Was Jesus born "at Jerusalem"?

Was Jesus born "at Jerusalem"? 

By Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson 

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In the early 1990s we wrote two articles and an unpublished manuscript about the mistake that we believe Joseph Smith made in the Book of Mormon regarding the origin of Jesus' birth.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 October, 1966, a study was initated by the Indian Committee of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to determine an effective method of teaching the gospel to Lamanite people, the result of which is this lesson manual." On page 2 of lesson five of this manual, it reads, "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 the 1966 missionary manual and 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. Notice, we are not saying the Joseph Smith was stupid, as some LDS apologists have attempted to put words into our mouth. However, if LDS apologists wish to reject the notion that the missionary manual as well as 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 2000, p. 4). Chadwick's conclusion seems to better harmonize the passages involved.

Conclusion

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.

Also see "The Land of Jerusalem and the Dead Sea Scrolls"

Also, Listen to Dr. Daniel Peterson of BYU and former Mormon apologist Kerry Shirts as they defend Alma 7:10.