caution must be employed; otherwise,
it is possible to find chiasmus in the telephone book, and the effort becomes
meaningless. But when rigorous criteria are applied and ideological agendas
are not allowed to drive analysts to propose tenuous linkages purporting to
evince chiastic elements within the text itself, the pursuit can be very meaningful,
conceptually defensible, and academically rewarding.
Many people have been impressed by the presence of chiasmus
in the Book of Mormon. Most of these people do not articulate specifically
what it is about chiasmus that attracts them. But in general, it appears that
they are impressed by the fact that there is more in the Book of Mormon than
meets the eye. Several people who had been inclined initially to discount
the book as superficial or insubstantial have felt required, when confronted
by the presence of chiasmus in that volume, to back up a few steps and think
more deeply about the book, its origins, and its messages.
The presence of chiasmus gives a general sense of satisfaction
to the reader, who may feel that the text is now more understandable, more
beautiful, and more meaningful than had been previously supposed. As an interpretive
tool, chiastic analysis opens up to the reader a clear picture of at least
one distinctive reading of the text. Words that might have previously seemed
insignificant or unconnected take on new significance when they are seen to
play a role in a finely organized literary configuration. Attention to detail,
on both micro and macro levels, enhances the likelihood that meanings that
are grounded in the text itself will emerge in the eyes of beholders.
These overall effects are further heightened by a sense of
attaining esoteric knowledge. The average reader is completely oblivious to
the presence of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon. Only those who understand
the concept of chiasmus and have seen a few examples of this style of
writing in the book are aware of its presence. This special knowledge tends
to enhance the reader’s personal relationship with the text. It makes the
reader feel that the book belongs to him or her in a more personal or intimate
way. This is especially true if the reader has discovered a chiastic structure
in a text on his or her own. Even if the example is not a very good one, a
personally discovered chiasm tends to become a treasured piece of knowledge
that the reader will continue to enjoy even if the example is not clear enough
to convince anyone else that the passage should be called chiastic.
A general sense of fascination with exploration and discovery impels some readers
to try to determine how many passages in the Book of Mormon or elsewhere may
be chiastic. For some people, this search becomes something like a hunt for
hidden treasure. One must be careful in this quest, however, to avoid the problems
of the “hammer syndrome”—to the person holding a hammer, everything
looks like a nail. To the person who knows only chiasmus and no other form of
literary composition, everything may start looking like a chiasm. Fool’s gold
glitters, but it is not a treasure. Accordingly, discriminating readers will
use a wide variety of literary tools in their analyses and will try to use the
tool most fitting to the needs and characteristics of the text being scrutinized.
Beyond these general effects of chiasmus on readers, it is
possible to be more specific about the evidentiary value of chiasmus in the
Book of Mormon. Because chiasmus is a complex phenomenon— in some ways
objective and in other ways subjective—what is proved by chiasmus cannot
be described simplistically.
Chiasmus proves many different things because the many instances of chiasmus
are themselves varied. Chiasms come in different sizes and shapes. No two chiasms
are created equally. Some may consist of only four words in an a-b-b-a pattern,
while others may extend throughout entire chapters or even books. The shorter
patterns are rather common and relatively unremarkable, generally proving little.
They may appear in many languages and literatures. Short, simple chiasms have
a quality about them that conveys a sense of completeness or cleverness, such
as the “first shall be last and the last shall be first” (Matthew
19:30; cf. Mark 10:31; Like 13:30; 1 Nephi 13:42; Ether 13:12; and D&C
29:30), or “he who fails to prepare, prepares to fail.” As these patterns
become more extensive, however, their potential evidentiary value also increases.
But the degree of certainty about the objectivity of a chiastic pattern may
equally diminish as the length and looseness of the proposed unit increases.
Instances of chiasmus also vary in terms of their degree of precision and clarity.
It bears repeating that “if any aspect of chiastic analysis is to produce
rigorous and verifiable results, the inverted parallel orders, which create
the chiasms on which that analysis is based, must be evidenced in the text itself
and not imposed upon the text by Procrustean design or artifice of the reader.”4
Thus, the degree to which chiasmus serves as evidence of anything specific also
depends directly upon the degree to which the passage satisfies objective criteria
for being called chiastic. With these general variables in mind, chiasmus offers
descriptive and implicit information about the texts of the Book of Mormon that
leads to several reliable conclusions.
