Chiasmus within Chiasmus in 3 Nephi 17:5-10?
In 3 Nephi 17:5-10, Jesus is said to have delayed his departure from the Nephites in order to provide healing to the people. LDS scholar John Welch has analyzed this passage as a chiasmus and has argued that within this chiasmus there is one and perhaps two smaller instances of chiasmus1:
According to Welch, “It seems natural to see its elegant and coherent chiastic structure and substructures as originating in the ancient text, for it was written with great care and reflection.”2
In order to assess the validity of this analysis, it will be necessary to set out the passage in full. For the sake of comparing the outline to the text, the text is here set out according to Welch’s outline, with the elements he uses as the basis for the main chiasmus underlined:
Problems with the Main Chiasmus
Welch’s larger chiastic outline of the passage has two basic flaws. The first is that the description of verse 5 as including “three references to the eyes” is dubious at best. There are indeed three references to feet in verse 10. More precisely, there are three explicit references to Jesus’ “feet” in verse 10, which states that the multitude bowed down “at his feet,” that they “kissed his feet,” and they “did bathe his feet in their tears.” However, there is only one reference to Jesus’ “eyes” in verse 5. To get three, Welch counted as follows: (1) “he cast his eyes round about”; (2) “beheld they were in tears” (Welch said, “their eyes were in tears”); (3) “did look steadfastly upon him” (3 Ne. 17:5). This simply does not work; one could just as easily argue for four references to eyes in verse 5 (eyes, beheld, tears, and look), two in regard to Jesus and two in regard to the Nephites. What would be needed would be either three explicit references to Jesus’ eyes or three explicit references to the Nephites’ eyes.
As it stands, the supposed chiastic parallel between verses 5 and 10 is simply too weak to be plausible. This does not mean there is no meaningful parallel between those two verses. The references to the Nephites’ “tears” may be taken as forming a natural inclusio in the passage. However, this one verbal parallel is probably not enough to support a chiastic outline.
The second and more fundamental flaw in the outline is that it runs counter to the natural construction of the passage, which is a three-part outline as follows:
- Jesus saw that the people wanted him to stay longer (v. 5)
- Jesus offered to stay in order to heal them of their afflictions (vv. 6-8)
- Jesus healed the sick and the people worshiped at his feet (vv. 9-10)
This outline follows a standard format for such pericopes: narrative—speech—narrative. Welch’s chiastic outline makes the narrative introduction into part A, breaks up Jesus’ speech into parts B and C, and breaks up the narrative conclusion into parts B’ and A’, an analysis that simply does not fit the literary structure of the pericope. Welch himself has explained that proposed chiasmic outlines are questionable if they do not fit the natural literary form of the text. “To the extent that the proposed structure crosses over natural barriers, unnaturally chops sentences in half, or falls short of discernible boundaries in the text as a whole, the more dubious the suggested chiasm becomes.”3
Although to the best of my knowledge no LDS scholar has critiqued Welch’s chiasmus outline of the passage, evidently not all Mormon scholars have been entirely convinced. A notable example comes from Donald Parry, a BYU scholar, in his book Poetic Parallelisms in the Book of Mormon. This book graphically sets out the entire text of the Book of Mormon to exhibit any literary or rhetorical forms it might contain. For this passage, Parry presents 3 Nephi 17:5-6a as simple prose and 17:8-10 also as prose (though he draws attention to the use of synonymous words in verse 9). However, he does represent 3 Nephi 17:6b-7 as a chiasmus.4
Does Jesus’ Speech to the Nephites Contain a Chiasmus?
As noted above, both Welch and Parry analyze the text in section B of Welch’s proposed larger chiasmic outline as a smaller chiasmus. Here is the outline Welch presents for that unit of text5:
3 Nephi 17:6b-7
There are also several problems with this proposed chiasmus.
(1) The line “my bowels are filled with compassion towards you” is a single clause, whereas “for I have compassion upon you” and “my bowels are filled with mercy” are two distinct clauses. This difference is inconsistent with a designed or rhetorically literate chiasmus, which as Welch rightly pointed out should appear in harmony with the natural boundaries or literary features of the text—a problem already noted with regard to the larger chiasmus.
