Chiasmus: Blog Post #4. March 15, 2015

Ancient literature, including classical Greek and Latin, and also the Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible, made extensive use of what are called “chiastic” structures.  Here is a good reference on chiasmus that will introduce you to the subject.

The greatest master of the English language, William Shakespeare, also used chiasmus, especially as he matured as a writer.  I like this article on the Bard’s use of chiasmus.

Basically the idea of chiasmus is that the critical or key point of the chiasm is at the center of the structure, and that corresponding supporting ideas parallel each other on either side of the chiasm.  The ideas do not always use exactly the same words, but the thoughts and ideas are parallel.  Here is an example from Isaiah Chapter 6 verse 10.

A “Make the heart of this people fat,
B and make their ears heavy,
C and shut their eyes;
C1 lest they see with their eyes,
B1 and hear with their ears,
A1 and understand with their heart, and convert [return], and be healed.”

Chiasmus is a potent literary device to enhance the impact of writing (and associated reading of the written word, common in an oral tradition).

Mormons assert that the Book of Mormon was written by a people with their linguistic roots in Hebrew from about the 6th century B.C.  If Book of Mormon is an authentic book, then it likely contains chiasms.  And indeed it does—it contains many of them.

Professor John Welch discovered chiasmus in the Book of Mormon and has written extensively on it.  I recommend the writings of Professor Welch if you want to learn more about chiasmus in the Book of Mormon. Here is a good link to get you started, but don’t click on it right now.  Wait a few minutes, trust me, please.  🙂

My favorite chiasm in the Book of Mormon is found in Alma 36. The entire chapter is a chiasm, and it is probably the best chiasm in all the literature that I have ever read.  With all due respect to the Bard of Avon, Shakespeare never wrote any chiasm nearly as long or as powerful as the one in Alma 36.  Here is the chapter in question.

The writer of this chapter was a man named Alma (yes, an authentic male name with Hebrew roots–that is yet another piece of evidence that I will consider in another blog).  In his youth Alma rebelled against God, using his great powers of language to lead people away from God.  A visit from an angel of God got Alma’s attention and turned him around.  Alma outlines that process, and his attendant suffering, in this chapter.

The central doctrine of Christianity is the Atonement of Jesus Christ, his vicarious sacrifice on behalf of humankind to free us from the effects of death and sin.  Alma describes the suffering he underwent until his mind “caught hold” on the Atonement.  The central point of this chiasm is the Atonement of Jesus Christ (see verses 17 and 18; the whole chapter turns on this key point, and there are seventeen chiastic elements on either side of that central point.  Before you proceed any further reading this blog, try to find all seventeen of the chiastic elements on either side of the central thought: the Atonement of Jesus Christ.    

OK, have you struggled enough?   🙂

Now you can go to the link above at and read the subsection dealing with Alma 36.  I have copied below from Lindsay’s article the chiastic structure of Alma 36 with the seventeen parallel ideas and their corresponding verses in parentheses.

(a) My son, give ear to my WORDS (1)



(d) in REMEMBERING THE CAPTIVITY of our fathers (2);

(e) for they were in BONDAGE (2)

(f) he surely did DELIVER them (2)

(g) TRUST in God (3)

(h) supported in their TRIALS, and TROUBLES, and AFFLICTIONS (3)

(i) shall be lifted up at the LAST DAY (3)

(j) I KNOW this not of myself but of GOD (4)

(k) BORN OF GOD (5)

(l) I sought to destroy the church of God (6-9)

(m) MY LIMBS were paralyzed (10)

(n) Fear of being in the PRESENCE OF GOD (14-15)

(o) PAINS of a damned soul (16)


(q) I remembered JESUS CHRIST, SON OF GOD (17)

(q’) I cried, JESUS, SON OF GOD (18)


(o’)  Joy as exceeding as was the PAIN (20)

(n’) Long to be in the PRESENCE OF GOD (22)

(m’) My LIMBS received their strength again (23)

(l’) I labored to bring souls to repentance (24)

(k’) BORN OF GOD (26)

(j’) Therefore MY KNOWLEDGE IS OF GOD (26)

(h’) Supported under TRIALS, TROUBLES, and AFFLICTIONS (27)

(g’) TRUST in him (27)

(f’) He will deliver me (27)


(e’) As God brought our fathers out of BONDAGE and captivity (28-29)


(c’) KNOW AS I DO KNOW (30)


(a’) This is according to his WORD (30).


This complex, parallel arrangement of ideas cannot be an accident. This was a deliberate, designed use of chiasm by a great writer, a man named Alma.

I am completely bowled over by this complex, beautiful chiasm, a whole chapter long, on the central doctrine of Christianity, the Atonement. What a wonderful witness that Jesus is our Savior and Redeemer.

