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?

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Why 2 Nephi Is My Favorite Part of The Book of Mormon

3 Nephi may be the most important part of the Book of Mormon, and Alma may be the most literary, but the oft-ignored and maligned book of 2 Nephi is actually my favorite. To see why, consider this brief outline categorized by genre:

  • chapters 1-3: patriarchal blessings
  • chapter 4: blessings and a psalm
  • chapter 5: narrative
  • chapters 6-10: sermon on scriptural exegesis and the Atonement
  • chapters 11-24: scripture quotations with modifications from KJV text
  • chapters 25-26: exegesis and prophecy based on quoted material
  • chapter 27: prophecy flexibly adapting yet another scripture quotation
  • chapters 28-30: prophecy
  • chapter 31: exposition summarizing the doctrine of Christ
  • chapters 32-33: testimony

2 Nephi is a book for scripture nerds!

The Book of Mormon overall is mostly narrative, yet 2 Nephi only gives us one single chapter of that. The rest covers the gamut of inspired poetry and prose: blessings, psalms, sermons, quotations, interpretation and application, prophecy, teaching, and testimony. It’s a greatest hits of scriptural genres! A cornucopia of religious writing, a veritable little library unto itself!

And look at the topics covered! We get one of the Book of Mormon’s best sermons on the Atonement, we get our best look into the heart of Nephi with his poetry, and we get the clearest exposition of basic gospel doctrine outside of the Savior’s teachings later in the book.

2 Nephi is a joyous celebration of scripture study itself. It’s all about a way of life based on the sacred written word.

What more could anybody want? :)

 

 

 

 

 

Parsing the Longest Sentence in the Book of Mormon

3 Nephi 21:1-7 is the longest sentence in the Book of Mormon, clocking in at 392 words.

It’s an odd section anyway, or so I thought when I first read it. Here we have none other than the resurrected Jesus Christ teaching the righteous survivors of an apocalyptic destruction. After a declaration of basic doctrines, a version of the Sermon on the Mount, and some beautiful healing and angelic ministering miracles, most of the rest of 3 Nephi focuses on the not-terribly-exciting subject of the gathering of Israel.

I used to find that anti-climactic. No parables, no conflict, no drama at all, really–most of the famous visit to the New World is a dry lesson on one aspect of the future.

And this sentence may be the weirdest part. Jesus tries to make a simple point, but seems to keep getting distracted and going back to start over. It’s easy to get lost in the jungle of syntax here.

I broke the passage up by highlighting some key repetitions and setting off parenthetical details, using colors and indenting. I think the major point comes across more clearly this way.

3ne

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The Beautiful Book of Mormon

I have a video on YouTube about evidences for the Book of Mormon, and it attracts comments from a lot of people who want to launch the same few, stale criticisms. But one recent critic called out the quality of the book’s content, saying it’s bland and shallow.

Just as with the evidences, this kind of thing will always be debatable, with the determined critic denying any value to the book even if it were somehow shown to be equal to Shakespeare. Still, there are a number of things that come to mind about the spiritual and literary power of the book.

My family and I recently read 3 Nephi 5. It’s mostly a loving, careful exposition on the nature of keeping and editing records. Sounds dull, huh? But it’s written with such an obvious affection for the topic that it’s hard not to find it infectious. The affection is infectious.

Question for the critics, though: why is this chapter here? If it’s a fraud that’s meant to elevate the author or automatically reflect the environment of its creation, then where is there anything in 3 Nephi 5 that promotes devotion to Joseph Smith? Where is there an obsession with record keeping in his life or town before 1830?

Or how about Helaman 7? When we came across that for family scripture study a while ago, and after reading it, I told the fam that the next day would just be reviewing that chapter in even more detail, because it was so deep. I’d read it innumerable times before myself–we all had–but this time I noticed just how powerful its lament and jeremiad are.

I’m moved by how passionate the address is: it begins with a note that “he did exclaim in the agony of his soul.” Isn’t that a wonderful phrase? That’s verse 6; in verse 14 he announces that he has climbed a  tower to “pour out my soul unto my God, because of the exceeding sorrow of my heart.” He castigates his curious audience because they are about to “hurl away your souls” (v. 16). He goes on to deliver some of the most incisive character analysis this side of Tolstoy.

And certainly, none of this is necessary if the Book of Mormon is a hoax. Nothing there forwards any hidden agenda. All it does–all the entire Book of Mormon does–is convince people to faithfully follow Christ.

