Jezebel’s Seal: Round Two

This is an update on my post for International Women’s Day regarding Jezebel and her seal. If you recall, a recent article by Lawrence Mykytiuk (Associate Professor of Library Science at Purdue University), “50 People in the Bible Confirmed Archaeologically” did not mention any women on the list. I posted a comment on the Biblical Archaeology Society (BAS) site lamenting the missing women. Not realizing that my comment disappeared into the ether zone, I thought BAS and Professor Mykytiuk disregarded my attempt to participate in the discussion. So I must apologize for the indignation I expressed in my post.

Once the web editor of BAS discovered that my remarks never made it to the comments section, he encouraged me to resubmit. Second time around, I wrote:

“I note that all 50 of the historical figures mentioned are men. That got me wondering why Jezebel didn’t make the list. A BAR article about her signet seal written by M. Korpe, “Fit for a Queen: Jezebel’s Royal Seal” outlines the basis for determining that the artifact belonged to the much-despised queen. Sure it came from a private collection (and therefore unprovenanced) but as Korpe mentions, only about 10% of ancient near eastern seals come from archaeological excavations. For many scholars, the lack of a “paper trail” for artifacts does not necessarily relegate them to the dustbin.”

Professor Mykytiuk has received a lot of responses to his article and I mentioned that I’m impressed with the time and care he has taken to replying to everyone’s comments. And I’m no exception. I actually got two responses from him. Here’s the first one.

“Yes, it is disappointing that no woman in the Hebrew Bible is among the 50 identifications confirmed in Bible-era inscriptions. (You are probably already aware of some of the following, but please be patient, knowing that others will need to read it to understand the issues.)

The short answer is that I could not use the seal of Jezebel for a firm identification, because it is from the antiquities market and therefore could be a forgery.

The archaeological record is haphazard in that only a small percentage of available sites have been excavated, and typically a given site is only partly dug. (What if they had dug two feet to the left? What did they just barely miss?) As you drive past the mounds left by ancient cities in Israel, you may see narrow trenches in the side, while the rest of the mound is untouched. The digging season is short, and excavation is painstaking work. Archaeologists often put forth heroic efforts, but the task is immense. Avraham Biran dug at Tel Dan for _25_years_ before the first “House of David” stele fragment was accidentally discovered by the team’s surveyor, Ms. Gila Cook, in 1993.

To complicate matters, some authentic, ancient artifacts are recovered by clandestine, illegal digging conducted by profiteers. They then sell these items to antiquities market vendors, who mix these authentic pieces in with plenty of forgeries, and put them all up for sale, together. Another twist is that some authentic pieces are altered, perhaps by adding writing, in hope of bringing in a higher price (these are technically called fakes).

Of course, it is risky to buy anything on the antiquities market. As Prof. Nili S. Fox of Hebrew Union College, whose published dissertation I used in mine, has emphasized, if an item is of unknown origin (provenance) it cannot be used to draw conclusions. It could be a forgery or a fake.

That’s why I have not used items of unknown provenance to make identifications–unless there was some reliable way to know that they are authentic.
I have used 2 unprovenanced seals for the identification of the biblical Uzziah, king of Judah. They were purchased on the antiquities market in 1858 and 1863, long before anyone, scholar or forger, knew what letter shapes were used in the time of Uzziah. Yet scholars who know how the shapes of Hebrew letters changed over the centuries assure us that the letter shapes fit right in with that century. The same argument supports the authenticity of the Mesha Inscription, in which one can confidently identify the biblical Omri, king of the northern kingdom of Israel, and the biblical aMesha, king of Moab.

The seal of Jezebel appeared on the antiquities market and was published in 1964, long after correct Phoenician letter shapes were known (She was a Sidonian princess who married Ahab, king of Israel). Therefore, a forger could easily have used the correct letter shapes. Also, since the letters that spell the name, YZBL, are inserted among the artistic decorations that fill most of the face of the seal, their odd placement makes the seal seem possibly to be a fake.
Nahman Avigad, who published the seal of Jezebel, was arguably the dean of Hebrew epigraphy (the study of inscriptions). In his article, Nahman Avigad, “The Seal of Jezebel,” Israel Exploration Journal 14 (1964); 274-276, he stated on p. 275, “Obviously our seal was not manufactured with any intention of inserting an inscription. . . . The four Phoenician characters are widely dispersed among the emblems . . . . The vertical stroke of the third letter converges, for want of space, with the border line of the seal.

On the same page, he states: “Jezebel is known from the Bible . . . (1 Kings 16:31). There is, of course, no basis for identifying the owner of our seal with this famous lady, although they may have been contemporaries, and the seal seems worthy of a queen.”

I arrived at the list of 50 persons above with the intention of composing a nucleus of strong identifications that would stand the test of time. Clearly, I could not use the seal of Jezebel which could be a forgery or a fake.

