Note: This article is a condensed edition of the first chapter of my book Refuting the Critics: Evidences of the Book of Mormon's Authenticity (Horizon Publishers, 1994). The full version, along with all references, can be found therein.

The Authenticity of Alma 7:10--A Reply to Anti-Mormon

Criticisms of Alma's Prophecy that Christ Would Be Born

in the Land of Jerusalem

Michael T. Griffith
1994
@All Rights Reserved

In Alma 7:10 in the Book of Mormon we read that the Nephite prophet Alma prophesied that Jesus would be born "at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers."

Various critics of the Nephite record have claimed that Alma's prophecy contradicts the Bible's accounts of Christ's birth in Bethlehem. The purpose of this chapter is to demonstrate that such is not the case and that Alma's phraseology was accepted usage in ancient times.

Considering The Context

In reading and interpreting the Book of Mormon, as with any other ancient text, we must always remember to consider the cultural and historical setting in which the book took place (Montgomery 29; Harrison 18-26,211-212; see also chapter 4 herein).

Thus, when we examine Alma's prophecy, which he delivered in about 82 B.C., we should take into consideration when and to whom he was speaking. The value of this approach can be seen in Ariel Crowley's superb analysis of Alma's prophetic statement:

Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a village a short distance outside the walled city that was ancient Jerusalem. How then may it be said in truth that he was born "at Jerusalem"? The explanation, initially, lies in the quoted passage itself: "Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers."

Deeper than this, it should be remembered that Alma spoke in America more than five hundred years after his ancestors left Jerusalem. Through those centuries common knowledge of the geography, villages and traditions of Palestine must have been dimmed, passing into the realm of little remembered traditions. The absence of communications, and the internecine conflicts of those centuries did little to enhance the memory of ancient days in a country foreign and many thousands of miles removed. Something of this feeling is inherent in the comment of Alma identifying Jerusalem-for what other purpose he would feel it necessary to say "which is the land of our forefathers" it is hard to imagine. The careful wording of Alma is "at" Jerusalem, not "in" Jerusalem. This is of importance for the reason that in ancient times the land of Jerusalem was completely and well distinguished from Jerusalem the city. As a land, it included Bethlehem and all of the numerous villages which lay outside [of Jerusalem the city] . . . ." (106, emphasis in original)

Internal Consistency

Alma's statement concerning the Savior's birthplace is actually evidence of the Book of Mormon's internal consistency, as was pointed out long ago by B. H. Roberts:

Jesus, it is well known, was born at Bethlehem, Judea, between four and five miles south of Jerusalem, really a suburb of the larger city. Nearly all objectors point to this prophecy as being in contradiction of the well attested historical fact of Christ's birth at Bethlehem. The objection is seldom fairly stated . . . . The qualifying clause "the land of our forefathers" clearly indicates that it is not the "city" which the Nephite historian gives, but the "land" in which Jesus would be born. This explanation of the supposed difficulty is further strengthened when it is remembered that it was a custom of the Nephites to name large districts of country-such as might correspond to provinces and principalities in other nations-after the chief city of the land . . . . Hence when it is said that Jesus would be born "at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers," the Nephite writer merely conformed to a habit of speech, and meant the "land" of Jerusalem, not the city. (3:481482)

Archaeological Evidence And Biblical Precedents

Not only is Alma 7:10 evidence of the Book of Mormon's internal consistency, but modern discoveries show that Alma was using authentic ancient phraseology when he prophesied that the Messiah would be born in the "land" of Jerusalem. Daniel Ludlow has summarized this development as follows:

Alma said the Savior would be "born of Mary, at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers." Inasmuch as the Savior was evidently born at Bethlehem, not in Jerusalem, how should we interpret Alma's statement? At first glance the statement appears to be in error. However, archaeological evidences that have come forth since the Book of Mormon was published indicate that in 600 B.C. Bethlehem was probably a part of the "greater" land of Jerusalem. In this connection, it is of interest to note that . . . [Alma 7:10] refers to the land of Jerusalem, not the city. (196)

The ancient nature of Alma's usage becomes clearer when we remember that from the outset of their settlement in Judea the Israelites entered into close, continuous contact with the city economy of the Canaanites, which they copied and adopted. This imposition of a feudal pattern on city organization resulted in the peculiar arrangement which can best be described by the following formula: "The city of N and her daughter cities" (Nibley 1976:80; Achtemeier 1985:172).

