Attacking Hugh Nibley’s Work

Hugh W. Nibley (1910-2005)

Hugh W. Nibley (1910-2005)

As if going after the present-day apologists in their current awful circumstances is not enough, yes, those apologists alive today that can actually still defend themselves against spurious arguments, some have now turned their attention to one of the Church’s most beloved apologists, the late Hugh W. Nibley (1910-2005).  See “Fundanibleists and Fauxpologetics,” at Faith Promoting Rumor.  It should be well noted that those bloggers are members of the Church.

Oudenos argues that the “Nibley approach to apologetics and its reception have, in part, had long term and still expanding negative effects on church members” [emphasis mine].  I completely disagree with Oudenos, and his arguments, some of which he presented but somehow failed to explain why they are “negative”.  Hugh Nibley has been profoundly influential in charting the course of LDS scholarship in the 20th and 21st centuries, taking it up to a whole new level unthought of before, and giving members bountiful evidences for the truth of the gospel, from dozens of cultures and time periods worldwide, which has helped strengthen the faith and testimony of countless people, inside and outside the Church.  Indeed, many have joined the Church after reading Nibley’s work, and then receiving a witness of the truth of the gospel.  Daniel Peterson’s own father had a conversion experience like this.

So this was my comment, with a few minor edits, addressing each of his seven points:

My comments, as founder of TempleStudy.com, a blog dedicated to the work of Hugh Nibley:

1) [Nibley's writings] are authoritative (with a lower case “a”) if you consider what even priesthood Authorities (capital “A”) have said about him and his work. Nibley was incredibly smart, educated, and knowledgeable about an almost endless number of subjects and languages. He had a tremendous amount to say and teach, even being personally invited to teach the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve within the Salt Lake Temple. I know of no other scholars who have done that. I believe President Kimball once cleaned the dust off of his shoes, for what it’s worth [see Boyd J. Peterson, Hugh Nibley, A Consecrated Life]. All these things lead one to become authoritative in some degree; in Nibley’s case, it made him very authoritative in the subjects he addressed.

2) Nibley’s work is elevated, no doubt, but I would not say it is dense and impenetrable. I’ve poked some at it, and I have a degree in Industrial Design (i.e. nothing related to ANE studies, ancient languages, Near Eastern cultures, history, or the like). He has taught me worlds. His book Approaching Zion completely changed my life, teaching me unlike any other that this life is our time to prepare to meet God, and that the restored gospel of Jesus Christ is the most important thing in this life. By the way, there is more being uncovered that Nibley first discovered all the time. He opened the door to many rooms which we have now just begun to enter into. His work will be updated (see also #6).

3) Why is finding ancient parallels and sources for modern LDS temple ritual a bad thing? Just because ancient things may not always equal genuine or divine has nothing to do with it. It does mean that these things have had their counterparts in history, even before Joseph Smith. Hugh Nibley once wrote, “Latter-day Saints believe that their temple ordinances are as old as the human race and represent a primordial revealed religion that has passed through alternate phases of apostasy and restoration which have left the world littered with the scattered fragments of the original structure, some more and some less recognizable, but all badly damaged and out of proper context…” (Intro in Hugh Nibley, The Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment).

4) Again, why is looking into non-biblical records for that which shines light on Joseph Smith’s work a bad thing? I would see it as a vindication of the Prophet. These “nuggets” are especially interesting to Latter-day Saints, in the sense of apologia. But I would hardly call Hugh Nibley’s work a disregard for everything else those texts had to offer. Remember, Nibley published in many academic journals and periodicals about his findings, which were all peer reviewed and valuable to scholars everywhere.

5) Again, why is [searching for pre-Joseph Smith "nuggets"] bad? Please explain your arguments, and why this is “negative.” If something truly ancient and archaic that was not known at the time of Joseph Smith crops up in Church doctrine, ritual, or scripture, could that not be interesting evidence for the divine calling of the Prophet, revealing things he himself could not have known except by revelation? Even Harold Bloom was amazed by the Prophet’s ability to do this: “I can only attribute to his genius or daemons his uncanny recovery of elements in ancient Jewish theurgy that had ceased to be available either to Judaism or to Christianity, and that had survived only in esoteric traditions unlikely to have touched Smith directly” (Harold Bloom, The American Religion, 101).

6) I’ve noted on TempleStudy.com recently that Nibley and his contemporary LDS scholars hardly made absolutist claims about Abraham, Egypt, or anything else. Nibley quipped that he couldn’t be held responsible for anything he said three years ago, because things were constantly changing in scholarship and knowledge. John Gee noted where Nibley was mistaken in the second edition of An Egyptian Endowment, and carefully pointed where new information was now available. I do not believe I’m always accurate in what I say on my blog, but I try my best. The absolute truth and nothing but the truth will come later (see my recent post on alethiology).

7) Drive by blog it? Really?

For valuing so much of what Nibley wrote, and changing your life, you do him and his work a true disservice here, sir. You dishonor his name, his work, and his life.

I think it’s quite odd the way these members of the Church will write such critical things, but quickly follow them up with affectionate words, for example, “I value much of what Nibley wrote. His writings inspired a younger version of me and altered my life trajectory.”  Sometimes the flowers come out before the criticisms, like “I have nothing against Daniel Peterson.”  Really?  Then what are you doing calling his work “violent“?  Perhaps this is to help soften the blow?  Or is it a kind of Trojan Horse, to hook unsuspecting members or others?  There’s a disingenuousness to it all.

44 Comments

  1. Rebekah
    Posted July 2, 2012 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Seems a shame that Hugh Nibley is now being marked a target of an apologist reformation going on. I haven’t had a chance to read all of Nibley’s works but read a few pages here and there that were very intriguing and interesting to say the least.

    However, I am very much aware of the critics who pan Nibley’s works and complain that he paints things with too much of a Latter Day Saint slant. It’s almost as if their are those in the church that want to cut themselves off from the criticism that opponents of the church have. However, why do people want to cut themselves off from parellels and similarities found in other societies, religious rituals and texts? Faith is only made stronger by searching out the things that help make you stronger.

    Denying the works of Nibley is the proverbial cutting off ones nose to spite ones face.

  2. Posted July 2, 2012 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    I don’t think anybody doubts the positive effects which you list. *However*, those authors have every reason to ask, “At what cost do these benefits come? Did Nibley and his followers actually solve more problems than they caused?” The answers to these questions are by no means obvious.

  3. Posted July 2, 2012 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    Jeff, therein lies the problem. What costs? What problems did he cause? Until someone can articulate some good answers, there are very few. The visible benefits outweigh any unarticulated nebulous “costs.”

  4. Posted July 2, 2012 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    It seems to me that the modern-day Mormon is attempting to defend his faith by showing how “intellectual” he is when pitted against those antagonists to the faith. They try to outwit them and therefore attack apologetic research as if to try and say “I still believe but am just as enlightened and intellectual as all the non-believers.” Too often there is a negative feeling to their pursuit. It seems that their apologetic nature moves from apologetic in behalf of the Church, to apologetic for themselves and how they worship, and then climaxes at sheer ridicule. Members seem to want to latch themselves onto the same intellectual umbilical cord as their antagonistic colleagues (and YES, I mean COLLEAGUES). I feel bad that Daniel Peterson, who in my estimation is one of the most intellectual men we have within the CES, fell victim to it. It seems to me that many are attempting to say “I am one of you!” in order that they can be welcomed into the intellectual world. I appreciate this post because it is a concern that needs to be addressed. I personally feel that Nibley’s work could be most important to those who are seeking an understanding of Temple covenants. Too often people turn to the internet sources and find these quasi-apologists and antagonists and then are lead astray in either anti-Mormon propaganda and/or false doctrine. Nibley was a master at using non-sacred, ancient Temple rituals (at least no longer revered as sacred to any modern religion) to explain modern Temples. I took Nibley’s example and used it to teach a group of young men who went through the Order of the Arrow (Boy Scout Honor Society). I talked to them about how you received a new name in the OA, your are brought to the Chief of the OA and presented to him to whisper a key word in order to be admitted into the Order, etc… I did it so they were more apt to understand the Temple Covenants and Ordinances. If we used Hugh Nibley or Daniel Peterson more often, we would have people coming out of their first Temple experience with a greater confidence in the verity of the Ordinances they just took part in. I do not know that I 100% disagree that the FARMS Review could use an overhaul in its current direction; however, those past contributions should not be disregarded and Dan Peterson, Hugh Nibley, and Truman Madsen should be applauded for their contribution. Even if a new direction is taken, it would not have come nor excelled without these gentlemen (I have not seen Brother Madsen attacked, but I fear that is on the horizon as well).

  5. Posted July 2, 2012 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    Well said Elijah. Thank you! That reminds me, we should do a post on the Order of the Arrow. That’s a good one. Even just the Scout sign is instructive and insightful.

  6. Posted July 2, 2012 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    Bryce, nice write up. Sadly, for critics, it seems to be an “all or nothing”. All LDS apologetics are “violent” and “mean-spirited”, even though I see very little that fits those terms. Usually it is just the opposite, with people on the ex-mo boards wishing bad things to happen to Dan Peterson and many others.
    I’ve dealt with Oudenos, smallaxe and others in the past. They are the intellectuals that the Book of Mormon warns us about. They have no real charity, just a tongue-in-cheek lip service towards charity.

    Nibley was ground breaking. He opened up doors that most LDS never dreamed of before. It was primarily his writings that got me so involved in gospel scholarship, and yes, some apologetics. I still read “Approaching Zion” frequently. And I have yet seen any LDS critic respond to the fact that in the Dead Sea Scrolls Enoch fragments, one finds a man named “Mahujah” that asks Enoch questions! Nibley was the first to spot it, and write about it in “Enoch the Prophet”, and decades later there still is no response to this. Can Oudenos truly say that Nibley’s research was negative, when it opened up so many doors for today’s research? Would BYU be so involved in the Dead Sea Scrolls research, and other heady projects, if Nibley did not inspire so many younger LDS to pursue such studies?

