JERUSALEM, May 23 (Reuters) - Israeli archaeologists said on Wednesday they had discovered the first physical evidence supporting Old Testament accounts of Bethlehem's existence centuries before the town became revered as the birthplace of Jesus.
The proof came, they said, in a clay seal unearthed near the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem and imprinted with three lines of ancient Hebrew script that include the word "Bethlehem".
Eli Shukron, who directed the excavation on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said the seal apparently had been placed on a tax shipment of silver or agricultural produce sent from Bethlehem to the King of Judah in nearby Jerusalem in the 8th or 7th century BC.
"This is the first time the name Bethlehem appears outside the Bible in an inscription from the First Temple period," Shukron said in a statement, referring to the years 1006 BC to 586 BC.
The coin-sized remnant of the seal proves that Bethlehem - first mentioned in the Book of Genesis - "was indeed a city in the Kingdom of Judah, and possibly also in earlier periods", he said.
Bethlehem is located on the West Bank, just south of Jerusalem. (Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Pravin Char)