The Discovery of Chiasmus in the BoM

I still remember when I first learned about the phenomenon of chiasmus in the BoM (in a religion class at BYU my freshman year there, 1976-77). I was quite impressed, and eventually, when I had gained some scholarly tools of my own, I made a few similar discoveries regarding the literary nature of the BoM text (on a much smaller scale). So did a lot of other folks.[1]

The latest Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 16/2 (2007), features a personal remiscence by Jack Welch of his discovery of chiasmus in the BoM on Wednesday, August 16, 1967.[2] He pulled together his missionary journal, letters, and interviewed his companions to document the story. I really enjoyed the personal nature of this account, with lots of pictures and illustrations, so I thought I would try to convey some of it to you. (Eventually this issue will be available on the FARMS website.)

Setting the Stage

As a teenager growing up in Pasadena his parents gave Jack a triple combination, and he read the BoM, receiving a witness it was true. He also studied Latin and world history, and while still a teen read Nibley’s Lehi in the Desert, which had a profound effect on him. He had a SS teacher who had just graduated from BYU, and he spoke glowingly of Nibley, so when Jack went there as a freshman he signed up for Nibley’s BoM honors class, which went over his An Approach to the BoM (the 1957 MP guide, but published in hardback that year [1964]). His second semester he took a class on the Bible as Literature from Robert K. Thomas, who was also director of the honors program. He was enthusiastic and helped his students see similar possibilities in the study of the BoM.

His sophomore year he went on study abroad to Salzburg, Austria, where he attended classes at the University of Salzburg. That experience made him comfortable around German professors, which would later play a role in the story.

Mission

While there, he was called to serve in the South German Mission, arriving in August 1966. In May 1967 he was transferred to Regensburg. He and his companion managed to talk their way in to see the Archbishop, who treated them respectfully, so they tried to discuss religion with other clerics. They saw a poster announcing some religion classes, and they signed up to attend one on the NT that met Friday mornings, which happened to be their “diversion day” (now P-day). It was in the lecture that Friday with about a dozen students that he first learned about chiasmus in the Bible–in the Gospel of Matthew. The teacher mentioned a new book about literary art in the Gospel, by Paul Gaechter, Die literische Kunst im Matthaus-Evangelium [The Literary Art in the Gospel of Matthew]. He was intrigued by this, so they stopped by the bookstore to see if they had the book, and they did, so he bought it. (His companion, Elder Barrus, was rather baffled by all of this but very cooperative.)

The book had a detailed discussion of the Hebraic background of paralleleism and chiasmus in Matthew (the article gives a picture of the demonstration of chiasmus in Mt. 13 from the book). Reading this book brought Matthew to life for him.

Discovery

A few days after he had finished the book, he woke up to what seemed to be a voice, saying that if the form were evidence of Hebrew style of the Bible, it must be evidence of Hebrew style in the BoM. Having faith that this must be so, he climbed out of bed and, though it was still dark, began reading the BoM (it had a picture of Izapa Stela 5 on the cover) where he and his companion had left off, in Mosiah 4. Turning the page, the chiasm in Mosiah 5:10-12 leaped off the page at him. This discovery was facilitated by the typesetting in that particular German edition, where the two central words in the pattern happened to be typeset right on top of each other. (There is a picture of the page with his original notes on it.)

Finding this example in King Benjamin’s speech, he looked earlier in the speech and quickly found Mosiah 3:18-19. He was so excited he tried to show it to anyone who would listen. They actually tried to use it in a door approach to a cleaning lady who was out mopping the sidewalk in front of her house.

On a pad of paper he began listing the names of scholars who were knowledgeable about chiasmus. They went to see the first name on the list, who was the professor who had taught the class. They expressed an interest in chiasmus, asked for more titles on the subject, and then he slid his BoM in front of him opened to Mosiah with his notes and asked if this were what people meant by chiasmus. He said yes, they were very good; he then closed the book, saw what it was, and said, oh, you are the Mormons! Get out!

