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Did Hugh Nibley Fake His Notes?

Those of us who have spent hours tracking down Hugh Nibley sources have become firmly convinced that nothing was made up or fabricated.

Those of us who have spent hours tracking down Hugh Nibley sources have become firmly convinced that nothing was made up or fabricated. Even if we were ultimately unable to find a quotation, we always knew it existed somewhere.


This is an excerpt from Hugh Nibley Observed. Sign up to be notified when we publish new content, like articles about Truman G. Madsen, the Book of Abraham, and names in the Book of Mormon.


Hugh Nibley: Charge of fabricated notes

Sometimes we serendipitously ran across something that solved a different problem than the one we were researching.

John Gee recalls:

I think all the source checkers have stories like this. Some of the problems were not Nibley’s fault. I remember discovering a recalcitrant source that was cited dozens of times but which we could not find in the library (Urk. VI). I was looking for another book in the stacks when a book caught my eye. Pulling it out and looking at it, I discovered that it was the long-lost source. The library had rebound the book and mislabeled it on the cover and the spine. Nibley had dutifully written the correct bibliography in pencil inside the cover.

Another time, we looked everywhere for weeks for Georgius Cedrenus and Georgius Syncellus without any luck. On a whim, we looked in the card catalog under “George” and found that the library had two copies of both authors within ten feet of where we were working.

John Gee to Shirley Ricks, personal communication, October 3, 2008
Shirley Ricks talks about her experience editing Hugh Nibley and explains that he didn’t fabricate his notes.

No, Nibley did not fabricate his notes!

According to John Welch:

Many people also continued to parrot mindlessly the unfounded criticism that Nibley’s footnotes were all made up or were not reliable. Our source checkers, quite to the contrary, found Nibley’s sources were, for the most part, very insightfully interpreted and accurately reflected. Many of the footnotes were cryptic and incomplete and so a lot of work was required to make them clear, but to an informed, intelligent reader even the early citations should have been comprehensible and seen as credible.

John Welch email to Shirley Ricks, August 11, 2008

Gee reaffirmed this claim in an email correspondence to Ronald Huggins:

I will stand by [my] two statements [made earlier]. . . : “I have never seen any case where Hugh Nibley ever fabricated or made up a source. After looking up thousands of citations, I have seen him make just about every mistake I think one could make, but I have never seen him make up anything.” “In no case could I determine that any of the errors in the footnotes were intentional or that any of the footnotes were fabrications.

John Gee email to Ronald Huggins, July 12, 2006, referring to statements of John Gee, email to Boyd Peterson, March 14, 2005, and January 13, 2005.

Tyler Moulton asserts that when he was working on the article “Science Fiction and the Gospel,” several source checkers had been unable to locate Nibley’s sources (after all, this was given as a talk and probably didn’t have fleshed-out footnotes).

For days I searched in vain for any evidence of the referenced authors or titles. (This was in the dark era before the internet.) In a couple of instances I had found stories resembling Nibley’s descriptions, but neither author nor title matched. Not knowing what else to do, I substituted the references I discovered for those given by Nibley. But in most cases I could find nothing. I was about ready to give up and turn the manuscript back in when, late one night while perusing the stacks in the HBLL, I randomly stumbled upon an anthology of science fiction pieces bearing Nibley’s telltale shorthand scratchings in the margins. A quick perusal confirmed that many of the authors and titles I had been searching for were indeed there, and similar anthologies (with similar chicken scratches) uncovered the rest. (I discovered that the stories I had encountered previously were indeed the stories Nibley had referenced, but as was common at the time, they had been republished in different places under different pseudonyms and titles.)

Tyler Moulton personal communication to Shirley Ricks, September 25, 2008

Moulton makes a good point that “some of the blame for inadequate or misleading references must fall to us—the compilers, editors, and source checkers—since it was well known at the time that in a great many cases Nibley agreed only grudgingly and after serious protestation to the publication of much of this work”—in other words, he hadn’t written it with publication in mind.

