A New Seal that DOES NOT refer to Bethlehem

The Israel Antiquities Authority is reporting the discovery of a clay bulla (a seal originally impressed into soft clay) during sifting of soil and debris from the City of David excavations. According to excavation director, Eli Shukron, the seal dates to the seventh century BC and is our earliest evidence for Bethlehem. But, quite frankly, I don’t buy it.

Download a high resolution photo of the bulla (zipped)

The newly discovered bulla from the City of David excavations

Shukron claims the bulla reads as follows:

בת לחם

He transliterates this as:

bat lechem

He gives the following interpretive comments for this:

…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. 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. The tax could have been paid in the form of silver or agricultural produce such as wine or wheat… […] 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.

In other words, it seems that Shukron is translating the bulla as follows:

In the seventh (year).
For the king.

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:

  1. 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—).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

UPDATE: More news here.

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


18 thoughts on “A New Seal that DOES NOT refer to Bethlehem

  1. Dear George,

    I believe you are right about the first register. There is no ayin that would be needed. What I see is what really resembles a nun. But as the line is distorted here it could also be another letter. I do not agree with you, however, on the he in line 2. I do think that it is a het as the left vertical line can be detected but it is rather damaged. Best wishes
    Peter van der Veen

    • I’m happy to be corrected, Peter. But going by the photo, I’m still not convinced that it is a heth. It looks very much like a he to me. The right vertical stroke is long, as would be expected in a he, but there does not appear to be any kind of vertical stroke on the left side. There seems to be some shadowing in the photo, but this is restricted to the area between the horizontal strokes, and there appears to be no similar shadowing extending up to the left, as would be expected for a heth.

      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.

        • Yes, exactly. That’s what it looks like to me, too. But photographs can be deceiving. Is it a toothbrush or is it a ladder? I hope a skilled epigrapher gets a chance to look at it and tell us which it is.

  2. George and Peter
    The inscription is of a fiscal bulla: 1) Date, 2) City name, 3) the term LMLK (belonging or to the kink).

    The Ayin it visible, no problem at all, it has a triangular shape and the lower part of the Taw is also visible. Therefore the bulla is dated to the seventh (year).
    Also in the second line the Het is very clear. Yet there was a small error in the reading by Shukrun. The name of the town has to be restored as: [B]YT LHM, which is indeed the town Beit-Lehem.
    Therefore we do not have a prominent woman and not even a simple woman.

    Robert Deutsch

    • Dear Robert,
      Indeed now I can see what you mean. Yes ayin and taw are there in the first line. As I wrote to George last night (offline) the first letter in the second line could impossibly be a bet as I saw the head of a yod. I had not yet seen your reply. So this fits exactly. It needs to be a yod for the name to be beytlehem. I agree with the reading now. I hate having to base readings on pictures only. I much prefer to work with the original. Best

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  5. Hi George,
    You wrote :”It seems we need to wait for some more reliable and unsensational epigraphic analysis to be done on this bulla.”

    Perfectly right. Therefore I am a bit puzzled why you ccame out with any comment on it?

    ( Also, in the meantime Ahituv came out with his interpretation which suppurts the initial reading. I don’t know if you consider him an epigrapher)

    Uri Hurwitz

    • I was concerned by the many articles I was reading, which affirmed definitively that the bulla referred to Bethlehem. But the photograph didn’t seem to match the write ups. I wanted us to slow down a bit and look more carefully at it. So, I wrote up a counter-piece that entertained another possibility, and call for some more expert analysis. As I readily state in the blog piece, photographs can distort. So I want a few epigraphers to clear this up for us. If the bulla refers to Bethlehem, fine. But give us the epigraphic analysis to show it. Without it, the photograph just doesn’t look like it refers to Bethlehem. Hence, the call for more eyes.

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  9. “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.”

    This statement was a bit offensive when first written, and certainly now that you accept this reading. Perhaps consider revising it.

    • There was no offence intended, Joseph. As I’ve said, I’m happy to retract my initial impression, but I’d prefer a second epigrapher to give us a report based on a personal inspection first. If that’s proffered and it confirms the Bethlehem reading, I will gladly retract. In any case, I do stand by the sentiment that some archaeologists do jump to inordinate conclusions, regardless of what happens with this particular bulla. I refer you to the announcement made by Garfinkel and Ganor about the Khirbet Qeiyafa shrine boxes as evidence of this kind of sensationalist phenomenon.

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