Hugh Nibley’s mind, a whirlwind tour

For a ‘cineminute’ view of Duane and his guitar performing ‘Hugh Nibley’s Mind’, click here.

Music intro:

I mentioned last week (November 23, 2010) Hugh Nibley’s unique approach to choosing a wife. Dr.. Nibley was original in many ways. He had a once-in-a-millennium mind, and an unquenchable thirst to fill it. But brilliance brings its own challenges. According to one story, an admirer asked him, “Dr. Nibley how many languages do you speak?”
He rolled off a string of Middle Eastern tongues ancient and modern, some number in the middle teens as the story goes.

The admirer said, “You also speak Spanish, French and German I understand”

“Oh, everybody speaks Spanish, French and German,” he replied in English (fortunately). Such assumptions led to the saying that listening to Hugh Nibley lecture and teach was like drinking out of a fire hose.

At Brigham Young University I was twice assigned to head projects to record on video Hugh Nibley’s mind in action. Come with me for the adventure of one day. In the interest of full disclosure, I interpolated the students’ responses based on their facial expressions and body language. Actually they said very little. But the rest is pure Nibley.

“Students, turn to Third Nephi. As you can see the High Priest ruling the land is named Laconius. Why are we not surprised to find a Greek name in the Book of Mormon?”

(Silence mixed with muttered “It’s all Greek to me”)

“Come now. Critics Love to pounce on this sort of thing. What is your response?”

(More silence)

“First of all, we know that naming is very conservative. The most popular names in Judean/Christian cultures for millennia are what? John and Mary, Juan and Maria, Jean and Marie, Johan and Meike, Ivan and Marya, plus untold variations among Jews and Muslims. You knew that right?”

(Nods of heads)

“Secondly the greatest authority on war and statesmanship was a German named who?”

“Kaiser Wilhelm?”

“No. Carl von Clausewitz and his seminal book was titled On War. What was his thesis on land and naval forces?”

“Winner take all?”

“Not exactly. von Clausewitz showed that throughout history superior war power alternates between sea and land forces. So based on your research and previous study, did the land or sea forces have the upper hand in the days of Lehi.”

Land armies?

“Close. Care to try again”

Sea navies?

“Very good. Why?”

Ships don’t have to march?

“Actually one might suspect that because of the trade routes land armies would be more important. But the real riches were in commerce across the Mediterranean. Is that what you meant to say?”

Pretty much.

“And what was the most powerful weapon in the days of Lehi?”

The sword of Laban?

“The trireme, surely you’ve studied that. And who built the trireme?”

The Triremians?

“The Greeks. And who bought the whole fleet?”

The Phoenicians?

“It was Necco the First, pharaoh of Egypt at that time, of course. Don’t they teach you anything in high school?” The Grecian triremes were shipped to Egypt complete, with the crews who knew how to sail them. So there were Greeks running all over the major cities of Egypt. And who else was always traveling to Egypt to do business. A very prosperous merchant named…?”

Alexander the Great?

“Lehi the prophet.” He and others would have brought the Greek names to Jerusalem. Then they traveled in the memories of Lehi’s party, and later with the Mulekites. They become part of the Nephite Lamanite culture. In fact the trireme war vessels were constructed on an island in the south of Greece. The name of the Island was…?”


“Close, Laconia. So there we are full circle back to Laconias, high priest of the Nephites. .Far from being an argument against the Book of Mormon, Laconius is an etymological proof. In fact, we would be surprised if we didn’t find Greek names in the Book of Mormon. Isn’t that right class?”

(Dizzy nods)

Ok, so Hugh Nibley didn’t always connect with us lesser mortals. But he struck fire with young intellectuals who have since entered the doors he opened and are broadening and deepening gospel scholarship in linguistics, history, biology, archaeology, medicine, computerized analysis and other disciplines. They are mining veins and unearthing nuggets of truth even more stunning than a Greek name among the Nephites.

Let’s exit stage left here with a little theme music from the movie “Zorba the Greek” who incidentally is not in the Book of Mormon.