Re-reading Nibley

I remember distinctly my first encounter with Hugh Winder Nibley. I was a missionary in the Provo Missionary Training Center experiencing a faith crisis. I had been converted from agnosticism just about a year before entering the MTC, and over a hectic first year of college I had matured in my commitment to God and Theism generally, but I had not entirely worked out what it meant that my conversion to God had occurred within the context of the LDS Church. Still, I felt that God wanted me to serve a mission for the Church, even if I could not immediately reconcile all of Mormonism’s complexity with my basic faith experience. I had some minor intellectual doubts about the details of Mormon history and scripture, I suppose, but what brought the crisis to a boiling point was the culture of the MTC. Regimentation, dogmatism, boys in their late teens, the disappointment I had in not being called to Russia, all played together to leave me on the verge of abandoning my mission. My branch president recognized that the patron saint of bookish Mormon teens might still save me, and he provided me a copy of Since Cumorah. Nibley had such a confident tone, and his approach seemed novel and important. Instead of arguing about whether anyone had found a Nephite sword in the Yucatan, try to decide whether the Book of Mormon bears the mark of an ancient Semitic origin. As I read chapter after chapter, I didn’t become convinced, but I was able to calm down some. I recognized that a very intelligent, readerly Saint was still committed to the LDS Church, and there were at least some arguments that suggested that Mormon historicity was not an entirely lost cause. That, combined with my sense that God would guide me away from the MTC if that was really what needed to happen, allowed me to stay in the MTC and to make the difficult transition to the mission field in Louisiana, where I completed an honorable mission. On the mission I read a lot of anti-Mormon material because I was the resident “intellectual” (I ended up arguing with a lot of ministers and going on a few radio talk shows to argue these points), and fortunately anti-Mormon literature (then and now) was generally so unsophisticated that it was easy to see those pamphlets and tired arguments about closed canons and a silent modern God as empty cavils against the truth.[1] For a time I think I even practiced a form of Nibleyan apologetics. In any case, I continued to revere Nibley and even met him once at BYU (I happened to be at BYU for some reason I can no longer recall and sat in on one class; I protested his reading of Genesis 1:1 at the side of the lectern immediately after class, and he quickly dismissed me, a smug undergraduate with more questions than wisdom).

Over ensuing decades (and there have been two of those now), I have become less moved or reassured by the style of explanation that is contained in Nibley’s apologetical writings (and Nibley himself urged that those writings had a very limited shelf life). On the other hand his intense social criticism, modeling so well a loyal opposition that urges us to worship God more than Mammon and to see the Gospel clearly, have continued to inspire me. I also understood as I became better trained in the quantitative disciplines of epidemiology and biostatistics that Nibley’s brand of parallelomania could not establish the definitive, positivistic truth of Mormon historicity. But I have matured as a thinker (I hope) and feel much readier to allow writers and ideas to have other roles to play than polemical positivism.

As I have developed over the last decade into a fairly persistent student of human history and early Mormonism, I find that my relationship to Nibley’s writings has changed substantially. As I read Nibley now, I see apologetics as a necessary evil that he felt obligated to engage in (a point he admittedly freely). But even as apologetics they weren’t just a necessary evil. They were also a collection of interconnected stories about human history. I have come to see his writing as a love poem to human culture, a paean to human religious creativity. With a different kind of idiosyncrasy, Nibley seems to be participating in the kind of creative engagement of past cultures that drove Mircea Eliade. As I read Nibley now, I don’t think “Oh, this vague semitism in the Book of Mormon proves Mormonism true,” I think “what a beautiful belief that may be preserved in various cultures, mutatis mutandis; what does it mean exactly?” I realize this position risks smugness, and I believe that smugness is a kind of intellectual poison that we should root out. In many respects, I see Nibley as a practitioner of the prisca theologia, “primitive theology,” which sought to see echoes or fragments of an ancient truth scattered about the epochs of human history.[2] Nibley’s work is a type of remembering as a kind of communal endeavor, with just enough Plato to be beautiful, and not so much Plato as to be non-Mormon. For me historicity and Mormon truth claims are about faith, inspiration, and a revelation that combines the personal and communal. As a believing and practicing Latter-day Saint, I feel drawn to appreciate beauty and truth all around me, and I see in Hugh Nibley’s love of language and culture and documents and stories an expression of that same love. God bless you, Brother Nibley, as your mind continues to range over the vast expanses of human and cosmic history. I will keep a place in my heart for your memory and for your style of remembering.

