A chiasmus is a form of ancient Hebrew poetry which is also known as inverted parallelism. In a chiasmus, ideas will be put forth until they reach a central, main idea, at which point, the themes will repeat themselves in reverse order.
An extremely simple example is found in Matthew 20:16:
(B) shall be first,
(B') and the first
(A') last: ...
A little bit more complex, extended example can be found in Genesis 6:10 – 9:19. Here it is only summarized:
(A) Noah (6:10a)
(B) Shem, Ham, and Japheth (10b)
(C) Ark to be built (14-16)
(D) Flood announced (17)
(E Covenant with Noah (18-20)
(F) Food in the ark (21)
(G) Command to enter the ark (7:1-3)
(H) 7 days waiting for flood (4-5)
(I) 7 days waiting for flood (7-10)
(J) Entry to ark (11-15)
(K) YHWH shuts Noah in (16)
(L) 40 days flood (17a)
(M) Waters increase (17b-18)
(N) Mountains covered (19-20)
(O) 150 days water prevail (21-24)
(P) God remembers Noah (8:1)
(O') 150 days waters abate (3)
(N’) Mountain tops visible (4-5)
(M’) Waters abate (5)
(L’) 40 days (end of) (6a)
(K’) Noah opens window of ark (6b)
(J’) Raven and dove leave ark (7-9)
(I’) 7 days waiting for waters to subside (10-11)
(H’) 7 days waiting for waters to subside (12-13)
(G’) Command to leave ark (15-17 )
(F’) Food outside ark (9:1-4)
(E’) Covenant with all flesh (8-10)
(D’) No flood in the future (11-17)
(C’) Ark (18a)
(B’) Shem, Ham and Japheth (18b)
(A’) Noah (19)
This form of poetry was used throughout the Old and New Testaments. Since it's discovery in the Book of Mormon in 1967, it has fascinated Latter-Day Saints.
Many Latter-Day Saints point out that the use of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon is proof that Joseph Smith translated a script that was Hebrew in origin, since the chiasmus had not yet been discovered when the Book of Mormon was translated in 1829. The most famous example of this is chapter 36 of the Book of Alma. The entire chapter is an exceptionally long, complex chiasmus (which can be found here).
Critics of the Book of Mormon are quick to point out that knowledge of chiasmus was actually widespread during that time and it would not have been exceptional at all for Joseph Smith to have been aware of this Hebrew literary style during translation.
Strangely enough, they're both wrong. Latter-Day Saints are incorrect because the chiasmus was actually discovered in the Bible almost one hundred years before Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon. However, critics are also incorrect because knowledge of chiasmus was not widespread. During Joseph's life, it was very obscure and esoteric knowledge, just as it is today.
Bengel's Gnomon Novi Testamenti
Possibly the first occurrence of the word “chiasmus” is in 1742, in the Gnomon Novi Testamenti by D. Johannes Albertus Bengel of the University of T bingen. This work was written entirely in latin and was not translated into English until 1860-62. Bengel mentions and briefly describes “Chiasmus inversus” in a glossary of literary terms used in the Old and New Testaments.
Unfortunately, in addition to not being translated into English until about 1860, Bengel's work was also not very influential and did not have a great impact on his contemporaries. In "The Presence of Chiasmus in the Old Testament,"American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 46 (1930), Nils Lund says, “I am not in possession of any information that enables me to connect Boys's [a later scholar] work with the researches of Jebb or the still earlier observations of Bengel on chiasmus.” His work was not continued by German scholars or English theologians.
Just over a decade later, Robert Lowth of Oxford gave a series of lectures on Hebrew poetry, which laid down the basic principles of parallelism as the keys for unlocking the literary qualities of the Hebrew Bible. Lowth divided parallelisms into three categories: synonymous, synthetic, and antithetic. However, he indicates no knowledge of chiasmus or inverse parallelism in these lectures.
Jebb's Sacred Literature
However, in 1805, a man named Alexander Knox gave copies of Lowth's lectures to John Jebb, Bishop of Limerick, Ireland. Later, in 1819, Jebb sends a letter to Knox found in (Thirty Years of Correspondence between John Jebb and Alexander Knox 1:380). "Without you," he says, "I never might have read Lowth.” This is a testament to the obscurity of this knowledge in the early 1800's, in which the chiasmus was not only still unknown to the English speaking world, but also virtually unknown to European theologians. In a series of letters between Jebb and Knox, they begin to become dissatisfied with Lowth's definition and begin to delve deeper into Biblical parallelism.
