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John Weldon's Response To Mosser/Owen and FARMS

Note: This is an initial response to the paper "Mormon Scholarship, Apologetics, and Evangelical Neglect: Losing the Battle and Not Knowing It?" by Carl Mosser and Paul Owen. This response may be modified or expanded within the near future.


Hugh Nibley is held out by Mormons as the premier defender of the Mormon faith. Even evangelicals Mosser and Owen praise him highly:

"Hugh Nibley is without question the pioneer of LDS scholarship and apologetics.... Since earning his Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley in 1939, Nibley has produced a seemingly endless stream of books and articles covering a dauntingly vast array of subject matter. Whether writing on Patristics, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Apocrypha, the culture of the Ancient Near East or Mormonism, he demonstrates an impressive command of the original languages, primary texts and secondary literature. He has set a standard which younger LDS intellectuals are hard pressed to follow.... the few evangelicals who are aware of Hugh Nibley often dismiss him as a fraud or pseudo-scholar. Those wanting to quickly dismisses writings would do well to heed Madsens warning: "Ill-wishing critics have suspected over the years that Nibley is wrenching his sources, hiding behind his footnotes, and reading into antique languages what no responsible scholar would ever read out. Unfortunately, few have the tools to do the checking." The bulk of Nibley's work has gone unchallenged by evangelicals despite the fact that he has been publishing relevant material since 1946.... No doubt there are flaws in Nibley's work, but most counter-cultists do not have the tools to demonstrate this. Few have tried.... whenever flaws may exist in his methodology, Nibley is a scholar of high caliber."
(pp. 4-5)

As we mentioned earlier, a religion that has an inherently false theology must necessarily make numerous errors attempting to defend its beliefs doctrinally and historically. Certainly, this would also apply to the writings of Hugh Nibley, despite his status as the premier Mormon apologist of late. Dr. James White's earlier observation that "Everybody cites Nibley, who, I am hardly alone in asserting, has never once cared about the contextual accuracy of anything he's ever cited" is to the point.

While it would be easy enough to cite examples of Nibley's errors *, we felt it would be more relevant and forceful to show that even some Mormons have publicly declared they cannot trust Nibley. So why should evangelicals? And what do evangelicals have to fear from FARMS scholars who hold Nibley in such deep reverence that they are publishing all his published and unpublished works?

Thus, if Nibley is a scholar of high caliber, why do other Mormon scholars make comments like the following? One cannot have it both ways: Nibley cannot be a scholar of high caliber and simultaneously wrench his sources, hide behind his footnotes and read into antique languages what is simply not there.

We found the following on a Mormon website. Interestingly, Mosser and Owen cite the critical article below in a footnote, but they are clearly unimpressed with its conclusions. Like Mosser and Owen, FARMS is also so impressed with Nibley that they are republishing his entire works, plus much unpublished work, in a multi-volume set. Here is the website excerpt, condensed further by us. Relevantly, it discusses Vol 1 of Nibley's collected works, published by FARMS:

"For BYU Studies in 1988, Hugh Nibley received an unusual critique from Kent P. Jackson. I have heard others in the church express similar views, but to hear these things from someone like Jackson, published in something like BYU Studies, was a bit of a shock. It is refreshing to hear honest opinions like these from orthodox members. Portions of the article have been reproduced below.

The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley. Vol. 1, Old Testament and Related Studies. Edited by John W. Welch, Gary P. Gillum, and Don E. Norton. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1986. xiv; 290 pages.

Hugh Nibley is the best known and most highly revered of Latter-day Saint scholars. ... My own serious misgivings about his methodology do not detract from my admiration for his life of scholarship consecrated to the highest cause. ... . Echoing the feelings of Nibley's followers throughout the Church, editor John W. Welch suggests in his Foreword that most of Nibley's lifetime total of nearly two hundred titles are classics (ix). If that is in fact the case, then this volume has been severely shortchanged; nothing in it can be called a classic. It is, in fact, a disappointing collection.

There are several areas about which I have concerns regarding the material in this book:

1. In most of the articles Nibley shows a tendency to gather sources from a variety of cultures all over the ancient world, lump them all together, and then pick and choose the bits and pieces he wants. ... There are serious problems involved in this kind of methodology. ... Nibley creates an artificial synthesis that never in reality existed. The result would be unacceptable and no doubt unrecognizable to any of the original groups. ... .

This kind of method seems to work from the conclusions to the evidence--instead of the other way around. And too often it necessitates giving the sources an interpretation for which little support can be found elsewhere. I found myself time and time again disagreeing with this book's esoteric interpretations of Qumran passages. In several places Nibley sees things in the sources that simply don't seem to be there (for example, most of the preexistence references in the Dead Sea Scrolls, cited in chap. 7). This is what inevitably happens when scholars let their predetermined conclusions set the agenda for the evidence. ...

