The Nazareth Inscription: Proof of the Resurrection of Christ?
Part One: Translation, Commentary, and Date
This article originally appeared in the journal Artifax and is reproduced here with permission.
The Nazareth Inscription is a Greek inscription on a marble tablet measuring approximately 24 inches by 15 inches. The exact time and place of its discovery is not known. In 1878 it became an addition to the private Froehner Collection of ancient inscriptions and manuscripts, but the details of its acquisition are unknown. Froehner’s inventory of this Inscription simply states: “This marble was sent from Nazareth in 1878.” This is all that is known about the time and place of its discovery (Cumont 241–242, Zelueta 1–2). While Froehner did make a Greek miniscule transcription of the original Greek uncial version of the Nazareth Inscription, he never published either the miniscule or the uncial version, and the contents of the Nazareth Inscription remained unknown to the scholarly world for more than fifty years.
The Nazareth Inscription
In 1925 the Froehner Collection was acquired by the Paris National Library, where the Nazareth Inscription was rediscovered and read by M. Rostovtzeff. Rostovtzeff told his friend, the French scholar M. Franz Cumont about this Inscription in the Paris National Library (Cumont 241–242). With the encouragement of Rostovtzeff, Cumont published a Greek transcription and a translation of the Nazareth Inscription with a commentary in his article Un Rescrit Imperial Sur La Violation De Sepulture in the French journal Revue Historique, CLXII, in 1930. The Nazareth Inscription took the scholarly world by storm because, as will be seen, it could be read as an imperial decree against the Apostles stealing Christ’s body from His tomb and faking His resurrection. It is also very similar to the Jewish high-priestly version of the resurrection of Christ as found in Matthew 28:11–15—in other words, His disciples stole His body from the tomb.
Cumont’s publication of the Nazareth Inscription led to a snowstorm of scholarly articles; more than twenty were published by the end of 1932. None of these early articles questioned the authenticity of the Nazareth Inscription. It is highly unlikely that it is a forgery. As will be seen, the Greek text of this Inscription and its historical connections provide strong support for its authenticity. However, its interpretation and possible connection to the story of the resurrection of Christ are still hotly debated today.
The purpose of this paper is to determine if the Nazareth Inscription is an imperial response to the story of the resurrection of Christ. While the views and opinions of key modern scholars will at times be discussed, it is not the intent of this study to do reviews or critiques of the many articles written on the Nazareth Inscription.
While there are several English translations available of the Nazareth Inscription (Zulueta 184–185; Brown 2–3), I disagree with them on the translation of a few key Greek words and phrases, and I have for this reason chosen to provide my own translation below.
The Nazareth Inscription Translation
1. EDICT OF CAESAR
2. It is my decision [concerning] graves and tombs—whoever has made
3. them for the religious observances of parents, or children, or household
4. members—that these remain undisturbed forever. But if anyone legally
5. charges that another person has destroyed, or has in any manner extracted
6. those who have been buried, or has moved with wicked intent those who
7. have been buried to other places, committing a crime against them, or has
8. moved sepulcher-sealing stones, against such a person I order that a
9. judicial tribunal be created, just as [is done] concerning the gods in
10. human religious observances, even more so will it be obligatory to treat
11. with honor those who have been entombed. You are absolutely not to
12. allow anyone to move [those who have been entombed]. But if
13. [someone does], I wish that [violator] to suffer capital punishment under
14. the title of tomb-breaker.
Notes and commentary on my translation
While the Greek word ‘decree,’ diatagma, used in line one1 of the Nazareth Inscription may suggest to modern readers some sort of imperial legal process, the fact of the matter is that the Nazareth Inscription is almost certainly a rump or abridged version of an imperial rescript. As will be seen below, a rescript was a letter of response sent by the emperor to some sort of an imperial official. It was not uncommon for imperial rescripts to be treated as legal decrees. See Charlesworth, Documents Illustrating the Reigns of Claudius and Nero, p. 14 where the Emperor Claudius himself calls one of his rescripts on Jewish rights touto mou to diatagma or “this decree of mine.” As will be seen below, there is an imperial rescript of the Emperor Claudius which fits the pattern of the Nazareth Inscription very well. The rescript process will also be discussed in detail below.