(2) The two questions, “Have ye any that are sick among you?” and “Have ye any that are lame…,” etc., are parallel thoughts that begin in exactly the same way, but they are not coordinated lines of the chiasmus. The words “have ye any that are” is as long as any word string repeated in the passage (five words, tied with “my bowels are filled with”), and yet they cannot be made to fit into a chiasmus. This one problem is enough to warrant rejecting the chiasmus outline entirely.
(3) The lengthy question at the center of the chiasmus is not a strong candidate for the central or emphasized theme or idea of the passage. In his article on criteria for identifying chiasmus, Welch observed, “Without a well-defined centerpiece or distinct crossing effect, there is little reason for seeing chiasmus.”6 Thematically, one would expect a statement like “I will heal them” to stand at the turning point, not a question about whether there are any sick among the multitude. Both its weakness thematically and its verbose wording make this question an unlikely central line of a rhetorically intentional chiasmus.
(4) Jesus’ speech continues for one more sentence in the next verse: “For I perceive that ye desire that I should show unto you what I have done unto your brethren at Jerusalem, for I see that your faith is sufficient that I should heal you” (3 Ne. 17:8). It is unlikely that the first two-thirds of Jesus’ speech would form a chiasmus while the final third, even though thematically related to the rest of the speech, would be excluded from that chiasmus. Here again, the supposed chiasmus does not correspond to the actual literary unit in the passage.
These four points of weakness in the chiastic analysis of the passage, considered cumulatively, demonstrate that it is not really a chiasmus at all. The fact that the words of the passage can be arranged in such a way as to look like a chiasmus is probably a result of the pervasive use of repetition throughout the Book of Mormon. In a text characterized by a high degree of repetitiousness, the chances of a faux chiasmus appearing in the text will be correspondingly high. Some passages may even happen to fit a chiastic structure.
One More Chiasmus?
Welch argues mainly for the two chiasmus structures already discussed, but he suggests a possible third within the text in verse 9, which he sets forth as follows:
All the multitude, with one accord, did go forth
with their sick and their afflicted, and their lame,
and with their blind, … dumb, and … afflicted…;
and he did heal them every one as they were brought forth.
Frankly, this way of presenting the text is so arbitrary as to be misleading. The three ellipses (…) are suggestive of themselves, but in fact additional text is omitted at the beginning and the end of the quotation without any indication of those omissions. Here is the entire verse, with Welch’s lines retained, but nothing omitted:
And it came to pass that when he had thus spoken,
all the multitude, with one accord, did go forth
with their sick and their afflicted, and their lame,
and with their blind, and with their dumb, and with all them that were afflicted in any manner;
and he did heal them every one as they were brought forth unto him.
Several brief points will suffice to explain why there is no chiasmus here. (1) The textual unit does not begin with “All the multitude.” Thus, Welch’s outline begins the supposed chiasmus in an arbitrary place. (2) By omitting the last two words of the sentence, “unto him,” Welch made it appear that his first and last lines both ended with the word “forth.” That apparent literary touch disappears when the whole text is present. (3) The use of the word “one” as a partial basis for identifying the first and fourth lines is very weak. Notice that the first and fourth lines are being identified on the basis of words that hardly qualify as dominant terms in the passage. (4) The repetition of the word “afflicted” as the sole basis for identifying the second and third lines of the outline is entirely arbitrary. This assessment receives further confirmation from the fact that the precise expression “afflicted in any manner” also occurs in verse 7. It is not surprising, then, that Parry did not follow Welch in analyzing verse 9 as a chiasmus.
The point here is not to claim that the Book of Mormon never exhibits any degree of literary artistry or compositional technique. Such a claim would be clearly false. Rather, the point is that a passage such as 3 Nephi 17:5-10 does not exhibit a formal rhetorical structure, and certainly not one that would mark it as an ancient Hebraic text.
3 Nephi 17 Dependent on the Gospels in the King James Version
There is some evidence that 3 Nephi 17:5-10 was composed by an author drawing (consciously or unconsciously) from the Gospels in the KJV. The passage sets the scene by reporting that Jesus saw the multitude, felt compassion toward them, and offered to heal their sick (3 Ne. 17:6-7). This scene appears to mimic scenes narrated in the Synoptic Gospels, especially in Matthew, in which Jesus performed various healings for the multitudes that gathered to see him (Matt. 4:23-25; 8:16-17; 9:35-36; 14:14; 15:30-32; 21:14; Mark 1:32-34; 3:9-10; Luke 6:17-19; 7:21; 9:11). A noteworthy example is Matthew 14:14, which refers to Jesus seeing a “multitude,” being moved “with compassion toward” them, and healing their “sick.” Compare that verse with the verses in 3 Nephi:
And it came to pass that when Jesus had thus spoken, he cast his eyes round about again on the multitude, and beheld they were in tears, and did look steadfastly upon him as if they would ask him to tarry a little longer with them. And he said unto them: Behold, my bowels are filled with compassion towards you. Have ye any that are sick among you? (3 Ne. 17:5-6).
