A post prompted by another post

One of my fellow saints recently asked me what I think of the late Hugh Nibley’s work. I began by saying that although I may have become disenchanted with his general approach, I continue to be impressed by how much he knew. Intimidated even. Next I mentioned some things I had picked up reading around in his biography, items that humanized him for me and made him someone I could still relate to, items such as his reluctance to take on the Book of Abraham academically and his breakdown/stroke and hospitalization in 1974 while working on The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri. Like all influential figures, Nibley ought to be reread, not merely dismissed out of hand as outdated and outmoded.

My interlocutor then asked what I meant when I said that I had become disenchanted. Hesitating some, I essentialized the Nibley approach: the amassing of parallels in ancient texts as proof of Mormonism based on the assumption that they were unknown to Joseph Smith, so the prophet must have arrived in the same place through revelation, of course. I explained that this approach to defending the church was actually–and not without irony–liable to do more harm than good, in my opinion. After the assumption is admitted and the parallels amassed, all that some punk needs to do is reverse the polarity, and voila, it looks like Mormonism can be accounted for through the transmission of antiquity to the 1800s. This is especially the case because Nibley tended to downplay the differences between the ancient parallels and Mormonism, while exploiting (some would say embellishing) the similarities. And so the LDS academic may be faced with the onerous task of undoing what has been done, de-emphasizing the similarities and stressing the differences, in order to show that Mormonism is not reducible to the transmission of antiquity to the 1800s, and so that Joseph Smith can be understood and appreciated as creative genius, exegete, theologian, innovator.

Consider, if you will, for example, what would have happened if instead of saying these words in his 1954 KSL radio broadcast entitled “Time Vindicates the Prophets” (The World and the Prophets [third edition; 1987, p.170-1])

With the exception of the verse just cited above [1 Cor 15:29], a few perplexing commentaries on it, and the unnoticed passage from the Pastor of Hermas, all our evidence for the practice of baptism for the dead in ancient times comes from fragments recently discovered. The possession of this strange and wonderful thing by the restored Church of Jesus Christ for over a hundred years would therefore seem to be an almost foolproof certificate of authenticity. The prophets of modern times remember the dead exactly as did those prophets of old, and in the growing evidence for the nature of that work among the first Christians, time has vindicated the prophets.

… Nibley had cited the following remark from Albert Schweitzer’s earlier monograph on The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (English translation; 1998, p.290):

Since Hermas, no theologian has had the courage to tackle the problem and solve it in this gallant fashion. All of them carefully evade the problem of the necessity of the sacraments and of the extension of the results of the death of Jesus to pre-Christian humanity. They make, for example, the pre-Christian generations attain to blessedness through Christ, between His death and resurrection, preaching to the spirits of the lower world, as is already assumed in the First Epistle of Peter (iii 19-20). But the problem is not only whether they receive the knowledge of Jesus and become believers, but rather how without a real act of faith and without sacraments they can enter into blessedness.

To say that Joseph Smith had the courage to tackle the problem and was able to solve it on what is a broader scale and in what is arguably an even more gallant fashion may sound a bit hollow when compared to notions of unmediated divine revelation. But is it not at least preferable to the situation that arises when our cherished parallels turn out to work against us?

15 Replies to “A post prompted by another post”

  1. My main problem with Nibley’s work is that though his collection of parallels seems on the surface impressive, if you look at any specific text on its own terms, it rarely means what Nibley makes it out to mean (as you say with the embellishment comment). Thus Joseph’s Septuagintal “embroidered tunic” becomes garments.

  2. I’m a Nibleyophile. He was a very important influence on me. But it has been a long time since I read him for substantive scholarship. For me the important influence was introducing me to the wider world of scholarship. These days I’m much more likely to read–again–Boyd’s outstanding biography of the man. I find him and his life tremendously inspiring.

  3. G. Wesley,

    First of all, I want to thank you for your comments on my blog post. They were very helpful to the overall discussion.

    However, I would like to emphasize the point here that I was trying to make in some of my comments there. Your explanation is all fine and good, but it is ultimately inappropriate in light of what Joseph Smith claimed and what his followers have always believed.

    Nibley’s methods may be susceptible to criticism, but his instincts were correct and his heart was in the right place.

    You are likely correct in stating that Nibley’s approach could possibly be reversed, making it appear that “Mormonism can be accounted for through the transmission of antiquity to the 1800s.” However, I think this would be much more difficult to demonstrate (if even possible), and I don’t know anyone who’s done it. Do you?

