Hugh Nibley reviewed by a BYU religious professor

Hugh Nibley reviewed by a BYU religious professor

For BYU Studies in 1988, Hugh Nibley received an unusual critique from Kent P. Jackson. I have heard others in the church express similar views, but to hear these things from someone like Jackson, published in something like BYU Studies (which has now unfortunately been engulfed by FARMS), was a bit of a shock. It is refreshing to hear honest opinions like these from orthodox members. Portions of the article have been reproduced below.

The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley. Vol. 1, Old Testament and Related Studies. Edited by John W. Welch, Gary P. Gillum, and Don E. Norton. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1986. xiv; 290 pages. $15.95.

Hugh Nibley is the best-known and most highly revered of Latter-day Saint scholars. For over forty years he has enthralled his readers and listeners with his encyclopedic knowledge, his wit, and his untiring research in defense of Latter-day Saint beliefs. It is not saying too much to suggest that he has become a legendary figure in Latter-day Saint academic circles. He has developed a remarkable following among his readers and former students, several of whom now continue his work in academic professions of their own. This book, published by Deseret Book and the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, inaugurates an ambitious multivolume project to gather and publish “all of Hugh Nibley’s published books and articles, as well as many other previously unpublished papers and transcribed talks”(vi). The Collected Works series represents a major effort to honor him for his many accomplishments. Nibley has had his detractors as well. Because of his unhesitating willingness to speak out in defense of Latter-day Saint positions, he often finds himself a target for the Church’s critics. Since his 1946 publication of No Ma’am, That’s Not History, he has been seen by many as the Church’s chief apologist. … My own serious misgivings about his methodology do not detract from my admiration for his life of scholarship consecrated to the highest cause.

In the present volume, eleven items are collected which are related in some way to the Old Testament. They were presented originally either in print or from the speaker’s platform between 1956 and 1980. Only three of the eleven (chaps. 1, 4, and 6) had not been published previously. Echoing the feelings of Nibley’s followers throughout the Church, editor John W. Welch suggests in his Foreword that most of Nibley’s lifetime total of nearly two hundred titles are classics (ix). If that is in fact the case, then this volume has been severely shortchanged; nothing in it can be called a classic. It is, in fact, a disappointing collection.

There are several areas about which I have concerns regarding the material in this book:

1. In most of the articles Nibley shows a tendency to gather sources from a variety of cultures all over the ancient world, lump them all together, and then pick and choose the bits and pieces he wants. By selectively including what suits his presuppositions and ignoring what does not, he is able to manufacture an ancient system of religion that is remarkably similar in many ways to our own–precisely what he sets out to demonstrate in the first place. There are serious problems involved in this kind of methodology. The various religious communities from whose documents Nibley draws his material had mutually exclusive beliefs in many areas. By removing their ideas from their own context (thus rendering them invalid) and joining them with ideas from other communities–similarly removed from their own context–Nibley creates an artificial synthesis that never in reality existed. The result would be unacceptable and no doubt unrecognizable to any of the original groups. Generalization is the key ingredient. Such phrases as “the ancient world is now all one” (13), “ancient civilization was . . .” (43), and “according to the ancients” (131) presuppose a common worldview for all the disparate cultures of the ancient world. But this idea is as unhelpful as “according to modern man” would be to postulate a common ideology for Ottoman bureaucrats, Bolshevik revolutionaries, Nazi fascists, Afghan peasant women, and Manhattan Yuppies. In spite of influences such as Hellenism, the Roman Empire, and Christianity, the ancient world was as diverse as our own, if not more so–a fact that is generally ignored in this book. Nibley’s chapter “Treasures in the Heavens” is one of the most sophisticated in the book, but in it the most puzzling examples of this methodological pitfall can be found. It speaks of the ” ‘treasure’ texts,” a term which is not defined but which, judging from the sources cited, must include documents from the Old and New Testament pseudepigrapha, the Essenes, the Mandaeans, the Gnostics, the Manichaeans, the Early Christian Fathers, the ancient Egyptians, and the classical Greek poets. If we define an artificial collection like this–which spans hundreds of years, thousands of miles, and widely diverse societies and religions–as all being the same (they were “all teaching very much the same thing,” [126]), we can bring forth proof that “the ancients” believed anything we want them to believe.

This kind of method seems to work from the conclusions to the evidence–instead of the other way around. And too often it necessitates giving the sources an interpretation for which little support can be found elsewhere. I found myself time and time again disagreeing with this book’s esoteric interpretations of Qumran passages. In several places Nibley sees things in the sources that simply don’t seem to be there (for example, most of the preexistence references in the Dead Sea Scrolls, cited in chap. 7). This is what inevitably happens when scholars let their predetermined conclusions set the agenda for the evidence. The work in this book is better informed and more sophisticated than the Dead-Sea-Scrolls-prove-the-gospel-is-true firesides and tapes that have been popular around the Church, but the methodology is not much different.

