How to Recognize Chiasma in Scripture Study

by H. Clay Gorton


Both modern day and ancient scriptures are replete with particular literary structures. Since they have been found and extensively studied in the Bible, scholars have accepted them as part of the Hebrew literary culture. However, the high concentration of such literary forms found in modern scriptures raises a serious question as to their uniquely Hebrew origin.

The Book of Mormon is a modern inspired translation of an ancient document, written by prophets who were trained in the Hebrew traditions. Thus, the literary style of this scripture could be said to have developed from Hebrew origins, and undoubtedly this is the case. However, the Doctrine and Covenants was received in the early 1800's by direct revelation by a youth who had not been educated in any form of grammatical construction. Further, the revelations that the prophet, Joseph Smith, received were almost entirely dictated to scribes, often as they were received. This procedure would have given no opportunity for the construction of sophisticated literary arrangements. Thus the appearance of a high concentration of complicated Hebrew literary forms in the Doctrine and Covenants is both surprising and profoundly significant. Of major significance is the fact that the existence of such literary structures in the Doctrine and Covenants could only have come from the Lord, Jesus Christ, who dictated the revelations to Joseph Smith. Therefore, the literary style itself in the Doctrine and Covenants is a major evidence of its divine origin.

Of all the multiple literary styles in both ancient and modern scripture, perhaps the most prolific is an intricate form of repetition called the Chiasmus. There are many different types and forms of repetition used in the scriptures. E.W. Bullinger, for instance, has identified 217 different figures of speech used in the Bible, forty-four of which are different types of repetition. The chiasmus consists of a form of repetition in which the repeated elements are listed in reverse order, i.e., if a series of words, phrases or concepts is given in the order of A, B, C, D, then those elements would be repeated as D, C. B, A.

It is both curious and significant that although this literary structure is quite predominant in all scripture, it is almost never recognized unless specifically sought for by the investigator. Thus, the form does not supersede the content, and is never a distraction to the reader. However, when it is recognized it becomes a powerful aid in increasing the depth of understanding of the scriptures. Chiasma generally bound a given topic. In addition, the chiastic form identifies the central theme of the topic, and the repetitions of the various elements serve to define, clarify and amplify the subjects addressed.

Types of Relationships Between Repeated Elements

Chiasma may be composed of any number of parallel elements. The most elementary chiasma have only two repeated elements. The longest chiasmus in the Doctrine and Covenants, found in Section 11, contains 16 sets of repeated elements. The longest chiasmus in the Book of Mormon, found in 1st Nephi, contains an amazing 165 sets of repeated words!

The nature of the relationship between the repeated elements may be any one of several different types, and seldom is a chiasmus found in which all the repeated elements bear the same relationship one to another. Among the relationships between repeated elements that will be considered in this paper are repeated words, repeated phrases, similar concepts, and concepts related as positive to negative, past to future and temporal to spiritual. Other relationships also exist, such as singular to plural, cause to effect, question to answer, permissive to restrictive, etc., but they are less frequent than the ones treated below.

Also characteristic of chiasma is the fact that the elements tend to become shorter and more specific as they approach the center of the chiasmus. This building of meaning towards the center adds power to the structure and often serves to emphasize the central theme. In addition, not infrequently the two outermost elements strongly support the central theme.

Repeated Words

The parallel elements of a chiasmus may be related in any one of a number of different ways. The most obvious and the easiest to recognize is the exact repetition of either words or phrases. An example of the exact repetition of specific words is shown in the chiasmus found in Mosiah 25:5, as follows:

And it came to pass that Mosiah did read, and caused to be read, the records

3} of Zeniff

2} to his people

1} yea, he read the records

2} of the people

3} of Zeniff,

from the time they left the land of Zarahemla until the time they returned again.

Here we see that the chiasmus exists in the central part of the verse, and that the words Zeniff and people are the repeated elements. The central theme of this short passage is that Mosiah did read the records.

Below is a second example of word repetition in which the only change in the words is from plural to singular. This example is found in Doctrine and Covenants 104:68-69.

And all the moneys that you receive... as fast as you receive moneys,

5} by hundreds,

4} or by fifties,

3} or by twenties,

2} or by tens,

1} or by fives.

1} Or in other words, if any man among you obtain five dollars let him cast them into the treasury.

2} or if he obtain ten,

3} or twenty,

4} or fifty,

5} or an hundred, let him do likewise;

This chiasmas lacks a distinctive central theme, but the innermost elements are repeated.

