Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
The Israel Antiquates Authority announced the discovery of a “Fiscal Bulla” containing the name Bethlehem. This is the only First Temple Period epigraphical mention on the city.
The text reads,
bšbc[t], “in the seventh”
[lml]k, “for the king”
If it weren’t for there being a considerable number (>50) of such bullae with other place names in their central register, one might question reconstructing lmlk in the bottom register. But even with only a single letter, the reconstruction is, for all practical purposes, certain.
This find is among the very few examples of fiscal bullae that did not first appear on the antiquities market. Another from the temple mound sifting project reads, [. . .] / [g]b’n / lmlk, “. . . Gibeon, for the King.” The text in the first register, when readable, of many of the “fiscal bullae” is something like b + some number generally in hieratic numerals + snh, “In the nth year.” So this new bulla may be unique or at least different. But I don’t think that means very much.
Gabriel Barkay wrote a lengthy article on fiscal bullae in Hebrew. If I had the time or could read Modern Hebrew fluently, I’d read Barkay’s article. But alas, I don’t and I don’t. Barkay does have a useful summary in English at the end of his piece. If one ignores the gratuitous “City of David” stuff, the IAA writeup on the Bethlehem bulla and the role of fiscal bullae is interesting (and brief) but not abnormally so.
Update (May 24, 2012):
George Athas argues that this bulla does not refer to Bethlehem and may not even be a fiscal bulla. His discussion is abnormally interesting and cogent. It may well also be correct. Give it a read.
Further Update (May 24, 2012):
Fr Stephen Smuts has a summary of opinion some of which that seems to point to Bethlehem in the second register, i.e. reading ḥ rather than h with only traces of left down stroke of the ḥ remaining. The discussion continues.