Alma 7:10. Jesus Born in Jerusalem or Bethlehem?
Since virtually everyone-children and adults-in Joseph Smith’s day knew that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, how could the prophet possibly have erred? The name Jerusalem has to be deliberate. It is, in fact, significant that in this passage Alma did not claim that Jesus would be born in the city of Jerusalem, but “at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers.” While it is not found in the Bible even once, the term “land of Jerusalem” occurs over 40 times in the Book of Mormon, while other passages also refer to Jerusalem as a “land” (Alma 7:10; 21:1; 3 Nephi 20:33, 46). Moreover, one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, 4Q385b, speaks of “Jeremiah the prophet” (a contemporary of Lehi) and of those who were “taken captive from the land of Jerusalem.”[i]
Lehi and Nephi seem to have known the designation of Jerusalem as both a city and the land it governed. The term “land of Jerusalem” is found in 1 Nephi 3:9-10; 7:2. In the Book of Mormon, we read that Lehi dwelt “at Jerusalem in all his days” (1 Nephi 1:4). But he clearly did not live in the city of Jerusalem. After coming to Jerusalem, where Laman visited Laban in his house (1 Nephi 3:11, 23), Lehi’s sons, thinking to pay Laban for the plates of brass, “went down to the land of [their] inheritance” to gather up their wealth (1 Nephi 3:22). They then “went up again” to Jerusalem to visit Laban (1 Nephi 3:23). He chased them away and, after a time, they returned to “the walls of Jerusalem” (1 Nephi 4:4), and Nephi “crept into the city and went forth towards the house of Laban.” From this, it is evident that the “Jerusalem” where Lehi lived had to be other than the city, and therefore somewhere nearby, in the “land of Jerusalem.”
Throughout the Book of Mormon, the terms “city” and “land” seem to be interchangeable. There is a city of Nephi and a land of Nephi, a city of Zarahemla and a land of Zarahemla, and so forth. Evidently, each city controlled a certain territory or land that was denominated from the name of the city. This is especially clear in Alma 50:14, where we read of the construction of a new site: “They called the name of the city, or the land, Nephihah.” The pattern followed by the Nephites (and by the Lamanites when they became sedentary) was evidently brought from the Old World. In ancient Israel, the “fenced [walled] cities” were places of refuge for farmers in surrounding villages (see Leviticus 25:31; 1 Samuel 6:18; Ezekiel 38:11). In time of war, the peasants could flee to the protection of the city walls, where arms were stored for defense. This is precisely what we find described in Mosiah 9:14-16.
Biblical cities, like those of the Book of Mormon, controlled nearby land. Hence, we read of “the king of Ai, and his people, and his city, and his land” (Joshua 8:1) and of the city of Hebron, its suburbs, fields and villages (1 Chronicles 6:55-56). In the Bible, cities are sometimes called by the term “land.” Tappuah is called a “land” in Joshua 17:8, but ia a city in Joshua 16:8. Jeremiah prophesied that Jerusalem would become “a land not inhabited” (Jeremiah 6:8; cf. 15:5-7). The Mesha or Moabite stela of the ninth century BC, found at ancient Dibon in Jordan, provides contemporary archaeological evidence for the interchange of “city” and “land.” The text, reporting the rebellion of Mesha, king of Moab, against Israel, lists a number of “lands” which are known from the Bible to be cities. Internal evidence also implies that they are cities, since Mesha noted that he had “built” these lands.
The reason that lands were named after their principal cities was that some cities controlled other nearby sites. In the account of the assignment of lands to the tribes under Joshua, we frequently read of “cities with their villages” (Joshua 13:23, 28; 15:32, 36, 41, 44, 46-47, 51, 54, 57, 59-60, 62; 16:9; 18:24, 28; 19:6-8, 15-16, 22, 30-31, 38-39, 48; 21:12). Sometimes the word “daughters” was used in the Hebrew text to mean “villages,” in the sense of satellites (Exodus 21:25, 32; 2 Chronicles 28:18; Nehemiah 11:25, 27, 30-31). In some cases, a known city is named and is said to have other cities, towns or villages under its dominion. Thus, we read of “Heshbon and all her cities” (Joshua 13:17), “Ekron, with her towns and her villages” (Joshua 15:45), “Megiddo and her towns” (Joshua 17:11), and “Ashdod, with her towns and her villages” (Joshua 15:47). Jeremiah 34:1 speaks of “Jerusalem and . . . all the cities thereof.”
The use of the name Jerusalem to denote both a city and a land is followed, in the Bible, by references to Samaria, the capital city of the northern kingdom of Israel. Old Testament scriptures frequently extend the term Samaria to include surrounding regions or “the cities of Samaria” under the political control of the state (1 Kings 13:32; 2 Kings 17:24, 26; 23:19).
Clay tablets written in the fourteenth century BC and found in 1887 at el-Amarna in Egypt use the term “land” for Canaanite sites known from the Bible to have been ancient cities. For example, one text (EA 289) speaks of the “town of Rubutu,” while another mentions the “land of Rubutu” (EA 290). The first of these also speaks of “land of Shechem,” and “the land of the town of Gath-carmel” (both ancient cities) and says of Jerusalem, “this land belongs to the king.” A third text mentions the lands of Gezer, Ashkelon, and Jerusalem (EA 287).
But there is evidence that, even in the Old World, Bethlehem was considered to be part of the “land of Jerusalem.” One of the Amarna texts (EA 290) speaks of “a town in the land of Jerusalem” named Bit-Lahmi, which is the Canaanite equivalent of the Hebrew name rendered Beth-lehem in English Bibles.
We conclude that Lehi’s descendants in the New World followed authentic Old World custom in denominating each land by the principal city in the land. This kind of detail lends evidence to the authenticity and antiquity of the Book of Mormon text.
For further reading, see:
- Robert F. Smith, “The Land of Jerusalem: The Place of Jesus’ Birth,” chapter 48 in John W. Welch, ed., Reexploring the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret and FARMS, 1992), 170-72.
- John A. Tvedtnes, “Cities and Lands in the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 4/2 (Fall 1995). Republished in John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne, eds., Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon (Provo: FARMS, 1999) and in David E. Bokovoy and John A. Tvedtnes, Testaments: Links Between the Hebrew Bible and the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Heritage, 2003).
- D. Kelly Ogden, I Have a Question: “Why does the Book of Mormon say that Jesus would be born at Jerusalem?” Ensign 14 (August 1984), 51-52.
- Daniel C. Peterson, “Mounting Evidence for the Book of Mormon,” Ensign, January, 2000.
It is unfortunate that some English translations read simply “from Jerusalem” or “of Jerusalem,” despite the fact that the Hebrew text reads eretz Yerushalaim, “land of Jerusalem.”