Evidence about the Qualities of the English Text
The presence of chiasmus in a Book of Mormon text reveals
several things about the English text itself. The following paragraphs examine
some of the facets of a text revealed by the presence of chiasmus.
An Orderly Text
Chiastic analysis displays the orderliness of the text, proving
that the text is not chaotic, random, or devoid of form. While it is possible
for some orders to occur accidentally (as chaos theory so elegantly makes
manifest), most instances of order—especially when these patterns occur
repeatedly under similar circumstances consistently manifesting distinctive
and seemingly intentional characteristics—do not appear to be attributable
to random phenomena. To the extent that specific order within a text appears
to be consciously created, this serves as evidence that an author intentionally
composed the text with that principle of order in mind.
The structure of Alma 36 is one such case. It manifests a
high degree of distinctive, objective, extensive, purposeful, and impressive
organizational features, which, especially when taken all together, make it
difficult to believe that the chapter got that way simply by happenstance.5
It features seventeen elements that appear in one order in the first half
of the chapter and then reappear in the opposite order in the second half.
The case for organizational intentionality in Alma 36 is significantly
strengthened when one then couples an analysis of its words and phrases with
the direct parallelisms of Mosiah 27; furthermore, in light of the companion
half-structure of Alma 38, the double structure of Alma 36 rises to a high
level of evidence proving the orderly nature of that text.6
A Complex Text
In addition, the presence of chiasmus demonstrates that a
text is relatively complex. Some readers form an opinion about a book, that
it is either simple or profound. Some readers value simplicity, and in some
ways the Gospel of John and the Book of Mormon are relatively simple in their
straightforward use of language and relatively uncomplicated syntax, grammar,
and vocabulary. In many respects, great beauty resides in simplicity and clarity.
But in other respects, some readers may discount a simple text, thinking that
it is naive or unsophisticated and therefore not deserving of serious attention
or contemplation. The presence of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon shows its
texts to be more complicated than a superficial judgment might indicate, for
whatever such evidence may be worth.
Furthermore, the presence of chiasmus can help one identify
textual units within the text. Chiasmus is evidence that some of the text
was composed in idea units, although one may not always be sure when or why
or by whom the archaic units were created. Knowing that the Book of Mormon
text was compiled out of older units may keep readers alert to its pattern
of thought as well as to its history. Whenever one reads a text, especially
a text with ancient origins, one ought to be mindful of the text’s division
into segments or units, and that “chiasmus afforded a seriously needed
element of internal organization in ancient writing, which of course did not
make use of paragraphs, punctuation, capitalization and other synthetic devices
to communicate the conclusion of one idea and the commencement of the next.”7
For these and many other reasons, readers may seek evidence of the presence
and significance of unit organization and sub structure within the text.
Moreover, the presence of chiasmus may prove that the text
is artistically pleasing. Chiastic analysis may enhance one’s appreciation
for the beauty and aesthetic value of the text. In judging the literary achievement
of a body of literature, it is important to understand the guiding principles
that directed the mind and words of the author. The Homeric epics, for example,
were written in dactylic hexameter, and thus it would be inappropriate to
judge the poetic achievement of these poems against modern poetical criteria
More often in other cultures than in cultures using modern English, literary
beauty was synonymous with form. Becoming so fluent in the use of a form that
the form itself becomes almost invisible, or at least does not draw undue attention
to itself, is the mark of a great artist. The presence of chiasmus in the English
text of the Book of Mormon supplies significant evidence that the book is more
beautiful than people had previously thought: “The form [of chiasmus] can
be aesthetically very pleasing, due in part to its vast potential to coordinate
rigorous and abrupt juxtapositions within a single unified literary system,
all while focusing on a point of central concern.”8 After Professor
David Noel Freedman and I had read through Alma 36 together with chiasmus in
mind, he remarked to me, “Mormons are very lucky. Their book is very beautiful.”
Others have responded similarly.
Evidence of Content and Meaning
Next, the presence of chiasmus may be evidence of the content
and meaning of a passage. Form is often linked with content.
