Oldest evidence found of Bethlehem

  • Article by: DIAA HADID , Associated Press
  • Updated: May 23, 2012 - 8:09 PM

Ancient seal is believed to be the oldest reference ever found of city outside the Bible.

A stamp, known as the fiscal bulla, was likely used to seal a tax document from Bethlehem to Jerusalem.

Photo: Clara Amit, Associated Press

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JERUSALEM - Israeli archaeologists have discovered a 2,700-year-old seal that bears the inscription "Bethlehem," the Israel Antiquities Authority announced Wednesday, in what experts believe to be the oldest artifact with the name of Jesus' traditional birthplace.

The tiny clay seal's existence and age provide vivid evidence that Bethlehem was not just the name of a fabled biblical town, but also a bustling place of trade linked to the nearby city of Jerusalem, archaeologists said. Eli Shukron, the authority's director of excavations, said the find was significant because it is the first time the name "Bethlehem" appears outside of a biblical text from that period.

Shukron said the seal, 0.59 inches in diameter, dates back to the period of the first biblical Jewish Temple, between the eighth and seventh century B.C., at a time when Jewish kings reigned over the ancient kingdom of Judah and 700 years before Jesus was born. The seal was written in ancient Hebrew script from the same time. Pottery found nearby also dated to the same period, he said.

Shmuel Achituv, an outside expert in ancient scripts at Israel's Ben-Gurion University, said the discovery was the oldest reference to Bethlehem ever found outside of the Bible. Apart from the seal, the other mentions of Bethlehem, Achituv said, "are only in the Bible."

The stamp, also known as "fiscal bulla," was likely used to seal an administrative tax document, sent from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, the seat of Jewish power at the time.

Shukron said the seal was found months ago, but they needed time to confirm the identity of the artifact. He said the first line most likely read "Beshava'at" -- or "in the seventh" -- most likely the year of the reign of a king. The second line, he said, has the crumbling letters of the word "Bethlehem." The third line carried one letter, a "ch" which Shukron said was the last letter of the Hebrew work for king, "melech."

Hebrew words often do not have vowels, which are understood from the context, making several interpretations of the same word plausible. Some of the letters are crumbled, or were wiped away. There are only about 40 other existing seals of this kind from the first Jewish Temple period, said Achituv, making this a significant find, both because such seals are rare, and because this is the first to mention Bethlehem.

The dig outside Jerusalem's Old City walls has raised controversy. It is being underwritten by an extreme-right wing Jewish organization that seeks to populate the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan with Jewish settlers, arguing that they have ancient links to the area.

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