[1] I don’t mean reasonable people can’t accept a closed canon (see David Holland on that point), I mean that raising a closed canon as if it were a logical necessity is a tired argument. People can (and should) agree to disagree about canons.
[2] The wikipedia entry on prisca theologia is of exceptionally low quality, alas. Prisca theologia was (in a crude but less wrong summary) a Patristic technique to make sense of Plato and other ancient philosophical traditions. It of course mattered a great deal in Renaissance perennial philosophy, but that’s far from the whole story.


  1. Thank you for the pleasant surprise this morning. I was raised in the church, but was often teased for my “intellectual leanings,” in seminary. I didn’t even apply to BYU because so many people told me I would stop asking “those kind on questions” after my first term or two. (I should admit that I didn’t like the assumption that I would go to BYU just because I was smart, and after visiting cousins in Utah, my bias against “Utah Mormons” was pretty high during high school.)

    Thank you for the reminder that sometimes the questions we ask are more about where we are currently at, spiritually, than they are about the answers to those questions. I find I spend much more time praying about how to implement changes in my calling, how to serve the sisters I visit teach and how best to make the gospel accessible to my children. I still pray to confirm that a new stake president, apostle or prophet is the man God has called. I don’t do it because I am truly unsure, but because I want the heavenly confirmation that I know will come, so that when I am asked to change by those leaders, I will already have the confirmation that they are doing it through the power and authority of their callings.
    Most of the changes in me come from greater experience, which has led me to greater faith. However, a lot of those experience came from explaining to gospel to friends before and since high school, my husband (both before and after we were married) and watching their testimonies grow. Some of that growth came from them asking the same questions I had, but more often it came as I was humbled to see the huge growth spiritually, and in other ways, that came into their lives as they embraced the gospel. I am still humbled when Heavenly Father allows me to play a small part in someone else’s conversion. It strengthens my testimony everytime.
    I agree that we will always need those of great faith and intellect to help counter the attacks against us as a religion. However, one a personal basis, talking one to one with someone investigating the church, reading the Book of Mormon for the first time, and praying about it, there is no substitute for the witness of the Holy Ghost. In my experience, no amount of background noise (intellectual arguments for or against a single principle or historic event) can overcome the teachings of the Spirit on an open heart.
    Thank you again for the reminder of where I started as a teenager. It has made me even more grateful for the testimony I have today, and those who helped me along the way, members, nonmembers and investigators, to becoming who I am.

  2. I apologize for several spelling errors in my previous comment. My English teacher mother will no doubt email me to point them out. I guess I am old enough now to laugh at myself, and the intricacies of iPhone “spell check,” that her email will make me smile instead of cringe. :-)

  3. Thanks Sam. A very thoughtful piece that reminds me of my own experience with Nibley’s writings. He helped carve out a space for so many of us navigating the domains of our faith.

  4. Loved this, Sam. You express much of my own feelings on Nibley.

    I read “Approaching Zion” shortly after returning from my mission, and can honestly say it has had more influence on my views of Mormonism, money, and politics than perhaps any other book in my life.

  5. I bought every Nibley book I could find. Read and re read them. Kept Approaching Zion. Wanted to honor a valued Bishop and gave them all to him. What good is Nibley if you just keep him to yourself? He was like a voice in the wlderness. “Work We Must but the Lunch is Free” !

  6. Brian F. says:

    I too love Nibley. His work, especially Approaching Zion, and his apologetic works shaped and helped me come to terms with my own questions and doubts. It also greatly influenced my politics. I believe we need to have this strain of belief in Mormonism.

