Question: What is chiasmus?

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Question: What is chiasmus?

Chiasmus is a poetical or rhetorical form used by many languages

Chiasmus is a poetical or rhetorical form used by many languages, including Sumero-Akkadian [Sumeria, Assyria, Babylon], Ugaritic [Syrian area circa. 2000 B.C.] , Biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, the Talmud, the New Testament, Greek, and Latin.[1]

Chiasmus is a form of parallelism, in which related or contrasting ideas are placed in juxtaposition for emphasis. Chiasmus uses "inverted parallelism," and takes its name from the Greek letter chi (χ) which looks like an English "X". This name was chosen to reflect the pattern of chiasmus:

Chiasmus pattern
Idea A
Idea B
Idea C
Central idea D (the 'turning point' or 'cross' of the chi)
Idea D repeated (optional)
Idea C repeated
Idea B repeated

Idea A repeated

Because chiasmus relies, to an extent, on relationships between ideas or concepts, as well as on words (e.g. on rhymes or meter) it can survive translation remarkably intact, even if the translator is unaware of its presence. John W. Welch was the first to notice chiastic structures in the Book of Mormon.[2]

Chiasmus itself can be understood in two distinct ways. It can be seen simply as a structural element (which describes the parallels in inverted order). It can also be seen as a rhetorical figure which employs this structure. While the second definition requires a degree of intentionality on the part of the author, the first does not. The difficulty lies in assessing whether or not a proposed example of chiasmus is really chiasmus or not - that is, is it an intentional figure or an accidental occurrence.

Chiasmus as a structure can be found nearly everywhere in prose

Chiasmus as a structure can be found nearly everywhere in prose. However, without considering the rhetorical value of the text, we can only be relatively certain of the intentionality of chiasmus when its structure is offset from the surrounding text in a way that draws our attention to it. This usually only occurs within poetic material where the text around the proposed chiasmus also follows relatively rigid (and intentional) textual patternings. Semitic poetry, for example, frequently uses paired parallel phrases. A passage might go something like this:

A:A' B:B' C:C'

And so on. If on the other hand, in the middle of a series of these parallelisms, we encounter something like this:

A:A' B:B' C:D:E:E':D':C' F:F' G:G'

Then we would have a chiastic structure interrupting the more typical paired parallelisms, and the use of chiasmus would be viewed strongly as being an intentional departure from the parallels that surround it - and thus a real example of chiasmus. This kind of proof does not work in general prose - where we normally do not expect to see structured text. Arguments for the occurrence in prose (and in poetics) are usually centered around the rhetorical value of the text. This can appear in several ways. A classic example of the rhetorical value of a chiasmus is seen in the Hebrew Psalm 82. There, the text uses a word which is ambiguous in Hebrew - meaning either "to rule" or "to judge" (in verses 1,2,3 and 8). The intial instances, when read in Hebrew are ambiguous until, through the chiastic structure, they are explained, and the first half of the poem can be re-read and the ambiguity resolved. Thankfully, when translated, most translators resolve the ambiguity for us. Scholars have developed a series of rules and criteria that can be used to help identify when a proposed chiasmus is an intentional one. Accidental chiastic structures are of little value in textual interpretation, since viewing one as intentional (when it wasn't) may lead to misinterpretation of the text. While the center of a chiasmus is usually the main point of the structure, this is not always the case, further complicating the issue.

While Chiasmus as a term was not known to Joseph Smith, its description as a rhetorical figure preceded the creation of the Book of Mormon significantly

The presence of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon has generated criticism that it is either coincidental, an artifact of the observer, or simply not impressive, since examples of chiastic patterns have been found in the Doctrine and Covenants or other 19th century writing.

While Chiasmus as a term was not known to Joseph Smith (the term "chiasmus" was not coined as a reference to this structure until 1871), its use in English, and its description as a rhetorical figure preceded the creation of the Book of Mormon significantly. Two early descriptions of the figure can be found in George Puttenham (1589) who decribed it as: "Ye haue a figure which takes a couple of words to play with in a verse, and by making them to chaunge and shift one into others place they do very pretily exchange and shift the sence." A few years earlier (1577), Henry Peachem, in his book of rhetorical tropes The Garden of Eloquence wrote: "The use serueth properlie to praise, dispraise, to distinguish, but most commonly to confute by the inuersion of the sentence."


  1. John W. Welch, Chiasmus In Antiquity: Structures, Analyses, Exegesis (Provo, Utah: FARMS, Research Press, 1981[1989]), 5. ISBN 0934893330. ISBN 3806707979. FairMormon link
  2. John W. Welch, "Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon," Brigham Young University Studies 10 no. 1 (1969), 69–84.