In Mosiah 5:10–12, for example, King Benjamin is interested
in contrasting those who remember the covenantal name with those who do not,
or contrasting those who know the voice by which they will be called with
those who must be called by some other name. The structure of the chiasm in
this text accentuates this sharp contrast, the either/or separating these
two options (the basic inverted sequence is name,
called, left hand, remember, blotted out, transgression, transgress, blotted
out, remember, left hand, called, name). This formal structure
also places at the center the divinely decreed consequence, namely, the blotting
out of their names in the event of transgression, which the covenanters are
therefore sternly admonished to avoid.
Alma 41:13–15 describes the balanced sense of divine
justice, which will reward good for good, righteous for righteous, just for
just, mercy for mercy. Therefore, be merciful, deal justly, judge righteously,
and do good, and your rewards will be mercy, justice, righteousness, and goodness.
A similar effect is achieved in Leviticus 24, where the “bruise for bruise,
eye for eye” sense of talionic justice is reflected perfectly in the
chiastic structure that embraces that content.9
Many other examples can be given to illustrate the interpretive
value of chiasmus. Chiasmus offers evidence of a text’s meaning. For example,
form and content also mutually enhance each other in Alma 36, where Alma places
the turning point in his life at the turning point of his chapter; and in
Helaman 6 the extraordinary reciprocal agreement that allowed for travel and
trade between the lands north and south is memorialized by a perfectly balanced,
reciprocally structured chiasm.10
The presence of chiasmus in these passages is evidence that form and content
are harmoniously linked. How this harmony came about may call for further explanation,
but the fact of that harmony is established by the evidence.
Evidence about Characteristics of Individual Authors
In addition, the presence of chiasmus may prove something about the authors
of these passages. Although one cannot be certain to what extent inspiration
provided these authors with the form as well as the content of their messages,
on many occasions it is clear that the author alone was responsible for the
passage’s composition. For example, in Helaman 6 there is little reason to believe
that the chronicler who recorded the entry for the sixty-fourth year of the
reign of judges received the words that he wrote by way of direct revelation,
and there is little reason to take away from Alma personally the credit for
including the story of his own conversion when giving a blessing to his son
Helaman in Alma 36. The situation, however, is more complex in Mosiah 3, where
a fine example of chiasmus appears in the midst of the words spoken by the angel
to King Benjamin. This may be a case in which either the angel or Benjamin used
chiasmus in order to speak to the people “after the manner of their own
language” (D&C 1:24), or this elevated structure may have come entirely
from the angel and then may have become a pattern that subsequent Nephite writers
chose to accentuate.
Skill and Training
To the extent that Book of Mormon authors created orderly,
complex, coherent, beautiful, impressive, and well-structured patterns, this
proves that these authors were well trained. Fine examples of chiasmus are
consistent with claims made by Nephi, Enos, and others that they were taught
in the languages of their fathers (see 1 Nephi 1:1–2; Enos 1:1;
Mosiah 1:2). Not everyone in Book of Mormon civilizations could read or write,
and the groups that had records were culturally, religiously, socially, politically,
and in other ways superior to those that did not. Cultivating a high
proficiency in language would have been a significant and highly valued achievement
in the lives of these authors, and the presence of chiasmus indicates that
these authors were skilled writers who took their writing tasks seriously.
The scribes in Egypt served a holy function. Writing was not a simply mundane
function but virtually sacral.11 Many indications demonstrate that
“the ancient concern for language and its features in many periods may
have far surpassed our own modern verbal skills.”12 The appearance
of chiasmus in their texts is therefore evidence of the skill of these authors.
Care and Diligence
Not only were these Book of Mormon authors well trained, but,
as chiasmus indicates, they were careful in carrying out their training
and utilizing their skills. The texts of the Book of Mormon do not appear
to have been extemporaneous speeches. These structured passages are more polished
and better organized than first drafts. For example, King Benjamin’s speech
was not extemporaneous but was written out so that all who were not within
the sound of his voice might receive his words (see Mosiah 2:8). The presence
of chiasmus in such a text is evidence that these authors were careful when
Revisions and Reworkings
Moreover, there is evidence that Book of Mormon writers tended
to use chiasmus and perhaps other complex structures when they reworked their
own earlier texts. Nephi reports that he recorded his life history on
several occasions (see 1 Nephi 9:2; 19:1–5). His final report,
recorded on his small plates, which appears to have been well organized “with
almost every element in the first half of the book having a specific counterpart
in the second half,”13 bespeaks a lifetime of reflection,
and his writing of this account is a literary monument to his entire life.
