Categories
Book of Mormon

How Does the Book of Mormon Reinterpret the Bible?

The Book of Mormon’s relationship to the Bible is anything but easy to understand.

The Book of Mormon has a complex relationship with the Christian Bible. It interacts with and, in some cases, reinterprets the stories and texts of the Bible in unique ways. In this interview, Michael Austin describes some of the ways in which the Book of Mormon reinterprets the Bible.


Read more about the Book of Mormon interpreting the Bible in The Testimony of Two Nations: How the Book of Mormon Reads, and Rereads, the Bible.

The book cover for Michael Austin's book, "The Testimony of Two Nations: How the Book of Mormon Reads, and Rereads, the Bible."
A Testimony of Two Nations tells the fascinating story of how the Book of Mormon reads—and re-reads—the Bible.

Table of Contents


How did the Testimony of Two Nations come to be?

The Testimony of Two Nations has its roots in two earlier book projects that came together in my mind about five years ago. The first project was a book that I published fairly early in my career—before I was paying much attention to Mormon Studies. The book is titled New Testaments: Cognition, Closure, and the Figural Logic of the Sequel (University of Delaware Press, 2012), and it deals with British Literature in the late-seventeenth and early eighteenth-centuries.

New Testaments focuses on the way that sequels to various early modern works of literature—Paradise Regained, Absalom and Achitophel Part II, Pilgrim’s Progress Part II, The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, and Pamela in Her Exalted Condition— relate to the original texts that preceded them. In my reading of these texts, I discovered that, in each case, the sequel connected itself to the New Testament. Paradise Lost, for example, is drawn from Genesis, while Paradise Regained is drawn from Luke. Robinson Crusoe is a narrative of exile, and The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe is a narrative of redemption, and so on.

So, I developed an argument that the sequels connected themselves typologically to the original works in ways that mirrored the ways that the New Testament read itself into the Hebrew Tanakh to create the Christian Bible. And the methodology that I used turned out to be very portable.

The second project began in 2016, when, after 30 years of not reading the Book of Mormon, I decided to read it all the way through and write a blog post each week on By Common Consent. This eventually turned into a book called Buried Treasures, which is a series of short and rather offhand observations about the Book of Mormon, many of which, because of my academic training, involved typology and type scenes and the Book of Mormon’s relationship to the Bible.

The Testimony of Two Nations takes some of the ideas that I introduced in Buried Treasures and gives them a much more scholarly treatment, using a methodology similar to what I used in New Testaments. The arguments are much longer and more substantial than those in Buried Treasures, but they have the same basic purpose, which is to show that the Book of Mormon is a narratively sophisticated scriptural text that often supports, but even more often rewrites, the narratives of the Christian Bible in ways that recall how the New Testament supports, and often rewrites, the Jewish scriptures that it incorporates into itself.


What are types and type scenes?

Typology and type scenes are two different ways to talk about recurring elements in a narrative—characters, settings, situations, and plot devices that represent the same type of thing in two or more stories.

Typology

Typology is the major way that the New Testament connects itself to the Hebrew Bible and that the subsequent Christian tradition framed the Old Testament and the New Testament as complementary testimonies of Jesus Christ.

According to the logic of the New Testament, the Hebrew scriptures are full of stories that point directly to Christ when you know how to read them. Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, for example, is seen by nearly all Christians as a type of God’s sacrifice of his only begotten son. Moses holding up a brazen serpent to heal the Israelites of snake bites is read by John as a type of Christ being raised up on the Cross (John 3:14). And all of the Hebrew Bible’s discussion of animal sacrifice is seen by Christians as a typological pointer to the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

The Book of Mormon does theologically what Lehi’s vision does typologically.

Without this connective logic, it would be very difficult to see the Old Testament as having much to do with the New Testament. Typology gives us the connections that turn two very different collections of books into the Christian Bible.

Type scenes

A type scene is another kind of narrative device in which very similar things happen multiple times in the same narrative. Type scenes were first studied in relation to Homeric epics—the Iliad and the Odyssey—where they occur in prodigious numbers. They were important memory aids for storytellers in an oral culture, who needed markers and repetition in order to memorize and deliver thousands of lines of epic poetry.

Much of the Bible, too, has roots in oral cultures, and 20th-century scholars like John Miles Foley and Robert Alter discovered similar type scenes in the Hebrew scriptures.

For example, when Abraham decides it is time for Isaac to get married, he sends his servant to a foreign land and the servant meets Rebekah at a well (Genesis 24). A few chapters later, Isaac’s son, Jacob, goes into a foreign land and sits by a well, where he meets Rachel, whom he eventually marries (Genesis 29).

