Belonging to Isaiah the Prophet

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I’ve subscribed to Biblical Archaeology Review for a long time. I recently got the latest issue, which includes an article by Eilat[1] Mazar, “Is This the Prophet Isaiah’s Signature?” The article is about the bulla pictured above. (A bulla is a piece of clay bearing a seal impression.) It would certainly be exciting to have a physical artifact relating so closely to the great prophet!

 

This bulla was one of a group of bullae recovered during a 2009 excavation at Ophel. It was discovered using a wet sifting process, necessary because the bullae are very small and indistinguishable from the surrounding clay. This find was recovered less than 10 feet away from a bulla of King Hezekiah.

As you can see from the picture above, the top and lower left of the bulla have been damaged. There are three registers on the artifact. No writing is visible on the upper register, but an iconographic representation of an animal. The second and third registers feature writing. The second register has the letters LY$(HYH[2] and the third has NBY. Because there is damage on the left, there may be letters missing. Eilat proposes the following reconstruction:

LY$(YH[WH]

NBY[)]

which would be translated as

BELONGING TO ISAIAH THE

PROPHET

This is not a slam dunk reconstruction, and Mazar mentions some potential problems with it. But honestly on first reading I was sold, largely for the following reasons: (a) the writing dates to the late 8th or early 7th centuries, which covers the right time period, (b) the name Isaiah seems clear, only missing the last letter, and (c) it was found in close proximity to a bulla of Hezekiah, and you’ll recall that Isaiah was a close adviser and counselor to him.

But as I looked into it further, the challenges to this interpretation started to add up for me. Let me list several:

1. The biggest challenge is the lack of a visible aleph (a guttural  that is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet) at the end of NBY. With the aleph, NBY), the word is “prophet”; without it, there are all sorts of other things those letters could mean. If it’s not the word for “prophet,” then it’s probably the name of this Isaiah’s father, as the most common formulation on seals is [name[ son of [name of father] (the second name is called a patronymic).[3] And if NBY is the name of this Isaiah’s father, then this is not our Isaiah, who was the son of Amoz. (At first I thought this couldn’t be a patronymic because the word for son of, BN, is not present, but seals at this time often omitted that word simply putting the name of the owner and the name of his father in separate registers.)

2. The spelling of prophet as NBY) may be anachronistic to the 8th/7th century. In the Lachish Letters, the word is spelled NB), without the Y (what is called an internal mater). Such maters are attested generally in Old Hebrew of the period, but they are rare.

3. Whenever an occupation is given on a seal like this, it always has a definite article (i.e., the king, the priest, the baker, the seer). The word for prophet here does not have the definite article H. Mazar suggests that the H was at the end of the first line of text. It seems weird to me that the article would be on a different line than the noun, because when we learn Hebrew we learn that the article is attached directly to the word it governs. But apparently it was not unusual in seals to separate the article and the noun it governs, given the small space constraints involved with inscribing on such seals. But an H in paleo-Hebrew is a pretty wide letter, and it’s questionable whether there is enough space there to fit two letters (the last letter of Isaiah and the H representing the article) after the first part of the name.

4. We have to be careful about being too easily swayed by the name “Isaiah.” That’s a very distinctive name in our culture and so seems to us obviously the name of the prophet, but it was a fairly common name in Hebrew. (If we found a writing from 1820 Palmyra bearing the name “Joseph,” how sure would we be that the reference was specifically to Joseph Smith?)

So might this bulla reflect the seal of the Prophet Isaiah? Sure. But might this just be some other guy who happened to be named Isaiah? Sure as well. So while it’s an intriguing find and worth investigating diligently, we should be cautious about letting ourselves get overly invested in that conclusion. This is still a new discovery and we should let the scholarship on it mature more before we put all our eggs in the Isaiah the Prophet basket.

 

[1] She is a woman; the -at is a feminine ending in Semitic languages.

[2] To be precise with the letters I’m using the Michigan transcription system; scroll down here.

[3] There are a couple of extant bullae that read “X son of NBY,” indicating that NBY is an attested name of the period.

Comments

  1. Cool.

  2. Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker! Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth. Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou? or thy work, He hath no hands? Isaiah 45:9
    Thanks for bringing something to sparkle my morning. 🙂

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    A perfect scripture for the occasion!