From Joseph I. Lauer via e-mail:
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 http://templemount.wordpress.com/2011/12/28/finds-from-the-first-and-second-temple-period-city-dumps-at-the-eastern-slopes-of-the-temple-mount/ and his essay at http://www.echad.info/articles/fiscal_bulla.pdf [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 http://phys.org/news/2012-05-ancient-bethlehem-unearthed-jerusalem.html
There’s also a video of Eli Shukron speaking about the bulla in English, including at http://www.3news.co.nz/Ancient-Bethlehem-seal-unearthed-in-Jerusalem/tabid/1216/articleID/255380/Default.aspx
And see four pictures at http://news.yahoo.com/ancient-bethlehem-seal-unearthed-jerusalem-092659029.html
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 http://withmeagrepowers.wordpress.com/2012/05/24/a-new-seal-that-does-not-refer-to-bethlehem/
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 http://www.telecomtally.com/blog/2012/05/a_fiscal_bulla_from_bethlehem.html)
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 http://www.antiquities.org.il/images/press/iaa_2205.zip, 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
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.”