Buried Coins: Jesus and the Parable of the Talents

Back in 2014, news broke that archaeologists digging near the Jerusalem–Tel Aviv Highway had uncovered a cache of ancient Jewish coins. The inscription and images on the 114 bronze coins allow us to date them precisely to AD 70—the exact year that the Romans conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the temple. In the midst of this turbulent time, a Jewish person saw fit to place the money in a small ceramic box and bury it for safekeeping.

“Evidently someone here feared the end was approaching and hid his property, perhaps in the hope of collecting it later when calm was restored to the region,” said one of the archaeologists involved in the excavations.

Readers of the Gospels will no doubt recall Jesus’ Parable of the Talents (Matt 25:14–30), in which a similar action occurs. In this context, a “talent” was a very large sum of money (not a special ability). The parable goes like this:

“For it is just like a man going on a journey. He called his own slaves and turned over his possessions to them. To one he gave five talents; to another, two; and to another, one—to each according to his own ability. Then he went on a journey. Immediately the man who had received five talents went, put them to work, and earned five more. In the same way the man with two earned two more. But the man who had received one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground, and hid his master’s money.

“After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. The man who had received five talents approached, presented five more talents, and said, ‘Master, you gave me five talents. Look, I’ve earned five more talents.’

“His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You were faithful over a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Share your master’s joy!’

“Then the man with two talents also approached. He said, ‘Master, you gave me two talents. Look, I’ve earned two more talents.’

“His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You were faithful over a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Share your master’s joy!’

“Then the man who had received one talent also approached and said, ‘Master, I know you. You’re a difficult man, reaping where you haven’t sown and gathering where you haven’t scattered seed. So I was afraid and went off and hid your talent in the ground. Look, you have what is yours.’

“But his master replied to him, ‘You evil, lazy slave! If you knew that I reap where I haven’t sown and gather where I haven’t scattered, then you should have deposited my money with the bankers. And when I returned I would have received my money back with interest.

“‘So take the talent from him and give it to the one who has 10 talents. For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have more than enough. But from the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. And throw this good-for-nothing slave into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” (HCSB)

The third slave in the parable does basically the same thing the owner of these newly discovered bronze coins did: bury them in the ground. Evidently it must have been a reasonably common thing to do. What’s interesting, though, is that the owner of the bronze coins buried them in the context of war. He or she was living at a time when the Jewish nation was collapsing under the onslaught of Rome’s forces. Judea was falling! In the hope of surviving the calamity, the owner buried the coins in order to come back to them at a later time.

This action helps us understand Jesus’ Parable of the Talents a little better. The dynamic at work in the parable is not merely economic investment, but rather measures taken during a time of war. Let’s unpack this.

To begin with, let’s notice the context. The parable comes near the tense culmination of Jesus’ ministry in Matthew’s Gospel. On arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus clears the moneychangers out of the temple (Matt 21:12–13). He tells the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Matt 21:33–46), in which he takes aim at the Jewish leaders, who also happened to be wealthy landowners. Jesus uses the way they would no doubt have treated recalcitrant tenants on their lands to describe what God would do to them because they were rejecting Jesus and plotting to kill him. Jesus also puts the leaders in their place when they try to trap him with the question of paying taxes to Caesar (Matt 22:15–22). In Roman-occupied Judea, the question of paying Roman taxes was an incendiary issue. But using a coin with Caesar’s image on it, Jesus beats the leadership at their own game. There are economic themes running throughout these incidents, and in all cases they point to the villainy of the nation’s leaders. They were sealing the fate of the nation.

Finally, Jesus launches a verbal attack on the leaders before he laments over the future of Jerusalem (Matt 23). Jesus unpacks this in Matthew 24, explaining that not one stone of the temple would remain upon another (Matt 24:2). The nation was heading for downfall under the current corrupt leadership, and the people would find themselves in dire circumstances.

The Parable of the Talents then comes after the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matt 25:1–13). Both parables have the theme of acting now in preparation for what’s to come. And what is to come? The nation’s downfall.

