Fundanibleists and Fauxpologetics

This comment by tom (#23) at Dave Banack’s challenging post over at T&S sums up why I think the Nibley approach to apologetics and its reception have, in part, had long term and still expanding negative effects on church members:

“Might not hurt to read a little Nibley along the way.. not exactly light reading, but take some time to examine the connections he makes with Enoch, Abraham, and ancient temple worship – through all the various non-biblical records that have come to light since the days of Joseph Smith. There really is a lot of evidence that Joseph was a prophet and that these restoration scriptures are really what they say they are.”

Here are some of the problems I see in these two sentences:

1. Nibley and his corpus of writings are assumed to be authoritative and can be wielded like a deceased General Authority and his conference talks.

2. Nibley’s work is dense and often impenetrable, and, therefore, just like Tallmadge’s Jesus the Christ, authoritative, irrefutable, irreplaceable, or un-updatable.

3. Obsession with finding ancient parallels and sources for modern LDS temple ritual revealing a basic assumption that ancient=genuine/divine

4. Strip-mining “non-biblical records that have come to light since the days of Joseph Smith” for the rare, usable nugget while disregarding everything else these texts offer or refuse to offer

5. Engaging in this strip-mining effort so that we can assertively and triumphantly ask: “How could Joseph have possibly known this?!”

6. Licensing every day members to make absolutist claims about the Book of Abraham, draw lines in the sand about its translation and provenance, make these criteria for heresy/orthodoxy and, to complete the circle, cite Nibley to prove one’s point about it.

7. Then drive by blog it to bash someone over the head

I value much of what Nibley wrote. His writings inspired a younger version of me and altered my life trajectory. But this continuing abuse of his work in the pursuit of faux-apologetics or chastisement is just plain bad.  And all too common.


Biblical Texts and Historicity
Notes on John Gee’s Biblical Training
On Pseudonyms and Insults
The Anthon Transcript: Fulfillment of Prophecy, Reformed Egyptian, and the Evolution of a Story, Part III
  • Trevor

    Zing! Thank you putting into a concise, clearly worded statement what I have wanted to say a number of times.

  • Ardis

    Not quite on point, but I thought of your term “fauxpologetics” this afternoon when I read J.M. Sjodahl’s 1922 article making a case for the claim that “America” was the name given to both continents by natives from north to south, and that “America” was a corruption of the name “Mulek.”

  • oudenos


    Even though I positively adore spurious folk etymologies and make up my own from time to time, “Amuleka” is undoubtedly a case of bad fauxpologetics. Actually, linguistically, it is a pretty compelling case since r and l are, in many languages, nearly interchangeable liquids and are regularly confused even by native speakers (like my speech impediment bane at age 4: railroad).

    Now I can’t stop sing “Amuleka, Amuleka, God shed his grace on thee!”

  • Martin

    Nicely put, especially #4. One problem with the proof by parallel approach is that any positive hit counts while all the nonparallels or anti-parallels are simply disregarded. More disappointing still is the termination of investigation once a parallel is found. What does it mean, other than “Joseph Smith must have been a prophet?” How did the parallel come to exist? I’m sorry to say that Nibley especially had a way of citing parallels out of context that made them appear more relevant than they really are. Some that come to mind include the teacher of righteousness from the Qumran community and Zenock; Kenaz from Pseudophilo and Zenos.

  • g.wesley

    I think this is an accurate and, as already pointed out above, concise list of the general reception and use of his work.

    It could be interesting to read Nibley’s No Ma’am in light of all this, since Dave’s post is about someone who left after reading Brodie’s No Man, and since in a sense his 1940s review of the book was a beginning of what would become ‘the FARMS approach’ to apologetics.

  • Bryce Haymond

    My comments, as founder of, a blog dedicated to the work of Hugh Nibley:

    1) They are authoritative (with a lower case “a”) if you consider what even priesthood Authorities (capital “A”) have said about him and his work. Nibley was incredibly smart, educated, and knowledgeable about an almost endless number of subjects and languages. He had a tremendous amount to say and teach, even being personally invited to teach the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve within the Salt Lake Temple. I know of no other scholars who have done that. I believe President Kimball once cleaned the dust off of his shoes, fwiw. All these things lead one to become authoritative in some degree; in Nibley’s case, it made him very authoritative in the subjects he addressed.

    2) Nibley’s work is elevated, no doubt, but I would not say it is dense and impenetrable. I’ve poked some at it, and I have a degree in Industrial Design (i.e. nothing related to ANE studies, ancient languages, Near Eastern cultures, history, or the like). He has taught me worlds. His book “Approaching Zion” completely changed my life, teaching me unlike any other that this life is our time to prepare to meet God, and that the restored gospel of Jesus Christ is the most important thing in this life. BTW, there is more being uncovered that Nibley first discovered all the time. He opened the door to many rooms which we have now just begun to enter into. His work will be updated (see also #6).