    While similar ideas can be found all over, in different time periods, places, and religions, it would be rather hard to prove that Joseph Smith accessed them by any other means than through revelation. I had a professor that used to grill me based on this type of approach. He would say things like– “Joseph Smith must have had access to Richard Laurence’s 1821 English translation of the Book of Enoch and that’s where he got his Enoch stuff.” Well, nice theory, but that is only very remotely possible. I researched it a bit and could not find any evidence of the book being available to him in America at that time. Plus, 1 Enoch is not very similar to what we have in the Book of Moses anyways.
    He would also make assertions like: “We know that Joseph Smith must have been educated in the best Hebrew and Greek schools of his day despite his claims to only have a rudimentary education.” This explanation was given to supposedly explain his insights into the Scriptures, Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon, etc. As you can see, this is all quite ridiculous.

    Going back to my initial statements, I think you are missing, in your evaluation, the possibility that Joseph Smith’s claims to have restored ancient doctrines and rituals may, in fact, be true. Perhaps that is why some of these parallels are possible??

    “To say that Joseph Smith had the courage to tackle the problem and was able to solve it on what is a broader scale and in what is arguably an even more gallant fashion may sound a bit hollow when compared to notions of unmediated divine revelation.”

    Absolutely it does!! Such a claim brands Joseph Smith as a liar, an impostor — it negates what he claimed to be and what the Church believes him to be. Considering him the greatest exegetical genius of all time may sound wonderful to you — maybe it saves you the embarrassment of having to claim that you follow the crazy visions of some ecstatic prophet, but it doesn’t cut it for some of us.

    I would much prefer to search for more “cherished parallels” that help support Joseph Smith’s prophetic claims, and let whoever wants to call me naive, stupid, or whatever they like.

  4. “These days I’m much more likely to read–again–Boyd’s outstanding biography of the man. I find him and his life tremendously inspiring.”


  5. G. Wesley,

    Please excuse the unnecessarily belligerent tone of my last comment. It’s 2am where I am and I think I was a little flustered (not to mention exhausted) after my last review of the comments on my own post. I think I took out my frustration on your post. I don’t mean to be offensive.

  6. I have to admit I find Nibley very dated. He was a big influence on me in college but the entire approach he takes (or Eliade, Campbell, or so forth) just seems off. It’s not just the parallelism (which I think is a somewhat distorted simplification of their methods) but rather the focus on similar structures over differences and context. Reading Nibley now is akin for me to reading Orson Pratt or B. H. Roberts. Valuable in its way, but not really akin to reading scholarship.

    I hate to say that but I think it’s true. He was a ground blazer but now is dated.

    Where Nibley (or the other figures) are valuable is in their theology. I have to admit that I disagree with all of them theologically but trying to figure out their presuppositions can be very interesting and helpful.

    To add I also think Nibley gets judged a bit unfairly since we now have everything that FARMS could publish. But most of this wasn’t exactly intended to public consumption the way it has become. And admittedly stuff written for the Improvement Era seems as much expository and inspirational as anything else. Yet it is precisely on those terms that he is not judged. And I think that is a bit unfair. The Improvement Era just isn’t a scholarly journal. And it’s not fair to treat it as such.

    I also think that folks tend to throw out everything Nibley says because of egregious examples of quoting out of context in some places. Yes, it’s definitely there. Yes it’s something to be on guard about. But no you can’t discount every argument he makes because of this. (The way I think far too many do)

  7. David, there’s a PhD dissertation (by an irritated evangelical) on Mormon reuse of Patristic literature, and I think a lot of Mormon academics have discovered these kinds of reverse parallels, while Rick Grunder has a huge DVD of them, and the Bushman Archive of Restoration Culture has a wide variety of such reverse parallels. I agree with the main post that there are substantial apologetical risks to taking this tack, though I’m sympathetic to a developmental approach to apologetics. I suspect that early in one’s acquaintance with religious history Nibley’s technique will give, as he did for me at age 19, the hope that Joseph Smith was not a charlatan or moron, which leaves open the possibility of a vibrant prophethood. The question in my mind is the transition from that model to one in which one can recognize and embrace Joseph Smith as a prophet who revealed contextually. My fear of maintaining the magical model of Joseph Smith (he could never have heard of x so he must be a true prophet) is that it is a vending machine model of God (insert intriguing parallel, extract divine proof). There’s so much more to a prophet than just the man pushing buttons on a divine vending machine.

