20th Century Intellectualism Latter-day Saint History

Hugh Nibley Observed: Rare Stories You’ll Want to Read

A new book published by the Interpreter Foundation containers more than 800 pages from the life of Latter-day Saint Scholar Hugh Nibley.

A new book includes 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. Hugh Nibley Observed also includes an emotional story about Nibley’s final weeks. In this interview, editor Jeffrey Bradshaw discusses the landmark Hugh Nibley book.

Enjoy Hugh Nibley insights? See what other scholars and apostles have said about the New Testament in our Come Follow Me 2023 resources.

What has the Interpreter Foundation worked on in 2021?

In addition to multiple journal articles, reviews, and book chapter reprints and pre-prints each week that appear on the Interpreter Foundation website, Hugh Nibley Observed is one of seven new volumes have appeared or are slated to appear in 2021:

  • Remembrance and Return: Essays in Honor of Louis C. Midgley
  • The Temple: Symbols, Sermons, and Settings (Proceedings of Temple on Mount Zion 2018)
  • The Temple: Past, Present, and Future (Proceedings of Temple on Mount Zion 2020)
  • Book of Mormon Names (a comprehensive onomasticon on the Book of Mormon)
  • Enoch and the Gathering of Zion: The Witness of Ancient Texts for Modern Scripture
  • The First Days and the Last Days: A Verse-by-Verse Commentary on the Book of Moses and Joseph Smith—Matthew in Light of the Temple
  • Tracing Ancient Threads in the Book of Moses: New Perspectives on Literary, historical, and Textual Aspects of a Divinely Inspired Work (Proceedings of the 2020 and 2021 conferences, in collaboration with BYU Ancient Scripture, Book of Mormon Central, and FAIR)

Certainly, the headliner event at Interpreter this year is the Witnesses feature film that was released in theatres across the country on June 4. It will be followed by an extensive documentary film that goes beyond the story of the three witnesses to include the interesting stories of other, lesser-known witnesses.

Short videos to be made freely available online will answer common questions about the witnesses and their testimonies. A separate website, Witnesses of the Book of Mormon, produced in collaboration with Book of Mormon Central and FAIR, allows anyone to dig further into stories and documentary sources about the witnesses.

We have a seven-part virtual fireside series for Come, Follow Me entitled “A Life Lived in Crescendo”: Selected Punctuation Marks of Joseph Smith’s Final Years coming up. Besides myself, Jean Addams, Danel Bachman, Joe Bentley, Ron Esplin, and Jack Welch will be presenting on some of the inspiring and much misunderstood events of the Prophet’s life.

The Book of Moses has continued to be a major focus of our efforts. Videos of the 2020 and 2021 conferences, with keynote speeches by Elder Bruce C. and Sister Marie K. Hafen and Richard L. Bushman, are available online and the proceedings will be published this fall. In addition to two additional volumes on the Book of Moses, we have been collaborating with Book of Mormon Central on a series of some 80 essays on the Book of Moses, and will be contributing to the pithy “minutes” commentaries in their ScripturePlus app. In 2022, we are planning to hold an additional conference on the Book of Moses, focusing on various possibilities for specific ancient sources and languages underlying Joseph Smith’s English translation of the Book of Moses.

At the first day of the FAIR conference on August 4, both Interpreter and our sister organizations will be announcing and discussing some other new initiatives.

And then there is all the activity surrounding Hugh Nibley.

Who was Hugh Nibley?

For starters, 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.

The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley

The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley comprise 19 weighty volumes (the fascinating and sometimes funny history of these volumes is given in detail within Hugh Nibley Observed in chapters by Jack Welch, Shirley Ricks, and others who were involved in publication). His erudition was recognized and admired by many of his non-Latter-day Saint colleagues.

Hugh Nibley: An enigmatic observer

But he was also one of the most enigmatic observers of the Church. He was sometimes one of the harshest critics of Brigham Young University, yet also among the Church’s most faithful and loyal advocates. Church leaders have expressed their admiration publicly, published his works as Church manuals, and continue to quote him, as recently as the last General Conference.

