Nazareth Inscription

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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.[1] 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.[2]

The text is read by scholars in the context of Roman law pertaining to exhumation and reburial, mentioned also by Pliny.[3] Although the text contains no reference to Jesus of Nazareth, it has been of interest to some scholars who view it as evidence for the historicity of Jesus.

Description and provenance[edit]

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,[4] and may have been "nothing more than … a shipping center" for the item.[5] Since 1925 it has been in the Bibliothèque nationale, Paris, displayed in the Cabinet des Médailles.

The inscription, with a facsimile, was published in 1930 by Franz Cumont,[6] who had been alerted to it by Rostovtseff.[7]


The inscription is composed in "rather poor Greek".[8] Clyde E. Billington provides the following English translation:[9][10]

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[edit]

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.[11] A tomb at which funeral rites had been duly performed became a locus religiosus, belonging to the divine rather than to the human realm.[12] Roman Imperial tombstones are often inscribed with a curse (defixio) against anyone who desecrates the grave.[13]


Map of the Decapolis, regarded as the provenance of the Nazareth Inscription

Scholars have analysed the language and style of the Nazareth inscription and attempted to date it. It has been discussed in the context of tomb-robbery in antiquity. It is of interest to historians of the New Testament.[14]

If the inscription was originally set up in Galilee, it can date no earlier than 44, the year Roman rule was imposed there.[15]

Some authors, citing the inscriptions supposed Galilean origin, have interpreted it as Imperial Rome's clear reaction to the empty tomb of Jesus [16][17][18] and specifically as an edict of Claudius, who reigned AD 41-54.[19][20]

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.[21] 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".[22] Richard Carrier also says 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".[23]


  1. ^ John G. Gager, "Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World" (Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 179.
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ Pliny, Epistles 10.68f.; C. Robert Phillips, "Approaching Roman Religion: The Case for Wissenschaftsgeschichte," in "A Companion to Roman Religion (Blackwell, 2007), p. 14.
  4. ^ Bruce Manning Metzger, "The Nazareth inscription once again", in New Testament Studies: Philological, Versional, and Patristic 5 [Leiden: Brill] 1980:76ff).
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ Franz Cumont, "Un réscrit impérial sur la violation de sépulture" in Revue Historique 163 1930:341-66.
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ Walter E. Elwell and Philip W. Comfort, Tyndale Bible Dictionary (Tyndale, 2001), p. 939.
  9. ^ Clyde E. Billington, "The Nazareth Inscription: Proof of the Resurrection of Christ?" in Artifax, Spring 2005
  10. ^ SEG 8:13
  11. ^ Donald G. Kyle, Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome (Routledge, 1998), pp. 143–144, citing Cicero, De Legibus 3 and Digest 47.12.
  12. ^ Gaius, Inst. II.3, 6, 9; Clust. 3.44.2; Kyle, Spectacles of Death, p. 144, with additional citations of modern scholarship.
  13. ^ Kyle, Spectacles of Death, p. 144.
  14. ^ Bruce Metzger,″New Testament Tools and Studies Vol. 10,1980:89(Brill)
  15. ^ Smallwood, The Jews under Roman Rule, p. 213.
  16. ^ Smallwood, The Jews under Roman Rule, p. 213.
  17. ^ Bruce Gibson, Thomas Harrison; Polybius and His World, 2013 ,p.26;(Oxford U. Press),
  18. ^ Bruce Metzger,″New Testament Tools and Studies Vol. 10,1980:89(Brill)
  19. ^ Henry J.Cadbury,″The Book of Acts in History″ 1955:p.117(Harper).
  20. ^ 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."
  21. ^ F. de Zulueta, "Violation of Sepulture in Palestine at the Beginning of the Christian Era," Journal of Roman Studies 22 (1932), pp. 184-97
  22. ^ Kennard 1955:232.
  23. ^