Hugh W. Nibley was probably the most accomplished scholar and intellectual in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The evidence for this speaks for itself. One example is that Nibley still takes up a shelf of his own in nearly any Deseret Book you go into. In 1986, Deseret Book, in conjunction with the then Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) published the first volume in a series called The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley.1 It took almost a quarter century, but the nineteenth and final volume was published in 2010, in time for the centennial of Nibley’s birth.2 The nineteen volumes are still in print and their approximately 9,300 pages are the best place to get to know Nibley. They are his specific writings, reviewed and approved by him and they give the messages and information he intended.
Another example of Nibley’s achievements comes from the respect of his scholarly peers. In 1990, Deseret Book and FARMS issued a two-volume Festschrift in Nibley’s honor.3 This collection of essays contains 46 essays on topics addressed by Nibley or the contributing authors during their professional study. Contributors to the collection included notable figures in the field of biblical and ancient studies such as Aziz S. Atiya, James H. Charlesworth, Cyrus H. Gordon, Jacob Milgrom, Jacob Neusner4 and Raphael Patai.
One can also learn from Nibley through video lectures or transcripts of those lectures on the Book of Mormon and Pearl of Great Price, taken when he was teaching at Brigham Young University near the end of his teaching career.5 Nibley was by far the most interesting teacher I ever had in college, although his classes were challenging. If you watch the videos cited above, you’ll know what I mean. My experiences with him opened doors in my mind that have never closed. We spent six weeks on one chapter in the Book of Matthew and it was one of the most memorable learning experiences of my life.
All that being said, it seems a new introduction to Nibley and his work will help a new generation of members of the Restored Church to appreciate Nibley and his work. With Brother Nibley, it was the work he published and taught that would have been the most important to him. That being said, most of those who have read and studied him through the Collected Works, either never met him or really didn’t know much about the man behind the books.
That lack has recently been remedied to a degree by the release of the new book Hugh Nibley Observed. The book is edited by Jeffrey R. Bradshaw, Shirley S. Ricks and Stephen T. Witlock. The book is co-published (in softcover with a hardcover edition forthcoming) by the Interpreter Foundation and Eborn Books, with a collaboration from Book of Mormon Central and FAIR (Faithful Answers, Informed Response). (Disclosure–I volunteer to co-host a weekly program on Interpreter Radio).6 This 800 plus page book has over 200 photographs and illustrations, most of them not previously published.
This package is a marvelous collection, especially with the color photographs and art. Those biographical and historical images were primarily the responsibility of co-editor Steve Whitlock (p. 20, Figure 2). Its specifically designed to function as a companion volume to the full-length biography of Nibley written by his son-in-law Boyd Peterson. I can’t recommend the biography highly enough.7 The biography provides a more complete and unvarnished portrait of Hugh Nibley. The biography’s observations from his children are supplemented nicely by the children’s talks at his funeral which are included in the new book (pp. 549-583).
The biography also has a fascinating and helpful format. It has a chapter on a period in Hugh’s life and then a chapter which serves as an essay on a certain topic, like his military experience and how it shaped his political views, or on the Latter-day Saint Temple and his writings on that topic. The essay chapters could stand alone in a book of their own, but added among the chronological chapters, it provides an additional understanding of Nibley’s character and beliefs.
Readers of these pages will recognize the work of Jeffrey Bradshaw–who often contributes to this magazine. I can’t say enough about his excellent books.8 Hugh Nibley Observed is no exception. The scholarly content and the additional photographs and memorabilia all are trademarks for his work that add depth and context to the work itself. In his Introduction, Jeff describes how Nibley influenced him and his work, especially his important commentaries on the Book of Moses.9 He also describes how the book is organized and briefly summarizes other tributes to Nibley that took place during his life (and in the five years subsequent to his death) (pp.7-9).
The other editor is Shirley S. Ricks, who edited several volumes in the Collected Works. For me, Ricks’s article, “Editing Hugh Nibley: The Man and His Legacy” (pp. 451-496). In that article, she shared many incidents and anecdotes from her dealing with he and his wife, including comments from several who had double-checked his footnotes (of which the Collected Works contain thousands). Critics of Nibley often claim significant problems with the notes, but as Ricks demonstrates, Nibley was very accurate, in spite of human error. Occasionally, the errors were not made by him, but by later library or archive staff.
