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Has the 'signature' of the prophet Isaiah been found?

The Biblical Archaeology Review has just published a special double issue (for March, April, May and June 2018) celebrating the contributions of its founding editor, Hershel Shanks, who is stepping down after 43 years. And, appropriately, this special issue features a very special article.

Hezekiah, who was crowned king of Judah in 727 B.C., ranks among both the best and the most important Israelite kings. He abolished idolatrous rites at Israelite “high places,” resumed the celebration of Passover, and centralized the worship of Jehovah at the temple in Jerusalem. During his reign over the southern kingdom, the northern kingdom of Israel was obliterated by the Assyrians and its prominent citizens carried off into captivity. (It was probably during the tensions preceding the fall of the northern kingdom that the ancestors of Lehi and Nephi, anticipating what was to come, fled southward to Jerusalem with other refugees.)

Acutely aware of the perilous times in which he reigned, Hezekiah constructed an impressive tunnel (nearly 1,750 feet long) connecting the Gihon Spring to the Pool of Siloam in order to guarantee Jerusalem’s water supply during a siege (see 2 Kings 20:20; 2 Chronicles 32). Tourists still walk through the “Siloam Tunnel” or “Hezekiah’s Tunnel.”

Prophet Isaiah by Revelli on the Column of the Immaculate Conception on Piazza Mignanelli in Rome on Sept. 2, 2016.
Prophet Isaiah by Revelli on the Column of the Immaculate Conception on Piazza Mignanelli in Rome on Sept. 2, 2016.

And the siege did come. When Hezekiah rebelled against the Assyrians after the death of Sargon II in 705 B.C., refusing to pay them tribute, the Assyrian army arrived at Jerusalem’s gates in massive strength to punish him. However, the Bible records that the enemy siege was broken overnight by miraculous means (see Isaiah 37; 2 Chronicles 32).

“He trusted in the Lord God of Israel,” says the Bible of Hezekiah in 2 Kings 18:5, “so that after him was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor any that were before him.”

Through most of these events, Hezekiah’s essential counselor was an apparent aristocrat named Isaiah, the son of Amoz — one of the most important prophets in the Hebrew Bible and the most quoted Old Testament prophet in both the New Testament and the Book of Mormon. “Great are the words of Isaiah,” declared the risen Savior to the Nephites (3 Nephi 23:1). The Great Isaiah Scroll, recovered by Bedouin shepherds in 1947, is a chief treasure among the famous Dead Sea Scrolls.

Fully 14 of the 29 times that Isaiah’s name is mentioned in the Bible (in 2 Kings 19-20 and Isaiah 37-39), it’s mentioned in connection with Hezekiah. So it’s intriguing and significant that ancient bullae or clay seals dating to the appropriate time and bearing the names “Hezekiah” and “Isaiah” were recently discovered within 10 feet of each other in excavations of the “Ophel,” an area located just a few yards from the southern wall of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. These two seals are among 34 found at the site. They are tiny, measuring about 0.4 inches in diameter, and it’s remarkable that they were found at all.

The identification of the seal belonging to Hezekiah is beyond dispute. The other one, belonging to “Yesha‘yah(u) Nvy(?)” is somewhat less certain. Why? There is no question that “Yesha‘yah(u)” is the name that English-speakers know as “Isaiah.” But what is the “Nvy” that follows it?

Although it wasn’t very common and doesn’t appear in the Bible, “Nvy” is a known personal name from ancient Israel. So it’s possible that this particular Isaiah was the son of someone named “Nvy.” It’s also possible that he came from a place called “Nov,” which was known as a residence of priests.

But the left side of the seal is damaged, and it’s also possible that the word “Nvy” originally contained an aleph at the end, which would make it not a personal name or a place name but, instead, the Hebrew word “Navi’,” which means “prophet.”

“This seal impression of Isaiah,” writes Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar, “is unique, and questions still remain about what it actually says. However, the close relationship between Isaiah and King Hezekiah, as described in the Bible, and the fact the bulla was found next to one bearing the name of Hezekiah seem to leave open the possibility that, despite the difficulties posed by the bulla’s damaged area, this may have been a seal impression of Isaiah the prophet, adviser to King Hezekiah.”

(For information, see Eilat Mazar's “Is This the Prophet Isaiah’s Signature?” in Biblical Archaeology Review, Vol. 44, Nos. 2/3 (March-June 2018), pages 64-73 and 92.)

Note: Dedicated to the memory of Floy Harper, the very embodiment of kindness, who passed away on Feb. 25, 2018.

Editor's note: Daniel Peterson's Defending the Faith column will now be published every other week.