Archaeological Evidence for the Prophet Isaiah?
In the latest issue of BAR (Biblical Archaeology Review), archaeologist Eilat Mazar announces what may be a find of great significance. A bulla (clay seal) has been discovered that may be the seal impression of the prophet Isaiah. In an excavation conducted in the Ophel (the area southeast of the Temple Mount staircase, see photo below), Mazar discovered 34 bullae, among other objects. Included in these finds was the bulla of King Hezekiah which I have written about previously (click here). As most readers of the Bible are aware, the Prophet Isaiah was a close personal advisor to King Hezekiah (2 Kgs 18-20; 2 Chron. 32; Isaiah 36-39) and played a pivotal role in Jerusalem’s deliverance from the Assyrian king, Sennacherib.
As one can tell from the photo on the right, the bulla has been partially damaged. The upper end is mostly missing and the left side of the bulla is also damaged. Enough of it can be seen, however, to note that it consists of three tiers. The top tier reveals the remnants of a grazing doe. According to Mazar a grazing doe is “a motif of blessing and protection found in Judah.” This motif is known on another bulla from the same area. The second tier reads “leyesha‘yah[u],” which translated means, “belonging to Isaiah.” The letter represented as a “u” in the brackets is missing due to the damage on the left side. It represents the Hebrew letter vav (ו) and is a certain reconstruction. Therefore, there is no doubt that the name on this seal impression reads “Isaiah.” The bottom line is where the main problem of interpretation comes in. It reads“nvy” (Hebrew: נבי–pronounced nahvee). It is possible that the damaged portion of the seal (recall that Hebrew is read from right to left) also once contained the Hebrew letter aleph (Hebrew: א). If this is the case, then the Hebrew word would mean “prophet.” In which case, the bulla would read, “belonging to Isaiah the prophet.”
Isaiah the Prophet or Isaiah the son of Nvy?
The other possible interpretation is that the letters “nvy” are a personal name and would refer to Isaiah’s father. In that case the inscription would read “belonging to Isaiah the son of Nvy.” This would mean the Isaiah mentioned on the bulla wold be a different Isaiah, since we know that the father of the biblical prophet was named “Amoz” (Isa 1:1). The inscription does not have the words “son of,” but Mazar points out that other seals, due to space considerations, do not always include the word for “son.” One argument in favor of this word not being a proper name is that Mazar states there is plenty of room on the bulla to have written the Hebrew word for “son.” Therefore it can’t be argued that it was left off due to space considerations. However, for this word to mean “prophet,” not only should it have the Hebrew letter aleph at the end, but one would expect the Hebrew word for “the” (Hebrew: ה, just one letter pronounced like our “h”) before “prophet.” There is plenty of room on the bottom line to have included this Hebrew letter. Mazar points out, however, that the Hebrew letter meaning “the” could have appeared on the middle line which is damaged on the left side. Although one would normally expect the word “the” to be connected to the word prophet in Hebrew, Mazar points out that other bullae often divide words in strange ways. For example, the bulla of Hezekiah’s father, king Ahaz, divides Ahaz’s name by putting the “z” on the next line. It is also true, however, that the Hebrew letter for “the” is not always found on inscriptions.
The Prophet Isaiah and King Hezekiah Laying Side by Side
Another interesting feature of the Isaiah bulla is that it was found less than 10 feet from the bulla of Hezekiah! It is interesting that two men who are associated so closely in the Bible, would have bullae laying this close to each other. Their close association in life, makes this placement of the bullae logical. If this bulla is from the prophet Isaiah, then it is understandable that something with his signature would be in the same area as that of King Hezekiah. We would expect that those of Hezekiah’s court would have documents or items kept in a royal storage area. So while this doesn’t prove that the bulla definitely belongs to the prophet Isaiah, it is a piece of circumstantial evidence worth considering. Mazar writes, “Finding a seal impression of the prophet Isaiah next to that of King Hezekiah should not be unexpected. It would not be the first time that seal impressions of two Biblical personas, mentioned in the same verse in the Bible, were found in an archaeological context.” I’ll conclude with another quote from Mazar regarding the mystery of this bulla. She writes, “Could it therefore be possible that here, in an archaeological assemblage found within a royal context dated to the time of King Hezekiah, right next to the king’s seal impression, another seal impression was found that reads “Yesha‘yahu Navy’ ” and belonged to the prophet Isaiah? Is it alternatively possible for this seal NOT to belong to the prophet Isaiah, but instead to one of the king’s officials named Isaiah with the surname Nvy?” Perhaps further study of this artifact, or future discoveries will reveal the answer to Mazar’s questions. For now, it is a tantalizing discovery that might have come from the prophet Isaiah himself.
(The quotes and information for this article, along with the pictures of the Isaiah bulla are taken from Eilat Mazar’s article entitled, “Is This the Prophet Isaiah’s Signature?,” in the March/April, May/June 2018 issue of BAR [vol. 44:2]). If you have a subscription to BAR you can read Mazar’s article here. You can also sign up for “Bible History Daily” on the BAR website and read a companion article by Megan Sauter entitled, “Isaiah’s Signature Uncovered in Jerusalem.”