    3) Why is finding ancient parallels and sources for modern LDS temple ritual a bad thing? Just because ancient things may not always equal genuine or divine has nothing to do with it. It does mean that these things have had their counterparts in history, even before Joseph Smith. Hugh Nibley once wrote, “Latter-day Saints believe that their temple ordinances are as old as the human race and represent a primordial revealed religion that has passed through alternate phases of apostasy and restoration which have left the world littered with the scattered fragments of the original structure, some more and some less recognizable, but all badly damaged and out of proper context…” (Intro to An Egyptian Endowment, Nibley).

    4) Again, why is looking into non-biblical records for that which shines light on Joseph Smith’s work a bad thing? I would see it as a vindication of the Prophet. These “nuggets” are especially interesting to Latter-day Saints, in the sense of apologia. But I would hardly call Hugh Nibley’s work a disregard for everything else those texts had to offer. Remember, Nibley published in many academic journals and periodicals about his findings, which were all peer reviewed and valuable to scholars everywhere.

    5) Again, why is this bad? Please explain your arguments, and why this is “negative.” If something truly ancient and archaic that was not known at the time of Joseph Smith crops up in Church doctrine, ritual, or scripture, could that not be interesting evidence for the divine calling of the Prophet, revealing things he himself could not have known except by revelation? Even Harold Bloom was amazed by the Prophet’s ability to do this: “I can only attribute to his genius or daemons his uncanny recovery of elements in ancient Jewish theurgy that had ceased to be available either to Judaism or to Christianity, and that had survived only in esoteric traditions unlikely to have touched Smith directly” (Harold Bloom, The American Religion, 101).

    6) I’ve noted on recently that Nibley and his contemporary LDS scholars hardly made absolutist claims about Abraham, Egypt, or anything else. Nibley quiped that he couldn’t be held responsible for anything he said three months ago, because things were constantly changing in scholarship and knowledge. John Gee noted where Nibley was mistaken in the second edition of An Egyptian Endowment, and carefully pointed where new information was now available. I do not believe I’m always accurate in what I say on my blog, but I try my best. The absolute truth and nothing but the truth will come later (see my recent post on alethiology).

    7) Drive by blog it? Really?

    For valuing so much of what Nibley wrote, and changing your life, you do him and his work a true disservice here, sir. You dishonor his name, his work, and his life.

  • Chris H.

    I love Hugh Nibley.

    The problem is those that use Nibley without the adequate skills to do so.

    Nibley did have knowledge in a range of fields. I do not think anyone can really understand Approaching Zion or Broter Brigham Challenges The Saints without understanding the social forces at play in the late 19th century AND the social context of the 1970s and the 1980s when Nibley wrote them.

  • Pingback: Attacking Hugh Nibley’s Work – Temple Study - LDS Temples, Mormon Temples, Study Blog()

  • Gerald Smith

    In “Enoch the Prophet”, Nibley noted that fragments from Enoch in the Dead Sea Scrolls note a man “Mahujah” who asks Enoch questions. This is verifiable and is quite correct. Even evangelical scholars Mosser and Owens noted it in their paper regarding the quality of LDS apologetic scholarship, versus the standard evangelical tripe. How is Nibley pointing out interesting parallels such a bad thing? Is he perfect in his stuff? Of course not. Some of it has been superseded by new information, etc. But the corpus of his writings gives members a place to begin really thinking deep about their own doctrine. To lump it all in under the title of “Fundanibleists and Fauxpologetics” is rather insulting to scholars. Nibley was well considered even in non-LDS arena. He opened a door for new scholarship. For example, the great critical thinking found in the books provided by possibly would not exist today if Nibley weren’t there before.

  • BHodges

    I left a comment over at Bryce’s Temple Study blog, responding to his post on “Attacking Nibley.” He let me know he wouldn’t allow the comment to appear because he didn’t want to start a discussion with me.

    Here’s the comment I left there, including a link to one of my old blog posts:

    Nibley himself pointed to the constant need for reappraisal of academic work, including his own. Nibley himself would almost certainly object to the way you [Bryce Haymond] assume that pointing out flaws in the work of others constitutes “attacking.”

  • Chris H.

    ” To lump it all in under the title of “Fundanibleists and Fauxpologetics” is rather insulting to scholars.”

    However, only non-scholars seem insulted by it.

  • Chris H.