F. de Zuluet, in his 1932 article Violation of Sepulture in Palestine at the Beginning of the Christian Era, p. 184, and Frank E. Brown in his 1952 article Violation of Sepulture in Palestine, p. 2 both translate the Greek phrase threskeian progonon in line 3 of my translation as “cult of their ancestors,” thereby suggesting that the Nazareth Inscription fits best in a pagan Greco-Roman context, where religious rituals were performed at graves by relatives. However, the word threskeian is best translated as ‘religious observance’. It is used five times in two known imperial rescripts dealing with the Jewish religion (Charlesworth, Documents, pp. 5, 14, 15). It is also used in this same way for the Jewish religion by the Jewish historian Josephus [AJ, 17.9.3]. In addition, this same Greek word (threskeian) is used several times in the New Testament as related to Christianity, see Acts 26:5, James 1:26–27, and Col. 2:18. The Greek word threskeian therefore does not necessarily suggest pagan religion and can best be translated as ‘religious observance’ or even simply as ‘religion’.
It must be noted that lines 3 and 4 assume the existence of family tombs where only dead bodies—not the ashes of cremated humans—were placed. It should also be noted that there is nothing in this decree which assumes or states that the ashes of the cremated dead had been moved, lost or scattered, or that funeral urns had been destroyed or stolen. This decree also does not mention bodies or funeral urns being dug up out of the ground. Inhumation or burial in the ground in cemeteries was for both corpses and funeral urns with human ashes, the normal gentile method of burial in the Roman Empire.
The ancient Jews did not cremate, while on the other hand, cremation was more common than the inhumation of corpses for both Greek and Roman gentiles. Lesley and Roy Adkins in their Dictionary of Roman Religion write:
Cremation was the dominant rite until the first and second centuries in Italy and Rome, and by the mid-third century, in the rest of the empire, when inhumation became most common (p. 34).
In other words, most burials in the gentile areas in the eastern half of the Roman Empire in the first century AD were by cremation and inhumation of funeral urns with ashes, and not the inhumation of corpses.
Gentile burials in the early Roman Empire, for both bodies and urns, were in individual graves in cemeteries, and not in family tombs. Only a few of the very wealthy were buried in mausoleum-style tombs, and even these mausoleum-style tombs were for individuals, and not for family burials. There are no known examples of family tombs, like those in Second Temple Israel, to be found among the other ethnic groups in the Roman Empire. This fact strongly suggests that the Nazareth Inscription was written for Jews and Jewish Christians and not for pagan gentiles. Incidentally, catacombs were nothing more than underground cemeteries, and they too were not divided into family tombs.
There are six features in the Nazareth Inscription which do not fit a non-Jewish, gentile context. First, there is no reference to bodies being dug out of the ground, only of their being ‘extracted’ from tombs and graves. Second, there is no reference to human ashes being scattered or to the urns of cremated individuals being stolen or destroyed. Third, there is no reference made to coffins, and most Roman inhumation burials of dead bodies were in wood or lead coffins. Fourth, as was mentioned above, there is an assumption of the existence of family tombs, and the gentiles in the Roman Empire did not have family tombs. Fifth, there is no reference to cemeteries, in which almost all Greco-Roman burials were made. And six, ‘sepulcher-sealing stones’—see my discussion of line 8 below—were not used for inhumation burials by gentiles in the Roman Empire. In other words as was stated above, the Nazareth Inscription fits very well within a Jewish family tomb context, but it does not fit at all within a gentile Greek or Roman context.
