Was Jesus born "at Jerusalem"?
By Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson
In the early 1990s we wrote two articles and an unpublished manuscript about the mistake that we believe Joseph Smith made in the Book of Mormon regarding the origin of Jesus' birth. We received immediate feedback from the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS, now known as the Neil Maxwell Institute), an organization based at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, telling us that our research was flawed. Several criticisms were published by the group, including a paper by Daniel Peterson, William Hamblin, and Matthew Roper in 1995 entitled "On Alma 7:10 and the Birthplace of Jesus Christ."
It is obvious that this is a very sensitive issue with these Mormons. According to them, Alma was referring to the surrounding area of Jerusalem and not the city itself. They insist that Alma was a real person, so to credit him with saying that Christ would someday be born in Jerusalem and not in Bethlehem would be a serious faux pas. To say otherwise casts doubt upon the historicity of Mormonism's sacred Book of Mormon.
We do not hide the fact that we do not believe the Book of Mormon is an ancient text. Because we believe Alma is a fictitious character, we naturally wouldn't credit him with such a gaffe. We are not implying that Joseph Smith was ignorant as to where Jesus was born. Instead, we believe that this was a simple slip of the pen. Joseph Smith may have mistaken the better-known Jerusalem for the lesser Bethlehem. It is not like this has not happened before. For instance, in a missionary manual published by the LDS Church titled Gospel Lessons for the Lamanite People, it reads on page 2 of lesson five, "Nephi lived in America at the time Jesus was born across the ocean in Jerusalem."
In their Commentary on the Book of Mormon (3:133), George Reynolds and Janne M. Sjodahl write, "Alma's prophecy is a grand supplement of Benjamin's prediction. Both prophets testified that the Lord, Israel's Messiah, at no far distant time, would come to redeem His people. Their prophecies were fulfilled not long after when Jesus, the Son of God, was born in Jerusalem, the land of their forefathers." If Reynolds and Sjodahl's use of the phrase in Jerusalem is conceded to be an oversight, it demonstrates that Smith could have also made a similar mistake in Alma 7:10. However, if LDS apologists wish to reject the notion that Reynolds and Sjodahl made a mistake, we would hope they would at least be honest enough to concede that the phrase land of our forefathers is a direct reference to the city of Jerusalem.
Dr. Peterson argues, "The most reliable way to determine what a given phrase means in the Book of Mormon, therefore, is to look at the Book of Mormon" (Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 5:73). This is a reasonable point. The problem is that Peterson and his colleagues ignore this guidance and instead go to great lengths to defend a phrase that is not included in the text. While much has been written to defend the notion that Jesus was born in the land of Jerusalem, the fact of the matter is that this phrase is not used in this passage. We repeat, the phrase land of Jerusalem is not used in Alma 7:10. Granted, the Book of Mormon does use this phrase, but it cannot be overlooked that at times even this expression refers to the city proper and not just the surrounding area.
Where did Lehi Live?
Let us assume for a moment that Alma was a real person and the Book of Mormon does actually have historical veracity. How would Alma 7:10 have been understood when read during Alma's time? Since Alma is not here to explain what he meant, we must look for other uses of the word structure that he chose to use. A simple word search of the phrase at Jerusalem results in 19 occurrences in the Book of Mormon. How this idiom is interpreted is very crucial. If it can be determined that at Jerusalem was understood to mean in Jerusalem, then why would Alma's readers think that the phrase at Jerusalem could mean anything other than the city itself?
The first use of this phrase can be found at the very beginning of the Book of Mormon. The narrative begins in 600 B.C. with a man named Nephi explaining how his father Lehi, a prophet, was told by God in a vision to gather his family and flee the coming destruction of Jerusalem. Nephi states that Lehi had "dwelt at Jerusalem in all his days" (1 Nephi 1:4). In verse seven we are told that this vision took place while Lehi laid on a bed in "his own house at Jerusalem."
Several LDS apologists have followed the lead of retired BYU professor Hugh Nibley when he insisted that, while Lehi and his family lived at Jerusalem, this "cannot possibly be within, or even very near, the city" (Lehi in the Desert, p.6). Writing for the Mormon book A Sure Foundation, Dr. Kelly Ogden wrote, "Dictionary definitions of at include 'close by' and 'near.' Thus 'at Jerusalem' could mean 'near Jerusalem.' There is another example in the Book of Mormon in which the word at may mean 'near.' The record does not say that Lehi and his family lived in Jerusalem, but at Jerusalem" (p. 4). Using this rationale Ogden concludes, "Lehi could have lived several miles away and still lived at Jerusalem, just as Jesus could be born several miles away in Bethlehem but still be born at Jerusalem." Mormon apologists seem to be acutely aware of the dilemma that could arise if it can be proven that Lehi lived in the actual city. This conclusion hardly has a unanimous consensus.