[So much more could be added here–this post could become its own book! I’m a fan of this summary of the value of the Book of Mormon’s contents, and this podcast is a worthwhile introduction to the literary nature of the text.]

A Book of Mormon Story About Refugees

This morning my family and I read Alma 55 in our scripture study. In verses 4-5, the Nephite army is looking for a spy to go undercover among the enemy:

And now it came to pass that when Moroni had said these words, he caused that a search should be made among his men, that perhaps he might find a man who was a descendant of Laman among them.

 And it came to pass that they found one, whose name was Laman; and he was one of the servants of the king who was murdered by Amalickiah.

The assassination referred to there, and the subsequent violence against the king’s servants, who were set up as scapegoats, happens back in chapter 47:

 27 And it came to pass that Amalickiah commanded that his armies should march forth and see what had happened to the king; and when they had come to the spot, and found the king lying in his gore, Amalickiah pretended to be wroth, and said: Whosoever loved the king, let him go forth, and pursue his servants that they may be slain.

 28 And it came to pass that all they who loved the king, when they heard these words, came forth and pursued after the servants of the king.

 29 Now when the servants of the king saw an army pursuing after them, they were frightened again, and fled into the wilderness, and came over into the land of Zarahemla and joined the people of Ammon.

So this servant, Laman, had fled from political turmoil in his land and found welcome refuge among the Nephites. And joined their military. During a time of war. And was trusted to help his new home.

The relevant implications seem pretty clear.

 

 

Conversation With a Fanatical Anti-Mormon

It’s actually the same guy from yesterday’s “conversation” post. In the middle of the night after that discussion, he sent me the random new message you see below. As with yesterday’s record, I reproduce this here for you because, of the many debates I’ve ever had with anti-Mormons, this is probably the very best. It’s certainly the most comprehensive.

For one thing, he really did look at my evidence and addressed it. That’s pretty rare.

But mostly, this just shows how shallow the thinking is from the anti camp. You see most of the usual games here–lots of random trivia used as a scare tactic, strong claims made and repeated without evidence, changing the subject, outright contradiction whenever it’s convenient, projection, etc.

Note that even after the dust settled, he had never even tried to substantiate his own claims about the Book of Mormon–I analyzed his own argument more seriously than he did. Also, not only did he never explain the evidence for the Book of Mormon, he literally admitted that doing so would be impossible.

Warning: this post is VERY long. But worth it. Enjoy.

sean1

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My Conversion Story

An old friend recently asked me to tell this story, and I realized that I hardly ever do. I guess I don’t think it’s very special. But still, it’s mine, so here it is.

It starts in 8th grade, when the emotional problems that had always plagued me drove me to some anti-social behavior so severe that my poor parents had to withdraw me from school and place me in a mental health facility. By the time I was released to go home that summer, I knew that I was missing something and needed some kind of major change.

I’d always been a pretty religious kid, though my family never went to church much. I went to a kind of church class after school in 3rd grade, and enjoyed it. I tried reading the Bible a couple of times. I felt like there was some kind of spiritual truth out there, but I didn’t know exactly what it was.

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Nephi Really Loves The Bible!

Today is International Day of the Bible, and that got me thinking about Nephi and his love for the Bible. Not only does he absolutely adore Isaiah–he cites, paraphrases, or comments on nearly a fourth of that prophet’s book–but consider this:

In 1 Nephi 17, he tries to teach his brothers about faith, essentially–he corrects their complaining about their lot in life by comparing it to previous precedents. Notice how detailed his metaphor is–Nephi clearly believes their situation is deeply analogous to that of their ancestors’.

Not only does he make several specific references to Old Testament material in one place, he writes that all into his record for future readers, for us–he expects us to be well versed in Bible stories, too!