Letter Home

There’s a fun picture of an extract from a letter home on a Friday some time later, where he exciteably describes his find (lacking the caution of the later scholar he would become):

Right now about all I can think about is a discovery I made on Wed. morning. It’s a great idea, and I’m really excited about it–we’ve shown it to professors and theologians and no one can refute it! I can’t explain it all but follow closely: a few weeks ago I found a book called “The Literary Art of the Gospel of Matthew” and for some reason couldn’t put it down–it was simply great–the author argued brilliantly a new theory proving the original hebraic tradition in Matthew, a difficult problem, for we have only Greek manuscripts of the Gospel. That Matthew was translated from Hebrew and that it is genuine can not be denied, so he says

[As an aside, I don’t think Matthew was translated from Hebrew.] He goes on to describe his discovery of the form in the BoM, and in a postscript asks his father what else might be known about this, whether it goes back to Jeremiah’s day and whether there might be Egyptian influences on the style.

Further Encounters

He spoke with a Protestand minister, and then with a grad student from the Pontifical Biblical Institute, who was impressed that he was familiar with Gaechter’s work. Jack regarded this as his first successful academic encounter regarding the Bible and BoM; it would not be the last.

He and his companion made an appointment to see Dr. Mussner, a Catholic scholar, who was very nice until he found out who they were, and then he tossed them out, much like their previoius meeting with Huber 12 days earlier. Meanwhile, his father had written him back, cautioning him about trying to prove the BoM to people [a good caution that young Elder Jack obviously needed].)

He wrote to Robert Thomas and told him about it; Thomas was very encouraging. He knew of chiasmus from Curtis Wright, who had taught Greek at BYU. He wrote to the University of North Carolina Press, trying to get a copy of Nils Lund’s Chiasmus in the NT, which was out of print. They suggested that Barnes and Noble had some used copies, so he sent off an order. When he got the book, he was thrilled to discover that, despite its title, it started with substantial discussion of chiasmus in the OT as well, such as Leviticus 24. It was at this point that he began to understand how much careful work on the subject had already been done by scholars.

The last eight months of his mission were spent in the office, mostly doing PR work. There was little attention to chiasmus during this time. But he did communicate with Father Paul Gaechter, a Jesuit, who lived in a monastery in Innsbruck, Austria. He invited Jack to visit him, so after his mission he did, on August 14, 1968.

Gaechter, who would have been about 75 at the time, came out to meet him and explained that he only had a few free minutes in his schedule, after which he would need to return to his duties in the monastery. But they soon became engrossed in conversation, with him telling Jack about his work on Matthew and Jack explaining about his own work on the BoM. Jack showed him some remarkable literary patterns, and he was impressed. His former disdain for the book dissolved, and he gladly accepted a copy (but only as literature). As he got up to leave, Gaechter turned serious, grabbed him by the hand, and told him he must continue his work on this, that he was a very lucky young man, for he had found a life’s work (eine Lebensarbeit).

Back to BYU

After his mission he returned to BYU, where he lived at Helaman Halls (it seems weird to me to think of Jack Welch living at Helaman!). The first thing on his mind was wanting to talk to Nibley about his discovery. He made a beeline to Nibley’s home, just south of campus. He knocked on the door about 9:00 p.m. and told him he was a former student just off his mission from Germany. Hugh remembered him, and since he had served in Germany himself he graciously invited Jack in.

He began by asking Hugh what he knew about chiasmus, to which he replied “not much.” So Jack began showing him, and with each passage they examined his smile accelerated. He wanted to know about every book he had read, with whom he had spoken, and what passages he had studied. They talked until 1:00 a.m., and as he was leaving Hugh congratulated him saying, “Young man, I think you have made the first significant discovery to come out of the BYU.” [Typical Hugh!]

Hugh’s validation was a significant confidence builder, and Hugh agreed to help Jack with the subject. A year later he would do his master’s thesis on chiasmus in the BoM, comparing it to chiasmus in the OT, NT, Ugaritic epics and Greek and Latin authors. The thesis was completed in 1970. [About a decade later I would be a classics student at BYU, and I well remember seeing copies of Jack’s thesis in the office libraries of some of my professors.]

His first publication on the subject was his “Chiasmus in the BoM” in BYU Studies, which he wrote only two months removed from his mission in Germany!

