I fell in love almost simultaneously, as a junior in high school, with historical linguistics and Hugh Nibley. It was a good time to discover Nibley, just after FARMS and Deseret Book had begun publishing his collected works, when everyone seemed to have read Nibley on the Timely and Timeless but only those in the know had Enoch the Prophet or The World and the Prophets on their bookshelves, and the dated scholarship (as the foreword in the edition I read informed us) of Lehi in the Desert/The World of the Jaredites could come as a revelation with the promise of more unpublished marvels yet to appear and when, pre-Internet, you could pick up badly copied pre-print editions filled with weird neo-Egyptian typography if you made the trek to Salt Lake. It was a time when chiasmus was young, and when everyone felt empowered to mine modern scripture for ancient literary forms.
Of course, to say that I discovered Nibley is an overstatement: I merely started reading the books that my father brought home. And I would guess that he started reading Nibley because the Santa Barbara Third Ward of the 1970s and 1980s—the old Third Ward, well before it became the Goleta Valley Ward, before it combined with the old Fourth Ward, who we really deserved to beat in volleyball and basketball but never did—was a very interesting place to be. John Welch’s brother—make that Rosalynde’s husband’s uncle—was the ward organist. Gerry Bradford did something or other. Helen Andelin was once my mother’s visiting teacher. Thanks to some active participants (and, I suspect, proximity to some generous donors in the stake as a whole), the Santa Barbara Third Ward was very much in the loop of the Mormon intellectual world of the time. (My parents, however, were not in the loop, for reasons that my teenage self couldn’t understand, and for which my adult experience allows only a cautious reconstruction.)
The second semester of my junior year, an English teacher offered a class on linguistics, and my two loves almost intersected. One of the possible topics for a research paper was the history of writing, and I latched onto it immediately, because I had just read Nibley’s account of how writing—well, everything, really—had arisen in the context of the Ancient Temple. Where are the supposed transitional forms, Nibley scoffed, that would document the alleged slow evolution from merchants’ scribbles to alphabetic perfection? The earliest writing, Nibley insisted with captivating confidence, is already complete in the hieratic script of Mesopotamia. (Or, this is what I remember my 17-year old self to have read; I write this without referring back to Nibley’s books, far from here on my father’s book shelves, for chapter and verse.)
I told my English teacher my proposed topic. He seemed disappointed. “Isn’t that pretty well understood already?” he asked. “Oh, I have a source with a different take on it,” I assured him.
But somewhere during the spring of 1988, one of the fussier and more alert corners of my subconscious mind began sending me a message, using one of those long wavelengths so that reception was imperceptible and slow, but eventually I recognized: This is going to end badly. This is going to be like that time in eighth grade when I tried to give a class presentation on the Utah War to my English class: 20 agonized minutes of mumbling and stuttering because, I discovered too late, I and the other students did not share some critical assumptions about the world that form the basis of communication. And when you get right down to it, I’ve got one source that entails a whole tangle of Mormon assumptions about the world, and I won’t be able to write anything sensible with it.
I changed my topic. Eventually, I went off to BYU and then on to grad school and turned into a medievalist and one day I realized, can you believe it?, that Nibley’s scholarship was dated. Whenever I returned to California to visit my parents, I would occasionally pick up something by Nibley and scoff at his footnotes, even if he did manage to publish in Church History.
Something funny happened a couple years ago. I had been asked to write an exhaustive overview of recent scholarship on medieval reading, and so I was picking my way through a massive two-volume reference work on the lookout for relevant material (which may sound reminiscent of legal document review, but is much more interesting, I assure all you lawyers) when I came across an article on the Old European script. The prevailing theory holds that this undeciphered script, a thousand years older than the earliest writing of Mesopotamia, was a form of proto-writing used for religious purposes. Well! I thought. I could have written that paper after all. Now, the leading interpreter of Old European culture and exponent of the religious nature of its script was Marija Gimbutas, who is a great source of interesting ideas but not where I would turn first for unassailable scholarship, but Gimbutas and Nibley together would have given me more than enough to write a paper for an eleventh-grade linguistics class. So if there’s not enough to say Hah! Nibley was right after all, it certainly helped tamp down the urge to scoff (which is endemic to everyone with a Ph.D. from this century when reading scholarship from the last, I suspect).
Which is all a long way of explaining why the awe with which I view the pictures of Göbekli Tepe is tempered with a certain degree of smugness and embarrassment. Smugness, because the most stunning archeological discovery of our time strongly supports one of Nibely’s central theses, that ancient civilization revolved around and arose from the Temple. Embarrassment, because I had filed Nibley away in the mental drawer reserved for interesting but outdated ideas.
If you haven’t yet read about Göbekli Tepe, you should. It’s a massive complex of well-preserved stone remains that are by all appearances a ritual center 7,000 years older than the pyramids of Egypt. It pre-dates agriculture. It pre-dates the domestication of animals. It pre-dates the invention of doorways. According to its discoverer, Klaus Schmidt, it overturns everything we thought we knew about how civilization developed: rather than the halting advance of agriculture and commerce leading to civilization and high religion, it all started with a temple.
This is terrifically compatible with a good bit of Mormon scholarship, of course. I hope that at this moment, in some obscure office on the BYU campus, there is an ambitious young LDS scholar with the ink still drying on his or her Ph.D. who is mining Göbekli Tepe for apologetic gold, and not just because I like some Mormon apologetic raw meat every now and again. As much fun as it might be to thumb our nose at basically everybody else and say We have a functioning temple and you don’t! I think the exercise of comparing Mormon temples to Göbekli Tepe is beneficial by giving us an opportunity to think about temples as not simply a place where we do baptisms for the dead, but as a place where we go to visit, or to think about visiting, the center of the cosmos and the origin of civilization. While an exaggerated estimation of Nibley’s work sometimes leads to a failure to understand the current state of scholarship, a naïve disappointment that scholarship does not stay forever current sometimes leads to a shortsighted rejection of all that he did. A better appreciation for Nibley’s real and lasting accomplishments is one more thing that we might recover from the dig at Göbekli Tepe.