With a recent “Chiasmus Jubilee” having taken place at BYU, I want to make available my thoughts on claims of “Hebraisms” in the Book of Mormon, including chiasmus. Even apostle Jeffrey R. Holland seems to put significant weight on these “Hebraisms” as evidences of the Book of Mormon’s authenticity. Not only did he actually speak at this recent “jubilee,” but back in a 2009 conference talk he claimed that “If anyone is foolish enough or misled enough to reject 531 pages of a heretofore unknown text teeming with literary and Semitic complexity…then such a person, elect or otherwise, has been deceived.”
What are these “Semitisms” or “Hebraisms” that Holland and others refer to, and how significant are they as “evidence” of the Book of Mormon’s authenticity? I am absolutely an advocate for exploring the best evidence that can be produced by each side and considering it for what it’s worth, but I’m concerned that many in the LDS apologetic community are leaving people who don’t know any better with drastically overstated views of the power of these alleged “Hebraisms” as evidence for the Book of Mormon’s authenticity.
First, I was surprised to see the folks at “Book of Mormon Central” still claiming that things like cognate accusative, negative questions, construct state, compound prepositions, and adverbials in the text represent significant evidence of the antiquity of the Book of Mormon because they represent uniquely Hebrew syntax. I remember being taught such things in my classes at BYU in 2001, but at this point I can’t see putting any significant weight on such things given that we now know that Gilbert Hunt managed to have all this same Hebrew syntax in his 1816 book The Late War simply by mimicking a biblical style of writing (see HERE). Thus, as evidence for authenticity, such things are simply not very significant at all. I propose that if the folks at Book of Mormon Central are going to make a video promoting such things as significant evidence, they should at least leave people with a reasonably level-headed view of the issue by informing them that the same things do show up by chance in other modern books that mimic a biblical style of writing. Sadly, they seem pretty heavily invested in making sure people don’t get a balanced view of these issues, because when I respectfully stated this information in a comment on their video, my comments were quickly deleted and I was blocked from the page.
But what about “Chiasmus?” I’m told over and over by various people that the literary form of “chiasmus” is extremely powerful evidence for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, and that the odds of such things being there by chance are extremely low. But is that really so?
First, it’s interesting that the followers of James Strang (an “apostate” whom most of Joseph’s family, several apostles, and several Book of Mormon witnesses actually believed was Joseph’s successor rather than Brigham) claim multiple instances of chiasmus in Strang’s “Book of the Law” to be evidence of its “sacred origins” (see HERE). When the example they give from Strang’s first chapter is as good as most examples given from the Book of Mormon, I think its time for everyone to cool their jets and engage in a bit less “chiasmus jubilation.”
Consider also that if people want to find chiasmus badly enough, they can find it in all sorts of places (although the Book of Mormon’s repetitive and redundant nature make it a particularly great place to find them). I’m sure these quick examples I’ve seen can be criticized (just as the Book of Mormon ones can), but they illustrate our ability to find patterns if we want to. Here is one from writings of the prophet John Taylor (HERE). Here is one from an LDS gospel topics essay (HERE). And here is one from the aforementioned book by Gilbert Hunt (HERE). Examples have even been found in the Doctrine & Covenants (see Don Winegar’s work). There are also examples in the Book of Mormon that would seem quite impressive to people at first look, but which fall apart on further examination (for example, Brant Gardner notes that one from King Benjamin is problematic given that it comes from an oral address that responds to spontaneous audience reaction, and thus wouldn’t have been a product of forethought necessary to produce chiasmus). Jared Demke is finding all sorts of examples (HERE). All of this suggests that these things can very reasonably be attributed to chance and to the ability of humans to identify patterns when they want to.
“But what about Alma 36,” everyone asks. For most, Alma 36 is the most impressive example of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon—proposed long ago by John Welch. Many like to point to a few studies whose established criteria led them to conclude that the chiasmus in Alma 36 is too strong to reasonably attribute to chance (HERE or HERE). But Wunderli’s article HERE makes some very valid points as to why their established criteria is problematic, and why this Alma 36 chiasmus is in many respects something that was squeezed out of the text by Welch. And before you dismiss Wunderli’s take without giving his reasoning serious consideration, you really should note that even believing scholar and defender of the Book of Mormon Brant Gardner has gone on record stating the following about Alma 36:
“After examining the evidence, I take Wunderli’s side in concluding that the extended chiasmus of Alma 36 owes more to Welch’s construction than to the plate text…” (The Gift & Power, pg. 199, see footnote 7, HERE)
We also have believer Blake Ostler who acknowledges the following (note that he lists Alma 36 specifically as an example):
“Chiasmus can also be found in some nineteenth-century works, including the Doctrine and Covenants and Book of Abraham (D&C 88:34-38; 98:18-38; 132:19-26; Abr. 3:16-19). Thus, the assumption that chiasmus is an exclusively ancient poetic device appears to be false. Further, many Book of Mormon chiastic passages presuppose a doctrine of Christ developed beyond anything found in the Old Testament (Mosiah 3:18-19; 5:10-12; 2 Ne. 25:2-27; Alma 36; 41:13-15).” (The BoM as A Modern Expansion of An Ancient Source, p. 100-101)
Interestingly, while I credit Gardner and Ostler for acknowledging some limitations here, it’s interesting generally speaking to see many others who will gladly embrace “loose translation” approaches when they need them in order to account for obvious 19th century content in the Book of Mormon, but at the same time many of them still often want to claim that the translation process was “tight” enough that alleged Hebrew literary forms like Chiasmus (and the other examples I gave in my third paragraph) could still come through the translation. It was a “loose translation” wherever they need it to be a loose translation, and it was a “tight translation” wherever they want it to be a tight translation. Funny how that works.
In conclusion, I am all for people exploring the best evidence that can be put forward by both sides. Go ahead and explore chiasmus for whatever its worth, but I propose that those who have allowed themselves to hear both sides of the issue will find that it is not nearly as significant as it is often made out to be. In fact, I propose that the folks at Book of Mormon central should be embarrassed by the way that they are continually leading people who don’t know any better to view these types of evidence as being far more powerful and harder to account for than they are (with their 15 or so chiasmus videos…and counting). Perhaps rather than leading loads of people to feel that anyone who doesn’t see such things as significant evidence are being unreasonable, they could let people know that even some believers like Ostler and Gardner have offered significant caution. But of course then people might be less impressed by their videos. Perhaps their anonymous donors would be upset?
But of course, for me, the biggest factor that led me to be less impressed by such things was when I sincerely considered the evidence that the Book of Mormon was a 19th century document, and not a historical record. When I did that, I found it to be on an entirely different level than all the other “evidences” that I had once been impressed by. Things like these “Hebraisms” suddenly became extremely insignificant when viewed in context of all the other evidence. I’ve begun outlining some of those issues HERE. In any case, if you agree with Holland that those who feel the Book of Mormon is not historical are “foolish,” “misled,” and “deceived,” I propose that your conclusion should have little to do with “Hebraisms” or “Semitisms.”