Jesus’ Birthplace and the Phrase “Land of Jerusalem”
The Book of Mormon teaches that Jesus Christ would be born in the land of Jerusalem (see Alma 7:10), whereas the Bible records that his birth took place in Bethlehem (see Matthew 2:1). As it turns out, both references are accurate, and the former is indicative of the Book of Mormon’s authenticity.
Reflecting a well-established biblical pattern, the Book of Mormon uses the name Jerusalem to refer to the city and the land surrounding it (which would include the city of Bethlehem) and to the regions that were governed and protected by those in control of the city. As will be shown, it is significant that in the Book of Mormon passage noted above, Alma claimed not that Jesus would be born in the city of Jerusalem but that he would be born “at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers.”
Throughout the Book of Mormon the terms city and land are used interchangeably. We read, for instance, that Lehi dwelt “at Jerusalem in all his days” (1 Nephi 1:4), yet we know that he did not live in the city of Jerusalem. Consider the following account: Once in the wilderness, the sons of Lehi returned to the “land of Jerusalem” (1 Nephi 3:9) intent on acquiring a scriptural record known as the plates of brass, in Laban’s possession. Laman was chosen to visit Laban in his home in the city of Jerusalem. When this first attempt at obtaining the plates of brass failed, the sons of Lehi “went down to the land of [their] inheritance” (1 Nephi 3:22) to gather up their wealth. They then “went up again” to the city of Jerusalem (1 Nephi 3:23) and offered to buy the plates from Laban, who rejected their offer and ordered his servants to slay them. Having fled from Laban’s home, Nephi and his brothers later returned to “the walls of Jerusalem,” and then Nephi “crept into the city and went forth towards the house of Laban” (1 Nephi 4:4, 5) in another attempt to secure the plates. Thus it is evident that Lehi did not live in the city of Jerusalem, but somewhere nearby in the “land of Jerusalem,” a phrase that occurs more than forty times in the Book of Mormon.
Other examples from the Book of Mormon in which cities and the surrounding lands are given the same name abound. There is a city of Nephi and a land of Nephi (see Alma 47:20), as well as a city of Zarahemla (see Alma 6:1) and a land of Zarahemla (see Alma 2:15), to name a few. This naming pattern is especially clear in Alma 50:14, where we read of the construction of a new locale: “They called the name of the city, or the land, Nephihah.” This pattern followed by the Nephites (and by the Lamanites when they became sedentary) was clearly borrowed from the Old World.
In ancient Israel the “fenced” (walled) cities were places of refuge for farmers in surrounding villages (see, for example, Leviticus 25:31; 1 Samuel 6:18; Ezekiel 38:11). In times of war the peasants could flee to the protection of the city walls, where arms were stored for defense. According to the Bible, those in authority in the cities also controlled the nearby lands. Thus 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 with its suburbs, fields, and villages (see 1 Chronicles 6:55—56). Because of such closely related terminology, Tappuah is called a land in Joshua 17:8 but is also correctly referred to as a city in Joshua 16:8—9, and Jeremiah prophesied that Jerusalem would become “a land not inhabited” (Jeremiah 6:8; compare 15:5—7).
The principle by which, in biblical usage, the name Jerusalem could be used to denote both the city and the surrounding land is further reflected in references to Samaria, the capital city of the northern kingdom of Israel. In the Old Testament the term Samaria is also used to denote the surrounding regions (the “cities of Samaria”) that were under the political control of the state (see 1 Kings 13:32; 2 Kings 17:24, 26; 23:19). Although the phrase “land of Jerusalem” is not found in the Bible, it appears in one of the newly published fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls attributed to the prophet Jeremiah (a contemporary of Lehi). This text (4Q385) speaks of “Jeremiah the Prophet before the Lord” and “the land of Jerusalem.”1
The Mesha, or Moabite, stela of the ninth century B.C. provides contemporary archaeological evidence for the interchangeability of the terms city and land. Reporting the rebellion of Mesha, king of Moab, against Israel, this text lists a number of “lands” that are known from the Bible to be cities. Internal evidence also implies that they are cities, because Mesha noted that he had “built” these lands.
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 (El-Amarna 289) speaks of the “town of Rubutu,” and another (El-Amarna 290) mentions the “land of Rubutu.” The first of these also speaks of the “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 (El-Amarna 287) mentions the “lands” of Gezer, Ashkelon, and Jerusalem. Most impressive, however, is a passage from El-Amarna 290 that speaks of “a town of the land of Jerusalem” named BÃ®t-Lahmi, which is the Canaanite equivalent of the Hebrew name rendered “Beth-lehem” in English Bibles.2 Thus even in ancient times the city of Bethlehem was itself considered to be part of the “land of Jerusalem.”
In light of such evidence, we can conclude that Lehi’s descendants in the New World followed authentic Old World custom in denominating each land by the name of the principal city in that land. This kind of linguistic detail lends further evidence to the authenticity and antiquity of the Book of Mormon.
This Research Report was prepared by the FARMS Research Department and is based on the latest available scholarly research. It is subject to revision as more information on the subject becomes available. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the position of FARMS, Brigham Young University, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Report last updated August 2000
Peterson, Daniel C., William J. Hamblin, and Matthew Roper. “On Alma 7:10 and the Birthplace of Jesus Christ.” FARMS Preliminary Report, 1995.
Smith, Robert F. “The Land of Jerusalem: The Place of Jesus’ Birth.” In Reexploring the Book of Mormon, edited by John W. Welch, 170—72. Salt Lake City: Deseret and FARMS, 1992.
Thomasson, Gordon C. “Revisiting the Land of Jerusalem.” In Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon: The FARMS Updates of the 1990s, edited by John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne, 139—41. Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1999.
Tvedtnes, John A. “Cities and Lands in the Book of Mormon.” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 4/2 (1995): 147—50.
LDS scholar Hugh Nibley was the first to report on the appearance of the phrase “land of Jerusalem” in the Amarna letters, which were discovered in the late nineteenth century (see his Lehi in the Desert; The World of the Jaredites; There Were Jaredites [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988], 6—7; and An Approach to the Book of Mormon [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1988], 101—2).
In 1964 Professor Sidney B. Sperry, a Book of Mormon scholar, observed that the site of Bethlehem (settled later than Jerusalem) was likely considered a part of Jerusalem’s political jurisdiction (see his The Problems of the Book of Mormon [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1964], 131—36). These key points of Nibley and Sperry have been abundantly discussed in publications by subsequent scholars.
The recent discovery of a Dead Sea Scroll fragment attributed to Jeremiah (cited earlier in this report), who was a contemporary of Lehi, is further vindication of the use of the phrase “land of Jerusalem” in the Book of Mormon.
1. Robert H. Eisenmann and Michael Wise, The Dead Sea Scrolls Uncovered (Shaftesbury, England: Element, 1992), 57—58.
2. See James B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 488—89; emphasis added.