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Chiasmus, the Book of Mormon, and the Bible: An Introduction

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Chiasmus, the Book of Mormon, and the Bible: An Introduction

Robert M. Bowman Jr.

In August 1967, fifty years ago this month, John Welch was a young Latter-day Saint on his mission in Germany. After attending a lecture in which the presence of a compositional feature called chiasmus in Matthew was mentioned as an example of its Hebraic style, Welch began looking for chiasmus while he was reading the Book of Mormon in German. He quickly found an example in part of King Benjamin’s speech in Mosiah 5:10-12 and then, looking back in earlier parts of the speech, found another chiasmus in Mosiah 3:18-19. Several weeks later Welch found an entire chapter, Alma 36, to be a long chiasmus. In 1969, Welch published an article on the subject in BYU Studies.1

Since Welch’s discovery of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon fifty years ago, chiasmus has become 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. This article provides a fairly basic overview of the issue. Additional articles examine specific cases of proposed chiasmus in the Book of Mormon.

Simple Chiasmus

The word chiasmus (or chiasm; plural chiasms) refers to a rhetorical device using inverse parallelism, meaning that the speech or text consists of lines or other units of text that are paralleled in reverse order. A simple chiasmus consists of two lines in which verbal elements are inverted to create a memorable statement, such as the following saying of Jesus (Matthew 23:12)2:

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. You can see from the above example why this rhetorical device is called a chiasmus. 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.

Simple chiasms are common in the oral speech of individuals skilled at speaking extemporaneously, as was Jesus. Here is another example from his sayings (Matt. 20:16)3:

A So the last
B will be first,
B’ and the first
A’ last.

Complex Chiasmus: The Need for Caution

A complex chiasmus consists of several lines that extend the parallelism beyond two pairs of parallel elements. The more lines in a chiasmus, the more likely it is the result of composition and not extemporaneous (“off the cuff”) speech or stream-of-consciousness writing.

The discovery of apparent instances of complex chiasmus in the Book of Mormon, especially in lengthy passages, would seem to be strong evidence that Joseph Smith was not the author, since it is unlikely that he would have been able to produce such complex rhetorical structures extemporaneously while dictating to his scribe. It does not seem likely that he would have even thought to produce such complex chiasms assuming he had the opportunity to compose them. Such chiasms were fairly common in ancient Semitic literature and can be found in various places in the Bible, but in Joseph Smith’s day it is very unlikely that he could have known about chiasmus at all.4 Based on this line of reasoning, LDS scholars and apologists commonly view complex chiasms in the Book of Mormon as strong evidence of its authenticity as a divinely revealed translation of an ancient text. Welch’s discovery of chiasmus has had a profound effect on Book of Mormon scholarship and fifty years later remains one of the main lines of evidence for the Book of Mormon’s authenticity.5

While a lengthy complex chiasmus is significant evidence of careful composition and can reflect considerable rhetorical ability, discerning whether a lengthy passage really is a chiasmus requires some careful analysis and an understanding of what makes chiasmus work. The more lines in a proposed chiastic outline of a passage, the closer we need to examine it so as to make sure that the chiasmus has not been imposed on the text by the modern scholar. This is as true of passages identified as chiasms in the Bible as of those in the Book of Mormon. Interest in the rhetorical compositional aspects of biblical literature exploded in the twentieth century and resulted in something of an excess in claimed discoveries of chiasmus. Such excess has led to several biblical scholars urging caution and proposing criteria for assessing claimed chiasms.6

Thus, criticism of alleged Book of Mormon chiasms should not be taken as implying that biblical scholars do not sometimes (arguably often) claim to have “discovered” chiasms in the Bible that are subject to similar criticism. I myself have mistakenly claimed a particular passage in the New Testament (Matt. 7:13-27) to be a chiasmus but have since realized it is not.7

Chiasmus or Not: What Difference Does It Make?

It should be understood that a passage does not need to be a chiasmus to be ancient or authentic; most ancient texts and passages are not chiasms. Nor should it be thought that a passage that is not a genuine chiasmus is necessarily a poorly written passage, since there are many other kinds of ways of structuring a passage that are rhetorically effective.

What this means is that proving a passage in the Book of Mormon not to be a chiasmus is not proof that it is not authentic, ancient scripture. The LDS apologetic argument that the Book of Mormon contains complex chiasms is a positive argument in which the chiasms are thought to be good evidence for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. If it turns out that there are no genuine complex chiasms in the Book of Mormon, that conclusion would not prove the book false or inauthentic. It would simply mean that the chiasmus apologetic was not a sound argument and that the argument should be abandoned. Of course, the loss of one of the most popular arguments in support of the Book of Mormon’s authenticity would be something of a blow to LDS apologetics, but one might still continue to accept its authenticity on other grounds.

