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Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Birth of Jesus

Where was Jesus born?

One of the most commonly used examples of the Book of Mormon contradicting the Bible is the alleged location where Jesus Christ was born. The Bible names Bethlehem as the place where Jesus was born, but The Book of Mormon claims he was born “at Jerusalem”.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Jud├Ža, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)”

Luke 2:4

Apparently conflicts with...

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

If one says he was born in Bethlehem and the other says he was born in Jerusalem, how can they both be correct?


Jesus was born “at” Jerusalem

One way to answer this question is to look at the word choice in the Book of Mormon account.

The Book of Mormon does not claim that Jesus was born “in” jerusalem. It says that he was born “at” Jerusalem. This is important because the word “at”, according to most, if not all, english dictionaries, not only means “in”, but also “nearby”, “within the vicinity of” and even "toward". Bethlehem is only six miles from Jerusalem, which is certainly “nearby” to someone thousands of miles away in the Americas.

Certainly the Lord could have revealed the name of the town of Bethlehem, but it would not have meant anything to the people in America who would have had no point of reference. However, the Book of Mormon describes Jerusalem as a place of special significance for the ancient “Nephites”, so they would have been familiar with it's general location so using it as a landmark would have been made the prophecy of Christ's birth much more informative.

For example, I lived in the Philippines for two years. During that time many people asked me where I was from. I had grown up less than an hour from San Francisco, but when I named my small town, they looked at me with confusion. After all, most people in California had never even heard of my town. However, when I told them I was from “near San Francisco”, a much larger city, it was a much more helpful answer.

Therefore, in using the word “at”, it was not necessarily intended to mean that Jesus would be born “in” Jerusalem, but “near” Jerusalem.

This interpretation is substantiated by the discovery of the Amarna Letters.


The Amarna Letters

The Amarna Letters are a series of clay tablets sent from Egyptian administrators to the members of Canaan and other regions. These tablets were discovered in 1887 and have been dated to around the 1350s – 1330s BC. These documents refer to the “land of Jerusalem” as a region covering about 500 square kilometers. This would include Bethlehem.

So even if one were to ignore the full meaning of the word “at”, the fact remains that the phrase “at Jerusalem” still includes the area around Jerusalem. Just as New York City is a city within the State of New York, and Rome was a city within the Empire of Rome, or the Roman Empire, so to is Jerusalem a city within “the land of Jerusalem”.

So even though the Bible and the Book of Mormon claim two different places as the birth place of Christ, there is no contradiction. “Jerusalem”, at that time, also referred to the surrounding area, but even if The Book of Mormon refers specifically to the city, the word choice still implies that the birth would happen in or near the city, which it was.

So was Jesus born in Jerusalem or Bethlehem? Both.


14 comments:

Glenn E. Chatfield said...

This is the usual bit of Mormon sophistry. The fact is, Joseph Smith made an error. One would not say a person was born "at" Cedar Rapids, IA and mean at the same time "Marion." And these two towns are adjacent, unlike Bethlehem and Jerusalem, especially 2000 years ago. The Nephites, if familiar with Jerusalem, would certainly also be familiar with the geography in the area and would also know Bethlehem.

Cristofer Urlaub said...

"One would not say a person was born 'at' Cedar Rapids, IA and mean at the same time 'Marion.'
"

I'm sure it probably happens all the time, as in the real-life example I gave. I admit it doesn't happen in every case, but there are many times when using landmarks makes communication about places easier.

"The Nephites, if familiar with Jerusalem, would certainly also be familiar with the geography in the area and would also know Bethlehem."

That's a pretty big assumption. One does not need to have a detailed knowledge of an area to know roughly where it is. For example, can you, without looking it up, tell me where Cordelia, CA is? I'm guessing not. However, you know where roughly where San Francisco, CA is, right? Well, by your logic, since you know where San Francisco is, you should obviously know where Cordelia is... That's clearly not the case. So if I were to tell you about an event in Cordelia, it would be more helpful if I just said "near San Francisco."

The fact is, Joseph Smith's translation is correct no matter how he intended "at" to be used, because archeology shows that ancient Jerusalem included not only the city itself, but the surrounding area as well. Therefore, Jesus was in fact born in Jerusalem.

For example, if I were to tell people I was born in California, no one in their right mind would say, "No you weren't, you liar. You were born in Fairfield," because I would say, "Yeah, that's part of California. Therefore, I was born in California."

Glenn E. Chatfield said...

This is typical sophistry to try to excuse away a very serious error in the BOM. There was no intent to be "near" or in the "area" of Jerusalem - Smith said "at" meaning "at" the city of Jerusalem itself. That is the context. The problem with Mormon apologists is that they practice eisegesis on their own book because so much of it fails the test of truth, so they have to make it say things Smith never intended for it to say,

The BOM is NOT a translation of anything; it is a story concocted by a known con-artist who was most likely looking for another way to make money when he started the whole thing. There is no evidence for the BOM ever existing beyond Smith's "translation."

Cristofer Urlaub said...

