Printer-friendly version

Repetition and Chiasmus in Alma 36: An Inductive Approach

Is Alma 36 a chiasmus? I have addressed this question in an earlier article using criteria advanced by John Welch, the LDS scholar who first proposed that Alma 36 is a long and complex chiasmus.1 In this article, I propose a simpler approach.

Chiasmus in Alma 36: An Inductive Method

If we approach the question dogmatically or with a theological axe to grind, regardless of which position we take, we are likely to persuade only ourselves. What we need is an approach to the question that does not presuppose the answer we want. I propose we take an inductive approach to the text in which we mark all of the verbal parallels of a specific length in the passage and then see how they “line up” if we try to outline the passage using those parallels. If we follow such a method honestly, we will neither be looking for a chiasmus nor looking to disprove a chiasmus, but simply looking for whatever structure or arrangement of parallel material, if any, might arise from the text itself.

Of course, the fact that we are conducting this study with the question of chiasmus in mind means that we cannot deny having some interest in the outcome. In this sense, we should not claim to be free of all subjectivity in the exercise. Nevertheless, this method offers what is probably the best and most reliable way in which we can pursue an accurate understanding of the matter. Since anyone can apply the method, we can check one another’s work and point out mistakes, overlooked elements, or other problems for the sake of gaining as fair and accurate an analysis as possible.

The one difficulty we must acknowledge is the problem of defining what constitutes a “verbal parallel of significant length.” Obviously the fact that small words such as and, the, or with are found multiple times in a passage is not by itself relevant. If we count all of the verbal repetitions consisting of two or more words found two or more times in the passage, there are easily more than 75 such verbal repetitions. Such a large number of elements is too unwieldy and will certainly not support a chiastic outline of the passage, as anyone will discover by marking up the passage.

The approach I will take here is to mark as relevant verbal elements any two or more lines of text in which at least five words are repeated in exact form and order two or more times in the passage. As a concession to the possibility of a chiasmus, an exception is made for the two parallel elements “Jesus Christ, a Son of God” and “O Jesus, thou Son of God” (vv. 17, 18), which is justifiably the crux of the passage in every proposed chiastic analysis.

The method of marking is simple: each piece of text containing a sequence of five or more words that are repeated exactly later in the passage is treated as a separate line of text and marked as a distinct element with a capital letter in alphabetical order, with subsequent matching sequences assigned the same letter.

It is true that restricting our analysis to segments of text in which five of more words are repeated exactly leaves out material that is clearly “parallel” or substantially the same. In some instances including such material would add something to a hypothetical chiasmus, but more often than not it would detract from it because the similar material would not fit into a chiastic outline. Anyone wishing to perform this more intensive analysis can do so and verify the point. Thus, nothing is lost by leaving out shorter or looser parallels. If the passage is indeed a chiasmus and these shorter or loose parallels fit the chiastic outline, they can always be added into it. However, if the most substantial and precise verbal repetitions in the passage do not fit a chiastic structure, the hypothesis that the passage is a chiasmus should be rejected.

Using this strict criterion of a sequence of five words found two or more times in the passage, we find 28 distinct elements or lines of text meet this criterion. That is plenty of material with which to see whether the text is structured as a chiasmus. If it is, surely a majority (at least) of these longer, exact duplicates of text will line up in a pattern of reverse parallelism spanning most or all of the passage. For example, if the 28 lines formed (say) 12 pairs in reverse parallel order with four lines that did not fit the pattern, that data would be a very good result in favor of a chiastic outline. If most of the lines of text do not fit such a pattern, on the other hand, we can be sure that the passage is not a chiasmus. Applying the most generous standard to the question, if the hypothetical chiasmus is to be taken seriously we would expect at least half of the 28 lines to fit a chiastic pattern; anything less than that would have to be viewed as strong evidence against the passage being a chiasmus.

Applying the Inductive Method to Alma 36

Here is what we find when we apply this method to Alma 36 (words underlined mark the sequences of five or more words repeated elsewhere in the passage): 

A that inasmuch as yeshall keep the commandments of God, ye shall prosper in the land (v. 1)
B and shall be lifted up at the last day (v. 3)
C seeking to destroy the church of God; (v. 6)
C If thou wilt of thyself be destroyed, seek no more to destroy the church of God (v. 9)
D and it came to pass that (v. 10)
E I fell to the earth (v. 10)
C If thou wilt be destroyed of thyself, seek no more to destroy the church of God (v. 11)
E I fell to the earth (v. 11)
F the very thoughts of coming into the presence of my God (v. 14)
F O, thought I…that I might not be brought to stand in the presence of my God (v. 15)
D and it came to pass that (v. 17)
G while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins (v. 17)
H Jesus Christ, a Son of God (v. 17)
H O Jesus, thou Son of God (v. 18)
G yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more (v. 19)
I yea, I say unto you, my son (v. 21)
J that there can be nothing so exquisite and so bitter, as was my pains (v. 21)
I Yea, and again I say unto you, my son (v. 21)
J that on the other hand, there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy (v. 21)
B raise me up at the last day (v. 28)
K yea, and…he hath brought our fathers out of Egypt (v. 28)
L yea, and he hath delivered them out of bondage and captivity, from time to time (v. 28)
K yea, and he hath also brought our fathers out of Jerusalem (v. 29)
L and he hath also…delivered them out of bondage and captivity, from time to time (v. 29)
M for ye had ought to know (v. 30)
A that inasmuch as ye shall keep the commandments of God, ye shall prosper in the land (v. 30)
M and ye had ought to know also (v. 30)
A that inasmuch as ye will not keep the commandments of God, ye shall be cut off from his presence (v. 30)