On the other hand, if we want to know whether a passage of the Book of Mormon is historically authentic, we should consider more than its literary form. We should also consider what the passage says and what the most likely context is in which that passage might have been originally written. Serious investigation of the origin of a text must consider all of the evidence. If it is determined that a passage is not a chiasmus (or any other specifically ancient literary form), and what the passage says strongly indicates it is modern in origin, that conclusion of its being modern will have to stand. Hypothetically, if a passage looked like a complex chiasmus but there was something about what the passage said that marked it as most likely modern, one would need to attempt to determine what the best explanation was for both seemingly conflicting lines of evidence.

Chiasmus Criteria

As I have already mentioned, scholars have proposed various criteria by which an alleged instance of chiasmus can be tested or assessed to determine if it is genuine or not. Since the focus here is on the claim that the Book of Mormon contains complex chiasms, we will use criteria that John Welch, the pioneering and still leading LDS scholar on the subject, has set forth.8 Specifically, we accept and use twelve of the fifteen criteria that Welch has proposed. The following table lists those twelve criteria with the names that Welch has given to them along with a brief explanation of each criterion. 

Criterion Explanation
1. Objectivity The elements said to be parallel clearly are parallel and in the right order.
2. Purpose The chiasmus has some rhetorical significance.
3. Boundaries The chiasmus corresponds to a distinct unit of text and its literary structure.
4. Other forms The chiasmus-like pattern is not due to the passage having another literary form.
5. Length The longer a chiasmus that genuinely works, the more likely it is to be intended.
6. Density The elements of the chiasmus take up a large portion of the text.
7. Dominance The most important thematic elements and notable expressions are included.
8. Mavericks Elements of the proposed chiasmus shouldn’t be repeated in places that don’t fit.
9. Reduplication The passage does not have repeated words or phrases that aren’t included.
10. Centrality The central line or lines of the chiasmus expresses a strong or key idea.
11. Balance The two parts divide fairly evenly into halves and the lines are similar in length.
12. Return The end of the chiasmus returns to the theme of the beginning in a strong way.

We may briefly comment on the three criteria Welch proposed that are not being used.

The criterion of climax—the idea that the center of the chiasmus should form a kind of high point in the passage—is too similar to the criteria of centrality. Rather than ignoring the idea of climax as a feature of chiasmus, it will simply be treated as an aspect of the criteria of centrality.

Welch also has put forth the criteria of compatibility, by which he means that the proposed chiasmus is not the only one found in the author’s writing. For example, if Matthew used chiasmus in other places, this would encourage us to view a particular chiasmus-looking passage as a chiasmus. However, this criterion is fallacious; just because Matthew used chiasmus in other places does not make it more likely that the passage we are considering is a chiasmus (as my own mistake with Matthew 7:13-27 illustrates). It is always possible that an author uses a complex chiasmus in just one passage, or in many passages but just not the one we are considering.

Finally, Welch proposes that we should consider aesthetics as a criterion, by which he means that we should ask whether the apparent chiasmus has aesthetic appeal. This criterion is too easily applied in a subjective manner (either for or against the apparent chiasmus) to be useful as a criterion for determining whether a passage really is a complex chiasmus. Rather than treating aesthetic quality as a separate criterion, we suggest simply recognizing that rhetorical style is a matter of artistry and that all of the criteria help us to recognize in an objective way how the author’s literary artistry has been expressed.

A Clear Example of a Complex Chiasmus in the Bible

It will be helpful to look closely at a good example of a complex chiasmus in the Bible as a test case that will help illustrate the methodology in assessing whether a passage is a valid, objectively identifiable chiasmus. Consider the following chiastic analysis of Joel 2:28-29:

A  And it shall happen afterward that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh;
B  your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
C  your old men shall dream dreams,
C’ and your young men shall see visions;
B’ Even on the male and female servants
A’ in those days I will pour out my Spirit.

Let’s see how well this chiastic analysis of Joel 2:28-29 measures up to the twelve criteria we agreed to follow of the fifteen proposed by Welch.

1. Objectivity

In this unit of text there are three pairs of parallel lines, so that lines A and A’ are parallel, B and B’ are parallel, and C and C’ are parallel. Lines B and B’ draw a strong contrast (male and female children vs. male and female servants) while lines C and C’ also draw a strong contrast (old men vs. young men). Lines A and A’ both include the key clause, “I will pour out my Spirit” as well as the thematically parallel expressions “afterward” and “in those days.” The proposed parallels are clearly there and in the right order.

2. Purpose

A good chiasmus should serve some rhetorical purpose, and in this case it clearly does. The inverse parallelism draws attention to the contrasting types of people on whom the Spirit was going to be poured in the last days and thus to the universality of this work of the Spirit (old and young, male and female, children and servants).

