Nibley vindicatus; or Göbekli Tepe: a personal view

March 3, 2010 | 33 comments
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ancient-moroniI fell in love almost simultaneously, as a junior in high school, with historical linguistics and Hugh Nibley. It was a good time to discover Nibley, just after FARMS and Deseret Book had begun publishing his collected works, when everyone seemed to have read Nibley on the Timely and Timeless but only those in the know had Enoch the Prophet or The World and the Prophets on their bookshelves, and the dated scholarship (as the foreword in the edition I read informed us) of Lehi in the Desert/The World of the Jaredites could come as a revelation with the promise of more unpublished marvels yet to appear and when, pre-Internet, you could pick up badly copied pre-print editions filled with weird neo-Egyptian typography if you made the trek to Salt Lake. It was a time when chiasmus was young, and when everyone felt empowered to mine modern scripture for ancient literary forms.

Of course, to say that I discovered Nibley is an overstatement: I merely started reading the books that my father brought home. And I would guess that he started reading Nibley because the Santa Barbara Third Ward of the 1970s and 1980s—the old Third Ward, well before it became the Goleta Valley Ward, before it combined with the old Fourth Ward, who we really deserved to beat in volleyball and basketball but never did—was a very interesting place to be. John Welch’s brother—make that Rosalynde’s husband’s uncle—was the ward organist. Gerry Bradford did something or other. Helen Andelin was once my mother’s visiting teacher. Thanks to some active participants (and, I suspect, proximity to some generous donors in the stake as a whole), the Santa Barbara Third Ward was very much in the loop of the Mormon intellectual world of the time. (My parents, however, were not in the loop, for reasons that my teenage self couldn’t understand, and for which my adult experience allows only a cautious reconstruction.)

The second semester of my junior year, an English teacher offered a class on linguistics, and my two loves almost intersected. One of the possible topics for a research paper was the history of writing, and I latched onto it immediately, because I had just read Nibley’s account of how writing—well, everything, really—had arisen in the context of the Ancient Temple. Where are the supposed transitional forms, Nibley scoffed, that would document the alleged slow evolution from merchants’ scribbles to alphabetic perfection? The earliest writing, Nibley insisted with captivating confidence, is already complete in the hieratic script of Mesopotamia. (Or, this is what I remember my 17-year old self to have read; I write this without referring back to Nibley’s books, far from here on my father’s book shelves, for chapter and verse.)

I told my English teacher my proposed topic. He seemed disappointed. “Isn’t that pretty well understood already?” he asked. “Oh, I have a source with a different take on it,” I assured him.

But somewhere during the spring of 1988, one of the fussier and more alert corners of my subconscious mind began sending me a message, using one of those long wavelengths so that reception was imperceptible and slow, but eventually I recognized: This is going to end badly. This is going to be like that time in eighth grade when I tried to give a class presentation on the Utah War to my English class: 20 agonized minutes of mumbling and stuttering because, I discovered too late, I and the other students did not share some critical assumptions about the world that form the basis of communication. And when you get right down to it, I’ve got one source that entails a whole tangle of Mormon assumptions about the world, and I won’t be able to write anything sensible with it.

I changed my topic. Eventually, I went off to BYU and then on to grad school and turned into a medievalist and one day I realized, can you believe it?, that Nibley’s scholarship was dated. Whenever I returned to California to visit my parents, I would occasionally pick up something by Nibley and scoff at his footnotes, even if he did manage to publish in Church History.

Something funny happened a couple years ago. I had been asked to write an exhaustive overview of recent scholarship on medieval reading, and so I was picking my way through a massive two-volume reference work on the lookout for relevant material (which may sound reminiscent of legal document review, but is much more interesting, I assure all you lawyers) when I came across an article on the Old European script. The prevailing theory holds that this undeciphered script, a thousand years older than the earliest writing of Mesopotamia, was a form of proto-writing used for religious purposes. Well! I thought. I could have written that paper after all. Now, the leading interpreter of Old European culture and exponent of the religious nature of its script was Marija Gimbutas, who is a great source of interesting ideas but not where I would turn first for unassailable scholarship, but Gimbutas and Nibley together would have given me more than enough to write a paper for an eleventh-grade linguistics class. So if there’s not enough to say Hah! Nibley was right after all, it certainly helped tamp down the urge to scoff (which is endemic to everyone with a Ph.D. from this century when reading scholarship from the last, I suspect).