Similarly, the restructuring of the abrupt direct antithetical parallelisms
in Mosiah 27:29–30 into the divided chiastic pattern of Alma 36 (which
reuses many of the words and phrases from the earlier account and regroups
them in an overall chiastic pattern) demonstrates that these authors were
consistent and conscientious in their careful creation of the Book
of Mormon text as we know it.
Chiasmus is also evidence that these texts were purposefully written to center
on certain key ideas. Chiasmus is evidence of the main thoughts of these writers.
For example, the contrast between pain and joy in Alma 36, or the progression
of King Benjamin’s instruction about service, which begins in Mosiah 2:17 and
reappears in Mosiah 2:21 and ends in Mosiah 5:13, are threads that are detected
and exposed by chiastic analysis. Study of these factors provides evidence of
these authors’ intentional focus and clear emphasis.
Evidence of Multiple Authorship
Not all authors use chiasmus, and those who do do not use
it in the same ways. Thus, chiasmus can provide evidence of multiple authorship
in the Book of Mormon to the extent that one can conclude that the writings
of a certain author use chiasmus consistently and distinctly from the writings of
Comparative Analysis between Authors
King Benjamin, on the one hand, is quite classical and pure
in his use of chiasmus. His structures are straightforward, perhaps reflecting
his own interest in the classical education of his sons (see Mosiah 1:2).
King Benjamin turns to chiasmus in driving home his final abstract alternatives,
consistently using words like unless, except, and therefore as important warnings
in the structure. For instance, he says, “except they humble themselves
. . . ; unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit”
(Mosiah 3:18–19) and “except it be through transgression; therefore
take heed . . .” (Mosiah 5:11). Alma the Younger, on the
other hand, seems to have been much more creative and personal in his use
of chiasmus. The pair of lists that is inverted to become a list of pairs
in the opposite order in Alma 41:13–15 is brilliantly creative and encouraging,
as is his optimistic conversion account that turns on his innermost personal
thoughts in Alma 36:19. Abinadi and others seem to have used chiasmus very
little, if at all.
Likewise, shifts in usage from one author to another, or from one generation
to another, may also offer interesting proof of historical development within
the Nephite civilization. All civilizations tend to go through cycles, experiencing
renaissances and renewals triggered by a revival of people’s interest in classical
or earlier forms, then launching out again in their own new creative direction,
only to have that creative effort burn out and have the cycle repeat and move
on into another new direction. Social forces such as war, poverty, and trends
of retrenchment and regeneration come and go. The manner in which chiasmus and
many other literary devices are used or not used in such movements by one author
or the next gives some evidence of the course of Nephite civilization.
Evidence about Nephite Culture and Society
Chiasmus may also prove things about the intellectual history or artistic movements
from time to time within Nephite culture and society. For example, because chiasmus
aids people in memorization, its presence may disclose something about a people’s
dependence on oral transmission of teachings and stories. Surely “the ordering
of terms is a helpful tool in memorization.”14 Moreover, chiasmus
may have been used for emphasis in instruction to impress the mind with certain
memorable words and phrases. Thus, the presence of chiasmus in Nephite writing
may be evidence of the way in which these writings were used by the people in
instruction in the home and in the community. Indeed, it is a form that
leaves a deep and lasting impression, which people will remember vividly and
literally.”15 Paul Gaechter even labeled chiasmus as the “traditional
higher form of teaching.”16 Thus, the presence of chiasmus in
Nephite texts may give some evidence of the purposes served by written texts
in that society.
Evidence about the Abridger
Furthermore, the presence of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon offers evidence
to confirm that this text was in fact compiled and abridged from underlying
records, as the book claims. The various units within the text seem to have
been preserved intact from their underlying sources, and the presence of chiasmus
in those units corroborates the claim that the Book of Mormon was assembled
from a set of underlying records. The fact that these structures survived the
abridging process is also evidence that Mormon was relatively conservative in
his abridging process, at least as far as one can determine. In other words,
Mormon seems to have been relatively careful to quote entire texts—such
as King Benjamin’s speech, Alma’s blessing to Helaman, and the annual report
for the sixty-fourth year of the reign of the judges—as he incorporated
those records into his own account. Mormon was often careful to identify when
he was quoting from underlying sources as opposed to paraphrasing them. That
his paraphrases tend to feature very little in the way of chiasmus also shows
that the style of the abridger was different from the style of the underlying
texts brought into the final record by direct quotation.