3. Boundaries

Joel 2:28-29 is part of a longer prophetic passage, but verses 28-29 do stand as a distinct unit of text within that passage. The proposed chiasmus does not begin or end in the middle of a sentence. The expression “And it shall happen afterward” marks the beginning of a new unit within the larger passage. The proposed chiasm fits acceptably with this criterion though not in an especially strong way (as it would if a whole oracle or prophetic speech was included).

4. Other Forms

Joel 2:28-29 does not fit some other literary or rhetorical form that might be confused with a chiasmus.

5. Length

Four pairs of lines in perfect inverse parallelism is sufficient in length to conclude that this chiasmus is likely to have been intentional.

6. Density

The criterion of density is more a measure of strength than an “up or down vote.” The more of the words of the text that play an active role in the elements of the chiasmus, the stronger the basis for seeing chiasmus in the text. In Joel 2:28-29, most of the words of the text are directly functional as elements in the chiasmus, so the proposed analysis passes this test handily.

7. Dominance

This criterion is similar to density: it holds that the proposed chiasmus should include most of the key expressions or thematic elements in the text. That certainly is the case here. The only notable expression without some corresponding element in the parallel line is “shall prophesy” in B, which has no verbal parallel in B’. Very few proposed chiasms meet this criterion to such a high degree.

8. Mavericks

Welch uses the term mavericks to refer to elements of the proposed chiasmus that are repeated in places that don’t fit the outline—that show up in additional places besides in the parallel lines of the proposed structure. The chiasmus in Joel 2:28-29 has no mavericks at all. To illustrate what a maverick would look like, suppose verse 29 ended with the words, “and they shall also dream dreams.” Then this element in line A’ would be repeating an element from line C, which runs against the grain of the proposed chiastic outline. Any such mavericks would weaken the proposed chiasmus and a lot of mavericks would rule out viewing the text as a chiasmus. Again, there are no mavericks in Joel 2:28-29.

9. Reduplication

Welch uses the term reduplication to denote repetitions of words or phrases within the passage that aren’t elements of the proposed chiasmus. There is no reduplication in Joel 2:28-29. Suppose verse 28 had said, “with all their hearts your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, with all your hearts your old men shall dream dreams.” The expression “with all your hearts” would then fall into lines B and C, which does not fit with the chiastic structure. Here again, any reduplications would weaken the proposed chiasmus somewhat, while a lot of reduplications would be sufficient grounds for denying that any chiasmus was intended.

10. Centrality

The central line or lines of a chiasmus ought to express a strong or key idea of the passage. In Joel 2:28-29, the central lines C and C’ express the extraordinary visual nature of the revelations (specifically, dreams and visions) that will be received by the men on whom the Spirit will be poured. This emphasis serves well as a central focus or theme of the chiasmus.

11. Balance

A well-formed chiasmus may be expected to divide fairly evenly into halves, with the lines of the chiasmus being similar in length. Exceptions to this general expectation might be admitted but they would need to reflect some sort of emphasis or pattern.

The six lines in Joel 2:28-29 are very well balanced in length. In Hebrew, line A has five words and all of the other lines have four each, something one might not guess from the English translation. Thus, the proposed chiasmus looks very good in this regard.

12. Return

The final criterion is that a solidly formed chiasmus should have an end or concluding line that returns to the theme of the beginning line in a strong manner. The clearly is the case in Joel 2:28-29, in which line A’ restates line A in just slightly shorter fashion, using the same key expression “I will pour out my Spirit.”

We can “grade” the proposed chiasmus in Joel 2:28-29 in each of the twelve criteria and then average those “grades” to reach a final conclusion as to the strength of the analysis. (Again, keep in mind that we are testing the claim that the passage is a chiasmus. We are not grading the passage itself!) We will give an A if the text meets the criterion extremely well, B if it meets the criterion well, C if it meets it passably, D if it is very weak, and F if it fails to meet that criterion at all. The following is our “report card” for the chiastic analysis of Joel 2:28-29. The proposed chiasmus has eight As, three Bs, and one C, which works out to a strong A- grade average. This way of testing a proposed chiasmus gives us a way to express objectively the basis for our conclusion. In this instance, we may conclude with great confidence that Joel 2:28-29 is a chiasmus. 

Criterion Grade
1. Objectivity A
2. Purpose B
3. Boundaries C
4. Other forms A
5. Length B
6. Density A
7. Dominance A
8. Mavericks A
9. Reduplication A
10. Centrality B
11. Balance A
12. Return A
Grade Average A-

A Dubious Example of a Complex Chiasmus in the Bible

Although there are excellent examples of chiasmus in the Bible, there are also passages that some biblical scholars think are chiasmus and other scholars think are not. It will be helpful, then, to take a look at a passage that has been identified as a chiasmus in the Bible but that is subject to serious doubts about its really being a chiasmus.