Which is all a long way of explaining why the awe with which I view the pictures of Göbekli Tepe is tempered with a certain degree of smugness and embarrassment. Smugness, because the most stunning archeological discovery of our time strongly supports one of Nibely’s central theses, that ancient civilization revolved around and arose from the Temple. Embarrassment, because I had filed Nibley away in the mental drawer reserved for interesting but outdated ideas.

If you haven’t yet read about Göbekli Tepe, you should. It’s a massive complex of well-preserved stone remains that are by all appearances a ritual center 7,000 years older than the pyramids of Egypt. It pre-dates agriculture. It pre-dates the domestication of animals. It pre-dates the invention of doorways. According to its discoverer, Klaus Schmidt, it overturns everything we thought we knew about how civilization developed: rather than the halting advance of agriculture and commerce leading to civilization and high religion, it all started with a temple.

This is terrifically compatible with a good bit of Mormon scholarship, of course. I hope that at this moment, in some obscure office on the BYU campus, there is an ambitious young LDS scholar with the ink still drying on his or her Ph.D. who is mining Göbekli Tepe for apologetic gold, and not just because I like some Mormon apologetic raw meat every now and again. As much fun as it might be to thumb our nose at basically everybody else and say We have a functioning temple and you don’t! I think the exercise of comparing Mormon temples to Göbekli Tepe is beneficial by giving us an opportunity to think about temples as not simply a place where we do baptisms for the dead, but as a place where we go to visit, or to think about visiting, the center of the cosmos and the origin of civilization. While an exaggerated estimation of Nibley’s work sometimes leads to a failure to understand the current state of scholarship, a naïve disappointment that scholarship does not stay forever current sometimes leads to a shortsighted rejection of all that he did. A better appreciation for Nibley’s real and lasting accomplishments is one more thing that we might recover from the dig at Göbekli Tepe.

33 Responses to Nibley vindicatus; or Göbekli Tepe: a personal view

  1. Adam Greenwood on March 3, 2010 at 11:57 am

    “Before the invention of doorways.” Killer line. Killer post.

    A lot of things about Utah don’t move me, but the way the streets in the old towns center on the temple does. The way water runs down the streets in little ditches from the temple of the mountains does.

  2. Edje Jeter on March 3, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    Great post. Thanks.

  3. danithew on March 3, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    I agree with what AG said about the line “before the invention of doorways.”

    Cool post. Thanks.

  4. S.P. Bailey on March 3, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    Great post. I wasn’t aware of Göbekli Tepe. Beyond what’s reported in the Smithsonian article you link, can you provide additional insight into the symbols/writings on the megaliths there? Do Schmidt or others attempt to interpret them?

  5. Dave on March 3, 2010 at 2:53 pm

    Great post, Jonathan. I read about Catal Huyuk many years ago, which showed that the whole urban experience (crowding, crime, government, etc.) existed at the dawn of history. This new discovery pushes the religious horizon back additional millennia. Does this mean there were religious Pre-Adamites?

  6. Jonathan Green on March 3, 2010 at 3:17 pm

    AG, EJ, DB, thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

    SPB, I have no expertise on the subject to offer, unfortunately. I believe Schmidt has suggested that the stone monuments represented deities of some kind, but I suspect the precise interpretation is going to remain unresolved for quite some time to come.

    Dave, now there’s a fun question. I can think of maybe four ways one could go:
    1) Yep, this must be a pre-Adamite temple, because “Adam” is the first man with any kind of continuous connection to our religious history, somewhere in the ancient Near East, but later than Göbekli Tepe.
    2) Nope, because “Adam” and the early chapters of Genesis operate in the realm of myth, and Missouri (or at least North America), with Adam-ondi-Ahman and Zion and the New Jerusalem, remains the land where we expect myth to burst forth into reality. Göbekli Tepe, as an Old World monument, is already part of History.
    3) Well, mostly this just shows that temples of significant size have always been a part of religious devotion.
    4) Nope, because clearly Cainites built this apostate imitation of a true temple, which was then covered by silt from the Flood.

