Hugh Nibley

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Hugh Winder Nibley (born March 27, 1910 in Portland, Oregon - February 24, 2005) was one of churches most celebrated scholars. Nibley is notable both for vigorously defending the church and for frankly discussing what he saw as the shortcomings of the LDS people and culture.

A prolific author and professor emeritus of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University, he was fluent in the Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Egyptian, Coptic, Arabic, German, French, English, and Spanish language's. He also studied Dutch and Russian during World War II.


Nibley served as a missionary for the Church in Germany and served as a master sergeant working in military intelligence for the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army during World War II. He was among the force on Utah Beach that invaded Normandy on D-Day and witnessed the aftermath of Nazi concentration camps.

Nibley began studies at University of California, Los Angeles and earned a doctorate at University of California, Berkeley. While at Berkeley he reportedly perused all of the library shelves, beginning on the first floor and moving up. When a book's title struck his fancy, he would then read the book. At the request of Apostle John A. Widtsoe he became a professor at Brigham Young University in 1946.

Nibley was praised by non-LDS historians and researchers for his ability to draw upon historical sources to give evidences for Latter-day Saint beliefs. In one study the authors argued—due to Nibley's reliability and celebrated scholarship—that most of Nibley's work is reliable, encouraging anti-Mormon writers to assess and counter Nibley's research, rather than dismissing it. [1] Nibley's research ranges from Egyptian, Hebrew and early Christian histories, and he often took his notes in a mix of Gregg shorthand, Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, and Egyptian. Nibley "insisted on reading the relevant primary and secondary sources in the original and could read Arabic, Coptic, Dutch, Egyptian, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Latin, Old Norse, Russian and other languages at sight." In a perceptive critique, William J. Hamblin, a colleague of Nibley at BYU, remarked that "Nibley's methodology consists more of comparative literature than history."[2] Douglas F. Salmon has examined in depth Nibley's comparative method, focusing on the latter's work on Enoch.[3]

Among other topics Nibley wrote about were temples of the church, the historical Enoch, and similarities between Christian Gnostic and Latter-day Saint beliefs. He also wrote direct responses to anti-Mormon literature.

Nibley was strongly opposed to the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War during an era "when it was very unpopular in LDS culture to do so." [4] Nibley was also bothered by what he saw as the unthinking, sometimes almost dogmatic application of some portions of BYU's honor code. Nibley had no objection to requirements of chastity or obeying the Word of Wisdom, but he thought the often intense scrutiny directed at grooming (hairstyles and clothing) was misguided. In 1973, he said, "The worst sinners, according to Jesus, are not the harlots and publicans, but the religious leaders with their insistence on proper dress and grooming, their careful observance of all the rules, their precious concern for status symbols, their strict legality, their pious patriotism... the haircut becomes the test of virtue in a world where Satan deceives and rules by appearances.” (Waterman and Kagel, 153)

His work "Approaching Zion", an eloquent indictment of capitalism and endorsement of communalism, is widely considered a classic of Mormon literature.

Often, Nibley was considered the foremost Mormon apologist, and on occasion has been referred to as "defender of the faith," a title that has been widely shared by only one other Mormon: historian and Church leader, B. H. Roberts.

Also well-known is Nibley's signature for many papers and articles: "I KNOW THE GOSPEL IS TRUE."

Prior to becoming ill, he had a little office in the Harold B. Lee Library at BYU, where he worked on his magnum opus titled One Eternal Round, which focuses on the hypocephalus ("Facsimile 2") in the Book of Abraham. He turned over the materials for his last book to FARMS in the late months of 2002.

Later in his life, his lesbian daughter accused Nibley of repeatedly raping her when she was between the ages of five and eight. When she came forward in her late twenties, the entire Nibley family moved spoke out against her and for Nibley. She was the only one of his children not present at his funeral.


Among the students of Hugh Nibley whom he influenced are:

  • Kresimir Cosik, international basketball star, Churchman, and diplomat.
  • Benjamin Urrutia, writer and scholar.

