The Testimony of Two Nations: A Review

The Testimony of Two Nations: How the Book of Mormon Reads, and Rereads, the Bible by Michael Austin (University of Illinois Press, 2024) is a delightful and insightful venture into the ways in which the Book of Mormon interacts with the Bible.

A core concept that drives this book is the idea that the scriptural canon is read within the context of all portions of that canon. Thus, when the New Testament was canonized in the Christian tradition, the added context changed the meaning of the Hebrew Bible within that movement to become the Old Testament – a work that points towards the ministry and Atonement of Jesus Christ. Similarly, the Book of Mormon adjusts how Latter-day Saints understand the Bible through the ways in which its stories and text add context to the Christian story. A few examples that Austin highlights include our understanding of the Fall of Eve and Adam, prophets and prophethood, pre-Christian era foreknowledge of Jesus Christ, and the end of the world.

Up front, Austin notes that the ideas contained in the book “have been bouncing around in my head … for decades,” with a previous crack at working them out being a series of blog posts that were eventually published as Buried Treasures: Reading the Book of Mormon Again for the First Time. Reading through The Testimony of Two Nations, one can definitely see many of the same ideas presented in Buried Treasures incorporated into the text, but elevated and, in some cases, evolved based on reflections and discussions in which Austin has been involved since then. I was a fan of Buried Treasures (enough so that it inspired my own blog post series about the Doctrine and Covenants in 2021 that is going to be published as a book this December), so it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that I also enjoyed The Testimony of Two Nations.

A fun compare and contrast exercise was set up by the University of Illinois Press by publishing The Testimony of Two Nations and Joseph Spencer’s A Word in Season: Isaiah’s Reception in the Book of Mormon in short succession to each other. Both of these works look at ways in which the Book of Mormon interacts with the Bible. Austin’s work looks more broadly across the Book of Mormon, while Spencer’s work focuses in on specific portions. Austin is more literary in focus, bringing up the ways that stories relate, recall, and reinterpret each other. Spencer is more philosophical and theological and delves deeper into the exegesis of Isaiah by persons in the Book of Mormon. Austin’s work does spend some time discussing the same sections of the Book of Mormon that Spencer’s does (Abinadi, Jesus, and Nephi).

When it came to interpreting Nephi, though, it was interesting to see the different conclusions they drew about the place of Isaiah in Nephi’s books. While Spencer’s analysis has led him to believe that Nephi’s entire project was centered on highlighting the importance of Isaiah and offering an interpretation Isaiah’s words, Austin offers a completely different conclusion: “What if Nephi includes them not for their positive doctrinal value but for their value as a negative example—how not to write prophecy if you really want people to understand it? … In this reading of the text, the difficulty that readers have with Nephi’s Isaiah chapters becomes the point. Nephi shows us what he tells us: that the words of Isaiah in their canonical form require too much exegetical training for nonprophets to understand them easily” (161).

In any case, The Testimony of Two Nations: How the Book of Mormon Reads, and Rereads, the Bible by Michael Austin was an interesting read. It goes a long way towards highlight the ways in which the Book of Mormon has adjusted Latter-day Saints’ thinking about the Bible. I recommend reading it.