What A Non-LDS Scholar Said about Chiasmus

I recommend reading http://publications.mi.byu.edu/fullscreen/?pub=1131&index=1 to the scholarly book, Chiasmus in Antiquity, edited by John Welch. The full text of that intriguing book is available free online at the Maxwell Institute. Here is part of what Dr. Freedman has to say:

The more extended uses of chiasm raise further questions. As with much of literature, especially poetry, ambiguity and obscurity are inherent in the form and content: chiasm only adds to the uncertainty and mystery. Scholars now recognize chiasms beyond the simple type described above, chiasms which involve passages of verse or prose ranging in length from a few sentences to hundreds of thousands of words. This more complex form of chiasm is not merely grammatical but structural or intentional; it systematically serves to concentrate the reader’s or hearer’s interest on the central expression. The number of such chiastic constructions which satisfy both sets of criteria: inversion and balance on the one hand, and climactic centrality on the other, is substantially less than the simpler mechanical variety. But wherever they are present, these structures may add novel perspectives and unexpected dimension to the texts in which they appear.

There is yet a further extension of the term chiasm. Even more difficult and controversial issues arise when chiasm is defined in terms of thought and theme, rather than the more visible words and patterns. Inevitably a large subjective element enters into these discussions, and the presence or absence of chiasm on this level can become almost a voter’s choice.

Scholars, therefore, may range between separated areas of research in their approach to chiasm. On the one extreme, the phenomenon itself can be described or defined rigorously, so that it is verifiable and often self-evident; while in this sense it is part of a deliberate pattern of composition, it nevertheless leaves the wider world of symbolism and significance to others. At the other end of the spectrum, definitions and limits are hard to determine, and speculation is rife; but large issues of meaning and intention can be raised, and important questions about the nature and significance of extended literary pieces are considered. The study of these great chiasms has enormous implications for analysis and interpretation, but the wider the scope and the more extended the reach, the less certain the results necessarily become. In the end, neither approach will escape if carried to extremes.

Only a book with many varieties of presentation can display the present state of chiastic studies. While a great deal of important work has been done across the many domains of ancient literature, the study of ancient literary techniques is still in ferment and flux. A common fund of axioms and assumptions and a single sure-handed methodology are yet to be established. The present volume reflects accurately both the ferment and the progress which is being made on a variety of fronts, and is all the more to be welcomed for bringing together the results of research in different literatures of antiquity. The editor is to be commended for his catholicity and courage, and for his own original contributions in several domains including a unique treatment of the Book of Mormon. His introduction to the whole work is indispensable. [emphasis added]

–David Noel Freedman

Dr. Freedman has been called one of the world’s foremost scholars on the Bible. You can also read about him on Wikipedia. He passed away in 2008.

Of course, scholars aren’t exactly lining up to be baptized as Mormons because John Welch found some cool chiastic passages in his unique treatment of the Book of Mormon. But once Mormonism becomes more helpful in obtaining tenure, perhaps that will change quickly. 😉

You may also enjoy another useful resource I just found on the importance of chiasmus in the Bible by Brad McCoy, “Chiasmus: An Important Structural Device Commonly Found in Biblical Literature” (PDF). Brad is a pastor with a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from Trinity Theological Seminary (and no, he does not mention the Book of Mormon in his article, though he does cite Welch’s book on chiasmus).

Chiasmus can be found in some degree almost anywhere and is found in many languages and literatures. As Freedman observes, sometimes it can be contrived by the reader and not really intended or consciously used as a literary device. Other uses can be rather trivial even if deliberate. This is where we get into the issue of the degree of chiasticity introduced by Welch (“Criteria for Identifying and Evaluating the Presence of Chiasmus,” 1995), including various indicators to help us determine if the structure is deliberate, meaningful, and probably intended. There are many weak examples that enthusiasts for the Book of Mormon, the Bible, and other texts have found, but there are some real gems that should raise eyebrows, as I discuss on my page about chiasmus in the Book of Mormon. See also Boyd F. Edwards and W. Farrell Edwards, “Does Chiasmus Appear in the Book of Mormon by Chance?,” BYU Studies, Vol. 43, no. 2, pp. 103-130 (2004).

Author: Jeff Lindsay

19 thoughts on “What A Non-LDS Scholar Said about Chiasmus

  1. Jeff, at your suggestion I read Freedman's preface, and now I'm curious to know what you find so significant in it.

    — Eveningsun

  2. I hope his comments will create further awareness about the complexity and richness of chiasmus, and help people realize that the study of it in the Book of Mormon is not necessarily a ridiculous exercise. Freedman was a real heavyweight, and his respect for the work, Chiasmus in Antiquity, is appreciated.

  3. I hope his comments will create further awareness about the complexity and richness of chiasmus, and help people realize that the study of it in the Book of Mormon is not necessarily a ridiculous exercise.

    I'm happy to say that we agree on this one, Jeff.

