FAIR conference, day two: Jack Welch – ’45 years of chiasmus’

The entire title of this talk is: “45 Years of Chiasmus Conversations, Criteria and Creativity: What Chiasmus Proves and Does Not Prove.”

Jack Welch is a professor of law at the J. Reuben Clark Law School. He is the founder of FARMS and is the editor of the BYU Studies Quarterly. Welch is the person who discovered and popularized the idea of Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon.

(Note: Chiasmus is a form of Hebrew poetry that clearly exists in the Book of Mormon. How did Joseph Smith, an isolated relatively ignorant farm boy, learn about Hebrew poetry?)

“I’ve not made a career of chiasmus, but
chiasmus has made a career of me.”

“That was a chiasmus, by the way.”

Thus Welch began his talk. He told how he discovered chiasmus in the Book of Mormon when he was a missionary in Germany 45 years ago. He studied under Hugh Nibley at BYU. On his mission in Germany, he was at a lecture given by a Catholic scholar who mentioned chiasmus in the Bible. The scholar mentioned a book by Paul Gaechter on the book of Matthew, in which the author mentioned chiasmus in arguing that Matthew was writing for a Hebrew audience and used Hebraisms. Welch then bought Gaechter’s book.

Welch says he was awakened early in the morning on Aug. 16, 1967 with a clear prompting that if there was chiasmus in the Bible it must be in the Book of Mormon. He got out of bed and took out the Book of Mormon and turned to Mosiah chapter 4 and chapter 5. He said the chiasmus is Mosiah 5:10-12. The center of the chiasm is the idea of “transgression.”

He also mentioned Mosiah 3:18-19. There are 2467 words before that speech and 2476 words after it.
Remember that people in those days read from scrolls. Chiasmus was especially important because it draws attention to certain locations on the scroll.

On Aug. 29, 1967, he and his missionary companion visited a local professor and showed him the chiasms in the Book of Mormon. The professor agreed they were chiasms but when he heard they were from the Book of Mormon he asked them to leave.

Welch wrote to his professors in the U.S. and continued to study chiasmus in the New Testament and the Old Testament.

Leviticus 24:13-23 is a clear chiasmus in the Old Testament.

In Aug. 14, 1968, he visited Prof. Gaechter in Germany, who said that Welch has found a “life’s mission,” to study and promote chiasmus. Right after his mission, he went to visit Hugh Nibley, who was very excited about Welch’s discovery. Welch published about chiasmus in 1969.

He mentioned chiasmus in Alma 36 (the entire chapter is a beautiful example of chiasmus).

He then worked on “Chiasmus in Antiquity.”

There is a chiasmus archive in the L. Tom Perry special collections at a BYU library. His notes and letters on this issue are there. He wants to create a chiasmus resources web site and the Chiasmus Archive Academic Center (CAAC, a chiastic set of initials).

His “Chiasmus Bibliography” has 197 pages of links related to chiasmus.

Welch proposes 15 criteria for judging whether a passage is chiastic or not. Some chiastic phrases are stronger than others. He pointed out that Alma 36 is used by Alma to highlight his conversion, which was the central event in his life.

Welch points out that too many people look at chiasmus to prove the Book of Mormon is true. It does not “prove” it is true, but is an interesting intellectual “aid.” It does prove that the book is not chaotic, is orderly, was carefully written and was more profound than some (like Mark Twain) presumed. It also emphasizes the beauty of the Book of Mormon language.

Chiasmus does prove that the Book of Mormon was translated from a “Hebrew text.” There are some chiasms in the Book of Mormon that work better when you translate back to a Hebrew form. (example: Helaman 6:10 — ie, Zedekiah refers to the Hebrew ending “iah” which is “the Lord.” So, in Hebrew this scripture would have had “the Lord” twice at the center of the passage).

How much was known about chiasmus in 1829 when the Book of Mormon of Mormon was translated? Very, very little in the Americas, and it is not reasonable to think Joseph Smith would have known about it.

Many people have commented about how chiasmus has increased their testimonies of the Book of Mormon, and many scholars have mentioned it as a “confirmation” of the Book of Mormon.

This entry was posted in General by Geoff B.. Bookmark the permalink.

About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

11 thoughts on “FAIR conference, day two: Jack Welch – ’45 years of chiasmus’

  1. Joseph Smith and his family were, according to their own accounts, very familiar with bible language, and so it is very plausible that Joseph knew, verbally, about chiasmus, though he obviously didn’t know what it was called. He and others of his era spoke in biblical language and the Holy Bible was often the entirety of their literary and language skills. Another point is that the writers of the Book of Mormon originally spoke Hebrew and then likely other verbal languages, but wrote in Reformed Egyptian, so there is some reasonable questioning from critics as to why Hebraisms show up in the current text.

  2. I grew up reading the Bible extensively (went to a private Baptist school) but knew nothing of chiasmus until it was pointed out to me as a young adult. Therefore, I think the claim that Joseph and/or his family “knew about chiasmus” is grasping at straws.

  3. It is simply not reasonable to think that a family that reads the Bible for a half-hour a day in upstate New York, without access to any of the extant academic literature, would somehow be aware of chiasmus when literally thousands of scholars over the centuries have read the Bible all day long and never discovered it. The second point made by Joseph McKnight questioning how Hebraisms show up in the text does not make any sense to me. Lehi and Nephi spoke Hebrew. Their writing was a form of Hebrew using Egyptian characters to express it. They carried Hebrew scriptures with them, which helped them maintain their Hebrew culture. Of course the Book of Mormon, as an authentic text, would have Hebraisms.

  4. Jack Welch’s presentation at the FAIR conference must have stuck with me, because I was listening to my iPod on the drive home last night, and started mentally diagramming Pink Floyd lyrics.

    AIf you don’t eat yer meat,

    Byou can’t have any pudding.

    B1How can you have any pudding

    A1if you don’t eat yer meat?

    Clearly, pudding is the point of theological significance here.

  5. Mike:

    Bravo! Now we should all plumb the depths of Pink Floyd. My favorite album: Wish You Were Here.

    By the way, which one’s Pink?

  6. “By the way, which one’s Pink?” is a line from the song “Have A Cigar” on the Wish You Were Here album.

  7. I love Professor Welch’s story. I also do not think the Smith family would have been familiar with Chiasmus, since this type of language and thought is Eastern, and would not be obvious to the Western mindset. Thanks Geoff for reporting on his lecture.

  8. I agree that it is almost inconceivable that Joseph Smith could have known about Chiasmus in the Bible or any outer source. However, even supposing that he did, it borders on the impossible that Joseph Smith could dictate 270,000 words in less than 75 days with no revisions, nor reading back what was already dictated, and have created the complex and intricate chiasmus found in the Book of Mormon. Eye witnesses to the translation relate that after a break (no matter how long the break) he always picked up where he left off without reading, or having the text read back to him. The details of the count correlate beautifully and correctly with no contradictions. Even modern trained and experienced writers can’t do that without carful re-reading, re-working and cross checking.

    One of his close collaborators, David Whitmer, said of him, “Joseph Smith was a man of limited education and could hardly write legibly.” His wife, Emma Hale Smith, said after her husband’s death, “Joseph Smith could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter, let alone dictating a book like the Book of Mormon.”

    The only explanation that fits with the eye witnesses and historic evidence is that he was telling the truth. He translated by the “gift and power of God.”

Comments are closed.