Here we go again: Archaeologists in Israel have found an allegedly biblically relevant artifact, an ancient seal with the Hebrew word “Bethlehem” on it that apparently dates to the seventh century BCE. Bethlehem, of course, is represented in the New Testament (Mt 2:1) as the birthplace of Jesus Christ.

Well, that’s clear proof of the baby Jesus! Don’t forget, he’s also “Jesus of Nazareth,” which evidently didn’t even exist as a city/polis when he was supposedly born. Christ’s nativity was located in Bethlehem because that town was purportedly the birth and coronation place of King David, and the awaited messiah was supposed to be from the House of David. Bethlehem is mentioned over 40 times in the Old Testament, so this find is important not to establish the town’s existence in the pre-Christian written record but to push the earliest reference to the seventh century BCE. One of these biblical references in particular, Micah 5:2, serves as a “messianic prophecy”:

But you, O Bethlehem Eph’rathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.

It is commonly averred that Micah is the “prophet” mentioned at Matthew 2:5: “They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet…'” It is clear that, rather than representing “prophecy,” various “messianic scriptures” were strung together using midrash/interpretation as “blueprints” to create the Christ character.

The first biblical mention of בית לחם or Beyth Lechem – Βηθλεεμ in the Greek Old Testament or Septuagint – meaning “house of bread (food),” appears in Genesis (35:19, 48:7). The earliest extant text of Genesis is from the Dead Sea and dates from the first centuries around the common era, but the earliest layers of the text were composed several centuries previously. Attributed to the Israelite prophet Moses, who purportedly existed in the 13th century BCE, the oldest strata of Genesis apparently were not composed initially until the sixth century or so, making that text later than this seal. In any event, there is reason to surmise that Bethlehem existed in myths before it was established on Earth and that the “house of bread” concept reflects an Egyptian origin.

Archaeologists in Jerusalem dig find oldest seal inscribed with ‘Bethlehem’ in ancient Hebrew

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, 1.5 centimeters (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 back to the same period, he said.

Shmuel Achituv, an expert in ancient scripts at Israel’s Ben-Gurion University who did not participate in the dig, 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.

It was found as archaeologists sifted through mounds of dirt they had dug up in an excavation outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls.

Shukron 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. Three experts interviewed by the AP, one involved in the text and two independents, concurred the seal says Bethlehem.

There are only some 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 itself has raised controversy.

It is being underwritten by an extreme-right wing Jewish organization that seeks to populate the crowded Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan with Jewish settlers, arguing that they have ancient links to the area. The dig is being undertaken in a national park in the area of Silwan, known to Jews as “the City of David.”

Shukron said the seal was found some months ago, but they needed time to confirm the identity of the artifact.

Further Reading

The Nazareth Debate