Yesterday the postman delivered the latest installment in the collected works of Hugh Nibley, volume 15, Apostles and Bishops in Early Christianity. At a modest 254 pages, the volume has quite a bit to say about church history, record keeping, authority, change and apostasy. It may have even more to say about the life-cycle of Mormon Studies.
The book, which comprises Nibley’s lecture notes from a 1954 BYU course on the same topic, argues that “the office of the apostle was one of general jurisdiction, whereas the office of the bishop was local in nature; accordingly, bishops could not be the automatic successors of the apostles when that office was lost from the church” (xiii). The specifics of Nibley’s arguments are of interest to specialists, certainly, and may stimulate LDS scholars to further research on the historical conditions of apostasy–one foundation of LDS theology into which, it seems to me, very little historical awareness has made general inroads. But Nibley’s method and hypotheses are frankly out of date, fifty years later: some of his references have proved impossible to verify, some of his claims based on documents which have later been deemed spurious, some of his assumptions based on discredited (or at least out-of-fashion) models.
The real subject of the book, it seems to me–and the reason for its publication all these years later–is Hugh Nibley himself. As a founder and the biggest superstar of Mormon studies, Nibley’s career and personal intellectual history are objects of interest in their own right, and this volume casts an interesting early light on those objects. Nibley’s lecture notes were typed out in astonishing word-for-word detail, for example, virtual transcripts of his lectures: the BYU lecture hall in 1954, it seems, witnessed none of the discussion or group work that characterizes today’s classrooms. Furthermore, it appears that Nibley was able to parlay his teaching responsibilities directly into professional output, in a way that specialization has made nearly impossible for professors today: his lectures engaged a remarkable breadth of primary sources and original research. And this view into Nibley’s intellectual landscape in 1954, seven years into his BYU career, helps contextualize (and psychologize) his later, more well-known work.
It is a mark of a certain disciplinary maturity, I think, when a foundational figure in a discipline becomes an object of study in his or her own right, and this disciplinary maturing often follows the life-cycle of those figures themselves: the recent death of Ernst Mayr, pioneer of evolutionary biology, represents something like this for his field. It is fitting, perhaps, that this volume most recent volume in Nibley’s collected works–a volume about him, essentially–should appear during his waning years, in time to witness the formal disciplinary birth of Mormon Studies.