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Alma 36: Ancient Masterpiece Chiasmus or Modern Revivalist Testimony?

Alma 36: Ancient Masterpiece Chiasmus or Modern Revivalist Testimony?

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For a short, less technical summary of this article, see “Alma 36: Ancient or Modern?” (click on the link to read that article).

One of the most frequently cited evidences for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon as ancient literature (and therefore as having been translated miraculously by Joseph Smith) is the presence of a literary feature known as chiasmus (or chiasm). Probably the example of Book of Mormon chiasmus most cited and most heralded is Alma 36, a passage that reports a speech said to have been given by Alma the Younger to his son Helaman. According to John Welch, the LDS scholar who first identified chiasmus in the Book of Mormon, “Alma 36 is, in my opinion, the very best chiasm in the Book of Mormon, if not in all of world literature.”1

A simple chiasmus consists of two lines in which verbal elements are inverted to create a memorable statement, such as the following (Matthew 23:12):

Whoever exalts himself
And whoever humbles himself
will be humbled,
will be exalted.

The term chiasmus derives from the Greek word chi, referring to the letter χ which looks like an ‘x’ in English. Scholars commonly outline a chiasmus using letters, with each letter being used twice to represent parallel lines, as follows:

A  Whoever exalts himself
     B  Will be humbled,
     B’ And whoever humbles himself
A’ Will be exalted.

In common usage, the term chiasmus therefore refers to a literary or oral speech form featuring inverted parallelism, in which a series of verbal units (words, phrases, lines, etc.) is followed by a parallel series in reverse order.2 It is in essence a rhetorical device used to make the communication of ideas more striking and memorable. 

I.  Understanding the Issues in Alma 36

As has already been mentioned, Mormons are appealing to examples of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon, especially in Alma 36, as evidence of its authenticity as an ancient text. In an essay published in 2002, Welch has made this claim himself:

At least fifteen criteria, including objectivity, purposefulness, climax, centrality, boundaries, length, density, and balance, as described here, demonstrate that the chiasmus in Alma 36 can best be explained only if Alma learned it as part of a long literary tradition extending back to Old Testament prophets.3

A few years earlier Welch published an article on what chiasmus in the Book of Mormon proves, expressing the matter more cautiously:

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…. 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 and probabilities.4

The claim that chiasmus in the Book of Mormon corroborates, confirms, or makes in some way more likely its ancient Israelite origins depends on (1) the cogency of the specific instances of chiasmus and (2) the unlikelihood of any one instance originating by chance or as the work of a modern individual unfamiliar with chiasmus. It will be assumed in this paper that Joseph Smith had no such familiarity with chiasmus as a specific rhetorical device in ancient speech and literature. It will also be assumed that although Joseph might well have been able to produce short, simple chiasms in the course of his dictation of the Book of Mormon to his scribes, it is unlikely that he would produce in such a fashion a complex, chapter-long chiasmus consisting of over thirty elements. To be specific, if Alma 36 were the masterpiece chiasmus that Welch has argued it is, this finding would be good evidence that Joseph was not the author of Alma 36—and might therefore be considered good evidence supporting his claim that he received the translation by divine revelation.

Given the evidential value that Welch and other Mormons claim for the chiasmus in Alma 36, the burden of proof is decisively to be assigned to their position. It is not up to the critic to prove that Alma 36 cannot be a chiasmus; rather, it is up to those who assert that it is a chiasmus to show that it is. Welch has presented an argument to meet that burden of proof; the question is whether his argument is successful. In this article I will be arguing on the basis of Welch’s own criteria that his analysis is fatally flawed and that Alma 36 is not a chiasmus at all.

After demonstrating that Alma 36 is not a chiasmus, I will be providing telling evidence that in fact Alma 36 is a modern composition. 

II.  Overview of the Study of Alma 36

In this article, the text of Alma 36 used is the same as in the 1830 edition of the Book of Mormon (the first printed edition),5 with just a few exceptions to conform the text more precisely to the text as Joseph Smith dictated it. These exceptions are based on the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon that was penned by scribes (in this case Oliver Cowdery) as Joseph Smith dictated it (called O)6 and the printer’s manuscript (called P).7 Irregularities in spelling have been ignored (since Joseph did not spell out words, except perhaps for unusual names). Here are those exceptions:

  • In verse 2 was (“was the God of Abraham…”) has been changed to were, as in the original manuscript (O) and in the printer’s manuscript (P) before it was corrected.
  • In verse 20, the word pain has been changed to pains, following what appears to have been the reading of O (although it is reportedly illegible, the addition of –s is likely).
  • In verse 21, could has been changed to can, following O.
  • In verse 17 prophecy has been corrected to the verb form prophesy, the form found in O and P.
  • In verse 27, prison has been changed to prisons, the form found in both O and P.

The next two sections of this article present Welch’s analysis of Alma 36 in two ways. First, section III gives a simple outline gives an easy to see overview of the structure of the chiasmus as Welch has explained it, using only as much of the wording of the text as is needed to show the parallels. The key words or phrases that are the basis for the parallels are shown in bold type. Then, section IV gives the entire text of Alma 36 divided up to correspond to his chiastic outline, again with the key elements shown in bold type. The reader will probably want to refer back to these parts of the article repeatedly, especially section IV, in order to check what is being said about the various elements of the chiasmus and other components of the passage.

Following those two sections presenting Alma 36 according to Welch’s chiasmus, his analysis will be assessed rather painstakingly in section V by engaging Alma 36 in the light of all fifteen of the criteria that he set forth for evaluating proposed examples of chiasmus in an article published in 1995. The reader is forewarned that this part of the article will be extremely detail-oriented in order to make sure that the issues are addressed in as rigorous and fair manner as possible. A summation of the findings will be given at the end of section V.

Finally, in section VI evidence will be given that Alma 36 is not an ancient text at all, but is a modern composition. 

III.  Alma 36 as a Chiasmus according to John Welch8 

A 1My son, give ear to my words;
B that inasmuch as ye shall keep the commandments of God, ye shall prosper in the land.
C 2do as I have done,
D in remembering the captivity of our fathers;
E for they were in bondage, and none could deliver them
F and he surely did deliver them
G 3put his trust in God,
H shall be supported in their trials, and their troubles, and their afflictions,
I and shall be lifted up at the last day;
J 4I knowof God.
K 5born of God
L 6seeking to destroy the church of God
M 10neither had I the use of my limbs
N the very thoughts of coming into the presence of my God, did rack my soul with inexpressible horror
O 16the pains of a damned soul.
P 17I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins,
Q I rememberedJesus Christ, a Son of God
Q’ 18I cried within my heart, O Jesus, thou Son of God
P’ 19I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more.
O’ 20joy as exceeding as was my pains
N’ 22God sitting upon his thronemy soul did long to be there
M’ 23my limbs did receive their strength again
L’ 24I have laboredthat I might bring souls unto repentance
K’ 26born of God
J’ as I do knowof God.
H’ 27supported under trials and troublesand in all manner of afflictions
G’ yea, and I do put my trust in him,
F’ and he will still deliver me;
I’ 28and I know that he will raise me up at the last day
E’ delivered them out of bondage and captivity…29delivered them out of bondage and captivity
D’ remembrance their captivity; yea…remembrance…their captivity.
C’ 30ye had ought to know, as I do know,
B’ that inasmuch as ye shall keep the commandments of God, ye shall prosper in the land
A’ Now this is according to his word.

IV. Welch’s Chiasmus with the Entire Text of Alma 36

A  1My son, give ear to my words;
B  for I swear unto you, that inasmuch as ye shall keep the commandments of God, ye shall prosper in the land.
C  2I would that ye should do as I have done,
D  in remembering the captivity of our fathers;
E  for they were in bondage, and none could deliver them, except it were the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob;
F  and he surely did deliver them in their afflictions.
G  3And now, O my son Helaman, behold, thou art in thy youth, and therefore I beseech of thee that thou wilt hear my words, and learn of me; for I do know that whomsoever shall put his trust in God,
H  shall be supported in their trials, and their troubles, and their afflictions,
I  and shall be lifted up at the last day;
J  4and I would not that ye think that I know of myself, not of the temporal, but of the spiritual; not of the carnal mind, but of God.
K  5Now behold I say unto you, If I had not been born of God, I should not have known these things; but God hath, by the mouth of his holy angel, made these things known unto me, not of any worthiness of myself,
L  6for I went about with the sons of Mosiah, seeking to destroy the church of God; but behold, God sent his holy angel to stop us by the way. 7And behold, he spake unto us, as it were the voice of thunder, and the whole earth did tremble beneath our feet, and we all fell to the earth, for the fear of the Lord came upon us. 8But behold, the voice said unto me, Arise. And I arose and stood up, and beheld the angel. 9And he said unto me, If thou wilt of thyself be destroyed, seek no more to destroy the church of God.
M  10And it came to pass that I fell to the earth; and it was for the space of three days and three nights, that I could not open my mouth; neither had I the use of my limbs. 11And the angel spake more things unto me, which were heard by my brethren, but I did not hear them; for when I heard the words, If thou wilt be destroyed of thyself, seek no more to destroy the church of God, I was struck with such great fear and amazement, lest perhaps that I should be destroyed, that I fell to the earth, and I did hear no more; 12but I was racked with eternal torment, for my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree, and racked with all my sins. 13Yea, I did remember all my sins and iniquities, for which I was tormented with the pains of hell; yea, I saw that I had rebelled against my God, and that I had not kept his holy commandments; 14yea, and I had murdered many of his children, or rather led them away unto destruction;
N  yea, and in fine, so great had been my iniquities, that the very thoughts of coming into the presence of my God, did rack my soul with inexpressible horror. 15O, thought I, that I could be banished and become extinct both soul and body, that I might not be brought to stand in the presence of my God, to be judged of my deeds.
O  16And now, for three days and for three nights was I racked, even with the pains of a damned soul.
P  17And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins,
Q  behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people, concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world.
Q’ 18Now as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart, O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who art in the gall of bitterness, and art encircled about by the everlasting chains of death.
P’ 19And now behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more.
O’ 20And O, what joy, and what marvellous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pains; 21yea, I say unto you, my son, that there can be nothing so exquisite and so bitter, as was my pains. Yea, and again I say unto you, my son, that on the other hand, there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy;
N’ 22yea, and methought I saw even as our father Lehi saw, God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels, in the attitude of singing and praising their God; yea, and my soul did long to be there.
M’ 23But behold, my limbs did receive their strength again, and I stood upon my feet, and did manifest unto the people that I had been born of God;
L’ 24yea, and from that time, even until now, I have labored without ceasing, that I might bring souls unto repentance; that I might bring them to taste of the exceeding joy of which I did taste; that they might also be born of God, and be filled with the Holy Ghost. 25Yea, and now behold, O my son, the Lord doth give me exceeding great joy in the fruit of my labors;
K’ 26for because of the word which he hath imparted unto me, behold, many hath been born of God, and hath tasted as I have tasted, and hath seen eye to eye, as I have seen;
J’ therefore they do know of these things of which I have spoken, as I do know; and the knowledge which I have is of God.
H’ 27And I have been supported under trials and troubles of every kind, yea, and in all manner of afflictions; yea, God hath delivered me from prisons, and from bonds, and from death;
G’ yea, and I do put my trust in him,
F’ and he will still deliver me;
I’ 28and I know that he will raise me up at the last day, to dwell with him in glory;
E’ yea, and I will praise him forever, for he hath brought our fathers out of Egypt, and he hath swallowed up the Egyptians in the red sea; and he led them by his power into the promised land; yea, and he hath delivered them out of bondage and captivity, from time to time; 29yea, and he hath also brought our fathers out of Jerusalem; and he hath also, by his everlasting power, delivered them out of bondage and captivity, from time to time, even down to the present day;
D’ and I have always retained in remembrance their captivity; yea, and ye also had ought to retain in remembrance, as I have done, their captivity.
C’ 30But behold, my son, this is not all: for ye had ought to know, as I do know,
B’ that inasmuch as ye shall keep the commandments of God, ye shall prosper in the land; and ye had ought to know also, that inasmuch as ye will not keep the commandments of God, ye shall be cut off from his presence.
A’ Now this is according to his word.