Perhaps:

what we prepared for general scholarly consumptions was, in more than a few instances, originally intended only as his latest musings for informal gatherings. Our insistence on making as much as possible of Nibley’s work available has perhaps brought on the unintended consequence of weakening the perception of his scholarship.

Tyler Moulton personal communication to Shirley Ricks, September 25, 2008

For example, Hugh Nibley never intended for the book Approaching Zion to be published. James V. Tredway gathered up the various articles and proposed it as a book to Stephen Ricks, who subsequently sold John Welch on the idea.

Nibley was not fond of that book when it came out because it was a collection of talks and not as scholarly as some of his writing—he apparently told his Book of Mormon students not to buy it. However, it subsequently became a bestseller. A book that he never wanted published has reportedly changed the lives of countless individuals, while no one seems to have made that claim about his scholarly work in the Ancient State.

In one recent volume of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, we were faced with the situation of adapting Nibley’s class notes from the fifties into a book form. We published Apostles and Bishops in Early Christianity in 2005 with over seventy notes saying tersely, “Source unidentified.” However, Douglas F. Salmon, working on his own initiative, has located over 60 percent of those sources. To reiterate, Nibley does not fake his sources.

This brings me back to the question posed on the FAIR website. “I’ve heard that Hugh Nibley really just faked or distorted his footnotes. Is there any truth to this?” The summary response given here says: “There is no question but that Hugh Nibley was an absolutely brilliant scholar. He was also very creative and sometimes overaggressive in his use of sources, and sometimes he was wrong about things, as are all scholars and indeed all human beings. But the notion that he just made up his footnotes is simply ridiculous.”

The full response includes quotations from a source checker (anonymous), Boyd J. Petersen (Nibley’s son-in-law and biographer), Kent P. Jackson (who offered a less-than-positive critique of volume 1 of the Collected Works), and John Gee (who, along with Stephen Ricks, “has probably checked as many or more of Nibley’s footnotes that anyone alive”).

Gee’s conclusion is that:

the vast majority of his footnotes are correct and that only a few are questioned; even fewer would be seen as questionable. . . . Those of us checking the footnotes spent more of our time dealing with problems (a correct footnote takes only a minute or so to check, while fixing a problem make take hours), and that makes us inclined to vastly overestimate the number of problems.

John Gee personal communication to FAIR wiki editors, August 10, 2007.

Hugh Nibley: Charge of Misrepresentation

The grievance that Nibley misrepresented his sources or took things out of context must be examined. Because of Nibley’s wide background reading, I believe that he grasped the big picture and could interpret things in ways that unsettled some of his readers who may have been unaware of the context in which he wrote.

Again, Tredway renders an opinion:

It seems a bit ironic to me that they would accuse Nibley of taking things out of context when in many cases such a context did not even exist when he wrote them. Conversely, having said that, I am also not so sure that those so-called scraps of ideas that seem to be found all over the world are in fact not related. I think it remains to be seen just how related they turn out to be. We are constantly finding new connections that we did not know existed yesterday and if Nibley had any gift at all it was an uncanny ability to see connections or trends where most saw nothing but chaos.

James V. Tredway personal communication to Shirley Ricks, August 11, 2008

Don Norton, who has edited much of Nibley’s writings, questions whether Huggins recognized a proportion between what Nibley got wrong verses what he got right:

Huggins notes what he thinks are liberties with sources but fails to acknowledge where and how overwhelmingly often Nibley was right. He glibly sets up some sweeping (and very questionable) allegations, offers a few examples, and then alleges these are but a drop in the bucket to Nibley’s offenses. Few scholars could survive such shabby treatment, certainly not Huggins himself.

