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Joseph Smith: Of Walls and Elevation

By Bill McKeever

Note: The following was originally printed in the November/December 2021 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here.

“Did you know that Joseph Smith was shocked to learn that Jerusalem had walls around it while translating the Book of Mormon?”

Such is the opening line of a video produced by the website Book of Mormon Central. Though not officially a part of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the goal of  Book of Mormon Central is to “build enduring faith in Jesus Christ by making the Book of Mormon accessible, comprehensible, and defensible to the entire world.”

The purpose of the aforementioned video was to give the impression that Smith had a very limited understanding of the Bible and apparently was surprised by some of the facts he learned while “translating” the Reformed Egyptian writing on the Book of Mormon’s gold plates. This ignorance, they surmise, is proof that Joseph Smith could not be the author of the most important LDS scripture.

The video went on to say,

When translating with his wife Emma as scribe, Joseph came across a passage in which Nephi mentioned going “out of the walls” of Jerusalem. Emma later said of the experience, “One time while he was translating he stopped suddenly, pale as a sheet, and said, “Emma, did Jerusalem have walls around it?” When she answered “yes,” Joseph replied “Oh! I was afraid I had been deceived.” Emma explained that Joseph knew so little about the Bible that he didn’t even know about the walls around Jerusalem. Which is another evidence of the Book of Mormon. And now you know why.

It is assumed that the passage that startled Joseph was 1 Nephi 4:4: “Now when I had spoken these words, they were yet wroth, and did still continue to murmur; nevertheless they did follow me up until we came without the walls of Jerusalem.”

To make any sense of this passage, it is necessary to know that, according to verse 1, Nephi was trying to persuade his brothers Laman and Lemuel to “be faithful in keeping the commandments of the Lord” by killing their uncle Laban and taking his “plates of brass” containing a record of the Jews as well as a genealogy of Nephi’s forefathers.

Laban is described as “a mighty man” who was capable of slaying 50 men. The brothers were told by Nephi to hide while he went to Laban’s house and found Laban in a drunken stupor. Nephi took Laban’s sword, which was made “of the most precious steel,” and “smote off his head with his own sword” (1 Nephi 4:18).

Setting aside the fact that this appears to be an act of cold-blooded murder and theft, this story contains details that sound suspiciously close to what 1 Samuel 17:50 describes: “Then David ran and stood over the Philistine and took his sword and drew it out of its sheath and killed him and cut off his head with it.” Are we to believe that Smith was unfamiliar with this Old Testament story?

Smith’s comment to his wife seems equally suspicious. I don’t doubt that he may have said it, but I tend to look at his lack of knowledge about walls around Jerusalem with a large dose of incredulity. Smith’s personal 1832 diary drives me to this conclusion when Smith explained the following:

with regard to the all important concerns for the wellfare of my immortal Soul which led me to searching the Scriptures believing as I was taught, that they contained the word of God thus applying myself to them and my intimate acquaintance with those of different denominations led me to marvel exceedingly for I discovered that they did not of adorn their profession by a holy walk and Godly conversation agreeable to what I found in that sacred depository this was a grief to my soul thus from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in  my heart concerning the sittuation of the world of mankind the contentions and divions the wickedness and abominations and the darkness which pervaded the minds of mankind my mind become exceedingly distressed for I become convicted of my Sins and by Searching the Scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatized from the true and liveing faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the new testament. . . I learned in the Scriptures that God was the same yesterday to day and forever that he was no respecter of persons for he was God…” (Joseph Smith’s 1832-34 Diary, 5. Spelling and punctuation in original).

The above excerpt states how Smith was “searching the scriptures” at a very young age (12-15) and that he had learned enough to confidently discuss what he was learning with those from different denominations. Not only this, but he also learned enough to conclude that no denomination was built upon the Gospel. The fact that he conflates Hebrews 13:8 and Acts 10:34 shows how he must have at least been somewhat familiar with these New Testament books.

If Smith really studied the Bible, are we to assume that he had never read from the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, two books whose theme is built around the destruction and rebuilding of the walls around the Holy City? Even if he overlooked these books, other Old Testament passages mention Jerusalem’s walls:

  • 1 Kings 3:1 – And Solomon . . . made an end of building his own house, and the house of the Lord, and the wall of Jerusalem round about.
  • 1 Kings 9:15 – And this is the reason of the levy which king Solomon raised; for to build the house of the Lord, and his own house, and Millo, and the wall of Jerusalem, and Hazor, and Megiddo, and Gezer.
  • 2 Kings 14:13 – And Jehoash king of Israel… came to Jerusalem, and brake down the wall of Jerusalem from the gate of Ephraim unto the corner gate, four hundred cubits.
  • 2 Kings 25:10 -And all the army of the Chaldees, that were with the captain of the guard, brake down the walls of Jerusalem round about.
  • Psalm 51:18 – Do good in thy good pleasure unto Zion: build thou the walls of Jerusalem.
  • Jeremiah 1:15 – For, lo, I will call all the families of the kingdoms of the north, saith the Lord; and they shall come, and they shall set every one his throne at the entering of the gates of Jerusalem, and against all the walls thereof round about, and against all the cities of Judah.
  • Jeremiah 39:8 – And the Chaldeans burned the king’s house, and the houses of the people, with fire, and brake down the walls of Jerusalem.

Another Book of Mormon Central video titled “Evidences of the Book of Mormon: Old World Geography” states:

It’s also notable that Nephi consistently described journeys away from Jerusalem and into the wilderness as going down and journeys toward Jerusalem as going up. This agrees with ancient idiom and accurately reflects the region’s topography, where Jerusalem sits much higher than the surrounding wilderness regions. In 1829 Joseph Smith   didn’t even know Jerusalem was a walled city, so there’s a good chance he wasn’t aware of its raised elevation either.

Again, such a conclusion seems like quite a leap when Smith claimed he was searching the scriptures at the young age of 12. In the Book of Acts, from which he quotes in his diary, we have the following references:

  • Acts 11:2 – And when Peter was come up to Jerusalem, they that were of the circumcision contended with him…
  • Acts 13:31 – And he was seen many days of them which came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are his witnesses unto the people.
  • Acts 15:2 – When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question.
  • Acts 21:4 – And finding disciples, we tarried there seven days: who said to Paul through the Spirit, that he should not go up to Jerusalem.
  • Acts 21:12 – And when we heard these things, both we, and they of that place, besought him not to go up to Jerusalem.
  • Acts 21:15 – And after those days we took up our carriages, and went up to Jerusalem.
  • Acts 24:11 – Because that thou mayest understand, that there are yet but twelve days since I went up to Jerusalem for to worship.

Acts is not the only book mentioning this, as similar references can be found in 2 Sam. 19:34; 1 Kings 12:27, 28; 2 King 12:17, 18:17; 24:10; 2 Chron. 2:16; ; Luke 18:31, 19:28; John 5:1, 11:55; Acts 11:2, 13:31, 15:2, 21:12; 24:11; 25:9; and Gal. 1:17, 18; 2:1.

With such an abundance of references, it is difficult to believe that Smith was completely unaware that Jerusalem was surrounded by a wall or that its location was higher than the surrounding area. With the evidence taken into consideration, Smith’s question and the response he gave to his wife Emma sounds more like a ruse than a realistic inquiry.

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