Prophet Isaiah & Archaeology

Prophet Isaiah & Archaeology January 21, 2022

. . . and the Analogy to Homer and the Trojan War

I’ve done a lot of writing over the last year on the topic of  biblical archaeology, but I hadn’t dealt with the archaeological evidence for the various Old Testament prophets until my article on the prophet Jeremiah (c. 650-c. 570 BC). Now I will make a similar effort regarding the perhaps equally well-known and renowned prophet Isaiah (c. 740-c. 681 BC, per the Jewish Virtual Library).

The big “buzz” about archaeological evidence and Isaiah revolves around a “bulla” with his name on it, found in 2018 in Jerusalem. A bulla, or seal impression, according to Wikipedia, is “an inscribed clay or soft metal (such as lead or tin) or bitumen or wax token used in commercial and legal documentation as a form of authentication and for tamper-proofing whatever is attached to it (or, in the historical form, contained in it).”

The late Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar announced in February 2018 that her team had discovered the bulla. Her team had already found a bull from King Hezekiah (with whom Isaiah was closely associated) in 2015, literally within 6 1/2 feet of the Isaiah bulla, between the Temple Mount and the City of David (an area known as the “Ophel”). She detailed the Isaiah discovery in an article, “Is This the Prophet Isaiah’s Signature?” in Biblical Archaeology Review (44:2: March / April / May / June 2018). Here is the heart of it:

The seal impression of Yesha‘yah[u] Nvy[?] is divided into three registers. The upper end of the bulla is missing, and its lower left end is slightly damaged. The surviving portion of the top register shows the lower part of a grazing doe, a motif of blessing and protection found in Judah, particularly in Jerusalem, present also on another bulla from the same area. The middle register reads “leyesha‘yah[u]” (Hebrew: לישעיה[ו]; [belonging] “to Isaiah”), where the damaged left end most likely included the letter vav (w; Hebrew: ו). The lower register reads “nvy” (Hebrew: נבי), centered. The damaged left end of this register may have been left empty, as on the right, with no additional letters, but it also may have had an additional letter, such as an aleph (’ ; Hebrew: א), which would render the word nvy’ (Hebrew: נביא), “prophet” in Hebrew. The addition of the letter aleph (’) creates the occupation name (like Baker, Smith, or Priest) for “prophet,” nvy’ . . . Whether or not the aleph was added at the end of the lower register is speculative, as meticulous examinations of that damaged part of the bulla could not identify any remnants of additional letters. . . .

[A]ccording to the Bible, the names of King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah are mentioned in one breath 14 of the 29 times the name of Isaiah is recalled (2 Kings 19–20Isaiah 37–39). No other figure was closer to King Hezekiah than the prophet Isaiah. . . .

Without an aleph at the end, the word nvy is most likely just a personal name. Although it does not appear in the Bible, it does appear on seals and a seal impression on a jar handle, all from unprovenanced, private collections. . . .

Reut Livyatan Ben-Arie, who studied the bullae from the Ophel with me, suggests that there is enough space for two more letters at the end of the second register: a “w” (vav), the last letter in the name Yesha‘yahu, and an “h,” the definite article “the” for the word navy’ (“prophet”), rendering it hanavy’ (“the prophet”).

Dr. Dewayne Bryant, in his article, “The Isaiah Seal” (May 2018) observed:

Robert Cargill, archaeologist and associate professor of Classics at Iowa State University and editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, stated, “if you’re asking me, I think she’s got it. You’re looking at the first archaeological reference of the prophet Isaiah outside of the Bible.” The fact that the Isaiah bulla was found in the same archaeological context as that of a seal impression belonging to King Hezekiah helps place the burden of proof on critics who would argue that the seal does not refer to the prophet.

While the Isaiah bulla does not prove the accuracy of Isaiah’s predictions or his inspiration as a prophet of God, it does demonstrate the accuracy of the biblical narrative and the Bible’s internal chronology.

