Book of Mormon/Anachronisms/Biblical/Jerusalem vs Bethlehem
Book of Mormon anachronisms: Jesus to be born "at Jerusalem"
Critics point out that Alma 7:10 says that Jesus would be born "at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers." Yet, every schoolchild knows that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. They claim that this is a mistake, and evidence that Joseph Smith forged the Book of Mormon.
To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here
The town of Bethlehem is in the "land of Jerusalem." In fact, Bethlehem is only 5 miles south of Jerusalem: definitely "in the land," especially from the perspective of Alma, a continent away. Even locals considered Hebron, twenty five miles from Bethlehem, to be in the "land of Jerusalem.
Critics have not proven anything in raising this point, except perhaps another literary evidence for the Book of Mormon. While a forger would likely overlook this detail and include Bethlehem as the commonly-understood birthplace of Jesus, the ancient authors of the Book of Mormon use an authentic term to describe the Savior's birthplace—thereby providing another point of authenticity for the Book of Mormon.
This is an old criticism that has been dealt with at least as far back as 1842. but continues to pop up now and again.
BYU professor Daniel C. Peterson pointed out the absurdity of this argument:
- To suggest that Joseph Smith knew the precise location of Jesus' baptism by John ("in Bethabara, beyond Jordan" (1 Ne. 10:9) but hadn't a clue about the famous town of Christ's birth is so improbable as to be ludicrous. Do the skeptics seriously mean to suggest that the Book of Mormon's Bible-drenched author (or authors) missed one of the most obvious facts about the most popular story in the Bible — something known to every child and Christmas caroler? Do they intend to say that a clever fraud who could write a book displaying so wide an array of subtly authentic Near Eastern and biblical cultural and literary traits as the Book of Mormon does was nonetheless so stupid as to claim, before a Bible-reading public, that Jesus was born in the city of Jerusalem? As one anti-Mormon author has pointed out, "Every schoolboy and schoolgirl knows Christ was born in Bethlehem." [Langfield, 53.] Exactly! It is virtually certain, therefore, that Alma 7:10 was foreign to Joseph Smith's preconceptions. "The land of Jerusalem" is not the sort of thing the Prophet would likely have invented, precisely for the same reason it bothers uninformed critics of the Book of Mormon.
It is important to note what Alma's words were. He did not claim Jesus would be born in the city of Jerusalem, but "at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers."
Thus, the Book of Mormon makes a distinction here between a city and the land associated with a city. It does this elsewhere as well:
This is consistent with the usage of the ancient Middle East. El Amarna letter #287 reports that "a town of the land of Jerusalem, Bit-Lahmi [Bethlehem] by name, a town belonging to the king, has gone over to the side of the people of Keilah." (One over-confident 19th century critic blithely assured his readers that "There is no such land. No part of Palestine bears the name of Jerusalem, except the city itself." While this was perhaps true in the 19th century, it was not true anciently. A supposed "howler" turns into evidence for the text's antiquity.
Thus, the Book of Mormon gets it exactly right — the town of Bethlehem is in the "land of Jerusalem." In fact, Bethlehem is only 5 miles south of Jerusalem: definitely "in the land," especially from the perspective of Alma, a continent away. Even locals considered Hebron, twenty five miles from Bethlehem, to be in the "land of Jerusalem."
The "land of Jerusalem" authentic ancient usage
Hugh Nibley noted in 1957:
- while the Book of Mormon refers to the city of Jerusalem plainly and unmistakably over sixty times, it refers over forty times to another and entirely different geographical entity which is always designated as "the land of Jerusalem." In the New World also every major Book of Mormon city is surrounded by a land of the same name.
The land of Jerusalem is not the city of Jerusalem. Lehi "dwelt at Jerusalem in all his days" (1 Nephi 1:4), yet his sons had to "go down to the land of our father's inheritance" to pick up their property (1 Nephi 3:16,22). The apparent anomaly is readily explained by the Amarna Letters, in which we read that "a city of the land of Jerusalem, Bet-Ninib, has been captured."17 It was the rule in Palestine and Syria from ancient times, as the same letters show, for a large area around a city and all the inhabitants of that area to bear the name of the city.18 It is taken for granted that if Nephi lived at Jerusalem he would know about the surrounding country: "I, of myself, have dwelt at Jerusalem, wherefore I know concerning the regions round about" (2 Nephi 25:6; italics added). But this was quite unknown at the time the Book of Mormon was written—the Amarna Letters were discovered in 1887. One of the favorite points of attack on the Book of Mormon has been the statement in Alma 7:10 that the Savior would be born "at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers" (italics added). Here Jerusalem is not the city "in the land of our forefathers"; it is the land. Christ was born in a village some six miles from the city of Jerusalem; it was not in the city, but it was in what we now know the ancients themselves designated as "the land of Jerusalem." Such a neat test of authenticity is not often found in ancient documents.
- See John Hardy, Hypocrisy Exposed (Boston: Albert Morgan, 1842), 3-12 off-site Full title. See later responses in John E. Page, "To a Disciple," Morning Chronicle (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) (1 July 1842). off-site, John E. Page, “Mormonism Concluded: To ‘A Disciple.’” Morning Chronicle (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) (20 July 1842). off-site, and George Reynolds, "Objections to the Book of Mormon," Millennial Star 44/16 (17 April 1882): 244–47.
- Daniel C. Peterson, "Is the Book of Mormon True? Notes on the Debate," in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, edited by Noel B. Reynolds, (Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1997), Chapter 6. ISBN 093489325X ISBN 0934893187 ISBN 0884944697. off-site GL direct link
- James B. Pritchard, editor, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3d ed. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1969), 489, translation by W. F. Albright and George E. Mendenhall; cited by D. Kelly Ogden, "Why Does the Book of Mormon Say That Jesus Would Be Born at Jerusalem? (I Have a Question)," Ensign (August 1984), 51–52.
- Origen Bachelor, Mormonism Exposed Internally and Externally (New York: Privately Published, 1838), 13. off-site
- Hugh W. Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 3rd edition, (Vol. 6 of the Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1988), Chapter 8, references silently removed—consult original for citations, (italics in original).