The second part contains 13 addresses sponsored by BYU’s Maxwell Institute to honor the centennial of Nibley’s birth in 2010. Some of the contributions have been expanded and updated by their authors. The second part then includes 8 articles by Nibley’s colleagues who help place him in context by describing the status of his studies in various areas such as biblical and ancient studies, Egyptology, Psychology and other sciences. As witnessed by the Collected Works, Nibley was unafraid to write about whatever interested him and spent the academic time to make a valid contribution no matter what it was.
The third and final section begins with the talks from Nibley’s funeral. It includes the remarks given by Jack Welch (pp. 585-593) and President Dallin H. Oaks (pp. 595-602). The book even includes pictures of Nibley’s tombstone and his hand-made coffin (made by his son, Paul (photo on p. 580). There are then a few personal stories, perspectives and reminiscences by close friends (and his son, Alex).
Nibley was a non-conformist in several areas, but he was an extremely faithful and believing member of the Church. In spite of this, he was also a very outspoken cultural critic at times. He didn’t criticize the gospel; but did not agree with some of the practices that had grown around it. His book, Approaching Zion, wasn’t one of his favorites, since it was simply a collection of his talks, but Ricks notes that “A book that he never wanted published has reportedly changed the lives of countless individuals, . . .” (p. 462). He was known for speaking many languages and for delving into ancient documents to find evidences for the Book of Mormon and other Latter-day Saint scriptures.
Nibley was criticized at times for his academic theories about religious rites and the ancient temple, but as time has passed, more and more non-Latter-day Saint scholars have come to similar conclusions. Nibley’s claims regarding some of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi codices, especially his observations about there being a consistent teaching of doctrine and rituals, were met with silence or scorn in the academic community10 His observations about Egyptian practices, which he first published as a translation and commentary on the Egyptian Book of Breathings in 197511, were treated in a similar fashion. By the time a 2nd Edition (Collected Works, Vol. 16) was published three decades later, things had changed.
Nibley’s long work on comparative religion sensitized him to recognize certain ritual patterns, and thus he saw in the Book of Breathings an initiation text at a time when the only Egyptologists who thought that initiation existed in ancient Egypt were Walter Federn, Claas Bleeker, and Gertrud Thausing, who were definitely on the margins of the discipline. Since that time [three decades], the topic of initiation has become mainstream in the discipline, although some Egyptologists still dislike the term and the subject.”12
Nibley’s claim that the so-called Forty Day documents reflected early Christian rituals also falls into this category. Recent scholarship has begun to agree that some of those documents such as the Gospel of Philip (found in the Nag Hammadi codices) and the Books of Jeu reflect a ritual or initiatory rite.13 Hugh Nibley Observed points out that Nibley’s work on the Forty Day documents inspired “an entire website on the forty-day literature [which] was privately funded and developed to make all the ancient sources relevant to Stephen Ricks’s faculty seminar discussion on that topic freely available (p. 9). Margaret Barker gave a paper responding to Nibley’s “Christian Envy of the Temple” at the Society of Biblical Literature in 2010, fifty years after it was written. In the paper, she recognized that Nibley provided serious arguments and evidence for his paper.14
Hugh Nibley’s tombstone contains the phrase, “A doorkeeper in the House of the Lord” (Figure 1, p. 28). The phrase is taken from Psalm 84:10 and is used by John W. Welch in the Foreword (pp. 25-29). This article by Welch was originally given in honor of Nibley’s 75th birthday and also was reprinted in the Festschrift.15 This book is a great introduction to Hugh Nibley and it will make an excellent gift. Its behind-the-scenes approach will help the modern reader relate to Nibley’s scholarship and work in ways that will be more beneficial than ever in today’s ever-increasing secular society, which relies on the type of academic work Nibley specialized in.
* Terry L. Hutchinson is a practicing attorney with an interest in Latter-day Saint history and doctrine, as well as Biblical Law, particularly the Law of Moses. He has offices in Eastern Nevada and Southern Utah. He is married to the former JeNée Gifford and they have five children and seven grandchildren. Since 1994, he has produced a twice-daily book review show on KDXU Radio in St. George, Utah. He also co-hosts monthly on the Interpreter Radio broadcasts with John Gee and Kevin Christensen.
