Assessing the Broad Impact of Jack Welch's Discovery of Chiasmus in the Book of Mormon

[The Book of Mormon is] the most gross, the most ridiculous, the most imbecile, the most contemptible concern, that was ever attempted to be palmed off upon society as a revelation.
Origen Bacheler,

Mormonism Exposed1


Have Anti-Mormon Assessments Changed?

The anti-Mormon community (if there really is such a thing!) has long scoffed at any suggestion of literary or religious merit in the Book of Mormon.2 Yet today, some sectors of the anti-Mormon crowd are actually prepared to frankly accept the beauty and power of the Book of Mormon—openly admitting and claiming that, even if it is unhistorical, apocryphal, and fictional, the Book of Mormon is nonetheless a “sacred text” that “makes a powerful statement of humanity’s worth in a world where human worth is everywhere questioned,”3 and does indeed include visions and sermons of “beauty and brilliance” in a variety of literary genres, including “parables, poetry, hyperbole, psalms, historical verisimilitude,” etc.4 What has brought about this radical change in attitude for some sectors of the anti-Mormon community? Could it be a relatively recent legacy of the considerable scholarship now available assaying the literary value of the Book of Mormon? And can it be that this major change in attitude followed mainly on the heels of the very interesting discoveries made just forty years ago by young Elder John W. “Jack” Welch while on his German-speaking LDS mission in and around Regensburg, Germany?5 For, following Hugh Nibley’s compelling publications in other areas, Welch’s work opened up a breathtaking panorama of the true range of possibilities in literary and textual studies of the Book of Mormon, bringing new life and gravitas to the intellectual study of Mormonism.

Is an Assessment Premature?

We are only now beginning to grasp the broad implications of Jack’s very accessible publications and lectures on chiasmus, so any assessment may at this stage be premature. Still, there are some things which may rightly be said:

Jack’s work seems to have provided just the right amount of impetus to get many literary analyses of the Book of Mormon off the ground and into print. We can credit not only his 1979 founding of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), but also a preceding, exciting decade of publication and firesides on chiasmus (how many were repeatedly cloned on audio- and videotape?) leading up to that more systematic and broadscale effort at FARMS to print and distribute very recent and substantial research on the Book of Mormon, which was not otherwise easily accessible. Thus, Jack’s efforts to plumb the depths of chiasmus during the 1970s also stimulated other types of literary analysis of the Book of Mormon. Many faithful Mormon scholars have rightly surmised that where chiasmus could be found, there just might be other literary discoveries to be made.

As a classicist and New Testament scholar who was also a Woodrow Wilson Fellow at Oxford University (1970–1972), Jack Welch had already been thinking along those broader lines. Thus, while in law school at Duke University, he took classes on intertestamental literature from the renowned James H. Charlesworth. It quickly became obvious (if not already clear from the work of Sperry and Nibley) that more than chiasmus was at issue, and that a grounding in Judaica and the whole range of ancient literature would be relevant to the study of the Book of Mormon. There is little doubt that a true “blossoming” of such studies has taken place in recent decades.

The work at FARMS has received primary credit for the fundamental defeat of evangelical (and secular) anti-Mormon efforts. Anti-Mormon polemic apologetics have been rendered largely ineffective, according to Protestant scholars Paul Owen and Carl Mosser6 and Roman Catholic scholar Massimo Introvigne.7 There have been other worthwhile discoveries made in the course of FARMS’s large-scale basic research projects, which have had unforeseen affects, many of which have yet to see widespread publication or correlation. Some parade examples from Mesoamerican studies follow.