- Joseph Smith definitely made it clear that Lehi was from the city of Jerusalem when he said, "We are informed by these records that America in ancient times has been inhabited by two distinct races of people. The first were called Jaredites, and came directly from the tower of Babel. The second race came directly from the city of Jerusalem, about six-hundred years before Christ" (Documentary History of the Church 4:537).
- Page 13 of the Book of Mormon Student Manual (Religion 121-122) states, "Lehi's colony left Jerusalem and journeyed to the promised land." When speaking of Jeremiah's arrest, page 15 notes, "Had Lehi remained in Jerusalem, he likely would have received the same fate or worse." Again, it seems clear that Lehi lived in the city, not a suburb.
- Page 30 of the book Meet the Mormons, which is published by Church-owned Deseret Book Company, reads, "The Book of Mormon narrative begins about six hundred years before the birth of Christ, in the ancient city of Jerusalem, then the home of God's chosen people and his prophets" (1965 ed.).
- In their Doctrinal Commentary of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Fielding McConkie and Robert L. Millet write, "Lehi received direction to take his family and sufficient provisions and leave Jerusalem. Having learned earlier of the impending destruction of the great city..." (1:30).
- FARMS' newsletter Insights quotes Jeffrey R. Chadwick, an instructor at the Ogden Institute of Religion at Weber State University. He believes that "evidence suggests that Lehi's house was in the Mishnah Quarter of Jerusalem (the present Jewish Quarter). . . Lehi's ancestors (and thus Lehi) must have lived in the city of Jerusalem" (January 2000). Chadwick's conclusion concurs with Reynolds and Sjodahl who wrote, "Lehi was a man of considerable means and of good repute among the Jews. He had dwelt in Jerusalem all his life..." (Commentary, 1:12).
- Mormon Apostle Bruce R. McConkie also stated that Lehi lived in the city when he wrote, "...Lehi and Ishmael and their families left Jerusalem just before that great city was overrun by Nebuchadnezzar..." (The Mortal Messiah 1:189).
- Mormon Apostle Orson Pratt also believed Lehi lived in the city when he said, "About six hundred years before Christ, a Prophet was raised up in Jerusalem, by the name of Lehi..." (Journal of Discourses 7:181).
The above are but a few references rebutting the notion that Lehi lived outside of the city of Jerusalem. We list these to demonstrate that any other view is certainly a minority position that even Joseph Smith himself refuted.
"At Jerusalem" in the Book of Mormon
As mentioned earlier, the Book of Mormon uses the phrase "at Jerusalem" 19 times. Since it has been established that Lehi lived in Jerusalem, this accounts for seven of the 19. (These include 1 Nephi 1:4,7; 1 Nephi 2:13; 1 Nephi 5:4; 2 Nephi 6:8; 2 Nephi 9:5; 2 Nephi 25:6.)
Two more examples are 1 Nephi 19:20 and 1 Nephi 22:4. The former records Nephi's weariness "for those who are at Jerusalem." Page 53 of the Book of Mormon Student Manual interprets this to mean, "Nephi knew that the Jews in Jerusalem had suffered the fate his father said they would." In 1 Nephi 22:4, mention is again made of those who suffered at Jerusalem. Context would demand that this too speaks of the city. Hence, it is safe to say at this point that nine of the 19 passages directly refer to the city of Jerusalem.
When we examine the remaining 10 passages that use at Jerusalem, three of them refer to the people who were responsible for Jesus' crucifixion. First Nephi 19:13 reads, "And as for those who are at Jerusalem, saith the prophet, they shall be scourged by all people, because they crucify the God of Israel." (See also 2 Nephi 10:5 and 4 Nephi 1:31.)
Four other examples are allegedly the words of Jesus Himself (3 Nephi 15:14; 16:4; 17:8). Third Nephi 10:5 records Jesus virtually repeating what he said in Matthew 23:37. It reads in part, "O ye people of the house of Israel, ye that dwell at Jerusalem, as ye that have fallen; yea, how oft would I have gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens, and ye would not." In the New Testament we have two occasions where Jesus is credited with using the phrase "at Jerusalem" (Luke 24:47 and John 4:21). In both cases we have no reason to believe that it is anything but another reference to the city itself. Luke, John, and Paul all use the phrase at Jerusalem, and in every case it speaks directly to the city.
