Israeli archaeologists have said they have unearthed in Jerusalem the earliest artifact containing the name of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus according to the New Testament, in the form of a clay seal called a bulla.
It’s significant because it confirms the biblical narrative of the existence of a village of Bethlehem within the Kingdom of Judah, said Eli Shukron, director of the excavation on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, which announced the discovery in late May.
“This is the first time the name Bethlehem appears outside the Bible, in an inscription from the First Temple period, which proves that Bethlehem was indeed a city in the Kingdom of Judah, and possibly also in earlier periods,” Shukron said.
The seal, dating from the 7th or 8th centuries B.C., was found just outside the Old City of Jerusalem. Bethlehem is first mentioned in Genesis in the Old Testament in connection with the burial place of the matriarch Rachel. It is also the city where David was anointed king in Samuel I.
In ancient times bullae were impressed with the seal of the person who sent the document or object and were used much like a modern-day wax seal to prove the document or object was not opened by an unauthorized person.
The inscription on the recently discovered bulla includes three clear lines of ancient Hebrew script consisting of the words “Bishv’at,” “Bat Lechem” and “Lemelech” which translate to “seventh,” “Bethlehem” and “king,” respectively.
Shukron said the bulla likely belongs to a group of administrative bullae used to seal tax shipments remitted to the taxation system of the Kingdom of Judah.
Shukron said that it appears that “in the seventh year of the reign of a king a shipment was dispatched from Bethlehem to the king in Jerusalem,” although it is unclear if the king referred to on the bulla is Hezekiah, Manasseh or Josiah, all kings during that period.
Although there is mention of a Bethlehem in a set of clay tablets found in Egypt from the 14th century B.C. known as the Amarna Letters, Shukron said there is no way of knowing if that Bethlehem is the Bethlehem referred to in the Bible located near Jerusalem.
The Hebrew and ancient Aramaic translation of Bethlehem means “house of bread” while in Arabic it means “house of meat” and there could have been various settlements with that name in the region and indeed there was another Bethlehem in Galilee.
“The Armana Letters were written 400 years before the Bible and we don’t know where that Bethlehem was,” said Shukron. “Here we can read [the word Bethlehem] in a clear Hebrew inscription from the First Temple period on a bulla found in Israel that arrived from Bethlehem to Jerusalem maybe to pay some tax. This is the Bethlehem next to Jerusalem referred to in the Bible.”
“Any extra bit of evidence is wonderful,” said the Rev. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, a Dominican priest and professor at the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem.