bulla, biblical names found on seals, rare seals found in Israel, treasure

Daily Mail/ Israel Antiquities Authority

The written language has been around for over 5,000 years. We can thank the Sumerians for that. Writing has since been championed as one of humanity’s biggest accomplishments. During its infancy, writing was an art that was reserved for a select group of scribes. Eventually, it was passed down to priests and society’s elite. As literacy rose, so did the need for organization record-keeping, but also, poems, mythology, law, and scripture. Scribes were hired to write for their masters and used seals that bore their names for official documents (possibly including some biblical ones).

Archaeologists in Israel have discovered 2,600-year-old clay stamps and agate seals that may have belonged to Biblical figures. Both artifacts were found in a structure located in Jerusalem’s City of David, which was most likely destroyed by ancient Babylonians. Charred pieces of pottery were found in the building where both the stamp and seal were discovered, dating the relics to the First Temple period (1000-586 BCE). Both artifacts feature ancient Hebrew script suggesting that they are (the first) archaeological evidence of the Biblical scribe Nathan-Melech; the second name on them was Ikar son of Matanyahu. Nathan-Melech is mentioned by name in the Bible in 2 Kings 23:11 as an official in King Josiah’s court:

The passage reads:

“And he removed from the entrance to the house of the LORD the horses that the kings of Judah had dedicated to the sun. They were in the court near the chamber of an official named Nathan-Melech. And Josiah burned up the chariots of the sun.”

The small, one-centimeter seal’s inscription was deciphered by Dr. Anat Mendel-Geberovich of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Center for the Study of Ancient Jerusalem. Mendel-Geberovich dates the clay stamp from sometime between the seventh century to the beginning of the sixth century B.C. In a statement, Mendel-Geberovich said: “Although it is not possible to determine with complete certainty that the Nathan-Melech mentioned in the Bible was, in fact, the owner of the stamp, it is impossible to ignore some of the details that link them together.”

As for the agate seal (found alongside the clay seal) which bore the inscription, “(Belonging to) Ikar son of Matanyahu,” it remains unclear who Ikar was or if he had to any Biblical significance. What we do know is that “Ikar” directly translates to the word “farmer.” The stamp may belong to a laborer or perhaps, a landowner. What is certain is that Nathan-Melek’s name was found in the right place and from the right time.

bulla, biblical names found on seals, rare seals found in Israel, treasurebulla, biblical names found on seals, rare seals found in Israel, treasure
Bulla bearing the name Ikar son of Matanyahu (Credit: hareetz.com/Kobi Harati, City of David)

King Josiah’s reign was one that was riddled with political and religious reform in 622 BC. As the Babylonians charged toward the southern kingdoms of Judah and Jerusalem, there was a struggle for power and control. Eventually, the Babylonians, led by Nebuchadnezzar II, would descend upon the Kingdom of Judah and decimate its people and powers. Chair and professor Dr. Robert Mullins of the Department of Biblical and Religious Studies at Azusa Pacific University describes the reign of Josiah as one of the most controversial periods in ancient Middle-Eastern history. “All these individuals — and Josiah — would be living in a kind of political time of turmoil,” Dr. Mullins states. “There’s this desire to consolidate religious and political control, centralized in Jerusalem, to rally the country to be prepared for any sort of inevitability that might take place [war].”

As the threat of war swept through the southern kingdom, Egypt was also pitching their lots with the Assyrian kingdom. However, Josiah interfered, hoping to impede growing powers. “The Egyptians try to interfere to help the Assyrians, win over the Babylonians and what we’re told is Josiah tried to stop the Egyptian king from aiding the Assyrians. Obviously, it was in the political calculations of Josiah to let the Assyrian empire fall and hope that the Babylonians will not be “bad guys” and just stay in their neck of the woods,” Mullins said.

Unfortunately, Josiah’s instincts were miscalculated. In 586 BC, Babylon conquered the kingdom’s capital city of Jerusalem, burning everything in its wake. The faint silver lining: It was that same destruction and fire that preserved the clay stamps, or the bulla.

In the ancient world, official documents were written in papyrus, a reed-based parchment material that was rolled into scrolls, rather than bound or pressed. To officiate letters or important documents from high-ranking officials, scribes would carry a ring of their master’s seal, with their names engraved on the stone. The stone would be pressed into soft clay, which was pressed over the documents tied with a string. The name or seal would be imprinted on the clay creating the bulla. When the Babylonians ransacked the Judaean kingdom in the 6th century, everything burned — including the official paper works. But because the stamps were made of clay, the fire hardened the clay impressions, further preserving them.

bulla, biblical names found on seals, rare seals found in Israel, treasure
bulla, biblical names found on seals, rare seals found in Israel, treasure
Seal with biblical name Nathan-Melech (Credit: haaretz.com/Eliyahu Yanai, City of David)

This isn’t the only Biblical artifact that has been found over the last century. In 1993, archaeologists uncovered a stone slab in Tel Dan (Northern Israel) with an Aramaic inscription that made mention of the “House of David” — the first mention outside of the Bible. Even though scholars can neither confirm nor deny that the names on the clay seal and bulla belonged to the figures who served King Josiah in the Bible, the fact that the same names are mentioned in the Bible coupled with the location they were discovered and the dating of the artifacts to the right period of time may further support that those Biblical figures did in fact exist.

When asked about the significance of the finds, Dr. Mullins stated that it was an “affirmation” that the Bible is more than just a collection of stories, but rather, an authentic account of the life and times of important religious figures and prophets. “I think one thing for Christians that’s so important is that more than the fact that Christians have scriptures that they regard as authoritative, Christianity also relies heavily on the notion of historical plausibility,” Mullins reflected.  

Although Dr. Mullins uses the Christian community as an example, other faiths also believe in the Old and New Testaments. Regardless, the discovery of the clay stamps and seals bearing the names of Biblical figures in history is an archaeological treasure well-worth believing.