PROVO, Utah — Hugh Nibley may have done a lot of writing and lecturing, but he also did plenty of looking, too.
Ann Madsen, senior lecturer in the Department of Ancient Scripture at
Brigham Young University, said the beauty of the scholar was that he
was looking at everything he could find for truth, in the gospel and
out of it.
Madsen quoted 1 Nephi 11:12, adding that Nibley lived by that scripture
and that the video biography of his life, titled "The Faith of an
Observer," hit the nail right on the head.
"He looked. He observed. He pondered. He compared. He recognized,"
Madsen said. "And when he recognized he wrote, to share what he had
seen and felt with us, to share his faith."
And he looked outside of the box as much as he could, Madsen said.
Madsen delivered a speech Thursday, Feb. 25, on Nibley and the Bible as
part of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute's ongoing lecture series in
celebration of the renowned Mormon scholar.
But what did Nibley look at, and how did he organize his looking?
Madsen offered many examples of things the scholar would often look at,
using the personal experiences she had with him as a graduate student,
as well as those of her deceased husband, acclaimed LDS scholar Truman
Madsen said Nibley always tried to look at the cosmic landscape, or the
"puzzle with thousands of pieces," in his scholarship, and yet was
fascinated with the most minute details. In all of his scholarship, he
looked for patterns.
"The Bible presented Hugh Nibley with a very ancient, very big
picture," Madsen said. "It traced the life of a family, who came to be
called collectively, the children of Israel. He saw a pattern here."
She said the patterns of Israel rejecting God and subsequently coming
back to him raised some questions in Nibley's mind about God's
willingness to forgive his children time and again.
"So these are the answers Hugh gave to a couple of the questions. Repent, forgive. Simple. Profound," Madsen said.
Madsen also said Nibley looked at ancient temples in the Bible and
found vivid descriptions of the rituals and the architecture of the
temples in the utmost detail.
"Hugh looked hard at biblical temples and rituals and found
counterparts all over the world and all across history," she said. "If
you ever heard him speak or read his words, you had to have come across
a phrase something like this: 'The temple is a scale model of the
She shared stories of her family's trips to Israel with Nibley, tracing the footsteps of Jesus during his walk to Gethsemane.
"(We were) walking by the light of a full moon one night, tracing
Jesus' path across the Valley Kidron to Gethsemane," Madsen said. "As
we walked beneath the Dome of the Rock, I suddenly realized that when
Jesus walked this way on that fateful night before his arrest, there
was the same full moon, but the shadow that fell across his path would
have been Herod's gigantic white temple. He would have been walking in
the shadow of the temple, the one he called 'His house' only days
before as he cast out those who defiled it."
Nibley also looked at languages and learned them to further his
studies. He learned more than 13 of them, but Madsen said there
were reports that he was literate in at least 24.
Madsen gave an example of how that was helpful, when she and her
husband took the scholar on his first trip to Egypt. Because he knew
Egyptian, he translated the hieroglyphics along the walls of tombs and
pyramids everywhere he went, often correcting himself when he knew a
better translation than the one he gave off the top of his head.
"Imagine, Hugh had the ability to look through the lenses of 13-plus
languages. How broad was his horizon? How able was he to find
connections others may miss or never even know exist?" Madsen asked.
Along with languages, Nibley looked at sources beyond the Bible to get
a better understanding of what was written in the scriptures.
"Nibley teaches us that the key to benefiting from searching tradition
and myths is starting from a solid base of truth. But ranging far
afield and looking is the very essence of the search of a true
observer. The question always is, 'what matches? What corresponds?
What is out in left field?' He went far afield from the Apocrypha and
the 'canonized' or body of known and accepted Pseudepigrapha, finding
his own documents — Ebla, DSS, Nag Hammadi — and unlocking them as
they appeared on the scene with the key of language and myth-gathering,
but always avoiding 'left field.'
"He had a game plan and he stuck to it," Madsen said.
Nibley looked at Abraham and Enoch, giving example after example of knowledge Nibley himself dug up that Mormons use today.
"Can we really speak of Hugh Nibley and the Bible without more about
Enoch and Abraham? Especially Abraham. As surely as Abraham was the
friend of God, so surely was Hugh Nibley the friend of Abraham."
Despite the vastness of the Bible-centered topics Nibley covered, Madsen thought he said too little about what he knew.
"He routinely brushed so close to the sacred, it was really the center
of his study. Some may have thought he said too much," Madsen said. "I
would question that. He always said too little; there was always more
to 'recognize' — to understand. But we lacked the tools. He brushed
ever so close, using terms and metaphors that would paint vivid
pictures for us, trying to bring us along to where he was."