    I would offer one warning regarding the reverse parallels approach, though. There’s not much new under the sun–an astounding array of ideas are present in every cultural milieu, so even noticing ways that particular ideas may have been accessible to Smith doesn’t actually ameliorate the power or validity of Smith’s prophetic calling.

    As for baptism for the dead, Joseph Smith was pretty open about seeing it in Charles Buck’s recitation of the Marcionite heresy (I mention it in my adoption paper, which is forthcoming in JMH). No need to go chasing it in the Apocrypha. I pursue some other applications of the Mormon prisca theologia in a second paper inspired by Buck that I’m writing with matt b.

    My final thought is that I’m deeply grateful for Hugh Nibley, for his wide-ranging, nimble mind, for his devotion to the Church and its moral compass and its success, for his call to explore the rich bounties of human culture and philosophy as part of our discipleship. Such a great man, such a great treasure. One could easily read him not as a frustrated and ultimately ineffective apologist but as a man who believes that the Gospel is bigger and more interesting than the intellectual silos that academics build around their specialties, that a mind alive with the Spirit will be free to find kindred spirits across thousands of years and miles and the edification of big, important ideas strewn all about the historical record of humanity. I get the sense from his biography and some of his writing that the apologetics were something he did the way many of us do home-teaching, from a sense of obligation, but he was generally simultaneously sharing his belief that an unfettered mind could be deeply, passionately, and consistently religious.

  8. i am in basic agreement with all. thanks.

    as expressed already, nibley’s influence has been enormous. i would hate to see him treated as no more than a foil for the latest and greatest.

    characterizations of him as unflinching apologist are one-sided. he was more (and maybe sometimes also less) than that. at least such is my impression from his biography. for me, it is reading about the other sides that inspires (right now).

    david, no worries. what i think i am saying is that to question nibley’s understanding of the prophet, their understanding of themselves, and our understanding of either one is not the end of the world.

    smb’s question of transition is key i think. i know there have been those who very seriously consider leaving the church after losing their faith in nibley. which would be a mistake, in my opinion. understandable, but a mistake.

  9. Say what you will about Nibley, but the priesthood manual he produced was one million times more interesting than the ones correlation cranks out today.

  10. Nibley is who introduced me to scholarship and made me interested in the life of the mind. I’ll always be tremendously grateful for the influence he has had on me, and I hope more saints would read him rather than just keeping his books on their shelves. I still think Approach Zion has had more effect on me as a person than any other book, save the scriptures. (He’s also at fault for making me question my conservative politics!)

    That said, I generally agree with g.wesley’s observations in the OP. Just like any scholar, his methodology is dated as we grow and develop new interpretive strategies in response to the holes and problems we find in the previous approaches. Resting today’s apologetics or even temple studies on someone who was educated in the 1940s would be akin to historians of American thought relying on the interpretations of Charles Beard (sorry for the archaic reference—I speak of the field I know!). As Kevin most poignantly points out, I wish we would emulate the type of person Nibley was rather than merely repeating—or even extended—a now outdated form of scholarship. This is at the heart, I think, of the Emersonian critique of “mentors” and “representative men”—one of the key ideas that has shaped American culture.

    More importantly, I think parrallelomania of the Nibley type is, as smb rightly notes, a misreading of prophesy and religion in general. Saying that JS was a prophet because he knew this-or-that when it was impossible to know is just setting one’s faith up to be destroyed once evidence to the contrary is discovered; as a historian of antebellum culture, I could make an argument—though skewed at times, though certainly persusasive to those looking for reasons to be disillusioned—for any of JS’s ideas having an origin in his surrounding environment.

    Further, it dictates that any revelation has to be of the “vertical” variety, when in reality much of JS’s life was spent searching for truths from everywhere around him. Whether gaining a conception of baptism from the dead from Buck’s Dictionary, or a theological framework for materialism from Thomas Dick, or a vehicle in which to present the temple endowment from masonic rituals, just to name a few examples, Smith’s outlook was to take as much as he could from contemporary culture. (See the first ten minutes or so of Terryl Given’s lecture here.)

  11. Hi David. 🙂

    Going back to my initial statements, I think you are missing, in your evaluation, the possibility that Joseph Smith’s claims to have restored ancient doctrines and rituals may, in fact, be true. Perhaps that is why some of these parallels are possible?