Repeated Phrases

Some chiasma are composed of entire phrases repeated in exact order, such as in Doctrine and Covenants 76:26-27:

2} a son of the morning, And we beheld, and lo,

1} he is fallen

1} is fallen,

2} even a son of the morning!

Similar Concepts

By far the most common form of repetition in chiastic structures is the repetition of the same concept, thought, or idea in different terminology. This relationship between elements is formally known as the synonymous parallelism. It is found not only in chiasma, but it is also prominently found as an independent literary form. The Book of Job is particularly prolific in this literary form, with over 50% of the verses consisting of synonymous parallelisms. As a brief example, Job 3:3-5 is listed below with the parallelisms identified. Verses 4 and 5 each repeat the same concept three times.

A] 3 Let the day perish wherein I was born,

B] and the night in which it was said, There is a man child conceived.

A] 4 Let that day be darkness;

B] let not God regard it from above,

C] neither let the light shine upon it.

A] 5 Let darkness and the shadow of death stain it;

B] let a cloud dwell upon it;

C] let the blackness of the day terrify it.

A valuable exercise in learning to identify chiasma in the scriptures would be to read the Book of Job and identify each of the synonymous parallelisms that occur in over 50% of the verses. This would help to recognize similar structures in chiastic relationships.

Positive to Negative

The popular couplet found in Doctrine and Covenants 82:10 is composed of a two-element chiasmus where the legs of both elements bear positive to negative relationships one to another.

2} I, the Lord, am bound

1} when ye do what I say;

1} but when ye do not what I say,

2} ye have no promise.

The inner elements ( 1} ) vary only by the negative not in the second leg of the pair. The first leg of the second elements is a positive statement in which the Lord obligates himself to bless the obedient. However, the repeated elements of the chiasmus emphasize the point that the Lord's obligation to bless is conditioned on obedience. So the words ye have no promise following the condition of noncompliance form the negative counterpart of the Lord's promised blessing to the obedient.

Past to Future

An example of the past-to-future relationship in chiastic elements is shown in the scripture found in Doctrine and Covenants 43:2-4, diagramed as follows:

2 For behold, verily, verily, I say unto you, that ye have received a commandment for a law unto my church

2} through him whom I have appointed unto you to receive commandments and revelations from my hand.

1} 3 And this ye shall know assuredly—that there is none other appointed unto you to receive commandments and revelations until he be taken, if he abide in me.

1} 4 But verily, verily, I say unto you, that none else shall be appointed unto this gift except it be through him;

2} for if it be taken from him he shall not have power except to appoint another in his stead.

The tenses are different in each of the two pairs of elements in this chiasmus. The second elements, whom I have appointed and he shall not have power except to appoint bear the relationship of past to future. The tenses of the first elements change from present to future: there is none other appointed and none else shall be appointed.

Temporal to Spiritual

When Alma the Younger recounted the experience of his miraculous conversion to his son, Helaman, recorded in Alma Chapter 36, the account is formulated of a single chiasmus of thirteen elements. In this account Alma compares his feelings before his conversion to those after he was moved by the mercy and forgiveness of the Lord. A number of the elements of this chiasmus bear the temporal-to-spiritual relationship. Because of the length of this chiasmus the parallel elements will be displayed together for easier comparison, rather than in the sequence in which they occur.

Identical phrases

13} 1 My son, give ear to my words; for I swear unto you, that inasmuch as ye shall keep the commandments of God ye shall prosper in the land.

13} 30 But behold, my son, this is not all; for ye ought to know as I do know, that inasmuch as ye shall keep the commandments of God ye shall prosper in the land; and ye ought to know also, that inasmuch as ye will not keep the commandments of God ye shall be cut off from his presence. Now this is according to his word.

These outermost elements of this chiasmus are word-for-word repetitions of a phrase. The outer elements, as on occasion is the case, form a theme for the chiasmus. This theme may be supplemental or in addition to the central theme, expressed in the innermost element or elements. In this case, in addition to the important counsel given to Helaman, the outermost elements contain the concept of relating the temporal ye shall prosper in the land to the spiritual inasmuch as ye shall keep the commandments of God.

Temporal to spiritual

12} 2 I would that ye should do as I have done, in remembering the captivity of our fathers; for they were in bondage, and none could deliver them except it was the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob; and he surely did deliver them in their afflictions.

