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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Top 10 Book of Mormon Evidences

I think this is one of the best Book of Mormon videos on YouTube–certainly, it gives the most information in the shortest time, and with great visual aids.  Yes, this is a greatly improved version of a video I did in June.  Please enjoy and share!

A New Way to Look at the Plan of Salvation

plan of salvation map

There’s a joke that Mormons are the only people in the world who can communicate a profound spiritual sermon by drawing three circles in a row.  This traditional paradigm for teaching the gospel—with its circles for the premortal world, Earth life, the spirit world, and the three degrees of glory—has served very well as a visual aid of the plan of salvation.

Here, I propose a new way of visualizing these things.  Instead of the narrative flowchart model, I’m going to describe a great, eternal chiasm.  Yes, chiasmus as in the ancient Book of Mormon writing style where a series of ideas or phrases are given and then repeated in reverse order, to contrast parallel variations in the elements of the story and to highlight the central turning point.

Chiasms are typically shown as the left side of a letter X, looking like an arrow pointing to East on a map.  This one will be depicted as a letter V, because I want us to see the turning point as the end of a long descent and the beginning of an ascent.  You’ll see why shortly.

This new paradigm was inspired by the temple.  I won’t make any overt references to the basic floor plan of the average temple or to the content of the endowment, but the reader who is familiar with those things is encouraged to consider how they suggested the ideas presented below.

The elements of this story can be understood as following the ideal progress of each individual person or of “the whole human family of Adam” (Mormon 3:20).

A and A’: The Celestial Kingdom

Our journey, as far as we understand it, both begins and ends in the Celestial Kingdom.  This is where, from our point of view, our “descent” begins and our “ascent” ends.

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Chiasmus in Helaman 13:29-39

In studying the Book of Mormon, it seems that everybody and his brother is familiar with chiasmus, that Hebraic form of poetry where key words and phrases in the first half of a text are repeated backwards in the second half, done to aid memorization, to signify a whole unit of thought, and, especially, to emphasize the central turning point. 

With all the many excellent examples of the technique that the Book of Mormon offers, one of my favorites is usually overlooked: Helaman 13:29-39. 

The most notable work on such parallelisms in the Book of Mormon, Donald W. Parry’s The Book of Mormon Text Reformatted According to Parallelistic Patterns, does not mention chiasmus in this section.  However, in A New Witness For Christ, a similar work by the late H. Clay Gorton, an amateur Book of Mormon enthusiast, I found an arrangement of these verses that is very close to mine. 

In Helaman 13:29-39, Samuel the Lamanite has been lambasting the grossly apostate people of a city.  Throughout the first segment of the sermon, he chastises them for their materialism, and for their related rejection of the prophets.  After the patient, factual, even dry recounting of their rebellion in most of Helaman 13, in verses 29-39 Samuel lets loose with a passionate lament, wailing over their wasteful path towards self-destruction due to their own willful blindness.  Those verses form a discrete unit of the sermon, and a compelling chiasm. 

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The Pattern Of Our Spiritual Journey

I’ve been reading James Ferrell’s The Hidden Christ, which is extremely excellent, and I just read chapter 19, “The Dispensation’s of the Lord’s People,” where he gives a chiastic chart of Earth’s history.  It’s very good, and it reminded me of something I’ve been thinking about for a month or so, since my wife and I had a discussion about what the Earth will be like after the Second Coming. 

That got me to researching, and some things clicked with me.  Below are some notes I’ve been putting together about these thoughts.  They represent my attempt to put some doctrinal concepts in a recognizable pattern, and it strongly emphasizes the role of Jesus Christ.  In fact, looking at our spiritual journey this way adds a powerful dimension to our understanding that, through the Atonement, Christ “descended below all things.”  We can see here that, literally, his suffering and distance from the Father were absolutely beyond even the worst of mankind’s experience.  It was also, again quite literally, the ultimate turning point in history. 

The only thing that confused me at first was the idea that, if Eden and the Millennium are Christ’s domain, then how could the Father also be present in the Garden of Eden?  I soon realized that God may go anywhere He wishes; it is we who are limited by veils and sin.  After all, didn’t both the Father and the Son appear personally to Joseph Smith in this fallen, telestial world?  Joseph Smith had to be transfigured for that to be possible, and I suppose Adam and Eve must have enjoyed a similar experience, in their innocent and immortal state, to behold the Father in the Garden. 

On a slightly less spiritual note, this map also highlights an aspect of good storytelling, which has also been on my mind lately.  I often think that basic story patterns are essentially encoded into us (think of Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces, as well as the fondness for using elemental stories to resonate with us in the scriptures and temple), and one of the most fundamental aspects of good story is that the hero must face a daunting, scary setback in the middle, even suffering a literal descent.  Think here of Odysseus going down to Hades, the discouraging tones of The Two Towers and The Empire Strikes Back (each the middle of an epic), or the predictable fight that the lovers must have in the middle of every romantic comedy, before they reconcile and reunite (sappy, but also another Atonement-centered device). 

Most of the “insights” on this chart aren’t very original, but I enjoyed drawing it up to see these things together in graphic form for the first time.  This is only a rough draft, and any refinement to it is welcome.  Click to enlarge.