    There is in the LDS realm today, a group of naysayers that love the attention of the anti-Mormons and the world. They wish to be popular. They think it is cool to march up Ensign Peak and quit the Church as a group, just to get noticed by the world. They think it is cool to march in Gay Parades, daring the Church to take some form of action. They think it is cool that Dehlin and others can walk the thin line between member and apostate, daring the Church to look like bad guys for excommunicating someone.

    Does Nibley’s work need updating? Some of it, yes. But that shouldn’t be surprising, given how long ago most of it was written. Then again, I’m amazed at how much of it is very accurate.

    Nibley mentioned texts in his books, but rarely quoted directly from them. So it caused me to do more research on my own. I checked many of his references, and found most of them to be good, though sometimes his interpretations were a bit weak in using it to support LDS beliefs. Still, the corpus of his work is amazing. Bryce, you and I now research ancient texts and include such things in our writings, because Nibley inspired us.

    When it comes to articles like this from Oudenos, or others from smallaxe, etc., the devil’s words (paraphrased) seem most fitting: “Jesus I know, and Nibley I know, but who are ye?” (Acts 19:15)

  7. Posted July 2, 2012 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Hi Gerald! Thank you for your observations. Very correct.

  8. Jeremiah S
    Posted July 2, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    I’ve read most of Nibley’s work. Before I was trained in modern approaches to textual analysis and critical thought, I bought everything he claimed. Now, as I read his work, it is clear that he has the ability to synthesize large swaths of information from a number of fields to support LDS theology; however, he sometimes appears to be cherrypicking the most supportive pieces of evidence while ignoring the rest. He makes all kinds of claims that he fails to support with references, as if we are supposed to simply trust his knowledge and authority on faith. I like Nibley’s work. It makes me feel good. But as a scholar, he leaves much to be desired in terms of objectivity. Again, that was the way research was done back then…

    Nibley’s work has not been canonized as church doctrine. But when folks latch onto some of his ideas and place their faith upon them, only to be disappointed when some of his ideas turn out to be wrong, it can be a frustrating experience. We should place our faith in Christ, not apologia–Christ will never be wrong.

  9. Posted July 2, 2012 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    Jeremiah, the problem isn’t in Nibley’s approach. The problem is when people consider his work as the ends, rather than a means. I got to a point in reading his books, where I noted he usually paraphrases what is found in the ancient texts. I realized I needed more, and so I went into the sources he used and began doing my own studies. I saw where he sometimes stretched certain things. But more often than not, I found he was very accurate and reliable in regards to the use of these things. Any true scholar will look at the primary sources, and not take anyone’s word for granted.
    Yet that is what we often see in the writings of those who attack the Church. They often have not documented well their articles, and frequently take things out of context, in order to make the Church sound scandalous, incredulous, or downright evil. I can find extensive bibliographies in Nibley’s books. I rarely do in the writings of anti-Mormons.

  10. Posted July 2, 2012 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    @Jeremiah, I agree with you on some points. Nibley had a quirky style. Many times he assumed that everyone in the room or his readers knew exactly what he was talking about, and lamented having to reprise and do all heavy lifting work of translation, instead of just simply keeping it in the original tongue where it was most pristine. He would refer to his own past work often, assuming that many people knew precisely what he was referring to. It was often a fire hose style of lecturing and teaching, which some did not appreciate, for sure.

    He did provide unending references (footnotes) to what he wrote, even bordering on the extreme. It would take a lifetime to go through them all. How he did it is anyone’s guess.

    As an apologist, he did have to take a position, in order to defend it. It’s what we all must do in order to “defend the faith.” Absolute objectivity in apologia is simply an unobtainable goal, as shown so clearly in David Bohn’s piece at T&S. Yes, Nibley was swayed to cast the Church in the most positive light. Yes, he may not have exposed all the dark and dirty things he may have come across. But that was not his goal. His goal was to support the Church, from the faithful point of view, for as a believing member himself, he knew it was true.

    It’s correct we should not canonize Nibley. Nibley always pointed back to Christ as the reason for his work.

  11. Posted July 2, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    The Faith Promoting Rumor’s site/blog seems to be long on rumors and short on faith promotion, every time I come in contact with them.

  12. Posted July 2, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    I am a 77 yr old lady and I have read and re read and own everything of Nibley’s I could obtain.
    Send those critics to me…..and I will punch em in the nose. They are simply jealous of his brilliant
    mind and scholarship.

  13. Posted July 2, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    Haha! Way to go Lynn! I think even our not-so-friendly friends might smile at that proposal. :)

  14. Posted July 2, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    Bryce,

    On the one hand you criticize people for being mean and pointing out that Nibley’s legacy isn’t all good. On the other you criticize them for not going into lurid detail about the bad parts of it.

    Now to be sure, this places the critic in an all too comfortable position. However, I think it’s fair to ask what, exactly, you expect from these critics (other than silence). How mean do you really want them to be?