12} 28 And I know that he will raise me up at the last day, to dwell with him in glory; yea, and I will praise him forever, for he has brought our fathers out of Egypt, and he has swallowed up the Egyptians in the Red Sea; and he led them by his power into the promised land; yea, and he has delivered them out of bondage and captivity from time to time.

The twelfth elements form a temporal-to-spiritual relationship between they were in bondage, and none could deliver them... and he has brought our fathers out of Egypt...

General to specific

11} 3 And now, O my son Helaman, behold, thou art in thy youth, and therefore, I beseech of thee that thou wilt hear my words and learn of me; for I do know that whosoever shall put their trust in God shall be supported in their trials, and their troubles, and their afflictions, and shall be lifted up at the last day.

11} 27 And I have been supported under trials and troubles of every kind, yea, and in all manner of afflictions; yea, God has delivered me from prison, and from bonds, and from death; yea, and I do put my trust in him, and he will still deliver me.

The relationship between the eleventh elements is from a general to a specific concept.

Positive to negative, Temporal to spiritual

10} 4 And I would not that ye think that I know of myself—not of the temporal but of the spiritual, not of the carnal mind but of God.

5 Now, behold, I say unto you, if I had not been born of God I should not have known these things; but God has, by the mouth of his holy angel, made these things known unto me, not of any worthiness of myself;

10} therefore they do know of these things of which I have spoken, as I do know; and the knowledge which I have is of God.

The above elements are related both by the positive-to-negative and the temporal-to-spiritual concepts. In the first element, Alma is saying that his knowledge does not come from a temporal or carnal source; and in the second element he confesses that it does come from God. The temporal-to-spiritual concept is conveyed by relating temporal and carnal to that which comes from God.

All the following elements from 9} through 2} bear a temporal-to-spiritual relationship to each other. It may also be noted that as the chiastic elements approach the center they tend to become both shorter and more intense.

Temporal to spiritual

9} 6 For I went about with the sons of Mosiah, seeking to destroy the church of God; but behold, God sent his holy angel to stop us by the way.

9} 26 For because of the word which he has imparted unto me, behold, many have been born of God, and have tasted as I have tasted, and have seen eye to eye as I have seen;

8} 7 And behold, he spake unto us, as it were the voice of thunder, and the whole earth did tremble beneath our feet; and we all fell to the earth, for the fear of the Lord came upon us.

8} 25 Yea, and now behold, O my son, the Lord doth give me exceedingly great joy in the fruit of my labors;

In the eighth elements Alma is comparing as mirror images (symmetrical locations in the chiasmus) his feelings as a result of persecuting the church (temporal) to his feelings as a result of laboring in the kingdom (spiritual).

7} 8 But behold, the voice said unto me: Arise. And I arose and stood up, and beheld the angel.

9 And he said unto me: If thou wilt of thyself be destroyed, seek no more to destroy the church of God.

7} 24 Yea, and from that time even until now, I have labored without ceasing, that I might bring souls unto repentance; that I might bring them to taste of the exceeding joy of which I did taste; that they might also be born of God, and be filled with the Holy Ghost.

6} 10 And it came to pass that I fell to the earth; and it was for the space of three days and three nights that I could not open my mouth, neither had I the use of my limbs.

6} 23 But behold, my limbs did receive their strength again, and I stood upon my feet, and did manifest unto the people that I had been born of God.

5} 11 And the angel spake more things unto me, which were heard by my brethren, but I did not hear them; for when I heard the words—If thou wilt be destroyed of thyself, seek no more to destroy the church of God—I was struck with such great fear and amazement lest perhaps I should be destroyed, that I fell to the earth and I did hear no more.

5} 21 Yea, I say unto you, my son, that there could be nothing so exquisite and so bitter as were my pains. Yea, and again I say unto you, my son, that on the other hand, there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy.

22 Yea, methought I saw, even as our father Lehi saw, God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels, in the attitude of singing and praising their God; yea, and my soul did long to be there.

4} 12 But I was racked with eternal torment, for my soul was harrowed up to the greatest degree and racked with all my sins.

4} 20 And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain!

3} 13 Yea, I did remember all my sins and iniquities, for which I was tormented with the pains of hell; yea, I saw that I had rebelled against my God, and that I had not kept his holy commandments.

3} 19 And now, behold, when I thought this, I could remember my pains no more; yea, I was harrowed up by the memory of my sins no more.