Hugh Nibley: How he affected people

People liked (and disliked) Hugh Nibley because he was not afraid to say things that we wish we could say, to espouse unpopular causes (including not only religious issues but also many social and scientific ones), to thumb his nose at fashion, or to buck the crowd. He struggled with human frailty yet was admired by many as a model disciple. He was a visionary who was transformed by a near-death experience and subsequently shaped by a life of consecrated scholarship that was sustained by “a little understanding between me and my Heavenly Father … though no one else knows anything about it.”

In his academic life, his discipleship, and his personal life, there has never been anyone quite like Nibley—and probably will never be again.

Hugh Nibley: The Faith of an Observer

If readers have never seen The Faith of an Observer, the entertaining and uplifting biographical video of Hugh Nibley’s life, they are in for a treat. Though the film has been available for many years in an online version made from an old videocassette, for the first time we recently posted a much-improved digital version that includes, for the first time, English subtitles—to the relief of viewers wanting to follow Nibley’s rapid-fire, multi-lingual monologues.

By the time we wrap up this phase of our Hugh Nibley initiative, we will have posted both a lengthy series of new blog posts and more than two dozen new videos (often accompanied with extended podcasts and transcripts) introducing different aspects of Nibley’s life and thought to a new generation of friends:

What is the backstory for Hugh Nibley Observed?

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.

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.

Though I had already read much by—and about—Hugh Nibley, the process of putting the book together has greatly enriched my life, both intellectually and spiritually. Throughout the process, and afterward as we put together materials to introduce Hugh Nibley’s life and works to potential readers, I experienced a feeling of peace and joy, accompanied by frequent spiritual promptings. These personal experiences were an assurance to my heart that this tremendous effort would be a welcome blessing to many others.

As a token of gratitude to Hugh Nibley, and in hopes of serving the many old friends of Hugh Nibley while winning many new ones, we are also putting together what we are calling The Complete Nibley Bibliography. The nucleus for this project is the set of Nibley bibliographies painstakingly assembled over the years by Louis Midgley, Gary Gillum, and Shirley Ricks. In addition, many friends have donated additional Nibley materials not in any of the previous bibliographies, many obscure and heretofore unpublished.

Our vision is that it will eventually become an online research and reference tool containing every work produced by Hugh Nibley, both published and unpublished.

Not only will people be able to find and accurately reference Nibley’s works on hundreds of topics, but also will be able to view or download the content in written, audio, and video formats or purchase hardcopies through links to bookstores. Articles and reviews about Nibley and his works will also be included. Currently, we have over 1100 items in the bibliography and over 1600 items of freely downloadable content, and we expect new material to be discovered and added in the coming months and years.

Which of Hugh Nibley’s discoveries are most meaningful to Jeff Bradshaw?

Although I relish the many new insights and discoveries Nibley made on other books of modern scripture that are detailed in the new book—especially the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham—I am particularly fond of the Book of Moses.

Hugh Nibley and the Book of Moses

Names in the Book of Moses

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.

Since Nibley’s passing, the growth of new scholarship on ancient Enoch texts has continued unabated, including significant attention to BG. While Hugh Nibley’s pioneering research compared the names and roles of one character in Moses 6–7 and BG, we have now been able to examine the names and roles of nearly all of the prominent figures in the two books and analyze their respective accounts in more detail. Not only are the overall storylines of the two independent accounts more similar than we could have imagined a few years ago, a series of recent studies have added substance to the claim that the specific resemblances of BG to Moses 6–7—resemblances that are rare or absent elsewhere in Jewish tradition—are more numerous and significant than the resemblances of any other single ancient Enoch text—or, for that matter, to all of the major Enoch texts now extant combined.

Enoch and Zion

One of the most significant examples of new discoveries relating to the Book of Moses Enoch story is BG elements that relate to the report in Moses 6–7 that Zion, the righteous city of Enoch, was “received . . . up into [God’s] own bosom” (Moses 7:69).

Though scholars have been aware for some time of suggestions in other ancient texts that a group of Enoch’s followers were taken up to heaven with him, until recently no ancient evidence had surfaced for the idea that Enoch’s followers had been led to establish a place of gathering—an earthly Zion—beforehand. Recently, however, it was noticed that a fragment of a Manichaean version of BG describes how the righteous who had been converted by Enoch’s preaching were separated from the wicked and gathered to divinely prepared cities in westward lying mountains.

