Perhaps it is just me, but “scriptorian” seems to be an honorific that has fallen out of favor. I remember when scriptorian was meted out as a term of high theological praise. The typical scriptorian was an aging high priest who had seen long service in the Church. He had claims to wisdom from great experience, but beyond simple longevity he was known for a deep and thorough knowledge of the scriptures. He was the sort of man who wanted nothing more than a chance to go toe-to-toe and verse-for-verse with a Baptist minister, or work through the signs of the times in Sunday School class.
The learning of the scriptorian was largely oral. He didn’t produce footnoted articles for intellectual fora. It was also daring in its interpretation. Poetic passages from Amos and other prophets were read with a dogged literalism that opened up surprisingly wild theological vistas. The learning was also almost entirely autodidactic. No one became a scriptorian by virtue of a degree. The man who gave me my patriarchal blessing was a scriptorian. The walls of his study were not lined with scholarly treatises but with dog eared copies of the Journal of Discourses.
If I am right about the sinking status of scriptorians, I think that Nibley is the culprit behind their decline. Nibley dazzled with his dozens of dead languages and his marriage of Mormon scripture with “the ancient world.” In place of the autodidactic scriptorian we now have the post-Nibley Mormon scholar. We look not for a thorough understanding of the Millennial time table, but rather for the ancient history of proper names from the Book of Mormon. The intellectual world created by Nibley for Mormon students of scripture is — if not quite professional — at least scholarly in its basic orientation.
When I first read Nibley and the work of his disciples there was something intoxicating about it. Suddenly Mormonism and the Gospel seemed so much bigger, older, and somehow more intellectually respectable. It was though an interest in the Hebrew or Greek roots of scripture terms had liberated me from any duty to have anxiety about the precise relationship between Jerusalem, Jackson County, and the “Mountain of the Lord’s House in the tops of the mountains” (Salt Lake) in the climatic days before the Second Coming.
At this point, however, I worry about losing scriptorians. Scholars are ultimately timid creatures, and frankly much of Nibley’s most lasting and influential work partakes of a very un-scholarly audacity. In an intellectual world where untutored but scripture-soaked patriarchs are cranks, and where scholars with their Aramaic and Hebrew hold sway we will lose something deep and essential about Mormonism. At their worst, Mormons see Joseph Smith as a passive automaton in the hands of God. The Restoration, however, is the result of a cocktail of Joseph’s wild scriptural interpretations and revelation. He was a scriptorian with a deep knowledge of the sacred text, but he was never a scholar. He never had a scholar’s precision, caution, or context. In that sense, to see to the wild speculations of a high-priest group scriptorian is to be much closer to Joseph and the roots of the Restoration than to see a faithful disciple of Nibley toiling away at the footnotes of path-breaking article on Mormon scripture.