This past Sunday I continued my occasional efforts at a small scale inoculation of the Saints in my GD class. (Recent forays into this have included discussion of the stone in the hat and the different sources for the First Vision.) I used Alma 7:10 as my entry point, which begins “And behold, he shall be born of Mary, at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers….” I asked the class where Jesus was born, and they said “Bethlehem.” So why does the BoM say Jerusalem? There were lots of comments along the lines of my own comment, that my son tells people in Utah he is from Chicago, whereas in fact he is from Hoffman Estates. But no one in Utah has heard of Hoffman Estates, but everyone knows Chicago. It has been over five centuries since Lehi and his family left Jerusalem, and Bethlehem would be a meaningless allusion to the people of that time and place, but Jerusalem figures prominently in their origin story (yes, the Lehites had an origin story, sort of like The Avengers!) and would have been meaningful to that particular audience.
I suggested that when you come across something like this, the first thing you need to do is breathe. I mentioned that I’m a fan of mixed martial arts and watch the UFC fights, and if you listen to the directions from the coaches you will often hear them telling their figters to breathe. That seems kind of weird; have they all of a sudden forgotten to do what comes naturally? But in a fight you’re in a stressed situation, and it is easy to forget to breathe properly, at a time when your body desperately needs to efficiently bring oxygen to your muscles. So if you come across something you don’t understand at first, breathe, relax, don’t freak out, remain calm.
If it is something like this, which is a hoary mainstay of old sectarian anti-Mormon polemic, you’re likely going to need to reframe the information. In this case, the person putting this forward as an argument against the BoM is implicitly suggesting that Joseph Smith didn’t actually know that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. That proposition strikes me as extremely implausible; the nativity is only the most popular Bible story there is, and it is hard for me to believe that Joseph didn’t know such a thing.
Someone in the class mentioned our usage of “Chicagoland” (sort of like “Zombieland!”), which is not limited to the City proper but includes the surrounding area. We were at the time 35 miles outside the city limits, but we were also definitely in Chicagoland. And I suggested that is the key to understanding this usage, for it places the birth in the land of Jerusalem, not the city. Tell El Amarna letter #287 reports that “a town of the land of Jerusalem, Bit-Lahmi [Bethlehem] by name, a town belonging to the king, has gone over to the side of the people of Keilah.” This is consistent with the usage of the BoM, that Bethlehem is within the land of Jerusalem (Jerusalem anciently was metaphorically spoken of as a mother, and the surrounding towns as her daughters.)
To this point, this was all pretty pro forma stuff. But then I suggested for a moment that we pretend that none of the foregoing existed or mattered, that the use of Jerusalem here really is a mistake. I told them that I wanted to use this to introduce the problem of fundamentalist assumptions in the Church. In our tradition, I use “fundamentalist assumptions” as a rubric to refer collectively to a belief in prophetic [and perhaps other church leader] infallibility and scriptural inerrancy. I suggested that these things were not actually the doctrine or belief of the Church, but that our people tend to act as though they were. I shared the old joke, to the effect that Catholics are supposed to believe that the Pope [speaking ex cathedra] is infallible, but no one really does, while Mormons are not supposed to believe that the Prophet is infallible, but they really do. Church leaders, as much as we honor and respect them and observe their counsel, are not perfect, unless they happen to be named Jesus Christ. I opined that if we could magically teleport President Monson to the class, he would blanche at any suggestion that he were perfect.
On the surface this seems like a super orthodox position; it sort of seems more faithful to believe this. But it isn’t true, and we shouldn’t put our faith in that which is not true. Humans are by definition fallible and capable of error. And if we assume that our church leaders are perfect and incabable of error, we end up with a very fragile, glass-like faith.
To understand why, consider this simple syllogism:
A. Prophets are perfect and infallible and incapable of error.
B. Joseph Smith said Jesus was born in Jerusalem, not Bethlehem [remember, this is not actually an error but for purposes of this discussion I’m treating it like one).
C. In fact, according to the New Testament at least Jesus was born in Bethlehem, not Jerusalem.
D. Therefore, Joseph made an error.
E. Therefore, Joseph is not a true prophet.
Do you see how that works? Scriptural inerrancy and prophetic infallibility are overbeliefs. All it takes is one mistake for the whole tower of cards to come crashing down around you. If that in fact were a mistake and I encountered it, I would probably observe “Oh, look, Joseph said Jerusalem where he should have said Bethlehem, isn’t that interesting,” and gone on about my business. But to the fundamentalist, that simple mistake becomes a dealbreaker, and his faith is shattered.
I suggested there is nothing wrong with honoring and respecting our leaders; they are good men and women who sacrifice much for our benefit and in general do a wonderful job guiding the Church. But if we’re going to put them on a pedestal, let’s make it a pedestal like this (I place my hand at knee level), not like this (I place my hand as high as I can reach, and I’m 6’5″), because if someone falls off a pedestal like that bones will be broken!
As has been my consistent experience, no one had a problem with any of this, and at that point we continued on with the regularly scheduled lesson.
 James B. Pritchard, editor, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3d ed. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1969), 489, translation by W. F. Albright and George E. Mendenhall; cited by D. Kelly Ogden, “Why Does the Book of Mormon Say That Jesus Would Be Born at Jerusalem? (I Have a Question),” Ensign (August 1984), 51–52.