It is not all dire news, however. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus has been gathering a new people of God around himself—a remnant whose faith in him will enable them to survive as the people of God beyond the downfall of the nation. These are people who repent in the face of the coming Kingdom of God (Matt 4:17). They listen to Jesus’ words and, as it were, build their house on a rock, rather than on sand (Matt 7:24–27). When the future storm comes to pound the nation, theirs is the house that will survive. The storm was the catastrophe of AD 70, in which the nation fell and its “house” (the temple) was left desolate (Matt 23:38).

In the Parable of the Talents, we are not told the reason why the master departs and leaves his property in the keeping of his slaves. If we removed the parable from its context, we might suppose he went on a business trip. But the whole surrounding context is one of doom. It is more in keeping with the tense atmosphere of this end of the Gospel if the master were actually heading away on affairs of state or a military endeavour. Notice that as soon as Jesus finishes the parable, he discusses the Son of Man coming in all his glory to judge the nations (Matt 25:31–32). There is a clear parallel here: just as the master comes to settle affairs with his slaves, so the Son of Man comes to judge the nations. In both cases, the master figure returns in triumph. By implication, his absence is a time of tension and uncertainty.

This helps explain the actions of the third slave in the Parable of the Talents. He buries the money allotted to him because this is what many did in a time of war. This is just what the ancient owner of the bronze coins discovered under the highway in Israel did as Jerusalem was falling to the Romans in AD 70—the very event Jesus had in mind.

The slave’s actions in the parable, however, are not just lazy, but also evil (Matt 25:26). Why? Because he evidently didn’t think his master would succeed in his endeavours and return. If he had thought so, he would have put the money allocated to him to good use for the sake of his master. The other two slaves in the parable evidently had confidence in their master’s return—enough to risk the danger of flaunting money in wartime.

Civilians in the ancient world often hid their resources to prevent harassment and pillage by soldiers. That these two slaves not only put the money to good use, but even made a return suggests not merely their economic savvy, but also their bravery and loyalty in the face of adverse circumstances.

The third slave, however, does no such thing. By burying the money, he tries to keep out of danger in the hope of riding out the current adversity, surviving his master, and then taking the money for himself. The master’s unexpected return, however, puts paid (excuse the pun!) to this servants plans, exposing him as a faithless coward. The master is not angry with this slave because he expected more money from the slave to feed his own greed. He is angry because the slave had been disloyal, lacking faith in his master and seeking to take advantage of his absence for personal gain.

In the larger context of the Gospel, this parable is an indictment on the Jewish leaders—those to whom much was given. They are characterised as disloyal towards God. They had turned the temple, a house of prayer, into a bandit’s lair (Matt 21:12–13), making money off the common person and turning worship into a weapon of oppression. They failed to show the fruit that was expected of them (Matt 21:18–22). They rejected Jesus, the master figure, in order to feather their own nests. This would, however, be a profitless endeavour, for it would end with their demise. Only those who placed their confidence in Jesus would survive the coming adversity and live to share their master’s joy.

We have no way of knowing whether the person who buried the money found under the highway in Israel was a master or a slave. Nonetheless, the cache of coins demonstrates the currency (excuse the pun again!) of the imagery Jesus used to decry the leadership of his day and foretell the calamitous events of AD 70—the very events that led the person to bury that money in the hope of returning some day to collect it.

Unfortunately, that person never returned.

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This is an updated version of a post I wrote for another blog soon after the coin discovery was announced in 2014. The photo above appeared with the original news article.

Have we found the seal of the prophet Isaiah?

News comes this week of the discovery of a bulla (the clay imprint from an inscribed seal), and some are asking whether it belonged to the prophet Isaiah. The bulla was discovered in wet sifting of material taken from an excavation trench in the Ophel area of Jerusalem (just south of the temple mount). A fuller report from The Times of Israel can be found here.

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Isaiah Bulla, a 2,700-year-old clay seal impression which potentially belonged to the biblical prophet Isaiah. (Ouria Tadmor/© Eilat Mazar).