“And Jesus went forth, and saw a great multitude, and was moved with compassion toward them, and he healed their sick” (Matt. 14:14 KJV).
The comparison does not at this point rise to the level of clear evidence that Joseph Smith deliberately drew on this or other passages from the Gospels. However, there is additional evidence that makes this quite likely, specifically the list of afflictions that Jesus gives in his question to the multitude:
Have ye any that are lame, or blind, or halt, or maimed, or leprous, or that are withered, or that are deaf, or that are afflicted in any manner? Bring them hither (3 Ne. 17:7).
All seven of the terms denoting specific physical infirmities in 3 Nephi 17:7 appear in lists of infirmities in the Gospels (Matt. 15:30-31; 11:5; Luke 7:22; 14:13, 21; John 5:3). The only specific infirmity found in those Gospel lists that is not in 3 Nephi 17:7 is “dumb” (Matt. 15:30, 31)—and that infirmity is mentioned in 3 Nephi 17:9. Jesus’ list in Matthew 11:5/Luke 7:22 included deliberate allusions to Isaiah 35:5-6 (which refers to healing for the blind, deaf, lame, and dumb) and Isaiah 61:1 (good news for the poor). 3 Nephi 17:7, however, shows no evidence of any allusion to Isaiah; instead its list appears to have been culled from the Gospels. All seven terms may be found in as few as three verses (Matt. 11:5; John 5:3; and any of the other lists). This information provides a solid basis for LDS scholar Brant Gardner’s opinion that “the specific list of illnesses is influenced more by the biblical text than by the historical New World.”7
One fact that provides striking confirmation of the conclusion that the list of infirmities was taken from the Gospels concerns two of the terms in the list, “lame” and “halt.” Although they are treated as two different kinds of infirmities in 3 Nephi 17:7, the words are really synonymous. The KJV uses the words “halt” and “lame” in the NT to translate the same Greek word, chōlos. This word is translated “halt” four times (Matt. 18:8; Mark 9:45; Luke 14:21; John 5:3), “crippled” once (Acts 14:8), and “lame” nine times (Matt. 11:5; 15:30, 31; 21:14; Luke 7:22; 14:13; Acts 3:2; 8:7; Heb. 12:13). There is no difference in meaning in these three different renderings; in each instance the word has exactly the same meaning, an inability to walk or to stand on one’s legs. Thus, when 3 Nephi 17:7 uses the words “lame” and “halt” to describe two categories of infirmities, it makes a simple mistake. That the word “halt” derives from its appearance in the KJV Gospel texts about Jesus’ healings is further confirmed by the fact that 3 Nephi 17:7 is the only occurrence of the word in the Book of Mormon.
Thus, a close examination of 3 Nephi 17:5-10 shows that it is probably not a translation of an ancient Nephite text, but a modern composition meant to present Jesus as having done for the Nephites the same sorts of healings he performed in Galilee.
1. John W. Welch, Illuminating the Sermon at the Temple & Sermon on the Mount: An Approach to 3 Nephi 11-18 and Matthew 5-7 (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), 191.
3. John W. Welch, “Criteria for Identifying and Evaluating the Presence of Chiasmus,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 4/2 (Fall 1995): 6.
4. Donald W. Parry, Poetic Parallelisms in the Book of Mormon: The Complete Text Reformatted, Foreword by John W. Welch (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, BYU, 2007), 471.
5. Welch, Illuminating the Sermon at the Temple, 191. Parry’s analysis (see n. 4 above) is similar, though he combines Welch’s c and d as one line and c’ and d’ as one line, and he breaks Welch’s central line e into two parallel lines (Parry’s d and d’). These variations on Welch’s outline do not alleviate any of the problems with the supposed chiasmus that will be discussed here.
6. Welch, “Criteria for Identifying and Evaluating the Presence of Chiasmus,” 8.
7. Brant A. Gardner Second Witness: Analytical & Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 5:485.