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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive A Royal Dignitary - Or a "Royal" Disappointment? Who's Who in Biblical Texts and Ancient Inscriptions

CORRECTION: A "Royal" Disappointment In the second part of this article, under the heading "Example" and subheading "IDs 3, 4, and 5," the IDs of the biblical Baruch and of his father Neriah are now disqualified, because the two matching bullae in which they were made have been demonstrated to be forgeries. That reduces the maximum possible number of IDs described in this article to five, no longer seven. The minimum number of valid IDs in this article remains at two, because only the first two IDs described in the article are made in an inscription of known provenance (origin or place of discovery). The remaining three possible IDs mentioned in this article are found in bullae that appeared on the antiquities market.

It might be a surprise, but it should not be at all shocking to learn that an unprovenanced inscription (i.e., an inscription whose origin is unknown) has turned out to be a forgery. In the two bullae that read, "Belonging to Berekyahu, son of Neriyahu, the scribe," the problem is in the third line, which consists only of the word hspr, meaning "the scribe." There the relative height of the letter samekh (s) followed by pe (p) in hspr is wrong: both letters are almost exactly the same height. Paleographer Christopher A. Rollston has pointed out that in every place where these two letters appear next to each other in this order in provenanced inscriptions, however, "samekh is substantially higher than the pe that follows, and normally the samekh towers over pe" (see his excellent article, "Non-Provenanced Epigraphs I: Pillaged Antiquities, Northwest Semitic Forgeries, and Protocols for Laboratory Tests," Maarav 10 (2003): 161, which points out the same error in two other forged inscriptions: the "three shekels" ostracon and the "Jehoash" tablet). Rollston makes a very strong case, because he bases it on a dozen examples of these two letters in sequence in Old Hebrew inscriptions from several time periods and locations.

Lawrence J. Mykytiuk
Purdue University

When you see the article or photograph, your eyes cannot leave the page for long. Your lips may slowly, silently form the word: Wow. Here is an inscription from a biblical time and place that seems to refer to someone mentioned in the Bible. You have experienced the wow factor.

Where are biblical persons named? Their names appear on ancient monuments, on their personal seals, in impressions made by their seals, and on pieces of broken pottery. Personal seals are small, rounded pieces of semiprecious stone or other hard material, with a drawing and/or the name of the seal owner carved on them, usually along with other identifying information. Impressions from personal seals appear on some jar handles and on bullae (singular, bulla). Bullae are seal-impressed lumps of dried clay affixed to official documents to seal them shut and to record the names of verifying witnesses.

We now have the names of more than 1,200 preexilic Hebrew persons from inscriptions of that era—plus many names from later eras and other biblical peoples. Yet despite this abundance of inscriptions, making a biblical identification (here abbreviated ID) in them is not easy.


To attempt to identify a biblical person in an extrabiblical inscription is to accept a number of challenges, direct or subtle:

1. The wow factor can cloud one's judgment, leading one to think that a biblical person is named in an inscription, when the basis might be decidedly flimsy.

2. Some people overcorrect for the wow factor. Insufficient background knowledge to feel confident in making an ID—or simple reluctance—might cause a researcher to stop short of making a perfectly warranted ID.

3. Frequently, there is not enough information in the inscription, in Scripture, or in both, to make an ID. Among the many thousands of people in Syria-Palestine, inevitably some had the same name, which in their cultures was usually one word. Therefore, an ornate seal inscribed only "Jezebel" did not necessarily belong to the biblical Jezebel, King Ahab's queen. Perhaps it belonged to another wealthy woman who happened to have the same name.

4. It is difficult to keep track of the many factors in a systematic way (see 8 below). Making an ID involves many kinds of questions. From which ancient people does the inscription come? Does it come from the time of the biblical person, or another time? Is the inscription known to be authentic, or might it be a forgery?

5. Because we are only gradually learning more about ancient texts, a particular ID might later be shown to be mistaken. A seal ring excavated in 1940 was thought to bear the name of the biblical Jotham, the son of Uzziah, king of Judah. But this "Jotham" turned out to be a commoner likely named Yatom, "orphan"—a "royal" disappointment! In 1978, Larry Herr found that the letter-shapes were Edomite (possibly Moabite) and that the seal was made a century after King Jotham.

6. Another difficulty is how names in one language, such as Hebrew, were rendered in another language, such as Akkadian. Records of Babylonian prison rations given to "ia-ku-ú-ki-nu," king of "KUR ia-ku-du" (in Akkadian) list food items provided to the captive King Jehoiachin of Judah. Fortunately his identity is clear, but these records give his name various pronunciations and spellings.