Here are six references in 1 Nephi 17 to specific stories from four different books of the Bible, with the Biblical books to which he refers added in red:

 27 But ye know that the Egyptians were drowned in the Red Sea, who were the armies of Pharaoh. Exodus 

 28 And ye also know that they were fed with manna in the wilderness. Exodus and Numbers

 29 Yea, and ye also know that Moses, by his word according to the power of God which was in him, smote the rock, and there came forth water, that the children of Israel might quench their thirst. Exodus and Numbers

 32 And after they had crossed the river Jordan he did make them mighty unto the driving out of the children of the land, yea, unto the scattering them to destruction. Joshua

 40 And he loveth those who will have him to be their God. Behold, he loved our fathers, and he covenanted with them, yea, even Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and he remembered the covenants which he had made… Genesis

 41 And he did straiten them in the wilderness with his rod; for they hardened their hearts, even as ye have; and the Lord straitened them because of their iniquity. He sent fiery flying serpents among them; and after they were bitten he prepared a way that they might be healed; and the labor which they had to perform was to look; and because of the simpleness of the way, or the easiness of it, there were many who perished. Numbers

A Picture For A Great Book of Mormon Verse

14117824_10209866266511572_2409278205517880784_nI made this last week because it’s one of my favorite verses in the whole Book of Mormon, and there weren’t any really good pictures out there featuring it (though I had to condense it to make it readable in the space available).

I love the rhetorical power in 3 Nephi 27:14. I read it as an ironic contrast: the innocent Christ is “lifted up” by guilty mankind to torture, which enables that same guilty mankind to be “lifted up” by Christ’s loving Father to salvation.

A friend pointed out that it can also be read as a parallel as well as a contrast: “as” Christ was lifted up on the cross, “even so should men be” also, in that each of us must “deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23), or that “our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.” (Romans 6:6).

Clearly, there’s some deep and beautiful wisdom in this one verse. It should be read and lived and appreciated more. I hope you like the picture.

A Timeline for the Book of Ether

Ether timelineAs I continue to work on a single timeline integrating all the scriptures of the LDS Church, I’m still worried about how to split up Ether and match it with the Old Testament. In my draft from last year, I have the Jaredite character Lib congruent with King David, and the end of the Jaredite record running well into the Nephite timeline.

Today, I started over on that. My basis for this revision is to start with the very popular and well-supported theory that the Jaredite city of Lib (and the king its named for) is actually the historical Olmec city of San Lorenzo. San Lorenzo flourished from about 1400-1200 BC.

Also, the Book of Omni is actually unclear about how long the Mulekites were established in the Western hemisphere before they met Coriantumr.

For the sake of convenience, I’m dating the meeting of Coriantumr at about 550 BC, and, based on the San Lorenzo theory (and also for convenience), dating Lib at abut 1350.

(There will be lots of estimating and rounding here, since none of this can be precise, and since the splitting and mixing of Ether into the Old Testament will have to still consider creating a coherent narrative. Take all of this with a grain of salt–this is much more speculation than science, after all.)

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Who Was Abinadi?

075-075-abinadi-before-king-noah-full

If you’ve read the Book of Mormon, you’ve likely seen this old painting; it’s of the prophet Abinadi confronting the court of corrupt King Noah. He appears here in stereotypical Old testament glory–white beard, defiant pose, an aging yet still powerful frame.

But nothing in the text warrants this flight of fancy–indeed, the Book of Mormon doesn’t describe Abinadi’s age or appearance at all. Before the sermonizing proper, the only clue we get about him is that he came from “among them,” presumably meaning that he was part of their society, and not an outsider like Samuel the Lamanite would be later.

This raises some interesting questions for me, and the answers might depend on his unknown age.

Was he of the generation of Zeniff, that first king of this group who had originally led them back into the old lands to establish a new colony there?

Grant Hardy’s Understanding the Book of Mormon analyzes this story and presents Zeniff as a naive and idealistic do-gooder, and then his son Noah as the kind of spoiled brat who might be the result of indulgent parenting by that naive and idealistic do-gooder.

In light of that analysis, if Abinadi was a contemporary of Zeniff–one who had emigrated into the wilderness with him from the established Zarahemla settlement–then he might have been as old as these paintings depict him as, and maybe he, too, was a zealous idealist. Seeing the noble values of his own generation, then, abused and broken under the lazy thumb of Noah would have been more than just disappointing–his always contrarian heart might have been moved to rebel against the status quo by following the examples of past prophets, just as he had done decades before when he followed Zeniff out into the wilderness to found their acsetic sect in the first place.

That scenario makes sense to me, but it seems there’s nothing in the text to confirm or deny it. Maybe Abinadi was a younger man, a contemporary of Noah himself, trying to reestablish a righteous society that he only dimly remembered from his own youth under King Zeniff.

Who knows? If any reader sees anything in the text that bears on this at all, please share.