The remainder of the article traces some of the history of chasmus studies generally and Jack’s own personal work over the ensuing 40 years.

I could really relate to this account, for I experienced a similar (although much less lofty) arc: introduction to Nibley on my mission, growing interest in languages, antiquity and scholarship, and even a couple of minor discoveries regarding BoM style (my work along these lines involved enallage and word pairs). For me this was a really fun read.

[1] See Daniel McKinlay and Scott Hanson, “A Selective Bibliography of Book of Mormon Literary Features,” JBMS 16/2 (2007).
[2] John W. Welch, “The Discovery of Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon: 40 Years Later.”

Comments

  1. Mark IV says:

    Thanks, Kevin. This really does convey the sense of excitement and discovery that Welch had. We owe him a lot.

    Also, I think it is pretty cool that he read Die literische Kunst im Matthaus-Evangelium as part of his personal study.

  2. Fascinating, Kevin. Thanks. This was powerful for me, since I owe much of my outlook on the BofM to the work done by people like Nibley and Welch.

    I believe those who carefully study the BofM and are able to see it more than just the account are the ones who come to understand its authenticity best. I understand other interpretations from a purely intellectual perspective, but my view of it is influenced greatly by my exposure to scholars like Welch and Nibley while I was in junior high so many years ago. I can’t express adequately how thankful I am for that.

  3. Kevin, this is such a great account! I can feel the thrill of discovery. It makes me want to read all those books. =)

  4. This really is fun. I love windows like this. Thanks for the review, Kev. I’ll look forward to the ecopy when it becomes available.

  5. A real treat for those of us who like the “how did you do that?” factor almost as much as the new knowledge itself. Thanks!

  6. Chiasmus is an interesting subject. In the early or mid 1970’s I read a thesis a BYU student did on chiasmus in the D&C.

  7. Thank you for this personal view behind the discovery. I’ve enjoyed the blossoming of our awareness of chiasmus in LDS scriptures as part of our interesting literary richness and as an effective tool to convey the passages’ meanings.
    .
    RE: it seems weird to me to think of Jack Welch living at Helaman, this is very natural: the brighter lights tended to cluster over at Deseret Towers!

  8. Thanks for the review. Jack Welch is someone I’ve known for nearly thirty years, but only as the man who lived down the street in my home ward in Provo. I never knew he’d done anything significant until I was in college – that’s the kind of humble, gracious man he is. I’ll be sure to pass this review along to my siblings about “Brother Welch”.

  9. Thanks, Kevin. Jack is not only a great scholar but also a wonderful mentor. I owe a lot to him.

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    manaen, having lived at DT myself I have to agree!

  11. “the brighter lights tended to cluster over at Deseret Towers!”

    or never attend BYU in the first place

  12. Interesting how Welch’s experience with the scholars/ministers seems to parallel Martin Harris’ reported experience with Samuel Anton. Initial acceptance, followed by rejection after learning that they were dealing with the Book of Mormon.

  13. Make that Charles Anton.

  14. gillsyk says:

    I took a philosophy class from Terry Warner and Jack was the TA. One day he came into our session with a black journal on stop of his stack of books — it looked like it might be the new BYU Studies, and I asked if I could have a look. Of course it was the issue with his chiasmus article. What a great introduction to have Jack tell us the story himself!

    Thanks, Kevin, for the summary of these fascinating details. I especially love the spirit of inquiry and study on his mission — not sure that would happen as readily today.

  15. Carol F. says:

    I used to think that chiasmus was amazing until the other day I discovered that moms speak in chiasmus all the time to each other, you know, at the park and whatnot:

    I’m really worried about school for next year.
    *Did you hear that a bunch of teachers are leaving?
    **There was a fifth grade teacher looking at porn on the school computer!
    ***Not only that, but fundraising has totally taken over the school.
    ****I love Cold Stone Creamery but I’m not going every other week for a fundraiser.
    *****Although I could eat ice cream every night.
    ******I should go on the South Beach diet.
    *****But man I would miss ice cream.
    ****A diet is not going to happen with Cold Stone just around the corner.
    ***The next fundraiser there is next week. I might go.
    **Still I think there are too many fundraisers and too many scandals at school.
    *I don’t know who will be left to teach the kids.
    I am really worried about school. My kids deserve good teachers.