 V.  Testing the Alma 36 Chiasmus by Welch’s Criteria

John Welch, the scholar who “discovered” the chiasmus in Alma 36, has also written extensively on chiasmus in other texts and on how to assess the strength of a chiasmus. Most notably, Welch published an article presenting fifteen “criteria for identifying and evaluating the presence of chiasmus.”9 We will be discussing each of these criteria to assess the cogency of Welch’s claim that Alma 36 is a strong, “masterpiece” instance of chiasmus. Doing so is especially appropriate since in that article Welch refers to his work on Alma 36 as a test case: “For an illustration of these criteria to a specific text, readers may wish to consult the paper entitled ‘Chiasmus in Alma 36’ and a shortened version of that paper in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon.”10

1. Objectivity

According to Welch, “Alma 36 manifests a very high degree of objectivity, for it features 26 key words or phrases that are identical or nearly identical in both the first and second halves.”11 This claimed “high degree of objectivity” depends at least in part on the application of the more specific criteria that Welch goes on to present. As we will explain, the parallels of “key words or phrases” are the result of a repetitious style and of the genre of the text, not reflective of chiasmus as a literary device. Thus, we will in effect be revisiting this criterion after considering the other fourteen.

However, there are some issues relevant to this first criterion should be addressed immediately. In Welch’s outline, one of the pairs of similar lines does not line up properly in the chiasmus. This is the pair of lines labeled I and I’: 

I:  and shall be lifted up at the last day (v. 3)
I’: he will raise me up at the last day (v. 28a)

Since the words up at the last day are found in Alma 36 only in these two places (indeed, last day appears only in these two places), if Alma 36 is a chiasmus, one would expect them to “line up” across from one another in the outline—but they do not. Specifically, I’ falls between F’ (v. 27) and E’ (vv. 28b-29a). There does not seem to be any reason for this one line standing out of sync and no LDS writer to my knowledge has ever offered an explanation. It is an anomaly—one that calls into question the “objectivity” of the chiasmus.

In 2009 the LDS Church published a curriculum manual on the Book of Mormon in which it presented an outline of Alma 36 as a chiasmus.12 Interestingly, in this outline no line appears (graphically) to be out of sync with the rest. The words “raise me up” are included with the statement “he will deliver me” into a single line F’—thus combining Welch’s lines I’ and F’ into one. The corresponding words “lifted up at the last day” are kept as a single line in the chiasmus, but in the curriculum manual it is line H. The result is that in the manual’s outline three lines are actually out of sync, though it is printed in such a way that one would not notice it13

F. Trust in God (v. 3)
G. Supported in their trials, and their troubles, and their afflictions (v. 3)
H. Lifted up at the last day (v. 3)
            ...
H. Supported under trials, troubles, and afflictions (v. 27)
G. Trust in him (v. 27)
F. He will deliver meand raise me up (vv. 27-28)

Only by carefully reading the outline can one discover that line F corresponds to line G’, line G corresponds to line H’, and line H corresponds to part of line F’. Frankly, this is not a chiasmus outline at all, even though it is made to look like one.

The outline in the manual differs from Welch’s outline in another, related respect. In Welch’s outline, verses 28-29 are assigned to both E’ and D’, without any division. Welch’s outline at this point and in the ascending parallel lines reads as follows14

Remember the captivity of our fathers (2)
   e  They were in bondage (2)
         …
   e’ As God brought our fathers out of bondage and captivity (28-29) 
d’ Retain in remembrance their captivity (28-29)

This doesn’t really make sense, because in a chiasm a particular element (word or sequence of words) should occupy only one place in the outline, not two. To solve this problem, the LDS manual identifies verses 28b and 29 separately as the two lines E’ and D’ with the same wording as in Welch’s outline, while combining his D and E into one line D, as follows:

D. Remember the captivity of our fathers, for they were in bondage (v. 2)
      E. He surely did deliver them (v. 2)
            …
      E. He has delivered them out of bondage and captivity (v. 28)
D. Retain a remembrance their captivity (v. 29)

This revision fixes the problem of having the same unit of text counted as two lines in Welch’s outline. At the same time, it makes the words “He surely did deliver them” (v. 2) parallel to the similar statement in verse 28, instead of to the words “and he will still deliver me” (v. 27b) as in Welch’s outline.

What these differing outlines are meant to do is to maintain some parallelism between Alma 36:2 and some part of 36:28-29 (in reverse) as part of a larger chiasmus. The difficulty is that there is no clear way to do this, as can be seen by comparing the two texts free of any outline:

2I would that ye should do as I have done,
in remembering the captivity of our fathers;
for they were in bondage, and none could deliver them
except it were the God of Abraham,
and the God of Isaac,
and the God of Jacob;
and he surely did deliver them in their afflictions.

28and I know that he will raise me up at the last day, to dwell with him in glory;
yea, and I will praise him forever,
for he hath brought our fathers out of Egypt,
and he hath swallowed up the Egyptians in the red sea;
and he led them by his power into the promised land;
yea, and he hath delivered them out of bondage and captivity, from time to time;
29yea, and he hath also brought our fathers out of Jerusalem;
and he hath also, by his everlasting power, delivered them out of bondage and captivity, from time to time,
even down to the present day;
and I have always retained in remembrance their captivity;
yea, and ye also had ought to retain in remembrance, as I have done, their captivity

There are definite parallels between verses 2 and 28-29, but there are also clearer and more substantial parallels in repeated lines of text within verses 28-29 alone. The problem for Welch was that in order to make the chiasmus work, he needed to treat “he surely did deliver them” (v. 2) as parallel to “and he will still deliver me” (v. 27) as his lines F and F’, when it is rather obvious that “he surely did deliver them” (v. 2b) is parallel to “and he hath delivered them” (v. 28) and its repetition “and he hath also…delivered them” (v. 29). The manual’s outline fixes the problem by making verses 2b and 28 parallel (ignoring the repetition in v. 29a), but at the cost of having another part of the chiasmus disrupted (F, G, and H, as we saw earlier).

In short, every attempt to make the chiasmus work has struggled with lining up the text so that Alma 36:2 and 36:28-29 parallel one another properly in a consistent chiastic outline. The difficulty here, along with the impossibility of lining up the two references to being lifted or raised “up at the last day,” demonstrates that the chiasmus is not objectively present in the text. Rather, it has been forced on the text, leading advocates of the chiasmus to try different schemas to make it fit. 

2.  Purpose

Welch’s second criterion is that a proposed chiasmus is more likely if one can identify a plausible purpose for its being used in the passage: “It is more plausible to assert that chiasmus exists in a passage when an author appears to have intentionally put it there for a stylistic purpose. The likelihood of such an intent on the part of the author should be assessed as it relates to the ideas and characteristics of the text itself.”15 Specifically, “in Alma 36, no better literary device could be imagined to convey the sense of conversion—the complete reversal of spiritual attitudes and behavior—than does chiasmus; its turning point is purposefully focused on the name of ‘Jesus Christ, a Son of God,’ which appears twice at the center of the structure.”16

If Welch’s structural analysis of Alma 36 were to hold up, this second criterion would be a strong argument for thinking that the chiastic structure was intentional on the part of the author. Welch is right in thinking that a chiasmus would be a particularly elegant literary device for structuring a conversion story. However, one must also understand that any conversion story that gives an account of the person’s life before and after the conversion is going to express some contrasts and likely will use some of the same words or expressions in articulating those contrasts. Yet not every conversion story will be structured as a chiasmus.

In short, a decision as to whether a chiasmus is intentional must await the determination of whether the passage exhibits a genuine chiastic structure. 

3.  Boundaries

Welch rightly points out that a chiasmus should correspond to the natural literary boundaries of the text:

A chiasm is stronger if it operates across a literary unit as a whole and not only upon fragments or sections which overlap or cut across organizational lines intrinsic to the text…. To the extent that the proposed structure crosses over natural boundaries, unnaturally chops sentences in half, or falls short of discernible boundaries in the text as a whole, the more dubious the suggested chiasm becomes.17

On the application of this criterion to Alma 36, Welch has stated without any elaboration, “Alma 36 is a literary unit.”18 This may seem obvious since the passage that Welch identifies as a chiasmus is the entirety of the chapter. However, the present chapter divisions in the Book of Mormon (which were introduced in the 1879 edition by Orson Pratt19) give the misleading impression that Alma 36 is a whole literary unit. In fact, Alma 36 is part of a longer unit that includes all of Alma 36-37. In the 1830 edition, this passage that is currently Alma 36-37 is one chapter, Alma XVII.20 Alma XVII is introduced with a heading, “The Commandments of Alma, to his son Helaman.” The designation “Chapter XVII” and the heading appeared in both the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon penned by scribes at Joseph Smith’s dictation (called O)21 and the printer’s manuscript (P).22 This means that both the chapter number and the heading were part of the text as Joseph dictated it to his scribe (Oliver Cowdery). The heading still appears at the beginning of Alma 36 in modern editions (followed by the modern editorial note, “Comprising chapters 36 and 37”).23 This passage is a whole literary unit because it consists entirely of Alma’s final charge to his son Helaman, introduced at the end of Alma XVI (present-day Alma 35:16), followed by Alma’s final charges to his sons Shiblon (Alma XVIII = Alma 38) and Corianton (Alma XIX = Alma 39-42).

The fact that the whole literary unit consists of Alma 36-37, not just Alma 36, significantly weakens Welch’s argument. With regard to this criterion, Alma 36 is not a very strong candidate for a complex literary composition such as a chiasmus. It is not impossible for Alma 36 to function as a chiasmus within the larger, whole unit, and so that possibility may be considered, but on the basis of this criterion we would need to downgrade the plausibility of the claim.

In terms of the subject matter, there is a detectable shift in the focus of Alma’s remarks to Helaman at the beginning of Alma 37. At that point, Alma begins ordering Helaman specifically to take custody of the records and of other objects. This shift in Alma’s address is the reason why Pratt created his chapter division where he did. The shift in subject matter from Alma 36 to Alma 37 makes it perhaps somewhat more credible to suppose that Alma 36 might exhibit a separate literary structure, but such credibility is at best a possibility, not something inherently plausible or likely.

To conclude on this point, Welch’s third criterion, that of boundaries, raises a significant difficulty for his analysis of Alma 36 as a chiasmus, though it does not render it impossible.

4.  Competition with Other Forms

According to Welch, “Chiasmus becomes less significant to the extent that a competing literary device or explanation of the arrangement of the words or thoughts more readily accounts for an apparently chiastic placement of elements.”24 He gives as an example the seemingly chiastic limerick Hickory, Dickory Dock, in which the limerick form can be superficially confused with a chiastic structure.

In a way, this fourth criterion is a useful caution against a too-facile application of Welch’s second criterion, that of intentionality or purpose. That an author intended to arrange repetitious elements in a particular way does not prove chiasmus: it might reflect another literary convention or genre. In this case, embedded in Alma’s final charge to his son Helaman is his testimony of his conversion—a particular form that can look similar to a chiasmus without actually being one.