And in Exodus 2, Moses flees to Midian after killing an Egyptian overseer and sits by a well. Almost magically, the seven daughters of the priest come out to the well, one of whom becomes Moses’s wife.

These scenes get shorter and shorter as the narrative goes on because readers are invited to see them as the same type of action. They represent something that, in the opinion of the author, underlies the fabric of reality and that therefore keep recurring in different contexts, with each story containing echoes of the previous iterations of the type.

Sometimes a narrative can be both a typological representation and a type scene. Take the story of Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents (Matthew 2:16-18). This is a type scene because it parallels the Pharaoh’s massacre of the Israelite children (Exodus 1:15-16). But it also establishes a connection between Moses and Jesus and presents Moses as a type of Christ.

Both typological connections and type scenes play important roles in allowing the New Testament to read itself into the Old Testament. And they play the same roles in allowing the Book of Mormon to read itself into the Christian Bible.


How do curse type scenes in Genesis shed light on the curse on the Lamanites?

In the first place, it is important to understand that curse narratives are essentially etiological folktales like “How the Elephant Got Its Trunk” or “How the Bear Lost Its Tale.” These kinds of stories are ubiquitous in ancient texts for two reasons: first, they helped explain phenotypical differences that ancient people did not have the scientific background to explain in other ways. Why did some people look different than other people? Somehow, magic must have been involved.

More importantly, curse narratives gave people a way to portray contemporary enemies in a negative historical light. One of the major curse narratives in Genesis concerns Ham’s son Canaan, and the terms of the curse made the descendants of Canaan, or the Canaanites, subordinate to the descendants of Shem, or Semites.

This had nothing to do with Noah’s grandchildren in the days after the flood and everything to do with the conflict between Canaanites and Israelites when the text was put into its final form. Nephi wrote 50 years after the fact about the people who have become his people’s enemies. Mormon wrote a thousand years after that about the people who destroyed his civilization. No ancient historian (and very few modern ones) can be trusted to give an entirely accurate history of their enemies. Curse narratives were one way that ancient writers legitimated themselves and delegitimated their enemies.

And there is more going on at the typological level. A typological reference can both confirm and subtly reframe the original type at the same time. The cursing of Laman and Lemuel in 2 Nephi 5 contains many of the same elements as the Old Testament scenes cursing Cain (Genesis 4:8-16) and Ham (Genesis 9:20-27).

But there are some crucial differences too, the most important being that both curse scenes in the Bible—Cain and Ham—place the recipient of the curse outside of the covenant.

The curse of Laman and Lemuel does not do this. The Lamanites are always part of the covenant people, and their ultimate redemption is built into the structure of the Book of Mormon.

This gives us an important frame for reading all of the scriptural curse scenes. Whatever we may think about the legitimacy of the historical claims in these passages, we must not assume that God’s disfavor with anyone’s ancestry removes any part of our responsibility to include them in our community.


How do visions of the Tree of Life in 1 Nephi interact with the story Adam and Eve?

Both the story of Adam and Eve and the vision of the Tree of Life are stories about people finding a tree and eating a fruit, and the later story inverts the narrative of the former. In Genesis, Adam and Eve start off in Paradise and then eat the fruit, and are cast out into the lone and dreary world. Lehi begins in the dark and dreary wilderness, eats the fruit, and ends up in Paradise.

In Genesis, the serpent tempts Adam and Eve to eat the fruit. In the Book of Mormon, the people in the Great and Spacious Building tempt people not to eat the fruit.

In Genesis, Adam and Eve feel shame because they disobeyed God and ate the fruit. Shame acts as a conduit to repentance. In the Book of Mormon, people feel shame because the people in the Great and Spacious Building make fun of them for eating the fruit. Shame acts as a conduit to sin.

Lehi’s vision reverses almost everything important about the Garden of Eden narrative.

Lehi’s Vision of the Tree of Life in the Book of Mormon has many similarities with the story of Adam and Eve in the Bible.

Not coincidentally, this reversal corresponds exactly to the way that the Book of Mormon’s theology reverses the traditional Christian understanding of the Fall.

Since Augustine, most Christians have seen the Fall as a great tragedy—something that could have been avoided if Adam and Eve had been more obedient and something that has made the human condition worse than it would have been if our first parents had obeyed God and stayed in the Garden.

The Book of Mormon, however, presents the Fall as a positive thing. Before they fell, Adam and Eve could not have children, and their eating the fruit made humanity and human progression possible. The Book of Mormon does theologically what Lehi’s vision does typologically: it reinterprets the moral logic of the Fall.

