Book Club: Nibley’s An Approach to the BoM, chapter One

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.

 

 

15 thoughts on “Book Club: Nibley’s An Approach to the BoM, chapter One

  1. Great comments. Regarding the Axial period, one might be interested to read Margaret Barker’s What Did King Josiah Reform?.

    Here’s the reference you were looking for from 1988′s Sunstone “The Book of Mormon: Forty Years After,” right at the start:

    The talk I gave a year ago on this occasion was entitled, when it was published, “Last Call.” That should have brought a sigh of relief to all who have suffered my apocalyptic fervor these many years. It was more than forty years ago that I started teaching the Book of Mormon in Provo. Last fall, after years away from it, I returned to the book. Was it weary, flat, stale, and unprofitable as any book would be after one hundred readings? On the contrary, it was a new book. But forget forty years. In the past year alone the world has stumbled, slipped, and slithered downward to a point where it has almost caught up with the later chapters of the Book of Mormon. The past year, as the culmination of forty years, bids me forward cast my eye and read, and fear!

    Here are some things that caught my eye in this chapter. First, the subject of proof, he says rightly, “When a man asks for proof we can be pretty sure that proof is the last thing in the world he really wants.” I think we get this often. People throw down the gauntlet and demand “Where is the proof?” People do this all the time with regards to the Book of Mormon as a Mesoamerican production. Where is the city of Zarahemla? Where are these lands in today’s geography? Where are the stone carvings with the names from the Book of Mormon? Etc., etc. Some may ask these questions sincerely, but many are directly challenging the authenticity of the book. If we don’t find these things today, then how can the book be true, they say. I think this could go back to the many discussions we’ve had on faith, evidences, and proof. I don’t think the Lord will allow any definitive proof of his restored gospel, whether that is proving Joseph Smith was a prophet, or that the Book of Mormon is undeniably true. It won’t happen, which can be frustrating to us. If only we could show that Mesoamerican medallion with a passage from 1 Nephi! I don’t think it will happen. Proving the Book of Mormon was never anywhere near the realm of purpose in the coming forth of the book. It had different purposes, as Nibley points out, none of which was to prove itself true. It is a matter of faith, and we are to learn about its truthfulness by other means. God will always allow this climate of faith, by withholding certain incontrovertible proofs, indeed, “the Bible itself is still not proven to those who do not choose to believe it.”

    (As a side note I would say that not finding definitive proofs of the Book of Mormon in Mesoamerica might actually be evidence itself of its divine origin, for the reasons given above. The Lord might be intentionally withholding the “best” evidence, to allow room for faith.)

    I thought this was a good sentence: “… the Book of Mormon must be examined by experts in many fields, but may not be judged by the verdict of any one of them.” How often do some take the verdict of a single investigator, and hold that as the supreme evidence for or against the divine origins of the book?

    This was a tangent, but I think Nibley has a point that our education systems, even at BYU, have swung in the direction of “education for success” rather than those “areas of basic research” and fundamentals that should attend one’s education. This may be part of the reason, as Nibley notes, for the neglect of the “written documents.” It may for the reason for neglect in a number of other areas.

    That the Book of Mormon is “the only ancient text in a modern language” struck me as odd. What does Nibley mean here? I’m unsure. Does he mean the translation is better than any other translation? Or perhaps that we don’t have the original ancient text?

    I thought it was true that the “challenge of Moroni 10:4 is by no means unscientific.” Many of our critics sing the song that the “promise” of the book to know if it is true by the Spirit is a weak one, based as it is on a testimony from the Spirit, and not logically confirmed by reason (of course the latter can accompany the former). Yet here Nibley says that this method is scientific. I’d be interested in others comments about this.

    One of the things that caught my attention the most was this argument that “the first thing to do in examining any ancient text is to consider it in the light of the origin and background that is claimed for it.” In other words, giving it the benefit of a doubt, that it is what it says it is. I think this is an honest approach. Why approach a text as “a forgery before it has been tested”? Do we believe that one is guilty until proven innocent? No. Yes, we should maintain some measure of caution when approaching something like this for the first time. But if it claims to be from a certain time and place, should we not investigate whether it appears to have come from such? Is there any weakness in this approach? Nibley believes this is the only direction from which it “may be profitably approached.” This is one of my reasons for not engaging Howard on the “Jesus Did Exist” post. It appears he was approaching the subject already believing the Bible to be a work of fiction. If such is your baseline to start, I think your topic of discussion should be focused on the authenticity of the book, before engaging in any others which the book addresses (although doing so might help answer the first question). Nibley notes, “You cannot prove the genuineness of any document to one who has decided not to accept it.”

