The Israel Antiquities Authority revealed Wednesday what it is calling the earliest archaeological evidence of the city of Bethlehem.
Archaeologists have discovered a bulla – or piece of clay used to seal documents and other objects – that is only about half of an inch across and has the word "Bethlehem" written on it in ancient Hebrew.
"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," said Eli Shukron, director of the excavation, in a statement.
The first appearance of Bethlehem in the Bible is in the Book of Genesis, after Jacob's wife, Rachel, died following childbirth. The book says she was buried "on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem)." Bethlehem is also the hometown of the biblical King David, the setting for the Book of Ruth, and the birthplace of Jesus Christ.
The bulla predates Jesus' life on the earth by several hundred years.
Shukron says it was likely used to seal shipments of remittances for taxes – which consisted of either silver or agricultural produce – in the Kingdom of Judah during the late eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E.
Dorothy Resig, managing editor for the Biblical Archaeology Review, told The Christian Post on Wednesday that archaeologists know of about 50 "fiscal bullae" today. Like the one discovered by the Israel Antiquities Authority, she says, the others were also used to indicate which city or region a shipment of taxes came from.
"It sheds more light on that particular system of taxation which, again, we've known a good bit about, but these are among the first to actually come from an excavation so we can be more confident of their authenticity," said Resig.
Shukron says his find shows that a shipment was sent from Bethlehem to Jerusalem in the seventh year of a king's reign, although he is uncertain if it was Hezekia, Manasseh or Josiah on the throne at the time.
The Ir David Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and developing the City of David, is the underwriter for the sifting part of the archaeological project, which is being conducted in the Emek Tzurim National Park.