Hebraisms & Chiasmus In The Book of Mormon?

In a 2009 conference talk LDS apostle Jeffrey R. Holland 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.

Jeffrey Holland seems to put a lot of weight on these proposed “Semitisms” in the Book of Mormon as evidence of the book’s authenticity and historicity. He even chose to speak at a “Chiasmus Jubilee” that was held at BYU in 2018. 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.

THE PRESENCE OF THINGS LIKE COGNATE ACCUSATIVE, NEGATIVE QUESTIONS, CONSTRUCT STATE, COMPOUND PREPOSITIONS, AND ADVERBIALS IN THE TEXT:

I’m honestly surprised to see the folks at “Book of Mormon Central” still claiming that the presence of these things in the text represents any kind of significant evidence of the antiquity of the Book of Mormon. The claim of course is that such things are uniquely representative of Hebrew syntax, and that this suggests it has real Hebrew ties. 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 scriptural style of writing (see HERE). In fact, the same things show up in the 1833 version of the D&C called the “Book of Commandments” (see HERE). Thus, as evidence for authenticity, such things are simply not very significant, and the folks at Book of Mormon Central should really be more clear about that.

THE PRESENCE OF “CHIASMUS”

So what about “Chiasmus?” I’m told over and over by various people that the literary form of “chiasmus” (a kind of parallelism used in Hebrew texts) 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 true?

First, it’s interesting (and a bit humorous) 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) have claimed multiple instances of chiasmus in Strang’s “Book of the Law” to be evidence of its “sacred origins” (see HERE) even though it isn’t claimed to be an ancient work! 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 to consider that the reality is that humans can pull these kinds of patterns out of texts–ancient or modern–if they look for them.

It is demonstrable that if people want to find patterns of chiasmus badly enough, they can find it in all sorts of places even where there was obviously no conscious attempt by the author to create these patterns (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)

I credit Gardner and Ostler for acknowledging some limitations here, but 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.

I worry that organizations like Book of Mormon Central are deliberately giving their viewers a drastically inflated sense of the power of “chiasmus” as evidence for Book of Mormon authenticity.

BOOK OF MORMON NAMES AS PROPOSED EVIDENCE OF AUTHENTICITY

Some, such as the folks at Book of Mormon Central, have proposed that the names in the Book of Mormon are significant evidence of the book’s historicity by claiming that they are in many cases consistent with real Hebrew names, and that it’s unlikely that a “farm boy” like Joseph could have achieved this by chance. But is that really so? How powerful are these things as evidence? In this section I will respond directly to the claims in Book of Mormon Central’s video that can be found HERE.

First of all, as the video acknowledges indirectly, 149 of the 337 names in the Book of Mormon are actually found in the Bible, leaving us with 188 unique names. But what is not acknowledged in the video is that a LOT (I admittedly haven’t done an exact count myself) of those 188 unique names are just variations on biblical words and names (the same words/names but with the ending changed). The video above inexplicably goes so far as to try to claim that Sam and Josh are significant “hits” in the text even though they’re just shortened versions of the biblical names Samuel and Joshua!

Next, there are no vowels in Hebrew. Only consonants. This hugely increases ones ability to invent connections where there are no actual connections. It drastically increases the number of possible words one can propose as having a legitimate Hebrew connection when in reality none exists. For example, the name Alma is proposed in the video. If we strip away the vowels that wouldn’t have existed in Hebrew, we have only  l and m. In other words, an apologist must only find a word or name in Hebrew that has l and m in it, and they can claim that it could be Alma when in fact it could have been an entirely different word or name when spoken. 

The video proposes the word Irreantum as evidence, noting that LDS scholars have found two different possible legitimate ancient linguistic origins for this word that fit with its meaning in the text–one of them being Egyptian, and the other Semitic. But the fact that they can find a parallel with two different languages just suggests that if people want to invent these kind of connections where none legitimately exists, they can fairly easily do so. Because obviously both of those connections cannot be legitimate.

I find the wordplay examples in the video very unimpressive. Really stretching. Also, I think just as likely as “Nephi” deriving from some Egyptian word is that Joseph either got it from the Apocrypha which happens to use it (thinking it was a place name that meant “cleansed”), or perhaps simply came up with it by altering one of many biblical words such as Nephilim, Nephish, Nephishesim, or Nephew.

The video suggests that it’s impressive that the Book of Mormon doesn’t use Q, X or W in its names and that this is consistent with Hebrew names. But honestly, do you know of a lot of names with Q and X in them? I sure don’t! 

It’s worth noting that some of the names Joseph chose are arguably problematic and suggest that Joseph got a bit sloppy when coming up with the names of the 12 “disciples” in 3rd Nephi. It seems likely that while dictating this section Joseph was unconsciously being influenced by the New Testament. The names of three of the 12 “disciples” are actually Greek names (Jonas and Timothy, with the name Jonas actually being used for two of the 12 disciples). Interestingly, in the New Testament the name Jonas has connections with the 12 apostles as Jonas was the father of two of the 12 apostles. Two of the disciples in 3rd Nephi have names that seem like re-inventions of Matthew (Mathoni and Mathonihah) who of course was an apostle in the New Testament. Two other names (Kumen and Kumenonhi) are very similar to each other, and 3 other names are popular Old Testament names that appear nowhere else in the Book of Mormon. Dan Vogel aptly noted all these issues in his biography of Joseph Smith, concluding that “one wonders if the list was made up spontaneously and if the rapid succession of derivative names Mathoni/Mathonihah and Kumen/Kumenonhi might suggest that his creativity was being overworked.”

In conclusion, I am all for people exploring the best evidence that can be put forward by both sides. Go ahead and explore and weigh these issues for whatever they are worth, but I propose that those who have allowed themselves to hear both sides of the issue will find that these proposed evidences are not nearly as signifiant as many make them out to be.

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. 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.”

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