The Nazareth Inscription or Nazareth decree is a marble tablet inscribed in Greek with an edict from an unnamed Caesar ordering capital punishment for anyone caught disturbing graves or tombs. It is dated on the basis of epigraphy to the first half of the 1st century AD. Its provenance is unknown, but a French collector acquired the stone from Nazareth. It is now in the collections of the Louvre.
Although the text contains no reference to Jesus of Nazareth or Christianity, it has been of interest chiefly to scholars who view it as evidence for the historicity of Jesus and his resurrection (as described by Matthew 28.12–13). It can also be read in the broader context of Roman law pertaining to exhumation and reburial, mentioned also by Pliny.
Description and provenance
The marble tablet measures 24 by 15 inches, with the koine Greek inscription appearing in fourteen lines. It was acquired in 1878 by Wilhelm Fröhner (1834–1925), and sent from Nazareth to Paris. Fröhner entered the item in his manuscript inventory with the note "Dalle de marbre envoyé de Nazareth en 1878." Though indicating that the marble was sent from Nazareth, the note does not state that it was discovered there. Nazareth was a significant antiquities market in the 1870s, as was Jerusalem, and may have been "nothing more than … a shipping center" for the item. Since 1925 it has been in the Bibliothèque nationale, Paris, displayed in the Cabinet des Médailles.
EDICT OF CAESAR
It is my decision [concerning] graves and tombs—whoever has made them for the religious observances of parents, or children, or household members—that these remain undisturbed forever. But if anyone legally charges that another person has destroyed, or has in any manner extracted those who have been buried, or has moved with wicked intent those who have been buried to other places, committing a crime against them, or has moved sepulcher-sealing stones, against such a person, I order that a judicial tribunal be created, just as [is done] concerning the gods in human religious observances, even more so will it be obligatory to treat with honor those who have been entombed. You are absolutely not to allow anyone to move [those who have been entombed]. But if [someone does], I wish that [violator] to suffer capital punishment under the title of tomb-breaker.
Legal and cultural background
Violatio sepulchri ("tomb violation") was a crime under Roman law, as noted by Cicero (d. 43 BC). The Nazareth Inscription, if authentic, prescribes the death penalty for the offense. A tomb at which funeral rites had been duly performed became a locus religiosus, belonging to the divine rather than to the human realm. Roman Imperial tombstones are often inscribed with a curse (defixio) against anyone who desecrates the grave.
Scholars analyse the language and style of the Nazareth inscription, attempt to date it precisely, assess its coherence and authenticity, and discuss it in the context of tomb-robbery in antiquity. It is regarded as a significant piece of evidence for the historian of the New Testament and for Christians in general.
If the inscription was originally set up in Galilee, it can date no earlier than 44, the year Roman rule was imposed there. The location could be used to suggest that the edict was a Roman response to the Christian account of the empty tomb of Jesus, which non-believers rationalized as the disciples stealing the body and inventing the story of the Resurrection. Gaetano De Sanctis regarded the inscription as Imperial Rome's clear reaction to the empty-tomb account, and specifically as an edict of Claudius, who reigned AD 41-54. Michael Green also cites the inscription as an early secular source for the empty-tomb account. Clyde Billington has dated it to AD 41, and interpreted it as evidence for Christians preaching the resurrection of Jesus within a decade of his crucifixion.
As the original location of the stone is unknown, no clear argument can be made for the stone to be a Roman response to the empty tomb story. Zulueta dates the inscription, based on the style of lettering, to between 50 B.C. and A.D. 50, but most likely around the turn of the era. As the text uses the plural form "gods", Zulueta concluded it most likely came from the Hellenized district of Decapolis. Like Zulueta, J. Spencer Kennard, Jr. noted that the reference to "Caesar" indicated that "the inscription must have been derived from somewhere in Samaria or Decapolis; Galilee was ruled by a client-prince until the reign of Claudius". Richard Carrier also points out that the stone is not only concerned with stealing corpses, but also "moving of entire tombs and graves, which makes no sense as a concern that would arise from the mere theft of a body".
- John G. Gager, "Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World" (Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 179.
- E. Mary Smallwood, The Jews under Roman Rule from Pompey to Diocletian: A Study in Political Relations (Brill, 1976), p. 213; Alan Millard, Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus (Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), p. 110.
- Pliny, Epistles 10.68f.; C. Robert Phillips, "Approaching Roman Religion: The Case for Wissenschaftsgeschichte," in "A Companion to Roman Religion (Blackwell, 2007), p. 14.
- Bruce Manning Metzger, "The Nazareth inscription once again", in New Testament Studies: Philological, Versional, and Patristic 5 [Leiden: Brill] 1980:76ff).
- J. Spencer Kennard, Jr., "The Burial of Jesus", Journal of Biblical Literature 74.4 [December 1955:227-238], noting the coincidental connection with the burial of Jesus made by Baldensperger, Cumont and Momigliano.
- Franz Cumont, "Un réscrit impérial sur la violation de sépulture" in Revue Historique 163 1930:341-66.
- Bruce Manning Metzger, New Testament Studies: Philological, Versional, and Patristic "5: The Nazareth inscription once again" (Leiden: Brill) 1980:77ff. Metzger gives a summary of discussion among New Testament scholars and ancient historians alike.
- Walter E. Elwell and Philip W. Comfort, Tyndale Bible Dictionary (Tyndale, 2001), p. 939.
- Clyde E. Billington, "The Nazareth Inscription: Proof of the Resurrection of Christ?" in Artifax, Spring 2005
- SEG 8:13
- Donald G. Kyle, Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome (Routledge, 1998), pp. 143–144, citing Cicero, De Legibus 3 and Digest 47.12.
- Gaius, Inst. II.3, 6, 9; Clust. 3.44.2; Kyle, Spectacles of Death, p. 144, with additional citations of modern scholarship.
- Kyle, Spectacles of Death, p. 144.
- These are the headings that are explored in Metzger 1980, with reference to the history of the considerable literature on the Nazareth inscription.
- Smallwood, The Jews under Roman Rule, p. 213.
- Smallwood, The Jews under Roman Rule, p. 213.
- Bruce Metzger,″New Testamentand Tools and Studies Vol. 10,1980:89(Brill)
- Henry J.Cadbury,″The Book of Acts in History″ 1955:117(Harper).
- Green, Man Alive, 1968:36: "It is an imperial edict, belonging either to the reign of Tiberius (A.D. 14-37) or of Claudius (A.D. 41-54). And it is an invective, backed with heavy sanctions, against meddling around with tombs and graves! It looks very much as if the news of the empty tomb had got back to Rome in a garbled form. (Pontius Pilate would have had to report: and he would obviously have said that the tomb had been rifled). This edict, it seems, is the imperial reaction."
- Clyde E. Billington, "The Nazareth Inscription: Proof of the Resurrection of Christ?" (2005).[full citation needed]
- F. de Zulueta, "Violation of Sepulture in Palestine at the Beginning of the Christian Era," Journal of Roman Studies 22 (1932), pp. 184-97
- Kennard 1955:232.
- "The Nazareth Inscription: Proof of the Resurrection of Christ?" by Clyde E. Billington, 2005[dead link]
- "The Nazareth Inscription" by Richard Carrier, 2000