Discussions of Book of Mormon issues and evidences, plus other topics related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Monday, May 27, 2019

He Whose Name Cannot Be Spoken: Hugh Nibley

Whether you agree with Hugh Nibley or not, those doing research on the Book of Abraham and the Kirtland Egyptian Papers must recognize that he was certainly the most prolific scholar to dig into those issues. While he would modify many of his early viewpoints on several issues and would surely withdraw or modify some, in light of ongoing discoveries, were he around today, much of what he discovered and published remains relevant and at least deserves to be considered.

In a recent conversation with an LDS graduate student digging into ancient languages including Egyptian, I learned that he had great respect for Nibley’s magnum opus on the Book of Abraham, One Eternal Round.  He felt it had a great deal of value that most LDS members and perhaps most LDS scholars have failed to consider. When my copy of The Joseph Smith Papers, Revelations and Translations, Volume 4: Book of Abraham and Related Manuscripts, edited by Robin Scott Jensen and Brian M. Hauglid (Salt Lake City, UT: Church Historian’s Press, 2018, hereafter JSP Vol. 4) finally reached me in Shanghai, I was anxious to see how this valuable volume would treat past scholarship on the Kirtland Egyptian Papers and the Book of Abraham. I was especially interested to see how it would respond to the intricate analysis presented in One Eternal Round and other voluminous works of Nibley, the first scholar to dig into the Joseph Smith Papyri and perhaps the most important scholar to have addressed numerous issues around the Kirtland Egyptian Papers (KEP), the papyri, the Facsimiles, and the text of the Book of Abraham.

To my amazement, as I read JSP Vol. 4, it seemed that every time there was an issue where I would expect a helpful reference to findings from Hugh Nibley or other scholars such as John Gee, Kerry Muhlestein, or others, there was simply silence.   Turning to the list of works cited (pp. 340–349), I was even more surprised to see Nibley was completely missing. This volume has hundreds of footnotes: 205 in the section on the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language (GAEL), 215 in the section for the Egyptian Alphabet documents, 128 in the Introduction, 209 in the section on the Facsimile printing plates and published Book of Abraham, etc. JSP Vol. 4 is willing to cite a non-LDS critic to the effect that there is "some evidence" suggesting the Book of Abraham is derived from the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, but chooses not to mention that there is abundant evidence from multiple scholars for the opposite conclusion, that the Kirtland Egyptian Papers are derived from an already existing translation. What’s going on? This points to what may be a gap in the interpretive framework that is implicitly if not explicitly presented in JSP Vol. 4. Much more than just Nibley may have been overlooked.

Sadly, the editorial comments in the JSP Vol. 4 seem to avoid any hint that there may be antiquity or authenticity anywhere in Joseph’s translated text or in the comments on the Facsimiles, when the neglected works of Nibley and others, even if only cited by way of reviewing the past LDS responses to the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, could at least have pointed to help for readers wishing to understand the potential for authenticity. John Gee and Kerry Muhlestein are LDS Egyptologists and professors at BYU who have dealt with many of the thorny issues of the Book of Abraham and have been able to point to numerous fascinating details in favor of some ancient roots in the texts, while also recognizing the challenges. Their relative absence from this volume is disconcerting. [Update, May 29&30: (Deleted a contested sentence here after receiving further input.) Yes, I understand that for the purposes of presenting the documents for the JSP Project, there really is no fundamental need to cite any works of Nibley or other LDS scholars on what the documents do or do not mean. So I suppose that if there were no commentary in the volume pointing to the meaning and purpose of the documents, no attempts to guide the reader by presenting context and environmental influences and theories regarding the "translation," just the documents and their transcriptions and the barest of solid facts about who wrote what when, then there might be no imbalance in excluding Nibley's work. But this is a book that needs commentary and context!]

