The Book of Mormon – a Bedizzening Variety of Stuff

Feb. 2, 1964

Dear Sarastro,

The first chance to write in a decade and this is the only paper in the house. The winter so far has been one prolonged cold snap with the result that we have all had perfect health – we have learnt there is nothing healthier then zero weather…

I have been totally immersed in early Church records, mostly the newly–found Egyptian stuff; it is astonishing how familiar it all sounds. The whole corpus of apocrypha is being re-evaluated and strange stuff is coming out of the hopper.

I have been playing footsie with the Jews (they want me to be editor of early Bible exegesis for a highfalutin encyclopedia), and at the same time holding hands with the Moslems, WHO SEEM TO LIKE my Old Testament approach (that was the machine did that)…

Things are looking up here academically: little Earnie just resigned to run for the Senate and we are getting five new first-class men in the relig. dept.; also the library has come to life and the stuff is rolling in – anything we ask for, but most of my work is with photographs which I still have to pay for. Of course as we grow opposition grows, but that is to be expected.

I still have my class of Moslems & plan to stick pretty closely to the Koran next semester: that gets them both because it is wonderful stuff and they are in no position to say no to it.

Spending all my time with the apocrypha – Jewish, Christian, Muslim & Pagan – I am getting a feeling for the stuff: you can always tell what rings true and what tank it came from. As you may be aware, the present tendency is to see the whole vast literature fusing into a common matrix – you can no longer put Greek philosophy, Hebrew prophets, Egyptian wisdom literature, Canaanite ritual texts, Babylonian mythology, etc. into strictly isolated compartments – they must be studied together, and that would be a job for computing machines if computing machines didn’t necessarily miss the point altogether.

I have been sort of overseeing the translating of the B. of M.  into Greek (it is now finished), while at the same time working on my Muslims and consorting with the Hasidic Jews, meantime faithfully plodding through the Coffin Texts and preparing an article on the new Christian Coptic texts for a very serious journal. Doing all this at once has addled the old brains more than ever, but forced me to recognize the common pattern behind things. I say recognize, not invent, because other people are beginning to recognize it too.

This whole apocryphal world is brought together in the B. of M., a veritable handbook of motifs and traditions. As a work of fiction, as a mere intellectual tour de force, nothing could touch it – but along with that it is full of old Jewish lore that very few Jews have ever heard of, handles the desert situation in a way that delights my Medcans, and gives a picture of primitive Christianity that is right out of the Dead Sea Scrolls & the Nag Hamadi texts. What a theme for a kid of 23 to attempt – it makes all the honors papers I have ever read look painfully jejeune and unbeholfen: I’ve never met or heard of anyone in college or out who could turn out a piece of work of such boldness, sweep, variety, precision, complexity, confidence, simplicity, etc. Put it beside any work in our literature for sheer number of ideas, situations, propositions & insights… It makes me mad the way they act as if this was nothing at all and turn out a million pages of pompous froth about a literature that has hardly given the world a dozen interesting ideas or characters in 200 years. Open the B. of M. every 10 or 20 pages and see what it is talking about – a bedizzening variety of stuff; open any other big work – James Joyce or the 1001 Nights – and you will find largely variations on a theme, a round of safely familiar matter given largely stereotype treatment.

Shakespeare has that kind of variety but Shakespeare does not have to be telling the truth, does not have to combine his things in a single package, and can take 30 years to tell his story; also he is free to borrow at will without apologies to anyone. When you start listing the problems J. S. had to face just to get his book down on paper you will see that writing about a biblical people does NOT automatically take care of everything – in fact it raises more questions than it solves. You ask why I am going on like this? Because Christina is making such a damnable racket with the vacuum cleaner around my feet, cleaning up our rumpas-room-salon-library-ante-room-dining-music-conservatory-nursery-playschool-parlor for company, that I can’t think which is fiercely apparent…Well, registration at 7 a.m. tomorrow & then back to the footnotes.

Grus daheim,

Hugh

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About Hugh Nibley

Hugh Nibley, 1910-2005, was simultaneously the LDS Church's greatest intellectual defender from attack from the outside and Mormon culture's strongest critic from the inside. This blog is composed mainly from Nibley's unpublished writings, letters, interviews and conversations, with occasional posts from associates who had personal interactions with him.
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2 Responses to The Book of Mormon – a Bedizzening Variety of Stuff

  1. Gordon C. Thomasson, Ph.D., professor emeritus, SUNY-BCC. says:

    Dear friends/Hugh’s family, For those of Hugh’s correspondents who are deceased, there is neither an ethical/moral nor a legal obligation to maintain anonymity unless those names have been embargoed. And at times identity could add to the context/meaning of a letter (e.g.: Sarastro). Moreover, the papers of some of those correspondents may have been donated to an “institution” of some sort (I’m not thinking of the one that used? to be at the east end of Provo’s Center St.), and more of Hugh’s treasures might be found in those libraries or archives. Thanks for your efforts. Gordon C. Thomasson

    P.S. I’ll apparently have a chance to talk about Hugh’s meeting with Matthew Black (of the DSS Enoch) at the Academy for Temple Studies meetings in Provo next week, fwiw.

    • Hugh Nibley says:

      Gordon, your comment deserves a response and I apologize for not getting one sooner. The letters you see here are mostly addressed to Hugh Nibley’s friend Paul Springer. In fact, I believe we have noted whenever the receiver was someone other than Springer, so unless otherwise noted, you may assume the letters here were to him. He was arguably Nibley’s closest friend and their correspondence extended from when Hugh left UC Berkeley in 1938 to 1983. Springer gave the letters to me when I interviewed him for the documentary film Faith of an Observer in 1984.
      Hugh Nibley was a prolific epistolier, but his relationship with Springer was unique. He said, “After Springer left Berkeley we would write these long letters to each other–long, eloquent, literary letters so full of scatology that I would let them see the light of day.”
      Sorry ’bout that, Dad. Too much to resist.
      – Alex Nibley

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