    Alas, #3 is probably the best response, but I rather like #2.

  7. Ardis E. Parshall on March 3, 2010 at 3:46 pm

    That was a fascinating article in Smithsonian, but even more than that I liked and appreciated the biographical framing. I remember my own childhood realization that critical assumptions were not shared by the majority of people around me. It was jarring and isolating, and to some degree it still is. I can move functionally if not emotionally between worlds, and being able to translate Mormon-to-English and vice versa has been essential to dealing with clients, but I still always — always — feel like I’m moving through the looking glass when I have to negotiate between worldviews. Even negotiating the blogs is disorienting when I suddenly recognize that despite our common vocabulary I don’t necessarily share critical assumptions with other people who consider themselves as Mormon as I consider myself.

    I haven’t yet found much that is analogous to your Göbekli Tepe to redeem those personal idols that are analogous to your memories of Hugh Nibley, but I’m always looking. When I find them, you can bet I’ll be gloating. Probably in private, but still gloating.

  8. kevinf on March 3, 2010 at 4:11 pm

    Having lived long enough to see many of my cherished paradigms of growing up in the 50’s and 60’s dashed in pieces, I’ve been watching with interest the information and pictures of Gobekli Tepe for several months now. If this predates doorways, though, that must have impacted the typical missionary door approach.

    As to your suppositions concerning pre-Adamite temples, I am partial to #2 and #3, but can feel a gravity settling in around #4 even as we write this.

  9. Cameron Nielsen on March 3, 2010 at 4:49 pm

    Thanks for sharing, great post.

    Another thing to take from this is that scholarship will always be clouded, like looking through a glass, darkly, and while it is a fun adventure to explore this realm, we will always know a mere fraction of the truth, and will be left to faith until all things are made known.

  10. SteveP on March 3, 2010 at 9:26 pm

    Great post! I’ve always been interested in such places and the comparisons we can draw with those practices and our own. In fact I blogged on the idea of sacred space using these places as a reference here:

    http://bycommonconsent.com/2009/06/07/boundary-issues-in-sacred-spaces-ecotone-analogies-part-ii-transitions/

  11. WJ on March 4, 2010 at 10:22 am

    “Hah! Nibley was right after all, it certainly helped tamp down the urge to scoff (which is endemic to everyone with a Ph.D. from this century when reading scholarship from the last, I suspect).”

    Great point. I think Nibley’s work has elicited scoffs from every corner of Mormondom and beyond, partly because he tackled a broad array of issues (and thereby offended a lot of different people) and because he seemed to relish stirring the pot (think his mocking — “flippant,” if you are a Brodie fan — review of No Man Knows My History).

    While significant chunks of his scholarship is and will continue to become outdated, I believe his work will prove durable in many respects, both for his conclusions, as well as for the influence he has/will had/have on subsequent scholars and researchers.

  12. Jettboy on March 4, 2010 at 10:26 am

    Number 1 with the pre-Adamites doesn’t make much sense historically speaking. Are we talking about the literalist number of years or the modern Homosapian when we talk about Adam’s ancestry? That question can span the available times to include this discovery or not. Since my own theory of the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve is both literalist and mythical (and includes Evolution of humans) then I have no problem with number 3 and number 4 as the most probable. Number 2 is filled with so many competing assumptions that it makes no sense.

  13. Dane Laverty on March 4, 2010 at 2:18 pm

    Thought I’d add a link to this claim of 60,000-year-old writing that appeared on New Scientist yesterday: http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20527504.300-oldest-writing-found-on-60000yearold-eggshells.html?full=true&print=true

    I don’t know enough to at all gauge its value, but figured I’d pass it on for those who might.