5.  Length

Welch’s fifth criteria cuts both ways, potentially identifying especially instances of impressive, deliberate chiasmus as well as exposing instances of merely apparent chiasmus:

The longer the proposed chiasm, the higher its degree of chiasticity…. Having a large number of proposed elements, however, is not alone very significant, for all the elements must bear their own weight. An extended chiasm is probably not much stronger than its weakest links.25

According to Welch, “Alma 36 is among the longest clear chiasms found anywhere.”26 This judgment, of course, depends on the text actually being a clear chiasmus. As Welch himself recognizes, any weak links in a seemingly lengthy chiasmus calls the whole thing into question. We will show in due course that there are many such weak links in the chain.

6.  Density

Welch’s sixth criterion is a valid and very important one:

The more compact the proposed structure, or the fewer irrelevancies between its elements, the higher the degree of chiasticity. Tightness in the text is indicative of greater craftsmanship, rigor, focus, intention, and clarity. In assessing the density of a passage, all significant words and phrases appearing in the system must be considered. What is disregarded or omitted is often just as important as what is included.27

Welch expressed this same idea in a different way in an essay he wrote on another passage of the Book of Mormon:

Similarly, the more compact the chiasm—or the fewer irrelevancies between its elements—and the longer the chiasm, the higher its degree of chiasticity.28

In reference to Alma 36, Welch thinks the chiasmus he finds there passes this test quite well:

Alma 36 contains 1230 words. Around 175 figure directly in the chiasm. And these 175 are substantial, not minor, words in the text.29

It is unclear how a “density” of about 14 per cent qualifies as a good “score” on this measure. Welch does not offer any sort of scale by which one might measure the “chiasticity” of a passage, leaving a fair amount of room for subjectivity in making such a judgment. What can be done is to assess whether the chiastic analysis represents any significant measure of “tightness in the text” and whether it makes use of “all significant words and phrases appearing in the system.” The answer to these two questions is clearly no. The weakest part of the analysis comes in verses 6-14, which Welch assigns to lines L and M in his chiastic outline. Here is that part of the passage, with the words identified by Welch as part of the chiasmus shown in bold type:

6for I went about with the sons of Mosiah, [L] seeking to destroy the church of God; but behold, God sent his holy angel to stop us by the way. 7And behold, he spake unto us, as it were the voice of thunder, and the whole earth did tremble beneath our feet, and we all fell to the earth, for the fear of the Lord came upon us. 8But behold, the voice said unto me, Arise. And I arose and stood up, and beheld the angel. 9And he said unto me, If thou wilt of thyself be destroyed, seek no more to destroy the church of God. 10And it came to pass that I fell to the earth; and it was for the space of three days and three nights, that I could not open my mouth; [M] neither had I the use of my limbs. 11And the angel spake more things unto me, which were heard by my brethren, but I did not hear them; for when I heard the words, If thou wilt be destroyed of thyself, seek no more to destroy the church of God, I was struck with such great fear and amazement, lest perhaps that I should be destroyed, that I fell to the earth, and I did hear no more; 12but I was racked with eternal torment, for my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree, and racked with all my sins. 13Yea, I did remember all my sins and iniquities, for which I was tormented with the pains of hell; yea, I saw that I had rebelled against my God, and that I had not kept his holy commandments; 14yea, and I had murdered many of his children, or rather led them away unto destruction….

In this passage of 291 words (almost a quarter of the entire chapter), two clauses of seven and eight words respectively are all that Welch identifies as parts of the chiasmus. That is, only five per cent of the words in this part of the chapter are considered part of the chiasmus. This is not the only problem for the chiasmus in this part of the passage, but it is a serious if not fatal one.

7.  Dominance

Welch’s seventh criterion is closely related to his sixth: “A convincing analysis must account for and embrace the dominant nouns, verbs, and distinctive phrases in the text…. The more significant the elements in relation to the message of the text, the greater the degree of chiasticity.” He then asserts, “In the case of Alma 36, virtually all of the words that figure into the chiastic pattern are dominant words in the account; they completely convey the essence of Alma’s story.”30

Although Welch’s analysis of Alma 36 uses many of the key words and phrases of the passage, it misses some very significant ones. Perhaps the most notable omission is the lack of any reference to the angel that Alma says appeared to him. The word angel appears four times in Alma 36:5-11, and the angel plays a critical role in Alma’s story as the messenger whose stern warning led to his conversion. Moreover, there are some substantial phrases and lines of text that are repeated in this part of the passage, especially in verses 7-11, but which do not fit into Welch’s chiastic outline:

7And behold, he spake unto us, as it were the voice of thunder, and the whole earth did tremble beneath our feet, and we all fell to the earth, for the fear of the Lord came upon us. 8But behold, the voice said unto me, Arise. And I arose and stood up, and beheld the angel. 9And he said unto me, If thou wilt of thyself be destroyed, seek no more to destroy the church of God. 10And it came to pass that I fell to the earth; and it was for the space of three days and three nights, that I could not open my mouth; neither had I the use of my limbs. 11And the angel spake more things unto me, which were heard by my brethren, but I did not hear them; for when I heard the words, If thou wilt be destroyed of thyself, seek no more to destroy the church of God, I was struck with such great fear and amazement, lest perhaps that I should be destroyed, that I fell to the earth, and I did hear no more….

There are two major repetitions in this section. First, Alma says that the angel (introduced in verse 5) “spake unto us…and we all fell to the earth, for the fear of the Lord came upon us” (v. 7). This idea is soon repeated with reference to Alma alone: “And the angel spake more things unto me…. I was struck with such great fear…that I fell to the earth” (vv. 11-12). None of these elements of the passage figure in Welch’s analysis in any way.

Second, the angel’s stern statement to Alma is repeated in the passage with only a slight variation in word order:

If thou wilt of thyself be destroyed, seek no more to destroy the church of God (v. 9).
If thou wilt be destroyed of thyself, seek no more to destroy the church of God (v. 11).

This line also plays no part of Welch’s analysis. Line L of his chiasmus is based on Alma’s statement, “I went about…seeking to destroy the church of God” (v. 6), which of course has some verbal elements in common with the angel’s statement. Nevertheless, the line that is repeated essentially verbatim is not part of the chiasmus. Moreover, the angel’s statement appears first in verse 9, in the section where line L occurs in Welch’s analysis (vv. 6-9), and is repeated in verse 11, in the section where line M is found (vv. 10-14a). This one repetition of a substantial line that does not figure in Welch’s outline and cannot be made to fit in it is really sufficient to disprove that the text is a chiasmus.

8.  Mavericks

One of the most important criteria set forth by Welch is his eighth, which is that a good or strong chiasmus should be relatively free of what he calls “mavericks”:

A chiasm loses potency when key elements in the system appear extraneously outside the proposed structure. The analyst is open to the charge of selectively picking and choosing among the occurrences of this element if some of its occurrences in the text are arbitrarily ignored.31

The reason why this is one of the most important criteria is that the presence of significant “mavericks” is a strong indicator that the chiasmus has been imposed artificially and arbitrarily on the text by the analyst, rather than having been discovered in the text.

After the above explanation of this criterion, Welch claims, “Again, to use Alma 36 by way of illustration, only three words appear in this chapter outside of their respective sections in the chiastic structure.”32 Welch is more specific in an earlier study specifically on Alma 36:

For example, of the thirty key structural words, only three (“word,” “commandments,” and “know”) ever appear outside their respective sections. There is very little random repetition of these thirty key words or of any other words in Alma 36.33

Neither in the above study nor in any other by Welch that I have yet found does he list “the thirty key structural words” in the chiasmus, leaving the reader somewhat in the dark as to what is included in that list. Presumably these thirty words are found in the words he italicized in his chiasmus outline of the chapter, but there are more than thirty words italicized (excluding duplicates) and less than thirty if we count only major words (in this case, nouns and verbs). Treating certain expressions of more than one word as if they were one word (e.g., “Son of God”) each does not resolve the problem. Most or all of the thirty words likely come in some way from the following list: words, keep, commandments, prosper, land, as I, remember, captivity, bondage, deliver, trust, trials, troubles, afflictions, last day, know, of God, born, limbs, presence, pains, harrowed up, sins, Jesus, and Son of God.  

Whatever the precise makeup of Welch’s list of thirty key words, his statement that only the three key terms wordcommandments, and know “ever appear outside their respective sections” is not accurate. The simplest and most objective way to test this claim is to go through all of the seventeen parallels of his chiasmus outline (A through Q and then Q’ through A’) and see if significant elements of the outline appear in the passage elsewhere (see table).

Mavericks in Welch’s Alma 36 Chiasmus
Ascending Descending Additional Occurrences
A: My son, give ear to my words (1) A’: his word (30) G: my words (3, same as A)
K’: the word [angel’s] (26)
B: that inasmuch as ye shall keep the commandments of God, ye shall prosper in the land (1) B’: that inasmuch as ye shall keep the commandments of God, ye shall prosper in the land (30) M’: not kept his holy commandments (13)
B’: Inasmuch as ye will not keep the commandments of God, ye shall be cut off from his presence (30)
C: as I (2) C’: as I (30) P: as I (17)
K’: as I…as I (26)
J’: as I do know (26, same as C’)
D’: as I have done (29, same as C)
D: remembering the captivity of our fathers (2) D’: retained in remembrance their captivity (29) D’: yea, and ye also had ought to retain in remembrance, as I have done, their captivity (29)
E: they were in bondage, and none could deliver them (2) E’: he hath delivered them out of bondage and captivity, from time to time (28) E’: and he hath also, by his everlasting power, delivered them out of bondage and captivity, from time to time (29)
  I’: and I know that he will raise me up at the last day (28)  
F: and he surely did deliver them (2) F’: and he will still deliver me (27) H’: yea, God hath delivered me (27)
G: whomsoever shall put his trust in God (3) G’: yea, and I do put my trust in him (27)  
H: shall be supported in their trials, and their troubles, and their afflictions (3) H’: I have been supported under trials and troubles of every kind, yea, and in all manner of afflictions (27) F: their afflictions (2)
I: and shall be lifted up at the last day (3)    
J: I would not that ye think that I know of myself, not of the temporal, but of the spiritual; not of the carnal mind, but of God (4) J’: the knowledge which I have is of God (26) G: I do know (3)
K: I should not have known…but God hath, by the mouth of his holy angel, made these things known unto me (5)
J’: therefore they do know of these things of which I have spoken, as I do know (26)
I’: I know (28)
C’: ye had ought to know, as I do know (30)
B’: and ye had ought to know also (30)
K: born of God (5) K’: born of God (26) M’: born of God (23)
L’: born of God (24)
L: I went about…seeking to destroy the church of God (6) L’: I have labored…that I might bring souls unto repentance (24) L: If thou wilt of thyself be destroyed, seek no more to destroy the church of God (9)
M: If thou wilt be destroyed of thyself, seek no more to destroy the church of God (11)
N: that I might not be brought (15)
L’: that I might bring them (24)
L’: the fruit of my labors (24)
M: neither had I the use of my limbs (10) M’: my limbs did receive their strength again (23)  
N: the very thoughts of coming into the presence of my God, did rack my soul with inexpressible horror (14) N’: God sitting upon his throne…my soul did long to be there (22) N: that I might not be brought to stand in the presence of my God (15)
B’: ye shall be cut off from his presence (30)
O: the pains of a damned soul (16) O’: joy as exceeding as was my pains (20) M: tormented with the pains of hell (13)
P’: I could remember my pains no more (19)
O’: as was my pains (21)
P: I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins (17) P’: I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more (19) M: my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree, and racked with all my sins (12)
M: I did remember all my sins and iniquities, for which I was tormented (13)
Q: I remembered…one Jesus Christ, a Son of God (17) Q’: I cried within my heart, O Jesus, thou Son of God (18)  

Of the seventeen pairs of lines that Welch claims are parallel, only four of them have no elements elsewhere in the passage. Of these four, one is actually a problem for the chiasmus. As discussed above (under criterion #1), the lines “shall be lifted up at the last day” (v. 3) and “I know that he will raise me up at the last day” (v. 28), which Welch assigns the letters I and I’, are not parallel to one another in his chiasmus. This leaves just three pairs of parallel lines that don’t have at least some kind of maverick problem (G–G’, M–M’, and Q–Q’). In order to give the chiasmus every chance, we may also overlook the repetitions adjacent to D’ and E’, since in these two instances the repetition, even though not consistent with a “pure” chiasmus, at least do not come out of order in other places in the text. Now we have as many as five pairs of parallel lines, out of the sixteen (excluding I/I’), that are not seriously compromised by mavericks. If we look more closely, we will find this simple analysis confirmed.