This analysis shows that the passage of Alma 36 as a whole is not a chiasmus. Most of these substantial repetitions cannot be made to fit an outline of the passage as a chiasmus. Taking the two references to Jesus as the central lines of a hypothetical chiasmus, the following shows the most number of elements that can be extracted from the 28 listed above that would fall into a reverse parallelism structure:

A that inasmuch as yeshall keep the commandments of God, ye shall prosper in the land (v. 1)
B and shall be lifted up at the last day (v. 3)
G while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins (v. 17)
H Jesus Christ, a Son of God (v. 17)
H O Jesus, thou Son of God (v. 18)
G yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more (v. 19)
B raise me up at the last day (v. 28)
A that inasmuch as ye shall keep the commandments of God, ye shall prosper in the land (v. 30)

Only 8 of the 28 lines of text that contain substantial verbal parallels with other lines can be made to fit into a chiastic outline (and this result includes the two references to Jesus even though they are shorter verbal parallels). Now, of course eight consecutive lines in reverse parallelism (ABCD – DCBA) would be a fine and impressive chiasmus. However, ABCCDECEFFDGH – HGIJIJBKLKLMAMA is not a chiasmus.

The most telling evidence against Alma 36 as a whole being one long, complex chiasmus comes from two pairs of lines that are simply too long to be ignored in any reasonable analysis of the passage:

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

L yea, and he hath delivered them out of bondage and captivity, from time to time (v. 28)
L and he hath also…delivered them out of bondage and captivity, from time to time (v. 29)

In the first pair of lines above, each line is 16 words in length, and the lines are identical except for the position of the phrase “of thyself.” In the second pair of lines, the two lines have 14 words in common, including a sequence of 11 words. The fact that these two pairs of lines will not fit into a chiastic outline of the chapter is strong evidence against it being a chiasmus.

A Possible Simple Chiasmus in Alma 36:17-19

The middle segment of Alma 36 does look somewhat promising as a chiasmus, based on the above outline:

G while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins (v. 17)
H Jesus Christ, a Son of God (v. 17)
H O Jesus, thou Son of God (v. 18)
G yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more (v. 19) 

These four lines appear consecutively, with no repetitive material intervening between any of the lines, and in a relatively short span of text (just three verses). We should therefore look at this part of Alma 36. It reads as follows, divided into natural clauses of roughly comparable lengths and with the relevant verbal repetitions marked:

And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment,
while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins,
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.
Now as my mind catched 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.
And 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. (Alma 36:17-19) 

In a loose sense, one could describe this short passage within Alma 36 as “chiastic”; there is a clear and unmistakable “reversal” in the narrative of Alma’s sins distressing him, calling on Jesus for mercy, and then feeling that he was no longer distressed by his sins. The passage fits, in a loose way, the pattern of a simple chiasmus (AB – BA). If one wishes to describe this part of Alma 36 as chiastic, that conclusion seems acceptable and reasonable.

On the other hand, the evidence is overwhelmingly against the entirety of Alma 36 being a chiasmus. A full 20 out of the 28 elements containing a sequence of five or more words repeated elsewhere in the chapter cannot be made to fit into the structure of reverse parallelism. That finding absolutely disproves the claim that the entire passage is a marvelous example of a long and complex chiasmus.

Could Joseph Have Done It?

Hypothetically, it would be entirely within Joseph Smith’s capacity to have dictated a loose, simple chiasmus, such as the unit of text in Alma 36:17-19. Of course, he would not have called it a chiasmus or been aware of that classification of literary or rhetorical device, but he could have dictated such a passage extemporaneously. One may justifiably regard this rhetorical aspect of the passage as reflecting a fairly well developed style, but it is not miraculous.

Had Joseph dictated a long, complex chiasmus with a dozen or more verbally repetitive lines in consecutive, reverse parallel order, as some Mormons have claimed, it would have been an impressive achievement. Indeed, I would agree with LDS apologists that it is highly unlikely that Joseph could have done so extemporaneously. However, that is not what we find in Alma 36.

 

NOTES


1. Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Alma 36: Ancient Masterpiece Chiasmus or Modern Revivalistic Testimony?” (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2016). For an introduction to chiasmus, see “Chiasmus, the Book of Mormon, and the Bible: An Introduction” (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2017).