An interesting example is the claim that the entire epistle of Philemon is a chiasmus. This theory was put forth in 2001 by biblical scholar John Paul Heil.9 His argument is a rather complicated one, but we can distill his analysis down and express its key elements through the following outline:

A  1 Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus…to Philemon, beloved friend and fellow worker…. 3 Grace to you and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
B  4 I thank my God every time I make mention of you in my prayers…6 that the sharing of your faith may become effective in the knowledge of every good thing…. 7 because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, brother.
C  8 Therefore, having boldness to command you in Christ… 9 Paul, an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus….
D  12 …I am sending him back to you… 13 I wanted to keep him so that he might serve me on your behalf in the imprisonment of the gospel.
E  14 …so that your good might not be as under compulsion but rather benevolence.
D’ 15 …so that you might receive him back forever… 16 a beloved brother…in the Lord…. 17 So if you consider me your sharer, welcome him as you would me….
C’ 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand….
B’ 20 Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ…. 22 I am hoping through your prayers that I will be graciously given to you.
A’ 23 Epaphras, my fellow captive in Christ Jesus, greets you, 24 as well as…my fellow workers. 25 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

The first thing to notice is that most of the epistle is not shown in the outline above. The reason is that over half of the words of the epistle, in various places throughout, do not work as parallel elements of a chiasmus. In terms of the criteria we have been using, this chiasmus is extremely weak with regard to both “density” and “dominance” (criteria #6 and #7). Indeed, the significant words that fit in the parallel lines amount to only about 41 words out of the 450 or so words in the epistle (using the English text to keep things simple here). The words that appear to fit the chiasmus are underlined in the outline above.

Second, there are a number of key expressions that are repeated in the epistle but that do not fit the chiastic outline. These repeated expressions are shown in bold type. The most substantial of these is the following pair:

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus (v. 1, in A)
Paul…a prisoner of Christ Jesus (v. 9, in C)

This is one of just two expressions of more than two words that are repeated in the epistle, but it does not fit the chiastic outline (the other one is “grace…from/of the Lord Jesus Christ” in verses 3 and 25). There are also several other notable terms and expressions that are repeated in the epistle but that will not fit the chiasmus, including “sharing” and “sharer” (in B and D’), “good” (B and E), “in the Lord” (D’ and B’), and “in Christ” (C and B’). These repetitions that do not fit the chiasmus are instances of “reduplication” (criterion #9).

The name “Christ Jesus” occurring in verse 9 is the same title used in verses 1 and 23 in lines A and A’, but verse 9 is in C. This kind of repetition is what Welch calls a maverick (criterion #8), and it’s a significant weakness because in both verses 1 and 9 the name is part of the longer expression “Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus.” Likewise, the name “Paul” in verses 9 and 19 is the sole basis for the parallel lines C and C’, but the name is also in verse 1 (A) with the same more substantial parallel to verse 9 (C).

Although Heil’s chiasmus spans the entire epistle from beginning to end, it does not fit the natural literary divisions or structure of the epistle, as the following table shows.

Analysis of Philemon as an Epistle Analysis of Philemon as a Chiasmus
Author and addressee (vv. 1-2) A  Author and addressee (vv. 1-2)
    Salutation (v. 3)
Salutation (v. 3)
Prayer for the addressee (vv. 4-7) B  Prayer for the addressee (vv. 4-7)
Request (vv. 8-21) C  Request: I appeal for my child (vv. 8-10)
D  Request: I’m sending him back (vv. 11-13)
E  Request: I want it to be your choice (v. 14)
D’ Request: Welcome him (vv. 15-17)
C’ Request: I’ll pay for him (vv. 18-19)
B’ Request: I’m confident in you (vv. 20-21)
    Author’s plan to visit addressee (v. 22)
Author’s plan to see the addressee (v. 22)
Greetings from others (vv. 23-24) A’ Greetings from others (vv. 23-24)
   Benediction (v. 25)
Benediction (v. 25)

What this means is that the chiastic outline does not correspond to the literary structure of the epistle but has been artificially imposed on it, a serious weakness according to the criterion of “boundaries” (#3).

Were we to complete a review of the proposed chiastic analysis of Philemon according to all twelve criteria, the result would look something like what is shown in the table below. 

Philemon as a Chiasmus
Criterion Grade
1. Objectivity B
2. Purpose C
3. Boundaries D
4. Other forms A
5. Length B
6. Density D
7. Dominance D
8. Mavericks C
9. Reduplication D
10. Centrality B
11. Balance B
12. Return A
Grade Average C

The proposed chiasmus merits a D grade on fully a third of the criteria and an A grade on only two of them. Perhaps the most judicious conclusion here is that the chiastic outline is too weak to be made the basis for any interpretive conclusions about the epistle. We are not saying that it cannot be viewed as “chiastic,” but rather that the chiastic analysis is so problematic as to be of no particular use. Anyone who wants to understand the literary and rhetorical structure of the epistle should analyze it as an epistle (as shown above), not as a chiasmus.