The bulla is fragmentary. In the upper register, it seems to have had a pictorial representation of some kind, though it’s hard to make out what it was. It might be something similar to the winged sun disk observable on the seal of King Hezekiah (see picture below), but there is just too much broken off to be sure.

Beneath this there are two lines of writing. The first line contains the letters לישׁעיה (lyšʿyh), which means “Belonging to Isaiah.” The name was almost certainly common in ancient Judah, so this alone does not indicate that the bulla came from the seal of Isaiah the prophet. It’s the second line that is of interest. The second line is incomplete, but the letters נבי (nby) are clearly seen at the beginning of the line. There are two things this could possibly be:

  1. It might be a name, Nabi or Nabiah (“Yahweh has prospered”) which is not found in biblical texts, but is attested outside the Bible.
  2. It might be part of the Hebrew word נביא (nbyʾ), which means “prophet.”

So which is it?

Well, first of all, a comment about the letters on the bulla. They represent good Paleo-Hebrew script that conforms with the type seen on other seals/bullae from the 8th–6th centuries BC. We can, for instance, find very similar letters on the bullae of King Hezekiah. The issue with seals and bullae, though, is that because they are so small, one doesn’t expect a huge variation in the form of letters. So a wide timeframe is the best we can do. Isaiah the prophet, though, who lived the late 8th to early 7th century BC, certainly fits into this timeframe.

Second, the bulla was found in a controlled excavation. It would be good to get more details on exactly where it was found. At present, all we know is that it was found in material taken from “an Iron Age layer close to bedrock that was near a foundation trench cut for a wall of a Herodian vault.” How we do we know the layer dates to the Iron Age? And which portion of the Iron Age did it come from?

Finally, is it likely that this is the seal of the prophet Isaiah?

Unfortunately, I don’t think so, though I can’t completely discount the possibility. I have three reasons for this.

  1. The final letter א (aleph), which would make the Hebrew noun for “prophet,” is not there. Admittedly, the bulla is broken at this point, so we can’t be sure if it was. But we just don’t know if we’re grappling with the noun for prophet, or just a name.
  2. If the second line refers to a “prophet,” it seems quite unusual that it would be missing the Hebrew definite article, which is just a single letter placed at the front of a word: הנביא (hnbyʾ). There is ample room for it. Although we do have job descriptions in the second line of seals and bullae, these always seem to be definite expressions produced by the grammatical construct state. We see this, for example, on Hezekiah’s seal, where he is named [מלכיהו[דה (mlkyhw[dh])—”the king of Judah.” But there’s nothing to indicate such a grammatical construct state here, which makes the lack of a definite article fairly glaring.
  3. It’s totally normal to have a patronym (father’s name) on the second line of a seal, even without “son of.” There seems to have been plenty of room to have included the word בן (“son of”) on this line, but it’s quite normal for it to be missing.
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Bulla of “Hezekiah, King of Judah,” with pictorial representation of a winged sun disk in the centre.

These three factors lead me to conclude that it’s more likely this is the seal of some called “Isaiah [son of] Nabi” or “Isaiah [son of] Nabiah,” than to be the seal of “Isaiah the prophet.” However, even though the lack of a definite article on the second line is significant, I can’t discount the possibility that it might be referring to a prophet in more stilted terms: “Isaiah. Prophet.” In that case, the status of the biblical prophet, Isaiah son of Amoz, especially in the royal court of Hezekiah, means this might be from his personal seal. And this makes us wonder what document he might have sealed with this bulla?

But, as I said, this is, in my estimation, the less likely interpretation. It’s possible, and certainly plausible that this is Isaiah’s seal. But I don’t think it’s probable. I think it’s the second most likely explanation. I believe in this case we simply have the seal of another, less historically illustrious Isaiah, who was the son of Nabiah.

Is the new Jerusalem Papyrus Authentic or a Forgery?