2. In this book Nibley often uses his secondary sources the same way he uses his primary sources--taking phrases out of context to establish points with which those whom he quotes would likely not agree. I asked myself frequently what some authors would think if they knew that someone were using their words the way Nibley does (the same question I asked myself concerning his ancient sources as well).

3. Several of the articles lack sufficient documentation and some lack it altogether. This is to be expected in a collection that includes popular articles and transcripts of speeches. The editors clearly deserve our praise for trying to bring Nibley's footnotes up to professional standards. But given the complexity of the material, it was not always possible. The first article, for example, is riddled with undocumented quotations. Some of Nibley's most puzzling assertions remain undocumented--or unconvincingly documented--even in those articles that are footnoted heavily. The two most extensively referenced articles, "Treasures in the Heavens" and "Qumran and the Companions of the Cave," display the opposite problem. The seemingly endless footnotes in those articles suffer from dreary overkill, and yet too often I was disappointed by searching in vain in them for proof for the claims made in the text.

4. ... Nibley frequently misrepresents his opponents' views (through overstatement, oversimplification, or removal from context) to the point that they are ludicrous, after which he has ample cause to criticize them. This may make amusing satire, but it is not scholarship. ... Among those satirized in this book are "the learned" (8), archaeologists (chap. 2), "the clergy" (38-39), "professional scholars" (39), "secular scholars" (39), "the doctors" (217-18), "the schoolmen" (217), and "the doctors, ministers, and commentators" (221). ... .

5. My final area of concern is more properly directed at the editors than at Hugh Nibley. What is the point of publishing some of this material ... Severalof the chapters in this book, particularly 9 and 10, are so weak that the editors would have been doing Nibley a much greater honor if they had left them out. What is the point of resurrecting such material, which is now completely out-of-date and was not even quality work when first published three decades ago? In doing so they have not done Nibley a service, nor have they served his readers.

[The website piece continues with:]

As noted in BYU:A House of Faith, by Bergera and Priddis, pg 362

"As a former BYU history professor observed in 1984, '[Nibley] has been a security blanket for Latter-day Saints to whom dissonance is intolerable.... His contribution to dissonance management is not so much what he has written, but that he has written. After knowing Hugh Nibley for forty years, I am of the opinion that he has been playing games with his readers all along.... Relatively few Latter-day Saints read the Nibley books that they give one another, or the copiously annotated articles that he has contributed to church publications. It is enough for most of us that they are there.'"

Reading Nibley reminds me of a quote from a line in Umberto Eco's "Foucault's Pendulum" which says, "...wanting connections, we found connections--always, everywhere, and between everything."

A good critique of Nibley's commentary on the Book of Abraham can be found in The Word of God in the essay by Ed Ashment entitled "Dealing with Dissonance".

At the same website, we found this:

"I'm putting my own collection of Book of Mormon evidence together, and as I read this, it occurred to me that Nibley is horribly stretching the truth. In fact, I'd say he's lying.

" ... , because of everything else he incorrectly stated, I can't bring myself to believe that he's quoting the 1888 Enoch text accurately, or if he's translating it himself, manipulating the words to fit what he believes.

"Sorry, I'm Mormon, and I do respect Nibley's great efforts, but I draw the line at dishonest scholarship, which is what this appears to be."

Now, perhaps Nibley was not up to par in this collection, or perhaps FARMS did not select Nibley at his best for Volume 1. But we think the real problem for Nibley is not difficult to discern: serious problems will be found in all his works, not only because he is trying to defend the indefensible, but because he is not the first-rate scholar FARMS, etc., makes him out to be. (Also see the Tanner's Answering Mormon Scholars, Vol 2)

- Footnote -
* See e.g., James White's website analysis, "The Gates of Hell" critiquing Nibley's interpretation of Matthew 16:18 (with due reference to Greek grammar) where Nibley argues that the "it" does not refer back to the church e.g., "It must first be noted that Nibley's interpretation of the passage is not to be found in any stream of scholarly interpretation, whether Protestant, or Catholic. We are not aware of a single scholar who attempts to say that the final phrase of Matthew 16:18 is referring to anything other than the Church; that is, that the "it" found in the phrase does not refer back to the term "church" mentioned immediately before. If Nibley is correct, it is amazing that exegetes over the centuries have missed what only he has discovered. Mormons are, by and large, in awe of Hugh Nibley's linguistic abilities. When Dr. Nibley says that the term "it" in Matthew 16:18 is "in the partitive genitive," that must be the case. Yet, is it? [No, as White points out, there is no specific partitive genetitive form in the Greek] And why would literally thousands of scholars of the Greek language have missed such a simple thing, leaving Dr. Nibley to discover it? And what of all those translations of the Bible that do not catch this, seemingly, basic thing?" No wonder Nibley replied to the critique of a Christian minister with, "When ministers start making Greek the argument, it is time to adjourn." [Return to text]