Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon is often advanced as evidence of the ancient origin of the book. However, the argument may not be as strong as when originally conceived:
- Chiasmus may occur by chance, and may be demonstrated in many forms of communication—particularly if a researcher is willing to cherry-pick themes.
- The argument may be made that the chiastic structure of Alma 36, held up as the most effective use of chiasm in the BoM, depends upon cherry-picking themes.
- Extensive chiasmus may be identified in the Doctrine and Covenants, again suggesting that the presence of chiasmus in the BoM is not necessarily evidence of ancientness.
- James Strang claimed to translate ancient documents which also appear to demonstrate chiastic structure.
- It appears to be relatively easy to demonstrate chiastic structure in various forms of communication, such as a string of reddit comments.
- Chiasmus seems to occur in literature by chance. Consider, for instance, the chiastic structure of Green Eggs and Ham.
The counter argument to the above is that the chiastic structures in the BoM exceed these other examples in length and/or complexity (and this is sometimes demonstrated statistically), suggesting a deliberateness that is not necessarily present in these other examples. The following points may help explain chiastic structures being used that go beyond chance.
Chiastic structure was described in at least two popular Bible commentaries of that time.
Horne’s Introduction to the Bible discusses chiasmus—along with many kinds of parallelisms—in great depth and with many examples.1 D. Michael Quinn has documented the availability of the book in Joseph’s milieu, and there were several editions preceding the publication of the Book of Mormon that may have been accessible.2 Just a few years after the publication of the Book of Mormon Joseph was gifted a copy, corroborating the prominence and ubiquity of the book in general terms.
In addition, Joseph Smith was very familiar with Clarke’s famous commentary on the bible—we know that he borrowed liberally from the commentary in his JST. And we also know that work on the JST began less than 2 years after the publication of the BoM.3 Clarke also describes various Hebrew poetic devices and clearly describes chiasmus in his introduction to the book of Isaiah (see here in the 1826 printing), even though he does not name it as such and the examples are far simpler than those documented in Horne’s Introduction.
Taken together, it is not unreasonable to suggest that Hebrew literary forms were at least being discussed in that milieu and possibly studied by Smith.
Smith would have been exposed to rhetorical techniques which take on similar form as Hebrew parallelism.
William Davis has compiled the set of core textbooks that JS would likely have been exposed to (dissertation pg 85), and among them is Walker’s Rhetorical Grammar (1785). Hence, Joseph was likely exposed to and potentially had practiced such forms as epanaphora and Anastrophe (Inversion), Asyndeton and Polysyndeton, many of which have the form of Hebrew poetry.
This point is driven home by Robert Maxwell in his review of Pinnock’s book “Finding Biblical Hebrew and Other Ancient Literary Forms in the Book of Mormon” (emphasis added):
Second, a general reader may be left with the impression that these forms [e.g., anaphora, epistrophe, polysyndeton, and chiasmus] are uniquely Hebrew forms, when in fact they were used in nearly all the literature of the ancient world, and indeed many of them continue to be used in modern literatures. Most of the forms discussed by Elder Pinnock are Greek or Latin forms as well as Hebrew.4
“Oral-formulaic composition exploits patterns of repetition and variation.”
As discussed in some length in William Davis’s dissertation Performing Revelation: Joseph Smith and the Creation of The Book of Mormon, the process by which storytellers compose narratives5 tends to lean on extensive repetition including parallelism and ring structures (e.g., “inverted parallelism”, “complex chiasmus”, and “envelope patterns”). For example, in 1847 Andrew Jackson Davis, at the the age of 20, dictated the volume The Principles of Nature, and it contains at least some similar chiastic structures as the Book of Mormon as documented by William Davis.
Oral-formulaic theory may make some sense of a few observations, especially the length of some chiastic structures (like Alma 36) and the fact that Joseph never pointed out the chiasms and parallelisms in the Book of Mormon. If these structures were simply employed as part of the process of orally composing the Book of Mormon, then Joseph may not have associated them with either Hebrew parallelism or other rhetorical devices taught in grammar courses of the day.
William Davis discusses chiasmus, particularly Alma 36, in this interview.
Afterword: more sophisticated chiastic patterns?
LatterDayData has pointed out some interesting analyses on broken chiasmus. The idea is that we may be able to observe a clash between the ancient underlying language and an overlay of modern English. This is the kind of evidence that might suggest an ancient source for chiasmus over a modern implementation. A presentation of the idea and some potential cautions and criticisms of it follow in this thread.
Acknowledgement: Some of the above arguments h/t /u/djhoen and /u/ImTheMarmotKing. Pushback on points 1-3 with /u/jn3792 led to the framing of point #4.
originally posted at /r/mormon (modified significantly since then)
Excerpts from Horne’s 1825 Philadelphia edition, with some red line/box annotation highlighting discussion of chiasmus here. Selected pages from Horne’s abridged 1827 version, which the author calls “The little Manual”, here. ↩
Book of Mormon Central acknowledges to some extent the presence of Horne’s Bible Introduction in Joseph’s milieu in their recent KnoWhy How Much Could Joseph Smith Have Known about Chiasmus in 1829?. Welch dismisses this connection because the volume is “massively intimidating … [and] mentions virtually everything in the then-known world of biblical scholarship. Merely locating the discussion of chiasmus, epanodos, or introverted parallelism in this vast array is difficult, even when one knows what to look for.” And because utilizing such a style would have been “unnatural to his world, while at the same time keeping numerous other strands, threads, and concepts flowing without confusion in his dictation.” In response, I note that Joseph, by his own admission, was highly conversant with the Bible and the religious arguments of the day. Also, point number 3 above discusses how using (or at least studying) similar rhetorical devices was standard in that era, hence it may not have been unnatural at all. ↩
I am aware of at least one idea discussed in Clarke’s commentary that is found in the BoM (the idea that Jesus sweat drops of blood out of pores), although it was also present elsewhere. Haley Wilson has discussed searching for parallels between Clarke and the Book of Mormon [conversation in r/exmormon I need to track down] and not finding anything direct, at least on the same level as the JST, suggesting that there was no direct influence between Clark and the Book of Mormon. However, this does not rule out indirect influence (such as exposure to Hebrew literary forms). ↩
Maxwell finishes his review by discounting the likelihood that Joseph would have used such devices: “it is unlikely that an unlettered farm boy such as Joseph would have used so many elaborate rhetorical devices” but his claim is unsubstantiated and runs counter to the evidence on the likelihood that Joseph would have been trained in (or at least exposed to) such techniques compiled by William Davis. ↩
Milman Parry and Albert Lord studied both ancient and modern oral traditions in developing the Oral-Formulaic Theory. As quoted by Davis, they “recorded nearly fifteen hundred epic texts” and listened to bards “chant epic stories for hours and even days on end.” ↩