A Few Reasons Why Hugh Nibley Is Still Relevant for Book of Abraham Scholarship

I’m grateful to the Interpreter Foundation for publishing my lengthy, controversial, and painful (at least to me) article reviewing the Joseph Smith Papers’ volume on the Book of Abraham, a volume that is a magnificent accomplishment in many ways, but also has some serious gaps. One of those gaps was the complete neglect of the foundation of scholarship laid by Dr. Hugh Nibley in many aspects of Book of Abraham studies and understanding of the related documents.

In response to the article, I was intrigued by the comments offered by Terry Hutchinson there:

Nibley’s research (as he would be the first to admit) was preliminary. I don’t think he needs to be cited if subsequent research has overtaken what he put out. Having said that, I view Nibley’s theories on the Book of Abraham in the same light as those he had for the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi codices, especially his observations about there being a consistent teaching of doctrine and rituals. When they [his writings and theories about the Scrolls and Codices being initiatory rites] came out, they were met with silence or scorn in the academic community. His observations about Egyptian practices, which he first published as a translation and commentary on the Egyptian Book of Breathings , (The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri: an Egyptian Endowment, Deseret Book, 1975) were treated in a similar fashion. By the time a 2d Edition was published three decades later, things had changed.

From the Foreword to the 2d Edition (p. xxii): “Nibley’s long work on comparative religion sensitized him to recognize certain ritual patterns, and thus he saw in the Book of Breathings an initiation text at a time when the only Egyptologists who thought that initiation existed in ancient Egypt were Walter Federn, Claas Bleeker, and Gertrud Thausing, who were definitely on the margins of the discipline. Since that time [three decades], the topic of initiation has become mainstream in the discipline, although some Egyptologists still dislike the term and the subject.”

In that book, Nibley also took the original step of including Appendices containing excerpts from the Dead Sea Scrolls, Old Testament Pseudepigrapha [the Odes Of Solomon], an early Christian hymn known as the Pearl, the Pistis Sophia and quotations from an early Church Father, Cyril of Jerusalem. He finished with a few extracts from the Gospel of Philip [one of the Nag Hammadi Codices]. Nibley pointed out that the Book of Breathings had its predecessors in, “the Egyptian funerary and temple texts that go back to the beginning” which he dealt with in the main text of the book and, “after it comes an equally impressive succession of early Christian and Jewish writings that move on down through the patristic literature to our own day.”

In other words, using his comparative religion experience, Nibley placed his view of Egyptian initiatory rites in a direct line from an older history to our day. Nibley’s readings of these documents and postulating their relationship to “ordinances” [rituals] are becoming more plausible in light of modern scholarship. Nibley was one of the first to view Egyptian funerary rites as “initiatory”. His additional view of the Pistis Sophia, the Books of Jeu, the Gospel of Philip and other early Christian finds as “initiatory rites” or “ordinances” as he called them, was also considered on the “fringes” when he first published them.

Since 1997, however, modern scholars of these documents have moved in Nibley’s direction, as they did with the Egyptian example above. Erin Evans specifically identifies the Pistis Sophia and the Books of Jeu with Egyptian funerary rites and states that they are “initiatory” information passed to the living to prepare them for the afterlife. (See “The Books of Jeu and the Pistis Sophia as Handbooks to Eternity: Exploring the Gnostic Mysteries of the Ineffable, (Leiden, Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill, 2015)”; Hugo Lundhaug, has the same view of the Gospel of Philip. Lundhaug also, “shows how the text presents salvation and transformation through rituals and text, . . ..” see Lundhaug, Hugo, “Images of Rebirth: Cognitive Poetics and Transformational Soteriology in the Gospel of Philip and the Exegisis on the Soul, (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2010)”. Van Os specifically wrote a long thesis arguing that Philip is an initiatory rite. “van Os, Bas, Baptism in the Bridal Chamber: The Gospel of Philip as a Valentinian Baptismal Instruction, (Goningen, Netherlands: University of Groningen, 2007) available http://dissertations.ub.rug.nl/faculties/theology/2007/l.k.van.os/.”

