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The Isaiah Bulla from Jerusalem: 2.0

23 February 2018

The Isaiah Bulla from Jerusalem: 2.0

By Christopher Rollston, George Washington University (rollston@gwu.edu)

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, as noted in my previous post on this subject.

Date: this inscription putatively dates to the 8th century or the early 7th century. That is, I would emphasize that the script is the script of the late 8th or early 7th century BCE, and there is no way to be more precise than that. And, of course, the archaeological context is not such that the date can be stated to be only the 8th century. Ultimately, a date in the late 8th century is permissible, but so is a date in the early- to mid- 7th century. We must be candid about that.

In any case, within this post, I wish to emphasize certain things that I mentioned in the previous post and also especially to flesh out some of the possibilities for the second word, that is, word, or word fragment, that is present on the third register: nun, bet, yod. As with my previous post, this will be done in brief. I will publish a full journal article on this bulla at a later date in the near future. In any case, my view is that this second word could be a patronymic (in which case this bulla is certainly not Isaiah the Prophet’s as his father was Amoz), a title, or a gentilic.

The fact that an alep is not present, or preserved, after the yod is of critical importance. Without it, we do not have the word for prophet. With it, we would not be conversing about this…because if there were an alep there, then we would have the word prophet (or a verbal or nominal of the same root). But, alas, we don’t have it, hence the necessity of this conversation (and I do not find it convincing to contend that because of the [especially later], quiescent nature of the alep, it simply wasn’t written on this bulla; after all, we have it present in many Iron Age inscriptions, including in the very word for prophet in Lachish 3:20. I have essentially noted all of this previously but also emphasize it here as a point of departure.

Ultimately, this entire conversation (about wanting to read the word prophet here, even though we don’t have a critically important letter that must be present to make the case with certainty), reminds me of the previous attempts to contend that the broken Hebrew seal with the letters “yzbl” must refer to Queen Jezebel (I deal with those analogous assumptions in an article entitled “Prosopography and the YZBL Seal” in IEJ 59 (2009): 86-91). Jezebel is not the only possible reading of that seal, and reading “prophet” on this bulla is not the only possible reading here.

Furthermore, the preponderance of the occurrences of the word for prophet (nb’) in ancient Hebrew are definite (either via the usage of the article, or via the presence of a pronominal suffix, or in a construct chain in which the nomen rectum is definite). I have noted all of this in the previous post, but emphasize it here as well. And it is also worth emphasizing that the epigraphic occurrence of the word prophet (h-nb’) in Lachish 3:20 conforms with this pattern. In any case, as I have noted, the absence of the article here does not mean that this word cannot be the word for prophet, but it merits attention nonetheless, as it is concerning. Furthermore, after noticing that Eilat Mazar’s article suggests (e.g., in the accompanying drawing) that the article (i.e., the hey) could be reconstructed at the end of the preceding line, I would emphasize that I find that restoration very, very difficult to accept. There is simply no room at the end of the previous line for that letter (note that the Old Hebrew letter hey normally takes up a fair amount of horizontal space). Anat Mendel-Geberovich has indicated to me that she also believes that there is not sufficient space for the letter hey at the end of the preceding line.

Moreover, if this word on the bulla is the word “prophet” (i.e, if someone were to assume that the alep were present on the seal and thus assume that we have the word for prophet), the presence of a yod mater is thus different from the attested spelling of this word in epigraphic Hebrew, namely, Lachish Letter 3, line twenty (an inscription that dates to the early 6th century, a time period during which we see a growing number of more internal matres lections in Old Hebrew). As I mentioned in my previous post, this problem is not insurmountable, but it is noteworthy. Furthermore, as I noted in my previous post, we do have internal matres lectionis attested in the late 8th century (“Scribal Education in Ancient Israel: The Old Hebrew Epigraphic Evidence,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 344 (2006): 47-74, esp 61-66), but it is not the norm.