Welch’s outermost lines, A and A’, are based on the verbal parallel between words (v. 1) and word (v. 30). However, in verse 1 it is Alma’s “words” whereas in verse 30 it is God’s “word.” Thus the precise form differs (plural vs. singular) and the context differs. On the other hand, the precise expression my words (also meaning Alma’s words) occurs not only in verse 1 but also in verse 3, where Welch has located line G. Given the obvious importance of the beginning and ending of a chiasmus, the weakness of the parallel and the clear maverick are serious problems for the proposed chiasmus.

Welch actually addresses this problem in one place, creating a second line A to include the text “my son…hear my words” (v. 3) because it is so clearly parallel to “My son, give ear to my words” (v. 1).34 However, in adding a second line A (with no corresponding second A’), this addition disrupts the chiasmus.

The 16-word line “that inasmuch as ye shall keep the commandments of God, ye shall prosper in the land” is found verbatim in both B (v. 1) and B’ (v. 30). This is such a strong parallel that one can ignore the comparatively weak parallel in M (v. 13). On the other hand, the line “Inasmuch as ye will not keep the commandments of God, ye shall be cut off from his presence” in verse 30 follows immediately the words that Welch identifies as B’, and the two lines in verse 30 are obviously supposed to be read together as contrasting statements. Since Welch’s thesis is that the two halves of the chiasmus present a “before conversion” and “after conversion” contrast, the fact that there is a contrasting statement immediately adjacent to B’ is a genuine problem.

The two-word sequence “as I” found in verses 2 and 30, which Welch makes the basis of C and C’, occurs in five other places in the chapter, none of which is chiastically parallel to any of the others. This is enough to pronounce this part of the chiasmus invalid. Yet there is more. The actual phrase in C, “as I have done,” is paralleled verbatim in what is supposed to be D’ (v. 29), while the actual phrase in C’, “as I do know,” is paralleled verbatim in J’ (v. 26). Since the parallels between the two occurrences of “as I have done” and “as I do know” are more significant than parallels between two occurrences of “as I,” we must conclude that these mavericks are strong evidence against the chiasmus.

Although the lines “and he surely did deliver them” (F, v. 2) and “and he will still deliver me” (F’, v. 27) have some important words in common, the clearer and more precise parallel is between “and he will still deliver me” (v. 27) and “yea, God hath delivered me” (also v. 27, but belonging with H’). Therefore, this is also a fairly significant maverick.

There are eleven words in the “know” group in Alma 36: eight occurrences of know, two occurrences of known, and one occurrence of knowledge. With this many occurrences in a passage of thirty verses, it is not surprising that Welch could find two that could be outlined as parallel chiastically (as J and J’). The fact that the one occurrence of knowledge serves as the second in the pair further weakens this part of the literary analysis. What makes the parallel seem more plausible is the connection of “know” and “knowledge” to the expression “of God,” indicating that Alma’s knowing was from divine revelation. Conceptually, then, the two statements are parallel. However, the closest parallel to J (in v. 4) is found in K (in v. 5):

I would not that ye think that I know of myself, not of the temporal, but of the spiritual; not of the carnal mind, but of God (v. 4)
I should not have known…but God hath, by the mouth of his holy angel, made these things known unto me (v. 5)

In short, the claim that the parallel between verses 4 and 26 (J and J’) was part of an elaborate chiasmus is undermined by the nine other occurrences of know or known in Alma 36 and by the much fuller parallel between verses 4 and 5 (J and K).

Welch makes the two occurrences of the expression born of God in verses 5 and 26 the basis for lines K and K’ in his chiasmus. However, this same expression also occurs in verses 23 and 24, where Welch’s outline has M’ and L’. These two additional occurrences of the same expression are clear instances of mavericks.

Perhaps the weakest verbal parallel in Welch’s chiasmus comes at L and L’, in which Alma’s statement that he “went about…seeking to destroy the church of God” (v. 6) is set in contrasting parallel to his statement that after his conversion he “labored” so that he “might bring souls unto repentance” (v. 24). No doubt these two statements express an important contrast thematically within the context of the passage as a whole. However, these statements have not been composed or constructed to function as part of a lengthy chiasmus. This conclusion follows from the fact that the closest parallel to the statement that is the basis of L is a statement by the angel in verse 9 (which in Welch’s outline is still part of L) and repeated in verse 11 (which would be M):

I went about…seeking to destroy the church of God (v. 6)
If thou wilt of thyself be destroyed, seek no more to destroy the church of God (v. 9)
If thou wilt be destroyed of thyself, seek no more to destroy the church of God (v. 11)

The problem here is even worse than the existence of yet another maverick. In order to make his chiasmus work, Welch has had to ignore one of the most sustained verbal parallels of the entire chapter. If one were studying the repetitions of Alma 36 inductively and trying to find out if there was any particular literary form involved, one would have to take into account the angel’s statement in verse 9 and Alma’s recalling it practically verbatim in verse 11. Yet this important repetition plays no part whatsoever in Welch’s literary analysis of the text.

Welch’s lines N and N’ also involve a conceptual parallel with only a very weak verbal parallel. Alma states that before his conversion “the very thoughts of coming into the presence of my God, did rack my soul with inexpressible horror” (v. 14). After his conversion, Alma says he thought that he “saw even as our father Lehi saw, God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels, in the attitude of singing and praising their God; yea, and my soul did long to be there” (v. 22). These two statements have no significant verbal elements in common other than the expression my soul, but this expression occurs in two other places in the chapter (v. 12, which would be with M, and v. 20, which would be with O’). The statements in verses 14 and 22 are conceptually parallel and contrasting since to be where the angels sang and praised God on his throne is the same thing as being in God’s presence; thus Alma abhorred the idea of being in God’s presence before his conversion but afterward longed for it. However, once again, it does not seem likely that these conceptual parallels were intended as elements in a chiasmus, because there are direct verbal parallels elsewhere (even in addition to the two additional occurrences of my soul noted above). The expression the presence of my God actually occurs twice in the section that Welch labels N (vv. 14, 15), and the parallel expression his presence also occurs at B’ (v. 30).

The word pains occurs five times in Alms 36 (vv. 13, 16, 19, 20, 21). Welch identifies two of these as parallel elements O and O’ in the chiasm (vv. 16, 20). Conceptually, the words “joy as exceeding as was my pains” (v. 20) does contrast fairly well with “the pains of a damned soul” (v. 16), but it contrasts equally well with the words “tormented with the pains of hell” (v. 13), which falls in the section that Welch labels as M. These words in verse 13 constitute yet another clear maverick for Welch’s chiasmus. Further weakening the parallel as chiastic is the fact that the exact expression as was my pains in Welch’s O’ (v. 20) is repeated shortly thereafter (v. 21).

Finally, the lines Welch identifies as P and P’ are strongly parallel verbally and are also strongly contrasting lines conceptually. However, there are strong verbal parallels to P in verses 12-13, which would fall in the section for M:

My soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree, and racked with all my sins (v. 12)
I did remember all my sins and iniquities, for which I was tormented (v. 13)
I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins (v. 17)
I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more (v. 19)

Even though the lines in verses 17 and 19 are the strongest parallels among the four lines, and do effectively contrast with one another, the similar lines in verses 12 and 13 (especially verse 12) weaken the parallels as standing in a chiastic relation to one another.

We may now bring together these observations about each of Welch’s seventeen pairs of parallel lines and draw some conclusions. One of these pairs, lines I and I’, do not align in the chiasmus structure and so must be regarded as a serious flaw in the chiasmus. That is really all that needs to be said about this pair of lines.

Of the remaining sixteen pairs, four are strong verbal parallels (B/B’, H/H’, P/P’, and Q/Q’), three are weak verbal parallels (A/A’, C/C’, and J/J’), two are not verbally parallel (L/L’ and N/N’), and the other seven are moderately verbal parallels. These are rather mixed results but not fatal to the proposed chiasmus.

Since the purpose of the chiasmus is to express in a rhetorically effective way the contrast between Alma before his conversion and after it, one should also consider how many of the sixteen pairs of lines are conceptually contrasting in this way. The answer is that only six of the sixteen lines contain such a conceptual contrast.

The preceding two considerations are tangentially related to the issue of mavericks, which we will now review directly. Here we will sort the sixteen pairs of lines into those with no mavericks at all, those with mavericks that only somewhat weaken the chiasmus, and those with mavericks that greatly weaken the chiasmus. Three pairs have no mavericks at all (G/G’, M/M’, and Q/Q’). Four pairs have mavericks that lightly or moderately weaken the chiasmus (B/B’, D/D’, E/E’, and H/H’). The remaining nine pairs of lines—more than half of the total—have mavericks that pose serious problems and greatly weaken the chiasmus.

Recall Welch’s claim that only the three key terms word, commandments, and know “ever appear outside their respective sections” in the chiasmus.35 We now know this is incorrect. At least seven other key words or phrases in his chiasmus outline appear outside their proper places in the outline: 

  • as I (C/C’; found also in P, K’, J’, and D’)
  • deliver (F/F’; found also in H’)
  • born of God (K/K’; found also in M’, L’)
  • destroy the church of God (L; not found in L’, but found in M)
  • presence of God (N; not found in N’, but found in B’)
  • pains (O/O’: found also in M, P’)
  • harrowed up (P/P’: found also in M)

Ten mavericks in a system of seventeen pairs of elements (one of which is out of sync) is simply too many mavericks for the chiasmus to be considered as legitimate from the standpoint of literary analysis. Based on Welch’s own criterion, the chiasmus is far too weak to be accepted as genuine. 

If we assess each of the seventeen pairs in terms of the factors just reviewed—parallel place in the outline, verbal and conceptual parallels, and mavericks—only two of the pairs work well (my limbs, M/M’, and Jesus, Son of God, Q/Q’), and two other pairs are acceptable (bondage, E/E’, and put trust in God, G/G’). The other thirteen pairs are either too weak to support the chiasmus or actually undermine the chiasmus in a serious way. This analysis confirms that the chiasmus is simply not there. There are lots of parallels in Alma 36, and some of them “line up” in the two “halves” of the chapter, but there is no chiasmus. The many parallels that can be drawn are the result of repetition as well as some significant, deliberate contrasts drawn in the second part of the chapter with what was said in the first part. Again, that the text exhibits such a contrast is not in question, but this contrast is not framed rhetorically in the form of a chiasmus. 

