Biblical Archeology

Recently uncovered bullae from Jeremiah's time result in an archeological first.

Larry G. Herr, Ph.D., teaches in the seminary at Philippine Union College, Caloocan City, Philippines.


In June, 1977, an article I had written regarding personal seals and sealings from the Iron Age II period (the time of the Biblical monarchy) appeared in this section of MINISTRY. At that time all that could be said about these seals and their owners was that many of the seals were inscribed with names that were the same as those of various personalities in the Bible or contained names of Biblical kings whom the seal's owner served. No positive identification with a Biblical person was possible.

For example, three different seals from three different time periods all bear the name Jeremiah. It is possible that the latest one, from the late seventh century B.C., actually belonged to the Bible prophet. However, his name seems to have been a popular one, so it is impossible to make a certain identification. Also, four different seals mention kings Jeroboam II, Ahaz, Uzziah, and Hezekiah, but only as masters of the seals' owners.

Since the 1977 article was written, however, three seals have come to light whose owners can be identified with reasonable certainty as Biblical personalities. These seals (actually two seal impressions and one seal found separately) have been recently purchased on the Jerusalem antiquities market and apparently belonged to persons mentioned in the book of Jeremiah. In addition, two other seals, information about which was previously published, can now be said, with a high degree of probability, to have belonged to Judean crown princes before they ascended the throne.

Near the end of the seventh century B.C., possibly in 605, when Nebuchadnezzar loomed on Judea's horizon, a group of papyrus scrolls from the royal Jerusalem archives were burned, leaving only the clay seal impressions, or bullae (singular: bulla), that had sealed them. Fortunately, the heat of the fire baked them and saved them for posterity. It is from this hoard of bullae that the three Biblical identifications have been made. Archeologists are uncertain of the exact location of the discovery because it was found by locals who evidently do not wish to give up a lucrative site to professionals.

Happily, however, the impressions have appeared on the antiquities market as a single group and soon will be published in full. In the meantime, preliminary studies of a few of the more important bullae have been published by Nahman Avigad, a recognized expert in the field (see Israel Exploration Journal, vol. 28, pp. 52-56).

The first seal (see photograph) contains three lines of Hebrew letters. The lines read Ibrkyhw/bn nryhw/hspr, meaning "Belonging to Berechiah, the son of Neriah, the scribe." When we recall Jeremiah 36:4, where Baruch the son of Neriah performed scribal duties for Jeremiah, and when we realize that Baruch is simply the informal nickname for Berechiah, there is little doubt that the seal is that of the faithful friend of the weeping prophet.

Five other seals belonging to scribes have been found, indicating that men such as Baruch were important individuals and often owned seals. Many were officers of the royal government (see 2 Kings 22:9 and Jer. 36:10, where an official scribal office seems to have been hereditary); all were respected by society for their education and abilities, which involved much more than simply writing. In New Testament times the word scribe was used to designate lawyers, as well as certain teachers of the law.

The second seal was owned by a person connected with the Judean royal court in the late seventh century B.C. It reads lyrhm'l/bn hmlk, translated "Belonging to Jerahme'el, the son of the king." This certainly must have been the Jerahme'el, "the king's son," mentioned in Jeremiah 36:26 (R.S.V.). The title "son of the king" is a well-known one, appearing both in the Bible (1 Kings 22:26; 2 Kings 15:5; Jer. 38:6; 2 Chron. 28:7) and on several seals. It probably refers to members of the royal family. Today, in English, we use the word prince in front of the person's name to designate a similar royal personality.

The names of the owners of both these bullae, Baruch and Jerahme'el, appear in Jeremiah 36. In the fourth year of Jehoiakim (605/604 B.C.), Jeremiah dictated a prophecy to Baruch, who, when he had finished writing it, took it to the Temple and read it to the worshipers. The treasonous-sounding words were reread to the king; and Jerahme'el, the king's son, who probably held a position connected with police duties (1 Kings 22:26 and Jeremiah 38:6 mention two other king's sons who held similar posts), was commanded to arrest both Jeremiah and Baruch; but with the aid of divine intervention they escaped.

The recently discovered bulla belonging to Baruch probably was not from Jeremiah's scroll burned by the king. Since Baruch was from a prominent Judean family perhaps distantly related to the throne, Avigad has suggested the possibility that he may earlier have held a court position before he joined Jeremiah, and that the bulla could have come from that period. Baruch's brother, Seraiah, was a high court official under Zedekiah (see Jer. 51:59) about twelve years after the action that occurred in Jeremiah 36.

The third inscription, unlike the pre vious two, is an original seal rather than the impression of a seal left in clay. It reads Isryhw/nryhw, meaning "Belonging to Seraiah, [the son of] Neriah." The script of this seal dates it slightly later than the preceding two bullae, or to the very end of the seventh century B.C. Thus it seems virtually certain that this was the same Seraiah, the son of Neriah, mentioned in Jeremiah 51:59-64. As Baruch's brother and thus most likely a friend to Jeremiah, and in his capacity as a court official (quartermaster), he could be used with discretion as Jeremiah's voice at court. This is precisely how Jeremiah used him. When Seraiah went to Babylon with Zedekiah on a state visit to Nebuchadnezzar's court, Jeremiah gave him a short prophecy to read to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. After reading it he was to throw the pamphlet, bound to a stone, into the Euphrates to symbolize Babylon's future fall, thus giving comfort to the exiles.

These three seals, all belonging to personalities involved in events recorded in the book of Jeremiah, provide excel lent documentation for the historicity of the narrative portions of Jeremiah's book.

Two other seals, published many years ago, can now also be assigned with some probability to Biblical personalities. The first one reads Imnsh/bn hmlk, translated "Belonging to Manasseh, the son of the king." Scholars have always been reticent to suggest that this seal belonged to King Manasseh while he was still crown prince because there could have been other princes at various times with the same name.

However, the discipline of Hebrew paleography (the study of the sequential development of writing) has become precise enough for us to date this seal somewhere near the year 700 B.C. plus or minus a generation. Such a date would be just the time young Manasseh could have had a seal inscribed for him when at the age of 12 he became coregent with Hezekiah in 697/696 B.C. (see E. R. Thiele, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, pp. 205, 206).

A second seal reads lyhw'hz/bn hmlk, translated "Belonging to Jeho'ahaz, the son of the king.'' The script of this seal is somewhat ambiguous for dating purposes, but likely it was inscribed during the last half of the seventh century B.C. If so, it could have easily belonged to Jehoahaz, son of King Josiah, before he became king. It most certainly did not belong to the Jehoahaz who ruled the northern kingdom of Israel from 814-798 B.C. The script is much too late for such an early date.

Prior to the recent discoveries re ported by Nahman Avigad, authorities agreed that not one of the hundreds of seals known belonged with certainty to a person mentioned in the Bible. This is no longer the case. We now have the seal of Baruch—his ID card, if you wish. We also have the seal of his high-ranking brother and of a princely official who may well have come in contact with Baruch. The probabilities are high, moreover, that we have the seals of two kings of Judah before they ascended the throne, while they were still crown princes.

These seals, associated so closely with the living personalities they symbolize, open new dimensions of reality in the Biblical stories concerning them.

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Larry G. Herr, Ph.D., teaches in the seminary at Philippine Union College, Caloocan City, Philippines.

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