Evidence for Historical Isaiah Announced by Archaeologists

Yes, Isaiah really existed and prophecy really happened

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, “The Prophet Isaiah”, between 1726 and 1729
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, “The Prophet Isaiah”, between 1726 and 1729 (photo: Public Domain)

Archaeologists say they might have found the first evidence for the existence of the prophet Isaiah outside of the Bible.

The evidence is an impression left by a seal that could identify the prophet Isaiah as its owner. The impression was on a piece of clay known as a bulla, which was used as a sort of tag attached to the string tying scrolls together. The announcement was announced in the May-June edition of the Biblical Archaeology Review and was reported last week.

For Christians, the existence of a historical Isaiah who lived in the eighth century BC has never really been in doubt. True, many modern biblical scholars question whether the man we think of as Isaiah really wrote the whole book, but they haven’t disputed that there was an Isaiah who at least wrote the first two-thirds of the book.

The bulla was uncovered in an archaeological excavation at the Ophel, between the City of David and the Temple Mount, according to the Biblical Archaeology Society. The term is Hebrew for ‘a high place to climb to.’ It dates back to biblical times and is cited 2 Chronicles 27:3, according to the society.

I said earlier that the seal could be that of Isaiah. Archaeologists aren’t certain. That’s because of the way the name reads. Transliterated it is: Yesha‘yah(u) nvy. The most literal translation is: Isaiah prophet.

So what’s the problem?

Well, nvy is missing a Hebrew letter, the aleph (written as א), is necessary for the word to become an ‘occupational name,’ according to Dr. Eilat Mazar, the author of the report in the Biblical Archaeology Review.

In order to conclude that the seal was Isaiah’s, we’d need to infer that an aleph was there, on a section that is broken off. As Mazar puts it, “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.”

Without that letter, nvy could just be a surname, according to Mazar. But there are a number of reasons why the conclusion that it is not a surname but a title is a better conclusion, according to her article.

If nvy was a surname, we’d expect to see a ‘son of’ before it. But we don’t. True, ‘son of’ could be cut out if space was limited, but Mazar says there is room in the remaining portion of the bulla for that word. (In Hebrew it is bn, or ben, if transliterated with the vowel.)

Nvy could be a place name. But then it would need the definite article (h- or ha-). But it isn’t there and, as just mentioned above, space wasn’t an issue on the original seal. The absence of the definite article, however, also argues against reading nvy as ‘the prophet.’ Then again: Mazar says that the definite article could have been on another line in the portion of the seal that was broken off.

So why is ‘the prophet’ preferable to something a place named The Prophet? Mazar says that “no other seal or seal impression with a personal name followed by the name of a place—with or without a definite article—has ever been found.” Also, there is a precedent for an arrangement of this kind, in which the definite article is on another line—when it’s used with a title. Moreover, in some instances, the title appears in the Bible without the definite article, according to Mazar.

One other positive indicator: the seal was within 10 feet of another bulla with the seal of King Hezekiah—and that seems to be certain. Hezekiah was a contemporary of Isaiah and who is mentioned some 34 times in the Book of Isaiah.

As Christians—even if we don’t doubt it—is helpful to be reminded that Isaiah was a real flesh-and-blood historical person, an ancient man in a besieged kingdom who centuries beforehand glimpsed the light of the Incarnation. As Mazar puts it:

The discovery of the royal structures and finds from the time of King Hezekiah at the Ophel is a rare opportunity to reveal vividly this specific time in the history of Jerusalem. The finds lead us to an almost personal ‘encounter’ with some of the key players who took part in the life of the Ophel’s Royal Quarter, including King Hezekiah and, perhaps, also the prophet Isaiah.

The discovery also has significance for apologetics. It is common today, in the secular world, to regard the Bible as a collection of myths. The reality of course is that much of the Old Testament constitutes the historical records of a particular nation—Israel—that really did exist in the ancient Near East. Isaiah really existed and prophecy really happened.