The industrious team of eminent archeologist Dr Eilat Mazar may have done it again. Coming from a venerable archeological family, Mazar has spent her career in Jerusalem carefully uncovering the secrets of the City of David and the “Ophel”, the raised area that in ancient times connected the Temple Mount to the City of David. With the exception of the Temple Mount itself, from a Bible reader’s perspective no other locations hold as much interest as these areas.
Her labours have been rewarded with remarkable discoveries time and again. Though some of her conclusions are controversial, her work is always impossible to ignore. In 2005, she went public with the discovery of an ancient structure in the City of David that she identified as the palace of King David. For Bible critics who had always maintained that David was a mythological figure or at best an insignificant tribal leader of an insignificant town, Mazar’s conclusions were problematic. In 2007 she uncovered a part of Nehemiah’s wall. In 2008 her team discovered clay “bullae” or seals that belonged to two figures known from the Bible book of Jeremiah. In 2010 walls and other structures in Jerusalem were identified as being among those constructed during the reign of King Solomon. In a stunning find in 2015, a clay bulla was revealed which read, “Belonging to Hezekiah [son of] Ahaz king of Judah”. This was the first time a royal seal belonging to a king of Judah was uncovered in a scientific way.
In 2009, a total of 34 bullae were uncovered in a relatively small area of the Ophel. These had to be studied before they could be published. The Hezekiah bulla was published in 2015. Less than 3 metres (10 feet) from where the Hezekiah bulla was found, a clay bulla stamped with the name of Isaiah was discovered. The Isaiah bulla was revealed to the world in the pages of the Biblical Archaeology Review on February 22nd, 2018 and it has been generating headlines around the world ever since. The big question is, did this bulla originate with Isaiah the prophet or did it belong to another person named Isaiah?
Before attempting to answer that question, it is important to understand what a bulla (plural: “bullae”) is. A document or cloth bag would be tied shut with a string and then a piece of soft clay would be pressed into the string. Before the clay could harden, an official would press his personal seal into the clay, thus giving it his personal signature. The hardened clay bulla would often outlive the original document or bag that it once sealed. Clay bullae are often discovered at archeological sites throughout Israel and the Middle-East. They provide researchers with invaluable insight into an excavation.
Unlike the Hezekiah bulla, the impression on the Isaiah bulla is clearly incomplete. The Hezekiah bulla can be read in entirety, but the upper part of the Isaiah bulla has been broken and the lower left end has been damaged. The bulla has three rows or “registers”. On the upper register one can discern the lower part of a grazing doe, a common motif that some researchers believe was a symbol of blessing. The middle register reads, “Belonging to Yesha‘yah[u]” (the Hebrew form of Isaiah). Although the last letter “u” (the Hebrew letter “vav”) is missing, there can be little doubt that it appeared on the original seal. That the name in the middle register is “Isaiah” is uncontroversial. Isaiah was a relatively common Hebrew name. The trouble arises in the third or lower register. Three Hebrew letters can be seen clearly, “NVY”. Dr. Mazar believes that before the bulla was damaged it is likely that there had originally been a fourth letter, an “aleph”. If she is correct, than the four letters would form the Hebrew word, “prophet”.
Dr. Mazar feels that this is the most natural reconstruction of the lower register. She cites two lines of evidence. First, a double oval on the right side of the bulla can clearly be seen. This allows us to reconstruct with precise accuracy the original size of the seal. (see Figure 1.) If the third register had originally contained only three letters than there would have been a large empty space beside the third letter (Hebrew is read right to left). It seems likely that the space originally contained one or more other letters.
The second line of evidence concerns the archeological context in which the Isaiah bulla was discovered. It was discovered a very short distance (3 metres or 10 feet) away from the Hezekiah bulla and in the same strata, meaning it is from the same time period. Bible readers know that Isaiah the prophet was King Hezekiah’s most trusted adviser and confidant. Thus, Mazer reasons it should not be a surprise to find the two bullae in close proximity. Nor would it be unprecedented. In 2008 her team discovered bullae from two figures known from the Bible book of Jeremiah in very close proximity during excavations in the City of David (namely, Jucal the son of Shelemiah and Gedaliah the son of Pashhur from Jeremiah 38:1).
Yet some caution is in order. If the fourth letter did not exist, than Mazar agrees that”NVY” is likely to be just a family name. Indeed such a family name was discovered on a bulla in the Judean town of Lachish. If that interpretation is correct than the correct translation of the bulla would be, “Belonging to Isaiah Nvy”.
Further, it would have been highly unusual for a bulla to have included a personal name (“Isaiah”), followed by his occupation (“Prophet”) without the definite article “the”to connect them. One might expect the bulla to have read, “Isaiah the Prophet”, not “Isaiah Prophet”. Yet Mazar points out that there was more than enough room on the middle register for the definite article represented by the Hebrew letter “heh” or h. So in the proposed reconstruction, beside the missing “u” (Hebrew letter “vav”) in Yesha‘yah[u], Mazar proposes there had also been the letter “h” (Hebrew letter “heh”). (See Figure 1.)
In conclusion, the evidence falls frustratingly short of certainty. The evidence is suggestive, but not conclusive. In spite of this, only the most prejudiced mind would deny the historicity of Isaiah. We already know a great deal about the time period of King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah through the Bible record and now through archeology. The fine work of Dr. Eilat Mazar and others is helping to broaden our understanding of that important era.
The Isaiah bulla. Image Credit: Ouria Tadmor/copyright Eilat Mazar
The Royal Bakery in the Ophel. Photo by author.
Figure 1. A possible reconstruction of the Isaiah Bulla. Image Credit: Ouria Tadmor/copyright Eilat Mazar