Or again, as I have mentioned in my previous post, it is also the case that the 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). And this name persists deeply into the Second Temple Period as well, with at least a dozen attestations (see, for example, Tal Ilan’s, Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity, Tübingen, Mohr Siebeck, 2002, p. 180). Thus, during any given period, there were likely a number of people running around who had the name Isaiah (or a form thereof, based on the same Hebrew root).

Nevertheless, it seems that in spite of the absence of the critically important alep (etc.), some have contended that this bulla is that of the prophet Isaiah. And some have argued this because they believe that the second word, that is, the letters nby, are to be understood as the word “prophet.” It is useful, therefore, for me to expand on my brief reference in my previous post to the fact that the word “prophet” (nby[‘]) was not the only viable understanding of the extant letters. Here are some of a number of other possible understandings, with the assumption that there is room for an additional letter after the yod (which is something that is certainly presupposed by those advocating that we are to understand the word “prophet” on this bulla). In any case, here are a few options, some of which presuppose that there is a letter after the yod and some of which do not presuppose this:

(1) The name Nbyt (attested as a personal name, arguably a gentilic, in Genesis 25:13). Such a proposal would suggest that there is enough room on the bulla, after the yod, for an additional letter.

(2) The name Nbṭ. A personal name based on this root is attested within the Hebrew Bible (e.g. 1 Kgs 11:26) as well as in Old South Arabic personal names (see M. Noth, Die israelitischen Personennamen im Rahmen der gemeinsemitischen Namengebung, Beiträge zur Wissenschaft vom Alten und Neuen Testament, III, 10. Stuttgart, 1928 [reprint: Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1966], pages 36, 186). This name seems to be based on a root that means “bring to light.” As with the previous proposal, this proposal would presuppose that there is enough room after the yod for an additional letter. Moreover, the preserved yod on the bulla, could be understood in this case as being a mater (although the formation in the Bible is based on this root, it reflects a different formation and so a mater is not present).

(3) The name Nabil is also something that is plausible, a name that arguably has a core semantic domain of meanings such as “noble,” “wise,” “light,” or “flame.” There is, of course, a very famous pun (cf. the phenomenon of nominal pejorative equivoces) in the Bible (1 Sam 25:25) on a personal name “Nabal” (I dealt with this name in “Ad Nomen Argumenta: Personal Names as Pejorative Puns in Ancient Texts,” in the volume entitled In the Shadow of Bezalel: Aramaic, Biblical, and Ancient Near Eastern Studies in Honor of Bezalel Porten, ed. Alejandro F. Botta. Leiden: Brill, 2013), pages 367-386; in that article I follow James Barr, with regard to this personal name). In this regard, cf. the Qattîl formulation, arguably with a yod mater (Bruce K. Waltke and M. O’Connor, Biblical Hebrew Syntax, Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990, section 5.4, page 89), which could account for the yod on the bulla.

(4) The root Nbz. This word is attested in Imperial Aramaic (see Hoftijzer and Jongeling, Dictionary of the Northwest-Semitic Inscriptions, Leiden: Brill, sv Nbz) and seems to me something such as “document,” “receipt.” Understanding the yod as a mater, this word could be understood as a nomen occupationis, that is, something such as “recorder” (on the subject of foreign words and loan words in Northwest Semitic, see works such as Stephen A. Kaufman, The Akkadian Influences on Aramaic (Assyriological Studies 19), Chicago: University of Chicago 1974; Paul V. Mankowski, Akkadian Loanwords in Biblical Hebrew, Harvard Semitic Studies 47, Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2000). Of course, in this case, I would prefer the definite article (hey) as well (since we often get it with titles), but since some are willing to propose that the article is not necessary before the word “prophet,” then I think it is also fair to state that it could be nbz as a title, with a yod mater, and that it follows the standard pattern for nomen occupationis (Bruce K. Waltke and M. O’Connor, Biblical Hebrew Syntax, Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990, section 5.4, page 89). In this case, I should emphasize that I might in this case contend that the title could have entered Hebrew through Akkadian (something that would not be sui generis in Hebrew).

