bulla-featuring-jeremiahs-scribes-sealSeals and seal impressions of six biblical personages recovered

Hebrew University professor Nahman Avigad, the world’s leading authority on Hebrew seals, lamented that “among the hundreds of Hebrew seals and seal-impressions dating from biblical times known up to now, not one of their owners can be identified with absolute certainty with a person mentioned in the Bible.”1 That was in 1978.

Today, the situation is better than it was then. True, “absolute” certainty cannot yet be claimed. But “very near” certainty can. Five identifications have been made—four of them by Avigad, who summarized all five in a seminal article.2 The fifth was made by Yigal Shiloh, the excavator of the City of David, the oldest inhabited part of Jerusalem. Now, I can add a sixth.

In ancient times, seals were used to witness or sign documents. The seal was impressed on a lump of clay called a bulla (plural, bullae). Incised on the seal and impressed on the clay were usually the name of the seal’s owner, his father’s name (patronymic) and, occasionally, the title of the seal owner.

Papyrus documents were closed by rolling them and tying them with a string. A lump of wet clay was then placed on the knot and stamped with the seal. If more than one witness attested to a document, the document was tied with several strings, each of which was sealed. After the clay dried, the papyrus was stored in an archive (see Jeremiah 32-10–14).

When ancient cities were conquered, they were generally put to the torch. The intense heat would destroy most of the city, but the clay bullae would be fired like pottery, making them virtually indestructible. This “foresight” and “thoughtfulness” of the Assyrians, Babylonians and other ancient conquerors helped preserve the bullae that archaeologists are only now discovering.

Among the hundreds of Hebrew seals and bullae referred to by Professor Avigad in his 1978 article are a number that bear the name of a person identified as a “servant of the king” or a “son of the king” and even a “daughter of the king.” Unfortunately, these do not lead to an identification of a particular Biblical personage; either the name of the seal’s owner is not mentioned in the Bible or the king’s name is not included in the seal, so we don’t know which king it is. In such a case, any attempt at a match, though tempting, ends up as exceedingly hypothetical and speculative.
In six cases, however, we can make reasonably certain matches and thereby identify the seal owners with people mentioned in the Bible. All of the people so identified lived and worked during the last stormy decades before the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 587/586 B.C.E.,a at which time the city was burned and the First Temple, built by King Solomon more than 350 years earlier, was destroyed.

The first and best-known Biblical name to be identified on a bulla is Baruch son of Neriah.b3 Baruch was the scribe, loyal friend and political ally of the prophet Jeremiah. The inscription is in three lines and reads- “Belonging to Berekhyahu/son of Neriyahu/the scribe.” The bulla refers to Baruch by his full given name “Berekhyahu.” The suffix -yahuc is a theophoric (divine) element often found in ancient Hebrew names, especially in Judah. It is a shortened form of Yahweh, the personal name of the Hebrew God. “Berekhyahu” means “blessed of Yahweh,” and it was apparently the name that Jeremiah’s scribe used formally or officially; it poses no problems to his identification. Nowadays a person named Michael (“el” is the theophoric suffix here—“of the god El”) would quite naturally be called Mike by his friends and associates.

Baruch son of Neriah, the seal impression tells us, was a scribe. Four episodes in the Book of Jeremiah mention Baruch, son of Neriah the scribe. In the first, he witnesses Jeremiah’s purchase of land in the prophet’s hometown of Anathoth. Jeremiah’s purchase of this land symbolized his faith in the future in the face of impending doom. The recovered seal with Baruch’s name may even have been the one affixed to the deed for this land.

In the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem, some Judahite fugitives forcibly exiled Jeremiah and Baruch to Egypt (Jeremiah 43-1–7). This is the second episode mentioning Baruch.
In the third episode, Baruch faces his own internal struggle between self-preservation and loyalty to God (Jeremiah 45).

