Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Did the little town of Bethlehem exist?

Though the town of Bethlehem is mentioned in the Bible a total of 53 times (44 OT and 9 NT), with the first mention in Genesis 35:19-20, which states: “Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). Jacob set up a pillar over her grave …” This indicates that the city was known about 1,700 years prior to the birth of Christ. Then, around 700 years prior, the Prophet Micah was very specific regarding the Messiah’s birthplace: “But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah. From you one will go forth for me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.” (Micah 5:2)

However, apart from the Bible, no historical documentary records of this town had been found that dated prior to the 4th Century AD. As to be expected, critics and skeptics considered this to be further evidence that the Bible was written by forgers many centuries after the alleged events. That is until 2012, when a very small object was discovered during excavation in the City of David, near Jerusalem. A statement was released by the Israel Antiquities Authority on May 23, 2012 describing the artifact.

The discovery
The bulla, or stamped piece of clay used to seal a container or document, is 1.5 cm and is dated to around the 7th Century BC, during the first temple period. The small inscription, written in Hebrew, states:
בשבעת (Bishv’at)–”in the seventh” (reference to the year of the king’s reign)
בת לכם (Bat Lechem)–”Bethlehem”
למל ]ך] ([Lemel]ekh)–”to the king”
In the 14th century BC Bethlehem was a city-state named after the goddess Beit Lahmu. Later it was called Ephrata (Genesis 35:16) and was also referred to in the Hebrew Bible as Beit Lehem. In Hebrew “Beit” means house/home/household and “Lechem” means bread/Manna/nourishment or even battle. Commonly the name is understood to mean House of Bread.

What is it?
Bullae (plural for bulla) were stamped pieces of clay that were used to seal containers or documents. They were used to identify the sender or author of a document, an important method of marking ownership in ancient transactions. According to Eli Shukron, director of the excavation for the Israel Antiquities Authority, this discovery appears to show 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." Shukron dates this bulla to the period around the 7th or 8th centuries B.C., during a time when bullae were used in Judah for taxation of shipments.

Which Bethlehem?
During Biblical times, the name Bethlehem was given to two towns in Israel, one of which was in Galilee, located in the north, near Nazareth and near the Sea of Galilee. The second is in the south, in Judea, near Jerusalem. This is not unusual and does not invalidate Biblical accounts. Many examples exist today in which two or more towns having the same name are located in different parts of the country. To identify where Jesus was born, Luke records that “everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary” (Luke 2:3-5). Luke goes on to record: “While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son … and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:6-7). The journey from Nazareth to the northern Bethlehem was about seven miles which, even with Mary’s condition, may have been completed in a day. Though possible, it seems unlikely the two would have been stuck looking for an inn only seven miles from home. On the other hand, the journey from Nazareth to the town of Bethlehem in Judea near Jerusalem was about 70 miles, which fits better with Luke’s narrative.

Archaeological excavations
So, does archaeology corroborate Luke’s historical account? Some material from the Iron Age, about 1200 to 550 B.C., has been found in this town, as has material from the sixth century A.D. However, some archaeologists interpret the finds to indicate the one in Judea did not exist as a functioning town between the dates of 7 and 4 B.C., the time period when Jesus was likely born. According to Aviram Oshri, a senior archaeologist with the Israeli Antiquities Authority, no material has been found from excavations in the first century A.D. or the first century B.C. in Bethlehem of Judea. Oshri noted: “If the historical Jesus were truly born in Bethlehem, it was most likely the Bethlehem of Galilee, not that in Judaea. The archaeological evidence certainly seems to favor the former, a busy center [of Jewish life] a few miles from the home of Joseph and Mary, as opposed to an unpopulated spot almost a hundred miles from home.”

Despite the large number of Biblical references to the town of Bethlehem, discovery of the bulla is the first archaeological evidence extending the history to a First Temple Period Israelite city. In a news release, Eli Shukron, excavation director, provided an understanding of the significance of the bulla: “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.” He further stated, “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.” This discovery fills a hole that had existed in the record, between about the 14th century B.C. and the 4th century A.D. It is solid proof that a town named Bethlehem existed and was large enough to be taxed by a centralized Hebrew kingdom in the 8th century.

1. Marisa Larson, “Bethlehem”, National Geographic, 11 Feb 2008.
2. Dave Miller, “Two Bethlehems”, Apologetics Press, 2003.
3. Biblical Archaology Society, “History of Bethlehem Documented by First Temple Period Bulla from the City of David”, 23 May 2012.
4. Yonah Bob, “Archaologists find first proof of ancient Bethlehem”, The Jerusalem Post, 23 May 2012.
5. Thomas L. McDonald, “First Ancient Proof of Bethlehem’s Existence Discovered”,, 24 May 2012.