    I also thought this was well said: “… anyone who challenges the authenticity of a document put forth in good faith has taken upon himself the whole burden of proving it false.” Of course, why would the believing Mormon try to prove it false? On the other hand, the Mormon cannot prove it true either. All we have is evidence.

    Those were some of my thoughts.

  2. Bryce, very well put. And it is on such concepts that give me pause when some Latter-day Saints leave the church over such things. I’ve heard countless people over the years on their way out claim that there is no evidence/proof for the Book of Mormon. Even when provided evidences, they still insist there is no proof.

    It confuses me for those who become Protestants, but even moreso atheists. When one studies some of the intricate work regarding the Book of Mormon that is now being done by Spencer, Miller and others, then one cannot escape the question: how can such deep and complex concepts come forth from Joseph Smith, or even a Sidney Rigdon? Neither had the skill to do chiasmus, or create intricate relationships between various peoples and within the text itself. Clearly, it is the work of God, or at least a supreme genius of antiquity (which anyone who has read Joseph Smith’s letters can see, it wasn’t him).

    For those who only see anachronistic things in the Book of Mormon, it is simply that they have not done the real work or study.

  3. I’ll make a separate comment with my responses directly to the chapter. For the moment, here are some responses to the original post and the comments.

    Rameumptom says:

    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.

    I’m not sure I see the analogy. There’s not much difficulty in showing historically that Jesus existed, but there’s a good deal of difficulty in showing historically that the Nephites did. Isn’t the strong commitment to historicity that drives LDS apologetic efforts rooted precisely in the idea that historical claims and faith claims can’t, to some extent at least, be separated when it comes to the Book of Mormon? (For my own part, I think they can be separated, though not in the same way they can be separated in dealing with the New Testament.)

    More from the original post:

    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’s right: I don’t think it’s the apologist’s (or even the scholar’s) task to be constantly pointing out complexity as proof or evidence. A more vibrant testimony is borne, in my opinion, when we take the Book of Mormon seriously for its own sake rather than for the sake of demonstrating its historicity (especially where “historicity” is an inherently secular notion). Were I coming to the Book of Mormon from outside of Mormonism, I’d be appalled at the fact that almost all serious work on the Book of Mormon has ostensibly only been undertaken in order to defend the book’s historicity. That suggests ideological desperation, not serious belief and commitment.

    Bryce says:

    As a side note I would say that not finding definitive proofs of the Book of Mormon in Mesoamerica might actually be evidence itself of its divine origin, for the reasons given above. The Lord might be intentionally withholding the “best” evidence, to allow room for faith.

    Right in the Book of Mormon itself, there’s a good deal of talk about how the Book of Mormon can’t or shouldn’t be set side by side with evidence. (I’m thinking in particular here of 2 Nephi 27, which has to be read very carefully.) There’s a sense in which the Book of Mormon understands itself—even creates itself—as a kind of exception to the rule of scholarship: there’s no original (text, setting, archaeological site, or what have you) with which to compare the book. But I’m nervous about taking that gesture, a deliberate removal of the evidentiary in order to allow for faith, as itself being an evidence. Wouldn’t that undo the very gesture?

    Bryce asks:

    That the Book of Mormon is “the only ancient text in a modern language” struck me as odd. What does Nibley mean here? I’m unsure. Does he mean the translation is better than any other translation? Or perhaps that we don’t have the original ancient text?

    I took Nibley’s point simply to be that the Book of Mormon is the only ancient text that is only in a modern language. The point is that we don’t have a pre-English original, as we do with every other ancient text. (Something like the Book of Mormon’s curious gesture here has, however, appeared on occasion in history. Plato’s Timaeus was had in the West, during most of the medieval era, only in a Latin translation, though it was well known that it was originally produced in Greek.)

    One more from Bryce:

    I thought it was true that the “challenge of Moroni 10:4 is by no means unscientific.” Many of our critics sing the song that the “promise” of the book to know if it is true by the Spirit is a weak one, based as it is on a testimony from the Spirit, and not logically confirmed by reason (of course the latter can accompany the former). Yet here Nibley says that this method is scientific. I’d be interested in others comments about this.

    I’m still wrestling with exactly what Nibley meant by “scientific.” Does he mean “confirmed by reason”? Or does he mean to point out that science itself is not what the positivists would have us believe? I’m inclined toward the latter reading myself, and that means that there’s a lot more going on with Moroni 10:4 than just that….