  7. Thanks, Julia, for your thoughtful comments.I agree that a great deal of our spiritual and religious lives are centered appropriately in people and experiences.
    #4 I can’t tell whether that is spam/virus in the short link
    #5 what are the ways and places you think we could honor Nibley’s moral vision as we write from within Mormonism?

  8. Sam, I have a tremendous amount of respect for Brother Nibley. I grew up in an area that was full of anti-Mormonism. When I was very young, I was content to borrow the testimonies of my parents when confronted with questions. Since my parents were lifelong members of the Church, I was sure that they had asked and received answers to all of the questions worth getting answers to. But like you, as I matured, I needed more than borrowed spiritual light. It didn’t take too long before I found Nibley. And so his writings provided intellectual kindling until my own flame could stand on its own. I am forever grateful for that spark. And every once in a while, when I feel myself cooling down a bit, I still pull some of the embers off the shelf.

  9. I read my first Nibley book when I was about to be ordained into the Aaronic Priesthood. For a young boy who needed to know it was OK to have an intellectual understanding of scripture that was different than everyone else around me, Bro. Nibley was a Godsend. He did more than anyone else to keep me from a full-fledged crisis of faith as a early teenager. For that alone, on a deeply personal level, I admire and respect Bro. Nibley and will be indebted eternally to him.

  10. Jacob H. says:

    It’s interesting how our mileage can vary when it comes to Hugh Nibley. I read about 10 of his collected works before leaving for my mission, namely: Old Testament and Related Studies, Enoch the Prophet, The World and the Prophets, Mormonism and Early Christianity, Lehi in the Desert and the World of the Jaredites, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, half of Temple and Cosmos (the Temple half), Since Cumorah, The Prophetic Book of Mormon, Tinkling Cymbols and Sounding Brass, Abraham in Egypt, and about a third of his Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri. I also listened to the “Preparing for the Millenium” audiotape series, which included some essays from Approaching Zion.

    I was somewhat zealous for supporting our faith with intellectual rigor. Yet, he is a primary reason I had a faith crisis on my mission. Now, I completed an honorable mission to the southeast US, but I haven’t really ever recovered from the faith crisis. I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one who is not reassured or moved by Nibley’s style of apologetics, but am I seriously the only person here who has ever felt betrayed by the way he abused his knowledge in our behalf? At least at the moment and for the foreseeable future, I feel like Hugh Nibley is a bane and roadblock for true intellectual growth in the church. So many people remain so fooled by these Semitic and Egyptian “ghosts in the machine” of our scriptures that they can’t separate what they’re reading from what they think they’re reading.

    Ah well. Hugh Nibley and many who have followed him I believe are hurting our culture in the long run. But if even 1% of those who read him turn out like you, Sam, then perhaps I shouldn’t hold such a grudge. In any event, I’m just a resigned spectator for now, hoping to someday be as knowledgeable as you, W.V. Smith, or J. Stapley.

  11. #11 – It’s hard not to judge someone in hindsight according to the knowledge we have that they didn’t. I don’t believe he abused his knowledge in any way – even as his research sometimes was sloppier than I would like it to have been. He did his best, and that best saved me, for one, from feeling like someone who saw things in the scriptures that nobody else saw and ought to leave because of it.

    Bro. Nibley is only a bane and a roadblock for those who want others to do their thinking for them, imo – and I know he would say the exact same thing now, since he said it often in his talks and writings. I never looked at him as omniscient and his words as absolute truth, so I never felt betrayed. I just appreciated his example of reaching his own conclusions and being willing to share them publicly – and state openly that he expected to be proven wrong about many things when we had more available to us than he had.

  12. David T says:

    Love this post, and feel that I relate in many ways. My time in the Church is less than half yours (I was baptized in 2004), but I feel like I, too, covered a very similar pattern you did, vis-à-vis my approach to and view of Nibley and his apologetic works and style. However, Like so many others here, Approaching Zion is still somewhat rocking my world. Thanks!

  13. I have commented several times at BCC and had my posts swallowed by the spam filter. Not sure why. Two comments on this thread alone were swallowed.

