In 1978, Hugh Nibley wrote, after referring to Brigham Young University’s 1951 acquisition of the Greek and Latin Patrologiae, “here indeed was a treasure trove of hints. . . . At last we had something to work with in the Patrologiae.”1 Nibley has turned his scholarly attention in many directions throughout his career. He has dealt with Book of Mormon studies, LDS church history, Enoch, Abraham, Egyptology and the Book of Abraham, Jewish pseudepigrapha, the symbolism of statecraft and cosmology, Brigham Young, and the temple endowment. But from the outset of his career, he has been centrally concerned with primitive Christianity,2 especially the shadowy era between the New Testament era proper and the emergence and triumph of the Catholic Church and Holy Roman Empire. In those early centuries of persecution, unrest, syncretism, uncertainty, and heresy, the Christian church eventually took strong steps to effect doctrinal and administrative unity. While Christian historians have traditionally described this as a victory,3 Nibley, in the important series of articles contained in this book, has instead concentrated on what may have been lost in the transition from the New Testament church to the Christianity of Constantine’s era and beyond. While this perspective may not be immediately popular in all circles, everyone should agree that it is a valid, even necessary, avenue of inquiry.
A number of themes that Nibley has focused on in these essays anticipated and received support from later scholarship. For instance, Nibley has frequently emphasized the importance of secrecy in early Christianity, showing that there were levels of esoteric and exoteric doctrine and ritual in the structure of the New Testament church.4 A recent collection of essays entitled Secrecy in Religions5 has shown that secrecy is an important component in all religions. Speaking of Christianity specifically, Kees Bolle, the editor of that volume, writes, “It does not take much of an effort to find examples for the notion of secrecy in Christianity, and the examples do not occur on the fringes of the doctrine of God’s revelation; rather they point to the center.” 6 Nibley’s treatment of secrecy in early Christianity is valuable and persuasive.
Another issue that these essays are centrally concerned with, and that has been widely discussed in recent years, is orthodoxy and heresy in the Christianity that immediately followed apostolic Christianity.7 Faced with the challenge of a Hellenized, ascetic Gnostic Christianity, how much did the more centralized and originally Judaic Christianity become like its enemy in order to compete? The very idea of a centralized Christianity has given way to a picture of early Christianity diverse and fragmented, where it is hard to define what is orthodox and what is heretical, what is Gnostic and what is “mainstream.” For instance, William Phipps has recently argued that Augustine’s influential doctrine of original sin derived from his Gnostic background and was, in reality, heretical, while Pelagius’ opposition to the idea was orthodox. But it was Augustine’s doctrine that won the day historically and has continued to influence Western theology and culture.8
One of the most remarkable things about these essays—”The Passing of the Primitive Church,” “The Forty-day Mission of Christ,” “Christian Envy of the Temple,” and “Jerusalem in Early Christianity”—is that they were published in non-Mormon scholarly publications. Instead of being content to write only for a sympathetic if occasionally uncritical Mormon audience, Nibley subjected these essays to the scrutiny of non-Mormon editors and scholars in leading, influential journals (and one of the articles, “The Passing of the Primitive Church,” spurred a brief, interesting debate in the pages of Church History).9 In doing this, Nibley has set a valuable example for other Mormon scholars; such publication in non-Mormon journals enables a dialogue to be opened up between Mormon and non-Mormon scholars, and it will encourage Mormon scholarship to measure up to the highest possible standards of historical inquiry.
In other important essays in this book—”What is a Temple?” “Baptism for the Dead in Ancient Times,” “The Early Christian Prayer Circle”—Nibley turns to another persistent concern in his writing—the temple and temple ritual. However we interpret the details of these articles (along with “Christian Envy of the Temple”), they show clearly that the earliest Christianity had strong ties to the temple, and that the earliest Christians had rituals that did not survive in subsequent Christianity, just as the Jerusalem temple did not survive. For instance, some important scholars have recently treated baptism for the dead as an authentic, if enigmatic, ritual of the earliest Christians. Wayne Meeks, in a widely respected book on the church in Paul’s era, The First Urban Christians, describes baptism for the dead as “mystifying” but includes it in his section on ritual in the early Christian church.10 Another commentator, Grosheide, is puzzled by the ritual but concludes that Paul could not have disapproved of the ritual if he used it as support for the resurrection of the dead.11
These essays and the others in this book are pioneering works, sharing both the virtues and the drawbacks of the pioneering vision. Nibley is the first to agree that they do not contain the final word on their subjects; they await further revision and refinement in the wake of new evidence and thought. We will be sifting for years through the sources that Professor Nibley has viewed from a Mormon perspective for the first time. As we evaluate and re-evaluate these important primary sources, we should remember that Dr. Nibley has continually described scholarship not as final and absolute proof, but as open-ended discussion. 12 Many of the conclusions and arguments in these articles will stand in future scholarship; others will be discarded. But Hugh Nibley’s work has laid the foundation for all further discussion. These studies are an inspiring invitation to learning and thought and scholarly inquiry; they will deepen our interest in and our understanding of the apostolic church, and the church in the troubled centuries that immediately followed New Testament times.
