First Ancient Proof of Bethlehem’s Existence Discovered UPDATED

This is huge news, which is made even more wonderful since it comes from such a tiny object. In an excavation in the City of David (the most historically important area of Jerusalem), a tiny bulla was found imprinted with the words “Bat Lechem,” the ancient name for Bethlehem. (A bulla is a seal, usually made by imprinting soft clay.)

This is what the inscription says:

בשבעת (Bishv’at)–”in the seventh” (reference to the year of the king’s reign)
בת לכם (Bat Lechem)–”Bethlehem”
למל ]ך] ([Lemel]ekh)–”to the king”

Bethlehem, famous as the city of Jesus’ birth, has never been extensively excavated, and some wondered if it even existed in ancient times. Only Biblical references survived: no artifacts or tangible proof, no stone saying “Bethlehem City Limits / Pop. 1280″ with a little Rotary symbol in the corner.

With this seal, the size of a small coin, we finally have that proof.

Eli Shukron, the director of the excavation, believes the seal was from a shipment sent from Bethlehem to the King of Judah (possibly Hezekiah, Manasseh or Josiah) around 8th or 7th century BC. This places an occupied, prosperous Bethlehem in the First Temple period. Shukron  speculates that the seal was placed on payment of Bethlehem’s tax to the kingdom, and may have been on a shipment of food or silver.

The first mention of Bethlehem is in Genesis 35:19: “So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem).” Its real importance came later, as the city of Jesse, and thus the birthplace of King David. This means it also had to be the birthplace of the new David: Jesus.

But there are a depressingly large number of scholars who believe Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles are merely legends, with little to no historical value. Some have even suggested that David himself is a mythic figure, and that there never was a kingdom of Israel as described in the Bible. There have been persistent claims that Bethlehem was insignificant, or unoccupied, or somewhere else (there’s also a Bethlehem of Galilee), or even nonexistent, and that there was no proof of its occupation by Israelites as early as the 8th century (a mere 200 years after the life of David himself).

There was, in fact, a huge hole in the archaeological record of Bethlehem between about the 14th century BC and the 4th century AD. This bulla fills that hole. It’s concrete proof of a place named Bethlehem that was large enough to be taxed by a centralized Hebrew kingdom in the 8th century BC. In other words, the historical revisionists who like to dismiss the Bible as history are going to need to revisit their revisionism on this point.

I just love it when that happens.

The video below is in Hebrew, but it shows the area and the tiny size of the object.

YouTube Preview Image

UPDATE:

I really thought I explained this sufficiently, but I hadn’t counted on the Reddit atheists. I saw that I was getting traffic from Reddit, so I went over to see what was being said. That’s always a mistake. Reddit posts about religion are like flypaper for idiot atheists. Some people there seemed to think that I was making all kinds of claims for what the bulla did and did not prove.

So, once more, for the Rediots: the bulla proves that, in the 8th or 7th century BC, a city called Bethlehem existed, was occupied, and was taxed by a Judean king. Such extra-textual evidence did not previously exist. We had some indication that the site had early Iron Age occupation, and plenty of indication that it was occupied in the 4th century AD, but in between the record is sketchy except for texts. (The Amarna letters and the Bible.)

Once of the cute tricks Biblical skeptics like to play is to discount anything the Bible says unless it’s corroborated by the archaeological record. I’ve heard them say, “There’s no proof David even existed!” or “There’s no proof of a unified Israelite kingdom!”

Right. And there’s no proof of Caesar’s Gallic campaigns except for one book, by Julius Caesar. Oddly enough, I don’t hear a lot  skepticism about the Gallic Wars. Funny, that.

Are Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles literal history by modern standards? No. No ancient history is literal history by modern standards. Not Thucydides. Not Herodotus. None of it. All of it was shaped for rhetorical purposes. But that doesn’t mean it’s worthless as history. The historical books of the Bible have complex textual histories, but at their core is the story of the Jewish people, and I have no doubt that the contours of that story are true.