Don Norton personal communication to Shirley Ricks, August 13, 2008

Michael Rhodes, who was the coauthor of Nibley’s One Eternal Round manuscript for publication, echoes Norton’s thoughts: “My experience in checking on thousands of Nibley’s footnotes is that more than 90 percent of the time he is completely accurate. In the remaining cases, for the most part, there is some trivial discrepancy. In rare cases, he does get it wrong. He was, after all, human like the rest of us and could make mistakes. What is impressive is that his mistakes are so few.”

Glen Cooper, one of the Collected Workers, describes his experience in checking Nibley’s notes:

I have had extensive experience checking Nibley’s footnote references in the Graeco-Roman classics and church fathers. . . .

I never found anything that indicated less than integrity on Hugh’s part in reporting others’ work, or in attributing sources. In fact, I was always impressed by his sincerity in his use of sources, as well as the strength and conviction of his testimony of the gospel and the church. . . . If he had a fault as a scholar, perhaps it was haste and impatience. He was the genius with the vision; the work of other scholars had to be accounted for—that is the scholar’s responsibility after all.

Glen Cooper personal communication to Shirley Ricks, October 8, 2008.

Book excerpt. Read the book for the rest of the story.

From Hugh Nibley Observed by Jeffrey M. Bradshaw, Shirley S. Ricks, and Stephen T. Whitlock. Copyright © 2021 by The Interpreter Foundation. Published by The Interpreter Foundation in collaboration with Eborn Books. Used by permission of the publisher.


About the author

Shirley S. Ricks was a senior editor of BYU’s Religious Studies Center. As an editor at FARMS and the Maxwell Institute, she edited several volumes in the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, which consists of books such as Approaching Zion, Lehi in the Deseret, One Eternal Round, and Temple and Cosmos. Ricks holds a PhD in Family Studies from BYU, and is the author of several related publications


Further reading

2 replies on “Did Hugh Nibley Fake His Notes?”

My frustration with Nibley is that he makes connections between ancient documents that cut across cultures or time periods that stretch credible connections. It becomes apologetic for Mormonism and not very good scholarship for truly understanding historical context or analysis. That is why the sheer volume of sources sometimes is frustrating because it seems like finding support for his argument at all cost instead of historical criticism or analysis of the text from a more objective standpoint.

I notice that the source checkers cited in the interview give specific examples and broad personal experience to underlie their generalizations about Nibley. They don’t defend or demand perfection, but they do bear witness to his overall integrity. Brian G. offers a general assessment of a large body of work unsupported by any specific details. I have read the 19 volumes of the Collected Works, so I have personal experience with Nibley’s work, plus, I have published more than 40 essays, so I also know the issues that can arise with publishing, producing footnotes, and how progress in knowledge can undermine some of my early conclusions, and I have published often on how a person’s framing paradigm affects their outlook. And I notice that his call for “a more objective standpoint” is based on what he sees Nibley making connections “that stretch credible connections.” He makes the charge without specific examples, and just and crucially, without a demonstration that such examples are representative, rather than exceptional. That means I can see no objective basis supporting for the narrative he offers: that to him, “it seems like finding support for his argument at all costs.” Offering such an unsupported narrative costs very little. One only has to repeat the charge to discredit Nibley without any effort, although I think, costing a reader the potentially lost benefit gained from Nibley’s notable insights. That leaves the problem of credibility based on nothing demonstrated with respect to Nibley, only an assertion made. And for that circumstance, I recommend a close and careful reading of Nibley’s “Victoriosa Loquacitas: The Rise of Rhetoric and the Decline of Everything Else,” published in The Ancient State: The Rulers and the Ruled, a collection that has changed my life and perspective every bit as much as Approaching Zion.

Nibley was a Big Picture scholar, something that is rather different in an age of tightly focused specialists: “It is important to specialize. It is sound professional policy to deal with something that nobody else understands. But there are natural limits to specialization: inevitably one reaches the point at which the study of a single star cannot be pursued further until one has found out about a lot of other stars. The little picture starts expanding into a big picture, and we soon discover that without the big picture the little one cannot be understood at all.” (From his Improvement Era series on Abraham.)

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