Has a lump of clay bearing the prophet Isaiah’s personal seal been discovered in Jerusalem?
Maybe, maybe not.
Archaeologist Eilat Mazar, in a Biblical Archaeology Review tribute article to retiring editor Hershel Shanks, recently described a clay bullae found in the “City of David” excavations, suggesting that it might reflect the personal seal of Isaiah the prophet.
Some publications have touted the discovery as “proof” of the biblical Isaiah: the Daily Wire shouted “Fantastic Find in Israel: Proof of the Prophet Isaiah’s Existence.” Most articles simply raised the question, as did the original in BAR: “Is this the prophet Isaiah’s signature?” Others, such as this one by epigrapher Christopher Rollston, were more skeptical: “The Putative Bulla of Isaiah the Prophet: Not So Fast.”
So, what’s the story? Has the prophet Isaiah’s personal seal been found? There’s no question that the bulla in question — a lump of clay once used to seal a folded parchment document — bears the mark of a real Isaiah, but whether he was the prophet Isaiah remains an open question. The bulla is broken, so that some letters are missing. The top line contains the letters we would transliterate as “L-yš‘yh[w].” The initial L (lamed) is a preposition used on seals to mean “belonging to.” The remainder of the line would be pronounced “yishayahu,” the full Hebrew spelling of the name Isaiah. Note that the final vav (u) is broken off, but it’s the only reasonable letter that would go there.
The question comes with the next line, which bears three letters before the broken part, and those letters are nvy, which looks suspiciously like the first part of the full spelling of the word for “prophet,” which is nvy’, with an alef at the end: navy’. The seal is dated to somewhere between 850-750 BCE, however, when the word was typically spelled without the yod, which later came to serve as a long vowel marker. Comparable texts from a century or more later spell the word nb’. So, even though there is room for an alef to have been broken off after the nvy, it would be unusual for the word to be spelled that way in the eighth century, when Isaiah of Jerusalem was active. The same three letters, nby, could be a patronymic, meaning “the Nobite” (someone from Nob), or “son of Nobai.”
The seal was found in a pile of rubble outside of an eighth century building dubbed the “royal bakery,” where another seal belonging to someone with the patronymic nby was found, so there’s a good chance there was an Isaiah son of Nobai who may have sold supplies or done other business with the bakery.
A further problem is that there’s no “the” (the letter hē) before the word nby, as we would expect to find before a title. Archaeologist Eilat Mazar believes there is room in the broken part for the letter to have appeared on the top line, but others question whether there was enough space for both the missing vav and a hē. While the hē is almost universal before a title, the word for “son of” (ben) is sometimes omitted.
A question I haven’t seen anyone else ask is this: if Isaiah did have a seal — and he probably did — would he have had the hutzpah to identify himself as “Isaiah the prophet”? Most seals bear the name of a person and the name of his or her father — as did a notable bulla from the seal of King Hezekiah, which was found just 10 feet away, on the same level: it reads “belonging to Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, King of Judah.” Isaiah’s personal seal would more likely read “Isaiah, son of Amoz” (Isa. 1:1).
Yet another thought is this: the bulla was found in 2009, the same year the seal of Hezekiah was found. If Mazar really thought the broken Isaiah seal belonged to the prophet, why wait nine years to publish it?
It would be lovely to think this bulla came from a seal personally used by the prophet Isaiah, but the evidence weighs against it. We don’t need Isaiah’s seal in order to believe he really existed: whether he was the one doing business near the bakery, it’s fun enough just to imagine him eating a hunk of bread on the street outside.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.