Excavations in Jerusalem have produced a bulla inscribed with the name of Bethlehem from the biblical Divided Kingdom period.
A bulla is a piece of clay that was used for sealing a document or object. The bulla was impressed with the seal of the person who sent the document or object, and its integrity was evidence the document or object was not opened by anyone unauthorized to do so.
Three lines of ancient Hebrew script appear on the bulla:
בת לים Bat Lechem
According to Eli Shukron, director of the excavation on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “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. The bulla we found belongs to the group of “fiscal” bullae – administrative bullae used to seal tax shipments remitted to the taxation system of the Kingdom of Judah in the late eighth and seventh centuries BCE. The tax could have been paid in the form of silver or agricultural produce such as wine or wheat”. 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”.
You may read the full press release and download a high-res copy of the photo here. (temporary link)
Bethlehem appears multiple times in the Bible.
- Rachel, Jacob’s wife, was buried near Bethlehem. (Genesis 35:19)
- The judge Ibzan was from Bethlehem. (Judges 12:8-10)
- Ruth’s first husband and her in-laws from from Bethlehem. She settled down there with her second husband Boaz, another resident of the city. Boaz and Ruth were David’s great-grandparents. (Ruth 1 and 4)
- David grew up around Bethlehem (1 Samuel 16)
- Joab, David’s general and nephew, also grew up there. (2 Samuel 2:18-32)
- The Philistines maintained a garrison there prior to or during David’s early reign. (2 Samuel 23:13-17)
- The prophet Micah spoke of the Messiah coming from Bethlehem. (Micah 5:2-5)
- Jesus was born near Bethlehem during the Roman Period. (Matthew 2; Luke 2)
I’m fairly confident a survey at Bethlehem identified Iron IIc pottery, so this bulla is probably only the earliest non-biblical mention of the place-name ‘Bethlehem’.