Chiasmus in Mesoamerica

For two pioneers in deciphering Mayan inscriptions (Nicholas Hopkins and his late wife, Kathryn Josserand), the matter has been quite clear:

In terms of Classic Maya literary canons, this kind of [chiastic] structure marks a text as very formal, like modern Mayan prayers, which consist entirely of couplets, often nested in this fashion.8

As an example, they present a creation text from the vertical east side of Quirigua Stela C (Monument 3), B5–15 (CR to end), arranged as ABCCCBA, with the three C-statements “as the peak event of this episode”9—which is a report on the placing of the Three Hearth Stones in the sky (the stars Rigel, Saiph, and Alnitak of Orion) by the gods at the time of creation.10 Going a bit further than Hopkins and Josserand, we may note that the text begins and ends with a 13-baktun date statement:

A, day 4 Ahau, month 8 Cumku, crossed bands event,
B Three stones were set,
C The Paddlers erected a stone; it happened at 5 Sky House, Jaguar Throne stone,
C The Black God erected a stone; it happened at Earth Center Place, Serpent Throne stone,
C And then it happened that Itzamna set a stone, Water-Lily Throne stone; it happened at Sky Place,
B New, three-stone place,
A baktuns were completed under the authority of 6 Sky Lord (Wac Chan Ahau).11

Many other examples can be provided from well-known Classic Mayan texts and glyptic art, such as those presented in the form of text, art, and icon in the carved tablets arranged as triptychs in the funerary temples at Palenque. They include powerful visual chiasms there in the Tablets of the Sun, Cross, and Foliated Cross.12

Kathryn Josserand also pointed out an ABBA sentence in the Palenque Table of 96 Glyphs, L1-K4, Second Episode, last sentence, at—the 1st Katun anniversary of Lord Kuk II:

A And then he completed his first katun as ahau
B He erected a monument (this stone!)
B He sacrificed under the auspices of Pacal
A And then he finished his first katun as ahau13

Josserand gave credit for this discovery to the late Richard A. De Long, who had delivered a paper on the subject in June 1986 at the Sixth Palenque Round Table. De Long, a member of the RLDS Church (now Community of Christ) and former professor at Graceland College in Lamoni, Iowa, had in turn been deeply influenced by the work of Jack Welch. De Long made a point of frequently attending Palenque Round Tables as well as Linda Schele’s University of Texas workshops on Maya hieroglyphs—often funded by the RLDS Foundation for Research on Ancient America (FRAA)—from which he regularly returned with interesting reports on the chiastic and archeological implications. Indeed, for a period of about a quarter-century, Dr. De Long and I compared notes on the phenomenon of chiasmus, while he kept me and his RLDS friends informed of the latest developments on chiasmus in Mesoamerican literature and the Book of Mormon. De Long reported to me, for example, that the late Evon Z. Vogt had found and published a chiastic text in his study of the highland Tzotzil Maya of Zinacant‡n, Chiapas, Mexico.14 Elsewhere Mayan use of chiasmus has been found in Izapa Stele 5,15 in the Annals of the Cakchiquels,16 and in the Popol Vuh.17

Inter Alia: Connections Further Afield

Many of these initial discoveries took place without fanfare and under the radar. Even Jack was unaware of these particular far-reaching effects of his initial stimulus. Yet without his original discovery of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon, there might never have been the resultant cross-fertilization of ideas and direct applications among so many disciplines. Jack began by speaking to interested fellow Mormons, then prepared an analysis of chiasmus in Ugaritic that was published in a learned, international journal18 (on the recommendation of a Jesuit scholar at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, the late Mitchell Dahood), and began corresponding with an Israeli scholar (Yehuda T. Radday) who helped him assemble a group of contributors to a one-volume, broad-scale treatment of chiasmus in ancient Near Eastern and Classical literature and in the Book of Mormon.19 This attracted the attention of a number of scholars who actually came to Provo, Utah, to visit—including a Capucin Monk from Sicily (Father Angelico di Marco20), a district judge from Jerusalem (Jacob Bazak21), and a gaggle of Near Eastern scholars who had some very nice things to say about Jack’s work. I was there, and I heard them say so, and I continue to read comments along such lines.22

Now, of course, studies of chiasmus in ancient Near Eastern literature have had a long and distinguished history. Jack did not discover the phenomenon of chiasmus in the Bible or the ancient Near East, but he has made some significant contributions to such studies. Moreover, no one else has done more to gather and publish information on what is available in the way of chiastic analyses.23 Finally, Jack clearly defined how to assay the value of any given chiasm or chiastic claim.24 There remain plenty of areas of dispute about individual application of the chiastic mode of rhetorical analysis to this or that literature, but there is no doubt among most scholars that the phenomenon is real and is useful.25


Gordon C. Thomasson made several important suggestions for this short appraisal.

