I recently started reading Hugh Nibley’s book Abraham in Egypt (nicely available online too, through that link). I’ve always enjoyed Hugh Nibley’s keen insights and outstanding scholarship (he’s someone who very few people even try to criticize; how do you even start to try and address any faults in his scholarship?). Much of Hugh Nibley’s works have focused on direct products of Joseph Smith. Jesus Christ is the center of our religion, He is its Head, He is our Savior. Joseph Smith, though, is the prophet of the restoration. It is through Joseph Smith that we have the restored gospel and the restored authority to act and perform ordinances in the name of Christ. Joseph Smith is as important to us as Abraham is to the Jews. None of this focus on Joseph Smith detracts from the importance of the Savior; Joseph’s works and life are only important because they help us draw near to the Savior in word and deed. Our love of Joseph Smith and our recognition of his importance is one reason many try to attack The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by attacking Joseph Smith (he was used to personal attacks starting when he was 14 so Joseph certainly was no stranger to the attacks; I don’t think anything is said about Joseph Smith today that was not said to him and about him in his lifetime).
So most of the work of people antagonistic to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is spent trying to discredit the work of Joseph Smith; more accurately, most of their work is spent trying to discredit Joseph Smith, particularly by attacking his character once all of their other attacks or critiques fall short, as they invariably do.
To discredit Joseph Smith, or anyone else, in the eyes of an uninformed public is only too easy, requiring but the observance of a few established routines in the art of public relations. That gets us nowhere honestly. What about the Book of Abraham? In it Joseph Smith has given us a straightforward and detailed narrative, whose boldness, ingenuity, and originality should excite the interest and command the respect of anyone who has ever tried to write anything. Even as a work of fiction it does not permit the reader to see in it the production of some poor fool who had no idea of what he was doing, completely befuddled as to his sources, trying to squeeze a story out of a handful of perfectly meaningless Egyptian doodles. We invite the critics to use the great advantage of their superior education and vast resource material to produce anything like it. We will even allow them full use of what they call Joseph Smith’s modus operandi, which they have so brilliantly suggested as the explanation of how he really did it. And to assist them further, we offer at no extra charge another clue, a statement by the great E. A. Wallis Budge that is all the more revealing for its frank hostility to the Prophet: “The letter press [Joseph Smith’s explanation of the Book of Abraham] is as idiotic as the pictures, and is clearly based on the Bible, and some of the Old Testament apocryphal histories.” As to those apocryphal sources, why have all his other critics overlooked them, insisting that the whole thing is “a pure fabrication,” and “simply the product of Joseph Smith’s imagination”? As we have already observed, what could Joseph Smith have known about Old Testament apocryphal histories? Budge was possibly the greatest authority of his day on apocrypha, but that was because he spent his days mostly in the British Museum among original manuscripts to which nobody else had access. There were indeed a number of important apocrypha published in Budge’s day—but in the 1830s? Who has access to the apocryphal Abraham materials even today?” Now if Budge insists that the Abraham story in the Pearl of Great Price is clearly based on Old Testament apocryphal sources, that story deserves to be treated with some attention. What, the relatively uneducated Joseph Smith using sources of which none of the experts save only Budge, the most prodigiously learned and productive Orientalist of his time, was aware? What a flattering accusation!
What happens is that when serious scholars try to discredit Joseph’s Smith’s work, they often unwittingly give him far more credit than they intend to do. This is because they recognize the themes and truths in Joseph’s work; however, they perfunctorily discount him, so they form hypotheses that fit their pre-conceptions of Joseph Smith’s character. There is the assumption that Joseph Smith was a charlatan or at least misguided, thus all of his work is wrong. Based on this assumption, many people then try to interpret his works. In other words, they interpret his work in light of his – as they perceive – faulty character. This limits their critiques of his work because why should they give serious consideration to the works of someone they view as below their consideration. What Hugh Nibley calls for is to assess Joseph’s works independent from his character. The following quote is referring specifically to the Book of Abraham but it can be extrapolated to all of Joseph’s works.
“In short, it is the Book of Abraham that is on trial, not Joseph Smith as an Egyptologist, nor the claims and counterclaims to scholarly recognition by squabbling publicity seekers, nor the provenance and nature of Egyptian papyri, nor the competence of this or that person to read them. The resounding charge in the headlines was that ‘the Book of Abraham is a pure falsification.’ Joseph Smith is no longer with us; his reputation must rest on the bona fides of the book, not the other way around. By his own insistence, he was merely an implement in bringing forth the record, not its creator.” (Hugh Nibley, Abraham in Egypt, Chapter 1).
Hugh Nibley takes this stance because too many people do not look at the validity of Joseph’s works. They impugn his character and then try to leave it at that. People attack Joseph as “a corrupt tree” that cannot “bring forth good fruit” (Matt. 7:18). But in doing so, they are approaching Joseph’s character in the reverse order the Savior said. Jesus said, “Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them” (Matt. 7:20). We cannot declare a tree corrupt and then assume all the fruit is bad; we have to look at the fruit to understand the nature of the tree. That is precisely what Hugh Nibley is suggesting, yet that is what few outside the LDS Church actually do. For an other example of this, read the account of what happened when some of the characters from the Gold Plates were showed to Charles Anthon, who had some expertise in ancient languages. He was a man who couldn’t see the fruit for the tree.