Linguistic contributions

Nibley proposed new translations of some important words:

  • Aten - Usually translated "disk of the sun." Nibley pointed out that relief illustrations of the Aten portray it as a sphere, not a flat disk. The correct translation must be "globe, orb, or sphere." (This is even more evident when viewing such reliefs in person, not merely in photographs.)
  • Kefa - Dr. Nibley pointed out that in Arabic and Aramaic this word refers to a green crystaline stone used for purposes of divination. Its best translation is perhaps "Seerstone." In the Greek New Testament it appears as Kefas, in the English New Testament as Cephas.
  • Makhshava - This Hebrew word is usually translated as "thought," but Dr. Nibley made a case for translating it as "plan." E.g., in the book of Esther most translations say that Haman "thought" to destroy the Jewish people. It is more accurate to say he planned to exterminate them. He did not just think about it, but made a plan.
  • Shiblon - This Book of Mormon name, Dr. Nibley pointed out, is almost certainly connected to the Arabic shibl, "lion cub." Nibley's student Benjamin Urrutia went on to make the connection with the "Jaguar Cub" imagery of the Olmec people of Ancient Mexico, a theory that has been widely embraced by LDS scholars.


Hugh Nibley died February 24, 2005. [5] He had been confined to bed by illness for over two years before his death.

The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley series

  • Old Testament and Related Studies, Vol. 1; Deseret Book; ISBN 0-87579-032-1 (Hardcover, 1986)
  • Enoch the Prophet, Vol. 2; Deseret Book; ISBN 0-87579-047-X (Hardcover, 1986)
  • The World and the Prophets, Vol 3; Deseret Book; ISBN 0-87579-078-X (Hardcover, 1987)
  • Mormonism and Early Christianity, Vol 4; Deseret Book; ISBN 0-87579-127-1 (Hardcover, 1987)
  • Lehi in the Desert/The World of the Jaredites/There Were Jaredites, Vol 5; Deseret Book; ISBN 0-87579-132-8 (Hardcover, 1988)
  • An Approach to the Book of Mormon, Vol 6; Deseret Book; ISBN 0-87579-138-7 (Hardcover, 1988)
  • Since Cumorah, Vol 7; Deseret Book; ISBN 0-87579-139-5 (Hardcover, 1988)
  • The Prophetic Book of Mormon, Vol 8; Deseret Book; ISBN 0-87579-179-4 (Hardcover, 1989)
  • Approaching Zion, Vol 9; Deseret Book; ISBN 0-87579-252-9 (Hardcover, 1989)
  • Ancient State: The Rulers & the Ruled, Vol 10; Deseret Book; ISBN 0-87579-375-4 (Hardcover, 1991)
  • Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass: The Art of Telling Tales about Joseph Smith and Brigham Young Vol 11; Deseret Book; ISBN 0-87579-516-1 (Hardcover, 1991) (includes No, Ma'am, That's Not History)
  • Temple and Cosmos: Beyond This Ignorant Present, Vol 12; Deseret Book; ISBN 0-87579-523-4 (Hardcover, 1992)
  • Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints, Vol 13; Deseret Book; ISBN 0-87579-818-7 (Hardcover, 1994)
  • Abraham in Egypt, Vol 14; Deseret Book; ISBN 1-57345-527-X (Hardcover, 2000)
  • Apostles and Bishops in Early Christianity, Vol 15; Deseret Book; ISBN 1-59038-389-3 (Hardcover, 2005)
  • The Message of Joseph Smith Papyri: An Egyptian Endowment, Vol 16; Deseret Book; ISBN 1-59038-539-X (Hardcover, 2006)

Sergeant Nibley, Ph. D.: Memories of an Unlikely Screaming Eagle

Not part of the series, this memoir of Nibley's World War II experiences was published in the fall of 2006. It is by-lined "Hugh Nibley and Alex Nibley." In other words, as told by Hugh Nibley and written down and redacted by his son Alex. (Published in hardcover by Deseret Book.)


  • Brian Waterman and Brian Kagel, ‘’The Lord’s University: Freedom and Authority at BYU’’; Signature Books, 1998, ISBN 1-56085-117-1

External links