Israeli archeologists have discovered a mark from a seal of the biblical King Hezekiah—and the discovery is being touted in some circles as proof of the authenticity of the biblical record.
The small circular inscription was found as part of excavations of a refuse dump at the foot of the southern wall that surrounds Jerusalem’s Old City. The clay imprint, known to archeologists as a bulla, contains ancient Hebrew script and a symbol of a two-winged sun.
According to the Bible, Hezekiah ruled around 700 B.C. and, along with King Josiah, was one of the few good kings dedicated to eliminating idolatry. 2 Kings 18:5 implies that he was without equal: “there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before him or after him.”
Eilat Mazar of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who directed the excavation, said the seal may well have been made by the king himself. It likely ended up in the dump, Mazar said, when it was tossed from an adjacent royal building. “This is,” she said, “the first time that a seal impression of an Israelite or Judean king has ever come to light in a scientific excavation.”
Mazar was quick to connect the discovery of the seal to the Bible, remarking that it presents an opportunity “to get as close as possible to… the king himself.”
But Robert Cargill, an archeologist at the University of Iowa, told me that the claims about biblical proof are overstated. “If this is a legitimate object, then it simply confirms the existence of a king named Hezekiah in Jerusalem.” That, Cargill added, is something scholars already knew from other archeological discoveries.
The story has made headlines in the British tabloids, but archeologists like Cargill are more skeptical both about the evidence itself and the potential agenda of the find. The significance of the discovery hinges on the claim that it was uncovered in its original archeological context, but the area in which it was unearthed is politically contested and archeologically compromised. The material is being sifted in the same sifting facility as another archaeological project that sifts through piles of dirt removed as part of Palestinian construction in the area. As such, Cargill said, “there’s no reason to believe that it is a forged object. The problem lies in the compromised archeological stratigraphy at the point of discovery.”
Discovering evidence of Jewish presence around the temple is a politically sensitive task. On one hand it is important to excavate the cultural heritage of Jews in Jerusalem; on the other the excavations are taking place on the Ophel, close to the city of Silwan, almost beneath the homes of the Palestinians who live there. Significant archeological discoveries in Silwan can and have been used to undermine the literal and metaphorical foundations of Palestinian claims to the area. As a result, Palestinian authorities often dismiss discoveries in the region as forgeries.
There are real arguments and legitimate points to me made on both sides. In the end, the discovery of the bulla may tell us as much about the politics of the present as it does the archeology of the past.