  15. Posted July 2, 2012 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    I only ask for respect. That’s it.

  16. Raymond Takashi Swenson
    Posted July 2, 2012 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

    To recognize something as relevant evidence concerning a cultural phenomenon like religious belief and practice, you need to recognize it as part of a pattern. To recognize such patterns, you need a vast knowledge of examples where those patterns are repeatedly found. When these cultural patterns reinforce each other and form a more intelligible whole, there is a reason to concluded that the pattern appears to have real value as a means of understanding the intent of the cultural practice and its connection with other cultural practices. When the patterns appear in a relatively modern text like the Book of Moses, composed at a time when the pattern was not generally recognized as existing, I think it is reasonable to conclude that the pattern represents a legitimate reality that connects the modern and ancient texts.

    As is mentioned above, the image of a man named “Mahujah” being sent to ask Enoch who he is, in a text of an old book of Enoch recovered from a monastery, matches the image from the Book of Moses, where a man named “Mahijah” is chosen by a group to go ask Enoch who he is. The image is not something that appears on its face to be significant, but it is certainly not something that could have occurred randomly. The two texts had to have a common source. But there is no alternative explanation to Joseph Smith’s that he received the text of the Book of Moses through revelation. How did he know what was in a centuries old text in another language that was languishing on a shelf in a European monastery until the 20th Century? At the very least, it appears that Smith had a prophetic gift of extraordinary precision.

    Nibley’s writings produce many such pieces of information that Smith knew, and wrote down, but could not have known through any mundane or human source.

    Are Nibley’s critics perhaps a bit jealous that he was able to perform such feats of intellectual breadth and depth that they cannot duplicate?

  17. Posted July 2, 2012 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

    Bryce,
    Of course, Nibley himself didn’t hold his own work as sacrosanct. He said that he didn’t want to be held accountable for anything he’d written 15 years earlier. The field, and its knowledge, changes. My fundamental fear is that, in holding up Nibley as the example, we’ve ruined the field for LDS scholarship. When Col. Swenson says, “Are Nibley’s critics perhaps a bit jealous that he was able to perform such feats of intellectual breadth and depth that they cannot duplicate?” He’s right. Nibley, as a scholar, is irreplaceable. So attempts to duplicate the breadth of knowledge or the rhetorical wit are doomed to fail. He shouldn’t be held up as a model for LDS scholarship. This isn’t to say that he shouldn’t be appreciated or that his scholarship shouldn’t be valued (at least, as valued as anything written more than 50 years ago, when the world of Biblical scholarship was completely different). I’m happy to put him up there with Albright, Alt, Noth, and Cross. All excellent scholars, whose work is still valuable (and able to be mined) for their great ideas. But nobody should consider their work (or Nibley’s) the cutting edge or perfected. All scholarship is always a work in progress.

    This is why I wish Solomon Sperry or George Smith had become our model scholar instead of Nibley. Fewer attempts to at mile-wide, inch deep analysis; more in-depth exegesis.

  18. Posted July 2, 2012 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

    John, I disagree that in holding Nibley as an example we’ve ruined the field of LDS scholarship. Quite to the contrary, Nibley jumpstarted LDS scholarship in unbelievable ways, and elevated it a few dozen degrees from where it was when he jumped in. I can’t even imagine where we could be today without Nibley. I really can’t. Almost all of our scholars today point to Nibley as a teacher, mentor, exemplar, and inspiration for what they’ve done with their lives. I think Nibley can certainly be held up as a model for LDS scholarship, as he already has. Our tremendous progress to the current date can in large part be attributed back to Nibley. He got a lot of things right, pointed a lot of people in the right direction, and helped many people in the process, and many other scholars have followed suit.

  19. Posted July 3, 2012 at 1:27 am | Permalink

    Bryce,
    It’s a subtle thing, but I said “ruined the field FOR LDS scholarship”, not “ruined the field OF LDS scholarship.” I agree that Nibley has inspired much good work. But I believe that his approach to the scriptures and to history requires a greater intellect and a mastery over a broader range of fields than we can legitimately expect of mere mortals. He’s too intimidating a figure for some folks and too subtle for others. We can’t, and shouldn’t, expect a crop of new Nibleys to come out of college each year. But I believe that an expectation of new Sperrys and Smiths is reasonable and that it would do us a world of good.

  20. Alexander
    Posted July 3, 2012 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    I was fortunate enough to meet Hugh Nibley in his later years prior to his passing. (My cousin is married to his grandson.) He was truly a wonderful man.

  21. Posted July 3, 2012 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    John, I think you underestimate us. I think we sorely underestimate ourselves. Of course, anyone on the range from Sperry to Nibley would do wonderful work. The same also goes for the arts. Elder Orson F. Whitney once said:

    We will yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own. God’s ammunition is not exhausted. His highest spirits are held in reserve for the latter times. In God’s name and by His help we will build up a literature whose tops will touch the heaven, though its foundation may now be low on the earth. [Lecture delivered at YMMIA conference, 3 June 1888, in Brian H. Stuy, comp. and ed., Collected Discourses, vol. 1 (Burbank, California: B.H.S. Publishing, 1987), p. 154]

    Elder Packer’s talk, “The Arts and the Spirit of the Lord” is instructive on this matter.