While there are significant differences between Nibley’s Latter Day Saint interpretations and these recent efforts, modern scholars are closer to Nibley than to the long-established academic tradition of denying the initiatory aspects of these rituals. Nibley’s genius is still intact in many ways, and, in fact, is substantiated by more and more scholarship. That’s not to say that he hasn’t been superseded in some respects, but he certainly should be part of the equation rather than summarily dismissed.

Today there may be growing academic acceptance of Nibley’s controversial proposal that the relevant Egyptian documents weren’t merely funerary documents but were related to Egyptian rituals for the living. Robert F. Smith kindly followed up with a reply:

Yes, the mistake has so often been to portray Egyptian documents as funereal, as though they were only written to be deposited with the dead. That was never true in ancient Egypt.

All those rites of passage were constantly reenacted by the living in sumptuous temples, the words even engraved on the temple walls. Jack Finegan said that “the myths and related traditions were kept alive in ritual and cult, and reflected in architecture and art” (Myth & Mystery: An Introduction to the Pagan Religions of the Biblical World [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989], 15, citing C. J. Bleeker, Egyptian Festivals: Enactments of Religious Renewal, Studies in the History of Religions 13 [Leiden: Brill, 1967], 11-12).

The pharaoh and his people regularly engaged in ritual observances, and in grand festivals, just as the Hindus do in India today.

 If you want to understand how the Egyptian documents related to the Book of Abraham might have fit into an ancient ritual setting, Nibley is the place to begin, the foundational work that must be considered, or at least cited if one wishes to acknowledge past relevant scholarship for the Book of Abraham and the Joseph Smith Papyri. One may disagree, but it concerns me that a book seeking to provide scholars with tools to further work with the related documents would manage to not cite Nibley even once among roughly 1000 footnotes, where some of Nibley’s critics are approvingly cited, but the most prolific scholar in that field has been excised from the record. Such a gap, and it’s only one of many, I’m afraid. And no, I take no pleasure in saying that. It pains me, partly because I know there are so many great people who worked so hard to bring forth that volume who will also feel pained to see a negative review. 

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:

Author: Jeff Lindsay

23 thoughts on “A Few Reasons Why Hugh Nibley Is Still Relevant for Book of Abraham Scholarship

  1. Hugh Nibley sexually assaulted his own daughter. That's reason enough to ignore him. He should be forgotten.

  2. Martha Nibley Beck wrote many things that were proven to be lies and distortions. If her life was so abusive and horrible then why did she move back to be near her biological family? Victims of actual sexual abuse by family don't go back to the family.

    Martha Nibley had an axe to grind…..she is a homosexual. And her ex husband is also homosexual.
    She also had and has mental illness issues.

    1. Take it easy on Martha Nibley, she is a victim of an irresponsible mental health practitioner who perpetuated a moral panic in Salt Lake City during the nationwide Satanic Panic of the 1980s-90s. Many LDS were convinced by psychologists that they were victims of Satanic Ritual Abuse that involved infanticide. After an investigation by SLC authorities it was found that those who claimed to be SRA survivors were the victims of suggestion by agenda driven professionals who may or may not have had an agenda against the LDS Church.

  3. Either way, it's irrelevant to Nibley's contribution as an apologist for the Book of Abraham. His work on the Kirtland Egyptian Papers is totally discredited, so his parallels to antiquity really don't matter. Nevertheless, those parallels are not very impressive and he neglected sources of inspiration from Joseph Smith's environment.

  4. Dan I do not think you understand Nibley's contribution to seeing the Book of Breathings as an initiatory text. I love it when those who have not studied Egyptian or ancient texts basically much up the conversation.

    With respect to Martha Nibley you are correct that her smear campaign had nothing to do with Nibley's contribution. Check out Nibley's son-in-law response — Boyd Peterson — to Martha Nibley's wacko take on her father. Martha Nibley has no credibility and her grasp on reality is questionable.

  5. Blake: I specifically mentioned Nibley’s ancient parallels to the BofA. I don’t care about his views about the Book of Breathings, which is totally irrelevant.

