One of my fellow saints recently asked me what I think of the late Hugh Nibley’s work. I began by saying that although I may have become disenchanted with his general approach, I continue to be impressed by how much he knew. Intimidated even. Next I mentioned some things I had picked up reading around in his biography, items that humanized him for me and made him someone I could still relate to, items such as his reluctance to take on the Book of Abraham academically and his breakdown/stroke and hospitalization in 1974 while working on The Message of the Joseph Smith Papyri. Like all influential figures, Nibley ought to be reread, not merely dismissed out of hand as outdated and outmoded.
My interlocutor then asked what I meant when I said that I had become disenchanted. Hesitating some, I essentialized the Nibley approach: the amassing of parallels in ancient texts as proof of Mormonism based on the assumption that they were unknown to Joseph Smith, so the prophet must have arrived in the same place through revelation, of course. I explained that this approach to defending the church was actually–and not without irony–liable to do more harm than good, in my opinion. After the assumption is admitted and the parallels amassed, all that some punk needs to do is reverse the polarity, and voila, it looks like Mormonism can be accounted for through the transmission of antiquity to the 1800s. This is especially the case because Nibley tended to downplay the differences between the ancient parallels and Mormonism, while exploiting (some would say embellishing) the similarities. And so the LDS academic may be faced with the onerous task of undoing what has been done, de-emphasizing the similarities and stressing the differences, in order to show that Mormonism is not reducible to the transmission of antiquity to the 1800s, and so that Joseph Smith can be understood and appreciated as creative genius, exegete, theologian, innovator.
Consider, if you will, for example, what would have happened if instead of saying these words in his 1954 KSL radio broadcast entitled “Time Vindicates the Prophets” (The World and the Prophets [third edition; 1987, p.170-1])
With the exception of the verse just cited above [1 Cor 15:29], a few perplexing commentaries on it, and the unnoticed passage from the Pastor of Hermas, all our evidence for the practice of baptism for the dead in ancient times comes from fragments recently discovered. The possession of this strange and wonderful thing by the restored Church of Jesus Christ for over a hundred years would therefore seem to be an almost foolproof certificate of authenticity. The prophets of modern times remember the dead exactly as did those prophets of old, and in the growing evidence for the nature of that work among the first Christians, time has vindicated the prophets.
Since Hermas, no theologian has had the courage to tackle the problem and solve it in this gallant fashion. All of them carefully evade the problem of the necessity of the sacraments and of the extension of the results of the death of Jesus to pre-Christian humanity. They make, for example, the pre-Christian generations attain to blessedness through Christ, between His death and resurrection, preaching to the spirits of the lower world, as is already assumed in the First Epistle of Peter (iii 19-20). But the problem is not only whether they receive the knowledge of Jesus and become believers, but rather how without a real act of faith and without sacraments they can enter into blessedness.
To say that Joseph Smith had the courage to tackle the problem and was able to solve it on what is a broader scale and in what is arguably an even more gallant fashion may sound a bit hollow when compared to notions of unmediated divine revelation. But is it not at least preferable to the situation that arises when our cherished parallels turn out to work against us?