    And Rameumptom again, now in the comments:

    When one studies some of the intricate work regarding the Book of Mormon that is now being done by Spencer, Miller and others, then one cannot escape the question: how can such deep and complex concepts come forth from Joseph Smith, or even a Sidney Rigdon?

    Obviously I agree with this, since it’s my work you’re talking about. :) But I’d want to make sure that the emphasis is in the right place, for my part. That is, it’s precisely the sorts of complexity to gesture toward here that leaves me without any serious doubts about the historicity of the Book of Mormon, but that conviction comes after and apart from my faith commitments to the book. My faith isn’t in the historicity of the book, but in its relevance. And as I work on that text as a relevant one, I find complexity that leaves me unworried about historicity. All that makes me think that talk about the book’s historicity is a red herring when it comes to serious study of the Book of Mormon. And that I’ll have to explain in my direct response to Nibley….

  4. Nice comments, Joe.

    You noted, “I’m not sure I see the analogy. There’s not much difficulty in showing historically that Jesus existed, but there’s a good deal of difficulty in showing historically that the Nephites did. Isn’t the strong commitment to historicity that drives LDS apologetic efforts rooted precisely in the idea that historical claims and faith claims can’t, to some extent at least, be separated when it comes to the Book of Mormon? (For my own part, I think they can be separated, though not in the same way they can be separated in dealing with the New Testament.”

    I was thinking on this line: We can demonstrate in the Book of Mormon several complexities, whether from the direction you take theologically, or issues such as 40 previously unknown Middle Eastern names in the BoM. None of it proves Nephi had a Liahona or built a ship, but it does show the BoM to be more than a piece of fiction to read and discard without further thought.

    True, there are some areas regarding historicity that are questionable (horses, steel, etc), but there are other points that show a possible historicity: Nahom, etc. This all demonstrates that the issues involved are complex and cannot easily be proven or dismissed from either side. So it is with Christ: there are some who believe he actually existed, yet for others the evidence is not enough to believe, and that does not include the added aspect of his divinity. Even with the evidence, such as Ehrman gives, there are many who still disbelieve in the historical Jesus. But the evidences provided make it a more complex issue.

  5. First, one note on the foreword (I’ve nothing to say about either preface). I find this statement (from whom? there’s no indication of who wrote the foreword, and it doesn’t seem to have been Nibley) most interesting: “In this work the Book of Mormon … takes its place naturally alongside the Bible and other great works of antiquity and becomes one of them” (italics added). I like the idea that the Book of Mormon becomes something in our research and writing. The book isn’t, this statement suggests, always already one of the great works of antiquity; it only becomes such as Nibley works on it. What else does the Book of Mormon become as we work on it?

    Okay, to chapter 1, now.

    I’m fascinated by Nibley’s little list of purposes: “to illustrate, explain, suggest, and investigate”—a list from which he explicitly excludes “to prove.” What does each of these terms imply? I’m particularly interested in “to suggest.”

    This from Nibley has already been mentioned by others: “When a man asks for proof we can be pretty sure that proof is the last thing in the world he really wants.” Nibley couldn’t be more right, but what are we to learn from that? Isn’t one major lesson that apologetics of a certain sort—let’s call it the larger Nibley school—isn’t actually aimed at outsiders and critics, but at already-believing members of the Church? And if that’s so, what’s really going on in apologetics? Why do already-believing members need an apologetic fix? What role does that play in our faith?

    This statement fascinates me as well: “All that is essential, but in the zeal to conduct scientific research the investigators have entirely overlooked the most telling evidence of all—that of the written documents.” Nibley opposes science and history here. How is that significant? I wonder if this isn’t a key: “all we have is a huge heap of ancient records which will indicate more or less whether such things were possible or plausible.” Nibley aims, it would seem, only at opening a space of possibility (at most of plausibility). How is that the work of the historian? What sense of history is Nibley working with here? How might that inform our own work on history?

    How beautiful that Nibley describes himself as “merely a filing-clerk,” one who is unqualified to write the book! I think there’s a good deal to think about there. This most erudite of Mormon erudites confesses that he has no idea what he’s doing.

    Nibley’s discussion of Bultmann and company struck me as most interesting. It isn’t clear to me whether he had read Bultmann himself, or whether he had only read about Bultmann. (He doesn’t cite any of Bultmann’s own works, interestingly.) I think he misunderstands Bultmann in some ways—I think there’s good reason to take Bultmann’s program of demythologization seriously, if we read him carefully—but Nibley nonetheless puts him to good use. His point with Bultmann is to say that demythologization has forced Christianity to be honest: “So now the Christ world has reached a point of decision; it must either believe what the Bible says or reject it—it is no longer possible to have it both ways by the clever use of scholarly jargon and sanctimonious double-talk.” In exactly what sense is the Book of Mormon a response to that dilemma? I wonder.