So my dear readers, your education is infinitely better than Joseph Smith’s.  And you have much more time to write, research and revise your writing than ever he did.  He actually had none.  He and his family were busy grubbing out a living in upstate New York in the early 1800s.  They had to work all the time just to stay alive.

So I ask you: did you know about chiasmus before now?  And even if you knew about it, could you write a chiasm as extensive and beautiful as the one (Mormons believe) was written by an ancient prophet named Alma?  I respectfully invite you to try to write one on some serious subject.  I am a decent writer, and I cannot even come close, although I have tried.

And if you cannot write a chiasm like Alma 36, would you please seriously consider the proposition that the Book of Mormon is what it claims to be: a record of an ancient people and their dealings with God?

I invite you to read the Book of Mormon, to ponder it, think about it, struggle with it, and then ask God if it is true. Ask with a deep sincerity and commitment to follow the consequences of your answer wherever they may lead you. And you will know for yourself.

I have done so.  I know the Book of Mormon comes from God and is powerful evidence that Joseph Smith was a true prophet.

Oh that clever kid Joseph Smith, he not only knew about chiasmus, but he was able to write what I believe is the best chiasm in all of literature.



Steel Bows and Stone Boxes: Post #3 March 1, 2015

Joseph Smith provides numerous concrete details in the Book of Mormon and in his other writings.  For a supposed fraud, Joseph surely didn’t hesitate to go way out on many limbs.  He provided more than enough rope to hang himself over and over again—if he were a fraud.

I will be commenting about some of the many specific details that Joseph could have hung himself on…but didn’t.  I will especially focus on specifics that Joseph appeared to hang himself on, but which later study and discovery have shown to be either correct or at the least, highly plausible. This blog post is about two of the specifics that interest me: steel bows and stone boxes.

Steel bows first. 

Here is the first relevant quote from the Book of Mormon. From First Nephi Chapter 16, verse 18: “And it came to pass that as I, Nephi, went forth to slay food, behold, I did break my bow, which was made of fine steel; and after I did break my bow, behold, my brethren were angry with me because of the loss of my bow, for we did obtain no food”.   (Bold emphasis added.)

Most educated people of Joseph’s day, if they thought of the matter at all, thought of ancient history as divided into the Stone, Bronze and Iron ages.  The Iron Age lasted from about 1300 BC until about 700 AD.  It was thought that steel (very complex alloys of iron and carbon) didn’t come along until much, much later, after the collapse of the Iron Age.  So here that clever kid Joseph Smith goes way out on a limb and talks about a steel bow in approximately 600 BC, at the beginning of the Book of Mormon and the middle of the Iron Age.

Why on earth would you make a bow out of steel, anyway?  Well, Nephi’s bow was probably not all steel. It probably was a composite, made partly of wood and partly of steel. Given the properties of the two materials, you could make an excellent bow by riveting or binding two flexible steel arms, recurved for extra power, to a strong wood stock.

Only one problem, you would need a really strong archer to bend such a bow.

And Nephi tells us, quite casually, that he was in fact, one very strong young fellow.  In First Nephi Chapter 4, verse 31 we read: And now I, Nephi, being a man large in stature, and also having received much strength of the Lord, therefore I did seize upon the servant of Laban, and held him, that he should not flee.

Nephi simply held this servant, a fully grown man (whose name was Zoram) in a bear hug, so that Zoram couldn’t run, until he could reassure Zoram that he would be safe with Nephi and his family.

So you can make a bow out of steel and you can draw the bow if you are very strong.

But where do you get the steel?  Silly Joseph, there was no steel back then…so most folks in Joseph’s day might have thought.  Many people probably still think this way.

In fact, there was steel around in 600 BC, probably a lot of it, but it was very expensive or “precious”.  Just as there is plenty of gold around today, but it is very precious or costly.  (By the way, for a long time aluminum was more precious or costly than gold.  So there is precedent for a “precious” metal becoming a common metal.)

Earlier in the same Chapter 4 of First Nephi, verse 9, Nephi finds a man named Laban (who earlier has robbed and tried to kill Nephi and his brothers—more about that in another post), lying dead drunk at night in the streets of Jerusalem.  Nephi tells us of Laban’s sword: “And I beheld his sword, and I drew it forth from the sheath thereof; and the hilt thereof was of pure gold, and the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine, and I saw that the blade thereof was of the most precious steel.”  (Bold emphasis added.) 

Here is an excellent article on iron and steel in Homeric times, about 900 BC.  The discussion on steel and how difficult (and therefore expensive) steel would have been to manufacture starts on page 3.  It would certainly have been “precious”.

So if you were rich, you could afford to pay for the steel and the craftsmanship required to make both the bow and the steel.