    “He let me know he wouldn’t allow the comment to appear because he didn’t want to start a discussion with me.”

    Well, BHodges, you are such a prick.

  • SmallAxe


    You may want to take a look at some of our previous discussions on the topic. This one is particularly relevant since it was inspired by Bryce.

    Bryce, I’d still like to hear your response to this.

  • oudenos


    As others have pointed out, Nibley himself framed his own work with a clock ticking down to obsolescence. This is as it should be. There is another clock I think he regularly mentions. It seems to me that he was trying to inspire his audience to invest the time to do the serious questions of texts as he was doing. Two ticking clocks, each demanding more and more and more work.

    As a twenty one year old I read his “When the Lights Went Out” and I listened to his “Time Vindicates the Prohets” which both deal specifically with ancient Christianity. These studies fired my imagination and inspired me to continue in the path I had already chosen but to veer more towards ancient Christianity. I did so. I still do.

    But now, many years on, I can read “When the Lights Went Out” and listen to “Time Vindicates the Prophets” and take issue with small and serious things. The clock has run out on much in these two works and the current era is different and calls for different work. If Nibley were alive to today, he and I could sit down and talk professionally about this side of his work (anc. Chri.) and we could critique each other. I could also point out that the legacy of his now decades old work has been partly good, partly bad, but, in almost all ways, superceded. Part of the bad I see is uncritical reverence for it and the refusal to invest the time to work with the material he was working with and then to draw one’s own informed conclusions or non-conclusions. Of course, he too would recognize that not everyone could invest this time and effort. But I don’t think that such acknowledgment was a license for the non-invested to consider themselves expert by digesting what only what he had digested. He was not our mother-bird and he didn’t aim to raise needy fledglings.

    You say, “For valuing so much of what Nibley wrote, and changing your life, you do him and his work a true disservice here, sir. You dishonor his name, his work, and his life.”

    Maybe so, maybe not.

  • g.wesley

    Just thought it might be worth saying that the opening post was about the (ab)use of Nibley, not Nibley himself or his work. At least that’s how I read it. A distinction that I think other readers may have missed.

  • Clark

    Coming late to the discussion. It’s important to remember that *a lot* of what FARMS – Deseret Books published of Nibley was never intended for publication by Nibley and he may even not have been happy about it. (Different people have said different things on that front – Nibley was sometimes quite grumpy about his popularity at times) A lot of the rest of Nibley’s work is quite dated. There’s simply a lot more information. To take Nibley’s comments as something unrelated to scholarship is to really twist Nibley against Nibley’s own will. As others have said you have to read him in the time and place they were written and the scholarly period out of which he was educated. (i.e. a lot of structuralist assumptions that I think few adopt anymore) Likewise his more political and ethical writings are also tied to his background and assumptions – they simply aren’t any more “pure” than are his apologetic writings. (It’s constantly interesting to me seeing people who discount out of hand his apologetic writings but apply a completely different criteria to his political critiques)

    The problem is that people don’t treat Nibley as one apologist among many and subject to the same level of critique. Rather he’s put on a special pedestal. That’s unfair to Nibely but worse gives dated and invalid a weight they simply should have. (I’d say the same thing about Talmage’s Jesus the Christ although it’s far more innocuous in most ways) Nibley wouldn’t want his theories treated as more than they were – works in progress subject to new data and compelling argument.

  • Jared

    You negate your post with two contradictory statements, which is unfortunate because it could have been an important post otherwise (e.g., about the perils of misusing tools and information that you do not really know how to use or do not really understand, respectively). With this contradiction it is not clear whether or not you are attacking Hugh Nibley’s work or not (and by “attack” I mean strongly criticize, which is in contradistinction to critique).

    Here’s the difficulty. What comes across as the main point of your post is the following: “Dave Banack’s challenging post over at T&S sums up why I think the Nibley approach to apologetics and its reception have, in part, had long term and still expanding negative effects on church members”.

    There it sounds like you are attacking Hugh Nibley broadly (at least his apologetic works) and stating that it has damaged and will continue to damage church members (which is quite a charge to make; I have never known any church member who was driven away from the church by Hugh Nibley’s works. Anecdote is not a good substitute for science but it will have to stand for now without access to a good study on the matter).

    Then you go on and do not address the “Nibley approach to apologetics”. What you address is a brand of apologetics that is a distortion of what Nibley did instead of what he actually did. This becomes clear when you state at the end of your post: “But this continuing abuse of his work in the pursuit of faux-apologetics or chastisement is just plain bad.” Here you clearly reference the fact that Nibley’s work (and his “approach to apologetics”) is abused. What this means is that the potential problem does come from Nibley’s approach to apologetics but rather from the abuse and misuse of that brand.

