Chiasmus, the Book of Mormon, and the Aquarian Gospel
One of the main types of evidence to which Mormons appeal in support of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon as ancient Israelite literature is the rhetorical feature called chiasmus. The inverse parallelism that is the defining characteristic of chiasmus is thought to be difficult if not impossible to explain if Joseph Smith was the author. How could he have done it?
In several articles, I have examined specific cases of alleged chiasmus in the Book of Mormon. All of the long, complex examples that Mormon scholar John Welch has analyzed turn out on closer inspection not to be good examples of chiasmus at all. The passages also contain tell-tale signs of modern composition, such as dependence on the New Testament and a decidedly Methodist-like, revivalist form of Christian piety.1
In this article I wish to approach the issue in a different way. Suppose we found an apparently very good example of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon. Would that be strong evidence of its antiquity? To answer this question, I will look at another text that appeared for the first time in the modern era but that claims to be an ancient scripture.
Background on the Aquarian Gospel
The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ was first published in 1907, the same year that the Gospel of Barnabas first appeared in English. Its author, Levi H. Dowling, was born in 1844, the year that Joseph Smith died.2 Dowling was born in Bellville, Ohio, about a hundred miles southwest of Kirtland, where Joseph Smith had headquartered the LDS Church for several years. He was raised by a minister in the Disciples of Christ, a denomination that like Mormonism, though in a very different way, sought to “restore” true Christianity. A former pastor and Civil War chaplain, Levi eventually became involved in the burgeoning metaphysical or New Thought movement, which advocated a “scientific,” “positive” reinterpretation of religion as expressions of the cosmic or divine Mind. The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ reinterprets Jesus along those lines.
At the time Dowling wrote his book, some biblical scholars were aware of chiasmus, but this knowledge was not widespread. Although Dowling was better educated than Joseph Smith had been, he was not a scholar and certainly showed no interest in or knowledge of ancient Israelite rhetorical and literary conventions. There is no reason to think he was aware of chiasmus or would have cared about it if he had. Dowling’s project was to modernize Christianity for the scientific age, not to mimic ancient speech patterns found in the Bible.
And yet it did not take much effort to find a passage in the Aquarian Gospel that looks very much like a chiasmus. The entire third chapter can be analyzed as a chiasmus without any obviously fatal flaw. Here is the entire passage, laid out in a chiasmus outline.
Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, Chapter 3
the prophet and the king that you have long been waiting for.
Here is a simplified chiastic outline, utilizing the words shown above in red, that exhibits the apparently quite elegant chiasmus:
There is much to be said in favor of this outline. If it had appeared in the Book of Mormon, LDS scholars would no doubt be heralding it as an impressive chiasmus. As a way of testing its validity, we may use the criteria for evaluating the strength of a proposed chiasmus laid out by LDS scholar John Welch.3
- Objectivity: The passage contains 11 pairs of verbal parallels that do line up properly in the pattern of inverse parallelism that is the defining characteristic of chiasmus.
- Purpose: There is no clear, distinctive purpose for this passage to be constructed in a chiasmus. However, chiasmus can be used for no other reason than to make the material more memorable. Judged by this criterion, the proposed chiasmus might be genuine but the reason for it would be something of a puzzle.
- Boundaries: The apparent chiasmus fills the entire chapter, which is a distinct literary unit within the book. The chiasmus easily passes this criterion.
- Competition with other forms: The passage does not appear to be an example of another genre that might be confused with chiasmus, so there is no problem here.
- Length: The passage is 429 words long, and the chiasmus has 22 lines or elements (11 pairs of apparently parallel lines). This makes it a fairly long and complex passage, so that judged by Welch’s criterion we should conclude that the chiasmus structure is deliberate or intentional if it holds up in other respects. Again, though, it seems highly unlikely that Levi Dowling intended to compose a chiasmus.
- Density: The chiasmus outline uses about 69 words from the passage out of 429 words, a “density” (as defined by Welch) of about 16 per cent (one out of six words). It is difficult to know what an objectively good “density” would be, but this finding is probably a significant weakness in the proposed chiasmus.
- Dominance: The chiasmus uses many but by no means all of the dominant or key words and phrases of the passage. For example, the chiasmus outline does not include references to the cave, the animals, or Joseph. Perhaps the chiasmus should be deemed somewhat weak in relation to this criterion.