The Israel Antiquities Authority recently announced the find of a new papyrus apparently dated to c. 700 BC, which seems to mention the delivery of wine to the king in Jerusalem. While the IAA declared it genuine, I still have my doubts. And leading epigrapher, Christopher Rollston, does too. He has ten points that should make us pause and re-evaluate. You can find his brief blog article HERE.

 

Philistine Cemetery Found at Ashkelon

Excavators at the site of ancient Ashkelon have uncovered an ancient Philistine cemetery. The burials go back as far as the 11th century BC, and their style all but confirms that the Philistines originated in region of the Aegean.

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PHOTOGRAPH BY TSAFRIR ABAYOV FOR THE LEON LEVY EXPEDITION TO ASHKELON

There are few good articles about the discovery:

And here’s a short (3:21) video clip (HT: Joseph Lauer):

Aristotle’s Tomb Found

We may have just identified the ruins of the tomb that once held the ashes of the Greek philosopher, Aristotle.

aristotelAristotle was one of the most brilliant thinkers of the ancient world. He was a student of Plato (who had been a student of Socrates), and had been the tutor of Alexander the Great. He died at Chalkis in northern Greece in 322 BC, but his ashes were returned to his hometown of Stagira, where a stately building was erected to house them.

Greek archaeologist Kostas Sismanidis claims the ruins he has found have not definitely been proved to be the tomb of Aristotle. However, he claims it is the most likely identification, especially in light of the evidence of ancient sources.

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Reconstruction of the Tomb of Aristotle

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The present days ruins of the horseshoe shaped tomb.

Read more HERE and HERE.

There is also a short clip below (but please disregard the overstatement that Aristotle was the founder of Western Civilisation—there were obviously a few other Greeks to thank for that, too 😉).

Akhenaten’s Capital Recreated in HD

akhenatonIn the 14th century BC, Pharaoh Amenhotep IV initiated a religious revolution in Egypt. He introduced worship of the sun disk Aten to eclipse the worship of all the other gods of Egypt. He changed his own name to Akhenaten, and he built a new capital city, Akhetaten, in which the pure worship of Aten could take place. The temples were roofless—open to the rays of the sun disk.

When Akhenaten died, his revolution died with him. His successor, Tutankhamun (yes, that pharoah!) oversaw the reversion back to Egypt’s traditional religion. The capital city, Akhetaten was abandoned to the sands of time. Its ruins are now part of the site known as Tell el-Amarna.

Some fantastic imaging by Archéovision has recreated some of Akhenaten’s old capital city in digital form. If you can, watch the clip below in fullscreen mode and in full HD (click on the HD symbol and choose the resolution). It’s a brief but impressive recreation.

You can read a little more about this HERE.

No, those ancient Hebrew ‘sticky notes’ do not necessarily prove the Bible was written early

Christianity Today has published an article that comments on a recent study by the Epigraphic Hebrew Project examining the handwriting on some ancient Hebrew documents through digital technology. The headline reads:

Ancient Sticky Notes Shift Secular Scholars Closer to Evangelicals on Bible’s Age.

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The study itself demonstrates that the cache of sixteen documents from the remote desert outpost of Arad on the edge of the Kingdom of Judah in c. 600 BC had six distinct authors. The claim of the Christianity Today article is that this seemingly high rate of literacy in Judah’s monarchic period is forcing secular scholars to acknowledge that the biblical documents were probably written early (that is, before the exilic era). This is certainly the direction in which Walter Kaiser Jr., who is cited in the article, takes the evidence.

Unfortunately, the study that this article is commenting on doesn’t actually shift secular scholars closer to Evangelicals on the Bible’s Age. Indeed, some of the other scholars mentioned in the article (Alan Millard and Christopher Rollston) advise serious caution. There is a plethora of problems with the headline of the Christianity Today article.

