2019 Update: Also see "Why Does the Book of Mormon Talk about a 'Land of Jerusalem'?," Book of Mormon Central, December 20, 2018.
For over 160 years, beginning at least with the 1833 publication of Alexander Campbell's Delusions, countless critics have claimed that the Book of Mormon's use of the phrase "land of Jerusalem" was a major error and proof that the Book of Mormon was false. They especially criticized the use of this phrase in reference to the place where Christ would be born. That phrase was not used in the Bible nor in the Apocrypha. Therefore, the critics concluded, it was an example of Joseph Smith's ignorance and evidence that he had tried to perpetrate a fraud. (For a thorough overview of this argument, see the essay by Daniel Peterson in Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, 5:62-78.)
For anyone honestly concerned with the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, there was little to argue about after Hugh Nibley showed in 1957 that one of the Amarna letters, written in the 13th century B.C. and discovered in 1887, recounted the capture of "a city of the land of Jerusalem, Bet-Ninib" (CWHN 6:101 [Note from J.L.: CWHN = The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley. Volume 6 is An Approach to the Book of Mormon]). Predictably, this evidence, along with further evidence of the general usage of this type of terminology in the Old World (see John W. Welch, ed., Reexploring the Book of Mormon, 170-72) has been ignored by critics of the Book of Mormon.
Now from the Dead Sea Scrolls comes an even more specific occurrence of the phrase "land of Jerusalem" that gives insight into its usage and meaning - in a text that indirectly links the phrase to the Jerusalem of Lehi's time.
Robert Eisenmann and Michael Wise, in The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered (1993), discuss one document that they have provisionally named "Pseudo-Jeremiah" (scroll 4Q385). The beginning of the damaged text reads as follows:
...Jeremiah the Prophet before the Lord
[...w]ho were taken captive from the land of Jerusalem [Eretz Yerushalayim, column 1, line 2] (p. 58).
In their discussion of this text, Eisenmann and Wise elaborate on the significance of the phrase "land of Jerusalem," which they see as an equivalent for Judah (Yehud):
"Another interesting reference is to the 'land of Jerusalem' in Line 2 of Fragment 1. This greatly enhances the sense of historicity of the whole, since Judah or 'Yehud' (the name of the area on coins from the Persian period) by this time consisted of little more than Jerusalem and its immediate environs." (p. 57)
Based on the evidence from Qumran, and in the words of Eisenmann and Wise, we can conclude that consistent usage of such language among a people of Israel who fled Jerusalem at the time of Jeremiah also "greatly enhances the sense of historicity" of the Book of Mormon.
Critics of the Book of Mormon will not likely give up this argument, despite the evidence. This is not surprising, after all, because the part of their argument that the phrase was not known in Joseph Smith's day was correct. Virtually all opponents of the Book of Mormon have to assume, a priori, that the text is a purely human 19th-century document in order to justify their rejection of the text. In the case of "land of Jerusalem," since the phrase could not be explained as being part of Joseph's learning environment and since it was not known in biblical literature, they incorrectly concluded that Joseph must have been wrong. Trying to prove a negative, they argued from silence and puffed this supposed error into what they believed was one of their highest polemical mountains of evidence against the Book of Mormon.
The phrase was not current in Joseph's day, but, unknown to him, it was an accurate usage for the day in which he claimed the book was written. Thus, despite the critics' best efforts, Joseph's supposed "error" becomes one more evidence for the Book of Mormon's authenticity.
Based on research by Gordon C. Thomasson.