Comparative Analysis between Cultures and Evidence of Israelite Origins
Having established the nature and degree of chiasmus in the
Book of Mormon, one is prepared to enter into the broader arena of comparative
studies. Comparative literature serves many purposes in terms of identifying
both similarities and differences in languages and literatures from one culture
to another. The writing styles from one culture to the next, and even within
a single culture from century to century, do not remain static or appear identically.
Thus, one should not expect literature in the Book of Mormon to be exactly
the same as any other literature. Even assuming that Nephite culture originated
in Israelite society in the late seventh century B.C., we must concede that
its characteristics and concerns undoubtedly diverged somewhat from that point
of origin as it went its own way in its new surroundings, developed its
own value priorities, had its own revelations, and was limited by its
own resources and circumstances.
An Israelite Characteristic
Nevertheless, the presence of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon
is certainly consistent with its claim of Israelite origins. There can
be no question that chiasmus was used heavily in ancient Israelite writing
at and around the time of Lehi. It may even be fair to say that chiasmus was
a dominant, if not essential, element of Hebrew writing in that day. Over
the years, I have compiled a bibliography of articles and books about chiasmus
in world literatures; presently it contains 522 entries, 439 of which pertain
to studies of biblical passages (306 in the Old Testament and 133 in the New
Testament).17 By this measure, about 85 percent of scholarly interest
in chiasmus arises out of and pertains to biblical studies (one-fifth of the
remaining 15 percent deals with the Book of Mormon). If this can be used as
a general gauge of the value placed by scholars on using this tool in analyzing
their respective bodies of literature, then chiasmus is far and away more
important in biblical studies than in any other corpus of world literature.
Accordingly, if the Book of Mormon did not contain chiasmus, one would undoubtedly
count this against the book as a glaring deficiency. If the absence of chiasmus
would be inconsistent with its claim of Israelite origins, then the presence
of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon is, at least to an equal extent, evidence
corroborating that claim.
Degree of Uniqueness
The extent to which this evidence may be viewed as persuasive,
substantial, or perhaps even conclusive turns on the additional element of
uniqueness. Because it is possible for chiasmus to occur in any world literature,
its presence does not necessarily establish a causal connection or direct
linkage between one text and another. On the other hand, mere presence alone
is not the only factor involved in the calculation. To the extent that chiasmus
is used under similar circumstances in two bodies of literature, to the extent
that inverted parallel passages are constructed in similar ways from one cultural
or historical setting to the next, to the extent that chiasmus is used for
similar purposes in comparable settings, to the extent that it appears
in units of similar lengths, to the extent that key elements of vocabulary,
syntax, and types of concepts typically involved in chiastic patterns are
the same, then a full range of comparative factors can be generated to assess
the degree to which various literatures use chiasmus in similar or divergent
Work of this nature remains to be done on a comprehensive
scale to evaluate the comparative frequencies and characteristics of chiasmus
in Hebrew literature and in the Book of Mormon, but already certain notable
similarities can be observed (for example, between the embodiment of the ancient
Israelite concept of justice in Alma 41:13–15 and the very similar use
of chiasmus in Leviticus 24:13–23, one of the finest examples of chiasmus
in the Hebrew Bible). Close analysis of factors that can indicate the degree
of unique congruence between chiasmus in the Old Testament and in the Book
of Mormon would put a person in a stronger position to draw more certain conclusions
about what the evidence actually proves in terms of the Book of Mormon’s Israelite
origins. While such work remains to be completed, extensive ad hoc comparison
has impressed me that these two bodies of literature are close to each other
in several respects.
In addition to evaluating the use of chiasmus in the Hebrew
Bible and in the Book of Mormon, a similar analysis would then need to be
run on the presence of chiasmus in all other bodies of literature. Scholars
would then be in a position to draw further comparative conclusions. In general,
one may feel fairly confident about the assertion that chiasmus is not natural
to the Western, or the American, mind. Repetition is not a favored element
of writing in modern style. Literary critics, such as Mark Twain in the nineteenth
century, found the style of writing in the Book of Mormon to be unattractive,
perhaps because of its repetitiveness, offering further evidence
that the style of the book was not entirely natural to the nineteenth-century
mind. The degree to which chiasmus is absent from American literature, however,
has not been systematically ascertained; thus, the evidentiary value of chiasmus
in the Book of Mormon must of course be qualified accordingly.