    I have to say that Nibley approached things like Eliade or Campbell did, and on those terms his scholarship was solid. He did not abuse his knowledge, but he was approaching things from the viewpoint of the evidence is consistent with the possibility of a point rather than the evidence requiring any point.

    He was one of the first to read the Book of Mormon as what it claims to be, rather than reading into it. I’ve always enjoyed his writing and I’m grateful to John Welch for saving it from fading away. There was a time when Nibley was reduced to little more than a collection of photocopies on a desk and some out of print books.

    and I know he would say the exact same thing now, since he said it often in his talks and writings


    BTW. #4 is pure spam. Which, I confess, makes me even more abashed at the filter.

  14. I think there’s room to be kind to people who have had a post-Nibley faith crisis while recognizing that for many of us what Nibley modeled was not so much the tit-for-tat of polemical positivism but a love of documents and languages and histories and a willingness to approach the Book of Mormon at some level for its own sake.
    Stephen, I have no idea how all this wordpress spam stuff works but will try to delete the spamwich at #4.

  15. I confess to being one of the dreaded Nibleyophiles, but I honestly think his research into ancient cultures is, if anything, undervalued; he wrote things that are of worth even to non-members (which is how I first encountered him, before I converted), and seeing him as an apologist more than a legitimate researcher is a mistake. Yes, he was human and erred his fair share, and he didn’t have access to some sources that we do today, but I rarely see *demonstrations* of why his scholarship is not to be trusted — far more often I see people simply disagreeing with his interpretation of legitimately ambiguous material.

    Too often it’s simply assumed that someone somewhere showed that he was “sloppy”, etc., when I think nothing could be farther from the truth; what often is happening is a conflict of paradigmatic assumptions, with critics issuing blanket dismissals by rallying around a cry of parallelomania. (I’m particularly amused when folks who can’t even *read* his sources criticize his *use* of them.) Margaret Barker has faced a similar uphill battle.

    Frankly, every time I’ve retraced his sources, I’ve found him to be scrupulously honest with them, even when I disagreed with his conclusions. He would have been absolutely revolutionary if he hadn’t been stuck in the Mormon ghetto — a lot of his stuff on the Temple in particular is golden. He is absolutely up there with Eliade and Graves and Raglan — and downright *better* than Campbell’s and Frazer’s psychologizing, I think. *grin*

    It also distresses me somewhat to see the two “teams” that tend to develop around him: some claim that his ancient studies were the good stuff, while others say it was his social critiques. Personally, I can’t separate the Two Nibleys. They form a coherent whole for me; the one informed the other.

    (I don’t mean this comment to be overly critical of anyone, hence the generalities; I just tend to voice my disagreements more than the affirmations is all. And I certainly agree with the last bit: “God bless you, Brother Nibley, as your mind continues to range over the vast expanses of human and cosmic history. I will keep a place in my heart for your memory and for your style of remembering.”)

  16. #15 – Jeremy, just to be clear, my use of “sloppy” had nothing to do with his footnotes and attributions but rather the things he failed to footnote and attribute. I didn’t mean in any way to disparage his scholarship or critical thinking, and I certainly didn’t mean he was dishonest in anything he wrote.

    I also think that much of his work is under-valued by most people.

  17. #16 — Oh, no, no worries, I wasn’t accusing you (or anyone here, really). Again, I was speaking in generalities, and was probably overbroad; I’ve just seen the “sloppy” thing leveled against Nibs more times than I can count, and it tires me out. :)

  18. This was lovely. I was a latecomer to Nibley (long story), and I loved Temple and Cosmos, but I was changed by “Work We Must but the Lunch is Free.”It set my thinking free and I feel allowed me to access a higher connection with other people. While I don’t feel the need to judge Nibley by modern research standards or apologetic perspective, I’m not so much a Nibleyophile as a grateful student remembering with fondness someone who stood at a door and opened it for me. Wish I had found him before 40.