What If a Passage Doesn’t Pass the Criteria?

We don’t need to go through all twelve criteria for each and every passage that someone proposes is a chiasmus. If we find that it clearly fails one or two of the criteria, that finding is generally going to be sufficient for rejecting the chiastic analysis.

Since there is no requirement that an ancient passage of text conform to criteria used by modern scholars for identifying a chiasmus, the fact that a particular passage does not confirm to those criteria is not in any way a criticism of the passage. Nor does it mean the passage is not rhetorically effective in its own way. It simply means that one cannot describe the passage with high confidence as a chiasmus.

In order to distinguish clearly identifiable instances of chiasmus from other types of rhetorical devices, one must understand what chiasmus is. Essentially, chiasmus is a kind of highly structured repetition. In a chiasmus, the text contains repetitions that are structured to form a precisely ordered reverse parallelism. There are other kinds of repetition that are not chiasms but may exhibit some other type of highly ordered arrangement. Winston Churchill’s closing words in his speech on June 4, 1940, contains one of the most famous examples of another kind of rhetorical use of repetition:

We shall go on to the end,
we shall fight in France,
we shall fight on the seas and oceans,
we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air,
we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be,
we shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills;
we shall never surrender….

Asserting that this part of Churchill’s speech is not a chiasmus is not a criticism of the speech. The point is that it is a mistake to shoehorn a passage into a chiastic outline by manipulating its repetitive elements. The purpose of applying criteria to proposed chiasms is to avoid falling into that trap. In this particular case, a creative person could superimpose a chiastic structure on the passage that would be completely illusory. The first and last lines look parallel enough; the third line and the third to last line both refer to two places (seas and oceans, fields and streets); the middle lines refer to an island and beaches; and so on. Lines that don’t easily fit can be creatively interpreted so that they seem to fit after all. Once a reader decides that a passage “looks” like a chiasmus, it is all too easy to “find” evidence to support that impression. That is precisely why criteria need to be used—not as a limitation on the text being studied, but as a limitation on the undisciplined creativity of the reader who is trying to validate a preconceived conclusion.

Now, if one wishes to describe a passage as “chiastic” that does not meet the criteria, there is nothing particularly wrong with doing so as long as one does not draw any strong conclusions from that description. Two sorts of overstated conclusions should be avoided: claiming that a passage’s “chiastic” structure supports a particular interpretation of its meaning, and claiming that a passage’s “chiastic” structure validates it as ancient in origin. Neither of these conclusions follows from the fact that a passage looks somewhat like a chiasmus or that in some ways it has a chiasmus-like pattern.

What about Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon?

The point just made about not overreaching in drawing conclusions from chiasmus-like patterns in a text is directly relevant to the debate about chiasmus in the Book of Mormon. Suppose a passage in the Book of Mormon doesn’t meet the criteria for an objectively identifiable, well-formed chiasmus but exhibits an interesting pattern that at least resembles chiasmus. That finding would be unobjectionable and could be cited as evidence of rhetorical skill, but it would not be good evidence that the passage was part of an ancient text or that its structure was something Joseph Smith could not have inadvertently produced in his dictation.

The fact is that the Book of Mormon furnishes many opportunities for finding apparent chiasms that are illusory or dubious. These many opportunities arise from a well-known feature of the Book of Mormon, which is that it is highly repetitive. Now, the fact that the Book of Mormon’s style is highly repetitious does not make its narrative fiction or its theological claims false. I am not suggesting that the repetitive nature of the Book of Mormon is the basis for an argument against its being ancient scripture. Rather, I am suggesting that we should test claimed instances of chiasmus or other highly structured literary forms in the Book of Mormon because in general its text does tend to be extremely repetitious in nature. Consider the following example from a speech attributed to Jesus in the Book of Mormon:

And there shall be no disputations among you,
as there hath hitherto been;
neither shall there be disputations among you
concerning the points of my doctrine,
as there hath hitherto been;
for verily, verily I say unto you,
he that hath the spirit of contention, is not of me,
but is of the Devil, which is the father of contention,
and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger,
one with another.
Behold, this is not my doctrine,
to stir up the hearts of men with anger,
one against another;
but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away.
(3 Ne. 11:28b-30)

There are four or five pairs of verbally parallel expressions in this short passage of just over a hundred words, but no discernible literary structure or pattern. In texts exhibiting this much repetition—and a great deal of the Book of Mormon, especially its speeches, looks like this—there are bound to be some passages that look at least superficially like chiasmus. We can even extract a simple chiastic-looking unit from within the above passage:

A  …he that hath the spirit of contention,
B  is not of me,
B’ but is of the Devil,
A’ which is the father of contention….

