The Education of a Bible Scholar
Greaves, Sheldon, Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought
I first heard the tales of Hugh Nibley, the brilliant and eccentric LDS scholar whose fertile and fecund brain defended and expanded the faith of thoughtful Church members, virtually at my mother's knee. I remember as a child listening rapt with wonder at the accounts of his marvelous ability with languages, his wartime service with Allied Army intelligence, and his vast knowledge of things ancient and arcane. I was also, as time went on, delighted by the news that he was also reputed to be conversant in many scientific fields-a Mormon Renaissance man, as it were. I'm not sure I wanted to be Dr. Nibley, but the job sounded fun. When I was eleven, those stories combined with reading a brief biographical sketch of Leonardo da Vinci by Dan Q. Posin1 to fix my desire that some day, somehow, mine would be a life of the mind. I read and studied passionately, compulsively, and indiscriminately in pursuit of that vague but compelling ideal.
It was an easy choice in those days. The space race and the Sputnik scare meant that cultivating intellect-albeit with more emphasis on science and engineering-was rightly considered a matter of national security. Funding for education poured out like water; and by the time I started first grade at Liberty Elementary School in Salem, Oregon, all those marvelous learning tools were there, waiting for me. I was a voracious reader to begin with and was always engaged in learning of one form or another. Unfortunately, one of those tools was "New Math," which confused and frustrated me to the point wheremy earliest love, science, did not seem like a viable career for me in the end.
There remained the humanities, which was fine. In high school I excelled in theater and music, but choosing a specific field wasn't easy. Before my mission, I had majored in theater at Ricks College. After my mission I had attended BYU and mucked about in majors ranging from earth science to filmmaking. Then, my parents and my local Church leaders made a rather intriguing suggestion: pursue some line of study that would equip me to work for the Church, ideally as a teacher in the Church Educational System or perhaps even as a professor at BYU. This seemed a reasonable choice. I had always done well in seminary. I had been well prepared for my mission. I knew the scriptures better than most of my contemporaries. Moreover, I had seen enough of the liberal arts to know that running with the Muses was a very hard dollar. Our family had not known affluence and had more than our share of tight times, and I wanted to avoid that.Working for the Church seemed like a good way to find economic security.
Some long talks withmy parents ensued. I also had a very interesting and memorable interview with our local stake president who was a CES employee. He gave me a good picture of what it was like to work for CES. "The Church is a good employer," he advised and went on to say he felt that I would be an excellent teacher of scripture and related topics. I was inspired by that compliment. Moreover, I respected this man and was grateful that he had taken an interest in me and my career. I took his words to heart.
There remained the question of a major. At first I toyed with the idea of studying classics and looked into a few programs, particularly one at the University of Oregon. But while leafing through a BYU course catalog, I saw the major in Near Eastern studies. At once I knew that this was exactly what I needed to prepare myself to be a teacher of ancient scripture. I could also take the classes I'd need to enter CES as a seminary or institute teacher.
So, in the fall of 1982, I returned to BYU with the goal of getting a degree in Near Eastern studies. My days began with a Hebrew class every day, very, very early in the morning. It was followed by classes in Near Eastern history fromDavid Montgomery, biblical archaeology with John Lundquist, and gradually expanded to other topics and languages: Near Eastern mythology, Ugaritic, "temples and texts," and a course on Arab-Israeli politics from Donna Lee Bowen. …