Book of Mormon/Evidences/Hebraisms/Chiasmus

From FairMormon
Jump to: navigation, search

    Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon


Chiasmus is a form of parallelism, in which related or contrasting ideas are placed in juxtaposition for emphasis. The presence of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon has generated criticism that it is either coincidental, an artifact of the observer, or simply not impressive, since examples of chiastic patterns have been found in the Doctrine and Covenants or other 19th century writing.


Small, "trivial" chiastic structures containing only a few elements might well arise through chance or English rhetoric, especially when other elements within the text are not considered in the analysis.

However, critics ignore numerous complex, subtle, and meaningful chiamus when they assume that all of the Book of Mormon's inverted parallel structures are so simple. On the other hand, more work needs to be done to evaluate the hundreds of proposed chiastic readings of the Book of Mormon.[1] Some of them will inevitably end up as less likely than others, though statistical analysis has sustained the presence of some Book of Mormon chiasmus,[2] and failed to support it in some of Joseph's modern writings.[3]

And for LDS members, the value of these readings is less about demonstrating historicity in the text, and more about interpreting the text with the intentions of the authors in mind, as viewed through their use of rhetorical figures.

FairMormon Perspectives offers answers to these questions

John W. Welch"Forty-five Years of Chiasmus Conversations, Criteria, and Creativity: What Chiasmus Proves and Does Not Prove," Proceedings of the 2012 FAIR Conference (August 2012)

It’s hard to believe that the discovery of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon took place almost 45 years ago. I’m not that old! But indeed, it took place 45 years ago in Germany, in August 1967. A full account of that story is in the 2007 issue of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, which was published at the 40th anniversary of that discovery.1 (It and a lot of the other things I will be mentioning today are available free online on the Maxwell Institute website,, or the BYU Studies website.) Appropriately, this article has recently been translated and published in German under the title “The Discovery of Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon in Germany.”2 The German Saints are proud that the discovery happened in Germany.

I’ve been asked to tell the story many times. I’m always happy to oblige. In many ways it epitomizes the entire 45-year sequel of continuing conversations. I shall try today to emphasize some rarely used contemporary documents and pictures to flesh out for you what happened.

Click here to view the complete article

The Neal A. Maxwell Institute responds to these questions

John Welch,"Criteria for Identifying and Evaluating the Presence of Chiasmus", Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 4/2 (1995)

This article defines fifteen criteria one can use to measure the strength or weakness of a proposed chiastic pattern in a given text. The need for rigor in such studies depends primarily on how the results of the proposed structural analyses will be used. Ultimately, analysts may not know with certainty whether an author created inverted parallel structures intentionally or not; but by examining a text from various angles, one may assess the likelihood that an author consciously employed chiasmus to achieve specific literary purposes.

Click here to view the complete article

Detailed Analysis

What is chiasmus?

Chiasmus is a poetical or rhetorical form used by many languages, including Sumero-Akkadian [Sumeria, Assyria, Babylon], Ugaritic [Syrian area circa. 2000 B.C.] , Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, the Talmud, the New Testament, Greek, and Latin.[4]

Chiasmus is a form of parallelism, in which related or contrasting ideas are placed in juxtaposition for emphasis. Chiasmus uses "inverted parallelism," and takes its name from the Greek letter chi (χ) which looks like an English "X". This name was chosen to reflect the pattern of chiasmus:

Chiasmus pattern
Idea A
Idea B
Idea C
Central idea D (the 'turning point' or 'cross' of the chi)
Idea D repeated (optional)
Idea C repeated
Idea B repeated

Idea A repeated

Because chiasmus relies, to an extent, on relationships between ideas or concepts, as well as on words (e.g. on rhymes or meter) it can survive translation remarkably intact, even if the translator is unaware of its presence. John W. Welch was the first to notice chiastic structures in the Book of Mormon.[5]

Chiasmus itself can be understood in two distinct ways. It can be seen simply as a structural element (which describes the parallels in inverted order). It can also be seen as a rhetorical figure which employs this structure. While the second definition requires a degree of intentionality on the part of the author, the first does not. The difficulty lies in assessing whether or not a proposed example of chiasmus is really chiasmus or not - that is, is it an intentional figure or an accidental occurrence.

