Hugh Nibley

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Hugh Winder Nibley
Born (1910-03-27)March 27, 1910
Portland, Oregon
Died February 24, 2005(2005-02-24) (aged 94)
Provo, Utah[1]
Cause of death Natural causes
Nationality American
Alma mater University of California, Los Angeles
University of California, Berkeley
Occupation Scholar, historian, author, professor
Home town Portland, Oregon
Political party Democrat
Spouse(s) Phyllis Nibley
Children 8

Hugh Winder Nibley (March 27, 1910 – February 24, 2005) was an American author, Mormon apologist, and professor at Brigham Young University (BYU). His works, while not official positions of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), mainly attempt to demonstrate archaeological, linguistic, and historical evidence for the claims of Joseph Smith, and are highly regarded within the LDS community.

A prolific author and professor of Biblical and Mormon scripture at BYU, he was skilled in numerous languages, including Classical Latin, Ancient Greek, Hebrew, Egyptian, Coptic, Arabic, German, French, English, Italian, and Spanish.[citation needed] He studied Dutch and Russian during World War II. He also studied Old Bulgarian and Old English, and his fluency in Old Norse was reportedly sufficient to enable him to read an entire encyclopedia in Norwegian.[citation needed]

Nibley wrote and lectured on LDS scripture and doctrinal topics, publishing many articles in LDS Church magazines. His An Approach to the Book of Mormon was adopted in 1957 as a religious lesson manual by the LDS Church.


Hugh Nibley was born in Portland, Oregon, a son of Alexander Nibley and Agnes Sloan. Among their other sons were Sloan Nibley, Richard Nibley, and Reid N. Nibley.[2] Their father Alexander served from 1906-1907 as president of the Netherlands Mission of the LDS Church, and was the son of Charles W. Nibley, Presiding Bishop of the church and later member of the First Presidency, and his wife Rebecca Neibaur.[3] Rebecca was the daughter of Alexander Neibaur a Jewish native of Alsace who had moved to England and converted to Mormonism. She later joined the LDS church and emigrated to America.[4] Hugh Nibley married Phyllis Draper in September 1946 and the couple had eight children.

At age seventeen, Nibley became an LDS missionary in Germany, and served for two-and-a-half years, from 1927[5] to 1930.[6] Nibley's war memoirs, edited by his son, state that as he was sent off on his mission, LDS Apostle Melvin Ballard told the missionaries to warn the Germans that if they did not repent they would be burnt by fire.[7] A woman in Karlsruhe was so angry at this prophecy that she chased Nibley with a butcher's cleaver. But when Nibley returned to town in 1945, he found that the prophecy had been literally fulfilled. Many German cities had been destroyed, and almost nothing remained of that butcher's shop.[8]

Nibley began his studies at University of California, Los Angeles, graduating summa cum laude, and earned a doctorate as a University Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley in 1938. He wanted to explore the phenomenon of the mob in ancient Rome for his thesis, but his graduate committee rejected it as irrelevant to modern civilization.[9]

During World War II, he enlisted as a private, but eventually became a Master Sergeant working in military intelligence for the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army, the famed "Screaming Eagles". He was with the division behind Utah Beach during the D-Day invasion, landed by glider at Eindhoven as part of Operation Market Garden, and witnessed the aftermath of Nazi concentration camps. A fellow sergeant once said: "Everything happens to Nibley, but nothing happens to him." That is, he had many close shaves and narrow escapes - shells falling almost on him, enemy soldiers passing too close to where he was hiding - but he was never captured, killed or wounded.[10]

At the request of Apostle John A. Widtsoe, he became a professor at Brigham Young University in 1946, teaching history, languages, and religion. Nibley served as a faculty member at the LDS Church owned school until his official retirement in 1975, but he continued teaching until 1994. During his final years as a professor emeritus, and prior to his last illness, Nibley maintained a small office in the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU, where he worked on his magnum opus titled One Eternal Round, which focuses on the hypocephalus ("Facsimile 2") in the Book of Abraham. He turned over the materials for his last book to FARMS in the late months of 2002. It was published in March 2010 in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of his birth.[11] Late in his life, Nibley gave authorization to have his biography written, and it was published just two years before his death. This was followed in 2006 by a detailed account of his World War II years, edited by his son Alex Nibley.[12]