9.  Reduplication 

Welch’s ninth criterion is somewhat related to his eighth criterion, that of mavericks. He writes:

If the same word or element appears over and over within the system, the likelihood is greater that some other kind of repetition (including random repetition) is predominant in the passage instead of chiasmus. Reduplication is not a problem in Alma 36—this chapter contains 201 words that appear only once or twice; 58 words appear three, four, or five times; and only 42 words appear more than five times, usually in balanced sections or in close proximity to each other.36

These figures are fairly meaningless without specifying what kind of words are repeated and without more specific information as to how many significant words are found only in the paired, parallel sections. Most of the words that occur more than five times are found throughout the passage (such as I, my, and even less distinctive words). The word behold occurs 12 times in ten different sections, yea 19 times also in ten different sections (not the same ones as behold), in both cases with no discernible pattern. And these are just some of the less distinctive words.

The fact is that in addition to the ten mavericks already identified in relation to the preceding criterion, there are some fifteen distinctive words or expressions that occur across different sections of Welch’s chiasmus and that do not fit within his outline. These include the following terms: 

  • memory/remember/remembrance (7 times, in D, M, P, Q, P’, and D’)
  • my son (6 times, in A, G, O’, L’, and C’)
  • hear (6 times, in G, M, and G’)
  • God (26 times, in 17 of the 34 sections throughout the chapter)
  • know(n) these things (3 times, in K and J’)
  • I say unto you (3 times, in K and O’)
  • angel (4 times, in K, L, M, and N’)
  • fell to the earth (L, M)
  • three days and three nights (2 times, in M and O)
  • rack, racked (5 times, in M, N, O, and P)
  • torment (3 times, in M and P)
  • sins (5 times, in M, P, Q, and P’)
  • great (3 times, in M, N, and L’)
  • soul (7 times, in M, N, O, O’, N’, and L’)
  • joy (5 times, in O’ and L’), specifically exceeding joy (3 times, in O’ and L’)

It turns out that Alma 36 scores very poorly in relation to this criterion. To put the matter in some perspective, these fifteen verbal elements scattered across Alma 36 that cannot be fitted into any chiasmus are about three times the number of verbal elements that we found were unique to the pairs of parallel lines in Welch’s chiasmus outline. That one fact is sufficient basis for rejecting the chiastic analysis.

10.  Centrality

Welch’s tenth criterion is the only one by which his proposed chiasmus in Alma 36 tests strongly positive:

The crux of a chiasm is generally its central turning point. Without a well-defined centerpiece or distinct crossing effect, there is little reason for seeing chiasmus. Inverting is the essence of chiasmus, so the clearer the reversal at the center point, the stronger the chiasticity of the passage.37

The center of Welch’s chiasmus in Alma 36 is the double reference to “Jesus” as “Son of God,” the only references in the chapter to Jesus. This feature does make Alma 36:17–19 a “well-defined centerpiece” for a chiasmus.

11.  Balance

Welch’s eleventh criterion is that the ascending and descending parts of the chiasmus should be approximately equal in length and number of elements:

Ideally, the elements on both sides of the proposed focal point should be nearly equal, in terms of number of words, lines, or elements. It reduces clarity and focus when the two halves of a purportedly chiastic passage are not balanced.38

Welch then points out, “In Alma 36, 52 percent of the words appear before the turning point, and 48 percent appear afterwards.”39 Although this is an acceptable outcome, balance in a chiasmus involves more than the comparative length of the two major parts. It also means that the elements of the chiasmus are spread more or less evenly throughout the passage. As we observed in discussing Welch’s sixth criterion (density), there is a portion of the chapter running nearly three hundred words long that has only two of the lines of the proposed chiasmus.

A simple way to quantify the imbalance is to divide the chiasmus into three sections of as nearly equal a number of chiastic lines as possible. When we do this, we find that the first section, with 11 lines, takes up 213 words; the last section, also with 11 lines, takes up 307 words; but the middle section, with 12 lines, takes up 711 words—more than the other two sections combined (520 words). We can assign twelve lines to the first or third section and the results are similar (626 words versus 605 words, or 592 words versus 639 words). However we look at it, there is a noticeable imbalance in the chiasmus simply because so little of Alma 36:5-15 is functionally part of the chiasmus.

The imbalance is not merely a quantitative matter. The quantitative imbalance is a result of the fact that Welch’s chiasmus essentially ignores the part of Alma’s story involving the angel that appeared to him and his companions. This omission calls into question the cogency of claiming that the chiasmus epitomizes the basic storyline of the passage.

12.  Climax

Welch explains his twelfth criterion as follows:

A strong chiasm will emphasize the central element of the passage as its focal climax. Where the concept at the center is not weighty enough to support the concentrated attention of the reader and to bear the author’s paramount intention, the chiastic force of the passage is less than the case in which the idea at the center is an important one.40

There does not seem to be any significant difference between this criterion of “climax” and the tenth criterion of “centrality.” As has already been acknowledged, Welch’s choice of the dual references to “Jesus” as “Son of God” fixes the center or focal point of the proposed chiasmus in a meaningful and appropriate place. There do not appear to be two distinct or independent criteria here.

13.  Return 

According to Welch’s thirteenth criterion, “A chiasm is more complete where its beginning and end combine to create a strong sense of return and completion.” This seems to be a reasonable assumption. He then offers the following explanation of how this criterion is realized in Alma 36:

Thus the journey into Alma’s conversion explains how it is that he knows that one will be blessed and delivered by keeping the commandments of God, and accordingly one can see why Alma’s words (Alma 36:1) can be equated with God’s words (Alma 36:30) as the story returns in the end to its point of departure.41

This criterion is largely dependent on the strength of the opening and closing lines of the proposed chiasmus. As we explained in discussing mavericks, the parallel between my words at the beginning of the passage (Alma 36:1) and his word at the end (36:30) is a fairly weak parallel. Moreover, Alma 37 goes on to make several more references both to God’s word or words (37:9, 16, 24, 26, 44, 45, 47) and to Alma’s words (37:20, 32), confirming that the end of Alma 36 does not represent a conclusion to these themes. Likewise, Alma used the precise expression my son both at the beginning and the end of Alma 36 (36:1, 30), but it is actually found twenty times in Alma 36–37 (36:1, 3, 21a, 21b, 27, 30; 37:1, 13, 14, 20, 24, 26, 27, 32, 35, 38, 43, 46, 47a, 47b). Thus, the reference to God’s word in Alma 36:30 does not function as a concluding reference back to the beginning of the passage.

Based on this criterion, then, Welch’s chiasmus in Alma 36 looks fairly weak.

14.  Compatibility

Welch’s fourteenth criterion is that the use by an author of chiasmus elsewhere increases the plausibility of its being found in the place in question:

Chiasm is more likely to be meaningfully present if its author used chiasmus or related forms of parallelism on other occasions as well. If a proposed chiastic word order is an isolated phenomenon in the writings of an author, there is a greater chance that the occurrence in question was simply accidental. Accordingly, the fact that Alma makes remarkable use of chiasmus in Alma 41:13–15 enhances even further the degree of chiasticity in Alma 36.42

Frankly, this criterion is fallacious. Assuming for the sake of argument that an author uses chiasmus in one passage, this finding does not make another passage more likely to be a chiasmus. Likewise, finding that an author has used chiasmus only once does not detract from the conclusion that the text is a chiasmus.43

If Alma 41:13–15 is a chiasmus, it is a most unusual one.44 There is no denying that the passage includes a bit of inverted parallelism (in 4:13b–14): 

A1: good for that which is good;
B1: righteous for that which is righteous;
C1: just for that which is just;
D1: merciful for that which is merciful.
Therefore, my son, see that you are
D2: merciful unto your brethren;
C2: deal justly,
B2: judge righteously,
A2: and do good continually;
and if ye do all these things then shall ye receive your reward;
D3: yea, ye shall have mercy restored unto you again;
C3: ye shall have justice restored unto you again;
B3: ye shall have a righteous judgment restored unto you again;
A3: and ye shall have good rewarded unto you again.

This is artfully done, and it uses inversion effectively, but as a whole it is not, in terms of a formal literary or rhetorical analysis, a chiasmus, because there is no central turning point and the relevant text begins in the midst of the textual unit, mid-sentence. One might regard 4:13b–14a (from A1 through A2) as chiastic, but again, A1 comes in mid-sentence and D2 through A2 are part of a separate sentence. It is probably better to speak more generally of inversion here than of a complete or formal chiasmus.

In any case, the existence of a short, relatively simple chiasmus elsewhere in Alma does nothing to support the case for construing Alma 36 as a very long and complex chiasmus. By no means is it assumed or asserted here that there can be no legitimate instances of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon. Rather, any chiasmus that might occur is, we would maintain, the sort of artful inversion that any articulate preacher or speaker might employ, perhaps without even planning it ahead of time. There are no elaborate or long examples of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon—none that would require the sort of compositional skill that defenders of the Book of Mormon assert would have been beyond Joseph Smith.

15.  Aesthetics

Welch concludes with a criterion that takes into account that writing and recognizing a literary form such as a chiasmus is an art, not an exact science:

Finally, there is room for subjective appreciation. Computers alone cannot identify chiasmus. Since human readers must judge an author’s artistic success, further factors become relevant in assessing a passage’s degree of chiasticity, such as the author’s fluency with the form; consistency in sustaining the structure, balance, and harmony; pliability at the turning point (which yet does not draw undue attention to itself); and meaningful applications of the form that do not resort to subtleties so obscure as to be esoteric or awkward.45

All of what Welch says here is fine as long as it is not abused (which I do not suggest Welch was doing) by appealing to subjective opinion to validate a proposed chiasmus or, for that matter, to dismiss one (by something along the lines of “it doesn’t look like a chiasmus to me”). In other words, the chiasmus is not a literary straitjacket with rigid rules that can never be bent. At the same time, the chiasmus is not just any sort of inversion or parallelism that looks “chiastic” or that can with sufficient effort be “found” anywhere and everywhere one looks. The subjective aspect of literary judgment must be tempered with objective evidence, the discovery of which is something that Welch’s other criteria are meant to facilitate. In this regard, we should express some appreciation and sincere respect for Welch’s efforts to advance the study of chiasmus.

Ironically, the careful application of Welch’s criteria to his proposed chiasmus in Alma 36 has yielded some severe problems, sufficient to conclude that the passage is not really a chiasmus at all.

Summary

The following table very briefly summarizes the findings explained in detail above with regard to assessing the chiasmus in Alma 36 according to Welch’s own criteria. 

Criterion Application to Alma 36 Assessment
1. Objectivity Some elements do not fit at all or are difficult to fit flawed
2. Purpose Plausible but potentially misleading (see #4) plausible
3. Boundaries Weak since the actual unit is Alma 36-37 weak
4. Other forms Possible problem because testimonies can look chiastic uncertain
5. Length Strong only if all links in the chain are strong ambivalent
6. Density Is 14% use in a chiasmus good? Most of 36:6-14 not used flawed
7. Dominance Fails since the story of the angel (36:7-11) is omitted flawed
8. Mavericks Fatally flawed: more than half of the lines have mavericks fatally flawed
9. Reduplication 3 times as many extraneous duplications as useful parallels fatally flawed
10. Centrality Proposed chiasmus does have a strong center strong
11. Balance Divides fairly evenly into halves, but otherwise uneven mixed
12. Climax This criterion duplicates #10 superfluous
13. Return Weak parallel between my words and his word (vv. 1, 30) weak
14. Compatibility Fallacious criterion, and Welch’s other example is weak invalid
15. Aesthetics Legitimate point but cannot overcome objective problems insufficient

As was noted, the one strong point of Welch’s proposed chiasmus is that it does have a strong, appropriate center. Three of the criteria are either fallacious (14) or superfluous (12) or otherwise have no useful evidence to contribute either way (15). Two of the criteria are of some uncertain application since a chiasmus might be an effective rhetorical form for a conversion story but this does not mean a conversion story is likely to take that form (2, 4). Four of the criteria expose some weaknesses or difficulties for the chiasmus without being individually fatal (3, 5, and 13). One criteria, that of length (11), is strong if the chiasmus is without flaw, but given its flaws actually counts heavily against the chiasmus. Finally, as measured against five of the fifteen criteria, the chiasmus was found to be significantly flawed (1, 6, and 7) and even fatally flawed (8 and 9).

