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A Whole Lot of Hugh Nibley

Some years ago, I attended a course on the Pearl of Great Price at the Logan Institute that could have just as easily been entitled “Teachings of Hugh Nibley.”  The teacher was well-versed in Nibley’s writings and frequently used them in discussing both the Book of Moses and the Book of Abraham.  And, frankly, it made the class quite interesting to attend because of the insights the teacher shared from his reading of Hugh Nibley’s works.  In part because of the things that Nibley wrote, he has garnered attention as a widely-known figure of the 20th century in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  In a recent interview with Jeff Bradshaw of the Interpreter Foundation, Kurt Manwaring discussed the new volume Hugh Nibley Observed, which “contains more than 800 pages about the life of Latter-day Saint Scholar Hugh Nibley, including contributions from Dallin H. Oaks, Richard Bushman, and Truman G. Madsen.”  In the discussion at Kurt Manwaring’s site, they went over a variety of topics, including who Hugh Nibley was, the impact of his work on various Latter-day Saints, and some discussion of what the Interpreter Foundation is currently working on.  What follows here is a co-post, with a few excerpts and some discussion, but for the original post, follow the link here.

Hugh Nibley was an influential professor at BYU and a noted apologist for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  As stated in the interview, “Hugh W. Nibley (1910–2005) was arguably the most brilliant Latter-day Saint scholar of the 20th century, with wide-ranging interests in scripture, history, and social issues,” and “his erudition was recognized and admired by many of his non-Latter-day Saint colleagues.”  Nibley was well-versed in linguistics and ancient studies and used those skills to provide intellectual support for the archaeological, linguistic, and historical claims of Joseph Smith and the Church.  One example discussed in the interview was as follows:

His best-known discovery is that of a remarkable match between a name in the Book of Moses and in a Dead Sea Scrolls text discovered in 1948 called the Book of Giants (BG). In the Book of Moses, the name appears as Mahijah or Mahujah (Moses 6:40; 7:2) and in English translations of BG it is usually given as Mahaway or Mahawai. Nibley found not only that the ancient form of these names were likely to have matched well, but also that the roles of the corresponding characters were analogous.

Professor Matthew Black, a Dead Sea Scrolls expert and a collaborator on the first English translation of BG, published in 1976, was also impressed with the similarity of the BG and Book of Moses names. Like Nibley, he seems to have seen this finding as evidence that Joseph Smith’s Enoch text was ancient—even though he didn’t believe that Joseph Smith translated it through a process that relied on divine revelation. Instead, upon meeting Latter-day Saint graduate student Gordon C. Thomasson (who was familiar with Nibley’s Enoch research), Black initially suggested that a copy of a text drawing on the some of the same Enoch traditions as BG must have made its way to Joseph Smith sometime before the translation of the Book of Moses.

Nibley said that during a previously unplanned visit Professor Black made to BYU soon afterward, Black reiterated his view that Joseph Smith must have relied on an ancient source in his translation. Thomasson relates this interesting story in more detail in his chapter of Hugh Nibley Observed. Other non-Latter-day Saint scholars have also remarked favorably on Nibley’s discovery, and later research continues to support his hypothesis of a relationship between the names.

Nibley’s apologetic efforts has helped to keep people in the Church with the various pieces of evidence he brought together.  For example, Richard Lyman Bushman recalled that during his college years, his “testimony was teetering in the balance,” but when he came into contact with Nibley’s books Lehi in the Desert and the World of the Jaredites, he was fascinated by “the idea of Arabic poetry in the naming of hills and valleys for Laman and Lemuel, and the peculiar oasis on the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula that Nephi named Bountiful and that Nibley identified as a pocket of greenery unknown to anyone in the West in Joseph Smith’s time.”  Ultimately, Bushman recalled, that: “These little specks of evidence provided the kind of rational support I was looking for in my quest for conviction.”  Because of similar impacts on other Latter-day Saints, efforts to compile Nibley’s writings and works have led to The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, which includes 19 hefty volumes.

Hugh Nibley Observed, however, is more focused on biographical information about Nibley.  As summarized by Jeff Bradshaw: “In this volume, readers will discover that the personal stories and perspectives behind the scholarship are sometimes even more captivating and inspiring than his brilliant and witty intellectual breakthroughs.”  As shared in the interview, the backstory of this volume was as follows:

Some years ago (I can’t remember now how and when), I ran across a fascinating series of audio recordings of a BYU Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship-sponsored lecture series that was given in 2010, in commemoration of the anniversary of Hugh Nibley’s 100th birthday. Later I discovered, there were a few of these that had been posted on YouTube and a few others that had been published.

But the full set of audio recordings was nowhere to be found on the Web and few people I knew had ever heard of them. Over time, I kept having the nagging thought that these should be made more available.

My friend Steve Whitlock and I started to conceive of a book that would contain these lectures as a nucleus. We decided to include other chapters from Nibley’s friends and family. Shirley S. Ricks, a skilled and dedicated editor who was heavily involved in the original Collected Works of Hugh Nibley series, agreed to join the project and made substantial and invaluable contributions. With the backing of The Interpreter Foundation, significant help and overall suggestions from Jack Welch (the prime mover behind FARMS and Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, who also wrote the foreword and three other chapters), and the partnership of Book of Mormon Central and FAIR the project began to accelerate. We were thrilled that members of the family agreed to contribute materials (the book includes over 200 photos—many never before published), including moving talks given at Hugh Nibley’s memorial service at the Provo Tabernacle in 2005. With permission, eloquent remarks at that service given by Jack Welch and President Dallin H. Oaks were also included.

For more information about and excerpts from this volume, follow the link to Kurt Manwaring’s site here.  There is also some information about a variety of initiatives that the Interpreter Foundation will be making available in the near future and some (such as the Complete Nibley Bibliography) that will grow over time.  It’s a lengthy post, but if you’re interested in Hugh Nibley, it’s worthwhile.

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