Baruch’s fourth and most provocative appearance occurs earlier, in chapter 36. The dramatic events reported there took place “in the fourth year of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah” (Jeremiah 36-1), which corresponds to 605 B.C.E., nearly two decades before the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. That was also the portentous year when Babylonian troops led by Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Egyptian army at Carchemish (Jeremiah 46-2), a foreboding omen for Judah. At precisely that time, Baruch son of Neriah, “at Jeremiah’s dictation” wrote Jeremiah’s oracles of destruction on a scroll. Jeremiah then went into hiding. But he sent Baruch to read the oracles aloud in the Temple compound on a fast day, when it was certain to receive a wide audience. Later that same day Baruch, who was apparently well known to the authorities, also read the scroll to a gathering of cabinet ministers, who advised him to go into hiding as Jeremiah had done. Both Baruch and Jeremiah eventually had to flee for their lives as a result of what was regarded as seditious incitement in Jeremiah’s prophecies. When one of the ministers read these oracles to the king himself, an enraged Jehoiakim destroyed the scroll. But Jeremiah dictated a second copy to Baruch, thus preserving it.

Some scholars also credit Baruch as the author of the biographical chapters of the Book of Jeremiah. Baruch’s writings surely provided the primary material from which Jeremiah’s biography was composed.4 Seeing the actual seal impression of this Biblical character is a moving emotional experience.

Unfortunately, we do not know where this bulla came from. It was found in a collection of bullae in private hands obtained from antiquities dealers.

It is interesting that chapter 36 of the Book of Jeremiah also contains the names of two other people whose seals have been impressed in surviving bullae- “Yerahme’el son of the king” and “Gemariah son of Shaphan.”

Yerahme’el is mentioned only once in the Bible, in Jeremiah 36. There he is a member of the royal security services sent by King Jehoiakim to arrest Jeremiah for having written the scroll and Baruch for making it public- “And the king commanded Yerahme’el the king’s son…to seize Baruch the scribe and Jeremiah the prophet, but the Lord hid them” (Jeremiah 36-26).

Yerahme’el’s seal, as impressed in the bulla, reads, in two lines- “Belonging to Yerahme’el/son of the king.” Yerahme’el’s title “son of the king” should not necessarily be understood literally. This may have been a title for people of royal rank who functioned as palace security officers. Two other Biblical figures bore this same title and performed similar tasks- Joash (1 Kings 22-26) and Malchiah (Jeremiah 38-6).

The bulla of Yerahme’el, the king’s son, was found in the same collection of bullae as Baruch’s. Over 250 other bullae were in the collection, which trickled onto the antiquities market in small groups over a period of time.

This of course raises the question of authenticity. Professor Avigad discounts the possibility of forgery for several reasons- Their damaged and burnt condition looked too genuine to be faked. Also, broken bullae from different lots obtained from different antiquities dealers could be joined, and bullae in different batches had been stamped with the same seal.5

The antiquities dealers who sold the bullae to private collectors told Avigad that the bullae were found somewhere in southern Judah. This is hogwash. The archive of documents to which these bullae were originally attached must have been located in Jerusalem. Names of ten government officials are included in the collection. It is unlikely that such a collection would have been found in any archive other than in Jerusalem. Their burnt condition belies the possibility that the documents to which they were attached had been spirited to safety prior to the conflagration of 587/586 B.C.E.d that destroyed the city.

I believe that these bullae were dug up illegally within the confines of seventh’ and sixth-century B.C.E. Jerusalem by smugglers supplying the antiquities trade.

Whatever small doubt may exist as to the authenticity of the bullae of Baruch and Yerahme’el, no such doubt exists about the bulla of “Gemaryahu son of Shaphan.” It was discovered in a legal excavation led by the late Yigal Shiloh, one of Israel’s finest field archaeologists. His tragic death from cancer at the age of 50, in 1987, cut short a meteoric career. The bulla of Gemariah son of Shaphan was found in the famous Area G in the City of David excavations under the supervision of Jane Cahill and David Tarler. It is part of a hoard of 51 bullae, the only collection of bullae ever found in a stratified context in Israel. The bullae were uncovered in stratum 10, the level sealed by the Babylonian conquest, so they can be securely dated to the period just before the destruction of the city in 587/586 B.C.E.