  19. #10: “So many people remain so fooled by these Semitic and Egyptian “ghosts in the machine” of our scriptures …”

    Jacob H.,

    It’s been a long time since I’ve read Nibley, although I’d like to get back to his writings. But I don’t know who you’ve been reading to get the idea that Hugh Nibley was tilting at windmills.

    As a missionary in Italy, my companion and I tracted into the home of a brilliant Egyptian Ph.D. Great man, and much of what I understand about Islam I got from him. Visa problems were preventing him from starting his job, so he was bored and we were something of an intellectual curiosity for him. We told him about the First Vision and Jesus Christ and he’d expound upon Mohammad (also this man’s name) and the reasons Islam supplanted Christianity and Judaism. He was politely dismissive about everything we presented him … except the Book of Mormon.

    We gave him a copy in Arabic, and the return appointment was an eye-opener. I wish we’d had a tape recorder running. He’d read all of 1 Nephi and the first words out of his mouth were a very emphatic, “This book is authentic.” He then spent well over an hour telling us why.

    Mohammad went on and on about the cues that nobody but a person with a background in ancient Semitic traditions and languages would pick up on. For him, these cues were anything but subtle, and they weren’t just a point here and a point there, but practically every sentence and every verse. He gave example after example of things no Westerner (or modern Arab or Jew unschooled in ancient Semitic traditions) could possibly have thought to put there. He considered what he’d read so deeply and authentically Semitic that he heaped scorn on the notion that any Westerner had anything whatsoever to do with it.

    Let me tell you, that encounter left quite the impression on me. Now, Mohammad remained dismissive about the rest of the message we had to share, and I went home a few weeks later and don’t know whether he ever began to take our faith seriously. But when I got home and read Nibley, it was pretty similar to what Mohammad had told us. The two were definitely reading from the same page. Had we handed him a copy of “Lehi in the Desert,” I have no doubt that the only problem Mohammad would have had with it would be that he left out way too much.

    Anyway, kind of a footnote to this thread, but just wanted you to know that one doesn’t have to be Mormon apologist to agree that what Nibley was saying is there is … actually there.

  20. Lorin — thanks for the comments.

    I have to note that Nibley is why other scholars took the Book of Moses (in the Pearl of Great Price) seriously, though they concluded that Joseph Smith had a source document that would eventually be discovered, debunking his other claims.

    Jeremy Orbe-Smith — agreed.

  21. Hugh Nibley is as thoughful and thought provoking as Talmage and he made my and my wifes year as we studied the His masterful work Temple and Cosmos. Yes, we have a lot to learn but do it with the one you love and be ready to think and question.
    So we can’t spell?

  22. casteluzzo says:

    Thanks for this post! I had a similar experience with Nibley. My parents had a few of books when I was growing up, and I read some more as extra credit for a religion class at BYU. But I fell in love with him after I went through the Temple, and was so weirded out by how different it seemed from the rest of what we do as Mormons.

    I read Temple and Cosmos and various of Nibley’s other books that link LDS temple rituals to ancient ones. He provided me with a very readable but still intellectually stimulating synthesis of ancient writings on the temple, which really spoke perfectly to a lot of my questions and doubts. I felt much more comfortable in the temple once I was able to connect intellectually with the temple ceremony and symbolism. He helped me to take my first step into a larger world (to put it as Ben Kenobi might).

  23. Jacob, #10:

    am I seriously the only person here who has ever felt betrayed by the way he abused his knowledge in our behalf?

    I think you’re missing the thrust of Sam’s point regarding why he views much of what Nibley was doing as problematic today, but interesting to consider within Nibley’s environs. Your comment seems to say there is one “right” way to perform scholarship, and since Nibley didn’t perform that way he was “abusing” his knowledge. I think that fundamentally misunderstands Nibley’s overall approach. Sam pointed to Eliade as a similar example, and if you better understood that context I’m not sure you’d label it as “abuse.” I don’t mean to downplay your own experience, I just hope to underscore that you might misunderstand Nibley’s project.

    Or, wow, what Ray said, “Bro. Nibley is only a bane and a roadblock for those who want others to do their thinking for them, imo.”