    I love this quote from Marianne Williamson:

    Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.’ We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

  22. Posted July 3, 2012 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Just because Nibley cannot be duplicated does not mean that he cannot be an example to the modern scholar. The major concern is not that these people are trying to go a different avenue of the Nibley type of LDS scholarship and research. The concern is that many are trying to dismiss and deny any validity. They are mocking his type of scholarship. Nibley catapulted the BYU near-eastern research into the mainstream. He made it a model program!

    If you are going to study the sciences, you do not start on only the models of science that are applicable today; rather, we look at the many models that lead up to it. You adequately point out that many of Nibley’s stuff is outdated. Some of it is not but may become outdated. This is a good thing because it means that research is progressing. But that is why we should use him as a model of scholarship: so we can build upon it.

  23. oudenos
    Posted July 3, 2012 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    Bryce,

    To John’s reasonable assessment of the once in a century luminary that Nibley was, you counter with “John, I think you underestimate us.”

    I don’t understand you here so perhaps you can clarify. From the information about you on this site and your Follow the Prophet site, I see no indication that you have taken any of the steps necessary to become another Nibley. Before he ever set out to do apologetics or the wide-ranging comparative religious studies or the Egyptology for which he is both famous and a little infamous, he put his time in and earned a PhD in Ancient History and Classics from Berkeley. His dissertation on the Secular Games is still valuable.

    I can rattle off two, three, four dozen of my friends and colleagues who have been inspired by Nibley, who love so much of what he did and who have started down the decades long path of replicating, in a very small degree, the work it takes to become something like he was. I have devoted the entirety of my adult life to this path learning languages, histories, philosophies, interpretive methodologies, the ever advancing march of modern scholarship, the history of modern scholarship, and I am still a child in comparison to Nibley. It is work all the way down.

    So you see, it irks us who have sacrificed so much and worked so hard to become something approximating him when we see someone like you acting as though you are the rightful inheritor of his legacy. You are not because you haven’t taken up his challenge. You haven’t done the work. You haven’t paid the price. We are not the ones doing harm to the legacy of Nibley, you are because you are acting as though his accomplishments can be purchased on the cheap. They simply cannot. If you want to do honor to his example, start from square one and learn Greek and Latin. Then read classical literature on your own, then go to graduate school and become the disciple of a proven scholar in whatever field of antiquity you choose, and then write, and on, and on. Or choose some other path and learn other languages and read other literature and study any of the broad fields that can be brought to bear on our shared religion. This is not meant as mockery of your career choices thus far. It is a sincere invitation to make good on your genuine zeal.

    Profs. Peterson and Hamblin have the zeal and paid the price. So has Dr. Welch and others you revere. We have the zeal too, and we have begun to and intend to make payment in full. It means that much to us.

    So I invite you, come join us. You are still young with plenty of time to travel the path. We will gladly welcome you. You will find a great bond exists among us, the kind that is forged from zeal, hard labor, and genuine devotion.

  24. Posted July 3, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Hi oudenos,

    When I said “I think you underestimate us,” I did not mean I am trying to become like Nibley. I meant us as Mormons, as LDS, as a community, as a Church are much more capable than we often give ourselves credit for. We are all gods in embryo.

    No, I haven’t joined the “academy” (although I did graduate Magna Cum Laude with a BFA from BYU). In fact, I have sat down several times with scholars such as the very ones you mention, who have told me not to join academia. There are advantages in not doing it, which probably comes as a shock to you.

    “Geniuses” will not always born out of doctorate programs. Take a look at the technology industry, with Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. So therein lies our difference. You seem to believe it takes all the accolades, study programs, and colleges in the world to become something great, while I don’t.

    I congratulate you on your lifelong goal of learning and advancing your knowledge through the academy. Thanks for the invitation, but I decline.

    Remember Nibley’s “The Day of the Amateur”? Read it carefully. It’s just the beginning. And I won’t stop.

    (I still think it is incredible the ringing assault you gave on Nibley’s methods, when you admire him so. That doesn’t make sense to me. I can’t help but see it as cutting down the redwood tree to plant your own sapling.)

  25. Posted July 3, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    While many of us may not be as masterful in so many areas as Nibley, or prolific in writing as he was, we have many scholars now (both with and without PhDs) who are taking up the cause Nibley set down for us. He had to do everything, because he was the only one in his time. Now, the list of scholars in various fields grow. There is specialization for many of them, so they can dig deeper in their specialties than Nibley could possibly do. Nibley did little with Mesoamerican studies, for instance. But he encouraged others to enter that field and become the experts the Church needed.

    So, while few will ever become so awe inspiring and relevant in so many ways, as was Nibley, we have many scholars to fill many special spaces today. And I agree with Bryce that not all of them need to have a PhD. I have a MA in history, and it has treated me well over the years, as I’ve studied history relevant to the Church, and within the Book of Mormon.

  26. oudenos
    Posted July 3, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for responding and clarifying, Bryce. We see things very differently. Probably always will. For what it is worth, I am deeply involved in apologetics of a sort in my own neck of the woods. I take the responsibility seriously and try to do it justice in the ways that I am able.

