In biblical times carved stone seals, typically about the size of a fingernail, were used to stamp small lumps of clay or wax to denote authorship, authenticity or ownership of documents and other objects. The resulting clay impression is called a bulla (plural bullae). Such seals are mentioned often in the Bible. A number have been found bearing the names of biblical figures, demonstrating the accuracy of Scripture.
A remarkable archaeological find in Jerusalem of a bulla was made public in February in the combined March-April-May-June 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review under the stunning title “Is This the Prophet Isaiah’s Signature?” The author, archaeologist Eilat Mazar, directed the excavation where the bulla was found south of the Temple Mount.
A fingerprint is even visible on the clay. “If the owner of the seal was the Prophet Isaiah, we have here the fingerprint of the prophet,” Dr. Mazar said, although she cautions we can’t be certain (Amanda Borschel-Dan, “In Find of Biblical Proportions, Seal of Prophet Isaiah Said Found in Jerusalem,” Breaking Israel News, Feb. 22). The edge of the impression is damaged by the fingerprint, leaving some question and dispute about its wording—yet there’s good reason to believe it’s that of the biblical prophet.
The Isaiah bulla was found in 2009 amid other debris and artifacts, including a number of seal impressions—one of them bearing the name of Judah’s King Hezekiah, which was announced in 2015.
Scripture tells us that “Isaiah the son of Amoz” was a prophet of God “in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah” (Isaiah 1:1 Isaiah 1:1The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
American King James Version×)—in the decades before and after 700 B.C. Isaiah was a valued adviser to the righteous Hezekiah, Mazar commenting in her article that the two “are mentioned in one breath 14 of the 29 times the name of Isaiah is recalled (2 Kings 19–20; Isaiah 37–39). No other figure was closer to King Hezekiah than the prophet Isaiah” (p. 70).
It should perhaps not be surprising, then, that the Isaiah bulla was found less than 10 feet away from the Hezekiah bulla in the area of what apparently was then the upper palace complex earlier built by Solomon.
The Isaiah bulla is divided into three sections or lines called registers. The upper register, with the top broken off, shows “a grazing doe, a motif of blessing and protection . . . present also on another bulla” (p. 70). The middle register reads, from right to left in early Hebrew script, “leyesha‘yah[u],” meaning “of Isaiah” or “[belonging] to Isaiah,” the final letter vav or waw missing, as the left edge is damaged. While Isaiah was a common name, only people of some importance had such seals.
The lower register of the bulla reads nvy before ending at the damaged left side. If followed by the letter aleph in the damaged area, the word would mean “prophet,” represented in English as navy’ (or nabi or nebi).
Some scholars contend the word should be read as a father’s name, as to say Isaiah son of Nvy or Nebai—thus not the prophet Isaiah, son of Amoz, as he is referred to 13 times in Scripture. Two seal impressions from Lachish read bn nvy or “son of Nebai.” The Isaiah bulla doesn’t have the bn (or ben) for “son,” but there are examples of seal impressions without this where space is tight. Other scholars, however, note there was plenty of room for the letters bn on this seal, so that “son of Nvy” was likely not meant. Another suggestion is that Nvy meant a resident of the priestly town of Nov or Nob, but there’s no other example of a seal with a personal name followed by a place name.
Some think Isaiah would not proclaim himself “prophet,” but this was an occupation identifying him. He writes of himself as “Isaiah the prophet” in Isaiah 37:2 Isaiah 37:2And he sent Eliakim, who was over the household, and Shebna the scribe, and the elders of the priests covered with sackcloth, to Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz.
American King James Version×, 38:1 and 39:3. Others note the missing “the” (h- or ha in Hebrew) before the word nvy as an argument against “the prophet” here. Mazar notes it’s not always present in mention of this role, and she further says it could have been at the end of the second register in the damaged area.
Mazar’s associate, archaeologist and epigrapher Reut Ben-Arie, observed that the oval border in the damaged area would have been far enough to the left of the inscription to allow room for both the missing waw or u at the end of Yesha‘yahu and the hey or h, meaning “the”—as well as for an aleph at the end of nvy on the lower register, to thus yield “of Isaiah the / prophet.”
Mazar notes: “One can wonder why the seal’s designer would choose to insert the definite article at the end of the second register instead of at the beginning of the word navy’ on the third register, where there seems to have been enough space. But, as strange as it may seem to us, this division of words is not unusual in ancient Hebrew writing. In fact, a good example of this can be seen in King Hezekiah’s bulla, where the name of his father, Ahaz, spreads over two registers, with the last letter pushed into the lower one” (p. 72).
This, then, appears to be quite a major find. Isaiah is a prominent figure in Scripture, not just in the Old Testament but in the New, where he is the most quoted of the prophets by far.
The Times of Israel (Adam Berkowitz, “Clay Seal of Isaiah Found but Mystery Remains,” Feb. 22) quoted new Biblical Archaeology Review editor Robert Cargill, a self-described skeptic who has spent much of his career debunking false archaeological claims, as stating regarding Mazar’s discovery: “She didn’t rush to conclusively say she had found the seal of Isaiah . . . In our article she gives the possible alternatives . . . But if you’re asking me, I think she’s got it. You’re looking at the first archaeological reference of the prophet Isaiah outside the Bible . . . It’s amazing.”