  6. Blake said: "I love it when those who have not studied Egyptian or ancient texts basically much up the conversation." You mean much up some conversation you are having with yourself?

  7. Dan: It is passing strange to me that you fail to see the relation between the Book of Abraham and the initiatory texts. Joseph Smith certainly saw Fac. #2 as an initiatory texts: "Fig. 8. Contains writing that cannot be revealed unto the world, but is to be had in the holy temple of God." In addition, BofA ch. 4 has a direct relation to the endowment that JS was presenting about the same time as ch. 4 was produced.

    Anonymous: Another coward that won't give us a name. I guess I can forgive you for not knowing that I have studied Egyptian and the Coffin Text, Pyramid Texts and later writings such as the Book of the Dead at length — in addition to reading Egyptian hieroglyphics. I'll bet that you have not done any of that.

  8. Blake – I didn't say which language you were speaking when you talk with yourself. Way to "much up" yet another conversation.

  9. I'll get back to catching up later (ADD :))

    There are some things I’m not making sense of, yet, and, if Nibley were still alive (I know he's where he wants to be but D..arn, for us :)), he'd be way ahead of us on everything and able to masterfully create a parody to help us see.

    Hopefully I won’t offend anyone with a lame attempt at imitation (besides Anon, he’s probably still wound up because I forgot closing quotes after explaining that I was quoting and opening with “:)…probably asked for his name to be removed after that;))

  10. Fake Joseph and the GAEL, by "We all wish we were the indomitable Nibley" but can't approach…(even by way of poor imitation : )) (quotes are assumed Anon OK/not-OK)

    FJS: “All righty everyone, it's been 5 months since we got the book of Abraham. And, look at us, we’ve already recorded the names of Joseph and Abraham and translated that Katumin thing! Fake Cowdery was in the way, so took a bit” FC “Thought I'd try the characters on the same paper. Sorta funny.
    FWP: “What were u thinking, read it from the papyri. But, you’ve cracked Egyptian!”
    FJS “well, not exactly yet, that’s now, while I translate.” FWW: “I thought you said we could translate.” FJS “Noo, nope, when other ancient writings come along.” FWP: “It’s my turn then, they already got to sit by your side.” FWW: “I don't think I did. Katumin was just to make an EA and fake Smith was reading a boatload of books while I made the GAEL from it.” FWP: “From the books?” FWW: "the VD" FOC: “you weren’t reading Thomas Dick again were you? And Josephus? Good grief, that’s all you do.” FJS: “No haha, just brushing up, might come in handy, but mainly like The 6 Books of Proclus, that was a 1000 pager, got a good phrase on pg 145 book 2 or 3 or?…and some Falasha stuff, that’s available everywhere. And I dictated and scribed my own alphabet, without looking, simultaneously with FWW. With Hebrew, then someone wrote over a bunch, kind of discouraging but…” FWW: “yeah, which reminds that FP helped translate, just like everyone.” FWP: “he dictated “Kolob” and some random planet stuff, that’s all.” FJS: “from Proclus, well worth it, no one notices.” FOC: “what even is that? Pagan theology?” FWP: “and you got to translate Abraham stuff and put it in the GAEL and Alphabets!” FWW: “they weren’t about Abraham. FWP: Abraham, Noah, Ham, regular lineage, rights of fathers…” FWW, “Royal! Every time! These weren’t regular priesthoods and princesses, royal!” FOC, FWW: “listen fake Parrish, we translated Katumin from the Egyptian so we could create the Alphabets, we created the Alphabets so fake Joseph could reveal the GAEL from it, we created the GAEL to the book of abraham because a GAEL is cool” FJS: “and read Proclus :)” FWW, FOC: “and now that the Book of Abraham is in both, all the way back, we’re going to translate the BofA from the Egytpian records!!” FWP: “So we’re translating from the papyri now?” FWW: “exactly”. FJS: “start with “5th degree first part” FWP: “that’s GAEL, I’m not doing GAEL stuff.” FWW: “second part”. FWP: “I’m going to be unbaptized and avoid my family if he doesn’t stop!” FJS: “this isn’t even going in the actual book anyway. But draw an Egyptian character in the margin.” FWP: “So on the same paper? Why don’t you just translate the papyri?” FJS: “It’s not all Egytpian…later we’ll fill lacunae with actual Egyptian filler, but for now we’re going to need these Adamics to translate, so draw them exactly as I dictate. A little dot, down and over…” FWP: “how far over?! Why do we need to write them at this point? You’ve already figured this out?” FJS: “I’m developing ideas from the GAEL..” FWP: “no questions asked, so long as it's from heaven and my turn…”

