Latest Addition to the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley Series

FARMS is pleased to announce the release of a new volume of previously unpublished class lectures by celebrated Latter-day Saint scholar Hugh Nibley, who recently passed away at age 94. Apostles and Bishops in Early Christianity, volume 15 in the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley series, comprises Nibley’s finely detailed lecture notes for a course he taught at Brigham Young University in 1954 on the office of bishop in the early Christian church.

When the course ended, Nibley moved on to other projects and did not see this research through to publication. Although these lectures are now dated in certain (mostly stylistic) respects, readers will be impressed by his control of primary sources and the sustained depth of his skillful analysis. Nibley fans in particular will welcome this latest addition to the massive library of his collected works and will relish the insights it adds to his related studies on Mormonism and early Christianity. Besides laying out Nibley’s case for the early church’s loss of prophetic gifts and apostolic authority, the book opens a new window on the character of Nibley’s scholarly interests and teaching style during his seventh year of teaching at BYU.

The lectures are divided into two sections. The first section considers the duties and ecclesiastical authority of apostles and bishops throughout the early church, and the second section covers topics related to the legitimacy of the Roman church’s controversial claim to ecclesiastical supremacy. Nibley began his course by summarizing the conflicting views of Protestant and Catholic scholars on whether the early church was formally organized or not (lack of consensus on this issue warranted reexamination of the two main ecclesiastical offices in question: that of apostle and bishop). He then reviewed key differences in those offices and traced the gradual secularization of the bishop’s role into one resembling that of an elected political magistrate, with the trappings of civic prominence and magisterial dignity. Nibley emphasized that no single bishop had primacy over any other and that episcopal councils and synods eventually became the norm for governing the church in the absence of the higher ecclesiastical authority possessed by the apostles.

Nibley also emphasized that early Christian leaders consistently differentiated between episcopal and apostolic authority. This is clearly evident in epistles written to outlying churches in which local bishops such as Ignatius, Clement, and Polycarp, recognizing the limits of their stewardship, urged repentance not as emissaries acting under an apostolic or even episcopal mandate, but merely as concerned friends and observers. Even centuries later, when bishops assumed higher authority, they still did not command repentance. “Plainly the apostles had a kind of authority that none of their successors had,” Nibley wrote. “They were conceived of as the twelve judges of Israel and so were limited to that number” (10).

In the second half of his course, Nibley gave special attention to how the office of bishop changed drastically as Rome emerged as the controversial seat of episcopal and, later, papal authority. He probed the shifts in power, the origin of episcopal hierarchy, issues of apostolic succession, and modern-day confusion surrounding the development of papal power. “A thousand years after Nicaea the church discovered that a one-man organization could not provide a dependable succession and hit upon the idea of a council of men,” taught Nibley. “This is exactly what the primitive church had in the Twelve Apostles, but at that late date the sacred college could not and did not pretend to be apostolic in origin. What better indication that the primitive church had been taken away?” (175).

The typescripts that Nibley wrote before giving these lectures contained some partial references to his sources. With painstaking efforts the editors and Joseph Ponczoch supplied 770 footnotes, which are typeset at the bottom of each page. Greek, Latin, French, and German texts are supplied so that students can compare Nibley’s translations with the originals he consulted. In less than 10 percent of the cases, the source that Nibley had in mind was not found at the time this book went to press. Many of the missing sources, however, have already been located by Douglas Salmon and others.

Because Nibley’s typed lectures also lacked a summation or conclusion, John F. Hall and John W. Welch suggest in their “Editors’ Postscript” that the last words of Nibley’s study “The Passing of the Primitive Church: Forty Variations on an Unpopular Theme” serve as a fitting conclusion for this volume: “We have indicated above some of the reasons for suggesting that the church, like its founder, his apostles, and the prophets before them, came into the world, did the works of the Father, and then went out of the world, albeit with a promise of return. Some aspects of the problem, at least, deserve closer attention than students have hitherto been willing to give them” (reprinted in Nibley, Mormonism and Early Christianity, ed. Todd M. Compton and Stephen D. Ricks [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1987], 168—208).

The quality of Nibley’s exposition and its reliance on enduring primary sources add value and luster to the lectures despite their age. In typical fashion, Apostles and Bishops “pushe[s] the arguments far beyond the positions that have been staked out by others” and “raise[s] significant questions for future explorations concerning the history of early Christianity,” the editors state in the preface. “Readers will find these lecture notes just as informative and engaging as the popular recordings and published transcripts of Nibley’s later lectures on the Book of Mormon and Pearl of Great Price.”

To purchase a copy of Apostles and Bishops, visit the FARMS section (under “BYU Publications”) of