    Happens all the time!

  16. Carol,
    My understanding is that part of the initial appeal of chiasmus and other parallelisms in Hebrew poetry and oratory was its utility in speaking. Parallelistic formatting enables speakers and hearers to process large chunks of material with improved coherence and dramatic flair. This means that believers see chiasmus as evidence for ancient origin whereas skeptics might well view it as evidence that Joseph was memorizing and regurgitating enormous chunks of text to his scribes. It would be interesting if it were possible (someone more familiar than myself with Skousen’s work on the BoM MSs could comment on the possibility) to compare parallelistic formating within the text with the stop-and-go of the translation/transcription process. For me, the presence of chiasmus in the text speaks to the literary-mindedness and efforts at textual coherence that informed its composition, but says nothing about the ancient text/modern fiction controversy. Regardless, Jack’s discovery has greatly benefited our ability to appreciate what the Book of Mormon has to offer us as a sacred text.

  17. If there’s Chiasmus in the D&C, doesn’t that mean Chiasmus in the BofM means nothing regarding indication of Old World roots? I only remember Chiasmus from Seminary, and I was very skeptical at the time, particularly because some of the examples were Isaiah quotes. Do they still teach chiasmus in Seminary? I go to church and believe. Chiasmus seems Nibleyesque.

  18. Jack Welch says:

    Kevin,
    Your post was drawn to my attention by a friend, and I wanted to thank you and your respondents for your interest and kind remarks. I usually don’t have or take time to get involved on the blog, but I have just returned from a semester in Paris, teaching my BYU students in the Louvre and assisting my wife who directed this Study Abroad program, which changed us in many good ways. So before I get drawn back into the old routine, let me add a few thoughts.

    First, Kevin, thanks for taking the time to present the heart of this story, and thanks for mentioning your own significant contributions to Book of Mormon studies. It is gratifying, now that I am of AARP age, to see which seeds have borne fruit in the minds and lives of others. Two minor corrections in your otherwise top-notch abstract: Robert Thomas taught me Book of Mormon in second semester at BYU (not his class on the Bible as Literature); and Barnes and Noble had purchased all the remainder from the UNC Press, but the books were still new.

    On Helaman Halls! Well, in my day, not only was Stover Hall a guys dorm, but two floors were unofficial honors floors, thanks to Sister May, a Senior Resident without peer. David Whittaker was my roommate. I owe much to David, who loved books more than any person on the planet. He has had a spectatular career managing the Mormon collection in the Harold B. Lee Library. As young undergrads, we talked long into the night, and as friends afterwards have coauthored and shared many academic experiences. So, yes, I guess something good can come from HH, which still stands (unlike DT).

    Gillsyk, thank you for sharing your memory of when you first learned about chiasmus. Whatever one may think long-term about this literary form, it is remarkable how many people can recall in precise detail where they were and how they first encountered it. Dozens of people have shared with me their stories. In a way, my story is not just my story. I am happy to share it, in more ways than one.

    I probably would not have publically shared my story in such detail except for two reasons. A few years ago, a general authority asked me to tell him how I first noticed chiasmus in the Book of Mormon. After I had given him a fifteen-minute version of the story, he said, “You must write and publish your story.” Perhaps he was just being polite, but he died not too long afterwards, and I felt that I should do what he had requested.

    But more than that, as I began writing the story, I went back into my old mission papers, appointment books, scriptures, and letters home. I contacted companions. I was struck by how much of the story was historically documentable. On my way home from my mission, one of my suitcases was stolen, but these papers were in another place. Seeing that the story was based on not just my memory of things 40 years ago, I decided it might have some publishable merit.

    Zinka, we still live in the same house. I hope to hear from you. Some days I think I’ve said too much about chiasmus; but other days, maybe not enough. Thanks for your personal note.