In addition to the passage Hugh Nibley noticed in the Amarna Papers, mentioned in the excerpt from FARMS given above, a more interesting passagee in the ancient Amrana Papers was recently pointed out to me by Ronnie Bray in the U.K. (see his his YorkshireTales.com site, especially the All About Mormonism section). You can see this in The Holy Land: an Oxford archaeological guide from earliest times to 1700 by Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, p. 290. This letter from Jerusalem declares that "now even a town of the land of Jerusalem, Bit-Lahmi by name, has gone over to the people of Keila." (Amarna Letter No. 290, translated by W.F. Albright). So there you have it: the land of Jerusalem included a rebellious little town known as Bit-Lahmi, as in Bethlehem. Bingo. This excerpt from Google Books is shown below:
Lehi and his people left "the land of Jerusalem" in Jeremiah's day. With the Dead Sea Scrolls before us, we now know it would be perfectly logical for them to refer to the place where Christ would be born as "the land of Jerusalem." Use of that term was utterly illogical for Joseph Smith, who published the Book of Mormon over a century before the Dead Sea Scrolls were even discovered.
The following verses use the phrase "land of Jerusalem":
1 Nephi 2:11; 1 Nephi 3:9; 1 Nephi 3:10; 1 Nephi 5:6; 1 Nephi 7:2; 1 Nephi 7:7; 1 Nephi 16:35; 1 Nephi 17:14; 1 Nephi 17:20; 1 Nephi 17:22; 1 Nephi 18:24; 2 Nephi 1:1; 2 Nephi 1:3; 2 Nephi 1:9; 2 Nephi 1:30; 2 Nephi 25:11; Jacob 2:25; Jacob 2:31; Jacob 2:32; Omni 1:6; Mosiah 1:11; Mosiah 2:4; Mosiah 7:20; Mosiah 10:12; Alma 3:11; Alma 9:22; Alma 10:3; Alma 22:9; Alma 36:29; Helaman 5:6; Helaman 7:7; Helaman 8:21; Helaman 16:19; 3 Nephi 1:2; 3 Nephi 5:20; 3 Nephi 16:1; 3 Nephi 20:29; Mormon 3:18; Mormon 3:19; Ether 13:7.
J.L.'s note: The "offending" passage is Alma 7:10, where the prophet Alma predicts the birth of Christ, saying,
"And behold, he shall be born of Mary, at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers, she being a virgin, a precious and chosen vessel..."In Alma's time, 500 years after Nephi arrived in the New World, details of the geography of Israel were long forgotten. We should not be surprised to see that the land of Jerusalem is referred to as the place of Christ's birth - an entirely accurate and useful description, given the meaning of the phrase - rather than the nearby village of Bethlehem, a virtual suburb of the city of Jerusalem, roughly 5 miles away.
On this point, critics have long argued that the Book of Mormon is false because "everybody knows that Christ was born in Bethlehem." Certainly Joseph Smith knew that - he was familiar with much of the Bible and had heard the story of Christ's birth numerous times. If he were making the Book of Mormon up, why on earth would he make such a terrible blunder, placing Christ's birth in Jerusalem? How could he make such a thoughtless and stupid blunder in the midst of an otherwise enormously clever fraud? The "blunder" makes no sense if Joseph Smith were the author - but it is not a blunder at all and makes perfect sense if he were only translating an authentic ancient document. The use of the term "land of Jerusalem" in Alma 7:10 and many other locations can now be viewed as powerful evidence for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, based on recent discoveries about the use of that term in the ancient world. Joseph Smith could not possibly have made that up.
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).
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 bribe Laban, "went down to the land of [their] inheritance" (1 Nephi 3:22) to gather up their wealth. They then "went up again" to Jerusalem (1 Nephi 3:23) and offered to buy the plates from Laban. 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" or 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 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 B.C. 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 B.C. and found in 1887 at el-Amarna in Egypt use the term "land" for Canaanite sites known 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 Bīt-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:
- "On Alma 7:10 and the Birthplace of Jesus Christ" by Daniel C. Peterson
- "Jesus' Birthplace and the Phrase 'Land of Jerusalem'" by Robert R. Bennett
- John A. Tvedtnes, "Cities and Lands in the Book of Mormon," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Volume 4, Issue 2, Pages: 147-50.
- Robert F. Smith, "The Land of Jerusalem: The Place of Jesus' Birth," in John W. Welch, ed., Reexploring the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret and FARMS, 1992), 170-72
- 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