After being confined to bed by illness for over two years, Nibley died on February 24, 2005 in his home in Provo, Utah at the age of 94.[1]

Just after his death, Nibley's daughter Martha Beck published a book, Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith, describing the circumstances of how she left the LDS Church, and saying that in 1990 she had recovered repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse by her father.[13] The allegations received national publicity.[14] Nibley had long been aware of the allegations and denied them.[15] Beck's seven siblings responded to the book, issuing a statement saying that these accusations against their father were false.[16][17] Boyd Petersen, Nibley's biographer and son-in-law, also rejected Beck's claims.[18][19]

Social and political viewpoints

Nibley was an active Democrat and an ardent conservationist, and often criticized Republican policies. He was strongly opposed to the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War during an era "when it was very unpopular in LDS culture to do so."[20] He authored Approaching Zion, an indictment of capitalism (as well as socialism) and endorsement of the law of consecration.

Nibley was also bothered by what he saw as the unthinking, sometimes almost dogmatic application of some portions of Brigham Young University's honor code. Nibley had no objection to requirements of chastity or obeying the Word of Wisdom, but he thought the often intense scrutiny directed at grooming (hairstyles and clothing) was misguided. In 1973, he said, "The worst sinners, according to Jesus, are not the harlots and publicans, but the religious leaders with their insistence on proper dress and grooming, their careful observance of all the rules, their precious concern for status symbols, their strict legality, their pious patriotism... the haircut becomes the test of virtue in a world where Satan deceives and rules by appearances."[21][22]

Nibley further criticized LDS culture for what he saw as its acceptance of folksy kitsch art over good art; favoring trade-journal jingles over doctrine in sermons; and tearing down pioneer structures in favor of trendy new buildings.[23]


Nibley, along with B. H. Roberts, is one of the most influential apologists within Mormonism. He was praised by Evangelical scholars Mosser and Owen for his ability to draw upon historical sources to provide evidence for Latter-day Saint beliefs.[citation needed] Nibley's research ranges from Egyptian, to Hebrew and early Christian histories, and he often took his notes in a mix of Gregg shorthand, Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, and Egyptian. Nibley "insisted on reading the relevant primary and secondary sources in the original and could read Arabic, Coptic, Dutch, Egyptian, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Latin, Old Norse, Russian and other languages at sight." In a perceptive critique, William J. Hamblin, a colleague of Nibley's at BYU, remarked that "Nibley's methodology consists more of comparative literature than history."[24] Douglas F. Salmon has examined in depth Nibley's comparative method, focusing on the latter's work on Enoch.[25]

Among other topics Nibley wrote about were LDS Temples, the historical Enoch, and similarities between Christian Gnostic and Latter-day Saint beliefs, and what he believed were anti-Mormon works. He wrote a brief and somewhat emotional response to Fawn M. Brodie's No Man Knows My History, which was titled No Ma'am, That's Not History.[26] Nibley also published scholarly articles in peer-reviewed journals on topics without direct reference to Mormonism. One such article that is still cited in works in the field of Roman Studies was on sparsiones.[27] His Berkeley dissertation was on Roman Festival Games. He published in such journals as Classical Journal, Western Political Quarterly, Western Speech, Jewish Quarterly Review, Church History, Revue de Qumran, Vigililae Christianae, The Historian, The American Political Science Review, and the Encyclopaedia Judaica. His essay, "The Passing of the Church: Forty Variations on an Unpopular Theme," which was published in the peer-reviewed journal Church History, touched off a short but furious debate within the journal's pages in 1961.[28]