The Greek phrase doloi poneroi in line 6, ‘with wicked intent’, is almost certainly the equivalent of the Latin ‘cuius dolo malo’, which is found in later Roman law (see Justinian’s Digest 47.12.3). The Latin cuius dolo malo translates as: ‘by someone’s evil design’. However, Zulueta renders this Greek phrase doloi poneroi by the adverb ‘maliciously’ in his translation of the Nazareth Inscription (Zulueta, 185). Frank E. Brown in his translation in his Violation of Sepulture in Palestine, p. 2, renders this same Greek phrase as ‘with malice aforethought’. Brown’s translation is far better than Zulueta’s, but still does not give the full sense of what is being said.
This entire Greek phrase in line 6 reads as eis heterous topous doloi poneroi metatetheikota. The placement of doloi poneroi between heterous topous and metatetheikota clearly indicates that it was the moving of dead bodies to other places that was being done ‘with wicked intent’. In other words, bodies were being moved to perpetrate some sort of a fraud. The proper translation of doloi poneroi as ‘with wicked intent’ gives strong support to the conclusion that the Nazareth Inscription was a rescript written in response to the story of the resurrection of Christ, which many Jews and pagan Romans believed was a fraud perpetrated by Christian Jews.
In line 8 in the Greek text, there is an epsilon e (‘or’) found between the words “sepulcher sealing [or] stones,” ‘katoxous e lithous’. This is almost certainly a scribal error. The Greek words katoxoi lithoi—without the Greek epsilon e (‘or’) between them—appears in several other Greek documents and translates as “sepulcher-sealing stones.” It is for this reason that I do not place an ‘or’ between these two words in my translation. Sepulcher-sealing stones were used for Jewish family tombs and were not used in Greco-Roman style burials, which were by inhumation in individual graves in cemeteries.
Even for Jews, the period of time that sepulcher-sealing stones were used for family tombs in Israel was relatively short, basically lasting less than 200 years and ending with the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. After the fall of Jerusalem, Jews in the Roman Empire buried their dead much like their gentile neighbors, in individual graves in cemeteries. This fact clearly indicates that the Nazareth Inscription had to be issued before 70 AD.
These Second Temple, Jewish, family tombs with sealing stones are today called ‘kok/kokh’ tombs by archaeologists. There is no archaeological or documentary evidence, which indicates that such ‘kok’ tombs with their sepulcher-sealing stones were ever used by gentiles in the Roman Empire. This fact strongly suggests that the Nazareth Inscription was written against Nazarene Jews who spread the story that Christ has been resurrected from the dead.
I believe that the Greek phrase criterion ego keleuo genesthai (“I order that a tribunal be created”) found in lines 8–9 indicates that a trial for the crime of “Violation of Sepulcher” was a sacrilege to be handled by a local religious tribunal. The punishment, however, was to be meted out by temporal Roman officials. It should be noted that both Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul were put on trial by Jewish religious leaders for sacrilege, and then handed over to or seized by Roman officials for possible punishment (John 18:28–33, and Acts 20:28 and 22:30).
Frank Brown in his article Violation of Sepulture in Palestine, p. 15 argues that the presence of the word ‘gods’ in line 9 indicates that the Nazareth Inscription was written for a pagan audience, probably the Decapolis. Brown writes of this appearance of the word ‘gods’ in the Nazareth Inscription:
Such an insult to Jewish feeling, an insult calculated to precipitate a general insurrection, was exactly what Roman policy did its utmost to avoid (p. 2).
This statement by Brown is pure nonsense. First, as Josephus clearly states, Gaius Caesar [Caligula] nearly drove the Jews to revolt because of his hubristic insistence that his statue be set up for worship as a god in the Jewish Temple (AJ, XIX.5.1–3) So much for the supposed Roman policy of Roman emperors doing their “utmost to avoid” causing a “general insurrection” of the Jews! And second, there still exists a rescript written to the Jews by the Emperor Claudius which calls Caesar Augustus ‘the god’, see Charlesworth, Documents, p. 14.