Helaman 16:18 in the Book of Mormon states that the wicked Nephites and Lamanites began to doubt that Christ should come and asked, "Why will he not show himself unto us as well as unto them who shall be at Jerusalem?" The heading of chapter 16 interprets this to mean the actual city when it says, "The unbelievers say it is not reasonable to believe in Christ and his coming in Jerusalem." Helaman 16:19 in effect repeats the question, only this time it uses the phrase land of Jerusalem. This is one of those times that the context allows this phrase to be interpreted to mean the city.
We next come to Alma 11:4. It reads in part, "Now these are the names of the different pieces of their gold, and of their silver, according to their value. And the names are given by the Nephites, for they did not reckon after the manner of the Jews who were at Jerusalem." Though many LDS apologists have argued against this phrase having to do with actual coinage, we can't find anything specific regarding where the decisions for the values of precious metals would have been made. Since Jerusalem was the capital city of Israel, and since it is normally from the capital where such matters were determined, this would again be a reference to the actual city.
This leaves us with one more reference to at Jerusalem and that is the verse in question, Alma 7:10. We can only offer our readers the simple suggestion that if a phrase is used 19 times, and in 18 of those times it can be demonstrated that it means the actual city of Jerusalem, it is both inconsistent and tenuous to interpret Alma 7:10 otherwise.
Land of our forefathers
As mentioned before, LDS apologists would much rather concentrate on a phrase that is not found in the passage in question. It would be natural for them to ignore the vast amount of evidence that demonstrates how at Jerusalem has been interpreted to mean in Jerusalem. Consider also how the departure of Lehi from the city of Jerusalem is a pivotal point in the Nephite timeline. In many cases time is measured from this exodus. For example, Jacob 1:1 reads, "FOR behold, it came to pass that fifty and five years had passed away from the time that Lehi left Jerusalem."
The reign of kings is also determined according to Lehi's departure. Mosiah 6:4 tells us, "Mosiah...began to reign in the thirtieth year of his age, making in the whole, about four hundred and seventy-six years from the time that Lehi left Jerusalem."
This event is also used as a starting point when it comes to the birth of Christ. First Nephi 10:4 reads, "Yea, even six hundred years from the time that my father left Jerusalem, a prophet would the Lord God raise up among the Jews—even a Messiah, or, in other words, a Savior of the world."
Over and over again the Book of Mormon people are reminded to look back to Lehi and Jerusalem. Because of this, it seems perfectly plausible that Alma's listeners would have understood the phrase land of our forefathers to mean the city of Jerusalem.
Land of our father's inheritance
The Book of Mormon states that after Lehi fled from Jerusalem, he was told by God in a dream to send his sons back to the city to retrieve the brass plates containing the genealogical records of his family. First Nephi 3:9 states, "And I, Nephi, and my brethren took our journey in the wilderness, with our tents, to go up to the land of Jerusalem." To our knowledge there is no dispute that this is a reference to the city proper since the brass plates were in the possession of a relative named Laban who lived within the walled city.
Laban refuses to surrender the plates, so before another attempt is made, Nephi suggests that he and his brothers "go down to the land of our father's inheritance, for behold he left gold and silver, and all manner of riches." It is the intention of Nephi to use the valuables as a means of exchange for the plates from Laban. Mormon apologists such as Dr. Nibley have assumed that the land of our father's inheritance is the same place where Lehi actually lived. There is no evidence to suggest this from the narrative. It is an argument from silence and based purely on assumption. Jeffrey Chadwick sees Jerusalem and the land of our father's inheritance as two distinct places. While he believes Lehi and his family actually lived in the city of Jerusalem, he states that because Lehi was from the tribe of Manasseh, his land of inheritance "was in the Manasseh area, between Galilee and Ephraim" (Insights, January 200, p.4). Chadwick's conclusion seems to better harmonize the passages involved.
Some might wonder why we have gone to all of this effort to exegete passages we don't even believe are authentic. That is a valid question. Our purpose is to show that contrary to the verbose comments from some LDS apologists, this is not a slam-dunk for the Book of Mormon's reliability. As is common in many arguments raised by the proponents of Mormonism, attention must be diverted from the real issue and conclusions must be drawn that actually contradict the positions of earlier leaders. We have no illusions that this short rejoinder will change their minds. We do, however, hope that some Mormons reading this will see that there are several points to be considered when examining the debate surrounding this controversial book.