Chiasmus as a structure can be found nearly everywhere in prose. However, without considering the rhetorical value of the text, we can only be relatively certain of the intentionality of chiasmus when its structure is offset from the surrounding text in a way that draws our attention to it. This usually only occurs within poetic material where the text around the proposed chiasmus also follows relatively rigid (and intentional) textual patternings. Semitic poetry, for example, frequently uses paired parallel phrases. A passage might go something like this:

A:A' B:B' C:C'

And so on. If on the other hand, in the middle of a series of these parallelisms, we encounter something like this:

A:A' B:B' C:D:E:E':D':C' F:F' G:G'

Then we would have a chiastic structure interrupting the more typical paired parallelisms, and the use of chiasmus would be viewed strongly as being an intentional departure from the parallels that surround it - and thus a real example of chiasmus. This kind of proof does not work in general prose - where we normally do not expect to see structured text. Arguments for the occurrence in prose (and in poetics) are usually centered around the rhetorical value of the text. This can appear in several ways. A classic example of the rhetorical value of a chiasmus is seen in the Hebrew Psalm 82. There, the text uses a word which is ambiguous in Hebrew - meaning either "to rule" or "to judge" (in verses 1,2,3 and 8). The intial instances, when read in Hebrew are ambiguous until, through the chiastic structure, they are explained, and the first half of the poem can be re-read and the ambiguity resolved. Thankfully, when translated, most translators resolve the ambiguity for us. Scholars have developed a series of rules and criteria that can be used to help identify when a proposed chiasmus is an intentional one. Accidental chiastic structures are of little value in textual interpretation, since viewing one as intentional (when it wasn't) may lead to misinterpretation of the text. While the center of a chiasmus is usually the main point of the structure, this is not always the case, further complicating the issue.

While Chiasmus as a term was not known to Joseph Smith (the term "chiasmus" was not coined as a reference to this structure until 1871), its use in English, and its description as a rhetorical figure preceded the creation of the Book of Mormon significantly. Two early descriptions of the figure can be found in George Puttenham (1589) who decribed it as: "Ye haue a figure which takes a couple of words to play with in a verse, and by making them to chaunge and shift one into others place they do very pretily exchange and shift the sence." A few years earlier (1577), Henry Peachem, in his book of rhetorical tropes The Garden of Eloquence wrote: "The use serueth properlie to praise, dispraise, to distinguish, but most commonly to confute by the inuersion of the sentence."


Critics have proposed what might be called the "hickory dickory dock" theory of chiasmus. They point out that the children's nursery rhyme Hickory Dickory Dock is chiastic:

Hickory Dickory Dock as Chiasmus
A - Hickory dickory dock
B - The mouse ran up the clock
C (central) - The clock struck one
B' - The mouse ran down

A' - Hickory dickory dock

To be sure, this is a trivial example. If this was the only sort of chiasmus to be found in the Book of Mormon, then it would be weak evidence, at best, of any sort of ancient origin for the text. Such simple examples of chiasmus are well known in English speech. This particular example becomes a bit more complicated, of course, because this poem can also be rewritten in a different format:

Hickory Dickory Dock as Limerick
Hickory dickory dock

The mouse ran up the clock

The clock struck one
The mouse ran down

Hickory dickory dock

Which structural label better describes the poem? Was it intended to be read chiastically? Or was it intended to be a limerick? Or does neither description best suit the likely intent of the author?

From the Bible
A - The last
B - shall be first
B' - and the first

A' - shall be last.

From: Matthew 9:30, Matthew 20:16

From Shakespeare
A - Fair is
B - foul
B' - and foul

A' - is fair.

From: Macbeth, Act I, scene 1, lines 11–12.

The "hickory dickory dock" theory would seem to be a strawman. Such simple examples do exist in the Book of Mormon, (examples) but they are not the most impressive ones. Critics try to pretend that the simple, trivial parallelisms represent all such chiastic samples in the Book of Mormon. If Joseph Smith was writing the Book of Mormon himself, he might well compose simple parallelisms intentionally, or even accidentally.

Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon

The complex examples within the Book of Mormon show much greater sophistication than a child's nursery rhyme.

One might honestly debate the merit of the less clear examples of "chiasmus" in the Book of Mormon, in which believers may have been over-enthusiastic. And it is debated whether or not examples of macro-chiasmus (chiasms which span many chapters of text) should be properly identified as chiastic. But the examples given above are not as arbitrary. They are detailed, enhance the meaning of the text when appreciated, and require no 'special pleading' for anyone to notice them. They exist within well defined textual boundaries, and often display secondary features, making an argument for coincidence far less appealing. It is true that there are differences of opinions on some of the more widely recognized chiasmus in the Book of Mormon in terms of how they should be phrase, but this doesn't detract from the validity of the expression. To provide an example, here is one possible reading of Mosiah 5:10-12 as a chiasmus (slightly different from the version linked to above):

Mosiah 5:10-12 as Chiasmus
A - whosoever shall not take upon him the name of Christ (man)
B - must be called by some other name (divine)
C - therefore, he findeth himself on the left hand of God (man)
D - And I would that ye should remember also, that this is the name that I said I should give unto you (divine)
E - that never should be blotted out, except it be through transgression (divine)
E' - therefore, take heed that ye do not transgree, that the name be not blotted out of your hearts (man)
D' - I say unto you, I would that ye should remember to retain the name written always in your hearts (man)
C' - that ye are not found on the left hand of God, (divine)
B' - but that ye hear and know the voice by which ye shall be called, (man)

A' - and also, the name by which he shall call you (divine)

This chiasmus is interesting because it alternates the roles of man and God throughout the structure - except at the center, where those roles are reversed.