7. It is hazardous to attempt to use ancient drawings that sometimes accompany ancient writings in order to identify someone. A major difficulty (pointed out by Josette Elayi) is that the figure in the drawing is not necessarily the person named in the accompanying inscription. The royal image could have been used simply to signify authority, somewhat as official letterhead stationery does in our day.

8. In making IDs there is an ever-present temptation to "fly by the seat of one's pants." As a safeguard against creating criteria extemporaneously, one needs a basic set of objective criteria and the will to apply them. Before 1985, there was no objective method spelled out, by which potential IDs could be evaluated. In 1985 and 1987, two methods emerged (Bordreuil's, then Avigad's), but these are only applicable in very limited circumstances. Learning from both, I attempted to fill the void by formulating a system that keeps track of all factors and can be applied to any potential ID in any Northwest Semitic inscription, sorting IDs and non-IDs into several grades of strength or weakness (under "Further Reading" below, see Avigad, Bordreuil, and Mykytiuk).

9. A deep-seated problem in comparing recovered artifacts with biblical texts is circular reasoning. When the foundations of ancient Near Eastern archaeological research were being laid during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, archaeologists used the Bible as their most important source of information. Little else was available. This archaeological enterprise came to be one of "the book and the spade." As a result, biblical data, biblical assumptions, etc., now permeate this field of study. When one consciously or unconsciously uses this biblical input to interpret excavated objects and writings, "the deck is stacked." Predetermined modern factors bias results in favor of supposed "confirmations" of the Bible in terms of history, religion, etc.

In the attempt to be objective, no one is going to completely rid Near Eastern archaeology of biblical influence anytime soon (even if that were seen as a desirable goal). Rather, when interpreting and evaluating discoveries that might tend to confirm or discount things to which biblical texts refer, one helpful method (used, e.g., by Klaas Smelik) is to interpret discoveries first in light of other discoveries, as much as possible without biblical input. Only then should they be compared with biblical texts.


Despite the problems that must be overcome in order to discern valid, invalid, and ambiguous IDs, the results can be very worthwhile.

1. Reliable IDs of biblical persons in extrabiblical inscriptions can provide firm extrabiblical historical points which anchor a narrative to a particular situation in the past, establishing the plausibility of the account by means of ancient evidence in addition to the ancient biblical text. Such evidence in what historians call primary sources (materials from "then and there," usually written by participants, eyewitnesses or their associates) is of great importance in writing histories and Bible commentaries.

2. Most brief texts on seals and bullae cannot verify the actions included in a narrative. Nevertheless, they can provide extrabiblical evidence that a biblical person existed and, in some instances, that he or she was in a position to do what the biblical narrative says he or she did.

3. Some longer inscriptions on monuments mention both the names and the deeds of biblical persons, notably monarchs. Some of these attributed actions can be compared with those mentioned in biblical texts. A specific event sometimes provides a way to identify the persons involved.

4. IDs can serve as one way to link biblical chronology with persons and events in the world of the Bible.

5. Paleographers (experts in ancient writing) might be able to use certain IDs to determine when certain letter-shapes were used and use these to date other writings.

6. Any false notions based on mistaken IDs can be exposed.


Inscriptional IDs of biblical persons sometimes form clusters in certain biblical episodes. Of at least nine such clusters in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), one is found in Jeremiah 36, regarding the readings of an early scroll of Jeremiah and resulting events.

IDs 1 and 2

Archaeological excavations during 1982 in the city of David, the most ancient section of Jerusalem, unearthed a bulla from a public archive in which one can reliably identify a royal official, Gemariah (Jeremiah 36:10-12, 25), and his father, Shaphan the scribe (vv. 10-12, also mentioned repeatedly in 2 Kings 22). The inscription reads, "Belonging to Gemaryahu, the [so]n of Shaphan." (Both here and below, the slightly different spellings are normal variant forms of the same name.) This ID is strengthened by the fact that the bulla that bears this seal impression was excavated within about 250 yards of the locations at which the book of Jeremiah places Shaphan's son Gemariah (and at which the book of 2 Kings places Shaphan).

IDs 3, 4, and 5

Most experienced epigraphers (specialists in inscriptions) are convinced that the next three bullae are authentic. Two bullae from the same seal of Baruch (who is mentioned frequently in Jeremiah 36:4-32) and one bulla from the seal of Jerahmeel (v. 26) offer virtually certain IDs of three more persons: Baruch, his father Neriah (vv. 4, 8, 14, 32), and Jerahmeel. All three IDs are strengthened by the fact that the first-known bulla from Baruch's seal (the second became known years later) and the bulla from Jerahmeel's seal appeared in the same group of bullae that were apparently dug up together. As scholars have observed, both men are named in the same episode in Scripture and in the same lot of bullae.

