A 2700-year-old Ancient Judean seal impression, which probably belonged to the prophet Isaiah, has been discovered just 50 metres south of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.
It is, therefore, potentially the first archaeological confirmation of Isaiah’s existence and status. Until now, the only early ancient references to him have been in the Bible.
The discovery seems to confirm the very high political status attributed to Isaiah in the Old Testament.
The clay seal impression was found just two metres away from a second seal impression — issued by none other than the prophet’s royal colleague, the ruler of Judah, King Hezekiah.
They are two of a group of 34 seal impressions found in a nine-square-metre area within the buried ruins of King Hezekiah’s royal palace.
Isaiah’s seal impression appears to say ”Isaiah [the] prophet” — but the object is broken, and one crucial letter is missing from the word “prophet”. Although it is very likely that “prophet” is the correct reading of the word, it is theoretically possible that it is an ordinary surname merely resembling the word “prophet”.
The seal impressions were found by archaeologists from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in what, at some stage, may have become the royal treasury. Archaeological evidence suggests that many of them were used to seal textile bags officially, some potentially containing incoming gifts, taxes, or payments-in-kind.
Besides bearing the names of the probable payers, the majority of the impressions also preserved the weave of the textile bags they sealed.
Hezekiah’s seal impression does not bear any such textile evidence, however, and appears to have been from a papyrus document — perhaps an instruction or order — received from him by palace officials.
It is known that Isaiah was a court prophet, active and conceivably resident for much of the time in Hezekiah’s palace. He acted as a close political adviser to the king — in some senses a bit like an 18th-century prime minister. He was Hezekiah’s most senior subject.
It was Isaiah who, after listening to God, encouraged Hezekiah to continue defying an Assyrian military threat. The prophet achieved this by revealing what God had told him: “Thus says the Lord to the king of Assyria: he shall not enter this city. He shall not shoot an arrow there, nor advance a shield in it, nor shall he heap up a siege-ramp.”
Indeed, the Assyrian invasion force never succeeded in capturing Jerusalem.
The Bible says that most of the Assyrian army threatening the city were then “put to death” by “the angel of the Lord” — and the early third-century BC Babylonian historian Berosus added that God decimated it with an epidemic, and that the surviving Assyrians were therefore forced to retreat back to what is now Iraq.
The seals are perhaps particularly interesting from that geopolitical perspective.
Fearing Assyrian attack, Hezekiah massively strengthened the city’s defences and water supply system — all of which would have required a lot of additional resources, probably including additional tax revenue. Then he tried to appease the Assyrians with gold and silver tribute, but to do that he would also have had to levy additional taxes on his people. It is, therefore, conceivable that the incoming sealed bags were from the king’s subjects’ making contributions and paying taxes — and that their seals indicated to palace officials who they were.
Hezekiah’s seal impression is particularly impressive. The text on it states that it belonged to Hezekiah, King of Judah, son of [King] Ahaz. Although Hezekiah was a strict monotheist (unlike his father), the iconography of his seal demonstrates that he used Egyptian pagan-originating imagery to proclaim his royal power and his monotheism — a winged solar disc, an icon that was regarded as a symbol of God throughout the ancient Middle East (and which is even used to symbolise God in the Biblical Book of Malachi (“the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings”). Hezekiah’s seal also sported two Egyptian ankh (or crux ansata) icons — symbols of life originally associated with a plethora of Egyptian deities.
Isaiah is particularly important because of his prophetic encounters with God, which enabled him to help Jerusalem defy the Assyrians.
Prophetic communication with divinities was a crucial component of ancient geopolitics. Powerful leaders consulted oracles such as Delphi and Dodona in Greece, Siwa in Egypt, Menestheus in southern Spain and others in Mesopotamia and ancient India when making critical military and other decisions.
Interestingly, the 34 seal impressions were found together with ten ceramic pagan-style religious figurines — small fertility idols, and others depicting animals. It is known that pagan-style folk beliefs flourished alongside official monotheistic early Judaism — and that King Hezekiah was fanatical about suppressing them.
So it is particularly interesting that such practices appear to have been going on in his own palace. It seems, therefore, to suggest that suppressing polytheistic beliefs was a particularly big challenge. Its presence in the palace itself could potentially be relatively early in the main part of his reign — because his father had been much more pagan-oriented, and Hezekiah was obviously not able to consider seriously imposing strict monotheism overnight.
The excavation is being directed by Dr Eilat Mazar of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“The discovery of the royal structures and finds from the time of King Hezekiah is a rare opportunity to reveal vividly this specific time in the history of Jerusalem,” Dr Maza said.
Commenting on the discovery, a British historian of the period, Professor Candida Moss, Cadbury Professor of Theology at the University of Birmingham, said: “The discovery of what is likely to be the seal impression of Isaiah the prophet provides the earliest material evidence for the existence and work of Christianity’s most important prophet.
“For Christians and Jews, it offers a tangible, talismanic piece of evidence for the life of a beloved prophet and author. For scholars, who never doubted the existence of Isaiah in the first place, the bulla gives us insight into his roles in Jerusalem, and offers support for the biblical depiction of Isaiah as a high-status court prophet and close adviser to King Hezekiah.”
David Keys is Archaeology Correspondent of The Independent