PROVO — Fifty years ago, an LDS Church missionary serving in Germany discovered in the Book of Mormon a literary technique known as chiasmus, a device evident in early Semitic writings such as the Holy Bible. This week, 50 years later to the day, scholars and students joined a pair of LDS Church leaders and interested individuals to celebrate both the discovery and the discoverer, with chiasmus underscoring the linguistic aspects of historical origins of the Book of Mormon.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, concluded the “Chiasmus Jubilee” commemoration Wednesday night at Brigham Young University, reminding guests that the spirit of revelation — including one’s testimony of the Book of Mormon — comes through a process of “engaging the head as well as the heart,” with “the force of fact as well as the force of feeling.”
He added: “Our testimonies aren’t dependent on evidence. We still need always and forever that spiritual confirmation in the heart of which we’ve all spoken. But to not seek for and not to acknowledge intellectual, documentable support for our belief, when it is available, is to needlessly limit an otherwise incomparably strong theological position and deny us a persuasive vocabulary in the latter-day arena of religious investigation in a sectarian debate.
Elder Holland cited the Apostle Paul’s expression of faith being “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,”
“For me, the classic example of substance that I hope for and the evidence of things I have not seen is the 531 pages of the Book of Mormon, which come from a sheath of gold plates that some people saw and handled and hefted, but I haven’t seen or handled or hefted, and neither have you,” Elder Holland said.
“Nevertheless, the reality of those plates — the substance of them, if you will — and the evidence that comes from them in the form of the Book of Mormon is at the heart, at the very center, of the hope and testimony and conviction of this work that is unshakably within me forever.”
Chiasmus — a rhetorical device described as an inverted type of parallelism, where an ordered expression of thoughts or phrases are repeated in reverse — is found in ancient Near Eastern writings, including the early Hebraic, Greek and versions of the Bible, the Jewish written law of the Torah and the Islamic Quran.
Biblical scholars point to the use of chiasmus as representing the skill and deliberation of those who authored scriptural texts. LDS scholars say chiasmus in the Book of Mormon — believed by the LDS faithful to be a scriptural record of ancient American civilizations tracing their roots to ancient Jerusalem — underscores the book’s Hebraic origins, with the writings of early prophets in the text being in the language of the Egyptians “according to the learning of the Jews.” (1 Nephi 1:2).
Chiasmus can be as simple as being found in a single sentence or verse of scripture. And it can be as complex as the technique being carried through longer blocks of text, including entire chapters of scripture.
Simple examples of chiasmus — including more modern variations — include:
• The phrase in the Bible’s Malachi 4:6, “And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers.”
• The phrase in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.”
• The well-known saying from the presidential inauguration address of John F. Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
In modern times, the use of Chiasmus in sacred texts was first identified by biblical scholars in the 19th century in Germany and England, with stronger footholds of research following in the 1930s through the 1960s.
A young missionary serving in Germany in 1967, John W. Welch spent part of a weekly “diversion day” attending a class held at a Jesuit seminary that identified chiasmus in the Holy Bible; he later purchased a book on the topic. He wondered if the Book of Mormon — a scriptural companion to the Bible in the LDS faith — would have chiasmic writings as well.
Initially identifying the use of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon’s fifth chapter of Mosiah, Welch subsequently found other examples throughout and started cataloging them. He first shared his discovery with mission peers and leaders, then with a European priest steeped in chiasmus study at the end of his missionary service. After returning home as a student at BYU, Welch published his findings in BYU Studies in 1969 and later in still-cited 1972 article in the LDS magazine The New Era.
In the decades since, he has continued his research and writings in addition to his legal career and his scriptural and LDS scholarship works. Welch was founding director of the Foundation of Ancient Records and Mormon Studies (FARMS) and one of the editors for Macmillan’s “Encyclopedia on Mormonism;” he currently is on faculty at BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School and is editor-in-chief of BYU Studies.
“The discoveries of chiasmus belong to all of us,” said Welch in his brief remarks during Wednesday night’s event. He cited his favorite example of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon as being the 36th chapter of Alma, where the turning point of the life of Alma the Younger doubles as the turning point of the chiasmic pattern, with both centered on the Savior Jesus Christ.
Elder Kim B. Clark, an LDS General Authority Seventy who is also the church’s commissioner of higher education, continued in his remarks the focus on Alma 36, which he described as the return of a wayward son.
Quoting Elder Orson F. Whitney, an early 20th century LDS apostle, Elder Clark spoke of “the tentacles of Divine Providence” reaching out after wayward children and drawing them back to the fold. He concluded with a chiasmic-like statement.
“God does reach for his wayward children,” Elder Clark said, “and by our wayward children, he reaches to us.”
Example of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon
a — And now … whosoever shall not take upon him the name of Christ
b — must be called by some other name;5 comments on this story
c — therefore he findeth himself on the left hand of God.
d — I would that ye should remember also, that this is the name …
e — that never should be blotted out,
f — except it be through transgression;
f — therefore, take heed that ye do not transgress,
e — that the name be not blotted out of your hearts.
d — … I would that ye should remember to retain the name …
c — that ye are not found on the left hand of God,
b — but that ye hear and know the voice by which ye shall be called,
a — and also, the name by which he shall call you.