Learn more about how Michael Austin says the Book of Mormon and the Bible provide perspectives for understanding each other.

How do Exodus narratives in the Book of Mormon differ from the Bible?

Exodus is a recurring theme in the Book of Mormon. People are always leaving a place that has become dangerous and migrating to somewhere safe. Some version of the exodus type occurs seven different times in the Book of Mormon.

Two of these Exodus scenes are massively important to the narrative:

  1. Lehi and his family’s exodus from Jerusalem before it is destroyed, which sets in motion the entire Book of Mormon.
  2. The First Mosiah’s exodus from the Land of Nephi, which brings the Nephites to Zarahemla, where much of the Book of Mormon is set.

The biblical Exodus is a story in three parts. First, the Israelites leave their home. Second, they wander in the wilderness for a while. And third, they conquer the land of Canaan. The Book of Mormon’s exodus scenes appear to eliminate this third stage of violent conquest.

When Lehi’s family comes to the Promised Land, they take possession of it without the need for genocidal warfare. And when Mosiah and the Nephites come to the city of Zarahemla, the Zarahemlans welcome them with open arms and make them their leaders.

The whole book of Alma starts to look very different.

But the wars in Alma and Helaman belie the Nephite’s narrative of a peaceful merger. For the next five generations, the Nephites experienced civil wars and major dissent that can be traced back to the native Zarahemlans. I see this as the reassertion of the original exodus type.

But the Nephite recordkeepers go to great lengths to hide the nature of the conflict, insisting that the Zarahemlans fully embraced the Nephites an that, by the time of Alma, Zarahemlan identity had been fully subsumed into the categories of Nephites and Lamanites (Alma 3:11). The wars, they insist, are with “Nephite dissenters,” not with Zarahemlan natives.

However, the narrative constantly works against this formulation and links the conflicts back to the indigenous inhabitants of the land. And after a while, this starts to look a lot like a narrative of conquest.


How might things have looked differently from a Mulekite perspective?

As I mentioned above, the Nephites did their best to portray the Zarahemlans as a people who happily assimilated with the Nephites and to present all subsequent conflicts as civil wars with dissident Nephites. But there is reason to believe that the major dissident movements in Alma and Helaman are wrapped up in an indigenous Zarahemlan identity that did not officially exist.

We see this almost as soon as the Zarahemla narrative begins. When King Benjamin calls his people together, he instructs his son (the second Mosiah), to make a proclamation to “the people of Zarahemla, and the people of Mosiah” (Mosiah 1:10). There is nothing particularly violent in this request, but it does show us that, two generations after they officially became one people, the Nephites and the Zarahemlans maintained separate identities that were recognized by the state.

But that’s not all.

In the opening chapter of Alma, the people of Zarahemla have been divided into two religious groups: those who follow the new Church that Alma brought from the Land of Nephi, and those who follow the religion of Nehor. There is some evidence that the Nehorites came from the traditional Zarahemlan segment of the population who resented the sudden prominence of a new and distinctly Nephite Church.

It is at least an assumption worth testing. And if we assume that Nehor was a religious leader among the traditional Zarahemlans, then the whole book of Alma starts to look very different.

When Nehor is accused of killing Gideon, a religious hero from the Land of Nephi, the tensions between the two factions create a political crisis for Alma. And when he solves this crisis by convicting and executing Nehor he sets in motion events that lead to a destructive war with Amlici, who is described as “after the order of the man that slew Gideon by the sword, who was executed according to the law” (Alma 2:1).

Nearly every dissenting Nephite in the Book of Alma is described as either a Nehorite, a Zarahemlan, or both. And in the Book of Helaman, Coriantumr—the general who leads the Lamanites against the Nephites—is described as “a descendant of Zarahemla; and . . . a dissenter from among the Nephites” (Helaman 1:15). This description is telling, as it both asserts and erases Zarahemlan identity from the picture by identifying Coriantumr as a descendent of the last Zarahemlan king while simultaneously labeling him a dissenting Nephite.

All of this is consistent with the kind of enforced assimilation that conquerors often impose on the people they conquer. The Nephite recordkeepers try very hard to convince us that the Zarahemlans voluntarily gave up their language, religion, and culture when the superior Nephites came along and showed them the errors of their ways. But the text itself pushes back hard against that pretense and shows us that the Zarahemlans maintained a distinct identity for at least five generations after the official merger and that this repressed identity often returned in very unpleasant ways.


How did Alma the Younger’s political career interfere with his prophetic and priestly career?