2} 14 Yea, and I had murdered many of his children, or rather led them away unto destruction; yea, and in fine so great had been my iniquities, that the very thought of coming into the presence of my God did rack my soul with inexpressible horror.

15 Oh, thought I, that I could be banished and become extinct both soul and body, that I might not be brought to stand in the presence of my God, to be judged of my deeds.

2} 17 And it came to pass that as I was thus racked with torment, while I was harrowed up by the memory of my many sins, behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world.

18 Now, as my mind caught hold upon this thought, I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death.

Central theme

1} 16 And now, for three days and for three nights was I racked, even with the pains of a damned soul.

This chiasmus is built around the soul-harrowing experience of Alma as he was turned over to the buffetings of Satan for three days and nights, undoubtedly from which experience came the depth of his conversion to the Lord.

Procedures for Identifying Chiasma in the Scriptures

The first step in learning to recognize chiasma is to look for repeated words. When such a repetition is identified, examine the phrases before and after the repeated pair for other repetitions. Also, entire phrases may be repeated in the exact word order. For example, in Mosiah 25:5, Mormon makes a simple word repetition in chiastic form, as follows:

And it came to pass that Mosiah did read, and caused to be read, the records

3} of Zeniff

2} to his people

1} yea, he read the records

2} of the people

3} of Zeniff,

from the time they left the land of Zarahemla until the time they returned again.

Another simple chiastic word repetition is found in Mosiah 27:34.

And four of them were

3} the sons of Mosiah;

2} and their names were

1} Ammon, and Aaron, and Omner, and Himni;

2} these were the names of

3} the sons of Mosiah.

Sometimes we may find repeated words or phrases that are not as close together as in the above examples. For instance, in Alma Chapter 36, shown above, there is a phrase in verse 1 that is repeated word for word in verse 30 (elements 13). One would not normally be looking for phrase repetitions at such a distance. However, those two phrases enclose a powerful chiasmus. Thus, to identify such repetitions, attention must be paid to words and to word order as well as to the meaning conveyed. This cannot be done by casual reading. As a matter of fact, by reading casually even those chiasma well know to the reader are usually not recognized. The identifying of chiastic structures requires a concentrated and detailed study of the scriptures. As one studies the scriptures he may ask himself the meaning of each word in a passage and attempt to understand the purpose of the writer in using that particular word.

The careful attention of Jacob, the brother of Nephi, to the meaning of words as he studied the scriptures would be an appropriate example. As Jacob read in Isaiah 11:11 from the Brass Plates of Laban, he commented, But great are the promises of the Lord unto them who are upon the isles of the sea; wherefore as it says isles, there must needs be more than this, and they are inhabited also by our brethren. By accepting the plural form of the word, isle, as it was written, Jacob concluded that the land to which they had been led by the Lord, that we now know as the Americas, was not the only land outside of the Near East from where they had come that was surrounded by water.

Those who wrote the scriptures undoubtedly were not casual in the choice of words or phrases used to convey the concepts that they were attempting to communicate. Perhaps as we meditate upon the scriptures we could include a consideration of the structure as well as of the meaning of scriptural passages. With that intent, chiastic structures are more likely to be revealed to those who seek them.

An interesting example of a conceptual chiasmus where the parallel elements are essentially synonymous parallelisms is found in King Benjamin’s address in Mosiah 2:15-27.

15 Yet, my brethren, I have not done these things that I might boast,

7} neither do I tell these things that thereby I might accuse you; but I tell you these things

6} that ye may know that I can answer a clear conscience before God this day.

16 Behold, I say unto you that because I said unto you that I had spent my days in your service, I do not desire to boast, for I have only been in the service of God.

17 And behold, I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.

5} 18 Behold, ye have called me your king; and if I, whom ye call your king, do labor to serve you, then ought not ye to labor to serve one another?

4} 19 And behold also, if I, whom ye call your king, who has spent his days in your service, and yet has been in the service of God, do merit any thanks from you, O how you ought to thank your heavenly King!

3} 20 I say unto you, my brethren, that if you should render all the thanks and praise which your whole soul has power to possess, to that God who has created you, and has kept and preserved you, and has caused that ye should rejoice, and has granted that ye should live in peace one with another--

21 I say unto you that if ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another—I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants.

2} 22 And behold, all that he requires of you is to keep his commandments; and he has promised you that if ye would keep his commandments ye should prosper in the land; and he never doth vary from that which he hath said; therefore, if ye do keep his commandments he doth bless you and prosper you.

