The Putative Bulla of Isaiah the Prophet: Not so Fast
The Old Hebrew bulla excavated by Dr. Eilat Mazar, and published in Biblical Archaeology Review (March-May 2018) in an article entitled _Is this the Prophet Isaiah’s Signature(pages 65-73, notes on page 92) is of much interest.
Numerous stamp seals and bullae have been discovered in the Iron Age Levant. For a synopsis of the use and significance, see the article entitled “Seals and Scarabs” (Volume 5, pages 141-146 in _The New Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible_, Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2009, available via my www.academia.edu page).
This new bulla consists of three registers. Much of the top portion of this bulla is missing (including much of the top register), so the bulla is not fully preserved. The first register has no legible letters (although some iconography is preserved). The second register of the bulla reads “L-yš‘yh[w].” The third register has three preserved letters: “nby.”
Although cautious, it is stated in the press release and in the article itself that this bulla (a lump of clay that has been impressed by a seal) may say “Belonging to Isaiah the Prophet” (note that the lamed [L] at the beginning of the bulla is best translated “belonging to,” and the personal name after this lamed is the personal name “Isaiah” (with the Yahwistic theophoric mostly preserved). The third register, as noted, has the letters nby. Note also that the first the two Hebrew consonants for the word “prophet” are nun and bet, that is, nb).
It would be nice if this bulla did refer to the prophet Isaiah of the Bible, but it would not be wise to assume that this bulla definitely reads that way or that it definitely refers to Isaiah the prophet. In this regard, I very much applaud Dr. Mazar for not assuming that this bulla is definitively that of Isaiah the prophet. That is, the operative word is “may.”
In any case, here are briefly some of the reasons for my methodological caution regarding the assumption that this is a bulla associated with Isaiah the Judean prophet of the eighth century:
(1) Hebrew names are based on Hebrew roots, of course, and the root yš‘ (yod, shin, ‘ayin) is the basis not just for the name of Isaiah the prophet, but for almost twenty different people in the Bible (from various periods). In any case, because this root was such a productive root with regard to personal names (and certainly also, therefore, the root used for the names of many, many people who are not mentioned in the Bible), it is very clear there were lots of people walking around in the 8th century and 7th century BCE with the name Isaiah, or names that were based on the exact same root-word.
(2) Most of the time, the second name on a seal is the name of the father of the owner of the seal (often preceded by the word /ben/ meaning “son of.” However, sometimes a title does occur as the second element, but it is much less common.
(3) The critically important letter that would be needed to confirm that the second word is the title “prophet” is an alep. But no aleph is legible on this bulla, and so that reading cannot be confirmed at all.
(4) Compounding this problem is the fact that in the Hebrew Bible, there are around a dozen proper nouns that begin with the letters “nb” (that is, place names or personal names that begin with those two letters) and so that second word could be a number of different things, including the name of the father…and in that case, it would definitely not be the bulla of the prophet Isaiah, as his father’s name was Amoz (Isaiah 1:1).
(5) The presence of the yod in this bulla that was found is interesting, because this spelling is different from the spelling of the word prophet in the epigraphic record. That is, the word “prophet” occurs in a very famous ostracon (an inscription written in ink on a broken piece of pottery) from the great Judean site of Lachish, not far at all from Jerusalem. And in that inscription (Lachish Letter 3, line twenty), there is no yod (that is, the “y” is absent). Moreover, although we do have internal matres lectionis in Old Hebrew inscriptions, beginning in the late eighth century, it is rare (for discussion and bibliography, see “Scribal Education in Ancient Israel: The Old Hebrew Epigraphic Evidence.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 344 : 47-74, especially pages 61-66). Ultimately, because we do not have the yod in the Lachish Ostracon, it could be suggested that this weakens the case for this being the word prophet in this new bulla (and, as noted, the absence of the alep is a major obstacle).
(6) There is one final thing that causes me some pause about understanding this bulla as containing the word prophet. And that is the absence of the Hebrew article. We have a few hundred occurrences of the words “prophet” or “prophets” in the Bible, and in the overwhelming majority of these cases, the word is definite (i.e., either with the word “the,” or with a pronominal suffix, or with a personal name after it, which are all ways of making a word in Hebrew definite). In short, if this were the word “prophet,” I would have liked to have seen the word “the,” as in “Isaiah the prophet.” But, alas, we don’t have the word “the” on this bulla.
In sum, in light of the fact that there almost twenty people mentioned in the Bible whose names are based on the same root word as the name “Isaiah” (and thus plenty of people walking around with that name or its basic equivalent); and in light of the fact that the word being read as “prophet” is lacking the critically important letter (the alep); and in light of the fact that there are plenty of names in the Bible that begin with nun and bet (and so that second word could be a lot of different things); and in light of the presence of a yod and the absence of the article on this new bullae…I feel obliged to state that we had better be cautious about assuming too much. Of course, the assumption that this is a bulla of Isaiah the prophet is scintillating, but it is certainly not something that we should assume is at all certain. It’s not.
Christopher Rollston, George Washington University