Fortunately, the important Introduction of JSP Vol. 4 does not fail to cite Gee and Muhlestein, treating them with better respect than Nibley. But not much more. Gee’s valuable Introduction to the Book of Abraham is cited on p. xviii regarding a tiny detail in the chain of events regarding the bringing of Egyptian artifacts to America. On p. xiv,  three of his works are cited on the issue of how long the scrolls were, but only after citing and accepting the views of others who claim they were much shorter than Gee’s calculation (that’s not to say Gee’s calculation was correct, but rather illustrates the general neglect of many weightier matters Gee addresses). That appears to be the extent of references in the Introduction to Gee’s work. Elsewhere, the occasional references appear to be about tiny details rather than to his overarching views and major contributions to the debate over the Book of Abraham. As for Muhlestein, he is cited once in the Introduction on p. xxv to the effect that the Kirtland Egyptian Papers have been found by scholars “to be of no actual value in understanding Egyptian.” That is certainly true, but Muhlestein, like Gee, has much more to say about the actual value of Joseph Smith’s work and how faithful readers can cope with some of the puzzles. On that, there is silence.

But perhaps I am misunderstanding something. Am I asking the Joseph Smith Papers to abandon scholarly credibility to pursue my apologetic fantasies?

The outstanding and brilliant JSP Project is clearly not about creating and publishing apologetics, but rather sharing documents for future scholarly work. But if the goal is not apologetics, neither can it be polemics. Unscholarly bias that supports positions that can undermine faith and weaken respect for the LDS scriptures must be avoided. Balance, openness, and scholarship must mean more than sharing only one perspective. Cited scholarship and perspectives on the complex interpretative issues around the KEP must not exclude and ignore relevant scholarship that refutes or undermines key positions of critics of the Church. Acknowledging such past scholarship should be a matter of course in a work like this, and could at least point readers to other ways of seeing the issues involved with the complex and puzzling documents that are presented.

It’s one thing to disagree with Nibley, but to pretend he does not exist reflects something other than openness and objective scholarship, IMO.

JSP Vol. 4 does much more than simply present and transcribe documents. There is extensive commentary and over a thousand footnotes, with each sentence of commentary and each choice of what to cite and what to ignore having the potential to reflect personal views of the editors. As is stated on the book cover and on the JSPP website,
The introductory material situates Smith’s efforts in the broader context of the nineteenth-century fascination with Egyptian history and culture, of his own effort to reveal truths from the ancient past, and of his other translation efforts. The annotation in this volume explores the relationships between and among the various manuscripts.  
The existence of extensive commentary and footnotes that identify (or ignore) relationships and create a “context” for the translation effort opens very large doors for editorial bias to influence the result. Unfortunately, the positions favored seem to support derivation of the Book of Abraham from the Kirtland Egyptian Papers rather than the other way around. They favor the critic's analysis of two related Book of Abraham manuscripts said to show Joseph Smith "translating" in live dictation, when there is strong evidence that those manuscripts were being copied by the scribes from an existing text, with Warren Parrish doing the dictation rather than Joseph Smith. They favor the "Egyptomania without Champollion" viewpoint where Joseph supposedly thought one Egyptian character could give huge chunks of text in a mystical "translation" process.

How the documents are presented and which perspectives are acknowledged and which are ignored is a critical issue that cannot be done with pretended obliviousness to the debates based on the documents in question.  Faithful Latter-day Saints have confronted the warts of the Book of Abraham and related documents for decades and have found ways to understand and cope with the issues without losing faith in the divine nature of the Restoration. Faithful Latter-day Saints have also seen great treasures in the Book of Abraham that point to the ancient roots of the Book of Abraham and the sacred value of the text, however it was revealed and crafted. A publication like JSP Vol. 4 that digs into the warts should, in my opinion, also not be afraid to hint, if only indirectly, at some of the beauty and not be ashamed to recognize the existence of scholarly perspectives of Nibley and others.  Nibley's responses to the Joseph Smith Papyri debates and the Kirtland Egyptian Papers are part of the history around the documents and a vital part of the broader context of the Book of Abraham story. It's a shame Nibley has been excised from the record. 



This post is part of a recent series on the Book of Abraham, inspired by a frustrating presentation from the Maxwell Institute. Here are the related posts:

35 comments:

Anonymous said...