    — Eveningsun

  4. Ah, He falls short of giving chiasm much proving power.

    But I think that article you linked to with the statistical analysis by those physics Ph D's was hard-hitting. Any chance you know of any other studies on mathematically determining the likelihood of designed vs. accidental chiasmus? It'd be nice to reproduce that paper's results and run some tests on other examples of chiasm

  5. I have heard John W. Welch relate a story about Freeman no less than 3 times where he (Welch) sat down with Freedman and started showing Freedman the chiasm in Alma 36. Freedman quickly started identifying the chiastic elements himself, and commented to Welch, "Latter-day Saints are lucky to have the Book of Mormon; this book is beautiful."

  6. >>But I think that article you linked to with the statistical analysis by those physics Ph D's was hard-hitting. Any chance you know of any other studies on mathematically determining the likelihood of designed vs. accidental chiasmus? It'd be nice to reproduce that paper's results and run some tests on other examples of chiasm<<


    Boyd and Farrell Edwards did a follow-up in 2010 checking the other chiasms that are sometimes brought up as counter examples. Unfortunately, that article is not available for free yet for non-subscribers to BYU Studies. You can download it for $2 here: https://byustudies.byu.edu/showTitle.aspx?title=8655

    Other than these two studies, I am not aware of any other attempts to statistically quantify chiasms. I believe their work is ground breaking not just for BoM chiasm, but for chiasms anywhere.

  7. There's little point in "statistically quantify[ing] chiasms." The rationale for doing so seems to be rooted in a false dichotomy, in the idea that the BoM's chiasms result from either design or chance, which of course is a pretty simplistic (and apologetically self-serving) approach to questions of literary creation.*

    To my mind the most likely explanation for BoM chiasm lies in the fact that Joseph Smith tried to emulate the overall feel of the King James Bible. In doing so he naturally picked up on all kinds of biblical vocabulary, phraseology, topics, rhythms, and devices, from his frequent use of "And it came to pass" to his use of chiasm. To what extent is the presence of these biblicisms the result of conscious authorial choice on Smith's part? It's hard to say, as hard in Smith's case as in the case of any other author. Literary composition is complex.

    As Welch himself put it, "occurrences of simple chiasmus (like simple instances of alliteration, rhyme, or other obvious literary effects) are consciously created in many cases. But such inversions can also occur out of habit or convention, subliminally, subconsciously, and even inadvertently."

    So it's not just "designed vs. accidental chiasmus," but chiasmus that is designed ("consciously created"), accidental ("inadvertently"), AND habitual, conventional, subliminal, unconscious, etc. (There are probably many other, as yet unknown, explanations for the presence of chiasmus. It wouldn't surprise me if cognitive science were to start revealing that a lot of literary structures are rooted in the neuronal structure and operations of the brain.)

    This being the case, what could possibly be learned from determining the probability of accidental chiasmus, when everyone already knows the probability is both miniscule and irrelevant? When in my comment above I agreed with Jeff that the study of chiasm (and other literary devices) in the BoM "is not necessarily a ridiculous exercise," I meant it. But "mathematically determining the likelihood of designed vs. accidental chiasmus" is a ridiculous exercise. The false dualism involved is every bit as ridiculous as the one adopted by creationists who say that organic complexity must be the result of either design (by their God) or pure chance (which would be exceedingly improbable).

    — Eveningsun

  8. Chiasmus are interesting in the Book of mormon debate, interesting in the way the critics downplay them. Over the years, I've seen some pretty interesting internet dancing from the critics on this subject. There is no doubt in my mind that the critics would want to talk about chiasmus all day long if they were not found in the Book of Mormon.

  9. Openminded,

    The study by the Edwards' has been overinterpreted. Their methodology compares the number of chiasms within a passage with the total number of repetitions of literary elements within a passage. The larger the number of non-chiastic repetitions within a passage that contains a chiasmus, the larger the number of opportunities for a chiasmus to occur and the greater the calculated probability that one will occur "by chance." One problem with this approach is that chiasmus isn't the only form of Hebrew parallelism. Some parallelisms preserve the order of the repetitions (aba'b') rather than inverting it into a chiasmus (abb'a'), but both can be "deliberate" or both can be Hebraisms. In Edwards' methodology, the juxtaposition of chiasmus with other forms of Hebrew parallelism results in a higher probability that the chiasmus can occur by "chance." That's why they calculate such a high probability that the chiasmus in Matthew 10:35-39 could occur by chance (0.7), for example.

    In my opinion, chiasmus in the Book of Mormon is beautiful, amazing, and inspiring, but it does not constitute proof of ancient Semitic origin for the simple reason that it also occurs in the Doctrine and Covenants. The study by Edwards suggests that chiasmus in the Doctrine and Covenants is more likely to occur by chance, but I find this unconvincing. Let the reader judge: "for there is no space in the which there is no kingdom; and there is no kingdom in which there is no space" (D&C88:37); " But remember that all my judgments are not given unto men; and as the words have gone forth out of my mouth even so shall they be fulfilled, that the first shall be last, and that the last shall be first in all things whatsoever I have created by the word of my power, which is the power of my Spirit. For by the power of my Spirit created I them; yea, all things both spiritual and temporal— First spiritual, secondly temporal, which is the beginning of my work; and again, first temporal, and secondly spiritual, which is the last of my work— " (D&C29:30-32). These are just a couple of examples. Edwards' select the boundaries of the literary passages that they evaluate, and they apply criteria in selection of literary elements; here there is room for subjectivity and potential bias.