1. Nibley, Hugh, Old Testament and Related Studies, (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book & FARMS, 1986). The volume was edited by John W. Welch, Gary P. Gillum and Don E. Norton.
2. Nibley, Hugh & Rhodes, Michael D., One Eternal Round, (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book & FARMS, Maxwell Institute, 2010).
3. Lundquist, John M. & Ricks, Stephen D., Eds., By Study and Also By Faith, 2 vols., (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book & FARMS, 1990).
4. Neusner took the unusual step of contributing two essays, one in each volume.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ehBxXyk-Ots&list=PLOrN0FV73AsIeKPG48pi390UWWd OVyIgi (The Pearl of Great Price) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XraGjlIcjrs (The Book of Mormon).
7. Peterson, Boyd Jay, Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life, (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2002).
8. https://latterdaysaintmag.com/article-1-14240/ Posted April 21, 2014.
9. Bradshaw, Jeffrey W., In God’s Image and Likeness, Vol. 1: Creation, Fall and the Story of Adam and Eve, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Eborn Books, 2010); and Bradshaw, Jeffrey W., and David J. Larsen, In God’s Image and Likeness, Vol. 2: Enoch, Noah and the Tower of Babel, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Eborn Books and Interpreter Foundation, 2012).
10. An example is the brief description of the interchange in Church History in the response to Nibley’s 1961 article, “The Passing of the Church: Forty Variations on an Unpopular Theme,” Church History, 30/2, (June 1961): pp. 131-154. The article was reprinted in Compton, Todd M. & Stephen D. Ricks, Eds., Mormonism and Early Christianity, CWHN Vol. 4, (Salt Lake City, UT: Maxwell Institute and Deseret Book, 1987), pp.168-208. A couple of responses to Nibley are described that criticize Nibley’s thesis as undermining all of what the respondent’s called “church history”. See, Louis Midgley, “Hugh Winder Nibley: Bibliography and Register,” pp. xv-lxxxvii, Lundquist, John M. & Ricks, Stephen D., By Study and Also By Faith: Essays in Honor of Hugh W. Nibley on the Occasion of his 80th birthday (Volume 1) (Salt Lake City, UT: FARMS & Deseret Book, 1990) pp. xxxiii-xxxv.
11. Nibley, Hugh W., The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyrus: An Egyptian Endowment, (Salt Lake City: UT, Deseret Book, 1975). A second edition, edited by John Gee and Michael D. Rhodes, with illustrations directed by Michael P. Lyon, was published in 2005 as Volume 16 in the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley. Gee’s Introduction to the 2d Edition indicates in general terms where the two editions differ (see pp. xix-xxiii). All citations are to the 2d. Edition.
12. Id., at p. xxii. [Citations omitted, Emphasis added]
13. Lundhaug, Hugo, Images of Rebirth: Cognitive Poetics and Transformational Soteriology in the Gospel of Philip and the Exegisis on the Soul, (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2010), at p. 165, (2010); cf. Hugo Lundhaug, “Evidence of “Valentinian” Ritual Practice? The Liturgical
Fragments of Nag Hammadi Codex XI (NCH XI,2A-E), pp. 225-243, Corrigan, Kevin & Rasimus, Tuomas, Gnosticism, Palatonism and the Late Ancient World: Essays in Honour of John D. Turner, (Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 2013). Evans, Erin, The Books of Jeu and the Pistis Sophia as Handbooks to Eternity: Exploring the Gnostic Mysteries of the Ineffable, (Leiden, Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill, 2015). Cf., Erin Evans, “Ritual in the Second Book of Jeu”, pp. 137-159, April D. DeConick, G. Shaw, & John D. Turner, Eds., Practicing Gnosis: Ritual, Magic, Theurgy and Liturgy in Nag Hammadi, Manichaean and Other Late Antique Literature, Essays in Honor of Birger A. Pearson, (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 2013). van Os, Bas, Baptism in the Bridal Chamber: The Gospel of Philip as a Valentinian Baptismal Instruction, (Goningen, Netherlands: University of Groningen, 2007) available http://dissertations.ub.rug.nl/faculties/theology/2007/l.k.van.os/.
14. Margaret Barker, ‘Christian Envy of the Temple’, Revisiting Hugh Nibley’s Landmark Paper after 50 Years. Copy in author’s possession.
15. Lundquist & Ricks, Vol. 1, op. cit., at pp. 6-10.