Now, does this prove that Isaiah the prophet (the biblical figure) existed? Technically, or in the strictest sense, no. But I would compare Isaiah’s “status” to someone like Homer, the Greek epic poet, who is also thought to have lived in the 8th century BC., though many scholars believe he never existed. Hence, this comment in a Washington Post article from 6 January 2015:

Homer’s existence has been in doubt for years. In fact, there’s an academic field of inquiry that examines everything involving Homer called the “Homeric Question.” Homer has puzzled just about every scholar who has studied him for the simple reason that there isn’t much to study. There’s no reliable historical information about him. “Who was Homer, if there was a Homer?” asked Martin West of Oxford University in 2010. “When and where did he live? Did one poet produce both epics, or was there a different poet for each? Or was there in each case a succession of poets, or a syndicate of poets and redactors?” . . .

There’s a general consensus among scholars that Homer — if there was a Homer — lived sometime during the 8th century B.C. (“More reasons why the Greek poet Homer may never have existed”: Terrence McCoy; Wikipedia link added to “Homeric Question”)

We have no indisputable or definitive proof of his existence, as all agree. Yet that hasn’t stopped his works (or those of someone like what we believe to be “him”), The Iliad and The Odyssey, from having a huge (and very real) impact on western civilization and literature in particular. Encyclopaedia Britannica, in its article about Homer, stated that if his existence and authorship of the two famous works are granted, then:

Homer must assuredly be one of the greatest of the world’s literary artists. He is also one of the most influential authors in the widest sense, . . .

So something is going on there. The influential ideas were thought of and promulgated by someone: whether Homer or not. But — as also in the case of Isaiah –, we can attempt to verify specific references to the world and history, contained in Homer. The famous example is Troy, the ancient city on the west coast of Turkey, referred to in Homer (Trojan War). Wikipedia states:

Until the late 19th century, scholars regarded the Trojan War as entirely legendary. However, starting in 1871, Heinrich Schliemann and Frank Calvert excavated the site of the classical era city, under whose ruins they found the remains of numerous earlier settlements. Several of these layers resemble literary depictions of Troy, leading some scholars to conclude that there is a kernel of truth to the legends.

The fascinating Wikipedia article, “Historicity of the Homeric epics” lays out the various scenarios as viewed by historians and archaeologists; some of whom think The Iliad was “essentially legendary”, others who consider it “essentially historical”, and (probably the majority position) those who regard it as “partly historical.” But these propositions can be verified or proven false: that’s the point. The Wikipedia article, “Trojan War” addresses the question of historicity:

In the twentieth century scholars have attempted to draw conclusions based on Hittite and Egyptian texts that date to the time of the Trojan War. While they give a general description of the political situation in the region at the time, their information on whether this particular conflict took place is limited. Andrew Dalby notes that while the Trojan War most likely did take place in some form and is therefore grounded in history, its true nature is unknown.

But back to our immediate topic . . . The Isaiah bulla is the most exciting find, but there is more where the book of Isaiah is concerned. Leibel Reznick, in his article, “Biblical Archeology: Bringing the Bible to Life: Independent sources confirm many of the major and minor characters of the Bible” (AISH, no date) provided many archaeological finds that verified persons mentioned in the book of Isaiah (hence, indirectly, also — arguably — Isaiah’s own existence and his accuracy as a chronicler):

King Ahaz of Judah (r. 732-716 BC) is mentioned seven times in Isaiah. He also appears in the cuneiform Annals of King of Assyria Tiglath-pileser III (r. 745-727 BC). [See: Hayim Tadmor, The Inscriptions of Tiglath-pileser III King of Assyria (Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1994) 170-171 and James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1950) 282], as well as several seals and bullae [see: Biblical Archaeology Review 24:03 (May/June 1998) and Oded Bustanay, Ahaz’s appeal to Tiglath-Pileser III in the Context of the Assyrian Policy of Expansion (Haifa: Haifa, vol. 3, University of Haifa, 1993) 63-71].