Here is a perhaps simplistic, though in a way generous, way of quantifying these findings. Suppose we ignore the indeterminate or debatable criteria and assign a letter grade to the chiasmus for each of the remaining criteria, with an “A” grade to a strong positive finding, a “B” grade for a somewhat positive result, a “C” grade for each weak finding, a “D” for significant flaws, and an “F” for fatal flaws, then the chiasmus receives 2 Fs, 3 Ds, 3 Cs, and 1 A. That works out to a “grade point average” of 1.4, which is a D grade average.46 And this is a rather generous way of assessing the chiasmus because in fact there are many serious flaws that happen to fall under just a few of the criteria.

Far from being one of the best examples of a lengthy chiasmus in world literature, Alma 36 is really not a chiasmus at all. The chiasmus is a creative imposition on the text, not something that is intrinsic to the text that has been discovered. Clearly, there is a central turning point in the passage around which Welch found other strands of repetition that seemed suggestive of a chiasmus. That turning point marks the transition from before to after Alma’s conversion, with at least some of what was said before contrasting with what was said after. The hypothesis of a chiasmus seemed plausible and Welch worked the text on the basis of that hypothesis, seemingly finding confirmation for it in a number of parallels that did “fit” in a chiasmus outline. It was a plausible enough hypothesis, especially given LDS presuppositions about the nature of the Book of Mormon text. However, one of the marks of a good hypothesis is that it can withstand testing by a careful, objective study of the facts. In this case, the evidence shows that the hypothesis is falsified by a large number of facts about the passage.

VI.  The Modern Origin of Alma 36

The conclusion that Alma 36 is not a chiasmus does not prove that it is not ancient scripture. The Book of Mormon itself makes no claim about chiasmus; this is a post-Book of Mormon scholarly construct on Alma 36 that can and should be tested without prejudice or bias. Alma 36 might still be inspired, ancient scripture that just happens not to be chiasmus. On the other hand, the fact that it is not chiasmus removes the one positive argument Mormons are making in defense of Alma 36 being ancient rather than modern. Thus, clearing away the misconception that the passage is a carefully crafted chiasmus in the ancient Israelite tradition allows us to open the question of whether the text is actually ancient or modern in origin.

We should start with the text’s explicit claims for itself. Alma 36–37 purports to be the record of a final charge from the Nephite prophet Alma the Younger to his son Helaman, living somewhere in the Americas or Western Hemisphere, about 74 BC.47 That is, the text is a record of a speech given about a century before Jesus died, halfway around the world. The Nephites would have had much, perhaps most, of the Old Testament but absolutely nothing of the New Testament, all of which was written in the second half of the first century AD.

Moreover, Alma and Helaman were part of a society that had not had any contact with the Middle East or the Mediterranean region for about five hundred years, following the voyages of two groups of Jews who left Jerusalem and sailed to the Western Hemisphere in the sixth century BC. This means that every aspect of their culture—their language, customs, technologies, arts, clothing, food, and so on—had developed independently of the Jews in the Old World for half a millennium. When the ancestors of the Nephites departed from Jerusalem, their language was an earlier form of Hebrew than the form used by Jews in the Dead Sea Scrolls (third century BC to first century AD) or in later works. The surrounding nations whose cultural influences were most significant at the time were those in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Major linguistic and cultural influence from the Greeks was still two centuries away (with the arrival of Alexander the Great in the fourth century BC) and so would have had no relevant impact on the development of Nephite society.

Finally, we are told that Alma 36–37 is part of a long narrative text written on gold plates by the prophet Mormon, who lived more than four centuries after Alma and Helaman. Mormon’s account was an abridgment of earlier records. The Book of Mormon contains numerous comments about the necessity of passing over a great deal of relevant information due to the lack of writing space and the difficulty of writing on the plates. The Book of Mormon make such statements in more than forty separate places, including fifteen places in Mormon’s abridgment (Words of Mormon 1:5-6; Mosiah 1:8; 8:1; Alma 8:1, 3; 9:34; 11:46; 13:31; Helaman 3:14; 5:13; 14:1; 3 Ne. 5:8, 18; 7:17; 26:6). Thus, the Book of Mormon presents itself as having been written on limited space on metal plates with great difficulty, and a large part of the Book of Mormon, including Alma 36–37, is said to have been an abridgment by Mormon of earlier records.

With this background information at hand, we are prepared to consider whether Alma 36–37 is best understood as an ancient Jewish scripture or a modern composition.

Pre-Christian References to Jesus

In the midst of Alma 36 occurs one of the many references to Jesus by name in the Book of Mormon attributed to figures who lived before Jesus was born:

I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people, concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world. Now as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart, O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me (Alma 36:17-18).

These references to Jesus are anachronistic. By anachronistic is meant that they do not belong in the historical period in which they are set. Imagine someone referring to Benjamin Franklin checking his email messages or the Magi stopping at a gas station to ask for directions to Jerusalem. Anachronisms can be funny, but they can also be serious clues that something that is claimed to be historical really is not. In the case of Alma 36:17-18, the claim that a man living in the first century BC somewhere in the Americas (or anywhere else for that matter) addressed “Jesus, thou Son of God” in prayer for salvation is clearly anachronistic. No human being living before Jesus was born knew that the Savior of the world was going to have the name Jesus.

The stock answer that Mormons give to this anachronism is that God could easily reveal the name of Jesus to prophets prior to his coming into the world. While of course God could have done so, the question is whether he did. There are some very good reasons to conclude otherwise.

First of all, according to the New Testament, Jesus is the name that the divine Son was given to him after he was born (Matt. 1:21-25; Luke 1:31; 2:21). Even if his future human name might have been revealed to prophets living before Jesus came, they would not have addressed him by that name prior to his coming.

Second, nowhere in the Old Testament does any prophet refer to the future Messiah or Savior by the name Jesus. This never happens even in passages that Christians traditionally regard as especially important prophecies of the coming of Christ, such as Isaiah 9:6-7 (“unto us a child is born”), Isaiah 11:1-3 (the shoot from the stem of Jesse), or Isaiah 52:13-53:12 (the Suffering Servant).

Mormons commonly try to rebut this point by suggesting that explicit references to Jesus by name in the Old Testament prophecies might have been lost or removed (say, by Jewish scribes who wished to suppress those references). Thus Monte Nyman comments, “Christ’s name was known by the prophets although it is currently not in the Old Testament.”48 However, this explanation is inconsistent with the Book of Mormon itself. The Book of Mormon includes all three of the Isaiah passages just mentioned—and in none of the Book of Mormon quotations from Isaiah does the name Jesus appear. The Book of Mormon quotes about 24 chapters of the Old Testament, all of which presumably would have been preserved fully and accurately, with nothing important lost or removed as is alleged to have happened to the Old Testament itself. Yet in all of those quotations from the Old Testament, the name Jesus does not occur even once. Yet the name Jesus occurs 45 times in Book of Mormon passages set in the time before his coming, including the two references in Alma 36.

Alma and Paul

The story of Alma the Younger in the Book of Mormon is strikingly parallel to the figure of the apostle Paul in the New Testament. Not only are their stories very similar, the Book of Mormon uses much of the same wording as the New Testament to describe Alma’s story. This is a fairly significant part of the Book of Mormon, since Alma the Younger’s conversion is first narrated in Mosiah 27, and he is the dominant figure in Mosiah 27–29 and in Alma 1–45.

According to the Book of Mormon, Alma was traveling with companions, the sons of Mosiah, pursuing his persecution of the church of God, when they were stopped in the midst of their journey by a heavenly vision (Alma 36:6; Mosiah 27:10-11). Similarly, Paul (also called Saul) was traveling with companions on the way to go persecute more Christians when they were stopped by a heavenly vision (Acts 9:3, 7). The heavenly being that appeared to Alma was an angel (Mosiah 27:11; Alma 36:6, 8). Paul, on the other hand, saw the Lord Jesus (Acts 9:5). The difference in the two accounts in this regard is dictated by the chronological setting: Alma does not see Jesus because Jesus will not make a bodily appearance to the Nephites until after his resurrection (3 Nephi 11).

When the angel appeared, Alma and his companions “fell to the earth” (Mosiah 27:12; Alma 36:7). Likewise, Paul, as well as his companions, “fell to the earth” (Acts 9:4; see 26:14).49

In both cases, the accounts mention that there was some difficulty in hearing the heavenly voice. Alma and his companions at first “understood not the words which he [the angel] spake unto them” (Mosiah 27:12), so that the angel repeated himself (v. 13). After hearing the angel’s opening statement, Alma was unable to hear anything else the angel said, but his words “were heard by my brethren” (Alma 36:11). When the Lord spoke to Paul, Paul heard and understood what the Lord said. However, one account says that his companions “stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man” (Acts 9:7), while another account states that “they heard not the voice of him that spake unto me” (Acts 22:9). This apparent verbal discrepancy has most commonly been understood, and rightly so, to reflect the fact that the companions could hear something, perhaps even recognize the sound to be a voice, but could not hear the words clearly enough to understand what the speaker was saying.

In the case of both Alma and Paul, the heavenly voice asked why he was engaged in persecution. The angel asked Alma, “why persecutest thou the church of God?” (Mosiah 27:13). Jesus asked Paul, “Saul, why persecutest thou me?” (Acts 9:4). Here again, the question varies because Jesus cannot make a direct appearance on earth yet, but otherwise the question is the same. Indeed, its meaning is identical because what Jesus meant in Acts 9:4 was that Paul was persecuting him by his persecution of the church.

The heavenly speaker in both cases also told the persecutor to stand up. According to Alma, “the voice said unto me, Arise” (Alma 36:8; cf. Mosiah 27:13). Likewise, Acts reports, “And the Lord said unto him, Arise” (Acts 9:6; see also 22:10, “the Lord said unto me, Arise”; cf. 26:14-16).

Once their encounters with a heavenly being had concluded, Alma and Paul were both physically debilitated and needed to be helped by their companions to their destination. In Paul’s case, he was blind and needed to be led by the hand (Acts 9:8). In Alma’s case, he was weak and unable to open his mouth or to use his hands or his limbs, and so needed to be carried helpless (Mosiah 27:19; Alma 36:10). Both men experienced their debilitation for the same period of time: “three days” for Paul (Acts 9:9), more fully stated for Alma as “three days and three nights” (Alma 36:10, 16). Since it is said that Alma could not “open his mouth” (Mosiah 27:19; Alma 36:10) and was so weak that he could not use his hands, it is likely implied that he could not eat or drink, which Acts states explicitly about Paul (Acts 9:9).

These parallels are simply too specific, distinctive, and concentrated to be anything but the result of literary dependence, and there are additional minor parallels not discussed here. There are roughly a dozen parallels between the account of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9:3-9, a short passage of only seven verses, and the similarly short accounts of Alma’s conversion in Mosiah 27:11-3, 18-19 and Alma 36:6-11 (see the table below). 