And Nephi’s family was rich. Again, we are informed very casually in the Book of Mormon that Nephi’s family was rich, very rich.  First Nephi Chapter 3, verses 23 and 24 read: And it came to pass that we went in unto Laban, and desired him that he would give unto us the records which were engraven upon the plates of brass, for which we would give unto him our gold, and our silver, and all our precious things.  And it came to pass that when Laban saw our property, and that it was exceedingly great, he did lust after it, insomuch that he thrust us out, and sent his servants to slay us, that he might obtain our property.

So, steel was available in Nephi’s day, you could make a bow from it, you could buy such a bow if you were rich and you could draw the bow if you were really strong. All these details line up.

One last detail: do we know, in fact, that bows were made of steel in Nephi’s day?

Well, about a hundred years after Nephi broke his bow made of fine steel,  the great Greek dramatist Aeschylus writes in his play “The Persians” (translated by Robert Potter) that the Persian army was equipped with steel bows (see line 24 in the first chorus) at the Battle of Marathon (490 BC).

(By the way, Aeschylus is a wonderful playwright…I highly recommend his works.  He often wrote his plays as trilogies. My personal favorite is his trilogy “The Oresteia”.  The three part nature of great stories is familiar to Mormons with our overarching narrative of humankind’s premortal, mortal and postmortal existence. The trilogy format is also familiar to lovers of the works of J. R. R. Tolkien.   I happen to belong to both groups, the Mormons and lovers of Tolkien.  :))

If an outstanding scholar like Robert Potter can translate his text of Aeschylus’ writings as reading “steel bows” then it was certainly acceptable for Joseph Smith to encounter bows made of fine steel in the plates he translated.

Enough about steel bows for the time being.  Let’s talk about stone boxes for a moment.

Stone Boxes

In his history, Joseph Smith relates his being directed by an angel to the Book of Mormon plates and other sacred objects deposited in a stone box.

Here is the relevant text from the Joseph Smith History, verses 51 and 52:

“Convenient to the village of Manchester, Ontario county, New York, stands a hill of considerable size, and the most elevated of any in the neighborhood. On the west side of this hill, not far from the top, under a stone of considerable size, lay the plates, deposited in a stone box. This stone was thick and rounding in the middle on the upper side, and thinner towards the edges, so that the middle part of it was visible above the ground, but the edge all around was covered with earth.  Having removed the earth, I obtained a lever, which I got fixed under the edge of the stone, and with a little exertion raised it up. I looked in, and there indeed did I behold theplates, the Urim and Thummim, and the breastplate, as stated by the messenger. The box in which they lay was formed by laying stones together in some kind of cement. In the bottom of the box were laid two stones crossways of the box, and on these stones lay the plates and the other things with them.”

So instead of telling us that he found the plates in a cave, or simply buried in the ground, Joseph states very specifically that they were in a stone box, with the stones joined by cement.

In 1985 on a trip to Mexico City, I visited the Museo del Templo Mayor (Museum of the Great Temple), which houses artifacts and other displays related to the great Aztec shrine at Tenochtitlan, just outside Mexico City.  Immediately on entering the Museum, on your left hand side (at least in 1985) you will see several large stone boxes, made of stone slabs joined by cement.  I didn’t have a camera to take a picture in those days, but here are two pictures of these stone boxes from this website.


These stone boxes were specifically used to hold religious objects, as offerings. This quote from Wikipedia is helpful.

“Most of the objects found in the Templo Mayor were offerings. Although many are of Mexica design, there are also abundant items from other peoples, brought in as tribute or through trade. Sculptures, flint knives, vessels, beads and other sumptuary ornaments—as well as minerals, plants and animals of all types, and the remains of human sacrifice—were among the items deposited in offerings. All of these fulfilled a specific function within the offering, depending on the symbolism of each object. In excavations at the Templo Mayor, different types of offerings have been found and have been grouped by researchers in terms of Time (the period in which the offering was deposited); Space (the location of the offering within the structure); Container (type and dimensions of the receptacle containing the objects); internal distribution (placement of objects within the offering) and value of the items. The offerings were usually contained in cavities, in stone urns, and in boxes made of slabs. These are found under floors; in platforms, architectural bodies, stairways and in temples. These offerings were placed accompanied by complex rituals following set temporal, spatial and symbolic patterns, depending on the intention of the offering.”

So here we have another interesting detail from Joseph Smith that proves to be spot on. The Mejica (the builders of Tenochtitlan) and other Mesoamericans did indeed hide up sacred objects in stone boxes made with cement.

How many of us would have thought to put that detail into our made up story (made up in 1828), about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon and the plates?  I surely wouldn’t have thought to do it. Would you have?  Would you have written casually (and correctly) about bows made of precious steel?

Oh that clever kid, Joseph Smith. 

Except, he wasn’t clever, he was a true prophet of God.