Israeli archaeologists have unearthed a 2,700-year-old clay seal with the name of Bethlehem, showing that the town existed centuries before it was revered as Jesus' birthplace.
Discovered during the sifting of debris removed from archaeological excavations near the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, the coin-sized clay seal, or bulla, was imprinted with three lines in ancient Hebrew script: "in the seventh," "Bethlehem" and "to the king."
"It seems that in the seventh year of the reign of a king (it is unclear if the king referred to is Hezekiah, Manasseh or Josiah), a shipment was dispatched from Bethlehem to the king in Jerusalem," Eli Shukron, director of the excavation on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said in a statement Wednesday.
Belonging to the group of "fiscal" bullae, the clay seal was likely placed on a tax shipment of silver or agricultural produce such as wine or wheat, which was sent from Bethlehem to the King of Judah in Jerusalem in the eighth or seventh century B.C.
"This is the first time the name Bethlehem appears outside the Bible, in an inscription from the First Temple period (1006-586 B.C.), which proves that Bethlehem was indeed a city in the Kingdom of Judah, and possibly also in earlier periods," Shukron said.
Located just south of Jerusalem, Bethlehem is first mentioned in the Bible in the verse "in Ephrath, which is Bethlehem." It was there that Rachel, the matriarch of the Jewish people, died and was buried.
Bethlehem is also the setting for the Book of Ruth, and the hometown of King David, the most celebrated king in Jewish history. In the New Testament, Bethlehem is mentioned as the birthplace of Jesus.
Photo: The 2,700-year-old clay seal. Credit: Clara Amit, courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.