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


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?

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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.