Knowledge of chiasmus in Joseph Smith's era

Some work had been published on Hebrew poetry previous to the publication of the Book of Mormon. If critics of the Book of Mormon are to make their case for 19th century authorship, they need to demonstrate that Joseph Smith had access to and relied on contemporary research into Hebrew parallelism. John Welch recently summarized the issue:

I would qualify or clarify my position simply to assert a very low probability that Joseph Smith knew anything about chiasmus in 1829, being careful not to imply, claim, or suggest complete ignorance of this literary form in America at that time.
∗       ∗       ∗
Although further information may yet come forth to change this view (and I welcome any other information that may come to light), I do not believe that Joseph Smith knew anything about chiasmus from [contemporary] publications, even though it is remotely possible that he could have. While one cannot be sure on such matters, and more work probably remains to be done on this topic, I know of no evidence that [such works] reached America, let alone Palmyra or Harmony, in the 1820s; and no copy of [the major work of the period] was found on the book lists of the Manchester library, which contained very few religious books of any kind (only 8 of its 421 titles were religious).
∗       ∗       ∗
And finally, even assuming that Joseph Smith had known of chiasmus, the following observation, which I made in 1981, still stands: "There would still have remained the formidable task of composing the well-balanced, meaningful chiastic structures...which are found in precisely those portions of the Book of Mormon in which one would logically and historically expect to find them." To me the complexity of Alma 36 seems evidence enough of this point. Imagine the young prophet, without notes, 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."[7]:75,76,80

Chiasmus in the Doctrine and Covenants?

Edwards and Edwards subjected the claimed chiasmus in the Doctrine and Covenants to statistical analysis. The data were most consistent with it being a product of chance, while at least four Book of Mormon examples (Mosiah 3:18-20, Mosiah 5:10-12, Alma 36:1-30, Helaman 9:6-11) were not.[8] Readers can download the software and produce their own analyses by going here.

Chiasmus in Joseph Smith's writings?

Jared Demke and Scott Vanatter detected a hypothetical "chiastic" structure in one of Joseph's letters to Emma, dated 4 November 1838.[9] Edwards and Edwards replied that they had found

a 68% chance that the chiastic structure in this letter could have appeared randomly. This value of L [chance of chiasmus arising intentionally, rather than by chance] is typical of non-chiastic text and contrasts sharply with values for the best chiasms in the Book of Mormon and the Bible, which are as low as L = 0.000000008 ± 0.000000004 (for the ten-element chiastic structure of Alma 36)...Preliminary inspection of chiastic structure in other letters and writings by Joseph Smith indicates that these may also be indefensible statistically.[10]

For further information related to this topic

To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here


  1. Guidelines for such analysis can be found at John W. Welch, "Criteria for Identifying and Evaluating the Presence of Chiasmus," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 4/2 (1995): 1–4. off-site wiki
  2. Boyd F. Edwards and W. Farrell Edwards, "Does Chiasmus Appear in the Book of Mormon by Chance?," Brigham Young University Studies 43 no. 2 (2004), 103–130.; see also Boyd F. Edwards and W. Farrell Edwards, "Response to Earl Wunderli’s Critique of Alma 36 as an Extended Chiasm," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought - Dialogue Paperless: E-Paper #1 (30 April 2006), [{{{pdf}}} PDF link]
  3. {{DialogueP|author=Boyd F. Edwards and W. Farrell Edwards|article=Does Joseph's Letter to Emma of 4 November 1838 Show that He Knew about Chiasmus?|num=4|date=26 August 2006
  4. John W. Welch, Chiasmus In Antiquity: Structures, Analyses, Exegesis (Provo, Utah: FARMS, Research Press, 1981[1989]), 5. ISBN 0934893330. ISBN 3806707979. FairMormon link
  5. John W. Welch, "Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon," Brigham Young University Studies 10 no. 1 (1969), 69–84.
  6. See also Boyd F. Edwards and W. Farrell Edwards, "Response to Earl Wunderli’s Critique of Alma 36 as an Extended Chiasm," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought - Dialogue Paperless: E-Paper #1 (30 April 2006), PDF link
  7. John W. Welch, "How Much Was Known about Chiasmus in 1829 When the Book of Mormon Was Translated?," FARMS Review 15/1 (2003): 47–80. off-site
  8. Boyd F. Edwards and W. Farrell Edwards, "Does Chiasmus Appear in the Book of Mormon by Chance?," Brigham Young University Studies 43 no. 2 (2004), 118–123.
  9. Jared R. Demke and Scott L. Vanatter, Davidic Chiasmus & Parallelisms. The letter can be found in Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, revised edition, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 2002), 41.
  10. 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 (26 August 2006), [{{{pdf}}} PDF link]

Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims

About FairMormon        Join FairMormon        Contact        Donate

Copyright © 2014 by FairMormon. All Rights Reserved.
No portion of this site may be reproduced without the express written consent of FairMormon.