Discovering chiasmus in the Book of Mormon 41 years ago changed John W. Welch's life. It also changed the way many people look at the scripture sacred to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Chiasmus is poetry, not of rhyme, but of structure. Its presence in the Book of Mormon, if recognized, can help readers understand with greater clarity not only the meaning of the text, but its origin.
Welch's belief in the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon came before his discovery of chiasmus within its pages. On his 16th birthday, his parents gave him a small leather set of scriptures that included the Book of Mormon. He read it and, following the advice of his seminary teacher, prayed about it.
"I gained a firm assurance that the Book of Mormon was the Lord's true guide to eternal life," Welch said.
He recognizes the Lord's hand in prompting and guiding him in finding chiasmus.
In the Vol. 10, No. 2, 2007, issue of Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Welch gave a first-person account of how he found the distinctive patterns of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon.
Welch gives Hugh Nibley, then a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, much of the credit for creating an intellectual atmosphere where discoveries like this could be made. He took Nibley's honors Book of Mormon class in 1964 as a freshman at BYU. Nibley encouraged his students to read the Book of Mormon as an ancient text.
Welch left for an LDS mission to Germany in 1966.
He found that religion is always a controversial subject to open with the German people.
One scholarly German Welch would meet later was the Rev. Paul Gaechter. The Rev. Gaechter was a Catholic priest who had written a book titled, "The Literary Art in the Gospel of Matthew."
The priest acknowledged in his book that the presence of chiasmus structure indicated that a narrative was Hebraic or of Hebrew origins.
A professor who was familiar with the Rev. Gaechter's works gave a lecture that Welch and his companion decided to attend on their preparation day. The professor mentioned the Rev. Gaechter's book and discussed its analysis of Matthew. It would be Welch's first contact with chiasmus.
Matthew's gospel is arranged in a seven-part structure, the Rev. Gaechter explained. This chiasmus structure is evidence of the book's Hebrew thought patterns.
Chiasmus is a symmetrical narrative structure. An example of the simplest type of chiasmus would be Christ's declaration in Matthew 10:39 that "He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it." Notice how it begins and ends with similar elements: "findeth" - "life" - "lose" - "loseth" - "life" - "find" or "a-b-c-c-b-a." A diagram of a longer chiasmus structure might be "a-b-c-d-e-d-c-b-a." The center element or elements are usually what the author is trying to emphasize.
Welch woke up early in the morning on Aug. 16, 1967. It was like a voice in his mind saying, "If it is evidence of Hebrew style in the Bible, it must be evidence of Hebrew style in the Book of Mormon." He felt impressed to look where he and his companion had stopped reading the night before.
If it wasn't for the typesetting of a particular edition of the German language Book of Mormon, he may not have noticed the center elements of chiasmus lined up perfectly over each other: "Ubertretung" and "Ubertretung." The German words for "transgress" jumped out at him.
He had discovered the ancient Hebrew poetry form of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon.
If it wasn't for the Lord's help, Welch believes he never would have found this through his own intellectual efforts. He looked for the next elements in the chiasmus and found them: "ausgeloscht" and "ausgeloscht." The German words for "blotted out."
Welch woke up his companion. His excited voice said, "Hey! It's here! There's chiasmus in the Book of Mormon!" It was right where they had stopped reading the night before.
Chiasmus is a symmetrical narrative structure. What Welch had found in Mosiah 5:10-12 was a perfect example. Notice how these excerpted words progress forward to a center point and then back in reverse order: "name" - "called" - "left hand of God" - "remember" - "blotted out" - "transgression" - "transgress" - "blotted out" - "remember" - "left hand of God" - "called" - "name." Diagrammed it would be "a-b-c-d-e-f-f-e-d-c-b-a."
King Benjamin's speech in the Book of Mormon is arranged in a seven-part structure, Welch discovered. Like the Book of Matthew in the New Testament, this chiasmus structure can be seen as evidence of King Benjamin's Hebrew thought pattern.
The professor who gave the lecture that Welch and his companion had attended was paid a visit. Welch asked him if chiasmus was evidence of Hebraic origins. The professor said it was very strong. They showed him a few examples of chiasmus that Welch had found but did not tell him they were from the Book of Mormon.
The professor acknowledged that the examples were "very good!" But when he learned the texts' origins were Mormon, he tossed the missionaries out.
One scholarly German Welch visited was the Rev. Gaechter. The Rev. Gaechter listened with interest to Welch's descriptions of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon and found his own low opinion of the book changed. He told Welch to continue his work on chiasmus, saying, "You are a very lucky man. You have found a life's work."
Welch found, however, that using chiasmus as a door approach did not always open doors with the German people.
He returned home after his mission and began again at BYU in September 1968.
Welch visited Nibley less than an hour after arriving back at the university. He told him about his discovery of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon. Nibley was excited and boosted Welch's confidence when he said, "Young man, I think you have made the first significant discovery to come out of the BYU."
In the Vol. 10, No. 1, 1969, issue of BYU Studies, Welch presented a groundbreaking article that described for the first time the distinctive patterns of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon.
He recognized the Lord's hand in prompting and guiding him in finding chiasmus.
"I gained a firm assurance that the Lord would guide the lives of readers in uncovering the eternal truths of the Book of Mormon," Welch said.
Welch believes chiasmus in the Book of Mormon helps readers find greater meaning in its pages. It deepens their experience — illuminating the craft, creativity, poetry, structure, inspiration and technique of its different authors. It leads more people to pray about it.
Chiasmus is poetry, not of rhyme, but of structure. Its presence in the Book of Mormon, if recognized, can help readers understand with greater clarity not only the meaning of the text but its Hebrew origins.
Discovering chiasmus in the Book of Mormon 41 years ago changed Welch's life. It has also changed forever the way many people look at the ancient scripture sacred to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Author's note: Some readers may have noticed that the narrative of this story follows a chiasmus structure. The center point emphasizes the moment of Welch's discovery. After working to create the story — which included organizing the ideas by moving 60 Post-it notes around my desk — I appreciate the effort it takes to create a chiasmus.