Monday, June 24, 2013

He shall be born at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers (Howlers #8)

In the previous post we saw how the phrase “land of Jerusalem” in the Book of Mormon, which was once derided by critics as an anachronism finds its equivalent in ancient Near Eastern texts, discovered long after the Book of Mormon was published and Joseph Smith was dead. In another early criticism skeptical readers cited the words of Alma’s prophecy to the people of of Gideon as even more problematic. Some eighty-three years before the birth of Christ, this pre-Columbian prophet said, “And behold, he shall be born of Mary, at Jerusalem, which is the land of our forefathers” (Alma 7:10). Few passages of the Book of Mormon have been the subject of more ridicule and it seems to be a favorite criticism even among critics of the Book of Mormon today. One blast from the past should be adequate.

“This prophet Smith . . . . is better skilled in the controversies in New York than in the geography of history of Judea. He makes John baptize in Bethabara, and says Jesus was born in Jerusalem.”

Alexander Campbell, “Delusions,” Millennial Harbinger, February 7, 1831): 93.

Latter-day Saints have often responded to this criticism (e.g. Robert F. Smith, “The Land of Jerusalem: The Place of Jesus’ Birth” in John W. Welch, Reexploring the Book of Mormon, 1992, 170-72). The most significant points in my view are these. Alma’s prophecy speaks of the “land” from which his forefathers came of which “Jerusalem,” the place where the ruling kings of Judah dwelt, was the political center in Lehi’s day. The Amarna letters show how the terms Jerusalem and land of Jerusalem could be used interchangeably, when Jerusalem is understood to be the political center that controls the surrounding land. The troubled writer of el-Amarna Letter 289 says, “And now as for Jerusalem behold this land belongs to the king”  (Prichard, The Ancient Near East, 1:273. Emphasis added), just as Alma speaks of “Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers” (Alma 7:10). In Lehi’s day, as well as in Jesus’ day, Jerusalem was the capital of the Jewish people.

More significant, however, is that el-Amarna Letter 290 refers to "a town in the land of Jerusalem" with the Canaanite name Bît-Lahmi, which is, “an almost certain reference to the town of Bethlehem, which thus appears for the first time in history” (James B. Pritchard, The Ancient Near East, 274, note 1). That is, Bethlehem, known to us as the place of Jesus’ birth, was considered by the ancient writer to have been a town belonging to Jerusalem, a town of the “land of Jerusalem,” which Alma’s prophecy can be taken to imply.

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