    A few thoughts for now, mostly questions.

  6. Joe said, “But I’m nervous about taking that gesture, a deliberate removal of the evidentiary in order to allow for faith, as itself being an evidence. Wouldn’t that undo the very gesture?”

    Perhaps. I conceive it is just another one of the many circumstantial evidences that we find, not one of the “best” evidences – a lack of evidence may itself be an evidence of the divine hand. Of course, non-believers won’t have anything of it, so in that case its really a different kind of evidence and one they would label circular, but believers might sincerely question why we haven’t found that medallion with 1 Nephi on it. In that case it might be beneficial to point out the proof versus faith issues. If we were to find that medallion, we’d know the book was literally true, and have less cause for faith in it, at least in that aspect. So perhaps God hides the evidentiary, just as the veil hides His face.

    Thinking again about the phrase “challenge of Moroni 10:4 is by no means unscientific,” perhaps Nibley meant that there is a logical progression to the challenge, a step-by-step method, similar to the scientific method, by which one may receive a testimony of it. In this sense, it is not that the challenge is science, but that it is similar to science.

    My comments on your questions, “Why do already-believing members need an apologetic fix? What role does that play in our faith?” I love the quote by Austin Farrer, which we’ve all well heard, but which I think applies to that inward facing apologetic perspective. I think this is one of the reasons believers need apologetics; it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish. If we had no evidence whatsoever in or about the Book of Mormon, which evidence is usually uncovered and/or defended by the apologists, I think belief in the book may have perished long ago – “what no one shows that ability to defend is quickly abandoned.” It’s highly doubtful the apologists are doing it for the critics and detractors.

  7. Joe:

    Were I coming to the Book of Mormon from outside of Mormonism, I’d be appalled at the fact that almost all serious work on the Book of Mormon has ostensibly only been undertaken in order to defend the book’s historicity. That suggests ideological desperation, not serious belief and commitment.

    You’re not the only one to notice this. Grant Hardy, for one, has been very ambitious in addressing this point. The fact that hardly anyone else is doing work in this area may be why some of his work stands out so much.

  8. Trevor,
    I think it is more of an issue of need in the moment. For a century, anti-Mormons and scientists were beating up on the LDS for not having any evidence whatsoever regarding the BoM. Nibley and those who have followed have filled a specific need for this kind of information. There was a response needed, and it has been given to the point that several non-LDS scholars are taking notice.

    Second, the needs change, and so also the scholarship of the LDS members. Few were really into theology and philosophy up until the current generation. Nibley was virtually alone, and the second generation was still just a handful of people for apologetics. Now there are hundreds able to defend the Church on a scholarly basis via apologia.

    But the kind of work done by Joe, Adam Miller and others is only now coming forth in strength. Besides a small handful of LDS philosophers, like Eugene England, very few were doing Mormon philosophy a generation ago. And of those, almost no one was doing theology of the BoM. Now, we find that the Church needs not only to defend the historicity of the book, but to critically analyze the text to see what it is really saying.

    I’m convinced that Pres Benson’s talk on the BoM was the very beginning of this new effort of doing theology. Previous to the 1980s, members carried around the BoM as an evidence of the Church’s truth, but didn’t use it to understand the truths of the Church! With an increased study on the BoM, we find that several once-held beliefs of the Church are coming undone, such as a limited atonement and having to save ourselves (as Elder McConkie and others taught in the 19th century). Nowhere in the BoM will one find that “obedience is the first law of heaven.” But you definitely can find the concepts of justification and sanctification, grace, etc.

    So, I do not see Nibley and his successors as failures. I see them as having so much success in staying back the forces of disbelief, that we are now ready to move forward to an even greater prize: doing theology as a form of apologetics and learning.

  9. “How beautiful that Nibley describes himself as “merely a filing-clerk,” one who is unqualified to write the book! I think there’s a good deal to think about there. This most erudite of Mormon erudites confesses that he has no idea what he’s doing.”

    Joe, I like this. It perfectly captures Nibley’s essence and self-effacing nature.

    And yes, none of us (as in everyone) really knows what we’re doing.

  10. Barb, glad to have more people joining in. Hopefully it will give you some great opportunities to learn. While some of what Hugh Nibley wrote is now found to be wrong, or perhaps questionable, much of it is still relevant. And even the questionable things leave open a door for consideration.

  11. It is very interesting to ponder. I’m glad to have a study group who is more versed than I am in the findings.

Comments are closed.