He turned away from scholarly publications in favor of LDS publications in the mid-nineteen sixties. Significantly his Mormon publications often drew more attention than many of his peer-reviewed works; for example, a lengthy discussion in the pages of Catholic Biblical Quarterly that ran in 1950-51 about his Improvement Era article, "Baptism for the Dead in Ancient Times". Nibley has also received praise from prominent non-LDS scholars such as Aziz S. Atiya, David Riesman, Robert M. Grant, Jacob Neusner, James Charlesworth, Cyrus Gordon, Raphael Patai, Margaret Barker, Matthew Black, George MacRae, Joseph Fitzmyer, David F. Wright, and Jacob Milgrom.[citation needed]

Original etymology

Nibley proposed new translations of some important words, only a few of which are mentioned here.

  • Aten - Usually translated as "disk." However, Dr. Nibley pointed out that it should be translated as "globe," "orb" or "sphere," judging from its three-dimensional shape in high-relief inscriptions.
  • Kefa - Nibley pointed out that in Arabic and Aramaic this word refers to a green crystalline stone used for purposes of divination. Its best translation is perhaps "Seerstone". In the Greek New Testament it appears as Kefas, in the English New Testament as Cephas.[29]
  • Makhshava - This Hebrew word is usually translated as "thought", but Nibley made a case for translating it as "plan"; e.g., in the book of Esther many translations say that Haman "thought" to destroy the Jewish people. Nibley suggests that it is more accurate to say he planned to exterminate them. He did not just think about it, but made a plan.[30]
  • Shiblon - This Book of Mormon name, Nibley argued, is almost certainly connected to the Arabic shibl, "lion cub". Nibley's student Benjamin Urrutia went on to make the connection with the "Jaguar Cub" imagery of the Olmec people of Ancient Mexico, a theory that has been widely embraced by LDS scholars.[31]

Scholarly criticism

Kent P. Jackson and Ronald V. Huggins have criticized Nibley for misusing or misrepresenting sources, and for sloppy citations.[32][33] Shirley S. Ricks responded to Huggins, saying Nibley's use of sources was good, and describes the extensive work done to vet Nibley's citations during preparation of more recent editions of his work.[34] Jackson also said: "Nibley's greatest skill as a scholar was his ability to see the big picture, not his ability to finesse the fine details. Nowhere in my own examination of his research and writing did I find any hint of his making up sources for fictional references. I do not believe it happened.", and others who reviewed them carefull have stated similarly that Nibley "does very well" in use of sources.[35]

Nibley has also been criticized for his use of evidence drawn from widely disparate cultures and time periods without proper qualification.[36] More specifically, Douglas F. Salmon finds Nibley guilty of "parallelomania" in his effort to connect the Book of Mormon to various ancient texts. Salmon notes:

The number of parallels that Nibley has been able to uncover from amazingly disparate and arcane sources is truly staggering. Unfortunately, there seems to be a neglect of any methodological reflection or articulation in this endeavor.[37]


Students influenced by Nibley include:


The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley series

There have been 19 volumes released so far, all published through Deseret Book:

