(by Daniel Peterson deseretnews.com 4-13-16)
Long ago, I studied one on one with a famous Egyptian authority on Islamic philosophy who was also a Dominican Catholic monk. Often, plainly fascinated, he inquired about my own faith. How wildly improbable it sometimes seemed, speaking with that deeply learned man in Cairo, that the fullness of God’s revealed truth was to be sought neither in Rome nor among the great Muslim philosophical theologians we were discussing, but with a small sect headquartered in remote Utah. How unlikely that God would choose an obscure 14-year-old Yankee farmer living outside a tiny frontier village to restore his church!
Yet, history suggests that the Lord might do precisely that. He seems uninterested in our notions of learning, grandeur and “importance.”
In 1869, Mark Twain published an account of his travels in Europe and the Holy Land titled “The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims’ Progress.” It was his biggest hit — more popular, even, than “Huckleberry Finn” and “Tom Sawyer.” In fact, “Innocents Abroad” still ranks among the best-selling travel books of all time.
“The word Palestine,” Twain recalled, “always brought to my mind a vague suggestion of a country as large as the United States. I do not know why, but such was the case. I suppose it was because I could not conceive of a small country having so large a history.”
He had grown up along the Mississippi River, and the famous “Father of Waters” formed his concept of what an important river should be:
“When I was a boy, I somehow got the impression that the river Jordan was 4,000 miles long and 35 miles wide. It is only 90 miles long, and so crooked that a man does not know which side of it he is on half the time. In going 90 miles, it does not get over more than 50 miles of ground. It is not any wider than Broadway in New York.”
Yet this small stream flows powerfully through both sacred and secular history.
“Leaving out two or three short journeys of the Savior,” Twain continued, sounding more religiously orthodox than he really was, “he spent his life, preached his gospel and performed his miracles within a compass no larger than an ordinary county in the United States. It is as much as I can do to comprehend this stupefying fact. How it wears a man out to have to read up a hundred pages of history every two or three miles — for verily the celebrated localities of Palestine occur that close together. How wearily, how bewilderingly they swarm about your path!”
We might imagine, though, that Jerusalem itself was a grand place, entirely unlike rural Palestine or, for that matter, the Prophet Joseph Smith’s Palmyra, New York. Didn’t its elite regard their peasant countrymen with snooty contempt (John 7:49), recognizing them by their accents (e.g., at Matthew 26:73)?
An article in the May/June 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review titled “Ancient Jerusalem: The Village, the Town, the City” suggests that Jerusalem, too, was a strikingly humble place. Written by BAR’s editor, Herschel Shanks, it summarizes recent work by the Israeli archaeologist Hillel Geva.
Geva is a self-proclaimed “minimalist” who refuses to go beyond what archaeology can demonstrate. For example, whereas earlier scholars have estimated the population of pre-Israelite Jerusalem at 880-3,000 people, he places it at 500-700, according to the article. Others have suggested that the city held perhaps 5,000 people during the glory days of David, Solomon and their successors, but Geva proposes just 2,000, according to the article.
Owing to an influx of refugees fleeing Assyria’s conquest of the Northern Kingdom in 720 B.C., Jerusalem’s inhabitants may have numbered 8,000 by the time of Lehi, when 1 Nephi 2:13 calls it a “great city.” (These refugees probably included Lehi’s own ancestors, who were of the northern tribe of Manasseh. See Alma 10:3.) After the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 586 B.C., the city wouldn’t reach that size again until nearly the time of Jesus. (In 1860, when the young English convert Charles W. Penrose voiced his yearning — in the hymn “O Ye Mountains High” — to gather with the Saints in Zion, “sacred home of the prophets of God,” Salt Lake City held just over 8,000 residents, according to the U.S. Census.)
“However you cut it,” BAR’s summary concludes, “Jerusalem was a tiny place in ancient times. Yet it played a major role in the march of history.”
As usual, in the words of Doctrine and Covenants 64:33, “out of small things proceedeth that which is great.”