2. In this book Nibley often uses his secondary sources the same way he uses his primary sources–taking phrases out of context to establish points with which those whom he quotes would likely not agree. I asked myself frequently what some authors would think if they knew that someone were using their words the way Nibley does (the same question I asked myself concerning his ancient sources as well).

3. Several of the articles lack sufficient documentation and some lack it altogether. This is to be expected in a collection that includes popular articles and transcripts of speeches. The editors clearly deserve our praise for trying to bring Nibley’s footnotes up to professional standards. But given the complexity of the material, it was not always possible. The first article, for example, is riddled with undocumented quotations. Some of Nibley’s most puzzling assertions remain undocumented–or unconvincingly documented–even in those articles that are footnoted heavily. The two most extensively referenced articles, “Treasures in the Heavens” and “Qumran and the Companions of the Cave,” display the opposite problem. The seemingly endless footnotes in those articles suffer from dreary overkill, and yet too often I was disappointed by searching in vain in them for proof for the claims made in the text.

4. Nibley’s wit has made him one of the most sought-after speakers in the Church. But I am dismayed to find in this collection several passages in which his satire tends toward sarcasm and name-calling, which have no place in serious scholarship. A frequent vehicle for this is the straw-man approach. Nibley frequently misrepresents his opponents’ views (through overstatement, oversimplification, or removal from context) to the point that they are ludicrous, after which he has ample cause to criticize them. This may make amusing satire, but it is not scholarship. Nibley has made a fine career of responding to those who have either willfully or unknowingly misrepresented Joseph Smith and the gospel. Thus I am troubled that this book would contain the same kind of distortion. If it is unfair when directed against us, is it somehow an acceptable method when directed at our critics?

Among those satirized in this book are “the learned” (8), archaeologists (chap. 2), “the clergy” (38-39), “professional scholars” (39), “secular scholars” (39), “the doctors” (217-18), “the schoolmen” (217), and “the doctors, ministers, and commentators” (221). We read that recent document discoveries “have proven so upsetting” (8), “startling” (241), “disturbing” (241), and “maddening” (241) to people of this sort, and that “there was a lot of political and other pressure to keep them from coming out” (125). These are frequent, but inaccurate and grossly unfair, leit-motifs in this book. “The clergy,” according to Nibley (I have no idea who this means here), exhibited “marked coolness” to the Dead Sea Scrolls (39). Why would they be “warm” to them, or “cold,” or anything else? The Dead Sea Scrolls are irrelevant to what clergy do; most don’t know or care that they exist.

5. My final area of concern is more properly directed at the editors than at Hugh Nibley. What is the point of publishing some of this material? There clearly is merit in republishing significant material that has been unavailable to readers for many years. But few thinkers in the history of the world have been so good that everything they ever wrote or spoke should be memorialized in this way. Several of the chapters in this book, particularly 9 and 10, are so weak that the editors would have been doing Nibley a much greater honor if they had left them out. What is the point of resurrecting such material, which is now completely out-of-date and was not even quality work when first published three decades ago? In doing so they have not done Nibley a service, nor have they served his readers.

As noted in BYU:A House of Faith, by Bergera and Priddis, pg 362

“As a former BYU history professor observered in 1984, ‘[Nibley] has been a security blanket for Latter-day Saints to whom dissonance is intolerable….His contribution to dissonance management is not so much what he has written, but that he has written. After knowing Hugh Nibley for forty years, I am of the opinion that he has been playing games with his readers all along….Relatively few Latter-day Saints read the Nibley books that they give one another, or the copiously annotated articles that he has contributed to church publications. It is enough for most of us that they are there.'”

Reading Nibley reminds me of a quote from a line in Umberto Eco‘s “Foucault’s Pendulum” which says, “…wanting connections, we found connections–always, everywhere, and between everything.”

A good critique of Nibley’s commentary on the Book of Abraham can be found in The Word of God in the essay by Ed Ashment entitled “Dealing with Dissonance”.

A writer for FARMS writes the following which I will gladly pass on…

I just did a search on Kent P. Jackson and, of course, found his review of one of the Nibley volumes posted on your site. I�m guessing that in the name of �Honest Intellectual Inquiry� you�ll also want to include Jackson�s article in �By Study and Also By Faith,� the two volume work in honor of Bro. Nibley. I notice that this man, critical of Nibley�s methods in the one review, honors his contribution (footnote 2) and refers to his research in two other footnotes (28 and 29) to his article on the apostasy.