Oh, Jeff. When will you wake up? The words of those men are becoming more and more indefensible as years go by. Why capture them in print in a book you want to be a "scholarly" heirloom for years to come? As with so many other things the church conveniently forgets it has said, it's easier to pretend they don't exist rather than shine a light on them. There's simply no intellectual defense for these so-called scriptures, so the church is forced to lean in hard on the spiritual, less-believable, less compelling, reasons for their existence.
Given the recent papers published by BYU regarding the Joseph Smith translation and it's obvious sources, it's only a matter of time until the church forgets that book of "scripture" exists at all.
It's a weird time to be a Mormon, I tell you what.

coltakashi said...

Why would there not be references to Nibley's extensive writings in a work intended to be a reference for scholars seeking to understand the Book of Abraham, and to understand how the Latter-day Saints have understood it? That second topic is certainly just as important as the first, and failing to connect to it is a puzzling failure of scholarship.

Anonymous said...

Jeff

You have your answer in the quote you shared. The stated purpose of the commentary of the JSPP is to explore "the relationships between and among the various manuscripts." They are not seeking to promote the faith of the saints, but explore how the documents fit in with what we know was going on at the time. They are not trying to provide “ways to understand and cope with the issues without losing faith in the divine nature of the Restoration.” They are seeking to provide the best scholarship they can with the solid information that is available. It’s not their job to coddle faith—kudos to them.

As for Nibley, I'd never claim to be an expert on his works, but from what I have read of him, his principle scholarly thrust was to seek muddle issues so thoroughly that nothing could be known for certain. He also spilled a lot of ink in doing so (he style is extremely wordy and convoluted). He might have been able to “confront the warts of the Book of Abraham” to your satisfaction, but his wart removal process seems to have been proven inadequate many times. Why would any attempt to produce reputable scholarly work include reference to questionable scholarship?

Anonymous said...

I’m embarrassed by the typos in my above post—I apologize.

To piggyback on that post, if several professional experts in the field share a point of view that is different from your amateur one, that may be an indication that it is time to step back and reevaluate your take.

Kevin Christensen said...

Nibley wrote 19 books, all of which I have read very carefully. That makes me competent to state that that he is a brilliant, clear, and effective writer. To assert in an anonymous post that he principally wrote to muddle issues demonstrates only an ideological bias, and casts no light on the value and integrity of his work.

Jeff is correct that Nibley should have been acknowledged. Ignoring his work is an ideological decision, not a strictly academic one. If and where they disagreed, they should be specific. That is the point of scholarship.

Anonymous said...

Please help enlighten my ignorance. How does Nibley’s exploration of ancient minutiae apply to the stated purpose of the project?

Anonymous said...

Also, proof that he changed or embellished sources to favor his arguments does a lot to discredit his scholarly relevance. Again, why would the contributors to the project risk their work being tainted by his? Ignoring him seems to be the most reasonable thing to do considering the circumstances.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Nibley was the first LDS scholar that I am aware of to dig into the papyrus fragments and discuss their significance. Had a big series of publications shortly after the Church acquired the papyri fragments. In various publications, he pursued the Book of Abraham in depth and explored it connection to many other documents, including the Kirtland Egyptian Papers, but especially many from the ancient world. His extensive work on the meaning of the manuscripts related to Joseph Smith and his colleagues, and the papyri and the facsimiles was a vital part of the scholarly publications related to the topics of this book. If muddled, then say so, if shallow and discredited, say so (and explain why!), but refusing to recognize his extensive work at all is simply puzzling.

Anonymous said...

Jeff is upset with Hauglid and Jensen because they didn't include enough apologetics to rationalize the obvious blunder that is the Book of Abraham translation.

Rocky Road said...

I find it interesting that those who like to negate the Book of Abraham will only discuss translation issues. The message of the Book of Abraham is vital and a great insight into the life of the patriarch.

Jeff Lindsay said...

I also like the Egyptian word play, identified by John Gee in his recent book, that brings Abraham 3 to life -- makes it a brilliant way to teach an Egyptian ruler something about deity without getting executed.

Anonymous said...

Jeff, consider the level of scrutiny these JSP publications receive, not just from project staff but also from external reviewers and even, apparently, General Authorities.

