Question: Is the presence of chiastic structures in the Book of Mormon simply coincidence?

Table of Contents

Question: Is the presence of chiastic structures in the Book of Mormon simply coincidence?

The "hickory dickory dock" theory of chiasmus

Critics of the Book of Mormon have proposed what might be called the "hickory dickory dock" theory of chiasmus. They point out that the children's nursery rhyme Hickory Dickory Dock is chiastic:

Hickory Dickory Dock as Chiasmus
A - Hickory dickory dock
B - The mouse ran up the clock
C (central) - The clock struck one
B' - The mouse ran down

A' - Hickory dickory dock

Such simple examples of chiasmus are well known in English speech

To be sure, this is a trivial example. If this was the only sort of chiasmus to be found in the Book of Mormon, then it would be weak evidence, at best, of any sort of ancient origin for the text. Such simple examples of chiasmus are well known in English speech. This particular example becomes a bit more complicated, of course, because this poem can also be rewritten in a different format:

Hickory Dickory Dock as Limerick
Hickory dickory dock

The mouse ran up the clock

The clock struck one
The mouse ran down

Hickory dickory dock

Which structural label better describes the poem? Was it intended to be read chiastically? Or was it intended to be a limerick? Or does neither description best suit the likely intent of the author?

From the Bible
A - The last
B - shall be first
B' - and the first

A' - shall be last.

From: Matthew 9:30, Matthew 20:16


From Shakespeare
A - Fair is
B - foul
B' - and foul

A' - is fair.

From: Macbeth, Act I, scene 1, lines 11–12.

Such simple examples do exist in the Book of Mormon

The "hickory dickory dock" theory would seem to be a strawman. Such simple examples do exist in the Book of Mormon, (examples) but they are not the most impressive ones. Critics try to pretend that the simple, trivial parallelisms represent all such chiastic samples in the Book of Mormon. If Joseph Smith was writing the Book of Mormon himself, he might well compose simple parallelisms intentionally, or even accidentally.

Small, "trivial" chiastic structures containing only a few elements might well arise through chance or English rhetoric, especially when other elements within the text are not considered in the analysis.

However, critics ignore numerous complex, subtle, and meaningful chiamus when they assume that all of the Book of Mormon's inverted parallel structures are so simple. On the other hand, more work needs to be done to evaluate the hundreds of proposed chiastic readings of the Book of Mormon.[1] Some of them will inevitably end up as less likely than others, though statistical analysis has sustained the presence of some Book of Mormon chiasmus,[2] and failed to support it in some of Joseph's modern writings.[3]

And for LDS members, the value of these readings is less about demonstrating historicity in the text, and more about interpreting the text with the intentions of the authors in mind, as viewed through their use of rhetorical figures.

Notes

  1. Guidelines for such analysis can be found at John W. Welch, "Criteria for Identifying and Evaluating the Presence of Chiasmus," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 4/2 (1995): 1–4. off-site wiki
  2. Boyd F. Edwards and W. Farrell Edwards, "Does Chiasmus Appear in the Book of Mormon by Chance?," Brigham Young University Studies 43 no. 2 (2004), 103–130.; see also Boyd F. Edwards and W. Farrell Edwards, "Response to Earl Wunderli’s Critique of Alma 36 as an Extended Chiasm," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought - Dialogue Paperless: E-Paper #1 (30 April 2006), [{{{pdf}}} PDF link]
  3. Boyd F. Edwards and W. Farrell Edwards, "Does Joseph's Letter to Emma of 4 November 1838 Show that He Knew about Chiasmus?," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought - Dialogue Paperless: E-Paper #4 (26 August 2006), [{{{pdf}}} PDF link]