Thursday, February 22, 2018

A bulla of Isaiah (the prophet?)

EPIGRAPHY: In find of biblical proportions, Prophet Isaiah’s seal claimed to be unearthed. Chanced upon near a seal identified with King Hezekiah, a tiny clay piece may be the first-ever proof of the prophet, though a missing letter leaves room for doubt (Amanda Borschel-Dan, Times of Israel).
Mazar’s team uncovered the minuscule bulla, or seal impression, during renewed excavations at the Ophel, located at the foot of the southern wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The discovery was published on Wednesday in an article, “Is This the Prophet Isaiah’s Signature?” as part of a massive March-June issue of the Biblical Archaeology Review dedicated to its recently retired founding editor, Hershel Shanks.

The clay impression is inscribed with letters and what appears to be a grazing doe, “a motif of blessing and protection found in Judah, particularly in Jerusalem,” according to the BAR article.

The oval-shaped bulla, however, is not intact. On its legible portion, there is an inscription with First Temple Hebrew letters that seem to spell out the name l’Yesha’yah[u] (Belonging to Isaiah). On a line below, there is the partial word nvy, which presumably spells out “prophet.”

“Because the bulla has been slightly damaged at the end of the word nvy, it is not known if it originally ended with the Hebrew letter aleph, which would have resulted in the Hebrew word for ‘prophet’ and would have definitively identified the seal as the signature of the prophet Isaiah,” Mazar said.
That is the central discovery, although there are other inscribed bullae and much additional information in the article. So read it all. And the BAR article is even more informative, so ditto.

Past PaleoJudaica posts on the Hezekiah bulla, which was found less than ten feet from this one, are here, here, here, here, and here.

Just a few observations on this latest discovery:

1. These inscribed bullae (seal impressions) are very important discoveries, no matter who is mentioned on them. I believe this is the first time the name Isaiah has appeared in an epigraphic discovery, although readers should fact-check me on that.

2. The angel Lacunael, has been hard at work on this discovery and he must be very proud of himself.

3. I do not yet have a view on whether the bulla belonged to the prophet Isaiah or to someone named Isaiah (son of) NBY. But a couple of observations point more in the direction of the latter possibility, but not decisively so.

First, there is the principal of banality. If we have two possible interpretations of a new inscription and one is very exciting and ties it directly to the Bible, while the other is more humdrum, the humdrum interpretation is probably right. Because very exciting finds are very rare. But to balance that point, it would be quite a coincidence if some other Isaiah in Jerusalem c. 700 BCE had a father whose name happened to look rather like the word "prophet."

Second, and more substantively, there is an orthographic issue. The spelling of Hebrew c. 700 BCE did not usually mark internal long vowels with consonants. So I would expect the word "prophet" to be spelled nb' (as it is spelled twice in the Lachish ostraca a century later) rather than nby'. The articles mention this point, but I would underline it a little more.

I hope the bulla does turn out to preserve the signature of the prophet Isaiah, but we'll just have to see. Or maybe we won't. We may never know.

UPDATE (25 February): More here and here.

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