Consider also the fact that the project involves, in one way or another, such noteables as Richard Bushman, Terryl Givens, Royal Skousen, Steven Snow, Richard Turley, and Grant Underwood, not to mention BYU and the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute, the Church History Department, the Church Archives, and the Church Historian’s Press.

This is a Who’s Who of Mormon history scholarship. Maybe their judgment is better than yours? Also note who is missing here: the FAIR/Interpreter crowd.

It seems pretty obvious that the Church is turning away from the kind of methodologically worthless apologetic pseudo-scholarship you and many others for some reason insist on perpetuating.

What we’re seeing here, with JSP editors finding nothing in Nibley’s work of sufficient relevance or scholarly quality to be worth mentioning, is just one more sign that the Church is leaving you behind. (An earlier sign was the Maxwell Institute’s firing of Dan Peterson.)

It’s almost as if the Church itself has come to agree with me—not about theological matters, but about the poor quality of FAIR-style apologetics.

— OK

Anonymous said...

The church is decidedly, definitely, intentionally taking a hands off approach to what gets published other than being very interested that it's true to the goal of putting Joseph's papers online.

I do not think the people running the project are getting content based approvals or edits.

An alternate, and likely story is that the church is letting a different type of apologetics have a turn in the limelight. That's all. If you don't think this scholarly approval approach is an apologetic marketing effort as much as traditional apologetics, then you haven't thought about it hard enough.

The church feels that this effort makes it look good or appeals to some. It's literally an apologetic to scholars who would otherwise charge the church is heavy handedly redacting history.

That has nothing to do with approval or disapproval of Fair. I get the sense that the church is just eager to promote all forms of defense.

Anonymous said...

Maybe so, Anon 4:38. I would note, however, that the JSP project has official Church backing and involvement (though not, as you say, at the level of content approval), while The Interpreter and other baldly apologetic ventures does not.

It doesn't really matter to me whether the Church thinks it will get some good PR mileage out of good scholarship. I'm just happy to see the good scholarship. This project will integrate the Mormon scriptures more tightly into secular scholarship, and I'm confident that that, in turn, will lead to a more liberal Church.

The Church's whole history since 1890 shows that it craves the world's approval --- hence the Woodruff Manifesto, the revelation on blacks and the priesthood, the Gospel Topics essays, etc. The Church's official support for the JSP project is another expression of that craving, which as I said is fine with me.

-- OK

Anonymous said...

"it craves the world's approval" bingo, and Jeff is happy to facilitate the craving, calling millions of mormons that tell the truth about what the church use to believe anti-mormon, how dare those mormons embarrass the church in front of the world.

Anonymous said...

The absurdity of Jeff calling millions of mormons anti-mormon, it bogles reason

Jeff Lindsay said...

I'm sorry, did you mean I was calling everyone under 12 anti-Mormon, or was it the 18-45 demographic, or just senior Latter-day Saints? Or maybe all the LDS folks west and north of Utah? Just trying to be clear on which crazy allegations I'm facing today.

Disagreeing with, say, Terryl Givens on his views of Egyptomania and its influence on the Book of Abraham does not mean I think Terryl is an anti-Mormon. He's a fabulous force for missionary work and a fervent supporter of the Church. But that doesn't mean faithful Latter-day Saints need to accept every view he or anyone else has.

My issue regarding Nibley is not about who is anti-Mormon, but why a scholarly book would fail to cite some of the most directly relevant scholarship on the documents that are the focus of the book. It's just so puzzling. I very seriously doubt that typical leader who reviewed or oversaw the book even noticed that little detail.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jeff Lindsay said...

I'm getting touchy about offensive comments. Sorry about that.

Anonymous said...

What? What was offensive? Or is that just your hate coming out again? Why are so full of hate?

Anonymous said...

"Doesn't mean faithful Latter-day Saints need to accept every view he or anyone else has"

Faithful are not required to even accept that a Mormon deacon has more Christian priesthood than the catholic pope. Nothing in the missionary discussions require it and nothing in the baptisimal interview requires it and thousands get baptized every year believing the pope has Christian priesthood, I have seen it first hand. Someone like Richard g Scott can tell people that personally the thought of poligamy or even remarriage is gross and that should not offend you. Trying not to read your mind here, but if that is what offends you, may be that says something about you.