Alma the Younger came to power right at the time that Zarahemla was undergoing dramatic changes. Politically, the country was facing a succession crisis, as none of King Mosiah’s sons wanted to succeed him (Mosiah 29:3). Mosiah solved that problem by eliminating the monarchy and creating some kind of republican government.

But that’s not all. The reintegration of the breakaway colony in the Land of Nephi also brought a large group of Nephite refugees into a community that was already feeling the strain of trying to combine Nephite and Mulekite cultures. The new Nephites brought a new religion that very quickly became a quasi-official state church when Mosiah converted and appointed Alma senior to an ecclesiastical office (Mosiah 26:8).

And then, Alma the Younger emerges as the head of both the church and the state in a very divided country. The first thing he has to do is deal with a religious dissenter, Nehor, who appears to have a lot of support among the non-Nephite Zarahemlans. Alma ends up executing Nehor, and while the narrative insists that this was a completely justified legal action (because Nehor was guilty of killing Gideon, an influential new Nephite Christian who had been a hero in the struggle against King Noah), it is unlikely that the Nehorites would have seen it this way. In the next chapter we see the followers of Nehor uniting under Amlici to challenge Alma’s political authority and, when they lose the election, to start a civil war.

We can’t ignore the religious and cultural dimensions of this war. The Amlicites were followers of Nehor who did not see any way that their beliefs could be respected when a sworn enemy of their religion was governing the country.

The text does not say that these were primarily native Zarahemlans, but there are indicators throughout the Book of Mormon that the split between Nephites and Zarahemlans largely mirrored the split between Christians and Nehorites.

From the perspective of a native Zarahemlan, then, Alma was a foreigner with a strange religion who had come to the country as a refugee and who was now in charge of everything. And he was persecuting the people who had been there all along. They would have been very susceptible to someone like Amlici.

Someone who takes this position is not criticizing an anachronism.

After the civil war, Alma quits his political position in order to focus on missionary work. It should not surprise us that he was not well received in places like Ammonihah, which was comprised mainly of Nehorites (Alma 15:15).

Alma’s visit to this city would have been comparable to Abraham Lincoln strolling into Atlanta in 1870 to preach the virtues of racial harmony (assume that Lincoln had not been assassinated and that, in addition to being the ex-president, he was also the Pope and everyone in Atlanta was Protestant).

As I read it, the most urgent message of the Book of Alma is that prophets should not try to be politicians in pluralistic nations, since the duties of a prophet and the duties of a political leader will often produce irreconcilable conflicts no matter how honorable one is or how diligently one tries to avoid them.


How does the portrayal of prophets in the Book of Mormon relate to prophets today?

The word “prophet” means a lot of different things in the Bible. We can use it to describe Abraham, the patriarch of his people, and Moses, the leader of the Israelites during the Exodus. But for most of the biblical narrative, especially the Nevi’im, or the Prophets, a prophet is usually an outsider who has neither political nor ecclesiastical authority but who criticizes priests and kings alike. Prophets spoke with a charismatic authority derived directly from God and from the urgency of their message.

Three prophet figures in the Book of Mormon follow this biblical pattern: Lehi, who is a prophetic contemporary of Ezekiel and Jeremiah; Abinadi, who warns King Noah and converts Alma in the Land of Nephi; and Samuel the Lamanite, who stands on the wall of Zarahemla and calls people to repentance.

Most of the other figures described as prophets have political and/or ecclesiastical positions. They are kings (Benjamin and Mosiah), high priests (Alma and Alma the Younger), generals (Helaman, Mormon, and Moroni), and chief judges (Alma the Younger and Helaman the Younger).

In the Book of Mormon, the term “prophet” migrates from the most common biblical type (Lehi, an outside critic of both religious and ecclesiastical officials) to an institutional category that exercises ecclesiastical, and in some cases political power.

Prophets in the Restoration tradition have always been based on the second kind of prophet in the Book of Mormon. The Prophet in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints occupies a position on an org chart and exercises significant ecclesiastical power.

Sometimes this translates into political power as well, as in the case of Brigham Young when he was the governor of the Utah Territory, or, aspirationally, when Joseph Smith ran for president.


What do you believe is the meaning of the name Anti-Nephi-Lehi?

This is a controversial point in Book of Mormon scholarship, and a lot of answers have been proposed. Hugh Nibley studied the prefix “anti-” in several ancient languages and concluded that it meant “joining together.”

Royal Skousen proposes that it was a proper noun in the original Nephite language (think of such place names as Antionah in Alma 12:20 and Antionum in Alma 31:3). In his view, “Anti-Nephi-Lehi” was a person’s name.