First of all, there is no real agreement on the age of the ‘The Bible’ amongst anyone, be they ‘Evangelical’ or so-called ‘secular’ scholars (honestly, the division implied by that terminology is just grating!). After all, we’re talking about a stack of different documents that developed over centuries, with very few overt statements about authorship and time of writing. ‘The Bible’ wasn’t written in one go. It eventually coalesced into the collection we know today as ‘The Bible’, but exactly when the documents began their life is almost impossible to pin down.

Second, the study this article is commenting on simply shows that elite professionals in the monarchic era could write—exactly the kinds of people whom we would expect to be able to write. It doesn’t show that literacy was widespread. On the contrary, one of the documents in this collection includes a man protesting that he could read something for himself, which implies that literacy wasn’t widespread. So six individuals wrote sixteen documents! This does not mean that suddenly most people in ancient Judah could write two or three biblical books! Finding some buttons does not necessarily mean you’ve found an entire tailored suit.

But thirdly, even if literacy in the monarchic era was very widespread, this tells us nothing about when the various biblical documents were written. All it tells us is that people could write. And that’s a very different thing to knowing when these specific biblical documents were written. You see, you only need one person who knows the alphabet, owns some ink and parchment, and has some imagination, and you have yourself a document. This could be at just about any time. Why, it could be early, or it could even be late.

The study itself states that the kind of literacy levels that the Arad documents demonstrate only occurs again in c. 200 BC. The implication seems to be that it’s unlikely the biblical documents were written in the intervening period (600–200 BC) when literacy levels were lower. But there are so many problems with this inference. First, the claim relates only to the region of Judah. It says nothing about literacy levels outside of Judah. Second, the claim uses blank evidence (little apparent writing in 600–200 BC) as a warrant for reaching a positive inference (it’s unlikely the biblical documents could have been written in this period). But logically this is unwarranted. To state it another way, a lack of evidence is not necessarily evidence of lack. It could be that we just haven’t found all the other document caches like the one from Arad that date to this period. We just don’t know! Third, you don’t need most of the elite, let alone most of the population, to be reading and writing to create conditions conducive to the writing of texts like the ones in the Bible. You just need one competent literate person who can ‘put pen to paper’. And that person could write for themselves, or even for a whole group of people. One person can pen the imagination of hundreds! And fourth, since there evidently were biblical texts that were written in Judah between 600 and 200 BC (e.g. Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Ezra, Nehemiah), the very low literacy levels actually count for nothing.

So, just because a few army officials in Judah could read and write in 600 BC does not mean biblical authors wrote all the biblical documents very early on. At best, it helps establish a terminus a quo for mundane Hebrew writing in the region of Judah (which in this case is only c. 600 BC), but not an actual date for writing biblical texts. Using the same logic employed in the article’s headline, we could just as easily say that Evangelicals must shift closer to secular scholars who argue for late dates (c. 200 BC), because the evidence this study is based on is about mundane literacy at the very end of the monarchic era, and surely fine literature takes longer to develop than mundane ‘sticky notes’.

In actual fact, the literacy levels do not contribute all that much to the discussion about the dating of biblical text. That depends on numerous complex criteria. Literacy is important—you need it in order to have documents! But there are so many other criteria to consider, such as references to historical persons and events, form and genre, theological development, purpose, possible influences and their direction, redaction, transmission, preservation, manuscripts, etc. The list goes on!

Unfortunately, headlines like this one given by Christianity Today are misleading. They promote a sense of tribalism as well as wishful thinking amongst Christians, which in turn leaves Christians grasping at air but thinking they’ve grabbed something solid. It’s just not constructive. And even the headline is at odds with the comments of the two main experts cited in the article.

Surely we can serve the Christian public better than this!

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Remains of the ancient fortified outpost of Arad, Judah, where the cache of documents was found.

 

 


My good friend and colleague, Prof. Ian Young (University of Sydney), has also written a brief response to the study on the Arad documents for the Huffington Post. It’s well worth reading and can be found HERE.

Christopher Rollston’s blog article on the study can be read HERE.

