Welcome to the Millennial Star Book Club. Today we begin discussing the Forwards/Prefaces and Chapter One of Hugh Nibley’s “An Approach to the Book of Mormon.” We hope many will contribute, and even more will learn from the discussion. Only one rule: be courteous and charitable towards others’ comments.
I’ll make some comments, which I hope others will comment upon. But please put forth your own views as well in the comment section.
From the “Preface to 1964 Edition”, I found the following interesting concepts.
1. The sixth century B.C., as the very heart of “the Axial Period” of world history.
To this day, I think many scholars would still agree that this was the Axial Period, if not of world history, then of Israel. We see the destruction of Israel, as major nations battle for the choice property of the Levant, including trade routes and the Mediterranean. For many Middle East scholars, it is the dividing line between fable and real history for the area (did Moses, Abraham, and King David really exist?). For many scholars, it also is the line from which they disagree on when various books of the Bible were written (Daniel, 3rd Isaiah, etc) – were they written before or after 600 BC?.
That Lehi would live in this time period makes it even more intriguing. If the BoM is a fraud, why would Joseph Smith pick such a period to begin his narrative? For the BoM to begin in the center of this Axial moment and place means that evidences for the BoM should be very telling (at least for “real” scholars that follow evidence, and not just their bias).
2. Nibley notes his first class on the Book of Mormon ever taught to Near Eastern students. For them to be shocked because Nephi was slow to respond to the Lord’s command to slay Laban, is very telling. Even scholars can place their own bias and world view on concepts, not realizing that they are dead wrong. Herein is one of the risks, IMO, of “likening” the scriptures in the wrong way: completely from our modern perspective. Instead, we should first understand the ancient point of view, and then liken that to our modern understanding.
3. DSS and Nag Hammadi discoveries just prior to this book have been earth shaking for Near East scholarship. Many previously held views have had to be radically altered to accept the new concepts that are inescapable. For those who criticized the BoM for having Alma baptizing prior to Christ, one must now review that criticism in light of the Qumran practices. I’ve noted a strong similarity between Nephi’s Psalm and a psalm in the Community Rule (Damascus) Scroll ( http://rameumptom.weebly.com/nephipsalm.html ), suggesting a possible common source.
4. Nibley notes that there is no Asiatic blood type found in America. I believe this would now be considered an incorrect conclusion, due to DNA studies. But then, DNA’s structure was only being discovered when this book was originally published.
5. “Woe to the generation that understands the Book of Mormon” is a true insight for all of us. I’m not sure where I read it, but recently read a Nibley quote from 1988 (I think), where he said that history had advanced to be similar to the later pages in the Book of Mormon! Any one have a reference? I recall first reading the BoM as a convert in the mid 1970s, and being amazed at how quickly the Nephites could forget the Lord and rebel, sometimes within just a couple years. Yet, we see the same patterns in America and much of the world, as did the Nephites. 9/11 brought America to its knees in prayer. Just a couple years later, we were even more divided and bitter towards others. I do not think the Great Recession has humbled more than just a handful of people, but has increased many people’s pride in insisting they are given their entitlements. It amazes me that we are looking at destroying our children’s future with extravagant spending now, because none of us will voluntarily give up some of our entitlements. Anyway, this is not a discussion on politics, and such will be shut down if it gets to be too political. But a focus on Nibley’s statement and the BoM’s prescient view on the pride cycle is welcome.
–Chapter 1 Intro to an Unknown Book
1. Interestingly, Nibley insists that as apologists, we should illustrate and explain BoM, rather than “prove” it. I feel it is on the line of Bart Ehrman showing that Jesus of Nazareth existed, but no one can prove that Jesus the Messiah existed. Nibley also encourages us in using ancient texts to understand the Book of Mormon. Why? Because they help us understand the ancient mindset, background, and culture. Without such, we can only view a 2 dimensional understanding of the Book of Mormon.
2. Nibley discussed the “Great Retreat” from the Bible. If Nibley was concerned about Christian belief in the Bible in the 1950s and 1960s, imagine what he would think today! Nowadays, there are so-called Christians that even question the divinity of Jesus Christ. The Episcopalian Church is a prime example of a Christian church in chaos. Not only has it walked away from the 10 Commandments, but leading authorities, like Bishop Spong, have strongly questioned the historicity and reliability of the Bible, the divinity of Jesus Christ, and the greater importance of the social gospel, rather than the spiritual gospel.
Joe Spencer noted that in his classes on the BoM, he takes a theologian’s direction and allows the non-LDS students to realize on their own the depth and complexity of the Book of Mormon and the difficulty for a young man with a third grade education to fabricate such a book. That the book of Mormon was brought forth to testify of Christ and the Bible, prevents Mormons from falling into the trap of the Great Retreat. As long as we accept the Book of Mormon as divinely inspired, we have no choice but to also accept Christ as divine and the Bible as inspired.
3. Documents do not have to tell us everything. They still can tell us something. It is not all or nothing. I find this to be very accurate. In studying the Nag Hammadi, it took me three tries to understand its teachings, as some are very esoteric. Just because it was difficult, strange, often baffling, and sometimes totally wrong, there are still some great nuggets to find within its Gnostic pages. Still, I would not suggest it be the first book a novice picks up!
4. Of course, Nibley states he will focus on Middle East and not Mesoamerica: first, it is not Nibley’s area of expertise. Second, little archaeology has been done in Mesoamerica, compared to Israel. This is true even to this day. Third, there are no Dead Sea Scrolls for Mesoamerica. With the exception of a handful of books, all ancient books from Mesoamerica were destroyed by the Spaniards. There just isn’t enough documentary evidence to really begin to understand the ancient religions of the Maya, Olmec and others.
5. Nibley notes the difficulty of language, foreign events/experiences and bias in understanding a text. Even today, those who travel to different cultures must first learn their practices so as not to insult them. One does not leave a fork sticking in one’s food in South Korea (hoping for a death in the home), nor do you show the bottom of your feet to others in many nations. Imagine how different ancient cultures are from ours today!
6. Regarding anachronistic claims, Nibley notes that there are similarities between cultures and times. Ancient Jews would be as aware of Isaiah as we are today, for instance. We should not be surprised to see Nephi quoting Isaiah or referencing Moses. In fact, the two most commonly found Bible books in the Dead Sea Scrolls are Deuteronomy and Isaiah! Given we only have theories on Joseph Smith’s translation process (was it all word for word as Royal Skousen suggests, or is some/all of it via pictographic interpretation, and/or from another method?), we cannot begin to guess how much of Joseph’s world may have been inserted into the English translation of the text.
Well, I have written more than enough. I look forward to seeing others’ thoughts on chapter one.