This event recalls the statement of Moses 7:17 about the gathering of Zion, when the people “were blessed upon the mountains, and upon the high places, and did flourish.” Moreover, visual elements of the Manichaean Cosmology Painting, a depiction of what Enoch scholars have concluded contains depictions relevant to many events of BG, suggest that the inhabitants of those cities were ultimately taken up to dwell in in the presence of Deity, recalling the Book of Moses statement that the inhabitants of Zion were “received . . . up into [God’s] own bosom” (Moses 7:69).

In my view, these specific resemblances, along with many others, are simply astounding.

Hugh Nibley: Comparing the Book of Enoch and the Book of Giants

In short, thanks to Hugh Nibley’s pioneering research comparing the Book of Giants and the Latter-day Saint account of Enoch, we now have very strong evidential support for plausible arguments that a common well of ancient traditions significantly influenced both texts.

A video version of a presentation at the 2021 , Tracing Ancient Threads in the Book of Moses conference where I present these findings can be found online, and the results will be published in full later this year in a volume of conference proceedings, along with many other striking items of evidence for the antiquity of the Book of Moses. I will give a less technical version of these findings on August 4 at the upcoming FAIR conference.

What does Hugh Nibley Observed say about Richard Bushman’s “Nibley moment”?

Hugh Nibley and Richard Bushman

This incident is best described in Bushman’s own words, from his chapter in Hugh Nibley Observed:

I had only the slightest personal acquaintance with (Hugh Nibley), and yet he came into my life at a critical time when my testimony was teetering in the balance. I had entered the mission field without conviction after my sophomore year of college, quite unsteady about my belief. When I told my mission president, J. Howard Maughan, that I lacked a testimony, he handed me a book and said: “See if you can find a better explanation than the one in the book itself.” 

And so I began my first serious encounter with the Book of Mormon. 

I don’t know exactly when Lehi in the Desert and the World of the Jaredites entered the picture. It was sometime during my first year. … I remember my fascination with 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. 

These little specks of evidence provided the kind of rational support I was looking for in my quest for conviction. Nibley opened up a Middle Eastern antiquity I had not dreamed existed and securely located 1 Nephi in its desert culture.

—Richard Bushman

Hugh Nibley’s method

What I also found enlightening in Bushman’s chapter is his description of Nibley’s method:

(Hugh Nibley) scrupulously remained in the mode of scholarly discourse—what could be proven out of the texts—rather than drawing out the religious consequences, such as the divinity of Joseph Smith’s calling and the necessary evidence of his supernatural powers. 

I don’t know that Nibley ever wavered from that discipline in his writings; those who know him more intimately may think of instances. But in his published work he was ever the scholar, asking his readers to grant him nothing more than an opportunity to lay out the evidence.

I think he always wrote with a scholarly reader in mind. The fact that he argued in the court of scholarly opinion may have required him to stick with scholarly language so as not to undermine his case. He knew he would never persuade the scholars, though he may have hoped from time to time that Klaus Baer or some other of his scholarly friends would yield a point or two. 

But he never wanted to show weakness. He would always meet the critics on their own ground and slug it out. He would not abandon his lawyerly posture to become a simple testimony bearer. He would assert no more than he could prove. And perhaps most defensively, he would never expose his faith to their attacks. The unbelievers’ blows would never touch that vital spot underneath his armor.

—Richard Bushman

Why does Truman Madsen say Hugh Nibley is terrifying as a teacher—at least at the beginning?

Truman Madsen describes Hugh Nibley

Nibley was a teacher like no other—he shattered every rule of effective pedagogy except one: He knew his subject matter backwards and forwards and was passionate in its exposition. Madsen’s description is classic:

(Hugh Nibley) does not lecture; he explodes. He brings source materials in the original to class, translates them on the spot, and lapses into spasms of free association as he sees linguistic connections. 

He teaches whatever he is working on that day, allowing students to look over his shoulder. His long paragraphs go by at approximately the speed of light. Students who learn the most learn to interrupt and to probe; it is like trying to count machine-gun shots while able at best to take notes on the tracers. Because the fine-tuning of his mind is to written materials, it is as if he is listening to them more than to his students; he is utterly oblivious to electronic trappings like a microphone or TV camera. 