  27. Posted July 3, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    And for that I thank you, oudenos.

  28. Michael
    Posted July 3, 2012 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    Interesting discussion. I will say this: I am working as an Arabic linguist for the Navy, and I wouldn’t be doing that unless Nibley had inspired me in my youth. His trenchant “An Approach to the Book of Mormon” not only inspired me with a love of the Book of Mormon, but set my feet on a path that led me to the study of languages, particularly Arabic and Hebrew.

    I also second the mention of “The Day of the Amateur”. While deep in my heart of hearts, I would love to be enrolled in a PhD program of ancient Semitic studies, that ship sailed a long time ago. I travel the road of the independent scholar, and I find that road to be a delight.

  29. Chad
    Posted July 6, 2012 at 12:56 am | Permalink

    Great post. I’m not a scholar, nor an apologist. What I love about Nibley is that his work doesn’t make the claim that the Church is true simply because there are some ancient connections. His work is, “Look at this really amazing stuff from these ancient cultures! That might be why we do what we do in the Church.”
    I love Nibley’s work and I think it’s high time for new Nibley’s arise. We’ve had 50 years of scholarship, and giant breakthroughs in archaeology, physics, and everything else. We have google translate for heaven’s sake.

  30. Clark
    Posted July 7, 2012 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

    Bryce, maybe I just read Oudenos post at FPR differently than you but I came away with quite a different take. It seems to me that Oudenos (btw I hate pseudonyms) has as his main point a critique of how the community has taken Nibley rather than Nibley himself. As you note Nibley saw his own scholarship and research as just that. The quote about not holding him accountable for what he said years earlier is true.

    The problem arises when members don’t do that. In effect when they don’t give Nibley the respect of being a scholar and instead attempt to elevate him to near prophethood. I know he found that very disturbing. (Especially the way various students at BYU latched onto him the way some greek peasant might wait for a Muse to say something profound) If you want to respect Nibley treat his scholarship as scholarship and engage it according to academic scholarship. Some stuff is quite good. (Say the first half of Ancient State etc.) Some is quite poor (Tinkling Cymbals, much of the second half of Ancient State etc.)

    It seems to me that those who treat Nibley as an authority are those not respecting the man. He was a scholar and wanted to be treated as such. He put out his ideas and was quite willing to abandon ideas once they were found wrong. The way some prooftext his writings or treat all his conclusions as if they were prophetic are deeply harming Nibley’s legacy and undercutting the very work of scholarship he engaged in.

  31. Posted July 8, 2012 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Clark, I read it as a criticism of Nibley’s methods, the very research and investigative methods he used throughout his life, and therefore the way Nibley did his work, not the content revealed by such methods, or even how many scholars use his content today (yes, some of the content is outdated, but that wasn’t the question). There was a clear distinction between methods and content in Oudenos’ post (no content was even brought up), so Nibley’s methods received the indictment. Some think that these methods are old-fashioned and irrelevant today. I disagree, as I explained. Furthermore, Oudenos indicted the methods yet failed to explain why these methods are so “negative.” In essence, by decrying his methods he criticized the whole of Nibley’s scholarship, and anyone who might follow suit, with one large brushstroke, without explanation. Quite an incredible proposition, in the true sense of the word.

  32. Posted July 13, 2012 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    I might be branded an infidel, but I find much of Nibley’s work problematic and dated. Nibley was important, no doubt. As you noted, he was one of the pioneers in the academic and apologetic study of LDS teachings. He undertook to show that the Book of Mormon and the Pearl of Great Price should be taken seriously, that they belonged to an ancient worldview. Nibley also encouraged research into temple themes (emphasising their centrality), prophets, and apostasy. There is a great debt owed Nibley, but his research, as noted, is not canonised. It should be accept as authoritative only as far as it holds up to academic scrutiny. In other words, Nibley shouldn’t be treated as authoritative merely because it is Nibley. I can appreciate Nibley’s colossal efforts, yet disagree with his conclusions and methodology. Simply put, disputing, say, his reading of Lehi as a Bedouin Sheikh, does not throw my personal standing before the Lord into question. Nor is it an indicator of my being a closet apostate secretly plotting the church’s downfall by shaming its champion. Ah, burning up inside with jealousy, that must be it.
    “An Approach to the Book of Mormon,” was groundbreaking, but flawed. One of the biggest issues I have with Nibley’s conception of Lehi, his preoccupation with the romance of the desert, is that it obscures more than it illuminates. There was more to the Middle-East than Bedouins. Indeed, the rural and urban population feared them, distrusted them, loathed them. Their life-styles were almost diammetricaly opposed. I grew up in Northern Israel. I was a kid when the last of the great Bedouin I’ve met people for whom being raided by Bedouins was still a living memory. If you’ve ever read Yehoash Biber’s “Adventures in the Galilee,” most of the stories took place in the exact region where I grew up. Nibley was deeply influenced by the 19th century’s romantic view of the Sons of the Desert. I enjoy that kind of literature, irresistable fun, but it doesn’t help understand the story of Lehi. Lehi was not a desert adept, at the very most he might have been a merchant, but he responded unhesitatingly to God’s call and departed into the unknown. Most of the desert incidents in 1 Nephi- like not lighting fires, not cooking meat and being limited to a single method of hunting- make little sense if we consider the party desert adepts. I like Nibley’s comments on glowing stones, the early ties between Greece and the East, the importance of oaths, and Christian “envy” of the temple. Those are all important and innovative approaches, some of his finest. I’ve even posted on my blog a favourable, non-LDS citation of Nibley in an academic work. There is, however, so much out thereof his which is simply incorrect.
    An uncritical acceptance of Nibley is not helpful. Treating him as an untouchable authority does noone an inch of good. At the very least, it keeps us from a deeper understanding of the scriptures and LDS teachings. At its very worst, it causes us to lose credibility and for members to become disenchanted with the church when his methods and conclusions don’t hold up.