TWP said...

"It’s almost as if the Church itself has come to agree with me—not about theological matters, but about the poor quality of FAIR-style apologetics."

It would seem the Church does not agree with you, since they sent a General Authority Seventy to speak at the FairMormon conference last year, and are sending another one this year. (Not to mention the head of Public Affairs being sent before that, along with the director of the Church History Library, as well as several other historians employed by the Church History Department.)

https://www.fairmormon.org/conference/august-2018/a-sacred-and-imperative-duty

They also list FairMormon and Interpreter as "Additional Resources for Answering Doctrinal, Historical, and Social Questions" here:

https://www.lds.org/si/objective/doctrinal-mastery/gospel-sources?lang=eng

JoePeaceman said...



This is where I came in, to Jeff’s landmark friendly fire Blog. I was reading about the BofA because some family members had some questions. I was up to the KEP, found that the JSP had published a lot of new information. Noticed that they seemed to lean towards impossible claims created by critics and referenced Chris Smith (who sometimes seems to argue based on his view that members of the Church of Jesus Christ are raised to lie) etc. At first I thought they were trying to present both sides and they knew that sensible people would see that the critical claims are one sided fabrications intended to explain the inexplicable. Then I noticed that they don’t really give faithful, brilliant, etc. scholars a fair voice. So, I read some things by Chris Smith, watched some Vogel YouTube, etc. and decided they are deceptive rhetoricians.

The scenarios they create are impossible.

Anonymous said...

I know man, they are all so bogus. They are just running from the truth because Of the bad stuff they afraid God knows about. Pffft, none of that can stop us because we have on the whole God. Right dude? Stay strong, return with honor Mann.

Anonymous said...

Jeff the great accuser. Resorting to hatefully calling something offensive when it so thoroughly frustrates him. The hallmark of someone not at all interested in genuine dialogue.

Anonymous said...

I know someone who works on the JSP, and who is friends with Robin and Brian. I already know that General Authorities don’t always agree, that Brian and Robin don’t always agree, and that no individual scholar expresses the feelings of the Church on Nibley, the Book of Abraham, or anything else. As I understand it, they are allowed to express their opinions in publications so long as they aren’t in disagreement with Church Doctrine. There is no doctrine about Nibley.
When I am able, I’ll ask some questions.

JoePeaceman said...

Yes, Nibley is one of the greatest scholars of all time. Einstein was wrong about many things, and had many leading scholars against him. Babe Ruth led the league in strikeouts 5 times. Nibley made a few mistakes 50 years ago, but his home runs, his insights, will never be equaled, and will change the world when the world is bright enough to approach him.

JoePeaceman said...

Ha, noticed OK is back, I was starting to wonder if he was Ok (couldn't resist ; )

He says- "It’s almost as if the Church itself has come to agree with me—not about theological matters, but about the poor quality of FAIR-style apologetics."

OK, I'm sure that, in an OK world, everyone must agree with you. I've tried, and haven't yet been able to, sorry (not for me :)). Brian and Robin aren't The Church, but only part of it. They may have tried to agree with you but, just for fun, I did one of those word searches (except more names but still, counting it...) on the JSP Abraham material intro.

I found 20 references to Gee; 6 to Rhodes; 2 to Muhlestein; 6 to Ritner: 2 to Chris Smith; 0 to OK, etc.

This shows effort to be neutral (even though I disagree with many of the editor's personal interpretations of the evidence, which are clearly present).

They fairly represented 3 individuals known to attack logic, FAIRness, and Christian faith, gotta luv critics : ), and 3 who support FAIRness, encourage goodness and logical Christian belief in the Restoration, etc. : )

Nibley was focused on Abraham, symbolism, relationships, etc. more than the KEP or the History of the Papyri. I still think he should be mentioned, even if it's just for being one of the smartest people ever, and also for helping pioneer the most logical explanation for the KEP (an attempt to reverse engineer- even if the details weren't completely correct--and still, Vogel is dishonest when he pretends there is absolutely no evidence to support Nibley and others claims: there were clearly attempts by others to translate, these others were "miffed" (maybe not as early as Nibley originally thought, but we still don't know), and etc.

