“Why does the Book of Mormon say that Jesus would be born in Jerusalem?” Ensign, Aug. 1984, 51–52
D. Kelly Ogden, associate director, The Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies. Let’s look more closely at Alma’s wording: “He shall be born of Mary, at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers.” (Alma 7:10.) Notice two points: first, Jerusalem is referred to as a land rather than as a city. Second, Jesus’ birth would occur at Jerusalem.
The Land of Jerusalem. Towns and villages which surrounded larger demographic or political centers were regarded in ancient times as belonging to those larger centers. For a major city center such as Jerusalem to be called not only a city but also a land was standard practice.
El Amarna letter #287, an ancient Near Eastern text, mentions the “land of Jerusalem” several times.1 And—like Alma—the ancient writer of El Amarna letter #290 even refers to Bethlehem as part of the land of Jerusalem: In this letter is recorded the complaint of Abdu-Kheba of Jerusalem to Pharaoh Akhenaton that “the land of the king went over to the Apiru people. But now even 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.”2 Hebron, almost twenty miles south of Bethlehem, was also considered part of the “land of Jerusalem.”3
The Book of Mormon is internally consistent in using the wording “the land of Jerusalem” to refer to the place from which Lehi and his family had left, where the Savior would appear as a mortal, and to which the people of Judah would eventually return.4
Modern revelation given through the Prophet Joseph Smith perpetuates the expression and its ancient meaning. In Doctrine and Covenants 133:24, we read that when the continents are reassembled and again become one land mass, “the land of Jerusalem and the land of Zion shall be turned back into their own place.”
Several other scriptural cities are also labeled at times as lands. Ammonihah was a city (see Alma 8:6), but it was also a land (see Alma 14:23). The area surrounding the city of Ur was also known as Ur. We read that an idolatrous shrine stood by Potiphar’s Hill, which “was in the land of Ur, of Chaldea.” (Abr. 1:20.) And in Abraham 2:4, we learn that Abraham and his family left “the land of Ur, of the Chaldees” and transferred to the “land” of Haran. The Damascus Rule (also known as the Zadokite Document—part of the Dead Sea Scrolls) twice refers to the “land of Damascus.”5
At Jerusalem. Alma stated that Jesus would be born of Mary not in Jerusalem, but at Jerusalem. Dictionary definitions of at include the words close by and near. Certainly “at Jerusalem” could be interpreted “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: “My father, Lehi, … dwelt at Jerusalem in all his days” (1 Ne. 1:4); “he returned to his own house at Jerusalem” (1 Ne. 1:7.); and “I, Nephi, have … dwelt at Jerusalem” (2 Ne. 25:6). That Lehi and his family may indeed have lived outside of Jerusalem proper is evidenced in the account of the sons’ attempt to secure the brass plates with their abandoned wealth: “We went down to the land of our inheritance, and we did gather together our gold, and our silver, and our precious things. And after we had gathered these things together, we went up again unto the house of Laban.” (1 Ne. 3:22–23; italics added.) 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.
Joseph Smith, of course, knew well that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. If he had been the author of the Book of Mormon he would have so stated the fact, since any deviation from the well-known setting would certainly draw objection and accusation. However, Joseph Smith was merely translating a geographical note from an ancient writer—a note which in itself is another evidence that the Book of Mormon derives from a Semitic background.
Thus, Alma’s prophetic preview of the setting of the Savior’s birth is not erroneous or contradictory. It is compatible with similar biblical and extra-biblical figures of speech—evidence, in fact, of the passage’s authentic ancient origin.