 

Rome Recreated (AD 320)

Realm of History has showcased a stunning animation that recreates the city of Rome as it was in AD 320—the reign of Constantine, just before he moved the imperial capital to Constantinople. At that time, Rome was at its zenith. The animation is the fruit of a collaboration between the Rome Reborn Project and the Khan Academy. It breathes life into the ruins that lie throughout Rome today, giving a sense of the grandeur and bustle of what was once the centre of the Western World.

I’m sure you’ll find this animation fascinating. If you can, watch it fullscreen on HD 1080p.

The Only Skeletal Evidence For Crucifixion In The Ancient World

“The Romans practiced crucifixion – literally, “fixed to a cross” – for nearly a millennium. It was a public, painful, and slow form of execution, and used as a way to deter future crimes and humiliate the dying person. Since it was done to thousands of people and involved nails, you’d probably assume we have skeletal evidence of crucifixion.  But there’s only one, single bony example of Roman crucifixion, and even that is still heavily debated by experts.”

Thus writes Kristina Killgrove in a great little article for Forbes exploring the evidence for the gruesome but significant practice of crucifixion in the Roman world. In particular, she presents the only scientifically attested historical artefact of crucifixion: the heel bone of first century Jewish man, Yehohanan ben Hagkol, with nail still intact.

You can find the whole article at:

This One Bone Is The Only Skeletal Evidence For Crucifixion In The Ancient World – Forbes.

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A Seal of King Hezekiah

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem has announced the discovery of an ancient ‘bulla’ (a clay seal with a personal stamp impressed upon on it) bearing the name of Hezekiah, King of Judah. This is not the first seal bearing Hezekiah’s name to come to light. Nonetheless, it is an exciting find, especially since it was found in situ.

 

The Discovery

This particular bulla was originally found in 2009 during soil sifting at the excavations on the Ophel ridge to the immediate south of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. The soil was part of ancient garbage debris that had been dumped between buildings in the northern section of ancient Jerusalem (Iron II). Eilat Mazar, head excavator at the site, interprets a nearby building as a royal storehouse.

Excavators initially misunderstood the writing on the bulla, reading the name as ‘Hezekiah [son of] Malkiah’. It was only recently, after a second check, that the writing on the bulla was deciphered more precisely and the personal name reinterpreted.

 

The Bulla

Measuring just 13 x 12 mm, the bulla itself is small enough to rest on a fingertip. The writing is, therefore, almost microscopic. An excellent photograph by Ouria Tadmor, however, provides good resolution for analysis.

 

 

The front (obverse) is clearly stamped by a personal seal that includes writing and iconography. The rear (reverse) reportedly bears the impressions of two cords that were held in place by the bulla. This suggests the bulla probably sealed a document of some kind. Unfortunately, the document is now lost—presumably a papyrus of some kind, which probably did not survive antiquity.

 

The Writing

The obverse has two registers, one each on the upper and lower extremities of the seal. The letters are Palaeo-Hebrew, and conform to the epigraphic style we see on a number of seals that can be dated to approximately the early seventh century BC. There is some damage in the upper register, and it is difficult to make out the letters on the far left side of both registers. The words are separated by a small but discernible dot, which is a common practice.

Taking these factors into account, we can offer the following transcription (partially or fully damaged letters are in orange):

לחזקיהו.אח
ז.מלך.יהדה

Belonging to Hezekiah [son of] Ah-
az, King of Judah.

The Hebrew word for ‘son of’ (בן) is omitted. Such an omission was common practice in seals, which were too small to host many letters.

The name is clearly reconstructed to Hezekiah, son of Ahaz. More than this, he is specifically given the title ‘King of Judah’. The word ‘Judah’ appears to be incomplete. The daleth (ד) is only partially visible and the final latter, he (ה), is missing altogether. However, some of Hezekiah’s other seals clearly give the name of the kingdom of Judah in full as יהדה (yehudah). Therefore, we can be confident that the stamp itself did have the fuller spelling of ‘Judah’ on it, but this particular bulla lacks it because of the way the stamp was impressed into the clay.

