Sunday, March 9, 2014

Broken Chiasmus

     Many people have discussed the significance of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon, and this discussion is primarily for readers who are already familiar with the basic ideas. If you aren't familiar, chiasmus is a relatively simple yet elegant writing style in which words or themes are presented and then repeated in reverse order. Using letters, an easy example would be: “a-b-c-c-b-a.” Another example would be “(a)Mary (b)had (c)a little lamb, (c)a little lamb (b)had (c)Mary.”
     Ancient Hebrews used this literary device frequently, to highlight themes. So, the fact that it is found extensively in the Book of Mormon is evidence of authenticity. Someone went to a lot of effort to put chiasmus in the Book of Mormon (yet this fact was never cited by Joseph Smith or early Mormons as evidence).
     Unfortunately, both the critics and the chiasm hunters are missing something important. The real test of authenticity is the hidden evidence – what was destroyed, what became imperfect when the target language was imposed on the original source language.
     For instance, 2 Nephi 9:28 is a chiasm, beginning with “O the vainness and the frailties and the foolishness of men!” That is a well-crafted line in English. However, it breaks the chiasm so as to avoid the awkward English phrase, “O the perishability and the vainness and the foolishness of men!” The word order and the root were changed to create the delightful triad we have today. Something Hebrew readers appreciate was sacrificed to make way for something comparable that English readers appreciate and are able to remember. Notice the first word, “vainness,” shares “ai” with the second word (creating assonance) as well as number of syllables, and shares “ness” with the third word (end rhyme), while the second and third words share “f” at the beginning (alliteration). This is similar to the well known triad, “healthy, wealthy and wise.” Triads like that are constructed intentionally, just as chiasmus is.

2 Nephi 9:28

A. O the vainness
            B. and the frailties
                        C. and the foolishness of men
                                    D. When they are learned
                                                E. they think
                                                            F. they are wise
                                                                        G. and they hearken not unto the
                                                                            counsel of God
                                                                        G. for they set it aside
                                                E. supposing
                                    D. they know of themselves
                                                            F. wherefore their wisdom
                        C. is foolishness
A. and it profiteth them not
            B. And they shall perish

     The first thing we note is that the F element is seemingly out of place in the inverted half, and so is the B element. The F element is in exactly the right place however, as this is a profane chiasm. Since chiasm is considered sacred, authors acknowledge subject matter dealing with unholy things by putting a standard flaw or mark in the chiasmus, which is moving the element immediately after the pivot and reinserting it after two intervening elements.
     The precise placement of the F element is evidence that the chiasm is carefully crafted by someone who knew what they were doing. That initially makes the placement of the B element all the more curious, as does the fact the words in the B element are not from the same root. Until, that is, one realizes the changes necessary in order to create the triad in English. The exact synonym was replaced by a less exact word having the desired sounds to make the triad work. Two elements switched places in order to put the right sounds in adjacent words.
     The Book of Mormon abounds with chiasmus, but critics have long complained that Mormons ignore missing or out of place elements. Yet critics have not stopped to seriously consider where these broken chiasms came from. What we have is what we should expect to find in an authentic translation.
     Critics, for their part, could attempt to explain broken chiasmus as a result of multiple authorship, wherein one person wrote the book and then another person came along later and changed it without realizing they were disturbing well-ordered chiasmus. The downside for critics is they would then be tied-down to a multiple authorship theory, which can get complicated very fast.
     As for me, I would like to see future study of broken chiasms to determine how many of the changes   are attributable to a shift from Hebrew to English grammar - something which cannot be explained away by proposing multiple English authors.
     For instance, 2 Nephi 9:23-24 has nine matching pairs of elements for a chiasm, but many of them   are out of order. It’s as though the order was changed to represent the subject matter better in English.                                         
    Now here’s the most interesting part: one of the matching elements is the phrase “in his name,” but it appears three times instead of only twice. However, in Hebrew grammar the phrase “in his name” would have only been used twice, once in the top portion of the chiasm, and once in the bottom portion. That’s because in Hebrew grammar a single word or phrase would have been used to state that both “believe” and “be baptized” are “in his name.” In English, it was necessary to repeat the phrase and thus repeat that element of the chiasm one too many times.

2 Nephi 23-24

A. And he commandeth all men
            B. that they must repent
                        C. and be baptized
                                    D. in his name
                                                E. having perfect
                                                            F. faith
                                                                        G. in the Holy One of Israel
                                                                                    H. or they cannot be saved
                                                                                                I. in the kingdom of God
            B. And if they will not repent
                                                            F. and believe
                                    D. in his name
                        C. and be baptized
                                    D. in his name
                                                E. and endure to the end
                                                                                    H. they must be damned
                                                                                                I. for the Lord God
                                                                        G. the Holy One of Israel
A. has spoken it.

This chiasm is badly broken, but with enough elements, divided perfectly between the top and bottom half, to indicate that it started out as a chiasm. We must not make the mistake of assuming that only the last half is broken. The top half is only the order in which we have imposed letters, so most likely both halves have been distorted to accommodate English preferences.

No comments:

Post a Comment