    Carol F. and Brad, it is an interesting question, what does the presence of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon prove? I notice that many people ask this question and perhaps aren’t aware of three articles I have written along this line that might be helpful. In case you might not know of them already: one uses that question as its title, in Noel Reynolds, Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited; another is entitled “Criteria for Evaluating the Presence of Chiasmus,” and the third, “The Role of Evidence in the Nurturing of Faith,” in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon. In the chapter about evidence, I draw on my legal background to discuss the complex process of interpreting evidence. From all this, I would suggest that it is an overstatement to say that chiasmus says nothing at all about the possibility of the Book of Mormon being an ancient book. I would also point out that all chiasms are not created equally, just as all paintings in Paris are not of equal quality. Significant differences can be found between ladies chatting on a park bench, Homer having Odysseus answer his mother’s eight questions in their opposite order, and Alma explicitly equating his pain and joy as one intentional element in Alma 36. What one makes of those differences is a matter of personal judgment, but noticing those difference along with similarities is the first step in forming a sound judgment.

    Thanks again to all of you.

  19. Kevin Barney says:

    Jack, thanks so much for making an appearance here. We’re honored by your presence.

    I of course have followed your substantive work on chiasmus over the years with great interest, and so was familiar with your various articles and the other material you mention at the end of your article. And I knew a little bit about the discovery (and I had seen that painting of you at the monastery before).

    But to see the whole story laid out in such detail and in such a personal way was tremendously fun for me. We really could grasp from it the excitement and passion and the sense of discovery. (I remember having feelings like that–on a smaller scale–on my own mission about various things I was learning.)

    I particularly enjoyed all of the pictures. I recommend to anyone who hasn’t seen it the print version with its illustrations.

    If you’re at MHA next week, I’ll say “hi” in person.

  20. Thank you Kevin this a very interesting and enlightening post.

  21. Kevin Barney says:

    Jack, if you come back and happen to see this, I have a friend (I forget who) who remembered you sitting in the honors area of the fourth floor of the Lee Library at BYU with those huge sheets of computer paper working out various chiasms. Does that sound like an accurate portrayal?

    Here’s a little catalog of the illustrations accompanying the article:

    1. Jerry Thompson’s illustration of Jack meeting with Father Paul Gaechter in Austria.

    2. Regensburg Cathedral from across the Danube.

    4. Neal A. Maxwell and Robert K. Thomas at BYU circa 1968. I love the look he has on Jack’s face; a little apprehension mixed with anticipation for what the monk’s reaction is going to be. Very realistic.

    5. A map of Bavaria locating Regensburg on the northern end of the Danube.

    6. Medieval gate in the Regensburg city wall.

    7. Jack and his companion Elder Barrus. (So young!)

    8. Cloister inside the Regensburg Priester Seminar.

    9. The cover of the Gaechter book, and the page with the analysis of a chiasm in Mt. 13.

    10. The cover of Jack’s German BoM (as I wrote in the OP, I loved the funky yellow image of Izapa Stela 5), and the page from Mosiah with his original notes.

    11. Graphic analyses of the first two chiasms found in the BoM.

    12. Domplatz, Regensburg.

    13. An extract from his first letter home after the discovery.

    14. Elder Welch (again, very young looking!) sitting at his typewriter (no word processing or computers in the 1960s, folks).

    15. A picture of Nibley in the stacks circa 1968.

  22. Kevin Barney says:

    Oops, the second sentence of number 4 belongs on number 1; my mouse must have jumped.

  23. Jack Welch says:

    Kevin,

    I will be at MHA in Sacramento. I look forward to seeing you there.

    The pictures accompanying the story bring back a lot of memories for me. I was glad that they added a lot to the account from your perspective as well. The stunning layout of the JBMS is always done so well by Bjorn Pendleton, a very talented independent designer.

    As far as a computer printout in the Honors reading room of the BYU library is concerned, I spent a lot of time in that room, but I left BYU in 1970, before we had much in the way of computers. What this person may be remembering is a scroll of regular typing paper pages, that I taped together in 1969, about 10 feet long, with all of King Benjamin’s speech typed and consecutively layed out on it. Or, this person may be remembering someone else. There were other people in the late 1970s and 1980s who experiemented with a number of passages on large computer spreadsheets.

    Thanks for asking.