Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Bethlehem Bulla

News of a great new archaeological find, but first, the picture:


The first ancient artifact constituting tangible evidence of the existence of the city of Bethlehem, which is mentioned in the Bible, was recently discovered in Jerusalem.

A bulla measuring c. 1.5 cm was found during the sifting of soil removed from archaeological excavations the Israel Antiquities Authority is carrying out in the City of David...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:



Bat Lechem

בת לים



...“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. [Eli] 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”.

Oh, and Bethlehem is where Ruth and Boaz met and begot eventually David, King Of Israel.  And the Shavu'ot holiday is Sunday when the Book of Ruth is read.

Another problem for Palestinian inventivity promoters and Israeli minimalist archaeologists.



From George Atthas, Dean of Research, Moore Theological College, Sydney, Australia:-

Once again, however, it seems that we have an Israeli archaeologist jumping to inordinate conclusions that simply do not reflect the actual evidence, all so that they can make a sensational political statement about Israel or Judah in antiquity. There are a number of issues with Shukron’s proposal:

The first register (line) of the bulla is quite fragmentary, with the beginning and end of the line no longer extant. If Shukron’s reading of the third register as למלך (‘for the king’) is correct, then there is ample room for at least one or two letters before the initial extant ב (b). If this is the case, then it opens up the possibility that the first register does not  relate to the number seven (Heb: שבעת), but could instead be a name, perhaps beginning with אב (Ab—).  After the ש (sh) in the first register, Shukron reads ע. However, given the shape of the other letters, which seem to resemble Hebrew letters of the seventh to sixth centuries BC, one would expect this ע to be represented by a plain circle—the standard shape for this letter in that period time. But this does not appear to be the case here. On the contrary, the shape of this letter seems to resemble a narrow floating figure ’7′. This shape is much closer to the relevant forms of letters נ ,ו, or פ, (w, n, p). though in each case, the letter would still be an unusual shape. Now it simply could be that the photograph is masking the true shape of the letter. This type of photographic distortion certainly occurs, as I found out first hand when I discovered an extra letter on the Tel Dan Inscription that simply did not show properly in photographs. So, we’ll reserve final judgement on this until we have the testimony of other skilled epigraphers who have the chance to inspect the bulla personally. But, going by the current photograph, Shukron’s reading here doesn’t seem to match what’s there.  In the second register, Shukron reconstructs the first letter, which is mostly broken off, as ב (b). This is certainly possible, but not necessary. In fact, it looks to me as though ר (r) is a slightly better fit for this fragmentary letter. Nonetheless, let’s give Shukron the benefit of the doubt here. The next two letters are not problematic. They unambiguously read תל (tl). However, Shukron claims the next letter is ח (ḥ). However, there is one big problem with this: normally the letter ḥeth has two vertical strokes, one on each side of the three horizontal ‘rungs’, producing a kind of ladder shape. But there is clearly no vertical stroke on the left side of this letter.

What we are left with is, rather, the classic ‘brush’ shape of the letter ה (he). This means that the bulla simply cannot be referring to Bethlehem (בת לחם), for that would require the letter ח, not ה. But we clearly here have a ה. Add to this the fact that the word division in this seal (as is the case with most others) is not actually apparent, and the connection to Bethlehem becomes even more stretched. So what has happened here? Has there been an absolute bungle of epigraphic analysis here? Did Shukron and the IAA totally miss the fact that this letter is he, not ḥeth? Or are they trying to make the bulla read what they want it to say and hope that the non-epigraphy-skilled public just go along with it? Whatever the reason behind it, this just simply does not refer to Bethlehem—unless the published photograph is not just distorting something, but actually fibbing. What the bulla does refer to is unknown—we’ll have to do some more thinking on that. But I am not a little astonished at the reading offered by Shukron.

Given that the second register almost certainly does not refer to Bethlehem, it’s just possible that the second register is a patronymic for a woman. If, as Shukron suggests, the first letter is ב (b), then it could read [...]בת לה (bt lh…): daughter of Lah[...]. Seals of prominent women are not unknown, but it would suggest that the owner was most likely royalty—either a wife or daughter of the king. This reading is a distinct possibility, but ultimately cannot be verified.  The third and final register has but one extant letter: כ (k). This could certainly be part of the word למלך (‘for the king’), as Shukron suggests. It seems he is being led here by the other fiscal bullae we have discovered, in which the word למלך is clearly there. If this is the case, then as is the norm, this bulla may well represent a stamp indicating the origin of some commodity sent to the king of Judah in the seventh or sixth century BC. However, as I’ve suggested above, there is just as much chance that this is a personal seal mentioning someone’s name. If this is the case, then perhaps the extant end of the first register reads בן (‘son of’). But that’s more of a guess than a hard-and-fast observation.

It seems we need to wait for some more reliable and unsensational epigraphic analysis to be done on this bulla. Unless I’m very much mistaken(1), it seems fairly clear from the published photo that this bulla does NOT refer to Bethlehem. I lean towards seeing this as the seal of a prominent woman, though ultimately I can’t even be sure of that. Could a decent epigrapher please go and have a look at this seal, or could a generous benefactor pay to fly me over to inspect it?