This geographical configuration was characterized by the control of an area by a "mother city," to which the other cities in the area were "daughters." It was customary for the mother city to be the principal or capital city of the area. Under this arrangement, an area of land could be named after the chief city in that area, or it could be referred to as "the land of city N" (Nibley 1976:80).

Another example of an area of land being referred to by the name of the area's principal city can be found in the Old Testament. In 1 Kings 20:34, the Syrian king Benhadad says to Israel's King Ahab, "The towns which my father took from thy father, I will restore; and thou shalt set up markets for thyself in Damascus, as my father did in Samaria." Some commentators have found Benhadad's reference to Samaria to be a problem, since Benhadad's father never conquered the city of Samaria. However, the problem disappears when it is realized that Benhadad was referring to the whole Northern Kingdom of Israel by the name of its capital city, Samaria. In commenting on this verse, Merrill F. Unger has said the following:

Benhadad's use of the expression "Samaria" was evidently formulaic. The city had been so strategically situated and enjoyed such a prosperous growth that very early after its founding by Omri its name was popularly transferred to the whole Northern Kingdom of which it was the capital . . . . (1954:241)

Unger goes on to point out that:

Many parallels from western Asia may be cited where the name of a country and its capital became identical. (1954:241)

Further evidence of the authenticity of Alma's usage comes from the ancient Amarna Letters (ca. 1406 to 1351 B.C.), which were discovered long after the Book of Mormon was published. These letters include correspondence between Egyptian rulers and vassals in Palestine and Syria. The importance of the Amarna Letters in validating Alma's phraseology was skillfully pointed out by Sidney B. Sperry:

Modern archaeological finds give us beautiful examples of . . . [Alma's usage]. In The Biblical Archaeologist issued February, 1957 (Vol. 20, No. 1), Professor Walter Harrelson, then at the University of Chicago, wrote an article entitled "Shechem in Extra-Biblical References" ....

It is in Harrelson's references to the Tell el-Amarna letters, . . . that we find the best proof of the custom that is the center of our interest . . . . One of the Amarna letters contains a reference to the Palestinian city of Shechem" . . . Of this reference Professor Harrelson writes: ". . . The land of Shechem must be taken to refer to the city and the adjacent territory under its control." From the Amarna letters, Harrelson points out that four facts, among others, are clear. The one in which we are especially interested is this: "Shechem includes sufficient territory adjacent to it to be referred to as the land of Shechem."

Our point is clear. Just as the city of Shechem can be referred to as the land of Shechem, including territory adjacent to the city proper, so can Jerusalem, important capital city of Judah, be called in like manner the land of Jerusalem. The Nephites were justified by long custom in speaking of Jerusalem as the land of Jerusalem. And Bethlehem, the place of our Lord's birth, was indeed part of the land of Jerusalem

It has been my desire to let someone outside of the Church point out the ancient usage. Professor Harrelson has done that in his article on Shechem. It could just as easily be pointed out that the Amarna letters also refer to the "land of Gazri" and the "land of Asqaluna." Gazri and Asqaluna we would recognize in English translation as Gezer and Ashkelon, the names of Biblical cities in southwestern Palestine.

Now let us come more directly to the point and show that Jerusalem was on occasion called the "land of Jerusalem." In a letter of Abdi-Hiba of Jerusalem to the king of Egypt, he says: "Verily, this land of Jerusalem, neither my father nor my mother has given it to me." The first part of the cuneiform, [a]-murmatal Urusalim, could more literally be translated as "Verily, the land of the city of Jerusalem ...."

Finally, let us see how a world-famous German historian accepts the type of evidence we have presented. Professor Martin Noth of Bonn University says: "At that time [the Amarna age] Bethlehem, which was 8 kilometers away [from Jerusalem] . . . was a city of the land of Jerusalem, i.e. a place subject to the rule of Jerusalem." (1967:131-135, emphasis in original)

Although it is clear that Alma was correct in saying that Christ would be born in the land of Jerusalem, a few critics have attempted to discredit Alma's usage by pointing out that in some places the Book of Mormon refers to Jerusalem as a city. This argument is invalid for three reasons: First, it does not take into account the fact that in the Nephite record the land of Jerusalem and the city proper are two different geographical entities (which, as we have seen, is appropriate, since the land of the city comprised the adjacent territory under the city's control as well as the city itself). Second, the argument ignores the Nephite custom of referring to an area of land by the name of the principal city of the area. And third, it in no way deals with the ancient evidence of Alma's usage.

