Chapter 15 – Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon

Chiasmus is “a figure of speech by which the order of the words in the first of two parallel clauses is reversed in the second” (Oxford Companion to English Literature, 1985 ed.). One way of identifying a chiastic quote is to mark the repeated words or phrases with the letters ABBA. To illustrate, one of the most familiar examples of this is the phrase spoken at the foot of the Cross:

“He saved others, himself he cannot save.”

Which becomes:

A. He saved
B. others,
B. himself
A. he cannot save.

There is an excellent web site dedicated to the subject, and it’s a lot of fun as well as educational. Why are we talking about chiasmus? Because Mormons claim that examples of chiastic writing in the Book of Mormon help authenticate the book. Chiasmus is a sophisticated literary device that ranges from the most simple, as illustrated above, to complex examples. The Bible, Old and New Testaments, abound with examples and it is accepted that it is typical of one form of Hebraic writing.

A good example from the Book of Mormon is found 2 Nephi 29:13:

The Jews
shall have the words
of the Nephites
and the Nephites
shall have the words
of the Jews;
and the Nephites and the Jews
shall have the words
of the lost tribes of Israel;
and the lost tribes of Israel
shall have the words of the
Nephites and of the Jews.

The example Mormons most like to talk about is chapter 36 of Alma, 30 verses which, verse for verse, sets out parallels, verse 1 with verse 30, verse 2 with verse 29, etc. If you read it yourself, it is easy enough to identify the parallels. Does this lend weight to Mormon claims?

Contrary to past Mormon claims, Chiasmus was not unknown at the time of Joseph Smith. Today Mormon scholars have recognised that this literary form was known at that time but still insist it is unlikely that Smith was aware of it. The Book of Mormon has many examples and, at first sight, this seems impressive. Furthermore, while it is common in the Bible, Old and New Testaments, as well as the Book of Mormon, it is by no means restricted to these. It is a generally used literary style found in many cultures, both in simple and complex forms, and people even use it unconsciously. Take for example the famous Mormon couplet

A. As man is
B. God once was
B. As God is
A. Man may become

The person who coined this phrase didn’t think “I will put it in chiasmic form to make it memorable”. It just came out that familiar way we all recognise but don’t know its name. One of my favourite quotes is by Thomas Fuller:

A. If an ass
B. Goes a travelling
B. He’ll not come back
A. A Horse

An example from a nursery rhyme is:

Hickory, dickory, dock
the mouse ran up the clock
The clock struck one
The mouse ran down
Hickory, dickory, dock.

Even if Smith didn’t know the word chiasm, he would have had ready access to the distinctive form in his reading of the King James Bible. Indeed, if he copied his style from the Bible, it would seem inevitable that his work would contain chiasmus, not just in those parts he plagiarised but even in those parts peculiar to the Book of Mormon. It is so common you practically trip over it at every turn.

To show this, you need to realise that chiastic forms are found in the Doctrine and Covenants. It can’t be explained, then, simply as an ancient literary form whose presence “proves” the Book of Mormon, and Mormon scholars readily acknowledge the accidental nature of its presence in the D&C. If Smith could draft chiasmic forms in the D&C he could have done the same with the Book of Mormon – whether consciously or no. Here is an example from D&C 107:34-38

The Seventy
are to act in the name of the
Lord, under the direction of the
Twelve
or the travelling high council, in the building up of and regulating all the affairs of the same
in all nations, first unto the Gentiles and then to the Jews;
The Twelve being sent out, holding the keys, to open the door by the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and first unto the Gentiles and then unto the Jews.
The standing high councils, at the stakes of Zion,
form a quorum equal in authority in the affairs of the church,
in all their decisions, to the quorum of the presidency or to the travelling high council.
The high council in Zion form a quorum equal in authority in the affairs of the church,
in all to the councils of the Twelve at the stakes of Zion.
It is the duty of the travelling high council to call upon the Seventy,
when they need assistance, to fill the several calls for preaching and administering the gospel instead of others.

Other D&C texts include 76:28-30; 76:89-98; 109:24-28.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking this a simplistic literary style. It can be very complex and involved. But don’t make the mistake, either, of thinking that its presence in a text is compelling proof of a claim. It is a style, both complicated and common, that the untutored can easily fall into, the educated unconsciously copy to a degree of complexity, and the trained and determined can reproduce well enough, or offer involved enough comment on to impress the unwary.

Chiasmus
is a form
not a proof.
Proof comes
In the form of
Christ.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2004/5 Reachout Quarterly

Categories: Mormons

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