The Birthplace of Jesus: Bethlehem or Jerusalem?

By Wayne Jackson

“We have been asked to comment upon a claim made by a Mormon writer, namely the allegation that Joseph Smith did not err in his claim that Jesus was born in ‘Jerusalem.’”

For many years, critics of the Book of Mormon have called attention to a colossal blunder in that volume (but one of many), though the book claims to be a “revelation” from God. In Alma 7:10, the plagiarizing, inept author of that document “slips,” and names “Jerusalem” as the birthplace of Jesus Christ, rather than “Bethlehem” — the correct location. Here is the exact quotation.

“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, who shall be overshadowed and conceive by the power of the Holy Ghost,*,and bring forth a son, yea, even the Son of God” (Alma 7:10).

A would-be apologist for the Book of Mormon, via his web site, has attempted to defend this obvious error. Jeff Lindsay, a member of the self-styled Latter-day Saints, who holds the Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Brigham Young University, has assigned himself this ambitious task, and, though doubtless a sincere gentleman, he has left the matter worse than he found it.

Below, Lindsay’s arguments, as found in, “Why does Alma 7:10 say Christ was born in Jerusalem?” (www.jefflindsay.com), are followed by our response.

  1. “Alma 7:10 gives a prophecy that Christ would be born ‘at Jerusalem, which is the land of our forefathers.’ Here and in many other passages, Jerusalem is described as a land, not just a city.”

    Where is Jerusalem ever described as a “land” in the Scriptures? The expression “land of Jerusalem” never occurs in the sixty-six books of the Bible. The fact is, Matthew, an inspired apostle, explicitly states that Bethlehem is in “the land of Judah” (Matthew 2:6; cf. Luke 2:4). Judah is the “land”; Jerusalem is a “city” (cf. Zechariah 8:3; Matthew 5:35); and so is Bethlehem (Luke 2:4). Note the precision of Matthew’s descriptions elsewhere in the same chapter. Twice he refers to the “land of Israel” (2:20-21), and then to the “city of Nazareth” (v. 23). Unlike Joseph Smith, the biblical writers did not confuse “land” and “city.” Mr. Lindsay apparently thinks that Jerusalem is a “land within a land.” I have been unable to find a single lexical source that defines the term “city” to mean a “land.”
  2. According to our LDS gentleman, “Bethlehem is a tiny suburb of Jerusalem, just 5 miles away from the heart of the city.” This, he alleges, “is surprising evidence of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.” He contends, “the people of the New World” [America — in which the book of Alma supposedly is set] “would know little about Old World geography.” A couple of observations should be made regarding this claim.

    First, Bethlehem and Jerusalem are never confused in the Bible, as if the former were a mere “suburb” of the latter. The fact is, both “Bethlehem” and “Jerusalem” are mentioned in the same text (Matthew 2:1), with not the slightest hint that the two, in reality, were the same. In fact, Joseph Smith’s so-called “Inspired Translation” makes the same distinction at Matthew 2:1 (Joseph Smith’s “New Translation” of the Bible, Independence, Mo: Herald Publishing House, p. 247). Further, Matthew plainly says that Herod (who was in Jerusalem) sent the “Wise-men” to Bethlehem (Matthew 2:8). Now, who knew more about Jerusalem and Bethlehem respectively, Joseph Smith, Jr., or Matthew, the apostle?

    Second, why would Mr. Lindsay affirm that the Jerusalem/Bethlehem identification is accurate as a support for the Book of Mormon, and then attempt to rationalize the inaccuracy of the phraseology on the basis that those of the New World (out of which Alma came) were ignorant of Old World geography? This is telling indeed.
  3. Lindsay labors under the illusion that the Bible supports the Bethlehem/Jerusalem identification due to the fact that Jerusalem is designated as “the city of David” in the Old Testament ( 2 Kings 14:20), while the New Testament also refers to Bethlehem as “the city of David” (Luke 2:4).

    But the gentleman’s argument is faulty. He seems unaware that both Jerusalem and Bethlehem were designated as “the city of David” — not because they were the same city, or that biblical writers had them confused, but for different reasons. Bethlehem was so depicted because it was the birthplace of the great king (1 Samuel 17:12). On the other hand, when the ancient city of Jebus was conquered by David, his name was attached to the stronghold in honor of the event (1 Chronicles 11:5,7). Actually, within this same Old Testament context “Jerusalem” is set apart from “Bethlehem.” The sacred writer subsequently points out that while David was at the “stronghold” (i.e., Jerusalem – v. 5), the Philistines were at Bethlehem (v. 16).
  4. Finally, the Mormon devotee attempts to buttress his case by citing other Mormon writers who appeal to a few passages in the Old Testament (e.g., Jeremiah 6:8; 15:5-7), some of which suggest that the term “city” embraced nearby fields, villages, etc. (Leviticus 25:31). Also extra-biblical sources are referenced, e.g., other texts in the Book of Mormon, a few inscriptions from ancient Amarna in Egypt (14th century B.C.), a Moabite inscription, and a text from the Dead Sea Scrolls that some scholars attribute to Jeremiah.

