Editor’s Note: This is the third part of the second contribution to my new series Nephite History in Context: Artifacts, Inscriptions, and Texts Relevant to the Book of Mormon. Check out the really cool (and official, citable) PDF version here. To learn more about this series, read the introduction here. To find other posts in the series, see here.

Bethlehem Bulla


This clay seal impression was used to seal a tax
shipment sent to Jerusalem from Bethlehem
in the seventh century BC.
Photo Credit: Clara Amit, IAA 
Some of the most important and valuable inscriptions from ancient Israel and the surrounding region are the short inscriptions written on tiny seals, typically used for enclosing documents to ensure it is authentic and has not been tampered with. Such seals are usually made out of a semi-precious stone (though other materials were also used) and typically have the owners name inscribed on it, thus binding important documents with his or her “signature.” Nearly 3000 seals and clay seal impressions (called bulla; pl. bullae) have been found in Israel and the surrounding region, dating from the tenth–sixth centuries BC, although the largest portion of them come from the eighth–seventh centuries BC.1

Out of those thousands of seals and bullae is a small handful of seal impressions known as “fiscal bullae,” which sealed tax shipments paid in kind (i.e., silver, wine, or grain).2 There are approximately fifty examples of such bullae, all of which date to between the eighth–seventh centuries BC. Some follow the typical pattern of having the name of their owners inscribed on them, but most (about thirty-five) feature the name of the city from which the taxes were paid “to the king.” The majority of these are unprovenanced, but three were found between 2011–2013 within controlled archaeological digs in Jerusalem, including the so-called “Bethlehem Bulla.”3

According Eli Shukron, one of the excavators, the Bethlehem bulla was likely attached to “a shipment [that] was dispatched from Bethlehem to the king in Jerusalem.”4 Exactly which king remains uncertain. The initial archaeological context suggested “a date within the eighth–seventh centuries BCE,” but the limited paleographic evidence seems to favor a seventh century date,5 or possibly even the late “seventh to the early sixth centuries.”6 According Shukron, dates in the reign of either Hezekiah (ca. 726/715–697/686 bc), Manasseh (ca. 697/686–642 bc), or Josiah (ca. 640–609 bc) are all possible.7


The following translation is based on Martin Heide, “Some Notes on the Epigraphical Features of the Phoenician and Hebrew Fiscal Bullae,” in Recording New Epigraphic Evidence: Essays in Honor of Robert Deutsch on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday, ed. Meir Lubetski and Edith Lubetski (Jerusalem: Leshon Limudim, 2015), 72 (transcription of the Hebrew can be seen on this same page),8 with annotations added:

In the seventh (year).9
[For the kin]g.11

Book of Mormon Relevance

In the late eighth through the seventh century BC, the kingdom of Judah was divided into separate administrative districts for tax collection and other organizational purposes.12 Jerusalem, according to Yohanan Aharoni, did “double duty” as both the royal capital and the administrative center of one of these districts.13 Nadav Naʾaman explained, “Jerusalem was located in the centre of a sort of district, which encompassed the capital and its periphery, including the agricultural areas of the city’s residents, as well as satellite settlements directly connected to Jerusalem proper.”14

The discovery of the Bethlehem bulla right in Jerusalem is evidence that Bethlehem was one of these “satellite settlements” linked directly to the capital city. This suggests continuity between the territorial relationships in the Jerusalem region from seventh century BC all the way back into the Amarna period (fourteenth century BC),15 when Bethlehem was identified as “a town in the land of Jerusalem” (see pp. NHC 2b).

Lehi grew up in Jerusalem (1 Nephi 1:4) during Josiah’s reign, and probably even began raising his family while Josiah was still king.16This fiscal bulla thus indicates that Bethlehem was directly “linked to the nearby city of Jerusalem,”17 within or close to Lehi’s lifetime. To the extent that knowledge of their Jerusalem homeland was passed on at all to future generations (see 2 Nephi 25:6), the memory of this connection may have impacted traditions of the Messiah’s birth among the Nephites. Whereas early Christian tradition states that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1; Luke 2:4–7), Nephite tradition stated that he was born “at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers” (Alma 7:10, emphasis added), which they probably understood to include Bethlehem as a “satellite settlement.”18


1. For background on seals and bullae, see David C. Maltsberger, “Seal, Signet,” in Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, ed. David Noel Freedman (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000), 1175–1176; J. Andrew Dearman, “Seal,” in HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, rev. and updated, ed. Mark Allen Powell (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2011), 928–929; William G. Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? What Archaeology Can Tell Us About the Reality of Ancient Israel (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001), 204–209, 235–237; Lester L. Grabbe, Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It?, rev. ed. (New York, NY: Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2017), 223–228 § The estimate of nearly 3000 comes from William G. Dever, Beyond the Text: An Archaeological Portrait of Ancient Israel and Judah (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2017), 596.

2. See Nahman Avigad, “Two Hebrew ‘Fiscal’ Bullae,” Israel Exploration Journal 40, no. 4 (1990): 262–266; Eli Shukron, in “Bulla Bearing the Name Bethlehem,” The Ir David Foundation, May 2012.