Those critics who continue to rely on this objection would do well to consider Hugh Nibley's comments on the Nephite usage in light of the Amarna Letters:

While the Book of Mormon refers to the city of Jerusalem plainly and unmistakably over sixty times, it refers over forty times to another and entirely different geographical entity which is always designated as "the land of Jerusalem." In the New World also every major Book of Mormon city is surrounded by a land of the same name.

The land of Jerusalem is not the city of Jerusalem. Lehi ". . . dwelt at Jerusalem in all his days . . ." (1 Nephi 1:4), yet his sons had to ". . . go down to the land of our father's inheritance, . . . "to pick up their property (I Nephi 3:16, 21). The apparent anomaly is readily explained by the Amarna Letters, in which we read that "a city of the land of Jerusalem, Bet-Ninib, has been captured." It was the rule in Palestine and Syria from ancient times, as the same letters show, for a large area around a city and all the inhabitants of that area to bear the name of the city. It is taken for granted [in the Book of Mormon] that if Nephi had lived at Jerusalem he would know about the surrounding country: " . . . I, of myself, have dwelt at Jerusalem, wherefore I know concerning the regions round about ...." (2 Nephi 25:6). But this was quite unknown at the time the Book of Mormon was written [1830]--the Amarna Letters were discovered in 1887. One of the favorite points of attack on the Book of Mormon has been the statement in Alma 7:10 that the Savior would be horn "at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers." Here Jerusalem is not the city "in the land of our forefathers," it is the land. Christ was born in a village some six miles from the city of Jerusalem; it was not in the city, but it was in what we now know the ancients themselves designated as "the land of Jerusalem." (1976:81, emphasis in original)

It should be observed at this point that in ancient times Jerusalem was not only the royal capital, it was also the capital of an administrative district. This district included several small towns. One of those towns was Bethlehem (Staff, Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies). According to Crowley, the same kind of usage can also be found in the New Testament:

While it is made clear that the suffering, crucifixion and death of the Savior were at Jerusalem, it is equally clear that the garden of Gethsemane is on the slopes of the Mount of Olives between Bethany and Bethphage, quite some distance outside Jerusalem the city proper. Yet the two disciples to whom Jesus appeared after the resurrection casually asked Him, "Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem, and hast not known the things which are come to pass there in these days?" [See Luke 24:1-18.] To them, Gethsemane and Calvary, both out of, but near the city, were at Jerusalem. (1961:10.7, emphasis in original)

A dispute very similar to the controversy over the phraseology in Alma 7:10 once surrounded the use of a word in Acts 16:12 to mean "region" or "district" (of Macedonia). Such scholars as F. J. A. Hort and William M. Ramsay argued over the issue but settled nothing in the absence of hard evidence. Many scholars considered the word to be a mistake until Egyptian papyri were discovered showing that very usage (Yamauchi and Wiseman 90; Unger 1962:219).

Conclusion

Alma was perfectly correct in stating that Jesus would be born in the land of Jerusalem. Alma's usage, far from being a problem, is actually part of the mounting evidence for the Book of Mormon's authenticity.

It is equally clear that this citing of Alma's prophecy as an alleged "evidence" of error in the Book of Mormon by anti-Mormon critics is clear indication of the shallow and outdated "scholarship" which characterizes their writings. Either they were unaware extensive and conclusive evidence which clearly negates their accusations, or they intentionally chose to deceive their readers by failing to cite and acknowledge it.

 ----------------------------------------------------------------------------

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:Michael T. Griffith holds a Masterís degree in Theology from The Catholic Distance University, a Graduate Certificate in Ancient and Classical History from American Military University, a Bachelorís degree in Liberal Arts from Excelsior College, and two Associate in Applied Science degrees from the Community College of the Air Force.He also holds an Advanced Certificate of Civil War Studies and a Certificate of Civil War Studies from Carroll College.He is a graduate in Arabic and Hebrew of the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, and of the U.S. Air Force Technical Training School in San Angelo, Texas.In addition, he has completed an Advanced Hebrew program at Haifa University in Israel and at the Spiro Institute in London, England.He is the author of five books on Mormonism and ancient texts, including How Firm A Foundation, A Ready Reply, and One Lord, One Faith.

Back to LDS Information Web Page