- Mavericks: Key elements of the chiasmus outline that are found elsewhere in the passage would be a strong basis for questioning or rejecting the chiasmus, depending on how many such elements there are or how distinctive they are. There are a few mavericks in the proposed chiasmus. Most notably, the expression came to Bethlehem (C and C’, verses 2, 17) is also found in verse 14 with some modification (“came with haste to Bethlehem”). In addition, the single word Bethlehem is the basis for another pair of lines (G and G’, verses 8, 14), but the same word also appears in three other places (verses 3, 11, and 16) where it does not fit into a chiasmus outline. These repetitions that do not fit into the chiasmus are few in number, but even so they call into question the idea that the author might have been intending to compose a chiasmus.
- Reduplication: This criterion judges a chiasmus to be weakened if there are repetitions of key or distinctive expressions in the passage that are omitted in the chiasmus outline. Perhaps the most notable such example is the repetition of the expression Zacharias and Elizabeth (verses 16, 17). Another distinctive expression that is repeated in the passage but will not fit into a chiasmus is the term snow-white robe (verses 6, 10).
- Centrality/climax: The center or climax of the chiasmus provides a very satisfactory turning point: the shepherds “fell back in fear” and were told “Fear not” (verses 10-11, K and K’). One could conclude that the point of the passage is that the message of the coming of Jesus is not a message to fear.
- Balance: The first half of the chiasmus is 220 words long and the second half is 209 words long, a good balance.
- Return: The proposed chiasmus begins and ends with references to the name Jesus, the only occurrences of the name in the chapter. The chiasmus outline looks very good in relation to this criterion.
- Compatibility: It is unknown if there are other apparent instances of chiasmus in the Aquarian Gospel. However, this criterion is fallacious: there need not be more than one chiasmus in a book for there to be one.
- Aesthetics: Generally speaking, the passage appears to be written in a fairly literate fashion, but any appeal to subjective opinion is unlikely to be helpful here in assessing the chiasmus interpretation of Aquarian Gospel 3.
To review, the proposed chiasmus is strong as judged by seven of Welch’s criteria (objectivity, boundaries, competition, length, centrality/climax, balance, and return) and weak in varying degrees as judged by four other criteria (density, dominance, mavericks, and reduplication). This finding may seem fairly supportive of the chiasmus, but the presence of significant repetitions that do not fit the chiasmus outline (mavericks and reduplication) is a serious deficiency. Thus, as impressive as the outline appears, rigorous testing of the chiasmus exposes flaws that are sufficient grounds for questioning that the author was trying to compose a chiasmus. In a work of 182 chapters, it should not be very surprising that one of the chapters can be outlined to look like a chiasmus.
The relevance of this study is that as weak as the apparent chiasmus in Aquarian Gospel chapter 3 turns out to be, it is much stronger than any of the long and complex chiasmus forms that LDS scholars have claimed to find in the Book of Mormon. For example, in my testing of Welch’s proposed chiasmus outline of Alma 36, I showed that it was strong only by one criterion (centrality), fatally flawed (not just weak) as judged by the crucial criteria of mavericks and reduplication, and flawed or weak in relation to six other criteria.4
If the Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ is deemed on the basis of other considerations to be a work of modern apocrypha passing itself off as ancient—which is really beyond reasonable dispute—any apparent chiasmus in it must be considered coincidental or accidental at best. One may expect that in most cases any apparently long, complex instances of chiasmus will have significant weaknesses, as the one in chapter 3 analyzed here turns out to have. The same expectation may be held with confidence in regard to the Book of Mormon’s supposed instances of complex chiasmus passages and has been borne out in careful studies of the most celebrated examples. Thus, alleged instances of chiasmus in such modern apocryphal texts simply do not count as positive evidence for their antiquity or Hebraic origins.
1. Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Alma 36: Ancient Masterpiece Chiasmus or Modern Revivalist Testimony?”; “Mosiah 3:18-19—Ancient Chiasmus or Modern Composition?”; and “Chiasmus, Theology, and the New Testament in Mosiah 5:10-12” (IRR, 2016).
2. For details about Dowling’s life, see Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology, ed. J. Gordon Melton, 5th ed. (Detroit: Gale Group, 2001), 1:443-44.
3. John W. Welch, “Criteria for Identifying and Evaluating the Presence of Chiasmus,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 4/2 (Fall 1995): 1-14.
4. Bowman, “Alma 36,” Part V.