    But this line of argument is far from conclusive. For example, both passages in Jeremiah (cited above) simply expand the Babylonian invasion far beyond the city of Jerusalem itself; the whole country was to be devastated. “The gates of the land” are the outposts of the exterior region (see: T.K. Cheyne, “Jeremiah,” Pulpit Commentary, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950, Vol. 11, p. 372).

    Moreover, when certain passages in the Amarna letters speak of, for example, “the land of Shechem,” such is simply a reference to the “land” in which Shechem was located (Amarna 289.25), and not a confusion of the “land” with the “town.” The same document, in the preceding passage, speaks of “the land of the town of Gath-carmel” (20), thus distinguishing strictly between a “land” and “town” (see: James Pritchard, Ed., The Ancient Near East, Princeton, NJ: Princeton Publishing, Vol. I, p. 274).

    Furthermore, this approach proves nothing about how the terms “Jerusalem” and “Bethlehem” were used at the time of Christ’s birth. And, as we demonstrated earlier, these cities were viewed as distinct even in the time of David (see above on 1 Chronicles 11:5,16).

    Testimony from ancient secular writers, who were notoriously imprecise in the recording of their data (see: R.D. Wilson as quoted in: “The Incomparable Wilson,” Which Bible?, David Otis Fuller, Ed., Grand Rapids: Grand Rapids International Publications, 1971, p. 45), cannot begin to compare with the testimony of Matthew and Luke, the former being a tax collector on behalf of the Roman government, who obviously was quite familiar with Palestinian cities. And without question Luke has an impeccable reputation as a first-rate historian of great detail (see Bruce Metzger, The Making of the New Testament, Nashville: Abingdon, 1965, pp. 171-74; cf. William M. Ramsay, The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979 Reprint, pp. 81,89).

    That aside, Bible scholars have commonly noted the unstructured use of such terms as “city,” “town,” and “village” in very ancient times. As one authority has observed:

    bq.“No apparent distinctions are implied in the use of the various terms. Ancient cities exhibited considerable differences, and terminological distinctions on the basis of size, character, or function, if they did occur, were entirely subjective. Usage is further complicated by the nature of the biblical record, which refers to cities throughout the ancient world and throughout a long span of time” (A.C. Myers, “City,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia — Revised, G.W. Bromiley, Ed., Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979, Vol. 1, p. 705).

    Strathmann has emphatically stated that “city” (polis) in the New Testament “simply means an ‘enclosed place of human habitation’ as distinct from uninhabited areas, pastures, villages and single houses” (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, G. Friedrich, Ed., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968, Vol. VI, p. 530).

Conclusion

Thus, as hard as our Mormon friend has tried, he has failed in his mission to rehabilitate Joseph Smith, Jr. in the matter of Jesus’ birthplace. Smith not only erred in his identification of the city of Christ’s birth, he demonstrated that he was not familiar with Bible nomenclature — not knowing the difference between “city” and “land.” Too, as an additional matter, he was not shrewd enough in the perpetration of his hoax to refrain from excluding uniquely “King James” jargon. It truly is a tragic thing that so many good people, such as the LDS folks generally are, have been misled by this system of false religion.

*It surely is one of the oddities of history that Alma, supposedly writing about 83 B.C., should have employed the word “Ghost,” in the passage under review. The word “ghost” was not even fashioned until the 15th century A.D. (Joseph Shipley, Dictionary of Word Origins, New York: Philosophical Library, 1945, p. 165). Lindsay’s explanation for this ludicrous phenomenon is that the King James English is

bq.“not from the original Book of Mormon engravings – it is the vehicle that was used to translate ancient writings into English. A logical explanation is that King James language and phraseology was [sic] used as an effective and widely recognized medium for a sacred text,” and so Smith employed such when they “adequately matched the meaning of the Nephite record” (“Did Joseph Smith Plagiarize from the King James Bible?” — www.jefflindsay.com).

Of course the translation comparison can never be checked for accuracy since no “Nephite record” exists, nor is there reasonable evidence that the “golden plates” that Smith reputedly translated ever existed. For a devastating critique of the credibility of the eleven “witnesses” (mostly relatives) who testified that they actually saw the plates, see: Jack Freeman, Mormonism And Inspiration, Concord, CA: Pacific Publishing Co., 1962, pp. 73-103.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.