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Alma 36: Ancient or Modern?

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Alma 36: Ancient or Modern?

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

Note: This is an extremely abbreviated version of a much longer, academic-style article entitled “Alma 36: Ancient Masterpiece Chiasmus or Modern Revivalist Testimony” (click on the link to read that article).

Is Alma 36 an ancient text or a modern one? In this article I begin by addressing the claim that the chapter exhibits an ancient literary structure called chiasmus and therefore must be ancient in origin. After explaining why this claim does not hold up, I then show that the passage is really a modern composition reflecting Joseph Smith’s religious and cultural setting.

Is Alma 36 a Chiasmus?

One of the most frequently cited evidences for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon as ancient literature is the presence of a literary feature known as chiasmus (or chiasm). Probably the Book of Mormon chiasmus most cited and most heralded is Alma 36, which was first outlined as a chiasmus by LDS scholar John Welch.

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.

If Alma 36 were the long, complex 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. However, on the basis of Welch’s own criteria it can be shown that Alma 36 is not a chiasmus at all.

The following is an outline of Alma 36 as a chiasmus, based on the work of Welch and other Mormon scholars.

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.

There are several reasons why this is not a genuine chiasmus: 

  1. You can see one problem from the outline itself, which is that the line labeled I’ does not fit the outline (notice that it falls between E’ and F’).
  2. The outline includes only Alma 36, whereas Alma 36–37 is a whole literary unit (Alma’s speech to his son Helaman).
  3. The outline skips almost everything in Alma 36:7-14, a fairly large portion of the chapter.
  4. The outline does not include some of the most important repetitions in the passage, especially the statement of the angel that is repeated almost verbatim:

    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). 

  5. The outline does not take into account all of the other places in the passage where the same words and phrases on which the chiasmus is based are repeated. At least ten key expressions on which the chiasmus is based are found in other parts of the passage, such as born of God, destroy the church of God, presence of God, and harrowed up. This is a serious flaw in the proposed chiasmus, because it means that the text is simply very repetitive and Welch’s outline only takes into account those repetitions that can be used as the basis for a chiasmus.
  6. There are another fifteen distinctive words or expressions that are repeated in various places in Alma 36 and that are completely ignored in the chiasmus outline. These include such distinctive expressions as know these things, fell to the earth, three days and three nights, and exceeding joy. In fact, there are far more of these repeated elements that are not part of the chiasmus outline than those elements that might fairly be counted in such an outline.

Far from being an especially impressive chiasmus, 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.

Alma 36–37: A Modern Composition

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. 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.

Yet Alma 36 contains 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, meaning that they do not belong in the historical period in which they are set. 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 evidence that Alma 36-37 is anachronistic goes far beyond the use of the name “Jesus.” The whole 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 (in Mosiah 27–29 and Alma 1–45, but especially Mosiah 27 and Alma 36). We may summarize the more noticeable and significant parallels as follows: 

  • Both Alma and Paul (Saul) were traveling with companions on their way to persecute more Christians when they were stopped in the midst of their journey by a heavenly vision (Alma 36:6; Mosiah 27:10-11; Acts 9:3, 7).
  • Alma encountered an angel (Mosiah 27:11; Alma 36:6, 8); Paul 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).
  • Both groups of men “fell to the earth” (Mosiah 27:12; Alma 36:7; Acts 9:4; see 26:14).
  • In both cases, the accounts mention that there was some difficulty in hearing the heavenly voice (Mosiah 27:12-13; 36:11; Acts 9:7; 22:9).
  • 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.
  • In both cases, the heavenly being “said unto” Alma/Paul, “Arise” (Alma 36:8; Acts 9:6).
  • Both Alma and Paul became physically debilitated and needed to be helped by their companions to their destination (Mosiah 27:19; Alma 36:10; Acts 9:8-9).
  • Both Alma and Paul were debilitated for “three days” and then healed (Alma 36:10, 16; 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.

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, both men persecuted or tried to destroy “the church of God” (Alma 36:6; Mosiah 27:10; 1 Cor. 15:9; Gal. 1:13). Both Alma and Paul endured various hardships, including “afflictions,” “prisons,” “bonds” and the threat of “death,” from all of which God “delivered” them (Alma 36:27; Acts 20;23; 2 Cor. 1:10; 11:23-27). These are just some of the parallels.

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.

Finally, 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. 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 revivalism were not necessarily converted just by hearing a revivalist sermon. 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.

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 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 freedom, relief, and joy that resulted from having the burden of sin lifted. All four of these elements 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, human sacrifice, and cannibalism 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 is a modern fiction, reflecting the Protestant revivalist tradition that dominated Joseph Smith’s culture. It is utterly lacking in historical plausibility.

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.