  33. Posted July 13, 2012 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Allen. You seem somewhat conflicted. You like Nibley, but you don’t. :)

  34. Posted July 13, 2012 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    It is really quite easy.

    “Do you like macaroni?” said R.

    “What do you mean by macaroni?” answered Ashenden. “It is like asking me if I like poetry. I like Keats and Wordsworth and Verlaine and Goethe. When you say macaroni, do you mean spaghetti, tagliatelli, rigatoni, vermicelli, fettucini, tufali, farfalli, or just macaroni?

    “Macaroni,” replied R., a man of few words.

    “I like all simple things, boiled eggs, oysters and caviar, truite au bleu, grilled salmon, roast lamb (the saddle by preference), cold grouse, treacle tart and rice pudding. But of all simple things the only one I can eat day in and day out, not only without disgust but with the eagerness of an appetite unimpaired by excess, is macaroni.”
    -W. Somerset Maugham.

    Some Nibley I love, some I don’t. I think there is a tendency to treat Nibley’s works as definitive as well as authoritative, rather than take a critical look at them. Take for instance theBook of Mormon prophecy of Joseph’s coat and the Qisas al-Anbiya legend Nibley used as proof. It would be all too easy to take him at face value and trumpet this as evidence of the Book of Mormon, how could Joseph know, and so on. Brian Hauglid’s article is commendable, as he dug deeper. The parallel simply doesn’t hold. http://maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/publications/papers/?paperID=8&chapterID=68 I’d rather know that an argument is weak than use it and end up discredited what I am trying to defend. Nibley himself believed in academic progression. Wesimply can’t accept things on the basis of authority, but must examine and reexamine any argument used.

  35. Posted July 13, 2012 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    I forgot to add that I like what I’ve read and heard of Nibley himself as a person.

  36. Posted July 13, 2012 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

    I suppose that kind of dichotomous spirit likely follows the work of any great scholar.

  37. Michael
    Posted July 14, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    I can see Allen’s point, and I appreciate where he is coming from, and he is right to suggest that not everything Nibley wrote can withstand the full glare of intense scrutiny, particularly in areas where scholarship has expanded in the past several decades.

    However, having said that, I have noticed in modern academia a strident tendency to not go out on ANY limbs whatsoever, not make any theories that “rock the boat”, so to speak. There is a hyper-conservatism found in modern academia that makes mince-meat of anyone who attempts to make inferences or draw conclusions that don’t merit “approval” from the powers that be.

    What I mean by this is rather simple. Decades ago, scholarship in general was more free form and less rigid; you could make postulations without fear of reprisals. That is no longer the case.

    Also, a lot of Nibley (and avant garde scholars in general) come under fire because they read ancient texts and interpret them in certain ways. Other scholars will read the same texts and draw totally different conclusions. This disparity does not mean that “Nibley is bad” or that the other readings are good, or vice versa. It simply means that there are aspects to antiquity that will be forever tentative simply because we lack the total context. It also means that Nibley’s take on certain things, while not meriting the approval of 2012 apparently, was perfectly acceptable in 1952. And of course, this underscores how dated we will appear to smug scholars in 2062.

  38. Posted July 14, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Michael. I too see the same trend. While people like me are very free in speculating about things (to the chagrin of many), anyone finding themselves in “academia” seem to have to somewhat hold their tongue about anything and everything that they haven’t spent a certain threshold of their numbered research hours investigating themselves, for fear of reprisal from the larger academic community. Yet another small advantage the “amateur” might have. Yes, there should be a certain amount of regard given to avoid focus on spurious things, but that doesn’t mean we can’t investigate, and explore, and search, and dig, and imagine, and speculate. That’s one of the things I love about Nibley, and many of the most remarkable people in recorded history. They were fearless of what others thought of them, and so they plowed ahead, sometimes discovering the most fantastic things imaginable.

  39. Posted July 25, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    I have a devastating experience in a class at BYU. All semester the professor attacked Hugh Nibley and a few times when we were speaking outside of class, he told me things he thought would turn me against Nibley. I always had an answer for him because I have made Nibley’s works a focus of my research for 2 decades. He was furious that I could so easily show him how wrong he was. On the last day of class, he invited the class members to join him and other professors to review the materials Nibley had written about to help them show that Nibley had misinterpreted the information.