No, what truly has no evidence is you're idea of what Joseph Smith intended it to mean. You, practicing eisegesis, use your own ideas to support your own ideas. Your only evidence so far for the claim that, "Joseph Smith was wrong," is your preconceived notion that, "Joseph Smith was wrong." That's not a real argument by anybody's standards. By that logic I could just say, "Everything you've said so far is wrong because I say so." See how silly that is?

And I can't help but notice that you do not even attempt to refute the archeological evidence, which makes me think you simply have no response to it. You must admit, then, that there is a valid way to reconcile this supposed contradiction, because what Joseph Smith intended "at" to mean is actually irrelevant, since, in those days, Jerusalem included Bethlehem anyways.

Glenn E. Chatfield said...

Your so-called archaeology example really doesn't help you. This is a writing from peoples who are not of the area, and who see Jerusalem as the focal point of the region, which is why they can say "land of Jerusalem." However, since those persons in the BOM are descendants of Jews, they would know that the "land" would be Israel, not Jerusalem. There is no way the context of the Alma passage can be twisted to make Bethlehem part of Jerusalem. This is just a contrived idea to fix a serious mistake.

Cristofer Urlaub said...

Once again, false. Here you assume that the district of Jerusalem was equivalent to the nation of Israel. This is a more grievous error than that of Joseph Smith. This is a contrived idea to fix a serious mistake. The district of Jerusalem was (and is) only a small part of the nation of Israel. Or do you think the entire nation of Israel was only about 500 square kilometers? So a more modern equivalent would be like counties. Much like how Sacramento is a city in the Sacramento county, Jerusalem too was a city in the district of Jerusalem, but it was only a small part of, and not equivalent to, the land of Israel.

The fact that you confuse such hugely different geographical areas makes me loose confidence in your right to criticize Joseph Smith for allegedly doing the same. Whether Joseph Smith referred to the city or the district has nothing to do with the context of these verses. The context is the conditions surrounding the birth of Christ. You make claims about how nations referred to each other which are historically inaccurate, claiming that Egypt knew the name of Jerusalem, but not the name of the nation in which it dwelt (A nation it had a long, bitter history with), you make assumptions about Joseph Smith's intentions which are unfounded and unsupported, even by you, and you speak as though you are an authority on the Book of Mormon, moreso than a practicing LDS, but all you have are assumptions about what the words refer to which support your own preconceived notions. So you loose your right to speak of eisegesis as well.

Grammar, archeology, and plain ol' common sense all say there is no contradiction. Do the dignified thing and accept it. I'm not trying to prove that the Book of Mormon is true, but if it is false, it is not for this reason.

Glenn E. Chatfield said...

I just gave a suggestion as to how those who wrote that single example might understand. However, that single archaeological example doesn't fix the problem with the BOM. Jesus was not born in Jerusalem, and no matter how you try to contrive it to mean it includes Bethlehem, it just doesn't wash. The BOM people would have known the difference - after all, that was the homeland of their forefathers, wasn't it?

I don't claim to be an expert on the BOM, but I have studied it for 40 years.

Cristofer Urlaub said...

If by “suggestion” you mean “an unfounded and unreasonable opinion”, then I agree.

“That single archaeological example doesn't fix the problem with the BOM.”
Why not? Because it conflicts with your infallible opinion? Because if you believe something false for 40 years it magically becomes true? Explain to me how your opinion trumps science and history.

“no matter how you try to contrive it to mean it includes Bethlehem, it just doesn't wash.”
Right, because all things you disagree with are false. I'm not contriving anything. It's a matter of historical fact. Jerusalem was a district which included the town of Bethlehem and you, using eisegesis, willfully ignore this fact and insist on an interpretation that allows you to hang on to your preconceived notions.

“The BOM people would have known the difference - after all, that was the homeland of their forefathers, wasn't it?”
That's an unsupported assumption. Support this claim. I, for example, have mostly german blood, but I'm wholly unfamiliar with Germany's geography, therefore it doesn't follow by necessity that a given group is familiar with the geography of their forefather's homeland.

Glenn E. Chatfield said...

One thing I just happened to remember last night. Genealogists, in my experience of studying genealogy, use the term "born at" and they always mean the specific place. Perhaps this is where Smith got the term "born at"?

I could say also that you have an a priori bias that Smith meant the region of Jerusalem because that is what you have been taught from the LDS church.

Cristofer Urlaub said...

“Genealogists, in my experience of studying genealogy, use the term "born at" and they always mean the specific place. Perhaps this is where Smith got the term "born at"?”

Well, you'd have to show that it was used by genealogists 180 years ago. However, even then, it would not show that Joseph Smith meant it that way. The argument would be like saying, “When Muslims refer to God, they always mean “Allah”. Therefore, when Joseph Smith referred to God, he meant “Allah.” It doesn't work like that.

“I could say also that you have an a priori bias that Smith meant the region of Jerusalem because that is what you have been taught from the LDS church.”

Not likely, since the LDS church doesn't teach anything on this topic. Very rarely does the church bother with responding to critics. In fact, Gordon B. Hinckley, the former President of the Church, was once asked by a reporter what he thought of what critics taught about the church. He just smiled and said, “Whatever it takes to get our name out there.” He was a funny old guy and a pretty incorrigible optimist.