  14. Clark on March 4, 2010 at 2:29 pm

    That NS article sees them more as symbols rather than language proper. Important, but hardly conclusive. Although as I recall there have been some arguments putting language perhaps farther back in human evolution than the typical 90,000 – 100,000 date it’s typically given.

  15. Raymond Takashi Swenson on March 4, 2010 at 6:37 pm

    Thanks for alerting us to this amazing site. It should warn us to give a little more credit to the hunter-gatherers whose remains are the earliest found in the Americas. Kennewick Man, whose skeleton was found on the banks of the Columbia River in 1996, was dated to about 9,000 years ago. People who were smart enough to build this site were smart enough to use boats to reach the Americas by traveling along the northern coast of the Pacific, and not have to depend on the vagaries of glacial retreat to open a walking passage for them.

    Some of the science about that period of time has suggested that there was an unexpectedly small population of humans about 10,000 years ago, reflected in a lack of expected diversity in the range of genomic variation in current populations. The small population of that date has been pictured as a “bottleneck”, assuming a much larger and more genetically diverse population was somehow decimated by an extinction event, which some scientists have tied to natural disasters like meteor strikes and volcanic eruptions, which are also invoked to explain the extinction of North America’s megafauna (instead of supposing that invading humans killed them off).

    I see Hugh Nibley as offering not only a bracing overview of many things ancient, but also a series of original hypotheses. That some of the hypotheses might not be supported by later acquired information should not surprise us. We should instead be humbled by the synthesizing intellect that was able to produce these hypotheses. We of ordinary intelligence can plod along and gather data, but how many of us have the insight to formulate a testable theory that unifies so much of what we know, and proposes to explain some of what we will find as we learn more?

    To a certain extent, Nibley encouraged us to see Joseph Smith in the same light, as a bold explorer of the intellectual universe, who makes daring explanatory assertions about the meaning of religion and religious history that have a suspicious tendency over time to gather more and more supporting evidence to themselves.

    I am ordering today my copy of the just-published “One Eternal Round”, Nibley’s last book.

  16. Syphax on March 5, 2010 at 3:09 pm

    Great post. This temple raises so many important questions. How did worship FEEL to these people? What did they have to sacrifice to build it? Who tended it? There are intimations of sky burial there, long before even Zoroaster. I can’t wait to hear more discoveries about this place.

  17. TT on March 5, 2010 at 11:26 pm

    I’d still be skeptical. The label “temple” is used in a variety of different ways to describe many different types of functions. I’m not sure anything here is grounds for LDS apologetics.

  18. Jonathan Green on March 6, 2010 at 10:06 am

    TT, that’s a good point. However, with Schmidt and the popular press calling the site a temple, a lot of the heavy lifting is already taken care of. In this case, an apologist wouldn’t have to hang the whole argument on an idiosyncratic interpretation of an ancient artifact (think “Tree of Life” stele), but could simply point to Schmidt’s own interpretation of his discovery. That doesn’t make the apologetic point correct, merely much easier to make.

    The apologetic argument has an internal reflection that I think is perhaps more interesting and useful, namely how it might make us think about our own temples as more than simply the locations of particular rituals by comparing them to Göbekli Tepe. Projecting modern LDS practice back onto ancient ritual sites can get very silly, of course, but looking for commonalities between them might be a useful devotional exercise, or reveal something interesting about religious cultural history.

  19. Jonathan Green on March 6, 2010 at 10:13 am

    And, thanks to all of you for your comments.

    I am, however, disappointed that no one appreciated the Moroni image subtly photoshopped onto a pillar from Göbekli Tepe. Why must art be forever misunderstood?

  20. Cameron Nielsen on March 6, 2010 at 10:22 am

    Oh, we’re sorry Jonathan, I missed it.

  21. TT on March 6, 2010 at 11:51 am

    Jonathan,
    what exactly is the apologetic argument that you see here? Is it just that temples are really old and really important? I’m just not sure that I see that doing very much for, especially since the differences between this temple and our own are more significant than the similarities.

