Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon

If you engage LDS apologists long enough, eventually you’re bound to come across the topic of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon.  In the simplest, broadest sense, a chiasmus is a literary device that uses inverted parallelism, which can be labelled as A B B A.  For instance:

The first shall be last and the last shall be first.

A – first

B – last

B – last

A – first

There’s really no limit to how many elements can comprise a chiasmus, with additional C, D, E, F, G, etc. elements in between.

When the going get tough, the tough get going.

A  – going

B – gets

C – tough

C – tough

B – get

A – going

All for one and one for all.

A – all

B – for

C – one

D – and

C – one

B – for

A – all

You’ll notice aside from the first biblical example, the rest I’ve cited are common, everyday English idioms.  While ancient texts are rich in chiasmus, there usage is not by any means exclusively or primarily limited to ancient or classical literature, it is a device that has never been in disuse and continues to live on today.  While admittedly there are some simple chiasmus evident in the Book of Mormon, this is not, as the apologists would lead people to believe, an indication that the text is any older than the 19th century.  English literature, from Shakespeare and his contemporaries into the modern age, have produced perhaps more examples of chiasmus than can be found in antiquity.  Joseph Smith’s own personal writing style in Doctrines & Covenants and the Book of Abraham demonstrates use of this technique, so there’s really no reason to look for any other source than him as the author.  The Mormon focus on chiasmus as supposed proof of ancient origin was hilariously parodied in an article titled “Hebraicisms, Chiasmus, and Other internal evidence for ancient authorship in Green Eggs and Ham, demonstrating that ancient authorship could be unreasonably suggested for nearly any work of literature.

While the legitimate chiasmus found in the Book of Mormon are characteristic of the 1800’s, it is regrettable that Mormons fail to appreciate the literary merit of them beyond the apologetic value that they erroneously believe they hold.  Chiasmus is, after all, an undeniable quality of good writing, but sadly Mormons do not appreciate Joseph Smith’s work for its literary achievements because they only see value in the Book of Mormon as revealed scripture.

On top of that, Mormons go one step further from simple chiasmus to suggesting long-form chiasmus in entire chapters (such as Alma 36), and even entire books, like 1 Nephi.  It’s a completely human error to want to find order and design where there is none, and all the elaborate and divergent chiastic diagrams created by Mormons reflect this error.  It’s interesting that while many may try to argue this case of 1 Nephi, no two Mormon scholars seem to be able to independently produce the same structural diagram, and the ones they produce are usually odd-shaped and atypical of historical examples.  Mormons seem to unanimously agree that 1 Nephi is a chiasmus, even though none of them can agree on what precisely that chiasmus is.

The easiest solution to these discrepancies is that there really is no organized structure to be found.  The Book of Mormon is a highly repetitive book that runs on, with few identifiable pericopes.  Basically, it’s exactly the writing style one would expect to find in a book that was dictated orally.  Most of the repetition, I believe, can be attributed to Joseph Smith not being able to remember if he had mentioned an important detail already or not.  As many of the purported chiasmi occur in the Small Plates of Nephi, which were Joseph Smith’s retelling of the lost pages, it suggests he had considerable confusion remembering if he had included certain details the second time around.

One point of repetition which I think demonstrates this can be found as Nephi’s family journeys through the desert before crossing the ocean:

And so great were the blessings blesof the Lord upon us, that while we did live upon raw meat in the wilderness, our women did give plenty of suck for their children, and were strong, yea, even like unto the men; and they began to bear their journeyings without murmurings.  1 Nephi 17:2

No explanation about their eating raw meat is given until paragraphs later:

For the Lord had not hitherto suffered that we should make much fire, as we journeyed in the wilderness; for he said: I will make thy food become sweet, that ye cook it not.  1 Nephi 17:12

Since this was a rather inventive concept, it most likely appeared in the lost pages (transcribed by Martin Harris) and Joseph Smith liked it so much he wanted to carry it over into the new version.  However, it appears he introduced the idea forgetting he hadn’t already explained it in this version.  Perhaps his new scribe at the time (presumably Oliver Cowdery) questioned this detail, which prompted him to repeat it with the explanation; the extent of collaboration between Joseph and his scribes can’t really be known but can’t be dismissed either.  Whatever the case, it seems clear that Joseph Smith realized his error shortly after and immediately corrected it.  Other times, it seems he would repeat details just in case, to be better safe than sorry.  While the repetition may be deliberate and purposeful, there’s no evidence to suggest the author was trying to craft a chiasmus.

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2 Comments

Filed under Mormonism

2 responses to “Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon

  1. JT

    Thanks for this post.

    I recently read a book by Lofte Payne (likely a pseudonym) entitled Joseph Smith, The Make Believe Martyr: Why the Book of Mormon is America’s Best fiction.

    It was as interesting fringe book – I wrote about it on March 13, 2012 at:

    http://jturnonmormonism.wordpress.com/

    In any case, there is a chapter on Chiasmi that makes extraordinary claims with regard to

    Alma 22:29- 34

    Alma 36

    Alma 42

    Thought you may be interested and I would be interested in your thoughts if you are.

    I copied the relevant portions from the Payne book – they are in the drop box folder at:

    http://dl.dropbox.com/u/13817676/Chiasmus%20in%20Make-Believe%20Martyr%20copy.pdf

    Best to respond at the March 13 blog post.

    Thanks

    JT

  2. I agree with your statement, “It’s a completely human error to want to find order and design where there is none,…”. Our statistical studies indicate that most claims of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon, Green Eggs and Ham, and other works could easily have come about by chance. However, a handful of chiasms have low probabilities of coming about by chance and high likelihoods of authorial intent. 1 Nephi is not among them. See:

    “Does chiasmus appear in the Book of Mormon by chance?,” B. F. Edwards and W. F. Edwards, BYU Studies 43, no. 2, 103 (2004); http://works.bepress.com/boyd_edwards/164/

    When Are Chiasms Admissible as Evidence?,” B. F. Edwards and W. F. Edwards, BYU Studies 49, no. 4, 131 (2010); http://works.bepress.com/boyd_edwards/177/

    Cheers!
    Boyd Edwards

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