I believe that the KEP were an honest effort to reverse engineer, and perhaps even to translate, and that the project was not led by Joseph Smith, but he did participate, trusting in the gifts of others, not pridefully assuming that he was the only one who could translate or have a gift. If I find evidence that JS was the leader, only translator, etc. I'm not going to fall to pieces, but that's what the evidence says to me right now.


Anonymous said...

Blah, blah blah blahhh

JoePeaceman said...

“It’s almost as if the Church itself has come to agree with me—not about theological matters, but about the poor quality of FAIR-style apologetics."

OK, I'm sure that, if it were just an OK world, everyone would agree with you. But, some people seek greater light :). But, for fun, I did one of those word searches to test your theory (just names but still, counting it...) on the JSP Abraham material intro.

I found 20 references to Gee; 6 to Rhodes; 2 to Muhlestein; 6 to Ritner: 2 to Chris Smith; 0 to OK, etc.

This is probably an effort to be neutral (even though I disagree with many of the editors’ personal interpretations of the evidence, which are clearly personal interpretations).

They fairly represented 3 individuals known to attack logic, FAIRness, and Christian faith, gotta luv critics, and treat them equally : ), and 3 who support FAIRness, encourage goodness and logical Christian belief in the Restoration, etc. : )

Nibley was focused on Abraham, symbolism, relationships, etc. more than the KEP or the History of the Papyri. I still think he should be mentioned, even if it's just for being one of the smartest people ever, and also for helping pioneer the most logical explanation for the KEP (an attempt to reverse engineer- even if the details weren't completely correct--and still, Vogel is dishonest when he pretends there is absolutely no evidence to support Nibley (as with most things Vogel, as far as what I’ve seen) and Apologist claims: there were clearly attempts by others to translate, these others were "miffed" (maybe not as early as Nibley originally thought, but still evidence for it, and it’s a much more plausible explanation than Vogel’s), and etc.

I believe that the KEP were an honest effort to reverse engineer, and perhaps even to translate, and that the project was not led by Joseph Smith, but he did participate, trusting in the gifts of others, not pridefully assuming that he was the only one who could translate or have a gift. If I find evidence that JS was the leader, only translator, etc. I'm not going to fall to pieces, but the evidence indicates that he wasn’t.

AND I JUST REALIZED I CAN REPLY!

JoePeaceman said...

I’m wondering, do you always hear that when adults are speaking? Or is it sometimes more like “wohwoh woh wah woh” and do you have a big head (not in the anti-Mormon way but in the kid way)?
If yes, then that explains a lot :). Still luv ya.

Anonymous said...

Not sure what you are looking for explanation of, but you will have to keep looking apparently. I hear that when children trapped in adult bodies are speaking.

Ramer said...

Honestly, I think Joe and "Not-OK" are just talking past each other at this point. I will say though, I admire Joe's ability to stay polite toward someone who has shown nothing but vitriol and hate towards him.

Oh, and for the record - the "Not-OK" Anon previously posted under the alias "Mormography," and is most definitely not the same person as "OK."

JoePeaceman said...

Thanks for the tip again Ramer. :).
I was womdering, especially about talking past each other. I learned about that by watching Charlie Brown, when certain people speak, all that the kiddos get out of it is “blah blah wohwoh” or....maybe it’s more like “ wohwohwoh?” Still, I do love him. :).

I’m going to be retro for a while on the Egyptomania blog, noticed an anon put some time into researching some comments. Maybe he’s OK : ), or another version of not-Ok. It’s off topic BofM stuff and I enjoy that, even though I’m here seeking knowledge on the BofA. Still, there’s hope for everyone and maybe I can get him to focus by responding : ). It could happen.
Love u too, bro.

Anonymous said...

Such a perverted definition of polite is what we have come to expect from a person with a record of hypocritical behavior. That def can probably explain whatever the talking around is.