Joseph Smith and Chiasmus: Means, Motive, and Opportunity

132This year marks the 50th anniversary of the discovery of chiasmus, an ancient poetic writing style, in the Book of Mormon. A great jubilee celebration is being held at BYU this week to commemorate it.

I’ve talked to a lot of critics of the Book of Mormon about this, and the most popular response is that chiasmus isn’t that hard to figure out or write, and that Joseph Smith must have just integrated it into his “hoax.”

But this really doesn’t make sense. Once we look at the situation critics propose in detail, we see that an authentically ancient Book of Mormon is more reasonable than their theory!

In short, critics have only weak answers for the “how” of chiasmus being in the Book of Mormon, and absolutely no answer at all for the “why.”

Let’s consider those three classic staples of investigating a crime: means, motive, and opportunity.

MEANS

Did Joseph Smith have the ability to figure out chiasmus and then duplicate it? For a critic to answer yes to this, they would have to agree with this scenario:

  • Decades before the term was even named by modern scholars, Joseph was able to discern this style from its fragmented, muted use in the Bible. There is no record of anybody else outside of professional scholars ever doing this.
  • Not only did he perform that amazing feat, but he found the writing style significant enough to notice and incorporate into his “hoax” manuscript.
  • Not only did he somehow figure all of this out, but he was able to create a huge number of these poetic narratives–several dozen, at least, and maybe hundreds–covering single verses, entire books, and every length in between, and he did so with clever word play and thematic coherence (consider the literally Christ-centered chiasmus in Alma 36, pictured above, for example).
  • Not only did he do that, but he appears to have done so with no notes, no practice, and with no review or revision to his manuscript. Certainly, all existing manuscript evidence supports this–the critic who would imagine otherwise has to invent hypothetical evidence.
  • Not only did he do that, but then for some reason he restricted its use primarily to that manuscript only–he later produced reams of revelations and other documents, like the books of Moses and Abraham, but none of these would ever use chiasmus again in anywhere near the degree or complexity with which it appears in the Book of Mormon. If it was so easy and he was so good at it, then why not?

 

MOTIVE

This might be the strongest nail in the coffin of the critics’ case. To say that the Book of Mormon is a hoax, the critic would have to say that

  • Joseph included extensive use of this style in his work, even though there was no demand for it, or even awareness of it, in the world around him. Hoaxes tend to have conspicuous features that are meant to convince people of authenticity.
  • He never once used the existence of this style in his work as proof of his calling as a prophet. We would expect that a conscious fraud would elicit statements like, “See? See? This book has real Hebrew-type writing in it! Give me money and power now!” Nothing even remotely of the sort ever happened. Nothing in Joseph’s life indicates that he was even aware that chiasmus existed. Creating chiasmus would seem to be a whole lot of work for nothing.
  • The creation of a book at all, much less a long, detailed, and artfully poetic one, is a serious task of sustained labor. The point of hoaxes is generally to reduce the strain of working. Not only did Joseph clearly exert himself in the production of the Book of Mormon, but he spent the rest of his life serving and sacrificing in order to build a community of believers based on the book (consider this anecdote or this one–either of which would have been impossible if he knew the book a lie). This hardly makes sense if he knew it to be untrue.

OPPORTUNTIY

Did Joseph Smith have the chance to create the Book of Mormon from scratch at all, much less to do so with chiasmus of such creative skill? The critic would have to say so, despite these facts:

During the few months of the manuscript’s production, Joseph also had to deal with

  • providing food and shelter for his struggling young family
  • coping with mobs and other constant verbal and physical persecution against him
  • moving his family because of that persecution
  • receiving and recording several revelations, including a visit from the resurrected John the Baptist to restore the Aaronic priesthood
  • preaching the gospel and baptizing people

Obviously, he would have been busy and stressed out during this time, yet critics would suggest that he not only wrote a huge book off the top of his head during that time, but did so with creative techniques like chiasmus.

Isn’t it really more reasonable to say that, instead of the Book of Mormon being a hoax despite all of the bizarre things that would have had to be the case for that to be true, there is a living God who loves us and blessed us with this amazing miracle of a book?

 

 

 

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