Links to other reports about this bulla can be found below. You can see from some of the links how quickly news of this find is being disseminated as ‘proof’ for Bethlehem. The thing is, we don’t need this bulla as evidence for Bethlehem’s existence. It’s all rather unnecessarily sensationalist.

(1) I have been known to be wrong before. I remember it well, actually. It was a Wednesday.

And more from an academic list:-

 1. Yesterday, Zachi Dvira (Zweig) forwarded some information about
the bulla and the work of the Temple Mount Sifting Project members.
Zachi and Dr. Gabriel Barkay (the "Gaby" below) direct the Project.
    Zachi wrote: "This bulla was found a few months ago at the sifting
site by Rachel Nahum, which the sifting site office manager. It was
found during the time we were working on Gibeon LMLK bulla essay. Gaby
saw this bulla and identified it immediately as a fiscal bulla
mentioning the town Bethlehem. We’ve been giving sifting services to
Eli’s Shukrun excavations for over a year, but recently we have
significantly increased the number of staff members working this
material and it will take place for some time. We expect many more
unique finds from this material to show up in the future."
    The IAA release quotes Eli Shukron stating, in part, "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."
    Those interested in fiscal bulla should see Dr. Barkay's report,
"A Fiscal Bulla from the Slopes of the Temple Mount – Evidence for the
Taxation System of the Judean Kingdom," at
and his essay at [pp.
151-77 in Hebrew, and two English pages].

    2. The expanded AP news report, at PhysOrg and other sites,
states: "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.'" In addition, the article
stated, "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." See "Ancient Bethlehem seal unearthed in Jerusalem" at
    There's also a video of Eli Shukron speaking about the bulla in
English, including at
    And see four pictures at

    3. In my earlier "Is Bethlehem on the bulla?" e-mail I mentioned
that "Some scholars have already indicated that they take issue with
Eli Shukron's reading of the bulla's text (Bishv'at Bat Lechem
[Lemel]ekh = in the seventh / bet lehem / lm[lk]) but see, instead, a
person's name or other wording."
    Since then, one scholar has posted the details of his disagreement
and another has withdrawn his reservations about the "bet lehem"
reading but with important caveats.

    A. Today, May 24, Dr. George Athas posted "A New Seal that DOES
NOT refer to Bethlehem" at his site, at
    In it, besides making a political judgment, he explains in detail
how he would read the lines differently and states his belief that the
letter in the second line read as a het is actually a heh, negating a
reading of of "lh(.)m" (=  "lechem"). In a comment, Dr. Peter van der
Veen agreed in part with Dr. Athas but took issue with the heh reading
("I do think that it is a het as the left vertical line can be
detected but it is rather damaged."). Dr. Athas explained why he was
not convinced and concluded that, "In any case, this is why we need
another pair of skilled eyes to inspect this bulla. I simply don’t
trust photos enough to make definitive judgements."
    (Interestingly, on May 23, a reader ("Sarah", not an epigrapher)
of Duane Smith's "A 'Fiscal Bulla' From Bethlehem" posting wrote,
"looks like a he not a cheth in 'Bethlehem'." See
    However (and more on that below based on Dr. Ahituv's
observations), when you look closely at a greatly enlarged photo of
the bulla, such as the IAA's high-resolution picture at ZIP file, do you see
what could be an almost completely effaced left stroke of a het?
    (Unless my eyes are playing tricks on me, and subject to
stereoscopic microscope analysis, it seems to be there when observed
at very great enlargement.)
    Or do you see a heh? (The shading at the left between the
horizontal lines and to the left above the top line would disqualify
the heh.)
    Ha'aretz also has a not-quite-as-large picture (that is further
enlargeable when clicked upon with the mouse cursor) at!/image/121356148.jpg

    B. Dr. Victor Avigdor Hurowitz of Ben-Gurion University initially
expressed reservations about the reading of the bulla in the IAA's
press release.
    However, in an e-mail and a posting at his Facebook page he wrote
the following about an hour ago: "Retraction about Beytlehem bulla.
Friends, I must retract the statements I made a few days ago about the
newly found bulla mentioning [b]yt lh(.)m בית לחם. Why? It turns out
that my objections were based on a mistaken press release of the bulla
issued by the IAA. They offered a transcription and transliteration
which were erroneous. My colleague Shmuel Ahituv, an epigrapher, saw
the bulla itself and he informs me that the signs on the right which
the IAA transcribed as ב are in fact on close examination of the
object remnants of a yod. Also, the letter transcribed as ח is indeed
such. On the photo it looks like a ה because the down stroke on the
left seems to be absent. Ahituv tells me that traces are still
visible. In other words, the text reads [ב]ית לחם This is obviously
Bethlehem and I have no objections to the identification. In summary,
if Ahituv's transcription and decipherment are correct this bulla is
an attestation of this place in an extra-Biblical, Iron Age source.
But if the IAA has correctly transcribed the text, my objections
stand. So I retract my objection but will not accept blame."


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