Isaiah 37:37-38 (RSV) Then Sennach’erib king of Assyria departed, and went home and dwelt at Nin’eveh. [38] And as he was worshiping in the house of Nisroch his god, Adram’melech and Share’zer, his sons, slew him with the sword, and escaped into the land of Ar’arat. And E’sar-had’don his son reigned in his stead. (cf. Ezra 4:2)

E’sar-had’don (King of Assyria: r. 681-669 BC) is referred to in many cuneiform chronicles. See: Anthony J. Spalinger, Esarhaddon and Egypt : An analysis of the First Invasion of Egypt (Orientalia, vol. 43, 1974) 295-326 and Donald J. Wiseman, An Esarhaddon cylinder from Nimrud (Iraq, vol.14, 1952) 54-60 and Albrecht Goetze, Esarhaddon’s Inscription from the Inanna Temple in Nippur (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Journal of Cuneiform Studies, vol. 17, 1963) 119-131.

Isaiah 7:1 states: “In the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, son of Uzzi’ah, king of Judah, . . .” A seal was discovered that included: “Belonging to Ahaz (son of) Jotham, King of Judah.” See: Nahman Avigad, The Jotham Seal from Elath (Cleveland: Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, vol. 163, 1961) 8-22 and Biblical Archaeology Review 24:03 (May/June 1998). Jotham reigned as King of Judah from c. 750-735 BC.

Isaiah 39:1 mentions: “Mer’odach-bal’adan the son of Bal’adan, king of Babylon . . .” He was friendly to King Hezekiah of Judah (Is 39:1-2). He appears in the cuneiform texts of Assyrian kings Tiglath-pileser III, Sargon II (r. 722-705 BC), and Sennacherib (r. 705-681 BC). See: Robert .D. Biggs and John A. Brinkman, From the Workshop of the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary: Studies Presented to A. Leo Oppenheim (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1964) 50-53.

Pekah (Is 7:1) was the second-to-last king of Israel, before it was conquered by the Assyrians. He’s mentioned twice in the Annals of Tiglath-pileser III. See: James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1950) 284 and Hayim Tadmor, The inscriptions of Tiglath-pileser III King of Assyria (Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1994) 140-141.

“Rezin the king of Syria” (Is 7:1; cf. three additional appearances in Isaiah) is also referred to in the Annals of Tiglath-pileser III. See: Kenneth A. Kitchen, On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003) 503, note 13.

“Sargon the king of Assyria” (Is 20:1) [Sargon II] is cited in countless cuneiform chronicles.

“Sennach’erib king of Assyria” appears in Isaiah 36:1; 37:21, 37. He writes in his own Chronicles about his invasions of Israel and Jerusalem.

Shebna, a servant of King Hezekiah of Judah, appears five times in Isaiah. He is described as “over the household” (Is 22:15): that is, in charge of the king’s household affairs. An inscription found in 1870 in the area of City of David (precisely where he would have been expected to be, in service to the king) very likely refers to him.

Isaiah 37:9 refers to “Now the king heard concerning Tirha’kah king of Ethiopia . . .” This is Taharqa; according to Wikipedia, “a pharaoh of the Twenty-fifth Dynasty of Egypt and qore (king) of the Kingdom of Kush (present day Sudan), from 690 to 664 BC.” He lived in the same general period as King Hezekiah.

That adds up to eleven archaeological verifications of the accuracy of the text of the book of Isaiah. In my opinion, this makes it more likely than not, that there was this person, Isaiah, who claimed to be a prophet, speaking for God, in the service of King Hezekiah of Judah, who was indisputably an actual person, according to the criteria of archaeology and historiography. The fact that the two bullae bearing their names were literally found six feet apart, is, in my opinion, fairy compelling evidence of Isaiah’s historical existence.

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Photo credit: Prophet Isaiah, by Antonio Balestra (1666-1740) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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Summary: I provide 11 separate and independent archaeological verifications of the text of the book of Isaiah, & also examine the analogy to the Greek poet Homer & The Iliad.

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