I have edited “The Passing of the Primitive Church,” “Evangelium Quadraginta Dierum: The Forty-day Mission of Christ—The Forgotten Heritage,” “Christian Envy of the Temple,” “The Way of the Church,” and “The Early Christian Prayer Circle.” The rest of the essays in this book have been edited under the direction of Stephen Ricks. I have, on the whole, merely checked footnotes, leaving the text untouched except where a direct quotation was involved, sometimes tightening up the citation or adding bibliographic data. On occasion, I have disagreed with the conclusions Nibley has drawn from his evidence, but this is only to be expected when two opinionated readers examine the same material. Readers interested in exploring Nibley’s sources will find translations of many of them in two series, The Ante-Nicene Fathers and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. A supplemental volume of Ante-Nicene Fathers (volume 9) contains a valuable bibliography that also serves as a table of contents for the series. Other works can be found translated in the series The Fathers of the Church (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, starting 1947), and in Ancient Christian Writers (Westminster, Maryland: Newman Press, starting 1961). The original Greek and Latin texts of these writings can be found in the two extensive series of books, Patrologiae Graecae and Patrologiae Latinae, both edited under the direction of Jacques-Paul Migne. Many of these same writings, in vastly improved editions, can be found in the series Corpus Christianorum (CC) and Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum (CSEL). An indispensable guide to editions and translations of the early Fathers is Johannes Quasten’s Patrology (Utrecht: Spectrum, 1950), in four volumes; see also Berthold Altaner, Patrologie, 5th ed., (Freiburg: Herder, 1958), and Clavis Patrum Graecorum (Turkhout: Brepols 1983; in CC), four volumes.
The Christian apocrypha can be found in Edgar Hennecke and Wilhelm Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963), in two volumes; see also M. R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon, 1924), and James Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library (New York: Harper & Row, 1977); Bentley Layton, The Gnostic Scriptures (New York: Doubleday, (1987). The Old Testament apocrypha, most of them used and adapted by the Christians, can be found in James Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1983—85), in two volumes.
We wish to acknowledge our appreciation to the many individuals who helped us prepare this volume for publication, particularly John Gee, Gary Gillum, Gary Keeley, Jill Keeley, Brent McNeely, Mari Miles, Phyllis Nibley, Don Norton, Robert F. Smith, Morgan Tanner, and John W. Welch. We also wish to thank the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (F.A.R.M.S.) for their continued support in readying for publication The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley.
Todd M. Compton
1. Hugh W. Nibley, Nibley on the Timely and the Timeless (Provo, Ut.: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1978), xxv.
2. One of his first books was the patristic-oriented The World and the Prophets (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1954), republished as volume 3 in these Collected Works of Hugh Nibley.
3. For example, William H. C. Frend describes “The Emergence of Orthodoxy” in the second century A.D. in The Rise of Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984), 250.
4. See, for example, in this volume, “The Forty-Day Mission of Christ—the Forgotten Heritage,” nn. 48—59 and 80; “The Passing of the Primitive Church,” nn. 50, 105; “Baptism for the Dead in Ancient Times,” nn. 1—16 and 46—50, with text.
5. Kees Bolle, ed., Secrecy in Religion (Leiden: Brill, 1987, projected date of publication). See also Joachim Jeremias, The Eucharistic Words of Jesus (New York: Scribner, 1966), 125—37.
6. Kees Bolle, “Secrecy in Religions,” ch. 1 of Secrecy in Religions, preliminary typescript, p. 10. Some scholars have passed off ritual secrecy in the early church as influence from Hellenistic mystery religions, but Bolle shows that this oversimplification underrates the necessity for secrecy in any valid religious tradition; ibid., 16.
7. See “The Forty-day Mission of Christ,” n. 60; “The Passing of the Primitive Church”; and “Christian Envy of the Temple.”
8. William Phipps, “The Heresiarch: Pelagius or Augustine?” Anglican Theological Review 62 (1980): 130—31; cf. the treatment by E. Buonaiuti, “Manichaeism and Augustine’s Ideas of ‘Massa Perditionis’,” Harvard Theological Review 20 (1927): 117—27. See also Walter Bauer, Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, tr. and ed. by R. Kraft and G. Krodel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971); H. E. W. Turner, The Pattern of Christian Truth: A Study in the Relations between Orthodoxy and Heresy in the Early Church (London: Mowbray, 1954)—a response to Bauer; James D. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977); J.M. Robinson and Helmut Koester, Trajectories through Early Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971); Adolf von Harnack, History of Dogma, tr. Neil Buchanan, 7 vols. (New York: Dover, 1961), 1:128, n. 3 (Basilides influences Augustine); 263, n. 2 (Valentine influences Clement and Origen); 261, n. 1 (Gnostic Christology and the later church); Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis, the Nature and History of Gnosticism, tr. and ed. by Robert Wilson (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983), 368—73, 390 n. 187, 369, 372, which shows the influence of Gnosticism on the later Christian church.
9. Hans J. Hillerbrand, “The Passing of the Church: Two Comments on a Strange Theme,” Church History 30 (December 1961): 481—82; Robert M. Grant, “The Passing of the Church: Comments on Two Comments on a Strange Theme,” Church History 30 (December 1961): 482—83.
10. Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians (New Haven: Yale, 1983), 162. Meeks notes that this is virtually the only reference to ritual relating to death found in the Pauline letters, which points up its importance.
11. F. W. Grosheide, Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953), 372—74. “If this type of baptism was actually practiced and if Paul had disapproved of it he probably would have written more about it than what this one reference contains. In any case the apostle could hardly derive an argument for the resurrection of the body from a practice of which he did not approve.” Ibid., 372. This logical argument disposes convincingly of the view that Paul thought baptism for the dead was a heretical practice, a view that anti-Mormon polemic has understandably tried to put forth as fact. See also Herman Ridderbos, Paul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 25, 540; Richard Lloyd Anderson, Understanding Paul (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1983), 127, 403—16.
12. See, for example, Hugh W. Nibley, Since Cumorah (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1967), v—vii.