Most of the time he talks as if everyone present has just read everything he has. This is less a Germanic or Olympian detachment than a temperamental unwillingness to put anyone down. He exhibits patience with questions which show no one was listening a minute ago. 

When he does not want to answer, he trails away into a closely related area and his listeners are not brave enough to request backtracking. 

Once a student asked him the question, “What is a symbol?” The answer slowly expanded to cosmic proportions, and Nibley stopped for breath an hour and twenty minutes later.

—Truman G. Madsen

Robert K. Thomas describes Hugh Nibley

The prose of Robert K. Thomas on this subject is equally delectable:

Few students can talk coherently about their first class from Brother Nibley. For some it was simply a rite of passage, the academic equivalent of a social-unit initiation. For many it was, at best, a brisk blur edged with random flashes of insight. For a few it was an intellectual implosion, from which they will never recover.

—Robert K. Thomas

What does Present Dallin H. Oaks say Hugh Nibley’s life teaches that is “undesired by any but valuable to all”?

Jeff Bradshaw: Hugh Nibley Observed weaves the themes of Hugh Nibley’s life and work together, showing they are not independent spheres but rather an unbroken tapestry, a design in which no one part can be appreciated without contemplating the whole.

President Oaks, speaking at Nibley’s funeral, reminded us that although Hugh’s life was in so many ways exceptional, its scenes of human joy and pathos are ones to which each of us can fully relate. The difficult and unpleasant scenes and challenges are those that President Oaks characterizes as “undesired by any but valuable to all”:

An ancient sage taught his students that there was no royal road to geometry. By the same token, there is no unobstructed path through mortality. Even those we honor as prophets have experienced crushing adversities in the form of physical impairments and other challenges, often during the closing scenes of their lives when their prominence and visibility would cause us to assume that they would have physical comfort and mental serenity.

President Dallin H. Oaks

So it was with Hugh Nibley.

The challenges of mortality continue to the end of mortal life, but the promises of eternity continue forever. That is something known to our friend who pursued the big questions, and it is something for remembering and rejoicing on this occasion when we honor his life.

Though the “one and only” aspects of Nibley have often been highlights, I hope that Hugh Nibley Observed will help readers understand that in so many respects he was an “Everyman.”

How does Hugh Nibley’s life intersect with that of Louis Midgley?

The influence of Midgley’s early encounters with Hugh Nibley in graduate school—and his later lifelong association—were as significant as those of Richard Bushman, but took on a different character because of Midgley’s scholarly interests in theology, philosophy, and political science. The fact that Nibley was so admired by so many in such a diversity of disciplines is a testament to the extraordinary breadth of his interests and competencies.

Louis Midgley describes Hugh Nibley’s final months

But what I find most moving in Midgley’s chapter of tribute to Nibley is addendum where Kurt Manwaring kindly allowed the editors to cite from a 10 Questions column that related Midgley’s observations of Nibley in his final months:

Phyllis called me and urged me to visit her husband. I did. And we talked. Hugh was in a hospital bed. He could hardly speak. He’d mumble and we’d talk back and forth. We talked a bit about New Zealand and the Maori. Since he had heard that I had been to Normandy, he wanted to know if I had visited what is called Exit Five, on Utah Beach, and what I thought of the whole miserable mess. . . .

Soon, two Relief Society sisters knocked on the door. They had brought him dinner. They rushed over and hugged him and kissed him. And he just wept. When they left, Phyllis asked me, “Did you notice that?”

I said, “Yes, I did.”

“Have you ever seen my husband show emotion?”

I answered, “No, never.”

Phyllis said that “he couldn’t” show emotion. But when he was reduced to lying there, hardly able to talk, he would say to her, “Phyllis, I have been kept after school by the Lord so I could learn a lesson that I needed to learn before I pass away.”

I found this very interesting. I saw my dear friend in a different light. What seemed like self-depreciation was his sense of inadequacy, despite—or because of the fact—that he was extraordinarily bright, learned a dozen languages, and so forth. But he couldn’t learn how to use a computer. I realize that things that are very easy when one is young are much more difficult as we near the end.