  1. Old Testament and Related Studies; ISBN 0-87579-032-1 (Hardcover, 1986)
  2. Enoch the Prophet; ISBN 0-87579-047-X (Hardcover, 1986)
  3. The World and the Prophets; ISBN 0-87579-078-X (Hardcover, 1987)
  4. Mormonism and Early Christianity; ISBN 0-87579-127-1 (Hardcover, 1987)
  5. Lehi in the Desert/The World of the Jaredites/There Were Jaredites; ISBN 0-87579-132-8 (Hardcover, 1988)
  6. An Approach to the Book of Mormon; ISBN 0-87579-138-7 (Hardcover, 1988)
  7. Since Cumorah; ISBN 0-87579-139-5 (Hardcover, 1988)
  8. The Prophetic Book of Mormon; ISBN 0-87579-179-4 (Hardcover, 1989)
  9. Approaching Zion; ISBN 0-87579-252-9 (Hardcover, 1989)
  10. Ancient State: The Rulers & the Ruled; ISBN 0-87579-375-4 (Hardcover, 1991)
  11. Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass: The Art of Telling Tales about Joseph Smith and Brigham Young; ISBN 0-87579-516-1 (Hardcover, 1991) (includes No, Ma'am, That's Not History)
  12. Temple and Cosmos: Beyond This Ignorant Present; ISBN 0-87579-523-4 (Hardcover, 1992)
  13. Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints; ISBN 0-87579-818-7 (Hardcover, 1994)
  14. Abraham in Egypt; ISBN 1-57345-527-X (Hardcover, 2000)
  15. Apostles and Bishops in Early Christianity; ISBN 1-59038-389-3 (Hardcover, 2005)
  16. The Message of Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment; ISBN 1-59038-539-X (Hardcover, 2006)
  17. Eloquent Witness: Nibley on Himself, Others, and the Temple; ISBN 1-60641-003-2 (Hardcover, 2008)
  18. An Approach to the Book of Abraham; ISBN 1-60641-054-7 (Hardcover, 2009)
  19. One Eternal Round; ISBN 1-60641-237-X (Hardcover, 2010)

