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Sunday, October 09, 2016

Nephi's Larger Chiasms: New Insights into His Intentional Craftsmanship

The issue of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon has been a hot topic ever since John Welch discovered this interesting ancient Semitic form of introverted parallelism in the Book of Mormon. Some say Joseph could have picked up the technique of introverted parallelism by osmosis. Others argue that Book of Mormon chiasmus is accidental, the result of searching for patterns that aren't really there. These theories don't account for the Book of Mormon's tendency to use chiasmus laden with meaning in ways that are consistent with ancient Semitic poetry.

Alma 36 has often been used as the poster child for intentional chiasmus where the meaning fits the structure beautifully (e.g., the center of the chiasmus, where emphasis is given by the structure, focuses on the primary message of the Book of Mormon: turning to Jesus Christ to be redeemed, and the two halves of the chiasm strongly contrast Alma's state before and after that turning). There are arguments against Alma 36 that I've addressed here before and will address in more detail in an upcoming article for The Interpreter. However, Alma 36 is just one of many valuable examples of what appears to be intentional, clever chiasmus. The larger chiasms of Nephi also deserve attention, especially in light of the latest publication at The Interpreter, Dennis Newton's "Nephi’s Use of Inverted Parallels" (Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 22 (2016): 79-106).

Newton's work, in my opinion, is a significant advance in our understanding of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon. He shows that the larger chiasms of Nephi show a transition over time in his writing and thinking, beginning with an emphasis on obedience and then toward the end of his life showing a focus on redemption through Christ. Here is the abstract:

Abstract: Did Nephi intentionally use chiasmus in his writings? An analysis of fifteen multi-level chiasm candidates in Nephi’s writings demonstrates a high statistical probability (99%+) that the poetic form was used intentionally by Nephi but only during two specific writing periods. This finding is buttressed by further analysis, which reveals a clear and unexpected literary pattern for which Nephi seems to have reserved his usage of chiasmus. The nature of obedience is a major theme in Nephi’s writings, and he regularly employed chiasms to explore the topic early in his writings. After a period during which he discontinued use of the technique, he returned to the poetic device toward the end of his life to signal a significant shift in his thoughts on the topic of obedience.
Newton's analysis not only strengthens the case that individual chiasms from Nephi are intentional, but shows how they fit into a pattern that adds integrity and purpose to his work.  Cumulatively they greatly increase the probability that Nephi was intentionally using chiasmus as a tool to convey meaning. In my view, it also greatly weakens the theory that Joseph was the author of 1 Nephi and 2 Nephi.


Dennis Newton said...

Jeff, thank you for your comments. I look forward to the further work on Alma 36. Although unstated within my two recent articles in Interpreter, I do personally agree with your assessment that the likelihood that Joseph (or any other single author in the 19th century) authored 1 or 2 Nephi is slim. Dennis

Glenn Thigpen said...

I like two things about the article. One is that scholars are developing rules and some type of statistical methodology in an attempt to determine whether the inverted parallelism in a passage was intentional and it is being applied to the Book of Mormon.

The second is how the passages highlight Nephi's own spiritual growth. Now, he has always been one of my spiritual heroes and his declaration that "I will go and do the things that the Lord has commanded...." has been an inspiration to me over the years. But Nephi is shown as going from a person who (almost) unquestionably is obedient to the Lord's commands and advocates such obedience, to one of understanding the relationship between obedience, the Law, and the Atonement.

Nephi's character has been described as one dimensional by all too many, constantly bragging about his own righteousness as compared to his two older brothers. But, to me, he was a person who did a lot of deep thinking and introspection.