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Seal of the Prophet Isaiah: sorting out fact from fantasy

The remains of what has been identified as Isaiah’s seal. Ouria Tadmor/ Eilat Mazar

In an article in Biblical Archaeology Review Eilat Mazar, an archaeologist associated with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, announced the discovery of a clay seal that appears to bear the name of the biblical prophet Isaiah, who lived in the eighth century BC. The 2,700-year-old seal impression was unearthed in the Ophel, an ancient fortified area located at the base of the southern wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where Mazar has been excavating for some years.

Isaiah is one of the most important Old Testament prophets, who predicted the birth of Jesus Christ. He also appears to have been an important court official, worthy of carrying his own seal. In her article, Mazar argues that the inscription on the seal should be translated as “belonging to the prophet Isaiah”. In other words, this small clay nugget preserves what might be called the “signature” of the biblical prophet.

Mazar’s translation is complicated by the fact that the seal is partially damaged: the second part of the inscription that contains the word for “prophet” is missing its final letter and is thus incomplete. Some, like noted paleographer Christopher Rollston, have pointed to the possibility that these letters are just a surname. Anticipating this objection, Mazar offers some persuasive arguments about why we should translate the inscription as belonging to “Isaiah the prophet”. But because the seal is damaged, the question of how to read the seal will never be fully resolved.

These translation issues aside, there is the larger question of what the discovery of an authentic Isaiah seal actually means.

Isaiah the man

In the first place, the seal confirms something scholars never doubted: Isaiah was an historical figure who lived and worked in Jerusalem in the eighth century BC. According to the beginning of the book of Isaiah, he enjoyed a lengthy career that spanned the reigns of the kings Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah.

In addition to writing some of the most eloquent, theologically significant, and historically influential poetry in the Hebrew Bible, Isaiah was an important man in his own day. The composite biblical portrait of Isaiah portrays him as an authority figure in ancient Jerusalem. He was important enough to be called upon by King Hezekiah – one of the Bible’s few “good” kings – for advice and seemed to have unencumbered access to the monarch (2 Kings 19:20; 20).

Isaiah as portrayed on an 18th-century Russian icon. Iconostasis of Transfiguration church, Kizhi monastery, Karelia, Russia

If the seal truly belongs to Isaiah, then it cements the scholarly view that Isaiah was – in contrast to itinerant outsider prophets such as Amos or John the Baptist – a professional religious worker who enjoyed the privileged status that accompanied being an adviser of the king. In short: it adds texture to our impression of ancient Israelite religio-political affairs.

For Christians, documenting evidence of the life of Isaiah holds particular importance. Christian tradition interprets Isaiah’s words as prophecies about the Virgin Birth, the nature of being a messiah and the universal relevance of Jesus’ messianic identity to both gentiles and Jews. Indeed, in some circles, he is known as “The Fifth Evangelist”, a title that implicitly places him on a par with the writers of the New Testament gospels.

Politicising history

The danger with an exciting find like this one is that the growing excitement over the discovery will move away from its particular historical relevance. In the past, artefacts that overlap with biblical records have taken on a talismanic quality in which a new find is used to support broader religious, political, and ideological claims.

To name but two examples: the reference to the Israelite people in the Victory Stele of the Egyptian Pharaoh Merneptah (1207BC), which is the earliest reference to Israel outside the Bible, and the mention of the House of David in the Tel Dan inscription, from the 9th-century BC, are often cited as evidence that the biblical narrative is true.

The Ophel in Jerusalem: the Kidron Valley and Mount of Olives are in the background. Joe Freeman via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

In October 2017, the American evangelical politician Michelle Bachman remarked that “every archaeology (sic) find that has ever come forward has only proved the authenticity of the Bible”. Looking past the deeply problematic omission of the many discoveries that conflict with biblical historical narratives, Bachman is leveraging historical artefacts about the past to make grand sweeping statements about the accuracy of the Bible.

Digging up the past

The tendency to use archaeological artefacts in this way is hardly unique to the archaeology of the Iron Age Levant. The same phenomenon is at work in efforts to identify and claim national ownership of the earliest human remains. Evolutionary theories about the geographical origins of the human race are closely tied to nationalism and politics. As anthropologist Jon Marks argued, those who claim to own the earliest example of human remains get to play a pivotal role in the story of human evolution.

All attempts to tell history are also weighed down by our current commitments: whether scholars choose to write about military heroes, women, slaves or animals reveals a great deal about what is valuable to us. And yet, there is something especially problematic about biblical archaeology, which, from its inception, self-consciously defined itself as the pursuit of material evidence that would lend tangible support to theological and textual claims.

The stakes are much higher when the finds take place in the politically charged environs of the Temple Mount. Frequently, representatives on both sides of the Israel/Palestinian divide interpret the discovery of remnants of the past in light of competing claims to ownership of the land. Too often the fetishisation of archaeological finds turns historical artefacts into ideological relics.

In the case of the Isaiah seal, the disputes about the way the text is translated might provide the basis for politically motivated disputes about its authenticity. And the mere potential for ideologically (as opposed to intellectually) based disagreement will make it difficult to have thoughtful conversations about its significance.

The Isaiah seal offers important evidence about religious life during the Judahite monarchy. But the seal does not authenticate broader religious or political claims about the authenticity and historical accuracy of what Christians call the Old Testament.

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