Books about Nibley

  • Sergeant Nibley, Ph.D.: Memories of an Unlikely Screaming Eagle. A memoir of Nibley's World War II experiences, published in the fall of 2006 by Deseret Book. It is bylined "Hugh Nibley and Alex Nibley," and reflects Nibley's experiences, written and redacted by his son Alex.
  • Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life - The Authorized Biography of Hugh Nibley. Written by Hugh's son-in-law, Boyd Jay Petersen, and published in 2002 by Kofford Books ISBN 1-58958-020-6. This is the only full-length biography of Hugh Nibley to date, and is the only one he personally authorized.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Moore, Carrie A. (February 26, 2005). "Revered LDS scholar Hugh Nibley dies at 94". Deseret Morning News. Retrieved 2010-03-30. 
  2. "Obituary: Hugh W. Nibley". Deseret News. February 28, 2005. Retrieved 2014-08-28. 
  3. Jenson, Andrew. LDS Biographical Encyclopedia, Vol 4, p. 355
  4. Cornwall, J. Spencer. Stories of Our Mormon Hymns, p. 246-247
  5. Petersen, Boyd (1997–1998). "Youth and Beauty: The Correspondence of Hugh Nibley". BYU Studies. 37 (2): 8, 19, 20. Retrieved 2009-03-26. 
  6. Petersen, Boyd (2002). Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life. Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books. ISBN 1-58958-020-6. 
  7. Sergeant Nibley Ph.D. by Hugh and Alex Nibley, ISBN 978-1-57345-845-0 -page 7,8,9.
  8. Sergeant Nibley, Ph. D. Pages 276-279.
  9. Hugh Nibley and Alex Nibley, Sergeant Nibley PhD.: Memories of an Unlikely Screaming Eagle, Salt Lake City: Shadow Mountain, 2006, p 12.
  10. Sergeant Nibley, Ph.D. -pages 194, 224. ISBN 978-1-57345-845-0.
  11. "Contributions Sought for Completion of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley" Insights, Volume 27, Issue 2. Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute
  12. Nibley, Alex, "Sergeant Nibley PhD: Memories of an Unlikely Screaming Eagle". Salt Lake City: Shadow Mountain, 2006. ISBN 1-57345-845-7.
  13. Wyatt, Edward (2005-02-24). "A Mormon Daughter's Book Stirs a Storm". New York Times. Retrieved 2013-02-04. 
  14. "Daughter's Denunciation of Historian Roils Mormon Church". The Washington Post. 2005-05-09. Retrieved 2013-01-23. 
    "Memoir details alleged sex abuse in Mormon home". Daily Herald (Utah). 2005-03-12. Retrieved 2013-02-05. 
    "Saint Misbehavin'". Phoenix New Times. 2005-04-21. Retrieved 2013-02-05. 
  15. "Rebel Mormon's memoir ignites a furor". The Salt Lake Tribune. 2005-02-05. Retrieved 2013-02-05. 
  16. "Nibley Family's Response to Martha Beck's Leaving the Saints". Brigham Young University. 2005. Archived from the original on December 15, 2007. Retrieved 2007-04-02. 
  17. Lythgoe, Dennis (2005-02-05). "Nibley siblings outraged over sister's book". Deseret News. Retrieved 2007-04-24.  (Reactions of individual siblings)
  18. Petersen, Boyd (2005), Response to Leaving the Saints, Maxwell Institute of Religion 
  19. Petersen, Boyd (2002). Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life. Greg Kofford Books. pp. 400–401. 
  20. Peterson, Boyd Jay. Hugh Nibley, A Consecrated Life: The Authorized Biography of Hugh Nibley. Salt Lake City: Kofford Books. 2002. ISBN 1-58958-020-6. See also for excerpts from the book.
  21. Waterman, Brian and Kagel, Brian Kagel. The Lord’s University: Freedom and Authority at BYU. Signature Books. 1998. ISBN 1-56085-117-1[page needed]
  22. Hugh Nibley Approaching Zion. The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Vol 9. Deseret Book Co. 1998. ISBN 0875792529. Page 54, 57.
  23. Nibley, Hugh (1983-08-19). "Leaders and Managers". Speeches. Brigham Young University. Retrieved 2008-06-14. If the management does not go for Bach, very well, there will be no Bach in the meeting; if management favors vile, sentimental doggerel verse extolling the qualities that make for success, young people everywhere will be spouting long trade-journal jingles from the stand; if the management's taste in art is what will sell—trite, insipid, folksy kitsch—that is what we will get; if management finds maudlin, saccharine commercials appealing, that is what the public will get; if management must reflect the corporate image in tasteless, trendy new buildings, down come the fine old pioneer monuments. 
  24. Hamblin, William J. (1990) "Time Vindicates Hugh Nibley". FARMS Review of Books. Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute. Volume 2, Issue 1, pp. 119-127.
  25. Salmon, Douglas F. "Parallelomania and the Study of Latter-day Scripture: Confirmation, Coincidence, or the Collective Unconscious?" Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. Salt Lake City, Utah. Summer 2000. Volume 33, Number 2, pp. 129-156.
  26. Nibley, Hugh W., No, Ma'am, That's Not History, Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute 
  27. Nibley, Hugh, "Sparsiones," The Classical Journal 40.9 (Jun., 1945), 515-543
  28. Louis Midgley, "Hugh Winder Nibley: Bibliography and Register," in By Study and Also by Faith: Essays in Honor of Hugh W. Nibley, ed. John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 1:xv—lxxxvii.
  29. Dr. Hugh Nibley, class lecture notes, Brigham Young University, 1969-1972.[unreliable source?]
  30. Since Cumorah (1988), ISBN 0-87579-139-5 - page 214
  31. Benjamin Urrutia, “The Name Connection,” New Era, June 1983, 39
  32. Kent P. Jackson, "Review of Hugh Nibley, Old Testament and Related Studies," BYU Studies 28 no. 4 (1988): 115-17
  33. Ronald V. Huggins, "Hugh Nibley's Footnotes," Salt Lake City Messenger no. 110 (May 2008): 9-21.
  34. Riks, Shirley. "A Sure Foundation". Retrieved 11 Jan 2016. 
  35. "Hugh Nibley/Footnotes". FairMormon. Retrieved 11 January 2016. 
  36. Olson's review of Nibley's Abraham in Egypt in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15.4 (1982), 123-125.
  37. Salmon, Douglas F., "Parallelomania and the Study of Latter-day Saint Scripture: Confirmation, Coincidence, or the Collective Unconscious?", Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Volume 33, Number 2, Summer 2000, pg. 129, 131.

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