Acts 9:3-9 KJV Mosiah 27:11-13, 18-19 Alma 36:6-11
And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: 4And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? 5And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. 6And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do. 7And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man. 8And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought himinto Damascus. 9And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink. 11And as I said unto you, as they were going about rebelling against God, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto them; and he descended as it were in a cloud; and he spake as it were with a voice of thunder, which caused the earth to shake upon which they stood; 12And so great was their astonishment, that they fell to the earth, and understood not the words which he spake unto them. 13Nevertheless he cried again, saying: Alma, arise and stand forth, for why persecutest thou the church of God? For the Lord hath said: This is my church, and I will establish it; and nothing shall overthrow it, save it is the transgression of my people…. 18And now Alma and those that were with him fell again to the earth, for great was their astonishment; for with their own eyes they had beheld an angel of the Lord; and his voice was as thunder, which shook the earth; and they knew that there was nothing save the power of God that could shake the earth and cause it to tremble as though it would part asunder. 19And now the astonishment of Alma was so great that he became dumb, that he could not open his mouth; yea, and he became weak, even that he could not move his hands; therefore he was taken by those that were with him, and carried helpless, even until he was laid before his father. 6for I went about with the sons of Mosiah, seeking to destroy the church of God; but behold, God sent his holy angel to stop us by the way. 7And behold, he spake unto us, as it were the voice of thunder, and the whole earth did tremble beneath our feet, and we all fell to the earth, for the fear of the Lord came upon us. 8But behold, the voice said unto me, Arise. And I arose and stood up, and beheld the angel. 9And he said unto me, If thou wilt of thyself be destroyed, seek no more to destroy the church of God.10 And it came to pass that I fell to the earth; and it was for the space of three days and three nights, that I could not open my mouth; neither had I the use of my limbs. 11And the angel spake more things unto me, which were heard by my brethren, but I did not hear them; for when I heard the words, If thou wilt be destroyed of thyself, seek no more to destroy the church of God, I was struck with such great fear and amazement, lest perhaps that I should be destroyed, that I fell to the earth, and I did hear no more. 

 

Beyond the clear relation between the short account in Acts 9:3-9, there are other parallels to Paul in the story of Alma that can be traced to other parts of Acts and to Paul’s epistles.

For example, according to Alma 36, before his conversion Alma had been engaged in persecuting the church: “for I went about with the sons of Mosiah, seeking to destroy the church of God” (Alma 36:6; see also Mosiah 27:10). Likewise, in giving his own testimony the apostle Paul confessed that prior to his conversion, “I persecuted the church of God” (1 Cor. 15:9; Gal. 1:13; see also 1:23, “the faith which he once destroyed”). The parallel use of the expression the church of God is noteworthy, because it never appears in the Old Testament and is used in the New Testament only by Paul (Acts 20:28; 1 Cor. 1:2; 10:32; 11:22; 15:9; 2 Cor. 1:1; Gal. 1:13; 1 Tim. 3:5).50

After Alma’s conversion, he sought to bring others to repentance so that they might experience salvation “and be filled with the Holy Ghost” (Acts 36:24). Paul, after his conversion, was told that he could be healed “and be filled with the Holy Ghost” (Acts 9:17). The expression “filled with the Holy Ghost” occurs in the KJV Bible only in Luke’s writings (Luke 1:15, 41, 67; Acts 2:4; 4:8, 31; 9:17; 13:9; cf. Luke 4:1; Acts 6:3, 5; 7:55; 11:24; 13:52), although the idea is mentioned once in Paul’s epistles (Eph. 5:18). In the Old Testament, a similar expression is used about certain workers being “filled with the spirit” or “filled with the Spirit of God” specifically to give them special wisdom in their work (Exod. 28:3; 31:3; 35:31; cf. Deut. 34:9).

In his final charge to his son Helaman, Alma emphasizes that the knowledge he is passing down to him does not come to him naturally but was revealed to him by God:

I would not that ye think that I know of myself, not of the temporal, but of the spiritual; not of the carnal mind, but of God. Now behold I say unto you, If I had not been born of God, I should not have known these things; but God hath, by the mouth of his holy angel, made these things known unto me…. for because of the word which he hath imparted unto me, behold, many hath been born of God, and hath tasted as I have tasted, and hath seen eye to eye, as I have seen; therefore they do know of these things of which I have spoken, as I do know; and the knowledge which I have is of God (Alma 36:4-5, 26).

Similarly, in Paul’s epistle to the Galatians in which he recounts his conversion and call to the ministry of being an apostle, he emphasizes that his gospel message is not from man but from God:

But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ (Gal. 1:11-12).

Some of Alma’s language to describe the nature of his revealed knowledge is also distinctively Pauline. Alma is quoted as saying, “I would not that ye think that I know of myself, not of the temporal, but of the spiritual; not of the carnal mind, but of God” (Alma 36:4). In the Bible, the expression carnal mind is found only in Paul (Rom. 8:7); the same is true for the word temporal (2 Cor. 4:18). Alma’s use of the terms carnal and spiritual is also found in the Bible only in Paul, who uses them to express a similar contrast (Rom. 7:14; 1 Cor. 3:1; cf. the somewhat different usage in Rom. 15:27; 1 Cor. 9:11). Paul’s epistles account for 26 of the 28 occurrences of the word spiritual in the KJV Bible.51 The concentration of three such distinctively Pauline terms in one short sentence in the Book of Mormon, attributed to a figure whose conversion story is closely parallel to Paul’s, cannot be a coincidence.

During Alma’s life following his conversion he experienced various hardships similar to those suffered by the apostle Paul, and he viewed them in the same way. The following passages are especially noteworthy:

And I have been supported under trials and troubles of every kind, yea, and in all manner of afflictions; yea, God hath delivered me from prisons, and from bonds, and from death; yea, and I do put my trust in him, and he will still deliver me (Alma 36:27).

Save that the Holy Ghost witnesseth in every city, saying that bonds and afflictions abide me (Acts 20:23).
In labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft (2 Cor. 11:23, cf. 11:24-27).
Who delivered us from so great a death, and doth deliver: in whom we trust that he will yet deliver us (2 Cor. 1:10).

The cumulative weight of the evidence proves beyond reasonable doubt that the story of Alma has been constructed on the model of the apostle Paul, drawing on the language of the Bible in the KJV, primarily from relevant passages in Acts 9 and Paul’s epistles. This leads to the inevitable conclusion that Alma 36–37, and indeed other significant parts of the account about Alma, are a modern composition produced by someone very familiar with the KJV.

Other Uses of the New Testament

Alma 36 uses the New Testament in other ways besides modeling Alma after the apostle Paul. We will briefly note just the three clearest examples. Alma’s cry for salvation reads as follows:

Now as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart, O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who art in the gall of bitterness, and art encircled about by the everlasting chains of death (Alma 36:18).

This text features two lines of text that are found verbatim in two different parts of the New Testament. One of these is in Acts 8, the chapter immediately preceding Luke’s account of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9:3-9 discussed above:

I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity (Acts 8:23).

The metaphor of bitter gall is one that Alma might have derived from the Jewish scriptures the Nephites had (Deut. 29:18; 32:32). On the other hand, the specific expression “gall of bitterness” is not in the Old Testament. Moreover, the parallel account of Alma’s conversion in the Book of Mosiah contains an even fuller parallel to the statement in Acts:

My soul hath been redeemed from the gall of bitterness and the bonds of iniquity. (Mosiah 27:29).

The statement is also paralleled elsewhere in the Book of Mormon:

And now, my son, all men that are in a state of nature, or I would say, in a carnal state, are in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity (Alma 41:11).

Behold I say unto you, that he that supposeth that little children need baptism is in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity; for he hath neither faith, hope, nor charity; wherefore, should he be cut off while in the thought, he must go down to hell. (Moroni 8:14)

But wo unto such, for they are in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity (Moroni 8:31).

The fact that the Book of Mormon uses the identical eleven-word sequence found in Acts 8:23, using two rather distinctive metaphors, really puts it beyond reasonable doubt that these statements in the Book of Mormon are dependent on Acts 8:23.

Here is the other striking parallel to a New Testament text in the same Book of Mormon verse:

He began to cry out, and say, Jesus, thou Son of David, have mercy on me (Mark 10:47).
I cried within my heart, O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me (Alma 36:18).

The only significant difference between the two texts is that Jesus is addressed as “Son of God” instead of “Son of David.” This difference can easily be explained as reflecting the perspective of the author of the Book of Mormon. Jesus is never called “son of David” in the Book of Mormon, and his relationship to David is mentioned only once and only indirectly, in 2 Nephi 19:17, a quotation of Isaiah 9:7 that is part of a very lengthy continuous quotation of Isaiah 2–14 in 2 Nephi 12–24. David is mentioned only seven times in the entire Book of Mormon, three of which are in that same lengthy text quoted from Isaiah. By contrast, the Book of Mormon refers to “the Son of God” 51 times.

Now, the verbal parallel is arguably not sufficient to show that the author of Alma 36 was drawing specifically on Mark 10:47. In any case, we should of course not imagine Joseph Smith or anyone else flipping through a Bible looking up such statements from various places and then incorporating them into the Book of Mormon. More likely in this instance, the language of blind Bartimaeus in Mark 10:47 came indirectly to the Book of Mormon’s modern author through Christian use, as part of the common fund of Christian language conventions.

The third and final parallel we will mention is the following:

he will raise me up at the last day (Alma 36:28).
…and I will raise him up at the last day (John 6:40, 44, 54).

These two statements are verbally identical except for the necessary change in the pronouns to be consistent with Alma speaking about what the Lord will do. The expression last day in reference to the Day of Judgment is found in the Bible only in the Gospel of John (John 6:39, 40, 44, 54; 7:37; 11:24; 12:48).52

The use of the New Testament in the Book of Mormon should be regarded as a fact beyond reasonable dispute. It is one of the stubborn facts about the Book of Mormon that reveal it to be a modern composition, not a translation of ancient scriptures.

Modern Protestant Revivalism

Alma’s account of his conversion in Alma 36 bears a strong family resemblance to accounts of conversions to the Christian faith that were familiar in the Anglo-American, Protestant tradition of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries known as revivalism. Revivalism is a phenomenon that presupposes that most of the people in a particular society or region are of at least nominally Christian backgrounds. Their community has Christian roots going back generations, so that most of the members of that community were raised by parents who were Christians or were at least steeped in a Christian heritage. The driving force behind the rise and development of revivalism was the fact that so many people in a supposedly Christian nation or society did not appear to be genuine believers in Jesus Christ. Revivalist preaching sought to bring to authentic faith in Christ two kinds of people: those who thought of themselves as Christians because of their Christian or church background but whose faith was shallow or nominal, and those who had abandoned or rebelled against their Christian upbringing.

Alma the Younger is portrayed in the books of Mosiah and Alma as having been raised by a Christian leader and prophet also named Alma (the Elder). The younger Alma rebelled against his father and became part of a group of men who were actively seeking to destroy the church. Thus, Alma’s conversion fits within a revivalist context: he had rejected his Christian upbringing but was later converted back to the faith of his father.