  10. Tony,
    Thanks for the run down. I found their results to be suspect when the sample size (# of chiasms tested) was small, but I took it as a great start to a more "objective" approach.

    As you point out, it's still difficult to exclude whatever subjectivism may pop up from time to time, and this case wasn't fully immune to it.

    It'd be great to have some more independent work done on the matter

  11. Eveningsun,
    I think you make a good point there. But I'm not as quick to cast out statistical analysis. Maybe I'm naive, but I think the right approach could lead to us to a well-informed conclusion. Like anything, it'd have to be tested over time, but studies like this can make for a great starting point.

    We don't need an absence of hebraic literary styles in the BoM to effectively criticize the BoM. Why would we worry about written style when the content speaks enough for itself?

  12. I'm not as quick to cast out statistical analysis…. I think the right approach could lead us to a well-informed conclusion.

    Sure, but a well-informed conclusion about what? About whether this or that given chiasmus is intentional or accidental (or conventional, or unconscious)?

    Who cares about that? Only the literary specialist–or the zealous apologist who thinks (falsely) that chiasmus can demonstrate the BoM's authenticity or literary quality.

    Think about it. One could apply statistical analysis not only to chiasmus but to any other literary or rhetorical device. One could try to specify the probability of the accidental occurrence of alliteration, anaphora, apostrophe… But for some reason, none of these other figures have inflamed the Mormon apologetic imagination like chiasmus.

    It's bizarre. When pressed, the apologist will admit that it's wrong to claim that the presence of chiasmus in the BoM demonstrates the book's authenticity or literary merit, yet the ongoing fascination with chiasmus is driven by precisely that claim. Absent that bogus claim, who would even care? Absent that claim, none but literary specialists would concern themselves with chiasmus in the BoM. The laity would no more care about chiasmus in the BoM than they do about hendiadys in the New Testament or dramatic irony in the Book of Job. The latter devices have no particular apologetic use, so they remain the concern of the specialist.

    I'm not saying that chiasmus is not worth studying. I'm only saying that it has no legitimate apologetic function, yet is treated as if it does. I'm only making a point about the bogus reasons that so many nonspecialists find chiasmus so peculiarly fascinating.

    — Eveningsun

  13. This makes me wonder a lot about the "Modern Language Bible" how much is lost in translation when you change the words from phrases of respect to something common.

    This is a really cool post, it opened my eyes a lot, thank you!

  14. "Yup, the content of the Book of Mormon speaks for itself, and it says 600 BC to 400 AD all over it."

    All over the bottom of the pages, sure.

    you make a convincing case. but the whole background story about chiasm is this appeal to the BoM as being a Hebraic document. Now, I know a lot of this can come through Smith's hyper-religious culture, but to someone who can prove there is a definitively impossible-to-contrive hebraism like chiasm, then it would really say something about the text's qualifications as at least a convincingly Hebraic document.

    And i think it serves just that specific apologetic end, even though it's not enough in the slightest to prove the BoM (which a prayer is supposed to justify in the end, anyways)

  15. "All over the bottom of the pages, sure."

    That was actually a very good retort.

    However, have you ever actually read Jeff's Book of Mormon Evidences page? NHM was the kicker for me. I left the church for many years, NHM and the way the Mormon-Haters (particulary Bill McKeever)dismissed concrete evidence of the spot where Ishmael was buried and the way it lined up perfectly with Bountiful was what brought me back into the fold.

    That's when I learned Mormon-Haters will say and do anything. Whether the Book of Mormon is true or not really doesn't matter to them. What's important is making Mormons, and the LDS church look bad.

    This is the definition of a Son of Perdition: guys like Bill Mckeever who know the Book of Mormon is true, yet preach against it anyway.

  16. "That's when I learned Mormon-Haters will say and do anything. Whether the Book of Mormon is true or not really doesn't matter to them. What's important is making Mormons, and the LDS church look bad.

    This is the definition of a Son of Perdition: guys like Bill Mckeever who know the Book of Mormon is true, yet preach against it anyway."

    Ha, well I agree that Bill's entire motivation is to make Mormonism look stupid. I'm sorry that's all you get exposed to. Mormon critics get lumped into these Evvies who–while not believing the BoM is true, trust me–still believe that you guys are going to Hell for "believing in a different Jesus".

    yet, they don't realize how many of the standards they put up against the BoM go directly against their fairy-tale version of the infallible bible they believe in.

    Nevertheless, people need that sort of outlet sometimes. Religious belief does weird things to us. This one time, when I was a Christian, I legitimately broke down in tears because I thought the Mormons weren't able to experience the love of Christ.

    Don't ask why, it was probably something about the faith vs. works debate. I roll my eyes when I think about it.

    You know, there are a few websites out there that do a much better job of leaving out the bias than MRM. They're rare to find, but also pretty popular because of their honesty (and likely, their lack of Evangelical bible bashing).

  17. There is skillful use of chiasmus in James Joyce's works. I guess that proves that Joyce was really an ancient Israelite and not a 20th-century Irishman.

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