    Thus, the (potential) trouble comes when people abuse the “Nibley approach” instead of using the Nibley approach. This abuse is easy to do if you don’t really understand what that approach is and you aren’t quite as intelligent as he was (or at least do not understand research and science and history like he did; or maybe aren’t quite as sure in your testimony as he was).

    So in the end, you do not really attack Nibley at all (even though it seemed like you were in the beginning), as at least g.wesley pointed out. What you did was attack those who do not understand Hugh Nibley but use his works to “bash others over the head”, per se (which is abuse of his work and of research in general). Then again, maybe you meant to attack Nibley but doing so is like blaming Joseph Smith for Warren Jeffs’s actions – he’s the wrong person to blame.

    I still don’t know how Nibley’s approach to apologetics (or more particularly, the abuse of that approach) has any negative effects on church members but then again maybe I just lack imagination. Hopefully you could elucidate that point (the negative effects on church members) because that would be interesting to read.

  • SmallAxe

    Hi Jared,

    I can’t speak for Oudenos, but here are some general thoughts:

    1) Nibley’s approach to apologetics is dated; meaning that his work represents the best and worst of his time. For more on the problematic aspects of his work start with the link I posted in the comments above and see also here:

    2) Some contemporary LDS’s fail to distinguish these strengths and weaknesses, so that they do not make use of Nibley’s strengths and/or repeat his weaknesses.

    Both of these points have given way to several negative ceffects on Church memebers. For instance, aspects of other cultures are often taken out of context in order to reinforce our truth claims (temple worship, for example). This results, at the very least, in a misunderstanding of the other culture and, more often than not, reasserting a neo-colonial mentality where other cultures have nothing but an ancient glimmer of light, and are there to be combed for those glimmers to reaffirm our world view.

  • oudenos


    smallaxe just said better and more succinctly what I would have said had I responded first.

    In response to your attempt to distinguish between criticism of Nibley and criticism of his reception in the OP, I was, to be clear, critiquing BOTH Nibley AND some of those who consider themselves his intellectual scions. But you rightly pick up on my more serious criticism for the latter party. If that sounds like I am going all Plato and picking on the picture of the chair more intensely than the chair itself, well, it is kinda hard not being a Platonist sometimes.

    You say: “Thus, the (potential) trouble comes when people abuse the “Nibley approach” instead of using the Nibley approach. This abuse is easy to do if you don’t really understand what that approach is and you aren’t quite as intelligent as he was (or at least do not understand research and science and history like he did; or maybe aren’t quite as sure in your testimony as he was).”

    I have a couple of comments on this.

    1. No, I really have some problems BOTH with the Nibley approach AND with the abuse of that approach. For example, the way Nibley frames his essay on the forty day, post-resurrection ministry of Jesus, the evidence he brings to the argument, the kind of questions he asks of his evidence, and the presumed conclusion and then conclusion are all problematic to me. But when I hear somebody try to parrot it back to me or others, it becomes noxious and a little offensive, not just problematic.

    2. When you say something like this, “maybe aren’t quite as sure in your testimony as he was,” I get the heebie-jeebies. How could you possibly measure this certainty and what does this even mean? I am suspicious of those who claim rock-solid anything about anything and I am doubly so about somebody claiming it for somebody else. My guess is that his faith and testimony were just as fragile, contingent, and apt to be shattered, throttled, or revolutionized as yours or mine. It is this sort of reverential assumption about another deeply flawed, troubled, normal human that I find illegitimate and disturbing about the readiness of so many to grant ongoing academic and religious authority and deference to a man who did not seek these things temporarily or in perpetuity.

    Finally, just to be clear, I took no issue with Dave Banack’s post which your partial citation of my first sentence suggests. Dave is a serious and careful thinker. I took issue with tom’s comment in Dave Banack’s post.

  • Jacob H.

    So you never have to make the comment about not knowing any church member who was driven away because of Hugh Nibley’s works, you can meet me. Hi, I’m Jacob. I was driven away from the church in the main by Hugh Nibley, because of my overzealousness in believing his rhetoric and then seeking to “fill in the gaps” and contextualize many of his comments by looking up his ancient sources and inspecting them myself.
    I really thought he was onto something… and then was met by disappointment after disappointment. Just so you know, I had read about 10 of his works from cover to cover at that point.
    Thank goodness I had some intellectuals in the church who convinced me to stick with it through my disillusionment with the FARMS/Nibley approach(es). I have long since found my way back to solid commitment and faith, but now you know a little about at least one way Nibley’s approach to apologetics has directly hurt a church member.