Archaeology & First-Temple Period Bethlehem

Archaeology & First-Temple Period Bethlehem April 6, 2023

This exciting find was announced on the Bible History Daily website, in conjunction with the Biblical Archaeology Society:

On May 23, 2012 the Israel Antiquities Authority announced the discovery of a 2,700 year old bulla [c. 700 B.C.] bearing an inscription reading “Bethlehem.” The discovery marks the earliest known mention of ancient Bethlehem, a city best remembered as Jesus’ birthplace centuries later.

A bulla, or stamped piece of clay used to seal a document or container, was used to mark the identity of the sender or author of a document, . . . (1)

It was discovered in the ancient City of David section of Jerusalem. The article continues:

Despite the extended Biblical history of the city, the discovery of the bulla is the first archaeological evidence extending the history of Bethlehem to a First Temple Period Israelite city.

Excavation director Eli Shukron . . . emphasizes, “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.”

The Jerusalem Post also announced it:

Archaeologists recently discovered the first artifact constituting tangible evidence of the existence of the ancient city of Bethlehem, which is mentioned in the Torah, . . .

The artifact, a bulla, or piece of clay for sealing a document or object, may prove the existence of Bethlehem dating back to the First Temple Period. . . .

Three lines of ancient Hebrew script appear on the bulla, including the words: Bishv’at, Bet Lechem and [Lemel]ekh. (2)

Bethlehem had a history recounted in the Bible extending to more than 1700 years before the birth of Jesus there (Matt. 2:1): which itself was predicted in Micah 5:2. King David (r. c. 1010-c. 970 B.C.) came from Bethlehem (1 Sam. 17:12, 15, 58, 20:6). It was also the burial site of Jacob’s wife Rachel over seven centuries earlier (Gen. 35:19, 48:7), and the book of Ruth, from the period of the judges (c. 1200–c. 1037 B.C.), mentions it seven times.

The earliest possible extrabiblical literary evidence regarding Bethlehem is found in the Amarna correspondence of 1350–1330 B.C., which consists of Egyptian diplomatic letters written in cuneiform (the written language of Mesopotamia), to the Canaanites and Amorites. We can’t determine with certainty whether that referred to the Bethlehem which is six miles from Jerusalem, because there was a second Bethlehem in Galilee, seven miles northwest of Nazareth — mentioned in Joshua 19:15 and Judges 12:8.

This bulla, however, which is believed to be part of a system of taxation — in this instance a transaction between Bethlehem and the king in Jerusalem –, leaves no doubt as to which Bethlehem it refers to.

FOOTNOTES

1) “History of Bethlehem Documented by First Temple Period Bulla from the City of David,” Bible History Daily; originally published on May 23, 2012; reprinted on July 16, 2019.

2) Yonah Bob, “Archaeologists find first proof of ancient Bethlehem,” The Jerusalem Post, May 23, 2012.

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Photo credit: Bethlehem bulla [courtesy of Israel antiquities authority / Bible History Daily)

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Summary: A bulla (clay seal), from Bethlehem, dated to the 8th century B.C. was found in the City of David region of Jerusalem in 2012: the earliest certain extrabiblical evidence.

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