In 1820, Jebb became the first English writer to describe the chiasmus as a distinct type of parallelism in the Bible when he published Sacred Literature, which was an amazingly comprehensive book, referencing both Lowth and Bengel. He set out to correct Lowth's widely accepted definitions of the species of parallelism. Because of this, Jebb's work met opposition from the outset. Lowth's fame was international, but Jebb's was hardly even domestic Jebb's attempt to criticize Lowth failed partly because of Lowth's established prestige in theological circles and partly because of mistakes that Jebb himself made.
Boys's Tactica Sacra
In 1824, the Reverend Thomas Boys (M.A., Trinity College, Cambridge, and Curate of Widford, Hertfordshire), further developed the theory of "mutual correspondence in the members of sentences," as he called parallelism.
Boys's first volume, Tactica Sacra, consists mainly of hard-to-follow tabular arrangements—complete with parallel-columned Greek and English texts—of the epistles of 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 2 Peter, and Philemon. However, this work was not widely circulated. John W. Welch, at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship says,
“BYU's Interlibrary Loan office was unable to locate either of these books in any library in the United States at the time I wrote my thesis . I first saw these volumes in the Bodleian Library when I was studying at Oxford in 1970—72. I am aware of no evidence that these books or any knowledge of them reached America before 1829, although in theory that is possible. Recently one of my assistants found that Harvard's Hollis Library holds Key to the Book of Psalms (no acquisition date available) but has no copy of Tactica Sacra, 'which seems to be entirely unknown in America,' according to Lund, Chiasmus in the New Testament, 38.”
Boys's A Key to the Book of Psalms
Boys's second volume was entitled A Key to the Book of Psalms and covered sixteen Psalms, but none of them in great detail. Nils Lund says,
“While Boys must be given credit for having uncovered many facts concerning chiastic structures in the Psalms, he failed to make the most of the principle with which he worked. He often observed terms and phrases which recur in a psalm, and rightly concluded that they had something to do with the literary structure of the psalm. He did not, however, subject each psalm to a minute analysis and made no attempt whatsoever to ascertain the principle of the Hebrew strophe. What he found of chiastic structures is, as the reader may suspect from the brief passages already presented, only a small part of what may be discovered in the Psalms by a minute analysis. The literary artistry of the Psalms is much more minute and intricate than Boys's method reveals.”
A 1890 edition of the work contained illustrations from all the psalms and was, according to E.W. Bullinger, the first time that such a comprehensive work had been laid effectively before the public.
This second volume was not widely circulated either. Lund says, in The Presence of Chiasmus in the Old Testament, that “Jebb was better received at first, but today the world still knows virtually nothing about Boys; copies of his Tactica Sacra and his Key to the Book of Psalms seem to be very rare or nonexistent in the United States.”
In addition, where they were available, their content was met with opposition or indifference, so much so that in in 1854, John Forbes, a Scottish theologian, wrote a book with the stated purpose "to attempt to rescue the study of parallelism from the disrepute into which it has fallen."
Horne's Introduction to the Critical Study
and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures
Around the same time as Boys, Thomas Hartwell Horne wrote a vastly comprehensive work on almost every topic related to Hebrew poetry called Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures in 1818 in London by Cadell and Davies . The fourth edition of this book, published in 1825, was the first edition available in America, being printed in London and Philadelphia.
This book praises Jebb's work and describes chiastic inverted parallelism, but the examples used are either unremarkably simple (Proverbs 23:15—16, a-b-b-a), somewhat unclear (Isaiah 27:12-13, a-b-c-c-b-a, whose elements are not transparently connected: in that day / in Jerusalem; trump sound / bow down), or unconvincing (Psalm 135:15—18, a-b-c-d-d-c-b-a, which is presented in two alternative formats).
A sixth edition of the Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Holy Scriptures appeared in 1828. The section on Hebrew poetry was then entitled "On the Interpretation of the Poetical Parts of Scripture," and although the type was reset, the text remained essentially the same as it had appeared in 1825.
Although the writing of John Jebb figured into Horne's 1825 and subsequent editions, the works of Thomas Boys, published in 1824 and 1825, were apparently too obscure to be mentioned in that publication. Even in Horne's discussion of the psalms in his 1836 edition, the concept of "structure" continues to refer only to "choral structure," so the work of Boys on the structure of the Psalms had evidently made no impression on Horne in this regard.