The randomness of the repetitions throughout the rest of the passage alert us to the likelihood that this apparent instance of chiasmus (which would be a simple, not a complex, chiasmus) is a happenstance resulting from the repetitious style of the passage as a whole rather than an intended rhetorical device. In short, the apparently chiastic relationship of the four clauses here is most likely accidental.

Now let’s consider how this works in the first Book of Mormon passage in which John Welch found a chiasmus. We’ll start by quoting a larger section of the passage and emphasizing certain similar expressions (Mosiah 5:7-14):

7 And now, because of the covenant which ye have made
ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters;
for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you;
for ye say that your hearts are changed through faith on his name;
therefore, ye are born of him and have become his sons and his daughters.
8 And under this head ye are made free,
and there is no other head whereby ye can be made free.
There is no other name given whereby salvation cometh;
therefore, I would that ye should take upon you the name of Christ,
all you that have entered into the covenant with God
that ye should be obedient unto the end of your lives.
9 And it shall come to pass that whosoever doeth this shall be found at the right hand of God,
for he shall know the name by which he is called;
for he shall be called by the name of Christ.
10 And now it shall come to pass,
that whosoever shall not take upon him the name of Christ
must be called by some other name;
therefore, he findeth himself on the left hand of God.
11 And I would that ye should remember also,
that this is the name that I said I should give unto you
that never should be blotted out,
except it be through transgression;
therefore, take heed that ye do not transgress,
that the name be not blotted out of your hearts.
12 I say unto you,
I would that ye should remember to retain the name written always in your hearts,
that ye are not found on the left hand of God,
but that ye hear and know the voice by which ye shall be called,
and also, the name by which he shall call you.
13 For how knoweth a man the master whom he has not served,
and who is a stranger unto him,
and is far from the thoughts and intents of his heart?
14 And again, doth a man take an ass which belongeth to his neighbor, and keep him?
I say unto you, Nay;
he will not even suffer that he shall feed among his flocks,
but will drive him away, and cast him out.
I say unto you, that even so shall it be among you
if ye know not the name by which ye are called.

In this passage, the word name appears twelve times and the word called appears six times, both occurring from verses 7 through 14. However, Welch’s chiasmus consists only of verses 10-12, where two occurrences of the word name and two of the word called are the basis for the two outermost pairs of parallel lines:

A  And now it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall not take upon him the name of Christ
B  must be called by some other name;
but that ye hear and know the voice by which ye shall be called, and also
the name by which he shall call you.

This selection of the words name and called as the markers of these supposedly parallel lines ignores the fact that both words appear repeatedly throughout the larger passage. The word name occurs six times in verses 10-12, but only two of these are treated as parallel in the chiasmus, and it also occurs five times in verses 7-9 and once in verse 14. The word called does occur only the two times in verses 10-12, but it occurs four times in the larger passage including twice in verse 9, immediately before Welch’s chiasmus, and the word call occurs twice in verse 12 (as can be seen above). Even more significant is the use of these words in longer phrases. The phrase “take upon him the name of Christ” in verse 10 is closely parallel to the phrase “take upon you the name of Christ” in verse 8, which is not included in Welch’s chiastic outline. Expressions using both words name and call(ed), such as “the name by which he is called,” occur five times in the passage (vv. 9 [twice], 10, 12, 14). Thus, it is entirely arbitrary to select two pairs out of these many occurrences of the words name and called and make them the basis for a chiasmus.

The repetitive use of the words name and called in Mosiah 5 is just one of several problems with the hypothesis that Mosiah 5:10-12 is a chiasmus intentionally composed by an ancient author and merely translated into English by Joseph Smith via supernatural means. Since the purpose of this article is not to examine each alleged chiasmus in the Book of Mormon but to explain the method by which such chiasms are to be evaluated, I will not provide a complete analysis of Mosiah 5:10-12 here. I have discussed the passage in more detail in a separate article.10 The larger point being made here is that the repetitious nature of many Book of Mormon passages needs to be taken into account when investigating whether a particular passage is a genuine, objectively recognizable instance of chiasmus.

Control Subjects: Chiasmus in Modern Texts

If chiasmus in the Book of Mormon is to be regarded as evidence of anything—of careful composition beyond what Joseph Smith could have attempted, of being ancient literature, or more specifically of being ancient Semitic or Hebraic literature, then it should not appear in other literature that we know is modern and that we are sure was written without any intention of using a chiastic structure.