1. Origen Bacheler, Mormonism Exposed: Internally and Externally (New York, 1838), 36, cited in Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005), 400.

2. See especially Daniel C. Peterson’s “Editor’s Introduction—’In the Hope That Something Will Stick’: Changing Explanations for the Book of Mormon,” FARMS Review 16/2 (2004): xi–xxxii, for an excellent summary of horrific, traditional attacks on the Book of Mormon, and of recently changing assessments of that book; see also Richard H. Cracroft, “‘Had for Good and Evil’: 19th-Century Literary Treatments of the Book of Mormon,” JBMS 12/2 (2003): 4–19.

3. Roger D. Launius, “From Old to New Mormon History: Fawn Brodie and the Legacy of Scholarly Analysis of Mormonism,” in Reconsidering No Man Knows My History: Fawn M. Brodie and Joseph Smith in Retrospect, ed. Newell G. Bringhurst (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1996), 208–9; cf. William D. Russell, “A Further Inquiry into the Historicity of the Book of Mormon,” Sunstone 7/5 #34 (1982): 20–27.

4. Daniel A. Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe, eds., American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), ix.

5. Cracroft suggests as much in his “‘Had for Good and Evil,'” 17–18.

6. Carl Mosser and Paul Owen, “Mormon Scholarship, Apologetics, and Evangelical Neglect: Losing the Battle and Not Knowing It?” Trinity Journal n.s., 19/2 (1998): 179–205. First delivered on April 25, 1997, at the Evangelical Theological Society Far West Annual Meeting.

7. Massimo Introvigne, “The Book of Mormon Wars: A Non-Mormon Perspective,” JBMS 5/2 (1996): 1–25; available online at (accessed  November 15, 2007). This is an expanded version of his article in Douglas J. Davies, ed., Mormon Identities in Transition (London: Cassell, 1996), 25–34.

8. J. Kathryn Josserand and Nicholas Hopkins, Maya Cosmology and Astronomy: A Short Course on Maya Hieroglyphic Writing Featuring Inscriptions from the Maya Codices, Workbook (Tallahassee, FL: Jaguar Tours, 1998), 22; cf. J. Kathryn Josserand, “The Narrative Structure of Hieroglyphic Texts at Palenque,” in Sixth Palenque Round Table, 1986, ed. Merle Greene Robertson and Virginia Field (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), 29 (also available in Spanish in Silvia Trejo, ed., Mesas Redondas de Palenque: Antología [Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 1996], 1:445–81). For further on Maya couplets, see John F. Harris and Stephen K. Stearns, Understanding Maya Inscriptions: A Hieroglyphic Handbook 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, 1997), 100–106.

9. Josserand and Hopkins, Maya Cosmology and Astronomy, 20–22; the vertical east side of Stela C reproduced below from Harris and Stearns, Understanding Maya Inscriptions, 154, fig. 8:11, from Alfred P. Maudslay, Archaeology: Biologia Centrali-Americana, 5 vols. (London: Porter and Dulau, 1889–1902; repr. New York: Milpatron and University of Oklahoma Press, 1974), II.

10. Josserand and Hopkins, Maya Cosmology and Astronomy, 24, “Hearth of Creation,” from drawing by the late Linda Schele, in David Freidel, Linda Schele, and Joy Parker, Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path (New York: Morrow, 1993), 80, fig. 2:14.

11. This translation is mine, but is heavily dependent upon the January 1999 Josserand and Hopkins Seminar at UCLA on Maya Hieroglyphic Writing, as well as upon the translation in Harris and Stearns, Understanding Maya Inscriptions, 107, 153–58.

12. Josserand and Hopkins, Maya Cosmology and Astronomy, 4, 7, 11, 15; Harris and Stearns, Understanding Maya Inscriptions, 142–52.

13. Josserand, “Narrative Structure of Hieroglyphic Texts at Palenque,” in Sixth Palenque Round Table, 1986, 27 (see fig. 9 on p. 26), citing Richard A. De Long, “Chiasmus in Mesoamerican Writing,” paper presented at the Sexta Mesa Redonda de Palenque, June 1986, in Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico.