    This professor strongly disliked me and allowed other students to act negatively toward me. For instance, one student who had studied Egyptology for a couple of years, was upset when I offered a comment in a discussion about the subject right before class started. It was nothing negative or controversial. Many other seniors were involved in the discussion but after I spoke, he told me that until I had a PhD, he didn’t want to hear another word out of my mouth. The professor did not allow me to respond. This student resented the fact that I liked Nibley, and also that I had studied Egyptology on my own for many years. This student had previously told me that there was no connection to Egyptology and the Bible. He didn’t believe the Pearl of Great Price was correct in purporting that the Egyptians, at one point, had the true form of the gospel, though not the priesthood. This student was looked up to by the others as the person most knowledgeable about the subject. His ignorance was appalling though I hid my opinion of him.

  40. Posted July 25, 2012 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    Wow. Doesn’t sound like a good class. I certainly wouldn’t have liked it.

  41. Posted July 25, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your response, Bryce. I couple of young women in there were in tears at times. I’m older so I wasn’t thrown too much but I didn’t make a huge mistake. We were assigned early on to read some books about the early LDS scholars who went to University of Chicago and turned into cynics. Our professor said we would have one class discussion on why these scholars struggled, and nothing any of us said would be held against us. I believed him…big mistake.

    I hadn’t said much until finally the professor asked me what I thought was the underlying reason for the religious skepticism. I answered that it was the ole Book of Mormon syndrome; pride. He flushed red and balked and I knew I had made a big mistake. During a class the following week, he told us that the time would come when we all would realize that we knew more about the gospel than the General Authorities. He then looked at me and said, well maybe not Joy. It was all down hill from there.

    Another time, the professor looked at me and said, “you are not allowed to try and connect the dots. Only Nibley was allowed to do that and he got a lot of them wrong”. I was reminded of Paul’s writings, “ever learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth”. And this is a professor with a huge reputation in his field. He really is a sweet man, just very confused and unhappy.

  42. Posted July 25, 2012 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    Don’t worry, I don’t plan to go on about that class but I have wanted to get the word out for 18 months about what happened because I am so concerned about the repercussions. I feel that the single most important work Nibley did was to unveil the temple teachings to those who have ears. I have had people tell me that it isn’t important to understand the temple in this life. Certainly we can’t know it all, but the strides we can make helps us to stand in holy places and to help draw more light in the ongoing battle between good and evil. We do have our part to play in the winding up scene and the more that is understood about the temple, the better off Zion will be, and Nibley was a real warrior in that battle. Discrediting him can only play into the hands of the Adversary.

    Nibley was the first to admit that he got things wrong and insisted that anyone searching and growing goes through that process. Yet, the points he may have gotten wrong had no effect on the bigger picture, the amazing pattern he pieced together that explains the Three Pillars of the Gospel. Okay, stepping down from my soapbox after finally giving voice to my feelings for the last 18 months. Thank you for what you are doing here. I wish I had found this place earlier.

  43. Posted July 25, 2012 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    I’ve had idiot professors before. I just talk with the Dean of the college in regards with such attitudes. These tenured professors forget that they are there for you, that you pay their salary. They do not have to like Nibley, but to attack a student with thoughts of, “until you have a PhD, you cannot speak) is insulting. If the Dean refuses to do anything, mention your attorney would be glad to speak with him and the professor. That always gets their attention. Of course, beginning a protest against the professor near campus to get media attention is always a good thing to do, as well. Most members love Nibley. I doubt that professor will have much to say in front of a camera.

  44. Don
    Posted July 26, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    I actually was lucky enough to take a few classes from Hugh Nibley, so I admit that I’m not unbiased on this topic. The greatest insight I can share after spending time listening to him both in and out of class is this, and it’s counter to what some people are saying about him and his work: he wanted you to go to his sources, dig deeper, find new sources, and draw your own conclusions. For decades I have used the following analogy, expanded from something one of my friends who also attended the class said, to explain what it was like:

    The feeling I got from him was of a man rushing down a hallway, throwing open the door to every room along the way and telling us what he hoped we’d find in there and why it was interesting enough to go in there in the first place. It was as if he was saying, “My life is too short to fully explore any of this. I only have time to show you everything that I’ve found that looks like it might be worth exploring.” He was giving us enough topics for future research papers to last an army of scholars several decades at the least. While he offered opinions of what we might find, he more than once told us that deeper exploration and new sources might lead to different conclusions, and he embraced that. He never wanted us to accept something just because he said so. He did stress that you had better use sound logic and solid sources to back up any assertions, though. One of his biggest frustrations was students who were too lazy to dig deeper and apply critical thinking. He encouraged us constantly to raise the level of our scholarship and think for ourselves.

    I find it ironic that many of Nibley’s critics accuse him of things they themselves are far more guilty of than he. Unlike Nibley’s critics, when I see a lack in today’s scholarship I am more inclined to blame the producer of the shoddy work more than anything Nibley said, did, or wrote. It’s not Nibley’s fault if someone else is lazy, incompetent, or even downright deceptive. He threw open a lot of doors, it’s our responsibility to pick up the baton from there. I find it amazing that Nibley’s parable of the gem found in the field is being replayed yet again but this time with Nibley and his work at the center. I think he knew it would be. And if he were alive to defend himself, I’m not sure he would. I think he’d tell us to quit wasting time and get out there and do better.

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