"The Land of Jerusalem" and the Dead Sea Scrolls
By Bill McKeever
In an article titled "Mounting Evidence for the Book of Mormon," Dr. Daniel Peterson from BYU states, "Alma 7:10 predicts that Jesus 'shall be born of Mary, at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers.' Is this a mistake? Everyone knows that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, not in Jerusalem. But it is now plain from modern evidence that Bethlehem could be, and indeed was, regarded anciently as a town in the 'land of Jerusalem.' A recently released text from the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example – a text claiming origin in Jeremiah's days (and therefore Lehi's) – says that the Jews of that period were 'taken captive from the land of Jerusalem'. . .Joseph Smith could not have learned this from the Bible, though, for no such language appears in it" (Ensign, January, 2000, p. 22).
Does modern evidence vindicate Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon as Dr. Peterson claims? Do the Dead Sea Scrolls lend credibility to Joseph Smith's claim of prophet? Though Dr. Peterson makes mention of the pseudo-Jeremias scroll in footnote 40, he does not quote the fragment at length. When the fragment is examined in more detail we find that it does not mention Bethlehem or speaks of Jesus' birth. We also find that the phrase "land of Jerusalem" used in this scroll is probably not a reference at all to the surrounding region of Jerusalem, but a reference to the actual city.
The fragment states that Jeremiah was one of those taken captive and that Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard, "took the vessels of the House of God and the priests [and] the children of Israel and brought them to Babylon." Since the "vessels of the House of God" is a clear reference to the temple in Jerusalem, can we, with absolute certainly, rule out the possibility that the phrase land of Jerusalem in this fragment is a reference to the city itself and not a region as Dr. Peterson would imply?
Consider also that a very similar expression is found in the Old Testament. Daniel 1:1-2 states:
In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah came Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon unto Jerusalem, and besieged it. And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, with part of the vessels of the house of God: which he carried into the land of Shinar to the house of his god; and he brought the vessels into the treasure house of his god.
Second Kings 25:8-11 gives us even more details regarding the final days of Jerusalem and, like the pseudo-Jeremias scroll, mentions Nebuzaradan by name:
And in the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month, which is the nineteenth year of king Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, came Nebuzaradan, captain of the guard, a servant of the king of Babylon, unto Jerusalem: And he burnt the house of the LORD, and the king's house, and all the houses of Jerusalem, and every great man's house burnt he with fire. And all the army of the Chaldees, that were with the captain of the guard, brake down the walls of Jerusalem round about. Now the rest of the people that were left in the city, and the fugitives that fell away to the king of Babylon, with the remnant of the multitude, did Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carry away.
The mention of the king's house is important since Jeremiah 32:2 says this was where the prophet Jeremiah was being held prisoner. Since the scroll states that Jeremiah was among those taken captive from the land of Jerusalem, and since Jeremiah was clearly in the city of Jerusalem, it appears that whoever wrote the seudo-Jeremiah scroll was using the phrase land of Jerusalem as a term to describe the city of Jerusalem.
It must also be noted that on that same page where Dr. Peterson makes his pseudo-Jeremiah defense, there is also a picture of a scroll with a caption that reads, "Some have questioned Nephi's prophesy that Christ would be born in the land of Jerusalem, but the Dead Sea Scrolls show that Bethlehem was regarded anciently as a town in the 'land of Jerusalem.'" Besides the fact that Nephi is erroneously credited with this prophecy (it was Alma), there are other reasons why this caption is misleading. As mentioned previously, the Dead Sea Scroll to which Dr. Peterson refers never mentions Bethlehem at all. Furthermore, the Book of Mormon does not say specifically that Jesus would be born "in the land of Jerusalem." It says Jesus would be born at Jerusalem, a phrase used in the Book of Mormon several times to describe the city itself.
From what we gather in the Bible, the southern tribes were always known as Judah clear up to the captivity. Jeremiah 33:6,7 says: "Then Jeremiah the prophet spake all these words unto Zedekiah king of Judah in Jerusalem, When the king of Babylon's army fought against Jerusalem, and against all the cities of Judah [note: not cities of Jerusalem] that were left, against Lachish, and against Azekah: for these defenced cities remained of the cities of Judah."
If Mormons choose to point to Pseudo-Jeremiah as proof that the land of Jerusalem is a common ancient expression, they should also concede that this is a reference to the city and not a reference to a land region that would somehow include the town of Bethlehem.