I think that the best way to read the term is Ante-Nephi-Lehi. It is spelled this way at least five times in the original and printer’s manuscripts, so it is likely that Joseph Smith said Antee-Nephi-Lehi, and the scribe wrote it down both ways. “Antee” And that can be spelled either “Anti” or “Ante,” but the reverse is not true, if Joseph had said “an-tie,” it could only have been spelled Anti-, and this is not what happened.

An Ante-Nephi-Lehi would means something like, “the people of Lehi before Nephi,” or “Lehites before the split into Nephites and Lamanites.” It becomes a way to emphasize the unity of Lehi’s descendants and not their divisions, which is consistent with the other things going on in the text when the name first appears.


Why do mainline Christians walk a fine line when they decry the Book of Mormon having explicit prophecies of Christ before his birth?

Because Christianity is built on the assumption that the Old Testament prophets knew precisely the same things that the Book of Mormon prophets knew and chose to communicate them in vague and un-explicit prophecies that nobody could understand until the New Testament came along and provided the necessary context.

In the Book of Mormon, just because the world ends doesn’t mean its the end of the world.

The Christian Bible and the Book of Mormon both presume that prophets hundreds of years before Christ knew specific things about His birth, ministry, and death. Old Testament prophets like Isaiah chose to communicate those prophecies through types, shadows, and vague statements that could not really be understood until after the prophesied events occurred. They had the same foreknowledge but not the same clarity.

I think it is reasonable to criticize both the Book of Mormon and the New Testament for placing specific knowledge about Christ into scenes set hundreds of years before His birth. But I think it is disingenuous to criticize the Book of Mormon because Nephi knew specific things about Christ’s birth and communicated them clearly while praising the Book of Isaiah as “the fifth gospel” because it says precisely the same things with much less clarity.

Someone who takes this position is not criticizing an anachronism. They are just criticizing plain speech.


How does the Book of Mormon reorient eschatology into a cyclical narrative?

One of the most interesting things to me about the Book of Mormon’s account of Christ’s visit is that Christ comes to the Americas in a way that is very much like the people of his time imagined that the Messiah was supposed to come to Jerusalem.

He destroys the ruling political order (and most of the people), and he sets up a new society that lives in peace and harmony (until it doesn’t anymore). If the Book of Mormon had ended halfway through Fourth Nephi, we could have read Christ’s visit as a genuine eschaton—a final coming in glory that establishes the Kingdom of God.

But the Book of Mormon does not end halfway through Fourth Nephi.

It keeps going, and the eschatological end of the world becomes “the good old days.” The society continues to decline until the entire order is destroyed again. But before this happens, we visit the Jaredites and see yet another eschatological catastrophe with the end of the Jaredite civilization.

The world ends three times in the Book of Mormon. But each time, it comes back.

Mormon Bids Farewell to a Once Great Nation by Arnold Friberg depicts an emotional scene from the Book of Mormon. Image courtesy churchofjesuschrist.org.

This, I think, is a very different narrative pattern than the Christian Bible has. The Bible begins with the creation of the world in Genesis and ends with the anticipated destruction of the world in Revelation. It accustoms us to see the apocalypse as something final.

But the Book of Mormon pushes against this view by portraying seemingly final, apocalyptic events as recurring types. In the Book of Mormon, just because the world ends doesn’t mean its the end of the world. Where the narrative trajectory of the Bible is a straight line, the trajectory of the Book of Mormon is a circle.


What do you hope people will take away from The Testimony of Two Nations?

More than anything else, I want people to come away from the book with the idea that the Book of Mormon is a nuanced and complex text that can sustain close readings and that its relationship to the Bible is anything but easy to understand.


Did you enjoy this article?

Subscribe to receive an email each time we publish new content!


About the interview participant

Michael Austin is the Provost of Snow College. His eight books include Vardis Fisher, winner of the Association for Mormon Letters Award for Best Criticism. He is also a recipient of the Association of Mormon Letters Lifetime Achievement Award.


Further Reading

Learn more about Book of Mormon scholarship and theology in these articles:

Book of Mormon Resources

By Chad Nielsen

Biotech professional. Armchair historian. Latter-day Saint.

One reply on “How Does the Book of Mormon Reinterpret the Bible?”

Wonderful insights into the BoM and Alma specifically. I’ve been doing a close reading of Alma and am not sure I ever would have detected these patterns and relationships. I appreciate your scholarship.

Leave a Reply

Discover more from From the Desk

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading