Has the ‘Signature’ of Biblical Prophet Isaiah Been Discovered?

A 2,700-year-old clay seal from Jerusalem may reference the prophet, making it the earliest reference to him outside of the Bible.

By Kristin Romey
Published 24 Feb 2018, 09:48 GMT
This broken 2,700-year-old clay seal, discovered in an ancient Jerusalem rubbish pit, may include the name ...
This broken 2,700-year-old clay seal, discovered in an ancient Jerusalem rubbish pit, may include the name of the biblical prophet Isaiah.
Photograph by Ouria Tadmor, Eilat Mazar

A clay seal from the eighth century B.C. that was discovered in a Jerusalem excavation may bear the name of the biblical prophet Isaiah, according to a new article in Biblical Archaeology Review.

In the article, titled "Is This the Prophet Isaiah's Signature?," author and archaeologist Eilat Mazar suggests that the ancient Hebrew script impressed into the damaged half-inch oval of clay may have once read "Belonging to Isaiah the prophet."

If the interpretation of the lettering on the 2,700-year-old seal is correct, it would be the first reference to Isaiah outside of the Bible. The Hebrew prophet is described as a counsellor to the Judean king Hezekiah, who ruled from the late eighth to the early seventh century B.C.

A view of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem. The seal was discovered in the Ophel, an ancient fortified area whose ruins can be seen in the lower-right corner.

Photograph by Annie Griffiths, National Geographic Creative

The clay seal, or bulla, was one of 34 found during Mazar's 2009 Ophel excavations at the base of the southern wall of Jerusalem's Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif. The seals, or bullae, were recovered from small Iron Age (1200-586 B.C.) garbage pits, outside the wall of what Mazar describes as a royal bakery levelled in the 586 B.C. Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem.

Isaiah the Prophet

The seal is impressed in Old Hebrew script with the name Yesha‘yah[u] (the Hebrew name of Isaiah), followed by the word nvy.

Because the seal is damaged at the end of the word nvy, Mazar suggests that our reading may be incomplete. If nvy was originally followed by the Hebrew letter aleph, the result would be the word "prophet," rendering the reading of the seal as "Belonging to Isaiah the prophet."

Reinforcing this interpretation, she writes, is the archaeological context in which the seal was found.

In 2015, the announcement that another clay bulla discovered in the Ophel excavations bore the personal seal of King Hezekiah made international headlines. According to the most recent article, the 'Isaiah' seal was found just 10 feet from the Hezekiah seal during the same 2009 excavation.

This clay bulla featuring the seal of King Hezekiah was found in the same excavation area, just 10 feet from where the 'Isaiah' seal was discovered.
Photograph by Ouria Tadmor, Eilat Mazar

The close relationship between the prophet and the king as described in the Bible, together with the proximity of the two seal finds "…seem to leave open the possibility that, despite the difficulties presented by the bulla’s damaged area, this may have been a seal impression of Isaiah the prophet, adviser to King Hezekiah, " Mazar writes.

"Major Obstacles"

As tempting as the interpretation may be, Mazar concedes there are "major obstacles" in the identification of the seal, most notably the word nvy. Without an aleph at the end, nvy is probably just a personal name (often the name of the person's father) or a location (where the person hails from).

Christopher Rollston, professor of Semitic languages at George Washington University, agrees that the reading of nvy is a problem.

"The critically important letter that would be needed to confirm that the second word is the title “prophet” is an aleph. But no aleph is legible on this bulla, and so that reading cannot be confirmed at all," he says.

Compounding the reading of nvy is a lack of the definite article "h", notes Rollston. In the majority of biblical references, references are to "the prophet" rather than simply "prophet." "In short, if this were the word 'prophet,' I would have liked to have seen the word 'the,' as in 'Isaiah the prophet,' he says.

While Mazar notes that the lack of definite article is also a problem in interpreting the seal, she includes a suggestion that the definite article may have originally appeared in a damaged area above the word nvy, or, citing other archaeological and textual examples, was simply left out.

Researchers suggest that the damaged area of the seal may have originally contained the Hebrew characters' vav' and 'h' in the middle register and 'aleph' in the lower register (reconstructed text in blue). The complete seal impression would then read "Belonging to Isaiah the Prophet."
Photograph by Illustration by Ouria Tadmor/ Eilat Mazar

In addition, Rollston notes, the Hebrew root yš‘ is the basis not just for the name of Isaiah the prophet, but for almost twenty different people in the Bible. "There were lots of people walking around with the name Isaiah or names that were based on the exact same root-word," he observes. And if the word nvy is actually part of someone's father's name, it's definitely not associated with the prophet, whose father, according to the Bible, was Amoz.

The potential discovery of artifacts associated with both King Hezekiah and Isaiah, the biblical prophet who counselled the king during a tumultuous time following the Assyrian conquest of the northern Kingdom of Israel and the continued threat to the southern Kingdom of Judah, "is a rare opportunity to reveal vividly this specific time in the history of Jerusalem," Mazar concludes.

"Of course, the assumption that this is a [seal] of Isaiah the prophet is scintillating, but it is certainly not something that we should assume is at all certain," Rollston cautions. "It’s not."

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