Availability and Other Issues
So the books which Joseph Smith could have gained this knowledge from are John Jebb's Sacred Literature, Boys's Tactica Sacra or Key to the Book of Psalms, or Horne's Introduction to the Critical Study and Knowledge of the Scriptures.
Concerning the availability of these books in America at the time the Book of Mormon was translated, John W. Welch says,
“My research assistants have contacted, where convenient, most of the libraries that hold any of these titles to see if they know when they acquired them. The preliminary results support the idea that very few, if any, copies of Jebb or Boys actually reached America before 1829...
Regarding Jebb's Sacred Literature, Jed Woodworth, a student, found that the bookplate in the copy held in the Hollis Library dates its acquisition there to 1910. I thank Lance Starr for learning that the Columbia College Library holds a copy that bears the inscription, "To the library of Columbia College, New York, part of the legacy of the late Rt Rev John Jebb, DD, Bishop of Limerick, Ireland" (apparently Jebb still had copies at his death and bequeathed some of them to libraries); because the bookplate shows an address that was not used before 1849, one may conclude that Columbia obtained its copy after 1849; it was catalogued in 1885. Emory University holds a copy of the 1820 and 1831 editions of Jebb, the later of which could not have been in the country before 1831. The New York Public Library has unsuccessfully searched for evidence of when it acquired this title.
Concerning Boys's Tactica Sacra, one copy has been located at Dallas Theological Seminary, established in 1924. No accession information is available. The book is not listed at Harvard or the New York Public Library.
Harvard and Yale each hold a copy of Boys's 1825 edition of Key to the Book of Psalms, but no acquisition date is apparently indicated. The Jewish Theological Seminary of America has a copy of that edition that was acquired on 9 June 1918 for 2 shillings and 6 pence—evidently it was purchased in England near the end of World War I. This title is more common in libraries because it was reprinted in 1890 by Bullinger.
Both the bookplate and verso of the title page of Horne's 1825 treatise say that Harvard acquired its copy of that work in 1860. Nevertheless, Horne's treatise would have been available for purchase in bookshops or from traveling salesmen, and such merchants would have been the most likely sources for Joseph Smith to have obtained a fledgling knowledge of the five examples and a few pages about introverted parallelism buried in those two massive tomes.”
Many of these books were widely unavailable in America until after 1829. However, even if Joseph Smith had read Horne or Jebb, he still would have known little about structural chiasmus. In Jebb's work, epanodos, or introverted parallelism, played mainly a supporting role in the overall argument for which he was best known—namely, for extending the study of parallelism in Hebrew lines from the Old Testament to the New. From Horne's volume, Joseph Smith would have had available only a brief discussion of Jebb's work on "parallel lines introverted," illustrated by three examples from the Old Testament, and two short examples from the New Testament ten pages later. All of this was tucked into twenty-eight pages on the characteristics of Hebrew lines, with one reference to Jebb in the bibliography. In addition, the tabular arrangements of Boys (none of which was mentioned in 1825 by Horne) are technical and in most cases hard to follow. Even in later editions, Horne's summaries of the scholarship on each of the four New Testament epistles analyzed in Tactica Sacra completely ignore Boys.
In addition, if Joseph Smith were aware of the work of Jebb, Boys or Horne, it would be even less likely that he would have used the idea of inverted parallelism in his translation, given the indifferent to negative stigma this study had received in theological circles. If Joseph Smith were a con man trying to forge a convincing Hebraic text, he would not be likely to use literary styles which, even in his day, were seen as dubious.
Finally, if he had used these works as a guide, then the chiasmus in the Book of Mormon would have been structured differently. If he had read Jebb and Boys, he would have been misguided by their rule that these structures placed "in the centre the less important notion." Chiasms in the Book of Mormon typically do the opposite. And he might well have hesitated to use chiasmus in prose and not merely in poetry, where all varieties of parallelism were more acceptably located.
In conclusion, it is theoretically possible that Joseph Smith could have acquired and read one of these books before 1829. However, the obscure and esoteric nature of these books made them all but nonexistent in America until a few decades later. Even given the very slim chance that he had found one, the structural errors of Jebb and Boys, the dense, technical layout of Boys, the vague information given by Jebb and Horne, and the skepticism attached to the study of these structures make it difficult to guess which he would have been able to find, and if he would have used the information if he had it.
Therefore, while it is possible that Joseph Smith had been able to find, understand, and use one of these books, the probability is extremely low.