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Drawing of a scarab beetle bulla of Hezekiah. The top line reads יהדה (‘Judah’), and the bottom line reads לחזקיהואחזמלך (‘belonging to Hezekiah [son of] Ahaz, king’).

 

King Hezekiah

Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, is known from both biblical and Assyrian sources. The exact dates of his reign are debated, but 715–687 BC are the most commonly espoused dates. The Bible tells us that Hezekiah’s father, Ahaz, made the kingdom of Judah a vassal to the Assyrians, against the advice of the prophet Isaiah (Isa 7–8). Ahaz did this in order to procure Assyrian help against an alliance of Damascus and Israel that was threatening him. This set the dominoes toppling that would see both Damascus and Israel fall to the Assyrian armies and be absorbed as provinces into the Assyrian imperial structure. Hezekiah may have been co-regent for a time with his father, Ahaz, but he at least reigned in his own right just after the downfall of the kingdom of Israel in 722 BC.

While Ahaz was content to be an Assyrian vassal, it appears Hezekiah was not. Instead, Assyrian sources tell us he took the political risk of meddling in Philistine affairs. The Bible portrays Hezekiah centralising his power (including the cult of Yahweh) in Jerusalem, thereby extending his sovereignty over his kingdom more directly. This provoked the ire of the Assyrian king, Sennacherib, who invaded Judah in c. 701 BC. Sennacherib claims to have destroyed 46 cities of Judah and deported their survivors. He even depicted the siege of Judah’s second largest city, Lachish, on the walls of his palace. The Bible tells us that Hezekiah tried to bribe Sennacherib with treasure from the temple in Jerusalem, and even appealed to Egypt for military help. However, all this failed. In his annals, Sennacherib claims to have cooped Hezekiah up in Jerusalem like a bird in a cage.

Surprisingly, Sennacherib did not end up taking Jerusalem. The fact that Hezekiah provoked the unrestrained wrath of Assyria, experienced the full-scale barbaric invasion of his country, which brought Judah to the very brink of destruction, only to emerge still on the throne in an unscathed Jerusalem (there is no layer of destruction or evidence of Assyrian siege in the relevant archaeological strata) with the Assyrian armies returning to Mesopotamia is perhaps one of the greatest stories of political survival against the odds in history. It’s no wonder the Bible attributes this to the divine intervention of Yahweh himself and gives Hezekiah a generally glowing report card.

 

Iconography

In the centre of the bulla is a sun disk. It emits six rays and has a set of wings that curve gently downwards in a posture of protection. The imagery of a winged sun disk is ubiquitous in the ancient Near East. It can be found in Egyptian, Assyrian, Persian, and Ptolemaic iconography. The sun usually is a cipher for the chief deity of the culture to which the owner of the seal belonged. In Assyria and Persia, the disk is often augmented with the depiction of a personal figure—the god Asshur in the case of Assyria, and the god Ahura Mazda in Persian depictions. However, no such personal depiction of a deity is seen in the sun disk here.

There are two options for interpreting the sun disk here.

First, it might be depicting the sun god, showing Egyptian influence. To that end, we note that on the right side of the bulla we see the ankh, the Egyptian symbol for life. The faint vestiges of a second ankh are just visible on the far left side of the bulla also. Hezekiah is known to have appealed to Egypt for military assistance against Sennacherib, though this was unsuccessful. Thus, in his anti-Assyrian stance, Hezekiah may well have absorbed Egyptian influence. Some of his other seals display a scarab beetle, which is clearly influence by Egyptian iconography. Furthermore, we know that in the early sixth century BC—a century after Hezekiah—the sun god was worshipped in the Jerusalem temple, though the practice is condemned in Ezekiel 8.16–18. This particular understanding of the iconography has explanatory power, though it is at odds with the biblical depictions of Hezekiah as an avowed exclusive Yahwist.