Students of chiasmus in Mormon literature, on all sides of
the issue, have naturally gone looking for chiasmus in other writings of Joseph
Smith. On the one hand, some enemies of the Book of Mormon have purported
to find chiasmus in the Doctrine and Covenants and in numerous other LDS writings,
thereby attempting to prove that chiasmus can happen anywhere or was simply
second nature to Joseph Smith or to Mormon rhetoric. On the other extreme,
people supporting the divinity of the Book of Mormon have adopted another
hypothesis—that chiasmus is to be found everywhere in divine literature
and, in fact, is a sine qua non of all authentic revelations. I have examined
numerous proposed examples of chiasmus in the writings of Joseph Smith and
in other LDS sources. Perhaps my standards are wrong or too severe in the
objectivity that I insist upon before I am willing to label a passage as chiastic,
but I find very few of these proposed passages to be convincingly chiastic.
It is true that Joseph Smith’s language tended to be repetitious, but a simple
repetition does not create a chiasm. In particular, other rhetorical devices
seem to be more dominant in the texts of the Doctrine and Covenants and elsewhere.
Thus, I have found that chiasmus is not used nearly to the same degree or
in the same way in the Doctrine and Covenants or in the Pearl of Great Price
as it is in the Book of Mormon. Again, although no systematic study of this
issue has been completed, my assessment is based on the careful examination
of numerous structures from various sources.
In the same vein, one must also be equally cautious about
the work of chiasmus fanatics who have labeled virtually every passage in
the Book of Mormon as chiastic. A few biblical scholars have gone overboard
with the concept as well. A good test might be to give an unmarked text to
ten different uncoached but knowledgeable people to see whether most of them
discover the same structure as the one that has been proposed. The more divergence
that results, the less objective the suggested pattern would be.
For the time being, chiasmus offers good evidence that the
Book of Mormon is strongly plausible in its claim of Israelite origin.
Where this evidence would land in terms of its degree or strength of probability,
however, is open to subjective evaluation. While one should not overstate
the force and effect of this evidence, neither should one understate it. Does
the structure of Alma 36 give that text a thirty percent chance of having
Israelite influence in its cultural background? A forty-five percent chance?
A fifty-five percent chance? An eighty percent chance? Certainly, this remarkable
structure raises considerably more than a zero percent chance but likewise
something less than a hundred percent chance. The nature of evidence is such
that it does not translate itself automatically into quantifiable percentages
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.
On the other hand, it may be suggested that Joseph Smith could have sensed
intuitively the nature and importance of chiasmus as a reader of the Bible.
This factor, however, is not very persuasive for several reasons. First, it
is rarely the case that the Hebrew or Greek chiastic patterns have been preserved
rigorously through the process of English translation. In many cases, the English
translators preferred to correct the inverted verb orders and to restructure
them in more natural English word orders. Moreover, many biblical scholars who
work regularly with the texts do not naturally write in chiastic forms themselves,
and many of them are not aware, either consciously or subconsciously, of the
chiastic structure of biblical text. When I presented a paper on chiasmus in
biblical law to a conference of the Jewish Law Association held in Boston, several
distinguished Jewish scholars were quite astonished that a Gentile could show
them something as distinctive and remarkable in their own Torah as the arrangements
in Leviticus 24 and elsewhere. I was not the first to discover chiasmus in Leviticus
24, but the present point is simply to show that structures such as these do
not naturally jump out at readers—even at those who read this text regularly
and assiduously, and in Hebrew—without someone pointing these patterns
out to them. Consequently, it assumes too much to believe that the young Joseph
Smith’s reading of the King James English adequately explains the extensive
and objectively rigorous instances of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon. I am not
aware of anyone who seriously contends that Joseph Smith or anyone associated
with him knew or could have known of chiasmus or had the training or time or
academic inclination to discover this principle for himself. The evidence is
overwhelming against such a claim.