One place we would not expect to find chiasmus is in Doctrine and Covenants (except where it is quoting the Bible, of course). Yet there are several passages in D&C that could pass for chiasmus at least as well as, if not better than, the celebrated examples thought to be in the Book of Mormon. Indeed, at least one Mormon book has been published on the subject of chiasms “discovered” in Doctrine and Covenants—so one cannot plausibly claim that finding chiasmus there is motivated by anti-Mormon bias.11 Here is one of the better examples, consisting of the entirety of Doctrine and Covenants 40:

A  Behold, verily I say unto you,
B  that the heart of my servant James Covel was right before me,
C  for he covenanted with me that he would obey my word.
D  And he received the word with gladness,
E  but straightway Satan tempted him;
E’ and the fear of persecution and the cares of the world
D’ caused him to reject the word.
C’ Wherefore he broke my covenant,
B’ and it remaineth with me to do with him as seemeth me good.

We can run through the twelve criteria fairly quickly here.

  1. The reverse parallelism works without any glitches, though the parallel between B and B’ is conceptually somewhat weak.
  2. A chiastic-like structure gives the revelation gravitas as biblical in quality, though otherwise not appearing to serve any purpose.
  3. The chiasmus takes up the entirety of D&C 40 and so its outer boundaries are fine. A simpler and perhaps better outline would look like this: (A) Covel’s covenant with the Lord; (B) His temptation and sin; (C) His breaking of the covenant.
  4. The passage is not of a genre that would be easily confused with chiasmus.
  5. The number of paired elements is as high as most chiasms.
  6. The verbal elements that are directly parallel are about 24 of the 77 words of the text, a decent but not especially high percentage.
  7. The proposed chiasmus utilizes many of the key expressions but not most of them.
  8. There are no clear mavericks, though “my word” (line C) is similar to “the word” in D and D’.
  9. There are no reduplications (words duplicated but that don’t fit into the chiasmus outline at all).
  10. The central lines (E and E’) are not verbally parallel but they are thematically united as the causes of apostasy, i.e., the demonic (Satan) and human (persecution, the world) causes. This is a plausible if somewhat weak central focus of the text.
  11. The lines are acceptably but not especially balanced, while the two halves of the chiasmus are fairly well balanced (41 words and 36 words).
  12. The text begins and ends with two different words that mean the same thing (verily and amen) and that emphasize the divine certainty of what is said.

Based on this analysis, I would grade this proposed chiasmus against the twelve criteria with 3 As, 5 Bs, and 4 Cs, which is a B average. Yet it is a modern Anglo-English text, not an ancient Hebraic text.

John Welch has made the following statement:

3. Boundaries. 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. These bounded units may be short, or they may comprise a full psalm or longer pericope. That is, in determining whether a passage in the Psalms is chiastic, one should consider the parts of the psalm as a whole. 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. A strong example of clear boundaries is found in Helaman 6:7–13, a remarkable chiasm that encompasses the entire report for the 64th year of the reign of judges.12

It turns out that this passage (which is a complete paragraph from his article) can be analyzed into a chiastic-looking text:

A  3. Boundaries.
B  A chiasm is stronger
C  if it operates across a literary unit as a whole
D  and not only upon fragments
E  or sections which overlap or cut across organizational lines intrinsic to the text.
F  These bounded units may be short, or they may comprise a full psalm or longer pericope.
G  That is, in determining whether a passage in the Psalms is chiastic,
F’ one should consider the parts of the psalm as a whole.
E’ To the extent that the proposed structure crosses over natural boundaries,
D’ unnaturally chops sentences in half,
C’ or falls short of discernible boundaries in the text as a whole,
B’ the more dubious the suggested chiasm becomes.
A’ A strong example of clear boundaries is found in Helaman 6:7–13, a remarkable chiasm that encompasses the entire report for the 64th year of the reign of judges.

There are some problems with this analysis, but no more so than with most if not all of the proposed chiasms that have been attributed to the Book of Mormon.

In a separate article, I have shown that the third chapter of a modern apocryphal scripture called the Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, a kind of New Age “gospel” first published in 1907. One can extract from this chapter the following very lengthy series of verbal parallels that seem to fit in reverse parallelism:

A  Jesus
B  Mary longed to see Elizabeth
C  came to Bethlehem
D  a child is born
E  prepared
F  Immanuel
G  Bethlehem
H  shepherds
I  The shepherds were devout
J  they were waiting for a strong deliverer
K  they fell back in fear
K’ Fear not!
J’ the king that you have long been waiting for
I’ the shepherds all were glad
H’ shepherds
G’ Bethlehem
F’ Immanuel
E’ prepared
D’ The child is born
C’ came to Bethlehem
B’ Mary and Elizabeth
A’ Jesus

Here again, there are significant weaknesses in this analysis that demonstrate that it is very unlikely that the passage was composed to produce a chiasmus. However, as I stated in my article on this passage, “If it had appeared in the Book of Mormon, LDS scholars would no doubt be heralding it as an impressive chiasmus.”13

If Mormons wish to defend the Book of Mormon as ancient Hebraic literature on the basis of chiasmus, they will need to show that the Book of Mormon’s chiasms belong to a different category than these modern compositions. They will need to explain why these other chiastic-looking passages in modern texts are faux chiasms while the Book of Mormon’s apparently chiastic texts are the real thing.

