Biblical archaeology is never more fascinating than when it gives us a glimpse of a person mentioned in the Bible. This is a relatively rare event as we must remember that the number of all the people mentioned in the Bible is infinitesimally small compared to all the people who have lived – so archaeology is statistically not likely to often find evidence of specific individuals mentioned in the Scriptures.
Governors and Kings
Exceptions do occur, of course. Only recently, a seal impression (a small lump of clay impressed with writing and images on a carved ring or other object used for sealing or authenticating documents and other items) was found near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem bearing the title of the governor of the city. This was an important office and one such Governor of Jerusalem is mentioned in the Bible (2 Kings 23:7) during the reign of the great biblical king, Hezekiah.
Several years ago, a royal seal of King Hezekiah himself was also found in excavations in the same general location. Hezekiah, who is mentioned in the Bible many times (2 Kings 18–20, Isaiah 36–39, 2 Chronicles 29–32, etc.), ruled Judah around 700 B.C. and was a contemporary of the prophet Isaiah. In fact, the biblical record shows that Isaiah was an important supporter and advisor of this good king who did much to remove pagan religion from ancient Judah during his reign. Other seal impressions of Hezekiah are known, but this was the first time one was found in context – exactly where it should be – on an archaeological site. This find is a major attestation of an important biblical figure.
But what about Hezekiah’s advisor, the prophet Isaiah who is even more famous to millions of readers of the Scriptures? Perhaps no other prophet in the Hebrew Bible better symbolizes the prophetic books of the Old Testament, and it appears that archaeology may now have produced attestation for him, too.
Just this past month, Dr. Eilat Mazar of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem announced that the ongoing excavations in the same area of Jerusalem where the Hezekiah seal was found had unearthed another seal impression which appears to be that of the great prophet Isaiah.
The 2,700-year-old stamped clay artifact bears the identifying seal of an individual named as Yesha‘yah[u] Nvy[?]. The seal impression is divided into three bands or “registers,” with the top register containing the partial image of a grazing deer – a symbol of blessing and protection used in ancient Judah. The center register contains the words leyesha‘yah[u] “[belonging] to Isaiah.” The lowest register is somewhat damaged, but apparently contains part of the word nvy’ or “prophet.”
Critics of religion have been quick to stress that the damaged end of this final word may mean that it represented something else, but this seems unlikely. It might be compared to the situation in modern English where the almost complete writing “John Smith, Ph …” most probably represents “John Smith, Ph.D.” rather than some unlikely word such as “John Smith, Phony.” It is the opinion of Dr. Mazar and many of the archaeological specialists who have examined this artifact that its text should be read as “[Belonging] to Isaiah, [the] proph[et].” Seals of this nature frequently abbreviated or shortened names and titles due to the limited space for writing on their small surfaces, so the absence of the implied words [belonging] and [the] in this text are entirely normal.
But as to whether this seal is the seal of Isaiah himself, the archaeological evidence of context is quite compelling. The seal was discovered in an undisturbed area of the excavation less than ten feet from where the seal of King Hezekiah was found. The physical proximity of the two seals lends weight to the likelihood that the Isaiah seal is that of the prophet himself. As Dr. Mazar has pointed out, it would not be the first time that seal impressions of two individuals mentioned in the same verses of the Bible have been found together in an archaeological context. In the City of David excavations (2005–2008), the seal impressions of two high officials in King Ẓedekiah’s court (both mentioned in Jeremiah 38:1), were found only a few feet apart. Further, the names of King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah are mentioned together 14 of the 29 times in which the name of Isaiah is mentioned. Mazar is certainly correct that no other biblical figure was closer to King Hezekiah than the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah’s life and work were of the greatest importance in the history of ancient Judah. The Scriptures indicate that the prophet may have served for as long as 64 years – throughout the reign of Hezekiah and into the reign of his successor. Given the close relationship between the king and his prophet-advisor, it may well be that evidence of Isaiah has now been found in an area where it might well have been expected.
* For more background on biblical archaeology see our post "The Bible and Archaeology" here.