Evidence of the prophet Isaiah?
If the reconstruction stands, this may be the signature of the Biblical prophet Isaiah—the figure we encounter in the Books of 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, and Isaiah. Eilat Mazar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem announced this exciting discovery in her article “Is This the Prophet Isaiah’s Signature?” published in the special March/April/May/June 2018 double issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
Mazar’s team found the seal impression in an undisturbed area of Iron Age debris (dated to the eighth–seventh centuries B.C.E.) right outside the southeastern wall of the royal bakery, a structure that had been integrated into the city’s fortifications and had operated until the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. All of the excavated dirt from this area of the Ophel was wet-sifted, meaning that it was placed on a sifting screen and washed with water. This process revealed multiple finds—including Isaiah’s seal impression and an impression of the Judahite king Hezekiah—which had been missed during traditional excavation methods. Since each of these impressions has a diameter of about half an inch and is the same color as the dirt, it is easy to understand why they were not spotted in the field.
Isaiah’s seal impression—called a bulla—was created by first placing a soft piece of clay on top of a ligature tied around a linen bag. Isaiah’s seal was then pressed into the clay, thereby sealing the parcel with his personal signature. The clay hardened and survived through the centuries, thereby preserving Isaiah’s signature.
Although most of the upper half of Isaiah’s bulla is now missing and its left side is damaged, archaeologists have been able to identify its imagery and inscription from what remains. The bulla is divided into three registers. The remains of a grazing doe, a symbol of blessing, can be seen in the top register. Written in ancient Hebrew, the name Yesha‘yah[u] (the Hebrew form of Isaiah) appears in the middle register, and the letters nvy are visible in the lower register. If the Hebrew letter aleph were added to the end of the word nvy, it would then become the word nvy’ (“navy’”), which means “prophet” in Hebrew. It is likely that the Hebrew letter vav appeared at the end of the middle register, representing the final letter of “Isaiah” (the “u” of “Yesha‘yahu”). Further, if the definite article heh (“the”) were added to the end of the name Isaiah (after the vav), the seal impression would read “[belonging] to Isaiah the prophet.”
The close relationship between the prophet Isaiah and King Hezekiah is reflected in the Hebrew Bible. Hezekiah, who ruled from c. 727–698 B.C.E., relied on Isaiah’s counsel throughout his reign—and especially when Jerusalem was besieged by Assyria.
When Hezekiah assumed the throne at age 25, Judah was a vassal-state of the Assyrian empire and paid tribute to Assyria regularly. Hezekiah stuck with this program for many years, but eventually he rebelled and stopped sending tribute. Anticipating an Assyrian attack, Hezekiah refortified Jerusalem. He strengthened its walls and, memorably, carved a 1,750-foot-long water tunnel from solid rock that ensured the inhabitants of Jerusalem would not be without water during a siege (2 Chronicles 32:2–4).
The Assyrian king Sennacherib responded to Hezekiah’s rebellion with force. He campaigned against Judah—destroying many Judahite cities, such as Lachish (depicted on the Lachish reliefs, panels from Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh, now on display at the British Museum in London), and ultimately besieging the capital city of Jerusalem in 701 B.C.E.
The prophet Isaiah said that Jerusalem would not fall to the Assyrians, and it did not—despite the Assyrians’ military might. This victory helped solidify the idea of the city’s invincibility. Even on the Sennacherib Prisms, where King Sennacherib recorded his victories, he never claims to have conquered Jerusalem—only to have besieged it, received tribute, and locked up Hezekiah “like a bird in a cage.” 2 Kings 18:13–19:36 records that the Assyrians continue to assault Jerusalem even after Hezekiah pays them tribute; they do not withdraw until God sends a plague among them. The Sennacherib Prisms make no mention of a plague.
The seal impressions of Isaiah and King Hezekiah were found less than 10 feet apart in the Ophel excavations. If the recently identified bulla does indeed bear the prophet Isaiah’s signature, it seems fitting that it should be found so close to Hezekiah’s personal seal impression. Their legacy—together—continues even after death.
Subscribers: Learn more about Isaiah’s seal impression in Eilat Mazar’s article “Is This the Prophet Isaiah’s Signature?” in the special March/April/May/June 2018 double issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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em>This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on February 22, 2018.
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