Evidence of Translation from a Hebrew Text
Occasionally, chiasmus combines with other factors to provide
additional evidence that the Book of Mormon was translated from an underlying
Hebrew text. In Helaman 6:10, for example, the chiastic turning point features
the two words “Lord” and “Zedekiah” at the very center
of this textual unit (the center of Helaman 6:7–13 features the following
words: south, Lehi, north, Mulek, Zedekiah; Lord, Mulek, north, Lehi, south).
The theophoric suffix at the end of the name Zedekiah (?iah) would in all probability
have been obvious to the ancient reader as an element clearly paralleling
the related Hebrew word for “Lord.” Since this chiasm works even
better in Hebrew than it does in English, it is reasonable to count this as
further evidence that the chiasm was originally composed in Hebrew or a related
No comprehensive analysis of the chiastic passages in the Book of Mormon has
ever been undertaken to determine how many of these chiasms would in certain
respects work better in Hebrew than they do in English, but such a study should
probably be undertaken even in spite of its obvious limitations. Simultaneously,
the same kind of examination should probably be initiated with respect to other
forms of parallelism and other literary qualities of the Book of Mormon. Of
course, such studies would never produce conclusive results, because their conclusions
would be based on conjectures as to what the underlying text might originally
have been. But until such studies are undertaken, it remains impossible to judge
what kind of results they might generate. In general terms, however, the presence
of the purposeful orderliness of these texts yields relatively strong evidence
that the text was not produced alone by a process of rough-draft dictation.
Yet the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon, which is essentially its
text today, is known to have been produced in exactly this fashion, as a first-draft
dictation, which is consistent with Joseph Smith’s claim that it was translated
from an older document.
Evidence about the Nature of the Translation
Finally, chiasmus may prove something about the precision of Joseph Smith’s
work as translator. Evidently, his translation was consistent. Each time a word
appeared within a given framework, it seems to have been rendered by the same
English word. Otherwise, structures such as Mosiah 5:10–12, Alma 41:13–15,
and others would not have survived through the translation process. Of course,
it is impossible to know how many other parallelisms or other literary features
might have been lost in the translation process, but in many cases, it is possible
to see that an internally consistent result was produced in the English text,
presumably by virtue of a relatively literal and consistent method of translation
from the ancient record.
Thus, the presence of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon demonstrates
many things about the English text, the writers of the book, the Nephites’
civilization, the abridgment by Mormon, the origins of Nephite culture, comparative
elements regarding other cultures, the underlying Hebrew nature of the
text, and the translation by Joseph Smith. Although it is difficult to determine
exactly what is proved by chiasmus, its presence is evidence of numerous qualities
and features. In my opinion, the multiple phenomena of chiasmus in the Book
of Mormon amount to a very strong complex of interlocking evidences that the
book is an ancient record that originated just as its authors and its translator
said it did.
As evidence of Book of Mormon authorship, the discovery of
biblical-style chiasms in the Book of Mormon strongly tends to reduce the
probability that Joseph Smith or any of his contemporaries could have written
the book . For those who are inclined to think about such matters in terms
of statistical probabilities, the multiple findings discussed in this essay
may be summarized in the form of a series of predictions: for instance, what
is the likelihood of chiasms not only accidentally occurring, but also intensifying
the orderly character of the text, increasing the intricate depth of the text,
significantly enhancing its artistic achievement, precisely fitting natural
textual units, systematically clarifying meaning and providing demonstrable
keys to textual interpretation, maintaining stylistic consistency within
the writings of individual authors, emerging as reworkings of earlier
texts, corresponding with other dimensions of authorial intent, appearing
principally in quoted original texts as opposed to abridged materials, and
working even better in Hebrew than English? The probability that all
these and other similar predictions would simultaneously occur becomes
remotely small, lending considerable cumulative weight that corroborates the
explanation of the book’s origins declared by Joseph Smith and claimed by
the book itself.
This paper draws together things I have said about chiasmus
for over twenty-five years, but it focuses for the first time specifically
on the question of what this all may prove. Perhaps in the end, and as I stated
in 1981, “the study of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon shows how badly
misunderstood a writing can be if it is not examined carefully.”18
Indeed, the Book of Mormon has probably suffered more than its fair share
of misunderstanding. Thomas O’Dea once remarked that the Book of Mormon “has
not been universally considered as one of those books that must be read in
order to have an opinion on it.”19 Surely, however, the book
must be read, and read with sufficient effort to perceive its form and content.