But to address your concern, I don't think it quite fits if you mean “A Priori” knowledge as “knowledge without experience or empirical evidence.” I actually don't think I've heard any LDS make reference to the Amarna Letters in reference to this issue, or at all, though I'd bet they have and I'm just out of the loop. They all use the “at” argument which, while I think it is also valid, it is not nearly as strong an argument as the Letters. I stumbled upon them a bit by accident and completely independent of the LDS church, then went looking for the text. So in order for my knowledge to be A Priori, you would have to discount reading the actual translated Amarna Letters as “experience or empirical evidence.” That would just be odd.

Let me take a moment aside to say that this last comment was more civil than the others felt and I really appreciate that. That's not meant as criticism, since I've also spoken more sharply than I prefer to, but I'm hoping we can continue on from here in a spirit of mutual respect which each human, regardless of beliefs, inherently deserves. I actually have a lot of respect for you and your arguments since, even though I disagree with them, they at least seem well thought out. Good job.

Glenn E. Chatfield said...

I'm sorry if I sounded sharp or harsh - it was purely unintentional, I assure you.

LDS apologists do indeed address this and other issues. The LDS church usually refrains from anything official being stated, but FARMS and groups like them, as well as lone LDS apologists do indeed address the issue.

I've been hitting this from different angles to provoke thought, but here's the real problem that it all boils down to:
Alma 7 is a prophecy, meaning it came from God. Now, in the Bible God gave the prophecy specifying Bethlehem. That specific town limited the propecy. Now, God got specific in the Bible but with Alma he decided specifics weren't needed? So someone born in Jerusalem itself could claim prophetic application by Alma. Yet the prophecy had to be specific so that it was a sign. A non-specific prophecy can be made to fit just about anything. The magi knew the prophecy of Bethlehem, which was what they told Herod (which was why Herod had all the babies in Bethlehem killed). Now if the magi had just been told "at Jerusalem," do you really think they would have understood that to mean in a nearby town?

And that is the problem with Alma. God was not specific in His prophecy, which contradicts the needed specificity given in real Scripture.

Cristofer Urlaub said...

So the entire problem with Alma is that God wasn't as specific as he was with those in the Bible? I don't think that has anything to do with how true Joseph Smith's statement is and it has everything to do with the fact that it was addressed to different people. The Nephites were not familiar with the geography of Israel, they never had seen the place, and they never would see the place. There was no need to be as specific as He was with people who would actually travel to Bethlehem and see Him.

Saying that Alma is not true because it is less specific than the Bible is like saying that the Gospel of Mark is not true because it is less specific than Luke. It is like saying that Jesus didn't really fulfill any Old Testament prophesies because it is addressed less specifically in John than in Matthew. It is like saying he didn't really perform any miracles because they are addressed less specifically in Luke than in Mark.

If your logic is correct, I wouldn't even know what to make of the variations in the sign posted above Christ on the cross. John's was the most descriptive, and so is most specific in that way, while only two of them inlcuded the phrase, “This is...”, making them more specific. Only John describes it as saying, “...Jesus of Nazareth...,” so clearly this is false since it doesn't describe him as being from Bethlehem, and the other three make no mention of any place, so they are all false, being less specific.

The variations and differences in each Gospel (and between the Book of Mormon and the Bible) have nothing to do with how true any of them are, they are all true, and everything to do with the fact that they were addressed to different people with different understandings.

By the way, don't worry about the sharpness. I've always said there's three ways to get people worked up; talk about their religion, talk about their politics, and talk about how they drive. Even if it was intentional, I wouldn't have thought any less of you. In apologetics, it comes with the territory.

Glenn E. Chatfield said...

Your analogies fail. We are talking about prophecies from God, not signs above the cross or words in one gospel or another. Are you saying God wouldn't give the same place as a prophecy to the Nephite as he did to the Israelites? Whether the Nephites knew the geography or not is irrelevant, because then they wouldn't know Jerusalem either.

I'll let you have your way. Alma is only one error in a whole book of errors and contradictions.

Cristofer Urlaub said...

“We are talking about prophecies from God, not signs above the cross or words in one gospel or another.”

Well, you said the main problem with the prophecy is that it has a different degree of specificity than the version in the Bible. So it's a question of how the Lord communicates with His children, whether it's prophesying of the Savior's birth, or inspiring Apostles as they write scripture, the Word of God. Even the Bible shows that the Lord does communicate differently to different people, sometimes showing a variance in specificity. Therefore, the problem of specificity is not valid unless you deny the Bible as well.

“Are you saying God wouldn't give the same place as a prophecy to the Nephite as he did to the Israelites?”

My point all along is that it is the same place.

“Whether the Nephites knew the geography or not is irrelevant, because then they wouldn't know Jerusalem either.”

Not true, and I've given examples. Once again, I think you misunderstand the degree of knowledge they had regarding where Jerusalem was. They knew it was across the ocean where they came from, but they probably couldn't draw you a map.

“I'll let you have your way. Alma is only one error in a whole book of errors and contradictions.”

Well hat-tip to you, my good sir. I'd shake your hand if I could.

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