Since we don’t know where the collection of bullae with the names of Baruch and Yerahme’el came from, the fact that they lived just before the Babylonian destruction of the city was used to date the bullae. The City of David bullae, however, are dated by their stratum and by the pottery found at that level, a situation far preferable for archaeologists. The discovery of a Biblical name of the same period then helps to confirm the date.

After deciphering the names on his hoard of bullae, Shiloh concluded that this was a “rich group of names of persons in Jerusalem, [but] all except one are ‘nonentities’ historically speaking.”6 The exception was a chipped bulla that read, in two lines- “Belonging to Gemaryahu/son of Shaphan.”

This name too appears in chapter 36 of the Book of Jeremiah. In Hebrew, it is written Gemaryahu, but it is usually translated in a shortened form, Gemariah, just as the Hebrew Yermiyahu is translated Jeremiah. It was from Gemariah’s office that Baruch read Jeremiah’s scroll to all the people- “Then, in the hearing of all the people, Baruch read the words of Jeremiah from the scroll, in the house of the Lord, in the chamber of Gemariah the son of Shaphan the scribe, which was in the upper court, at the entry of the New Gate to the House of the Lord” (Jeremiah 36-10).

The names of the fourth and fifth Biblical personages to be identified as the owners of seals were found, not on bullae, but on the seals themselves. The inscription on the first seal reads, in two lines, “Belonging to Seriahu/Neriyahu.”7 This should be understood as “Belonging to Seriahu [son of] Neriyahu.” The word for “son,” ben in Hebrew, was omitted for some unexplained reason. Avigad has identified the owner of this seal as Seriah son of Neriah son of Mahseiah mentioned in Jeremiah 51-59–64. Seriah was the brother of Baruch, Jeremiah’s scribe; both Seriah and Baruch were the sons of Neriah and grandsons of Mahseiah (Jeremiah 32-12, 51-59). Seriah too was apparently a confidant and friend of Jeremiah. In 594 B.C.E., Seriah was serving as King Zedekiah’s quartermaster, in charge of the king’s sleeping arrangements at home and abroad.8 When Zedekiah journeyed—perhaps he was summoned—to Babylonia to declare in person his allegiance to Nebuchadnezzar, Seriah accompanied Zedekiah. Jeremiah took advantage of Seriah’s trip by asking him to take along and to read aloud a scroll containing oracles of doom and destruction for Babylon. After he read it, Seriah was to throw the scroll in the Euphrates River and to pronounce these words- “Thus shall Babylon sink and never rise again” (Jeremiah 51-64).

In 1987, Avigad published the fifth name.9 It too was on a seal in a private collection. It reads “belonging to Azaliabu son of Meshullam.” There are no Biblical stories connected with either of these people but both are related to Gemariah and Shaphan on the City of David bulla. “In the eighteenth year of King Josiah, the king sent the scribe Shaphan, the son of Azaliah son of Meshullam, to the House of the Lord” (2 Kings 22-3). Azaliah and Meshullam on this seal are Shaphan’s father and grandfather, respectively, and Gemariah’s grandfather and great-grandfather. We have, therefore, on the bulla and this seal, the names of four generations of this illustrious Jerusalem family.
Now to the sixth Biblical seal owner—the one I discovered-

In 1987, Josette Elayi published a beautiful seal still in its ring and bearing, in three lines, the inscription “Belonging to Hanan s/on of Hilkiyahu/the priest” in ancient Hebrew script.e The ring with its seal belongs to an anonymous collector who would say only that “it was bought somewhere in the Near East in 1980.”

No one named “Hanan son of Hilkiah” is mentioned in the Bible. Dr. Elayi cautiously raised the possibility that Hanan was nevertheless a son of the high priest Hilkiah, who served during the reign of King Josiah (639–608 B.C.E.; 2 Kings 22-3–4). Hilkiah is very famous because it was he who, in 622 B.C.E., discovered in the Temple a “scroll of teaching” (sepher torah, in Hebrew; 2 Kings 22-8), which many scholars believe to be the Book of Deuteronomy.