Conclusion: Chiasmus and the Burden of Proof

If chiasmus in the Book of Mormon is claimed as positive evidence that it is translated from ancient Israelite literature and that its composition was beyond the abilities of Joseph Smith, then the burden of proof is on Mormon scholars to show using objective criteria that the supposed instances of chiasmus are genuine.

As has been noted already, John Welch is the LDS scholar who has made the strongest case for viewing various Book of Mormon passages as chiasms. In separate articles, I have addressed the four main passages that he has identified as chiasms—Mosiah 5:10-12, Mosiah 3:18-19, Alma 36, and 3 Nephi 17:5-10. In each of these articles I have advanced two main points:

  • A careful analysis of the proposed chiasmus using Welch’s own criteria shows that the passage is not an objectively identifiable, clear instance of chiasmus.
  • A consideration of the content of the passage shows that it is not a translation of an ancient text at all, but a modern text composed in dependence on the King James Version of the Bible and reflecting the use of biblical material and themes current in Joseph Smith’s Anglo-American religious and cultural environment.14

In order to continue maintaining that chiasmus in the Book of Mormon is good evidence of its antiquity and authenticity, Mormons will need to refute these two points for each alleged instance of chiasmus. The second point not only calls into question the idea that chiasmus is evidence for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon but it also constitutes evidence against its authenticity. Such evidence should be taken all the more seriously given the undeniable fact that the Book of Mormon was unknown to the world in any form until the late 1820s when it was produced in English by Joseph Smith.15



1. Welch’s article “The Discovery of Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon: Forty Years Later,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 16/2 (2007): 74–87, 99, provides a retrospective account of the discovery, as does “Forty-five Years of Chiasmus Conversations: Correspondence, Criteria, and Creativity,” FAIR Conference, 2-3 Aug. 2012. For his first published article on the subject, see John W. Welch, “Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies 10, 1 (Autumn 1969): 69–84, reprinted in Book of Mormon Authorship: New Light on Ancient Origins, edited by Noel B. Reynolds (Provo: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1982), 33–52.

2. See also Luke 14:11; 18:14.

3. See also Matt. 19:30; Mark 10:31; Luke 13:30.

4. John W. Welch, “How Much Was Known about Chiasmus in 1829 When the Book of Mormon Was Translated?” FARMS Review 15, 1 (2003): 47–80.

5. Robert F. Smith, “Assessing the Broad Impact of Jack Welch’s Discovery of Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 16/2 (2007): 68–73.

6. E.g., Craig L. Blomberg, “The Structure of 2 Corinthians 1–7,” Criswell Theological Review 4 (1989): 3–20; Mark J. Boda, “Chiasmus in Ubiquity: Symmetrical Mirages in Nehemiah 9,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 21 (1996): 55–70.

7. In Robert M. Bowman Jr., “The Sermon at the Temple in the Book of Mormon: A Critical Examination of Its Authenticity through a Comparison with the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew,” Ph.D. diss. (South Africa Theological Seminary, 2014), 261–62.

8. John W. Welch, “Criteria for Identifying and Evaluating the Presence of Chiasmus,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 4/2 (Fall 1995): 1–14, reprinted in Chiasmus Bibliography, edited by John W. Welch and Daniel B. McKinlay (Provo, UT: Research Press, 1999), 157–74.

9. John Paul Heil, “The Chiastic Structure and Meaning of Paul’s Letter to Philemon,” Biblica 82 (2001): 178–206.

10.  Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Chiasmus, Theology, and the New Testament in Mosiah 5:10-12” (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2016).

11. H. Clay Gorton, Language of the Lord: New Discoveries of Chiasmus in the Doctrine and Covenants (Bountiful, UT: Horizon Publishers, 1993).

12.  John W. Welch, “Criteria for Identifying and Evaluating the Presence of Chiasmus,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 4/2 (Fall 1995): 6.

13.  Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Chiasmus, the Book of Mormon, and the Aquarian Gospel” (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2016).

14. Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Mosiah 3:18-19: Ancient Chiasmus or Modern Composition?”’; “Chiasmus, Theology, and the New Testament in Mosiah 5:10-12”; “Alma 36: Ancient Masterpiece Chiasmus or Modern Revivalist Testimony?”; and “Chiasmus within Chiasmus in 3 Nephi 17:5-10?” (all Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2016).

15. On this point, see Robert M. Bowman Jr., “The Book of Mormon and Other Translated Documents” (Cedar Springs, MI: Institute for Religious Research, 2016).