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Ancient Bethlehem seal found; first reference to city outside Bible

May 23, 2012|By Thomas H. Maugh II
  • A clay bulla, or seal, inscribed with the name Bethlehem, the only known ancient reference to the city found outside the Bible.
A clay bulla, or seal, inscribed with the name Bethlehem, the only known… (Israel Antiquities Authority )

Israeli archaeologists digging near the city of Jerusalem have discovered an ancient clay bulla, about 2,700 years old, bearing the name Bethlehem. The artifact is the only known ancient reference to the city of Jesus' birth found outside the Bible, experts said. The find shows not only that the city existed, but that it probably also had a thriving commercial trade.

A bulla is a piece of clay used to make an impression in wax, sealing a document. The wax was intended to show the integrity of the document once it reached its final destination. The bulla is generally impressed with the name of the person who sent the document.

The bulla has three lines of text. The first says "in the seventh;" the second says Bethlehem; and the third has the letter "ch," which was probably the last letter of melech, the word for king. "It seems that in the seventh year of the reign of a king (it is unclear if the king referred to here is Hezekiah, Manasseh or Josiah), a shipment was dispatched from Bethlehem to the king in Jerusalem," said archaeologist Eli Shukron, director of the excavation. The bulla itself is what is known as a "fiscal bulla," one used to seal tax shipments to the kingdom of Judah.

"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 dig itself is somewhat controversial because it is being conducted in a national park in the Jerusalem suburb of Silwan, known to Jews as the City of David. The excavation is funded by the Ir David Foundation, which seeks to populate the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan with Jewish settlers, claiming a link to antiquity.

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