  22. James Olsen on March 6, 2010 at 2:24 pm

    Very much enjoyed the post. I’ve had something of a Nibley reading renaissance here of late, and am simply, unashamedly a fan. Of course his scholarship’s outdated and I find plenty of non-scholarship stuff to disagree with, but as WJ and Swenson note, his works are a treasure trove for numerous reasons. I think he’s one of the more articulate and persuasive critics of Mormon culture we’ve had, and his approach to the temple is wonderfully contagious. As he and you both note, there are riches to be discovered for our own worship and understanding in studying the temples of the world.

  23. Jonathan Green on March 6, 2010 at 2:33 pm

    TT, let me emphasize that apologetics isn’t my line, but tell me where you see this kind of argument running into trouble:

    1) LDS temple ordinances are the culmination of Mormon ritual life, and the temples occupy a central role in belief and religious practice.
    2) Mormon thought often sees temple worship as one aspect of divinely approved worship throughout history.
    3) Hugh Nibley in particular and some of those he influenced even see the temple as providing central and decisive impulses to the rise of civilization.
    4) But the scholarly mainstream has largely agreed that temples, like “high” religion, are much later developments, subsequent to agriculture, cities, etc.
    5) Now, however, following Schmidt’s interpretation of Göbekli Tepe, we see that a temple really did precede cities and agriculture and all the rest, and in fact the building of the temple and worship there may have been the decisive factors in bringing about the rise of agriculture, cities, and all the rest of the things we think of as civilization.

    The weak link is, as you say, the differences between Manti and Göbekli Tepe, so I think the question is less about the strength of the argument than it is about the definition of “temple”: is there a definition broad enough to encompass both of them that is not so broad that it is entirely vacuous?

    I tend to think that there might be, but that’s probably someone else’s billet, I think. Is “ritual center with supraregional influence” sufficient? What about if we add “association with death and burial ritual and/or commemoration”? One might also add “monumental architecture” and “symbolic representation of the supernatural”.

    Is that enough to make the comparison useful? I don’t know. I’d like to think that we can stop somewhere short of “includes font for vicarious baptisms carried on the back of 12 oxen, and an office for family file names.” Certainly a broad definition would also encompass non-LDS ritual sites like major cathedrals or Mecca, but that is not necessarily a bad thing (for devotional LDS thought about temples, I mean, not necessarily for mounting an apologetic argument).

  24. DavidC on March 6, 2010 at 11:46 pm

    I was thinking that if it didn’t fit Lundquist’s typology, then it wasn’t close enough to being our kind of temple.

  25. Ronan on March 7, 2010 at 12:15 pm

    I’m quite distant now from my own archaeological training (limited though it was), but I’m kind of with TT on this. Also, I think this — “the scholarly mainstream has largely agreed that temples, like ‘high’ religion, are much later developments, subsequent to agriculture, cities, etc.” — may be a bit of a straw man. Certainly nomads erect semi-permanent buildings even before the shift to urbanisation, some of which would have a (death) cultic purpose.

    Not wishing to be a spoil sport, though. G. Tepe is a cool site.

  26. Jonathan Green on March 7, 2010 at 3:09 pm

    DavidC, please elaborate. What is Lundquist’s typology?

    Ronan, our hypothetical apologist would of course wish to keep his or her hands clean, or at least free of straw, so let’s let Newsweek do the dirty work:

    This theory reverses a standard chronology of human origins, in which primitive man went through a ‘Neolithic revolution’ 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. In the old model, shepherds and farmers appeared first, and then created pottery, villages, cities, specialized labor, kings, writing, art, and—somewhere on the way to the airplane—organized religion. As far back as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, thinkers have argued that the social compact of cities came first, and only then the ‘high’ religions with their great temples, a paradigm still taught in American high schools.

    Religion now appears so early in civilized life—earlier than civilized life, if Schmidt is correct—that some think it may be less a product of culture than a cause of it, less a revelation than a genetic inheritance. The archeologist Jacques Cauvin once posited that ‘the beginning of the gods was the beginning of agriculture,’ and Göbekli may prove his case.

    Now, citing Newsweek simply won’t do, but a determined apologist should be able to flesh out the broad strokes and add footnotes.

  27. John C. on March 7, 2010 at 8:59 pm

    I’m reminded of the rule of thumb offered me in my archaeological training. If you have a doodad and no real explanation for it you say it mad cultic importance in the Old World. In the New World, you say it is a game piece.

    G. Tepe is an important site, but it certainly doesn’t prove a hierocentric origin for society. Which isn’t to say that can’t be the case, but one data point is not sufficient proof.

  28. John C. on March 7, 2010 at 8:59 pm

    *had cultic importance

  29. Jonathan Green on March 8, 2010 at 9:52 am

    Sure, John C., the debate is likely to go one for the next century, and get refined in the process. Proof will be long in coming.

    Then again, the basic argument does change somewhat. If before you had thousands of years of agriculture and urbanization before the first temple-like sites develop, now you have a temple-like site appearing before agriculture and cities, which changes how the burden of proof is allocated, I think.

  30. John C. on March 9, 2010 at 1:10 am

    Jonathan,
    We already had temple-lite sites prior to urbanization. There is a place on the Dead Sea during the Chalcolithic which is obviously a cultic site (lotsa gold and copper statuary; really expensive stuff). That there is a site that apparently developed differently in Turkey, at this point, just means that. I don’t think it can be convincingly be argued that the burden of proof has shifted because that one site is unusual in the grand ANE scheme of development (and unusual in a way that isn’t terribly surprising (or, at least, I didn’t find it surprising, which may not mean anything, really)). I agree with Ronan that it is an important site, but I think it is probably too early to rewrite the history books.

  31. Jonathan Green on March 9, 2010 at 10:48 am

    See, the fun thing about apologetic arguments is that one doesn’t have to wait for scholarly consensus. One only needs to latch onto someone respectable, and then say: don’t tell me, go argue with Klaus Schmidt.

    But there’s not much profit in that. John C., I have the impression from your posts and comments that your academic background is in OT religious studies, or something similar, correct? How would you contextualize Göbekli Tepe for a Mormon audience? That is, is there a particular Mormon reading of the site? Would you lump it together with, say, Solomon’s Temple (part of our religious heritage, even if distant or poorly understood), or the Pyramids (inspiring to modern observers, but without historical connection), or the Great Wall (impressive, but with no religious resonance at all)?

  32. BHodges on March 15, 2010 at 1:52 pm

    Thanks for the cool post. Forgive me for repeating something I have blogged elsewhere. One interesting aspect of Nibley’s approach was his awareness of the shelf-life of scholarship. Nibley would appreciate the advancements. He strongly encouraged reappraisal: “We need it all the time. If there is any other thing that characterizes the recent appearances in the journals and periodicals today, it is reappraisal” (Nibley, “The Facsimiles of the Book of Abraham,” Sunstone 4 [December 1979]: 49-51). Of course he didn’t excuse himself from this reappraisal, but encouraged it:

    “I refuse to be held responsible for anything I wrote more than three years ago. For heaven’s sake, I hope we are moving forward here. After all, the implication that one mistake and it is all over with—how flattering to think in forty years I have not made one slip and I am still in business! I would say about four fifths of everything I put down has changed, of course. That is the whole idea; This is an ongoing process, and I have some interesting examples of that…The two rules to follow here are 1) to ask the right questions, and 2) to keep looking” (same reference as above, yo).

    While I believe much of Nibley’s scholarship holds up rather well, not all of it does. The “two rules to follow” were important to Nibley. Ask the right questions and keep looking.

  33. BHodges on March 15, 2010 at 2:00 pm

    I also thought this part was sort of nifty, though obviously pure conjecturing makes it so:

    “Schmidt, 53, asks me to imagine what the landscape would have looked like 11,000 years ago, before centuries of intensive farming and settlement turned it into the nearly featureless brown expanse it is today.

    Prehistoric people would have gazed upon herds of gazelle and other wild animals; gently flowing rivers, which attracted migrating geese and ducks; fruit and nut trees; and rippling fields of wild barley and wild wheat varieties such as emmer and einkorn. “This area was like a paradise,” says Schmidt…”