3. The first was the Gibeon bulla; see Gabriel Barkay, “A Fiscal Bulla from the Slopes of the Temple Mount—Evidence for the Taxation System of the Judean Kingdom,” ירושלם בחקר חידושים  17 (2011): 151–178 (written in Hebrew, see English summary at the end of the paper).  The Bethlehem Bulla was the second; see Ronny Reich, “A Fiscal Bulla from the City of David,” Israel Exploration Journal62, no. 2 (2012): 200–205. The third is the Eltekon bulla; see Gabriel Barkay and Robert Deutsch, “Another Fiscal Bulla from the City of David,” New Studies on Jerusalem 22 (2017): 115–121 (written in Hebrew, see English summary on pp. 11*–12*). These articles also provide information on the number of fiscal bullae and their general dating.

4. Shukron, in “Bulla Bearing the Name Bethlehem.”

5. Reich, “Fiscal Bulla,” 204.

6. Hiede, “Some Notes,” 72.

7. Shukron, in “Bulla Bearing the Name Bethlehem.”

8. Hiede did not include brackets to correctly represent the parts of the translation that are a restoration, so I’ve added them for clarity. I’ve also changed Hiede’s brackets on “year” to parentheses (consistent with Reich, “Fiscal Bulla,” 201) so as not to confuse this added word from the translator (usually placed in parentheses) with restorations to the underlying Hebrew, shown in the brackets I’ve added.

9. Hershal Shanks, “Strata: ‘Bethlehem’ from IAA Dig Found by Archaeologist IAA Arrested,” Biblical Archaeology Review 38, no. 5 (September/October 2012): 12 adds a little more for clarity: “In the seventh (year of the king’s reign).”

10. Reich, “Fiscal Bulla,” 201 renders this literally as Beit Leḥem, which is the Hebrew transliteration for Bethlehem (p. 203: “Beit Leḥem is identified with the city of Bethlehem”). Shanks, “‘Bethlehem’ from IAA Dig,” 12 adds “(taxes from the City of) [B]ethlehem,” clarifying that Bethlehem is the place the taxes are from.

11. Shanks, “‘Bethlehem’ from IAA Dig,” 12 has “to (or ‘for’) the king.” The common term lmlk(למלך) widely attested on seals, bullae, and store jar handles for this period, literally means “belonging to the king.”

12. See Nadav Naʾaman, “The Kingdom of Judah Under Josiah,” Tel Aviv: Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University 18, no. 1 (1991): 13–16; Nadav Naʾaman, “Canaanite Jerusalem and its Central Hill Country Neighbours in the Second Millenium BCE,” Ugarit-Forschungen24 (1992): 282; Nadav Naʾaman, “Josiah and the Kingdom of Judah,” in Good Kings and Bad Kings: The Kingdom of Judah in the Seventh Century BCE, ed. Lester L. Grabbe (New York, NY: T&T Clark, 2005), 191–201.

13. Yohanan Aharoni, The Archaeology of the Land of Israel, trans. Anson F. Rainey (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1982), 259.

14. Naʾaman, “The Kingdom of Judah Under Josiah,” 14; Naʾaman, “Josiah and the Kingdom of Judah,” 198–199.

15. Naʾaman, “Canaanite Jerusalem,” 281–283.

16. John L. Sorenson, “The Composition of Lehi’s Family,” in By Study and Also By Faith: Essays in Honor of Hugh W. Nibley, 2 vols., ed. John M. Lundquist and Stephen D. Ricks (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 2:179 places Lehi’s birth around 639 bc, near the beginning of Josiah’s reign, and his marriage to Sariah around 621 bc, at the height of Josiah’s reign. Sorenson’s age estimates for Lehi’s sons (pp. 175–176, 177–179) require that Laman, Lemuel, Sam, and Nephi all be born by 614 bc, several years still before Josiah’s reign ended ca. 609 bc. Note, however, John L. Sorenson, Nephite Culture and Society: Selected Papers (Salt Lake City, UT: New Sage Books, 1997), 23 states that he was persuaded Lehi departed from Jerusalem ten years later than originally supposed. Since his estimate for Lehi’s age was based on assumptions about Lehi’s sons ages upon departure, this obviously changed things, presumably shifting Lehi’s birth to ca. 630 bc, and similarly shifting his marriage and the birth of his children by about ten years. Other proposals for Lehi’s birth date include: H. Donl Peterson, “Father Lehi,” in First Nephi, The Doctrinal Foundation, ed. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate Jr., The Book of Mormon Symposium Series, Volume 2 (Provo, UT: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1988), 56: 650–640 bc; Robert F. Smith, “Book of Mormon Event Structure: The Ancient Near East,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 5, no. 2 (1996): 111: ca. 652 bc; David Rolph Seely and Robert D. Hunt, “Dramatis Personae: The World of Lehi (ca. 700–562 bc),” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, ed. John W. Welch, David Rolph Seely, and Jo Ann H. Seely, (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2004), 46: “the last years of the reign of Manasseh [ca. 647–642 bc?]”;  Jeffrey R. Chadwick, “Lehi’s House at Jerusalem and the Land of his Inheritance,” in Glimpses of Lehi’s Jerusalem, 128: 645 bc. My own views are most closely aligned with those of Sorenson (1990), and I reject the later departure date that he adopted in Sorenson (1997). On this, see Neal Rappleye, “Jerusalem Chronicle (ABC 5/BM21946),” Nephite History in Context 1 (November 2017): 1–5, esp. n.20. In any case, whichever date one prefers, much of Lehi’s life in Jerusalem would have been during Josiah’s reign, and most would have him raising his family at least partly during Josiah’s reign as well.

18. See Robert F. Smith, “The Land of Jerusalem: The Place of Jesus’ Birth,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon: A Decade of New Research, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992), 170–172.

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