14. Vogt, Tortillas for the Gods: A Symbolic Analysis of Zinacanteco Rituals (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976; repr. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993), 38–42. Cf. Robert M. Laughlin, The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of San Lorenzo Zinacant‡n (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1975), 19; chiasm with reversal of set A- and B-word and phrase pairs.

15. In his review of Joseph Allen’s claims along these lines, John E. Clark objects that it is “mirror imagery” or “bilateral symmetry,” not chiasmus, thus missing the forest for the trees. See John E. Clark, “Searching for Book of Mormon Lands in Middle America,” FARMS Review 16/2 (2004): 42–43.

16. Allen J. Christenson, “Chiasmus in Mesoamerican Texts,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon: The FARMS Updates, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992), 234–35 (originally appeared in a January 1988 FARMS Update); seven-element chiasm, with two subordinate chiasms inside (citing Daniel G. Brinton, The Annals of the Cakchiquels [Philadelphia: Brinton’s Library of Aboriginal American Literature, 1885], 75–77).

17. In the initial section (Creation): Christenson, “Chiasmus in Mesoamerican Texts,” 234–35 (citing Munro S. Edmonson, The Book of Counsel: The Popol Vuh of the Quiché Maya of Guatemala, MARI 35 (New Orleans: Tulane University, 1971), 9–13; cf. Allen J. Christenson, Popol Vuh: The Sacred Book of the Quiché Maya People (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003; repr. Mesoweb, 2007), 37–40 (lines 32–35; 275–76 || 432–33; 538–41; 5107–10; 5147–48 || 5157–58; 5171–80) and 53–54, n. 25, citing Edmonson, Book of Counsel, 5, nn. 35, 80. See Christenson’s book online at (accessed November 29, 2007).

18. John W. Welch, “Chiasmus in Ugaritic,” Ugarit-Forschungen 6 (1974): 421–36.

19. John W. Welch, ed., Chiasmus in Antiquity: Structures, Analyses, Exegesis (Hildesheim: Gerstenberg, 1981; repr. Provo, UT: Research Press, 1999); David Noel Freedman wrote the preface.

20. Angelico Di Marco, Il chiasmo nella Bibbia: Contributi di Stilistica Strutturale (Turin: Marietti, 1980).

21. Jacob Bazak, “Structural Geometric Patterns in Biblical Poetry,” Poetics Today 6/3 (1985): 475–502.

22. Victor A. Hurowitz, Inu Anum șīrum: Literary Structures in the Non-Juridical Sections of Codex Hammurabi, Samuel Noah Kramer Occasional Publications 15 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Museum, 1994), 58 n. 67, lauds Welch’s contribution and then adds: “There seems to be no end to the use of long and short range chiasm in ancient literature and it may now be considered a well established and wide spread fact of literary style.”

23. John W. Welch and Daniel B. McKinlay, eds., Chiasmus Bibliography (Provo, UT:  Research Press, 1999).

24. John W. Welch, “Criteria for Identifying and Evaluating the Presence of Chiasmus,” JBMS 4/2 (1995): 1–14; Welch and McKinlay, eds., Chiasmus Bibliography, 157–74.

25. In reviewing a book on symmetrical patterns of repetition (direct and chiastic) in Hebrew and Ugaritic, H. Van Dyke Parunak noted that the author “does not appreciate the wide repertoire of structural mechanisms that ancient writers constructed from the primitive elements of alternation and chiasm. As a result, his analyses often miss important nuances” (Parunak, review of Studies in Biblical Narrative: Style, Structure, and the Ancient Near Eastern Literary Background, by Yitzhak Avishur, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 44/2 [2001]: 326). Yehuda T. Radday stated unequivocally that “chiastic structure . . . is more than an artificial or artistic device. If it were nothing else, it would hardly warrant more than a passing illustration of a few exemplary passages. It is rather, and most remarkably so, a key to meaning. Not paying sufficient attention to it may result in failure to grasp the true theme” (Radday, “Chiasmus in Hebrew Biblical Narrative,” in Chiasmus in Antiquity, 51).