Skeptics have tried using archaeological records to disprove the Biblical history texts for years. Little by little, the record vindicates elements of the texts. The Bethlehem bulla is a case in point. There are many, many others. I’m not saying that the bulla proves anything more than it proves. But the bulla is not the only find that backs up Biblical claims. It’s just further proof that raising archaeology above text is a dangerous game for the skeptics. We have not even come close to exploring the full archaeological record of the Holy Land. If one object smaller than a dime can prove the existence a city at a specific point in time, what else is still out there, waiting to be found?

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • Doug

    Mr McDonald writes: “there’s also a Bethlehem of Galilee”
    Indeed there is, but it didn’t exist in the days of Micah, who made a prophecy some consider more amazing than archaeology. That “discovery” is in the oldest mss. of the Bible.
    “And you Bethlehem Ephrata, are a little one among the thousands of Juda [in the south], out of you shall he come forth unto me that is to be the ruler in Israel: and his going forth is from the beginning, from the days of eternity.” Mic 5:2, Douay
    There was no need then for Micah to be specific, but a need did exist by the time of this writing:
    “When Jesus therefore was born in Bethlehem of Juda, in the days of King Herod …” Moreover, Galilee in the north is where Messiah was foretold to ‘appear as a light’. Mt 4:12 ff refers back, as Matthew says, to Isa 9:1.
    Thus the distinction between the baby born in the southern Bethlehem, who would be anointed as Messiah and begin his ministry in the north, but whose real existence was “from the beginning, from the days of eternity”, making him “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature”, that he might become “the beginning, the firstborn from the dead”. (Col 1)
    And Micah’s dates? About 700 years before his prophecy was realized!

  • Clare Krishan

    I only see one character in the photo on the last line:
    [למל[ך ([Lemel]ekh)–”to the king”
    the “ekh” consonant is the only one present (majestic munificence being the only reason for a bulla in the first place, the word king can be assumed?) Thus your transcription should read
    למל ]ך] ([Lemel]ekh)–”to the king”
    (my sympathies, what a nightmare: editing mixed Hebrew R-to-L and Latin L-to-R, easy to see how the error may have crept into the sources!) It seems the IAA release had typo issues also
    http://zwingliusredivivus.wordpress.com/2012/05/24/even-more-on-the-bethlehem-bulla/
    claiming that’s a Yod on line 2, causing Jewish scholars to scoff at the attribution (the glyph ‘t’ resembles our multiplication sign, ⨯ , a Phoenician form for tau; the glyph ‘h’ likewise Phoenician

  • Clare Krishan

    oops
    glyph glosses glitched!
    again a Phoenician

  • Clare Krishan

    oh well, glitch on your side not mine. Let me try unicode instead: is it
    [decimal] 𐤄 𐤌 or [hexadecimal] 𐤄 𐤌
    that is the question?

  • Clare Krishan

    ok.
    (except I transposed ‘em while cut-n- pasting – its mem first, then he (but that’s fine since that’s how the Phoenicians incised ‘em. right?)

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    The translation is Shukron’s, not mine. But, yes, clearly the press release was wrong in the original transcription (probably because of the mess of mixing English and Hebrew), but right in the translation. The bracketing was wrong, as you point out, but I do think it’s a reasonable assumption that “ekh” is “Lemelekh”. I’m going to fix the brackets now.

  • Rob

    For a Christian, you seem to not like Atheists and even lower your self to insult them and call them idiots. As a Christian, I will never assume that the Bible has everything I need to know about life, because just as you are struggling to interpret this mere symbol, imagine an entire book. I have always had many doubts on lots of parts of the Bible, but that doesn’t make me less Christian. I believe it only makes me a better person because by questioning, I will settle my doubts about the Lords teachings. By insulting others, you sir lost all credibility in my opinion as a smart man, with intentions on searching for higher learning. Seems like you already know what the end of the story needs to be, and will stop at nothing to make sure it ends that way. Therefore, I will side with Claire on this one. Sorry Mr. McDonald. You are not worth the read in the future.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    So you got all that from my comments about idiot atheists? Amazing.

    Notice: I didn’t complain about smart atheists, just dumb ones who leave comments calling me a stooped nazi for being a Christian and believing some dumb old book. I’m not competing for Miss Congeniality here, so if my approach gives you the vapors, go elsewhere. It’s a big Internet, and I’m not here to reaffirm anyone in their okayness.

    And when the heck did I say the Bible explains everything? You’re arguing against things I never said.


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