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Hugh Winder Nibley
Born March 27, 1910(1910-03-27)
Portland, Oregon
Died February 24, 2005 (aged 94)
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
Religious beliefs The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Spouse(s) Phyllis Nibley
Children 8

Hugh Winder Nibley (March 27, 1910 – February 24, 2005) was a professor at Brigham Young University and an apologist for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Although his works—which mainly attempt to demonstrate archaeological, linguistic, and historical evidence for the claims of Joseph Smith, Jr.—have no official religious authority, they are highly regarded within the LDS community.

A prolific author and professor of Biblical and Mormon scripture at BYU, he was fluent in numerous languages,[1] including Classical Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Egyptian, Coptic, Arabic, German, French, English, Italian, and Spanish. He also 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.

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 his wife Agnes Sloan.[2] Alexander Nibley was the son of Charles W. Nibley and his wife Rebecca Neibaur. Alexander served from 1906-1907 as president of the Netherlands Mission of the LDS Church.[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] Nibley married Phyllis Draper in September 1946 and the couple had eight children.

At age seventeen, Nibley became an LDS missionary in the Swiss-German Mission, and served for two-and-a-half years, from 1927[5] to 1930.[6]

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.[7] Kristallnacht occurred at about the same time in Germany.

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 drove the first jeep ashore on 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.

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 is expected to be published by March 2010 in commemoration of his 100th anniversary of his birth.[8] Never one for the spotlight, Hugh gave authorization to have his biography written only late in his life, and it was published just two years before his death.

Nibley died February 24, 2005.[9] He had been confined to bed by illness for over two years before his death.


Social and political viewpoints

Nibley's viewpoints marked him as atypical of Mormon stereotypes. He 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."[10] He authored "Approaching Zion", an indictment of capitalism and endorsement of communalism.

Nibley was also bothered by what he saw as the unthinking, sometimes almost dogmatic application of some portions of BYU'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."[11]

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.[12]

Family controversy

In early 2005, after his death, one of Nibley's daughters, Martha Beck, published Leaving the Saints: How I Lost the Mormons and Found My Faith, a memoir in which she alleges that her father subjected her to ritualistic sexual abuse between the ages of five and eight. Since the book's publication, Martha Beck's siblings, and some friends of the family, have vigorously denied the abuse allegations. Some of her siblings have suggested that Martha Beck used techniques such as hypnosis and self-hypnosis in the recovery of her memories of the abuse, a controversial technique. Martha Beck herself asserts that though she did seek psychotherapeutic help during the experience, she did not engage in any form of hypnosis to "recover" the memories.[13] Family members have also pointed out the impossibility of activities such as Beck described being carried out in the tiny Nibley home, where there was little or no privacy and multiple children shared every bedroom. Some members of Nibley's surviving family also challenge Beck's allegations by pointing out inconsistencies in her descriptions of events to various media sources.[14]


Nibley, along with B. H. Roberts is one of the most influential apologists within Mormonism, but his work is virtually unknown outside the Mormon community due to its specific goal to reinforce LDS historical and archaeological claims that are not held by non-Mormons. Any recognition of his work in the larger community generally recognizes him as a religious apologist rather than an academic scholar. 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. 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."[15] Douglas F. Salmon has examined in depth Nibley's comparative method, focusing on the latter's work on Enoch.[16]

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 somewhat emotional response to Fawn M. Brodie's No Man Knows My History, which was titled No Ma'am, That's Not History. 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.[17] 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 Encyclopedia 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.[18]

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 non-LDS scholars such as Jacob Neusner, James Charlesworth, Cyrus Gordon, Raphael Patai and Jacob Milgrom.

Linguistics Studies

Nibley proposed new translations of some important words.

  • Aten - Usually translated "disk of the sun." Nibley pointed out that relief illustrations of the Aten portray it as a sphere, not a flat disk, concluding that a correct translation would be "globe," "orb," or "sphere."
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.[19]

Scholarly criticism

Very little non-Mormon criticism exists of Nibley's work. Many of his texts and articles were published by the LDS Church,

Nibley's methodology has drawn criticism from LDS scholars like Kent P. Jackson.[20] Among the criticisms is the contention that Nibley's use of evidence drawn from widely disparate cultures and time periods without proper qualification can be misleading.[21]

In addition, Douglas F. Salmon accuses Nibley of "parallelomania" (defined as "overuse or improper use of parallels in the exposition of a text") In a Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought article. Salmon alleges that Nibley's work in drawing parallels between the Book of Mormon and other sources fits this classification.[22] 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.[23]

Nibley's methodology draws inspiration from the work of the Myth and Ritual School centered at Cambridge University, most notably represented by J. G. Frazer in his famous work The Golden Bough. He also took inspiration from the work of University of Chicago professor Mircea Eliade, who likewise allegedly expressed approval of Nibley's ability. He was at the same time critical of the work of Joseph Campbell, although the latter was arguably a kindred spirit of sorts. As most of these other scholars date from the early 20th century, Nibley's methodology is thus arguably dated, although like the works of the Myth and Ritual School, his work continues to be a source of inspiration to younger generations of LDS scholars for its breadth and depth of learning, insights, and poetic imagination.


Students influenced by Nibley include:

The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley series

There have been 18 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)

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 will be the only one he personally authorized.

See also


  1. ^ "The Hugh Nibley Papers". University of Utah Marriott Library Special Collections. Retrieved 2008-06-14. "Hugh Nibley (1910-2005) was a popular LDS Church scholar. He did extensive research on ancient languages and culture, culminating in many publications. He was a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University and was fluent in numerous languages."  
  2. ^ listing for Hugh Nibley accessed May 15th, 2008
  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.,2447. Retrieved 2009-03-26.  
  6. ^ Petersen, Boyd (2002). Hugh Nibley: A Consecrated Life. Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books.  
  7. ^ Hugh Nibley and Alex Nibley, Sergeant Nibley PhD.: Memories of an Unlikely Screaming Eagle, Salt Lake City: Shadow Mountain, 2006, p 12.
  8. ^ "Contributions Sought for Completion of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley"
  9. ^ Thiessen, Mark. "Noted LDS historian Hugh Nibley dead at 94." Associated Press. Deseret News, 24 February 2005.,1249,600114447,00.html (19 January 2007).
  10. ^ Peterson, Boyd Jay. Hugh Nibley, A Consecrated Life: The Authorized Biography of Hugh Nibley. Kofford Books. 2002. ISBN 1-58958-020-6. See also for excerpts from the book.
  11. ^ Waterman, Brian and Kagel, Brian Kagel. The Lord’s University: Freedom and Authority at BYU. Signature Books. 1998. ISBN 1-56085-117-1
  12. ^ 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."  
  13. ^ Beck, Martha, "Setting the Record Straight: Physical Evidence & Memories From My Childhood",
  14. ^ Peterson, Boyd Jay, (2005 FAIR Conference)
  15. ^ Hamblin, William J. "Time Vindicates Hugh Nibley". FARMS Review of Books. Maxwell Institute. Provo, Utah. 1990. Volume 2, Issue 1, pp. 119 - 27. See online version at (19 January 2007).
  16. ^ 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. See online version at (19 January 2007).
  17. ^ Nibley, Hugh, "Sparsiones," The Classical Journal 40.9 (Jun., 1945), 515-543
  18. ^ See 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.
  19. ^ Benjamin Urrutia, “The Name Connection,” New Era, June 1983, 39
  20. ^ Jackson's critique can be found in his Foreword to The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley: Old Testament and Related Studies Deseret Book. 1986
  21. ^ See also Olson's review of Nibley's Abraham in Egypt in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15.4 (1982), 123-125.
  22. ^ 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. 131 - online version available here
  23. ^ 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 - online version available here

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