The alternative option is to understand the sun disk as a compatible cipher for Yahweh, the national deity of Israel and Judah, and patron deity of the Davidic dynasty in Jerusalem. While it is clear that Hezekiah did adopt Egyptian iconography, this does not necessitate his own worship of Egyptian deities. The compatibility of such iconography with Yahwistic religion is seen in a couple of places in the Bible. For example, Psalm 84.12 [84.11 Heb] says, ‘For sun and shield is Yahweh God; favour and glory does Yahweh give.’ In Malachi 4.2 (3.20 Heb), Yahweh declares, ‘But for those who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings’. This verse probably refers to the winged sun disk as a symbol of Persian authority, as the Persians often depicted their deity Ahura Mazda that way. The Persians were also content to identify Ahura Mazda with certain ‘compatible’ deities of their subject peoples, Yahweh being one such deity. Malachi, then, most likely sees Yahweh’s blessing on his devotees as coming through Persia’s favour. The iconography of Persia is, therefore, baptised into Yahwism in such a way that it provides a compatible cipher for Yahweh’s own favour. The iconography on this bulla may well be doing the same thing: using common Egyptian symbols in the service of Yahwism.

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Relief of a sun disk with depiction of Ahura Mazda from the ruins of Persepolis.

The press release from Dov Smith (Hebrew University, Jerusalem) suggested the two ankh signs on the bulla might be connected to Hezekiah’s recovery from a life-threatening illness, depicted in 2 Kings 20.1–8 and Isaiah 38. The logic was that Hezekiah’s earlier seals contained scarab beetles rather than a sun disk, and were devoid of any ankh signs. The sun disk is suggestive of healing (cf. Mal 4.2 [3.20] mentioned above) and the ankh is a clearly a symbol of life.

As tantalising as the suggestion is, we must urge caution. First, to my knowledge there is nothing that allows us to date the scarab bullae specifically earlier than this sun disk bulla. So the dating is speculative. However, we have only three possibilities for ordering the respective bullae: either (1) the scarab bullae are earlier; (2) the sun disk bulla is earlier; or (3) the bullae are contemporary. So the suggestion is not implausible—just uncertain. But, secondly, the dramatic survival of Hezekiah and Jerusalem in the face of Sennacherib’s invasion is just as plausible an explanation of this seal’s iconography. The symbols might even be multivalent, since Hezekiah had more than one close call in his lifetime—especially if we remember the threats to Jerusalem during the reign of his father, Ahaz. Therefore, the suggestion in the press release is not wildly speculative—it’s a plausible suggestion. However, it’s not the only one.

 

The Significance of Authenticity

This bulla is significant because it was found in situ. That is, archaeologists found it in the course of excavation in Jerusalem. This is different to the other bullae of Hezekiah, which were not found in situ, but rather turned up on the antiquities market from unknown sources. When that happens, we have no way of verifying the authenticity of these bullae, and therefore, we can only make provisional evaluations of them at best. Since this new bulla was found in situ during a controlled dig, we can be confident about its authenticity. And this allows us to say with a far greater degree of confidence that the other bullae purportedly from Hezekiah’s personal seals are probably also authentic.

Two such bullae in particular deserve mention. They are, for all intents and purposes, identical to this ‘new’ authenticated bulla, though they first came to late in the 1980s and 1990s. We have, therefore, three practically identical bullae displaying the same configuration of iconography and with the exact same inscription, and one of them is positively genuine. It’s almost certain, then, that all three are genuine. The unprovenanced bullae were discussed in an article by Robert Deutsch titled ‘Lasting Impressions: New Bullae Reveal Egyptian Style Emblems on Judah’s Royal Seals’, published in Biblical Archaeology Review 28.4 (2002), 42–51, 60.

Furthermore, the discovery of this ‘new’ bulla in the excavations at the Ophel ridge in Jerusalem confirms that we are dealing with strata related to the Judean monarchy in Iron II, and the historical significance of Hezekiah. While these were not really in serious doubt, we still see here a positive corroboration between a number of sources. The authenticity of this bulla sees a very neat intersection between ancient literary sources (Assyrian annals, the Bible) and archaeological artefacts.