1} 23 And now, in the first place, he hath created you, and granted unto you your lives, for which ye are indebted unto him.

2} 24 And secondly, he doth require that ye should do as he hath commanded you; for which if ye do, he doth immediately bless you; and therefore he hath paid you. And ye are still indebted unto him, and are, and will be, forever and ever; therefore, of what have ye to boast?

3} 25 And now I ask, can ye say aught of yourselves? I answer you, Nay. Ye cannot say that ye are even as much as the dust of the earth; yet ye were created of the dust of the earth; but behold, it belongeth to him who created you.

4} 26 And I, even I, whom ye call your king, am no better than ye yourselves are; for I am also of the dust. And ye behold that I am old, and am about to yield up this mortal frame to its mother earth.

5} 27 Therefore, as I said unto you that I had served you,

6} walking with a clear conscience before God,

7} even so I at this time have caused that ye should assemble yourselves together, that I might be found blameless, and that your blood should not come upon me, when I shall stand to be judged of God of the things whereof he hath commanded me concerning you.

This chiasmus might first be recognized by identifying the repetition of two forms of the word command in verses 22 and 24. The concept of being required to keep the commandments is related in both verses, followed by the promised results of obedience—first to prosper in the land and then to be immediately blessed.

The third elements relate the concept of our inability to merit the blessings of the Lord—in the first instance being unprofitable servants, and in the second instance being even of less value than the dust of the earth.

In the fourth elements King Benjamin equates himself to his subjects, having served them and being no better than they are. The fifth brief elements reinforce the concept of the King as a servant.

In the sixth elements King Benjamin absolves himself of guilt, stating that he has a clear conscience before God, and in the seventh elements he explains that he is not being accusative, but attempting to answer a clear conscience before God.

King Benjamin’s address is an excellent vehicle to study conceptual chiasma. This powerful address had such a profound influence on the people that without the exception of a single person (Mos. 6:2) they entered into a covenant to be obedient to the commandments of God, took upon themselves the name of the Savior and were called the children of Christ (Mos. 5:5-8). This address, found in the first our chapters of Mosiah, is comprised of a series of seventeen chiasma bounding the various subtopics. The location of the chiasma and the number of elements they contain are listed in Table 1. By referring to Table 1, the student may identify the location and the number of chiastic elements in each chiasmus in King Benjamin’s address. As an exercise in identifying chiasma, carefully read each reference to identify the chiasmus cited.

Proficiency will be gained only by practice. The key to identifying chiasma is the recognition of the different forms of repetition. When repetitions are identified in close proximity, one should carefully examine the ensuing and preceding verses for additional parallelisms. It would be well to mark each one, such as by enclosing it in parentheses and giving it an identifying number. Thus, the chiasmus will be identified and marked for later reference.

If parallelisms are identified that are not immediately adjacent one to the other, it would be well to examine the passage between the two repeated phrases or words for additional parallelisms. If a chiastic structure is thus identified, then examine the preceding and succeeding passages to identify the extent of the chiasmus.

Table 1. King Benjamin's Chiasma, Mosiah, Chapters 1 - 4.

Chapter Verse Elements Comments
1 3 - 5 4  
  5 - 6 3  
  10 - 18 5  
2 9 - 10 2  
  15 - 27 6  
  29 - 30 3  
  31 - 32 4  
  33 - 37 5  
  37 - 41 4  
3 1 - 3 4  
  5 - 10 4  
  12 - 21 9  
  24 - 27 4  
4 1 - 3 5  
  5 - 11a 5 Elements 4 and 3 each comprise 2 - element parallelisms*
  5 - 11b 8 Elements 8 are comprised of 2 - element parallelisms*
  16 - 26 2 Elements 1 are comprised of 4 - element parallelisms
  26 - 29 4 The 4th and 3rd elements in verse 26 overlap the final 2nd element of the preceding chiasmus

*The two chiasma in verses 5 and 11 are completely overlapping and independent.

1. E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible, Eyre and Spottiswoode, London, 1898. Sixteenth printing. Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1991.

2. H. Clay Gorton, Language of the Lord, Horizons Publishers, Bountiful, Utah, 1993, pp 27-34 316-320.

3. H. Clay Gorton, A New Witness For Christ, Chiastic Structures in the Book of Mormon, Horizon Publisheers, Bountiful, Utah, 1997, pp 23-29.