(5) It might also be possible to contend that the word Nby is a gentilic, meaning something such as “Nobite” and since we do have the GN “Nob” attested in the Bible, this is a viable option as well (cf. 1 Sam 21:2). Indeed, Lawson Younger has suggested that this is something he considers possible and Nathaniel Greene has independently indicated that he is inclined to view it this way. Both Younger and Greene have mentioned in this connection the famous Old Hebrew seal from the antiquities market that has a PN followed by Nby, “the Nobite” (see Nahman Avigad and Benjamin Sass, Corpus of West Semitic Stamp Seals, Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1997, #379; cf. also #227).

(6) There are a number of personal names (in various languages, including Hebrew) that are built upon the theorphic element Nb (i.e, the God Nabu). It is possible that the bulla’s nb is this theophoric element, but space constraints would perhaps militate against this (as the non-theophoric component would require at least two or three letters and there is not sufficient space for that), as would perhaps also a putative Judean having such a name in the late 8th century or early 7th century, as would perhaps also, of course, the presence of a yod on the bulla (but…the yod might not be a problem, if, for example, it were part of a verbal or nominal modifier). Note also in this connection that double names are a well-known phenomenon in the Semitic world, as well as later in the Greco-Roman world (and thus one could conceivably argue that the first name is the Hebrew name and the second name is an Akkadian name for the same person; cf. of course, later cases such as Hadassah = Esther; Daniel = Belteshazzar; Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah = Shadrack, Meshach, Abednego [Abednebo[; Saul = Paul, etc.). Again, I am disinclined to embrace this possibility, but it is theoretically possible.

(7) Within Semitic, because of middle w/y words and because of geminate roots, there are a number of additional possibilities.

(8) Furthermore, it is possible to contend that there is a hey or alep after the yod (forming the theophoric yh, or forming some sort of hypocoristic).

(9) Finally, I wish to emphasize that it is possible that there is not enough space after the yod for an additional letter. Along those lines, Lawrence Mykytiuk has indeed mentioned to me the fact that he is not convinced there is enough space for a letter after the yod.


Ultimately, the conclusion is that there are a number of different possibilities for the second word of this inscription. I have listed some of them here, and there are at least five to seven additional ones that could be listed. The “take away” is this. I would like to be able to say that this bulla is that of the prophet Isaiah, but that’s not at all the sole possibility, and although some of the suggestions here (above) are more likely than others, it is certainly not the case that one can weight them in such a fashion as to affirm or declare that this or that one is *the* most likely. Some are more probable than others, but that’s about as far as good methodology allows us to go. And so the reading nby’ will remain one of a number of possibilities. Some will want that one (nby[y]) to be the correct restoration (or understanding), but in light of the various alternatives, that is a very subjective opinion. And it’s important to be forthright about stating this. Alas, we must always attempt to reflect deeply and broadly on restorations and readings. And in the case of this bulla, I think that there are a number of additional options and there is no empirical method of making a decisive determination.

Christopher Rollston, George Washington University (rollston@gwu.edu).
Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Jason Bembry, Joel Burnett, Larry Mykytiuk, Lawson Younger, Anat Mendel Geberovich, and Nathaniel Greene for discussing matters related to this seal with me.

Archaeology, Bible, Epigraphy

3 Comments to “The Isaiah Bulla from Jerusalem: 2.0”

  1. […] mean “Isaiah the Nob-ite”, a resident of the hill of Nob, 2km away within Jerusalem. Rollston lists other options, none of which require inserting (as Mazar does) an extra […]

  2. […] The Isaiah Bulla from Jerusalem: 2.0 Subscribe RSS Search for: […]

  3. […] nome Isaías (depois do vav ), a impressão do selo seria “[pertencente] ao profeta Isaías”. Clique aqui para uma análise completa de Christopher […]

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