Converts in revivalist movements were not necessarily converted merely or directly by hearing a revivalist sermon, although such sermons certainly played a major role in most such conversions. More often than one might suppose, these conversions turned on the convert’s experiencing some sort of encounter with a heavenly being—often with Jesus Christ himself.53

There were four essential elements in testimonies or stories of conversion in revivalist contexts: (1) a description of the individual’s sinful condition in unbelief; (2) a crisis point in which the individual realizes his or her sinfulness and (typically) fear of hell; (3) an appeal to Jesus for mercy, forgiveness, or salvation, resulting in the individual becoming born again; and (4) a report of how the individual’s life had changed, including the sense of freedom, relief, and joy that resulted from having the burden of sin lifted, and perhaps something about overcoming challenges to faith that arose after the conversion.54 

All four of the above elements of a revivalist conversion story are found in Alma 36: 

  1. Alma’s effort as an unbeliever to destroy the church of God (Alma 36:5-6)
  2. Alma comes under conviction of sin and fear of hell (Alma 36:6-17)
  3. Alma appeals to Jesus for mercy and finds sweet joy (Alma 36:18-22)
  4. Alma’s life changes to one of seeking to bring others to repentance (Alma 36:23-27)

Although such conversion stories were widespread and very familiar in Joseph Smith’s nineteenth-century Anglo-American culture, it is really implausible in the extreme to suppose that such stories would have emerged from a first-century BC society living, say, in Mesoamerica or in the Great Lakes region or anywhere else in the world (not even in Judea or Galilee!). To address the region where nearly all Mormon scholars prefer to theorize that the Nephites lived, we know enough about ancient Mesoamerican society to know that it was never Jewish or Christian at all. Mesoamericans worshiped gods that were mythical personifications of the sun, moon, and elemental forces of the natural world. Bloodletting,55 human sacrifice, and cannibalism56 were notable features of their culture for many hundreds of years before and after the time when Alma would have lived. The conditions required for revivalism—a broadly Christian heritage that dominates the society, multiple generations of Christianity without significant persecution enabling the development of nominalism and skepticism—simply could not have been met anywhere in the Western Hemisphere in the first century BC.

Alma’s conversion story, then, is a modern fiction, reflecting the Protestant revivalist tradition that dominated Joseph Smith’s part of the world in his day. It is utterly lacking in historical plausibility.

VII. Conclusion

We have shown in this rather long study that Alma 36 is modern rather than ancient in origin. We first argued at considerable length that Alma 36 is not, as Mormons claim, a rhetorically polished and impressively constructed chiasmus. In actuality, we explained, Alma 36 is a fairly repetitive passage that does tell a before-and-after story that can mimic in a general way a narrative structured as a chiasmus, but it is not actually a chiasmus. There are far more “mavericks” and other repetitions that fail to fit into the chiasmus than there are elements that might legitimately be regarded as potential chiastic elements. For these and other reasons, we concluded that Alma 36 is really not a chiasmus at all. Since it is not a chiasmus, its literary form need not be regarded as ancient, nor is there any reason to think that Joseph Smith could not have dictated such a passage without using notes or advance planning.

We then presented several lines of evidence supporting the conclusion that Alma 36 is modern in origin. We saw that its references to Jesus by name were anachronistic. We found that the story of Alma’s conversion is modeled closely after the example of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9:3-9, drawing on additional sources in Acts and Paul’s epistles for various details and language. We then showed that Alma is verbally and conceptually dependent on other texts in the New Testament. Finally, we explained that Alma’s conversion story follows a standard genre of conversion testimonies prevalent in the revivalist tradition that was part of Joseph Smith’s immediate religious environment, but was totally implausible as an account of any religious experience of an individual living in first-century BC Mesoamerica or anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere. The evidence, then, leads rather forcefully to the conclusion that the Book of Mormon originated in Joseph Smith’s own modern culture, not in a long-lost ancient Jewish-Christian civilization in the Americas.

 

NOTES 


1. John W. Welch, “A Steady Stream of Recognitions,” in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, ed. Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch (Provo: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies [FARMS], 2002), 340.

2. A perusal of the academic literature will reveal some discussion and disagreement about the precise technical usage of the term chiasmus in relation to other technical terms, but the definition given here corresponds to the usage that prevails in discussions about chiasmus in the Book of Mormon.

3. Welch, “Steady Stream of Recognitions,” in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, 345.

4. John W. Welch, “What Does Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon Prove?” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1997), 214, 217.

5. Joseph Smith Jr., The Book of Mormon (Palmyra, NY: E. B. Grandin, 1830), 323-26. All references to the 1830 edition are to this work.

6. Royal Skousen, ed., The Original Manuscript of the Book of Mormon: Typographical Facsimile of the Extant Text (Provo: FARMS, 2001), 319-25. All citations from “O” are referring to this work.

7. Royal Skousen and Robin Scott Jensen, Revelations and Translations, Volume 3, Part 2: Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon, Alma 36-Moroni 10, Joseph Smith Papers (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Office, 2015), 2-7.

8. Generally following John W. Welch, “A Masterpiece: Alma 36,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon: Insights You May Have Missed Before, ed. John W. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne (Salt Lake City: Deseret; Provo: FARMS, 1991), 117; John W. Welch, “Steady Stream of Recognitions,” in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, 341-42; John W. Welch, “Chiasmus,” in Book of Mormon Reference Companion, ed. Dennis L. Largey (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 2003), 184. The full-text outline in section IV also follows this same outline. Oddly, in his chapter “A Masterpiece: Alma 36,” Welch presents a full-text outline that differs markedly from the skeletal outline in the same chapter (119-24), despite claiming it uses the same lettering (118). His full-text outline contains only 22 levels (A–K and K’–A’). The outline used here is the same as Welch’s except in one respect: E’ and D’ are separated into 36:28-29a and 36:29b, whereas Welch made 36:28-29 double as both E’ and D’. In that regard I have followed the slight improvement in Book of Mormon Student Manual: Religion 121–122 (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2009), 232, in order to give the chiasmus every chance, although the manual’s outline has its own problems (discussed in section V below under #1). I have also used only the exact wording in the Book of Mormon text. Welch’s earlier outlines of the chiasmus were slightly different; see “Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon,” in Book of Mormon Authorship: New Light on Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1982), 49-51.

9. John W. Welch, “Criteria for Identifying and Evaluating the Presence of Chiasmus,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 4/2 (Fall 1995): 1-14.

10. Ibid., 4-5. Regrettably, the earlier, longer paper does not seem to be accessible in print or online.

11. Ibid., 5.

12. Book of Mormon Student Manual, 232. This outline is duplicated exactly in The Book of Mormon Study Guide: Start to Finish, ed. Thomas R. Valletta (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 2015), 484, which quotes directly from the curriculum manual (483-85).

13. Quoting the manual exactly here; its outline does not distinguish between F and F’, G and G’, etc.

14. Quoting here exactly from Welch, “A Masterpiece: Alma 36,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, 117; Welch, “Steady Stream of Recognitions,” in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, 342; cf. also Welch, “Chiasmus,” in Book of Mormon Reference Companion, 184.

15. Welch, “Criteria for Identifying and Evaluating the Presence of Chiasmus,” 5.

16. Ibid., 5-6.

17. Ibid., 6.

18. Welch, “A Masterpiece: Alma 36,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, 129.

19. Royal Skousen, “Book of Mormon Editions (1830-1981),” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 1:175-76.

20. Smith, Book of Mormon (1830), 323-30.

21. Skousen, ed., Original Manuscript, 319.

22. Skousen and Jensen, Revelations and Translations, Volume 3, Part 2: Printer’s Manuscript, 2-3.

23. See the current online edition on the LDS Church’s official website at Alma 36.

24. Welch, “Criteria for Identifying and Evaluating the Presence of Chiasmus,” 6.

25. Ibid., 6.

26. Welch, “A Masterpiece: Alma 36,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, 129.

27. Welch, “Criteria for Identifying and Evaluating the Presence of Chiasmus,” 6-7.

28. John W. Welch, “Parallelism and Chiasmus in Benjamin’s Speech,” in King Benjamin’s Speech: “That Ye May Learn Wisdom”, ed. John W. Welch and Stephen D. Ricks (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1998), 322.

29. Welch, “A Masterpiece: Alma 36,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, 129. My count shows 1,231 words in Alma 36 (not counting the header) in the 1830 ed., and 1,229 words in the current edition. Giving a precise figure for the number of words that “figure directly in the chiasm” is tricky, but Welch’s figure of 175 is in the neighborhood.

30. Welch, “Criteria for Identifying and Evaluating the Presence of Chiasmus,” 7.

31. Ibid.

32. Ibid.

33. Welch, “A Masterpiece: Alma 36,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, 129-30.

34. Ibid., 119. As noted earlier, Welch offers two different, contradictory outlines in the same essay, without giving any explanation for doing so.

35. Welch, “A Masterpiece: Alma 36,” in Rediscovering the Book of Mormon, 129-30; see also his less specific statement about their being only three such words in Welch, “Criteria for Identifying and Evaluating the Presence of Chiasmus,” 7.

36. Welch, “Criteria for Identifying and Evaluating the Presence of Chiasmus,” 7-8.

37. Ibid., 8.

38. Ibid.

39. Ibid. The precise figures are 52.4% (645 words) and 47.6% (586 words), totaling 1,231 words.

40. Ibid., 8-9.

41. Ibid., 9.

42. Ibid., 9.

43. As a side note, it should be remembered that according to the Book of Mormon, the Book of Alma was part of Mormon’s abridgment of the account found on a portion of the gold plates.

44. Welch discusses the passage as a chiasmus in “Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon,” in Book of Mormon Authorship, ed. Reynolds, 48-49.

45. Welch, “Criteria for Identifying and Evaluating the Presence of Chiasmus,” 9.

46. Using the scale A=4.0, B=3.0, C=2.0, D=1.0, and F=0; the grades add up to 13.0, divided by 9 grades equals 1.4.

47. This is the date given in the introduction to Alma 36 by the editors, based on chronological information provided throughout the Book of Mormon. For our purposes, it doesn’t matter if this is the precise date.

48. Monte S. Nyman, I Nephi, Write This Record: A Teaching Commentary on The First Book of Nephi and The Second Book of Nephi, Book of Mormon Commentary 1 (Orem, UT: Granite, 2003), 600.

49. All biblical quotations in this section are taken from the KJV, the version that Joseph Smith knew and that has such a close relation to the Book of Mormon.

50. The equivalent expression occurs in the Old Testament twice but is translated “the congregation of God” in the KJV (2 Chron. 1:3; Neh. 13:1). Contextually, the term in Alma 36 is clearly dependent on Paul.

51. The two exceptions are Hosea 9:7 and 1 Peter 2:5, neither of which uses the word in a contextually similar way.

52. The expression last day occurs in a totally unrelated context and sense once in the KJV of the Old Testament (“from the first day unto the last day,” Neh. 8:18).

53. See Christopher C. Jones, “The Power and Form of Godliness: Methodist Conversion Narratives and Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” Journal of Mormon History 37, 2 (Spring 2011): 106-107.

54. This last element is sometimes divided into two stages, the initial joy of conversion and the subsequent overcoming of challenges, resulting in a five-stage testimony. See Jones, “Power and Form of Godliness,” 101, citing Virginia Brereton, From Sin to Salvation: Stories of Women’s Conversions, 1800 to the Present (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 6.

55. Joyce Marcus, “Blood and Bloodletting,” in Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America: An Encyclopedia, ed. Susan Toby Evans and David L. Webster (New York: Garland, 2001), 81–82, and Cecelia F. Klein, “Autosacrifice and Bloodletting,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures: The Civilizations of Mexico and Central America, Davíd Carrasco, editor-in-chief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 1:64–66.

56. Kay A. Read, “Cannibalism,” in Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures, ed. Carrasco, 1:137–139.