In 2015, archaeologists announced that they had discovered the bulla (a clay impression of a seal) of king Hezekiah, who ruled Judea in the late 8th and early 7th centuries B.C., at a site in Jerusalem. Just 10 feet away, the excavation team unearthed another bulla bearing the name “Isaiah.” As Owen Jarus reports for Live Science, one of the archaeologists who works at the site has written an article positing that the “Isaiah” mentioned in the seal might be none other than the Isaiah of the Old Testament, a prominent Hebrew prophet and Hezekiah’s close advisor.
In her article, published in the Biblical Archaeology Review, Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar writes that the seal impressions were part of the 34 bullae discovered during a 2009 excavation at an area known as the Ophel, which lies between the Temple Mount and the City of David.
The seal in question is inscribed with the name “Yesha‘yah[u],” Hebrew for “Isaiah,” followed by the word “nvy.” Part of the seal is broken off, but Mazar believes that “nvy” might be an incomplete word that was once followed by the Hebrew letter aleph. If she is correct, the seal would spell out the Hebrew word for prophet—and provide the first reference to Isaiah outside of the Bible.
Scholars generally agree that Isaiah was a historical figure who lived in Jerusalem at the end of the 8th century. According to the Bible, Isaiah and Hezekiah were thrust together when the Assyrian army laid siege to Jerusalem. Isaiah discouraged Hezekiah from accepting the Assyrians’ offer of surrender, promising him that God would save Jerusalem. As Mazar notes, “the names of King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah are mentioned in one breath 14 of the 29 times the name of Isaiah is recalled. No other figure was closer to king Hezekiah than the prophet Isaiah.”
Mazar also points out that relics belonging to Biblical duos have been found before. During an excavation at the City of David in the early 2000s, the seal impressions of Yehuchal ben Shelemyahu ben Shovi and Gedaliah ben Pashhur—both high officials at the court of the Hebrew king Zedekiah, according to the book of Jeremiah—were discovered a few feet apart from one another.
There are, however, problems with Mazar’s interpretation of the seal. Christopher Rollston, a professor of Semitic languages at George Washington University, tells Kristin Romey of National Geographic that a major issue lies in the fact that the word “nvy” is missing a definite article, meaning that the seal would read, “Belonging to Isaiah prophet.” In most biblical passages, Rollston says, individuals are referred to as “the prophet,” not simply “prophet.”
Though Mazar cites a number of examples where the Bible leaves out the definite article before a title, she concedes that “major obstacles arise” with her assessment. Without the “aleph,” the word “nvy” could simply be a personal name that has been seen on other seals. The word might also be the name of a location. So while Mazar’s reading raises interesting questions about the artifact, with part of the seal broken off, it is impossible to put forth a definitive analysis.
“The critically important letter that would be needed to confirm that the second word is the title ‘prophet’ is an aleph,” Rollston tells Romey. “But no aleph is legible on this [seal], and so that reading cannot be confirmed at all.”