—Louis C. Midgley

What are one or two of Jeff Bradshaw’s favorite stories from Hugh Nibley Observed?

Reflecting backward on a life like Hugh Nibley’s, like projecting forward on our own lives as we increasingly sense our own mortality, can bring us to a powerful and poignant focus on the few important things in life.

I think that such thoughts were, at least in part, influential in the transition in the final years of my beloved and artistically talented mission president, Virgil Parker, from the painting of landscapes with trees — the epitome of rootedness — to the painting of seascapes filled with departing ships — perhaps a thoughtful meditation and an unconscious preparation before he embarked on his final journey home to his Lord. Malcolm Muggeridge described how the realization that he was entering the final phase of his life served to focus his attention on the things that mattered most:

Now, the prospect of death overshadows all others for me. I am like a man on a sea voyage nearing his destination. When I embarked, I worried about having a cabin with a porthole, whether I should be asked to sit at the captain’s table, who were the more attractive and important passengers. All such considerations become pointless, however, when I shall soon be disembarking.

Having recently made similar transitions in my own life, I was touched by many of the tributes Nibley’s children made at his funeral service, as reported in Hugh Nibley Observed.

I think that Nibley’s life of consecration, painfully pursued with the challenges, disappointments, and personal shortcomings related in the book, as much if not more so than his scholarly accomplishments, are among what most draws us to him.

Christina Mincek on her father, Hugh Nibley

Hugh’s daughter Christina related the following:

In the final two years of his life, as he became physically incapacitated and forced to remain in bed, my dad became the very definition of sweetness. He never voiced a complaint about his pain and confinement. 

And during his most lucid moments, he seemed in constant awe of the sheer wonderfulness of all the people around him. He’d always been amazed at the beauty of nature and the fascination of learning. But now for two years, he couldn’t go outside, and he couldn’t accumulate footnotes. 

His compulsively active attention was forced to refocus, and it did so. His awe was greater than I’d ever seen it. Particularly toward Mom, his caretaker and wife, whom he told countless times during those months, “You are just so beautiful.”

—Christina Nibley Mincek

Alex Nibley on his father, Hugh Nibley

Son Alex said the following at Nibley’s funeral service especially to those who knew his father only as a great intellectual:

His ego — that vanity he fought so long — finally died when frailty left him completely dependent on others for every function of life.

And what was left? Pure love.

I saw him on my birthday in January. Again, there was a struggle for words, and finally he said, “To lack affection is to lack everything.” How’s that for a quote from your great intellectual?

Dad resented sentimentality not because it contained too much emotion, but because it fell short of the depth of passion that he felt.

So today I celebrate the life of the most passionate man I’ve ever known.

—Alex Nibley

Hugh’s passion and his faith were grounded in his absolute knowledge of the reality of the life to come. Throughout his life, he continued to have “a private arrangement with the other side which he thoroughly enjoyed.” At the funeral service of his young grandson-in-law Joel Erik Myres, he asked:

Is this all there is? Here I am free to speak. … My reasoning is not perfect, but I can support it with a number of personal experiences that leave me in absolutely no doubt at all that Joel is engaged in a higher work. I expect to have this assertion confirmed in my own case before very long.

—Hugh Nibley

Both his near-death experiences and his own impending death impressed him with what Ann N. Madsen describes as his constant preoccupation with “progressive repentance, forevermore, and a progressive revelation of our own ignorance.”

What mattered most to Hugh Nibley? And what was he most passionate of all to teach us?

[Absolute knowledge of the after life] gives me a great relief, so that's why I don't take this very seriously down here. We're just sort of dabbling around, playing around, being tested for our moral qualities, and above all the two things we can be good at, and no two other things can we do: We can forgive, and we can repent. 

It’s the gospel of repentance. 

We're told that the angels envy men their ability both to forgive and to repent because they can't do either, you see. But nobody’s very clever, nobody’s very brave, nobody’s very strong, nobody’s very wise. We’re all pretty stupid, you see. Nobody's very anything. We're not tested on those things, but in the things the angels envy us for — we can forgive, and we can repent. 

So, three cheers, let’s start repenting as of now.

—Hugh Nibley

Further reading

Hugh Nibley lectures, talks, and books

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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