Another priest named Hilkiah is also mentioned in the Bible- Jeremiah’s father (Jeremiah 1-1). So the seal in the ring could also refer to that Hilkiah. Hanan, the son of this Hilkiah, would then be Jeremiah’s brother. But this kind of stab in the dark is speculative and, to my mind, a dangerous pursuit for scholars to engage in. As Dr. Elayi correctly states, “Certainty will surely elude us.”
Although the identification of someone in the Bible with the name on this beautiful seal ring thus remains conjectural, nevertheless it was Elayi’s article in BAR that led me—quite accidentally—to make the sixth, and latest, identification.

In the course of developing her arguments, Elayi referred to two genealogical lists of high priests who officiated at the Jerusalem Temple. These lists record that Hilkiah’s son and successor as high priest was one Azariah (1 Chronicles 6-13 [5-39 in Hebrew], 9-11). This Hilkiah and Azariah are also stated to be the great-grandfather and grandfather of Ezra (Ezra 7-1).

I read about these genealogical lists in Elayi’s BAR article, but paid no particular attention. Apparently, however, the data remained dormant in my mind. Several months later I reread Shiloh’s publication of the 51 bullae he had found in the City of David excavation. I was preparing to guide some groups in Jerusalem and I wanted to bone up on my facts. To my amazement, I noticed that bulla number 27 in Shiloh’s list bore the inscription- “Belonging to Azaryahu/son of Hilkiyahu.” Here, apparently, was the seal impression of Ezra’s grandfather, a high priest in Jerusalem in the late seventh century B.C.E., the man who was the son and successor of the high priest Hilkiah, whose discovery of the scroll of law led to Josiah’s religious reforms.

I frantically began to check and recheck the Bible, concordances, Biblical encyclopedias, Shiloh’s excavation report and Elayi’s article to make sure there was no mistake. Shiloh himself was unfortunately dead, so I could not consult him. I did speak, however, with colleagues at the Institute of Archaeology, and when they confirmed my identification, I felt comfortable in publishing it.10
If my supposition is correct, this bulla, impressed with the seal of Azariah, contains the names of two high priests, Azariah (Azaryahu) and Hilkiah (Hilkiyahu). But are these the same people mentioned in the Bible?

Professor Avigad has formulated three conditions that should be met before an identification can be made. First, the names must be the same and in the same relationship—for example father and son—in the seal (or seal impression) and in the Bible. Second, the chronologies must match; that is, the seal (or seal impression) must be dated to the same time period in which the Biblical personality lived. Third, “if a title of some sort accompanied the names, so much the better.”11

The seal impression on the bulla of Azariah son of Hilkiah meets the first two requirements- son and father are the same on the bulla and in the Bible. The chronologies also fit—both the bulla and the Biblical context are securely dated to the period before the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, the bulla by a stratified context in a carefully controlled excavation.

Another factor that bears on the identification, it seems to me, is that the bulla of Gemariah son of Shaphan was also found in this hoard. From the Bible, we know that Shaphan was the royal scribe and Hilkiah was high priest in 622 B.C.E.- “And Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the scribe ‘I have found a book of Teaching [Deuteronomy, according to modern critics] in the House of the Lord’” (2 Kings 22-8). Azariah, son of Hilkiah, must therefore have served as high priest sometime between 622 and 587/586 B.C.E., when the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. According to Jeremiah 36, Gemariah, son of Shaphan, was in office in 605/604 B.C.E., 20 years before the destruction of the Temple. So both Biblically and archaeologically, Gemariah, the son of Shaphan, and Azariah, son of Hilkiah, were contemporaries. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the bullae of both were found in the same hoard.

Since no events are ascribed to him, we unfortunately know nothing of Azariah, the high priest. My guess—and it is only that—is that Azariah went into exile in 597 B.C.E.-

“King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon advanced against the city Jerusalem], while his troops were besieging it. Thereupon King Jehoiachin of Judah surrendered to the king of Babylon, along with his mother, his courtiers, his commanders and his officers…He [the king of Babylon] carried away all Jerusalem, and all the commanders, and all the warriors…and he carried away Jehoiachin to Babylon; and the king’s mother, the king’s wives, his officials, and the chief men of the land, he took into captivity from Jerusalem to Babylon” (2 Kings 24-11–12, 14–15).