    Sam, great reflections. I add myself to the list of people who happened upon Nibley at an opportune time and appreciate him as an important piece of my personal faith/academic launchpad. “Style of remembering” FTW.

  24. I LOVE Nibley — especially The Temple and the Cosmos; and am grateful I never felt abused in the slightest by his scholarship!
    I also wish that Lorin had had a tape going during that conversation with Mohammad!

    In this light — have any of you recently read an account about the comments on the Book of Mormon made by the man who translated that book into Africans? They would echo what both Mohammad and Nibley have said.

  25. Thanks for the responses. I have thought about my comments since and there are definitely a number of great things Hugh Nibley did that counterbalance the negatives.. his grappling with Old Testament interpretation and traditions was quite good, pointing the way to maintaining faith whilst not literalizing what you read. His explanations of the social wickedness being more important than sexual morality in the destruction of Sodom is very timely for current debates. That he sought linguistic and cultural cues to contextualize the Book of Mormon is good for people who’ve never been exposed to that way of thinking before, though the neglect of New World anything is a major hole, and approaches like Sorenson’s which seem to contradict pretty much the bulk of what Nibley was getting at demonstrate the brittleness of drawing parallels, and opens one up to noticing that 19th century parallels to much of the information in the book are clearer and more localized than scrying hundreds of years and thousands of miles of Old World history and assuming a continuity between cultures (though, to be fair, Nibley’s treatment of 1-2 Nephi especially was much better localized and focused on old Jerusalem or the “timeless” Bedouin culture).

    Lorin #19, my conclusions were really just my own. Not based on anyone else, otherwise I might not have felt so alone in my conclusions. I took Hebrew from Dr. Parry and combining that with Nibley led me to appreciate much of what this fellow you met probably saw in the Book of Mormon on a first reading. Subsequent readings have to be careful, though. Parallel environmental explanations exist, false Hebraisms and anachronisms abound and require more careful attention, etc. Nibley made a great case for 1 Nephi, and a great case also exists for a 19th century context. Go beyond Mosiah and the cases Nibley makes start losing credibility. Pick up the original text of the BoM and read it, looking for clear cultural clues that cannot be explained at least as easily in a different context than Hugh Nibley gave (Mesoamerican or 19th century or what have you). It’s practically impossible, which to me hurts the plausibility of his approach.

    Nibley was quite accurate with his sources, though I often have trouble with his interpretation of them. I will admit that I enjoyed Nibley’s approach to the Book of Moses, but it was quite a while ago and I haven’t taken the time to re-investigate it. My first approach is to look for the simplest explanations, and see how the involved ones compare. Start by identifying which verses in the PoGP are not rewrites of KJV Genesis verses. Then see what the unique material that’s left has to say… I thought Nibley on temples was quite fun and enriching.

    BHodges #23, I appreciate hearing from you. Your posts are awesome too! Maybe there’s more than one right way to do scholarship, but I think it depends on the end goal in mind. For instance, I cannot fathom how Blake Ostler’s deliberations are useful at all, but then again I don’t go very far with a priori reasoning. I learned some neat things from Nibley about ritual and the Old World, reality being acquired through repetition and participation in sacred dramas, the fuzzy relationships between myth, ritual, and history, the temple as microcosm, etc. But how can his long battle over the Book of Abraham, for instance, be seen as anything but misuse and abuse? And when you see him abuse historical figures like E. A. Wallace Budge with his rhetoric, and the BoA with hugely anachronistic explanations, how can it not leave a bitter taste and skepticism with regard to his honesty in his other works? Which is a shame, because half of them weren’t half bad. I’m not particularly fond of much of his writings past the 70’s, I guess, when I feel he should have known better and he was really past excuse.

    Ray, this extends to you too.. if you don’t think Nibley abused his knowledge… is there a forum (I’d rather not in the BCC comments) where we can have an extended discussion of his tactics in regard to the BoA? I’m pretty sure I can show pretty intentional misleading via obvious omissions and misleading statements about the 1912-ish BoA attacks.

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