Israeli archaeologists have discovered a 2,700-year-old seal that bears the inscription 'Bethlehem', the Israel Antiquities Authority announced yesterday. Experts believe that it is the oldest artefact bearing the name of Jesus's 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 city of Jerusalem, archaeologists said.
Eli Shukron, the authority's director of excavations, said the find was significant because it was the first time that the name 'Bethlehem' had appeared outside a biblical text from that period.
He said the seal, which is 1.5cm in diameter, dated back to the period of the first biblical Jewish Temple, between the eighth and seventh centuries BC.
At that time -- 700 years before Jesus was born -- Jewish kings reigned over the ancient kingdom of Judah.
The seal was written in ancient Hebrew script from the same time. Pottery found nearby also dated back to the same period, said Mr Shukron.
Shmuel Achituv, an expert in ancient scripts at Israel's Ben-Gurion University, said the discovery was the oldest reference to Bethlehem ever found outside of 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.