The bullae made from Baruch's seal read, "Belonging to Berekyahu, the son of Neriyahu, the scribe." Jeremiah 36:32 almost exactly matches this identifying phrase with "Baruch, the son of Neriyahu, the scribe." (Baruch is a normal variant of the full form of the same name, Berekyahu.) Here the title "scribe" does not just describe a general occupation. Especially on a personal seal or bulla, as in this instance, it is an official, governmental title granted to a very high official in the royal administration. Doubtless after his seal was made, Baruch fell out of royal favor; he allied himself with the prophet Jeremiah, perceived by some to be a pro-Babylonian traitor. Still, having borne such a title, Berekyahu/Baruch would have easy access to the official workspaces of his former colleagues, where Jeremiah 36:9-19 places him.

The impression from Jerahmeel's seal reads, "Belonging to Jerahmeel, the king's son," exactly matching the identifying phrase in Jeremiah 36:26, "Jerahmeel, the king's son." The significance of the title, "the king's son," has received considerable scholarly discussion. It seems to have been used by physical descendants of the king who were entrusted with specific responsibilities in royal service, such as assignment to the royal security force. Thus, according to the titles on the bullae and the precisely matching titles in Scripture, both men had been placed in administrative positions which enabled them to carry out the actions attributed to them in Jeremiah 36.

IDs 6 and 7?

A more recently published bulla, which at least one international expert, André Lemaire, judges to be authentic, reads, "Belonging to Tsidqiyahu, the son of Hanani." One can reasonably hold that it refers to Zedekiah and his father, Hananiah (Jeremiah 36:12). The names on the bulla are normal variants of the Hebrew names rendered Zedekiah and Hananiah in English Bibles. Although this potential ID is reasonable, it remains unresolved, because the inscription does not supply enough data to make the ID certain or to disqualify it. Other potential IDs in other inscriptions are only remotely possible and remain speculative.

All told, the above inscriptions provide reliable IDs of five persons (perhaps seven, but probably no more) mentioned in one short episode in the book of Jeremiah. The particulars of this evidence deserve some reflection. Five to seven of the participants in biblically narrated events of 2,600 years ago are specifically named in independent documents on clay from during their lifetimes. Of these, two bear titles which in the bullae and in the chapter are exact matches. These titles indicate that their bearers were in a position to take precisely the job-related actions that the chapter alleges they did. This contemporary documentation, now available after more than two-and-a-half intervening millennia, certainly strengthens the historical credibility of Jeremiah 36, as such IDs would strengthen that of any ancient text.

Lawrence Mykytiuk, Ph.D., Hebrew and Semitic Studies, author of Identifying Biblical Persons in Northwest Semitic Inscriptions of 1200-539 B.C.E. (listed below), is Associate Professor of Library Science, History Bibliographer, and Reference Librarian at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana.

Further Reading

Avigad, Nahman. "On the Identification of Persons Mentioned in Hebrew Epigraphic Sources" (in Hebrew). Eretz-Israel 19 (Michael Avi-Yonah Volume, 1987): 235-37, English summary 79*.

For an English translation of the final paragraph, which lists Avigad's ID criteria fully, see Mykytiuk, Identifying Biblical Persons, page 28.

Avigad, Nahman, and Benjamin Sass. Corpus of West Semitic Stamp Seals. Jerusalem: The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Israel Exploration Society, and The Institute of Archaeology, The Hebrew University, 1997.

Bordreuil, Pierre. "Inscriptions sigillaires ouest-sémitiques, III: Sceaux de dignitaires et de rois syro-palestiniens du VIIIe et du VIIe siècle avant J.-C." Syria 62 (1985): 21-29.

For a description of Bordreuil's ID method in English, see Mykytiuk, Identifying Biblical Persons, pages 15-17

Mykytiuk, Lawrence J. Identifying Biblical Persons in Northwest Semitic Inscriptions of 1200-539 B.C.E. Society of Biblical Literature Academia Biblica 12. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature (paperback), and Leiden: Brill (cloth), in press.

Schneider, Tsvi. "Six Biblical Signatures: Seals and Seal Impressions of Six Biblical Personages Recovered." Biblical Archaeology Review 17, no. 4 (July/August 1991): 26-33.

Citation: Lawrence J. Mykytiuk, " A Royal Dignitary - Or a "Royal" Disappointment? Who's Who in Biblical Texts and Ancient Inscriptions ," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited July 2004]. Online:


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