As is generally true, “wherever chiasmus demonstrably exists, its potential
impact on interpretation and textual analysis stands to be profound,”20
and thus, as is the case with much of ancient literature, the design and depth
of the Book of Mormon often comes to light only when the book is studied with
chiastic and other ancient literary principles in mind.
Obviously much work remains to be done before we will come to a full assessment
of the weight to be given to this evidence with respect to various inquiries
about the book. Chiasmus provides probative information that helps to answer
numerous questions about the Book of Mormon. It may not prove absolutely that
the Book of Mormon is or is not anything in particular, but then it is rarely
the case that evidence of any kind ever produces results that conclusive. Evidence
is simply an indication of, a probing of, things not seen. With these elements
in mind, the study of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon will undoubtedly continue
to be a valuable tool in probing or proving the texts of the Book of Mormon
and their possible meanings.
1. John W. Welch, “Chiasmus in the
Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies 10/1 (1969): 69–84; slightly
revised and reprinted in Noel B. Reynolds, ed., Book of Mormon Authorship (Provo: BYU Religious
Studies Center, 1982), 33–52, republished in 1996 by FARMS.
2. For criteria of chiasmus, see Nils Wilhelm
Lund, Chiasmus in the New Testament
(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1942), 40–1; John
W. Welch, ed., Chiasmus in Antiquity
(Hildesheim, Germany: Gerstenberg, 1981), 11, 13; John W. Welch, “Criteria
for Identifying the Presence of Chiasmus” (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1989),
expanded and updated as “Criteria for Identifying and Evaluating the
Presence of Chiasmus,” Journal
of Book of Mormon Studies 4/2 (1995): 1–14. For an illustration
of the application of the fifteen criteria discussed in the article on identifying
the presence of chiasmus, see John W. Welch, “A Masterpiece: Alma 36,”
in Rediscovering the Book of
Mormon, ed. John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne (Salt Lake
City: Deseret Book, 1991), 114–31, and my longer paper on the same subject,
“Chiasmus in Alma 36″ (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1989).
3. For a recent discussion of this topic,
see John W. Welch, “The Power of Evidence in the Nurturing of Faith,”
in Nurturing Faith through the
Book of Mormon: The Twenty-Fourth Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium
(Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1995), 149–86.
4. Welch, Chiasmus
in Antiquity, 13.
5. Welch, “Chiasmus in Alma 36.”
6. John W. Welch, “Three Accounts of
Alma’s Conversion,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon,
7. Welch, Chiasmus
in Antiquity, 12.
9. John W. Welch, “Chiasmus in Biblical
Law,” Jewish Law Association
Studies IV: The Boston Conference Volume, ed. Bernard Jackson
(Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990), 5–22, especially 7–11.
10. John W. Welch, “Chiasmus in Helaman 6:7–13″
(Provo: FARMS, 1987); see also Welch, Reexploring the Book of Mormon,
11. Hugh W. Nibley, “The Genesis of the Written Word,”
New Era (September
12. Welch, Chiasmus in Antiquity, 14.
13. Ibid., 199. For a different proposed
analysis, see Noel B. Reynolds, “Nephi’s Outline,” BYU Studies 20/2 (1980): 131–49,
reprinted in Reynolds, Book of
Mormon Authorship, 53–74; parts of Reynold’s substructural
analysis are compatible with my view that 1 Nephi was divided from 2 Nephi
in order to signal that 1 Nephi as a whole was composed as a single structure.
14. Welch, Chiasmus in Antiquity, 12.
15. See Welch, Chiasmus in Antiquity, 12 n.
16. Paul Gaechter, Die literarische Kunst im Matthπus Evangelium
(Stuttgart, Germany: Katholishes Bibelwerk, 1965), 7; Welch, Chiasmus in Antiquity, 12.
17. The most recent edition of this bibliography is available
from FARMS. An earlier version of this document, based on the bibliography
in Chiasmus in Antiquity,
was first offered by FARMS in 1987.
18. Welch, Chiasmus in Antiquity, 209.
19. Thomas F. O’Dea, The Mormons (Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 1957), 26.
20. Welch, Chiasmus in Antiquity, 15.