    Speaking for myself, I don’t deny the possibility that JS’s claims to have restored ancient doctrines and rituals may in fact be true. I agree that may be why some of the parallels are possible. At the same time, my current understanding of revelation is such that Joseph’s restored doctrines still have some fingerprints of his and his contemporaries. The question then becomes one of meaningful criteria to assess. There have been parallels discussed by people like Brent Metcalfe and Dan Vogel in regards to the 19th century and others have looked for more ancient parallels. I am attracted to Kevin Christensen’s invoking of Kuhn and Barbour mostly because it presents some possible means to assess differences. What sort of questions are we asking and for what purpose? And how do we weigh evidence? What assumptions affect the outcome, etc.

    “To say that Joseph Smith had the courage to tackle the problem and was able to solve it on what is a broader scale and in what is arguably an even more gallant fashion may sound a bit hollow when compared to notions of unmediated divine revelation.”

    You respond:

    Absolutely it does!! Such a claim brands Joseph Smith as a liar, an impostor — it negates what he claimed to be and what the Church believes him to be.

    The acute problem I see is in the descriptor “unmediated divine revelation.” I don’t understand what that would be, other than perhaps JS being a literal mouthpiece without input to the process or outcome. I don’t think that is a very solid view of revelation though. Also, I think questions can be asked about various ancient parallels without denying what JS claimed to be or what the Church claims him to be (although there have been different views amongst church members, so I might quibble with your division. It seems people must agree with you in order to agree with “the Church” and I don’t think that is entirely accurate in this discussion).

    IOW, I see a false dichotomy set up here in that JS must be seen as restoring ancient doctrines and rituals as they were anciently as opposed to any other ad-mixture of contemporary inspiration, invention, revealing things in a new context that may have some parallel anciently but also may not, depending, or any other method of restoration. The difficulty is deciding which is which with any particular doctrine.

    I think the question can fruitfully be phrased in terms of JS facing up to contemporary issues using inspiration, revelation and adaptation, but I don’t think this mutually excludes the possibility that JS restored ancient doctrines and rituals. My reservations include how we would determine which is which.

  12. Clark: “I hate to say that but I think it’s true. He was a ground blazer but now is dated.”

    From what I understand of Nibley, and I might be way off, he wouldn’t want people to ossify his arguments, but saw scholarship as an ongoing game. This is from a blog post a while back, I wrote it regarding the way Nibley still affects my own outlook today:

    One interesting aspect of Nibley’s approach was his awareness of the shelf-life of scholarship. He strongly encouraged reappraisal.

    “We need it all the time,” he declared, “If there is any other thing that characterizes the recent appearances in the journals and periodicals today, it is reappraisal.”

    He didn’t excuse himself from this reappraisal. He encouraged it:

    “I refuse to be held responsible for anything I wrote more than three years ago. For heaven’s sake, I hope we are moving forward here. After all, the implication that one mistake and it is all over with—how flattering to think in forty years I have not made one slip and I am still in business! I would say about four fifths of everything I put down has changed, of course. That is the whole idea; This is an ongoing process, and I have some interesting examples of that…The two rules to follow here are 1) to ask the right questions, and 2) to keep looking” (Hugh W. Nibley, “The Facsimiles of the Book of Abraham,” Sunstone 4 [December 1979]: 49-51).

  13. SMB, I think that’s a important point. In a sense most ideas have been sketched out in fairly broad way and have been available (in theory) for most of the modern era. How exact they are really depends upon how closely you demand the parallels resemble each other to be parallels. That’s an inherently problematic issue.

    As many note, as soon as Nibley starts doing parallels you have secular critics bringing out their parallels. Neither are terribly convincing ultimately but allow one to contextualize somewhat the competing narratives that are going on.

  14. Clark, glad you agree with me that Nibley approached texts like Joseph Campbell or MIrcea Eliade did. Reading him in a vacuum misses that he was part of a particular approach to reading the texts, and that what he was doing was saying that the texts were consistent with his interpretation rather than required his interpretation.

    Ben, Approaching Zion was the heart of the things that Nibley felt were truly important. Reading his scholarship it is easy to miss that he was constantly evolving his thoughts, positions and approaches. BHodges captures the sort of thing that Nibley emphasized over and over again.

    I would also note that reading anything he wrote, other than his gospel preaching (e.g. Approaching Zion) without reading Bird Island, will obscure that. But he adds a great deal of value to a way of looking at texts deeper than many did.

    His Book of Mormon class lecture series is still worth reading (he took four semesters to teach the intro Book of Mormon class at BYU and it was recorded and transcribed). That captures his passion and belief nicely.

    I think that too many criticisms of his writing are unfair projections into what he was doing, rather than of the substance of what he had to say.

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