Hey guys, we’re talking about chiasmus in the Book of Mormon today. For those of you who don’t know what that is, “Chiasmus is a type of writing style which presents a series of keywords or phrases and then repeats them in reverse order.” For example, Matthew 10:39 in the Bible has a very simple chiastic structure: “He that (a) findeth his life (b) shall lose it: and he that (b’) loseth his life for my sake (a’) shall find it.” This verse follows a very simple ABBA format. Leviticus 24 contains a more complicated 7-step chiasm following the format ABCDEFGGFEDCBA. Chiasmus was used in ancient Israel, as well as in some other civilizations like Egypt.
Notably, the Book of Mormon also contains many examples of chiastic structures — ranging from very simple to very complex. Because chiasmus was a popular ancient writing style, many Latter-day Saints (myself included) consider chiasmus in the Book of Mormon to be supporting evidence that it is a translation of an ancient work. That’s a bold claim and one that, of course, has received a lot of pushback from critics. Let’s talk about it.
Alright, so skeptics generally attempt to de-value chiasmus in the Book of Mormon using at least one of 3 arguments. We’ll look at two right now and the third one in a moment:
- Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon isn’t special because it also shows up in many modern works, such as in Green Eggs and Ham or Hickory Dickory Dock.
- Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon isn’t special because Joseph Smith knew all about chiasmus, as evidenced by chiasms that show up in non-ancient works like the Doctrine and Covenants and even a personal letter to his wife, Emma. Thus, he could have used it in the Book of Mormon.
To help us out with these claims, we’re going to turn to a 2004 research study, which was expanded in 2006 and 2010. Researchers put together a formula to help determine how likely it is that a proposed chiasm could appear by chance. They found that there was a greater-than-50-percent chance that each of those examples previously mentioned could have been produced unintentionally. In other words, these examples very poorly illustrate the intended argument because, statistically, there’s a high likelihood that they only appear by accident. Other common examples from critics also performed poorly. And this leads us to the 3rd common argument made by skeptics:
- Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon isn’t special precisely because chiasmus can appear by chance, such as in this example someone found in a computer manual. Couldn’t Book of Mormon chiasms also just be there by chance? Well, when researchers plugged the top 4 proposed chiasms from the Book of Mormon into their formula, in each case, it was determined that there was less than a 2% chance that they appear by accident. The most impressive chiastic structure in the Book of Mormon is the powerfully Christ-centered chiasm in Alma chapter 36. The chance that it was produced by accident is 0.018 percent.
The study tells us that chiasmus is there and is at least sometimes intentional. But it doesn’t tell us who put it there. So even though the examples from argument #2 are inadmissible, isn’t it reasonable to believe that Joseph just picked up on chiasmus while reading the Bible and purposefully used it in the Book of Mormon? Well, to those listening from home — chances are that you’re much more educated than Joseph Smith was before the Book of Mormon was translated in 1829. As you have studied your Bible over the years, have you ever just naturally recognized chiasmus as an ancient literary technique? If not, no need to feel bad. I haven’t, either. In fact, after speaking to the Jewish Law Association about Old Testament chiasmus in 1988, John Welch reported that listeners were “quite astonished” by his presentation. He said, “…structures such as these do not naturally jump out at readers—even at those who read this text regularly and assiduously, and in Hebrew….”
But if not from the Bible, could Joseph have picked this up from some other book before 1829? Book of Mormon Central reported that “While chiasmus in the Bible was recognized in at least 6 scholarly works published in London before 1829, it appears that only one book, published in Philadelphia in 1825, identified and explained it in America.” In that over 800-page volume, only a few pages are devoted to this structure, with only relatively simple examples. Nothing like Leviticus 24 or Alma 36.
Now, Joseph did actually own this particular book. However, he obtained it in 1834, four years after the Book of Mormon was published, and there’s also no indication he ever read it. All of the pages are completely clean. So far, no one has found any direct evidence to indicate that Joseph knew anything about chiasmus.
But, as Welch noted, “Even if Joseph Smith had somehow learned of the concept of chiasmus, he would still be presented with the formidable task of writing—or rather, dictating—extensive texts in this style that was unnatural to his world, while at the same time keeping numerous other strands, threads, and concepts flowing without confusion in his dictation.”
Personally, I find it hard to believe that Joseph (1) learned about chiasmus, (2) intentionally laced the Book of Mormon with chiasmus to make it look more authentic, and (3) that he then just never drew any attention to it at all. For heaven’s sake, it wasn’t discovered until over 100 years later. I think the Book of Mormon simply is what Joseph claimed it was, and it shows these fingerprints of antiquity because the original work was ancient. But, as always, you’re free to come to your own conclusions on this.
Indeed, chiasmus does not and should not prove that the Book of Mormon is true. It’s faith-promoting scholarship, but for the truth of the Book of Mormon to sink into your heart, that testimony needs to come from God. And that’s why our missionaries and the Book of Mormon itself invite you to read the book and to pray and ask God about whether or not it’s true. I invite you to do that as well. You can read it for free online, or if you want a free paper copy, shoot us a message or request one on ComeUntoChrist.org. For more info on this topic, check out the resources in the YouTube description, and have a great day!
— Request your free copy of the Book of Mormon here: https://bit.ly/455HTOP
— “Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon,” an index of videos on chiasmus by Book of Mormon Central: https://bit.ly/3nOjRam
— “Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon,” by John Welch (BYU Studies): https://bit.ly/41pCi2W
— “Does Chiasmus Prove Anything about the Book of Mormon?” via BOMC: https://bit.ly/3VSfF5X
— “What Does Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon Prove?” by John Welch in “Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited”: https://bit.ly/44OpCp7
— “What Counts as Chiasmus?” via BOMC: https://bit.ly/3O0JDD0
— “When Are Chiasms Admissible as Evidence?” by Boyd F. Edwards & F. Farrell Edwards (BYU Studies): https://bit.ly/42Mnbl0
— “Does Chiasmus Appear in the Book of Mormon by Chance?” by Edwards & Edwards (BYU Studies): https://bit.ly/42EUuGK
— “Truth or Cherry Picking: A Statistical Approach to Chiastic Intentionality,” by Edwards & Edwards (BYU Studies): https://bit.ly/3psqNuq
— “Does Joseph’s Letter to Emma of 4 November 1838 Show that He Knew about Chiasmus?” by Edwards & Edwards: https://bit.ly/3VVzjOM
— “Criteria for Identifying and Evaluating the Presence of Chiasmus,” by John Welch (BYU Studies): https://bit.ly/44SqvNF
— “Criteria Chart” via BYU Studies: https://bit.ly/3VSKF5W
— An index of proposed chiasms in the Book of Mormon: https://bit.ly/3VQ6PWw
— “How Much Was Known about Chiasmus in 1829 When the Book of Mormon Was Translated?” by John Welch (BYU Studies): https://bit.ly/33U9EeI
— “How Much Could Joseph Smith Have Known about Chiasmus in 1829?” via BOMC: https://bit.ly/3pxYOct
— “128 – Chiasmus in Leviticus 24:13–23,” via BYU Studies: https://bit.ly/44POfSf
— “Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon,” via FAIR: https://bit.ly/3pxMXeA