Other reasons for not making the identification between the Jezebel of the seal and Jezebel, Queen of Israel, appear in Christopher A. Rollston, “Rollston responds to Shanks,” available free online at http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/uncategorized/rollston-responds-to-shanks/ .
In the quotation from Rollston below, I have put square brackets [ ] around my clarifying comments to separate them from Rollston’s words, The other names he mentions belong to experts in ancient inscriptions of Syria-Palestine:

“(5) Regarding the Yzbl seal. (a) There is no patronymic [father’s name–LM]. (b) There is no title. [Seals were the customary place where dignitaries listed their titles.–LM] (c) [author Marjo C.] Korpel restores a letter to get the reading she wants…in spite of the fact that there are other good options (see my article at http://www.asor.org). (d) I would not be inclined to date the script to the 9th century. [Jezebel ruled in the 9th century, ca. 873-852 B.C.E.–LM] (e) I am aware of no epigraphic Old Hebrew seal or bulla from a scientific expedition that was found in a 9th century context. See the comments of A. Mazar at http://www.asor.org in this connection as well. In addition, I have talked with Helene Sader and she has stated that she is not aware of any epigraphic Phoenician seal or bulla that has been found in a 9th century context in Lebanon. The earliest provenanced Aramaic epigraphic glyptics are arguably the Hamat materials (so Alan Millard, and I concur). (f) The Shema Seal from Megiddo has normally been considered 8th century, rather than 9th. See Sass-Avigad for a discussion of the literature.”

To clarify, “Sass-Avigad” is currently the major publication of most seals and seal impressions of Israel, Judah, and their near neighbors (Moab, Edom, Aram, etc.):
Nahman Avigad and Benjamin Sass, _Corpus of West Semitic Stamp Seals_ (Jerusalem: The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Israel Exploration Society, and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, The Institute of Archaeology, 1997).

Sorry for such a long post, Robin, but your question is important, and the issues take a bit of explanation.”

Given Professor Mykytiuk’s reading proficiency in Aramaic, Canaanite dialects, Greek, Hebrew, Phoenician, Syriac, and Ugaritic languages, I am going to let the good doctor have the last word on the subject of Jezebel’s seal. Here’s his second response to my comment.

“Yes, your comment is quite right that, “as Korpe[l] mentions, only about 10% of ancient near eastern seals come from archaeological excavations. For many scholars, the lack of a ‘paper trail’ for artifacts does not necessarily relegate them to the dustbin.”

First, Prof. Marjo C. A. Korpel’s estimate of 10% seems about right, estimating the percentage from Avigad and Sass, _Corpus of West Semitic Seals_. It has been documented that this relatively small percentage was troubling to Avigad.

Second, because items that have appeared on the antiquities market, whose actual origin is unknown, _might_ be authentic, they should not be ignored and must not be consigned “to the dustbin.”

Although I regard items from the antiquities market as generally untrustworthy, I can honestly say that I have not relegated them to the dustbin.

Prof. Korpel’s easily stated remark, which she has applied to the one inscription in question, has proven somewhat labor-intensive to put into practice. I covered 78 inscriptions from the antiquities market in my published dissertation. First, I went though all or almost all relevant publications to identify them, then I researched them further in the literature. Then I analyzed these 78 marketed inscriptions, subjecting them to the eleven criteria that I had previously formulated (building in part on a short article in modern Hebrew by Avigad). My detailed examinations of 9 of these unprovenanced inscriptions are there for all to see in IBP, chapter 4, pp. 153-196 (44 pages of technical writing). Also in IBP, Appendix B, pp. 211-243, expands the scope of chapter 4′s coverage by listing and evaluating all 78 inscriptions that I labeled “Marketed,” meaning that they are from the antiquities market.

Thus I have not ignored these inscriptions. I just don’t consider them authentic unless their authenticity, hence their reliability, can be demonstrated.”

3 thoughts on “Jezebel’s Seal: Round Two

  1. Thank you, Robin, for your very kind update. This is really nice of you.

    I had no idea that you would post my whole, too-lengthy responses from the BAR web site. But again, thank you for considerately including these.

    A True Confession:
    My first major error in writing about identifying biblical persons in Bible-era inscriptions was to use an inscription from the antiquities market as a prominent example, instead of choosing a reliable, provenanced inscription.

    Chris Rollston, a rising international leader in the study of inscriptions of the ancient Levant, wrote a review of my book that pointed out this error (Christopher A. Rollston, review of _Identifying Biblical Persons in Northwest Semitic Inscriptions of 1200-539 B.C.E._, by Lawrence J. Mykytiuk, _Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research_ no. 345 [February 2007]: pp. 82-83 ).

    Thus, in the premier scholarly journal of archaeology, I learned my lesson rather publicly, but well.

    On a more positive note, you have motivated me to search through Avigad and Sass, _Corpus of West Semitic Stamp Seals_ (Jerusalem 1997) to have another look at seals of women and hopefully to find some of known provenance. If any are provenanced, I don’t think they will be of women named in the Bible, but rather they will be from Bible times, in or near ancient Israel or Judah.

    Lawrence Mykytiuk

  2. Robin, you might find a course syllabus for “Women in the Hebrew Bible” to be of interest, if only to sample the assigned books. The syllabus I just noticed was written by Prof. Seth Sanders, who teaches that course at Trinity College, in Connecticut. It’s posted on the web site of Academia.edu at https://www.academia.edu/6571592/Women_in_the_Hebrew_Bible_syllabus .

    Seth Sanders has an excellent reputation in the field, partly for his book, _The Invention of Ancient Hebrew_, which has received enthusiastic reviews and seems to take a refreshingly new approach–not bad in a field which is millennia old.

    Best wishes,

    Lawrence Mykytiuk

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