I suspect Azariah was in this band.

The weak link in my identification of Azariah and Hilkiah as the high priests of the late First Temple period is the popularity of both these names in the Bible and on seals and bullae.12 There are eight Hilkiahs and 29 Azariahs in the Bible.

Alas, the bulla of Azariah does not bear a clinching title like “priest.” Had there been one, however, the good fortune of making this discovery would not have been left to me. It would have been immediately obvious to others. Nevertheless, I feel that the evidence—the Biblical association of these four names (Azariah and Hilkiah, Gemariah and Shaphan) corresponding to their archaeological proximity in the same hoard, from the same time and place and in a scientifically controlled excavation—compel a positive identification of the four names on these two bullae with their four Biblical namesakes.

I wish to dedicate this article to my mother, Mrs. Freda Schneider, of Montreal, Canada. Thanks to Alon de Groot and Donald Ariel for obtaining the Yardeni drawings, and to Yair Shoham for his consent to their publication.

a. B.C.E. (Before the Common Era). used by this author, is the alternate designation corresponding to B.C. often used in scholarly literature.

b. See Hershel Shanks, “Jeremiah’s Scribe and Confidant Speaks from a Hoard of Clay Bullae,” BAR 13-05.

c. In ancient Hebrew names, the theophoric suffix -yahu(why) sometimes appears as -yah (hy). Both are hypocristic, or shortened, forms of Yahweh (hwhy). The first eliminates the last letter (in Hebrew), and the second eliminates the last two letters. In English the suffix -yah, or -yahu, is transliterated as -iah.

d. B.C.E. (before the Common Era), used by this author, is the alternate designation corresponding to B.C. often used in scholarly literature.

e. See Josette Elayi, “Name of Deuteronomy’s Author Found on Seal Ring,” BAR 13-05.

1. Nachman Avigad, “Baruch the Scribe and Yerahme’el the King’s Son,” Israel Exploration Journal (IEJ) 28 (1978), p. 52.

2. Avigad, “On the Identification of Persons Mentioned in Hebrew Epigraphic Sources,” Eretz Israel 19 (1987), pp. 235–237 (in Hebrew).

3. Avigad, “Baruch the Scribe” p. 53. Also, Avigad, Hebrew Bullae from the Time of Jeremiah- Remnants of a Burnt Archive (Jerusalem- Israel Exploration Society, 1986), pp. 28–29.

4. J.M. Ward, “Baruch,” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville- Abingdon, 1962), vol. 1, p. 361; J. Muilenburg, “Jeremiah the Prophet,” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary, vol. 2, p. 832; Avigad, “Baruch,” in Encyclopedia Biblica (Jerusalem- Bialik, 1954) vol. 2, cols. 337–338 (in Hebrew).

5. Avigad, Hebrew Bullae, p. 13.

6. Yigal Shiloh, “A Group of Hebrew Bullae from the City of David,” IEJ 36 (1986), p. 33.

7. Avigad, “Baruch the Scribe,” p. 56, and “The Seal of Seraiah, Son of Neriah,” Eretz Israel 14 (1978), pp. 86–87 (in Hebrew).

8. John Bright, Jeremiah, Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY- Doubleday, 1965), p. 210.

9. Avigad, “On the Identification of Persons,” p. 237.

10. Tsvi Schneider, “Azaryahu Son of Hilkiyahu (Priest?) on a City of David Bulla,” Qadmoniot 81–82 (1988), p. 56 (in Hebrew) and IEJ 38 (1988), pp. 139–141.

11. Avigad, “On the Identification of Persons,” p. 235.

12. Twenty years ago, Avigad published a seal of unknown origin, bearing the same two names being discussed. It read “Azariyahu/Hilkiyahu.” His commentary said simply that both these names were common and there was nothing to add. There is no connection between this seal and the City of David bulla except the names. The seal Avigad published lacks the usual “Belonging to” or “son of” See “Six Ancient Hebrew Seals,” in Sefer Shmuel Yeivin (Jerusalem- Qiryat Sefer, 1970), p. 307 and plate 4-1/A (in Hebrew).