Thursday, 17 February 2011

Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon

Chiasmus is “a figure of speech by which the order of the words in the first of two parallel clauses is reversed in the second” (Oxford companion to English Literature, 1985 ed.). One way of identifying a chiastic quote is to mark the repeated words or phrases with the letters ABBA. To illustrate, one of the most familiar examples of this is the phrase spoken at the foot of the Cross:

“He saved others, himself he cannot save.”

This becomes:

A. He saved

B. others,

B. himself

A. he cannot save.

There is an excellent web site dedicated to the subject, www.chiasmus.com and it’s a lot of fun as well as educational.

Since we are currently looking at the Book of Mormon and “questions of the soul” I thought I should say something about this. Thanks Staci for your timely reminder about this fascinating subject. Mormons claim that examples of chiastic writing in the Book of Mormon help authenticate the book. It is found extensively in the Bible and is also to be found in the Book of Mormon, Ipso facto, etc.

Chiasmus is a sophisticated literary device that ranges from the most simple, as illustrated above, to complex examples. The Bible, Old and New Testaments, abound with examples and it is accepted that it is typical of one form of Hebraic writing.

A good example from the Book of Mormon is found 2 Nephi 29:13

The Jews

shall have the words

of the Nephites

and the Nephites

shall have the words

of the Jews;

and the Nephites and the Jews

shall have the words

of the lost tribes of Israel;

and the lost tribes of Israel

shall have the words of the Nephites and of the Jews.

The example Mormons most like to talk about is chapter 36 of Alma, 30 verses which, verse for verse, sets out parallels, verse 1 with verse 30, verse 2 with verse 29 etc. If you read it yourself it is easy enough to identify the parallels. Does this lend weight to Mormon claims?

Falling over Chiasmus

Contrary to past Mormon claims, Chiasmus was not unknown at the time of Joseph Smith. Today Mormon scholars have recognised that this literary form was known at that time but still insist it is unlikely that Smith was aware of it

The Book of Mormon has many examples and, at first sight, this seems impressive. However, while it is common in the Bible, Old and New Testaments, as well as the Book of Mormon, it is by no means restricted to these. It is a generally used literary style found in many cultures, both in simple and complex forms and people even use it unconsciously. Take for example the famous Mormon couplet

A. As man is

B. God once was

B. As God is

A. Man may become

The person who coined this phrase didn’t think “I will put it in chiasmic form to make it memorable”. It just came out that familiar way we all recognise but don’t know the name of. One of my favourite quotes is by Thomas Fuller:

A. If an ass

B. Goes a travelling

B. He’ll not come back

A. A Horse

An example from a nursery rhyme is:

Hickory, dickory, dock

the mouse ran up the clock

The clock struck one

The Mouse ran down

Hickory, dickory, dock.

Even if Smith didn't know the word chiasm he would have had ready access to the distinctive form in his reading of the King James Bible. Indeed, if he copied his style from the Bible it would seem inevitable that his work would contain chiasmus, not just in those parts he plagiarised but even in those parts peculiar to the Book of Mormon. It is so common you practically trip over it at every turn.

Here’s another example, this time in a familiar Christian children’s song:

Whose the king of the jungle

Whose the king of the sea

Whose the king of the universe

and whose the king of me

I tell you J-E-S-U-S Yes!

He’s the king of me

He’s the king of the universe

the jungle and the sea

Chiasmus in the Doctrine and Covenants

To show this you need to realise that chiastic forms are found in the Doctrine and Covenants. It can't be explained, then, simply as an ancient literary form whose presence "proves" the Book of Mormon, and Mormon scholars readily acknowledge the accidental nature of its presence in the D&C. If Smith could draft chiastic forms in the D&C he could have done the same with the Book of Mormon – whether consciously or no. Here is an example from D&C 107:34-38

The Seventy

are to act in the name of the Lord, under the direction of the Twelve

or the travelling high council,

in the building up the and regulating all the affairs of the same

in all nations, first unto the Gentiles and then to the Jews;

The Twelve being sent out, holding the keys, to open the door by the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and first unto the Gentiles and then unto the Jews.

The standing high councils, at the stakes of Zion,

form a quorum equal in authority in the affairs of the church,

in all their decisions, to the quorum of the presidency or to the travelling high council.

The high council in Zion form a quorum equal in authority in the affairs of the church,

in all to the councils of the Twelve at the stakes of Zion.

It is the duty of the travelling high council to call upon the Seventy,

when they need assistance, to fill the several calls for preaching and administering the gospel instead of others.

Other D&C texts include 76:28-30; 76:89-98; 109:24-28.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking this a simplistic literary style. It can be very complex and involved. But don’t make the mistake, either, of thinking that its presence in a text is compelling proof of a claim. It is a style both complicated and common that the untutored can easily fall into, the educated unconsciously copy to a degree of complexity, and the trained and determined can reproduce well enough, or offer involved enough comment on to impress the unwary.

Here is one of my own humble making:

Chiasmus

is a form

not a proof.

Proof comes

In the form of

Christ.

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