Bulla of Servant of Jeroboam Redeemed?

Scholars say artifact is real after all


RTI image of the seal impression (bulla) of Shema Servant of Jeroboam. Courtesy Ahituv et al 2023, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Editor’s Note: This Bible History Daily article discusses an unprovenanced object. Learn more about the problems associated with objects that lack a secure archaeological context.

A group of scholars has proposed that an intriguing seal impression (bulla), bought on the Israeli antiquities market more than 40 years ago, may be the real deal. Referencing Jeroboam II (r. 784–748 BCE), the bulla would be one of the earliest known impressions of a Hebrew royal seal. If it is real, that is. Publishing in the journal Tel Aviv, the scholars present a fleet of tests performed on the bulla, which they believe provide firm evidence for its authenticity. Some scholars warn, however, that it remains nearly impossible to prove such an object is authentic.

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A Seal, Its Impression, and Its Authenticity

Originally purchased in a Be’er Sheva marketplace in the early 1980s, the small seal impression bears the image of a lion, a common royal motif in the ancient Near East. Around the lion are the faint words, “to Shema servant of Jeroboam.” Purchased for the equivalent of just a few U.S. dollars, Yigal Ronen, a collector and antiquities enthusiast, originally thought the object was a fake. However, with the evolution of high-tech lab tests, a group of scholars decided to get to the bottom of the matter and test the bulla for themselves.

seal impression

Copper reproduction of the seal of Shema found at Tel Megiddo. Courtesy Ahituv et al 2023, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Importantly, this bulla is not a unique artifact but is rather an impression of a smaller copy of a seal discovered in 1904, during excavations at Megiddo. Crafted out of jasper, the seal was uncovered near the southern gatehouse of Strata VA-IVB. Found in the mudbrick debris of the destroyed gate, it was probably used for administrative business in the fortified compound that was likely destroyed during Tiglath-pileser III’s conquest of the city in 732 BCE. The seal, which similarly reads “to Shema servant of Jeroboam,” likely belonged to a high-ranking official in the court of Jeroboam II.

After its excavation, the seal was sent as a gift to the Ottoman sultan (who ruled the region at the time) but was then subsequently lost. The only evidence of the seal that remains are several photographs and a bronze replica made before the seal was sent to Istanbul. Although not the earliest reference to an Israelite or Judahite king, the Shema seal is the oldest known Hebrew royal seal, with several bulla bearing the name of Hezekiah, king of Judah, dating to several decades later. Although clearly based on the larger seal (or a similar one), the bulla is nearly half the size, measuring roughly 0.9 by 0.7 inches. The bulla’s small size appears to have required a less artistic depiction of the lion, which is more schematic than on the larger seal.

To determine the bulla’s authenticity, the team carried out a range of tests, including petrographic analysis, examination under electron microscope, Raman spectroscopy, and isotopic patina testing. They even examined the back of the bulla where it would have originally been attached to a piece of fabric. Through these tests, the team failed to identify any signs that the object was a modern forgery. The bulla, for instance, appeared to be crafted out of ancient clays typical of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, with no traces of modern components. The fabric imprint on the back similarly appeared to have been created by a linen textile that would have been locally available at the time. Unfortunately, the uneven pressing of the seal into the clay left behind a poor imprint of the inscription, making paleographic analysis difficult.

If genuine, the bulla was likely produced in the area around Megiddo, where the seal was found. As the bulla came from the antiquities market, however, it is impossible to know how it made its way to the Negev, where it was purchased in the 1980s.

seal impression

Front and back of the bulla. Courtesy Ahituv et al 2023, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Although laboratory tests could not identify any evidence that the bulla is a modern forgery, some scholars caution against assuming it is authentic. According to Christopher Rollston, Professor of Northwest Semitic Languages and Literatures at George Washington University, who was not part of the study, “These sorts of tests are very important, but such tests cannot demonstrate authenticity. After all, if a modern forger produced a fairly perfect forgery, it would be almost impossible to determine this, even using certain laboratory tests.”

As Rollston told Bible History Daily, already by the 1970s, a decade before the Shema bulla was discovered, forgers could produce incredibly high-quality forgeries. Thus, said Rollston, it is certainly not beyond the realm of possibility that the bulla could still be a forgery, and it may be nearly impossible to prove that it is not. It certainly would not be the first forgery to pass laboratory tests. Indeed, the only way to prove its authenticity would be to find an identical bulla within the context of an archaeological excavation.

“Very consequential is the fact that this article does not focus at all on the script,” continued Rollston, “and it is the script where modern forgers have normally made most of their mistakes. In the absence of the ability to see the letters well enough to attempt an actual, independent epigraphic drawing of them, I would be very disinclined to assume that this bulla is ancient. We just don’t have enough epigraphic evidence to know. Perhaps it is ancient.  Perhaps it’s not.”

Ed. Note: Christopher Rollston is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Read more in Bible History Daily:

The Darius Ostracon: From Real to Fake

Is the “Brother of Jesus” Inscription on the James Ossuary a Forgery?

All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

Deconstructing Forgery

Clumsy Forger Fools the Scholars—But Only for a Time

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

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