    THREE HOURS LATER FWP: “Wow, I've translated more in the past few hours than y'all did in 5 months.” FWW: “Well yeah, you had the GAEL.” FWP: “True, major advantage. I noticed most of the BofA is based on concepts that he popped up from the GAEL. So, you translated Katumin from Egyptian to English and back to Egyptian, right fake joseph?”

    FWW: “Noooo, why would we do that, it’s already in Egytpian!” FWP: “umm, so you could reverse fit an alphabet with parts of the English BofA in it and then translate the BofA from GAEL Egyptian back to English….? Or….no?”

  11. Anonymous: If I am talking to myself, as you assert, and you are responding to me, then which one of us doesn't get it?

    Joe: Don't worry about the flak from Dan and anonymous. Anonymous hasn't contributed anything to the discussion other than ad hominem attacks in an attempt to bully. Ignore it. Dan is so taken with his own view and so invested in it that he is incapable of seeing any other POV and cannot fairly assess the evidence.

  12. Blake –

    You are the one that doesn't get it. "The conversation" you say others "much up" was a conversation you had with yourself.

    You are obviously so engrossed in the conversations in your head, your only contributions is to bully others into silence with flak and persistent ad hominem attack.

  13. Anonymous: It is clear that you would not know a substantive comment if you saw one. Once again you offer nothing but name calling. Check out my comments where I make substantive contributions. Just fyi if I were having the kinds of subjective conversations with myself that you claim: (a) they wouldn't be in writing; (b) you wouldn't have access to them to know about them and therefore your comments are literally (and not figuratively) the most incredible nonsense possible. I am posting your comments to my philosophy group so we can all have a good laugh and an eye-roll at just how deeply ridiculous your comments are from a logical POV.

  14. Blake –

    Ah the philosophies of men. Yet again you only offered ad hominem attack and name calling. And yes it is funny that you suddenly realized your conversation you claimed is "much up" is in not in writing here. You reference some bogus conversation that others "much up". By throwing in items like the Book of Breathings, you demonstrated that the "much up" was only a conversation you had with yourself.

    You complain that I am anonymous. The only people that complain about anonymous designations are people who are incapable of substantive contributions and can only engage in ad hominem, the anonymous designation upsets your strategy of ignoring substantive dialogue by attacking the name. From a logical POV, because of the anonymous designation you have no way of knowing if I have made substantive contributions or not, unless of course your position is an anonymous can never make a substantive contribution, which appears to be your world view. You focus on names like Dan Vogel, Hugh Nibley, Joe, and anonymous, instead of the actual conversation.

    Obviously I have struck a chord in standing up to your bullying ways, which BTW, even if you can not see them, everyone else can. Everyone else can see how psychologically you are running to Joe and buddies of yours to soothe your bruise psyche caused by my exposure of you. If you truly believe in the God you claim to believe, then the day will come when you can for help no more.

  15. Martha Nibley was caught up in the Satanic Ritualistic Abuse panic that swept thought Utah in the early 90s. Check out the Pace Memorandum. Its a fascinating subculture of Mormonism that has not quite subsided.

    I myself was caught up with it as a child in the early 90s, having all kinds of weird memories suggested to me by therapists.

    Someone historian should write a book on it.

  16. Jeff, your Interpreter article is awesome.
    No serious student of the Book of Abraham can neglect Nibley and his research. Even Critics, such as Ritner, realize they at least have to make a show of understanding Nibley before jumping in. I doubt he will ever be equaled.

  17. It appears Blake is never going to apologize to Dan for what has been proven to be his false accusations against him.

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