Recommended: BookofMormonCentral.Org

To mark today’s 186th birthday of the Book of Mormon, I wanted to share this amazing resource about it.

Book of Mormon Central has been online for about three months now, and I keep liking it more and more.

At first, I worried that it would only be a collection of apologetic materials, which would be redundant, as FairMormon has that abundantly covered.

As the weeks have gone on, though, I’ve seen much more breadth to it: yes, there is plenty of timely and appropriate “defending the faith” stuff, but they also feature plenty of material about simply understanding the text, as well as analyzing how it works as a written text, and even how to use it to improve our faith and discipleship. (Most all of these take the form of short pieces presented as answers to common questions, called “KnoWhys.”)

In short, it has already become the most comprehensive Book of Mormon web site.

This site announces its mission as “to increase and diffuse knowledge of the Book of Mormon,” but it really is more than that: this whole site is a giant love letter to the Book of Mormon. They love it. They celebrate it. This isn’t missionary work as much as it is a big romantic gesture. Consider their beautiful #BoMday hashtag on social media!

They sponsored a “Book of Mormon Temples” fireside recently and it’s already on their fledgling but impressive YouTube channel. It’s worth your time, and it’s not the work of casual fans, but devoted fanatics who love the Book of Mormon with a passion.

This great web site could help all of us have a bit more of that passion.

 

Is Mosiah 7:29 A Reference To 2 Nephi 4:33?

Mosiah 7:29:

For behold, the Lord hath said: I will not succor my people in the day of their transgression; but I will hedge up their ways that they prosper not; and their doings shall be as a stumbling block before them.

Note the two distinctive phrases there: “hedge up their ways” and “a stumbling block.” King Limhi introduces the quote in this verse with the phrase “For behold, the Lord hath said,” but there is no scripture known to us with any quote quite like this.

Was Limhi quoting a scripture we don’t have? Or a revelation given to himself?

Maybe. Or maybe he was alluding to 2 Nephi 4:33 and, since it’s scripture, attributing it to the Lord.

O Lord, wilt thou encircle me around in the robe of thy righteousness! O Lord, wilt thou make a way for mine escape before mine enemies! Wilt thou make my path straight before me! Wilt thou not place a stumbling block in my way—but that thou wouldst clear my way before me, and hedge not up my way, but the ways of mine enemy.

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Read This, Then 2 Nephi 3

There are great doctrinal truths here, of course, but I had long been confused by the nature of 2 Nephi 3. Elderly Lehi is about to die, and he takes his youngest son aside for a moment to…talk about ancient history and prophecy about the future. That’s pretty much it. There’s really not much here that seems to relate directly to the young man himself.

Reading it again recently, I went looking for an answer. Why does Lehi spend his last words to his son lecturing about such seemingly random stuff? Here’s the answer I found:

I ended up imagining this implied context for the chapter. Read 2 Nephi 3 again after this, and see if it doesn’t open up better:

Joseph, my youngest son, you’ve already had a hard life out in the old desert wilderness, on the raging seas, and in this new jungle wilderness, and I wish I could promise that things will get easier, but honestly, they won’t. I haven’t been able to protect you much, but even that little comfort is about to be lost to you. I’m dying. After I’m gone, you will continue to face challenges in life.

But remember this:

There are three great Josephs at major turning points in history who will help advance the Lord’s work.

One was Joseph of Egypt, in the distant past. He endured serious adversity also, but founded a people who were close to the Lord. He knew of us and wrote about us.

Another Joseph will be in the distant future. He will endure serious adversity as well, but will found a people who will be close to the Lord. He will know of us and will write about us.

The third Joseph is you, my son. Just as the Joseph long before you and the Joseph long after you have their part in overcoming opposition to start new dynasties of righteousness, you have yours. Our little family here will grow to become a dispensation of a thousand years, whose story will someday go to all the world. And you’re here at the beginning, to help make sure it happens. This is your place in the story, and this is the difference you make.

The words which the ancient Joseph saw in vision and which the future Joseph will publish are the words which are being written now by our family. You’re an important part of this larger plan. 

The Joseph before and the Joseph after will know you in the eternities as their brother in this work. They are counting on you. I am counting on you. Indeed, a world is counting on you. Follow Nephi and serve with him. Make Joseph of Egypt and Joseph of America proud. Make the Lord proud. Make me proud. Good bye, my son, and fare well. I believe in you.