The reference to ‘gods’ in line 9 should be viewed in conjunction with the establishment of the religious tribunal mentioned in lines 8–9. In other words, this imperial rescript is simply saying that, just as religious tribunals were to try cases of religious sacrilege involving the gods, so also such religious tribunals should try cases dealing with the removal of bodies from tombs. In other words, the crime of violation of sepulture was to be handled as a religious crime.
This interpretation is supported by the later Theodosian Code 9.17.2 from the Christian period where it is stated that investigations into the crime of De Sepulchris Violates in the city of Rome were to be conducted by the judges and “the pontiffs” (Pharr, 239). That the crime of violation of sepulcher was considered to be a religious crime in Roman law can also be seen in Justinian’s Digest 47.12.4 where it is stated: Sepulchra hostium religiosa nobis non sunt (“The sepulchers of enemies are for us not religious”). In other words, the tombs of enemies could be violated without religious penalty.
The Greek word used in line 12, metakeinesai, should be translated as “to move,” i.e. dead bodies. This is not reflected in the translations of Zulueta, “disturb them” (p.159), or Brown, “forcibly disturb them” (p. 3). This sentence in lines 11–12 is simply restating for the second time that dead bodies were not to be removed from tombs. The fact that this warning against removing the dead from tombs is repeated for the second time (see lines 5–6) strongly indicates that this was the main reason why this decree was issued, and this fact strongly suggests that this rescript was written as an imperial response to the story of the resurrection of Christ. It should also be noted that there is no accusation made in the Nazareth Inscription that tombs or bodies were being robbed, only that bodies were being moved.2 Why would any sane person want to move a body and not rob it? This is very strange, unless one assumes that Claudius had heard the Jewish version of the resurrection of Christ, i.e. His disciples stole His body from His tomb.
Lines 13–14 of the Nazareth Inscription impose the death penalty on anyone found guilty of removing bodies from tombs. As modern scholars have noted, there is no other example in all of Roman law for the use of capital punishment to punish the crime of breaking into a tomb and removing a dead body.
Generally under Roman law, tomb breaking was treated as a matter for a civil suit by the family of the person buried in the violated tomb. See Justinian’s Digest 47.12, De sepulchro violato. However, it was also possible for non-family members to bring such suits, and if successful, be paid compensation by the violator. Civil fines could also be imposed on violators as is seen in The Theodosian Code 9.17–1–6 (Pharr, 239–240). The context of The Theodosian Code indicates that the later destruction of limestone tombs was taking place so that the limestone could be burned into lime for cement. Fines are also imposed in The Theodosian Code for using stones from tombs to build private residences. However, there is nothing in the Nazareth Inscription, which suggests that either of these problems were being addressed by this imperial decree.
Justinian’s Digest 126.96.36.199 does impose the death penalty on anyone who “robs dead bodies” (cadavera spoliant) “by armed force” (manu armata); but there is no reference in all of Roman law to the death penalty being imposed for breaking into a tomb and removing a dead body. It must be noted that the Nazareth Inscription has absolutely nothing to say about the robbery of tombs or the use of armed force. Ancient peoples did rob tombs, but the stealing of dead bodies from tombs was probably not a problem that normally would have needed to be dealt with by Roman law.
Greco-Roman pagans generally believed that the ghosts of the unburied dead could and would haunt the living. There are many pagan Greco-Roman stories from the ancient world about the living being haunted by ghosts whose bodies or ashes were not properly buried. In other words, besides the unpleasantness of moving a dead body, gentile Greco-Romans would not have wanted to remove a body from a tomb since it might result in a haunting. This provision in the Nazareth Inscription imposing the death penalty for the stealing of dead bodies from tombs does not fit a pagan gentile context. It does, however, fit very well with the story of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The Greek word which I translate as ‘title’ in line 14 is onomati or ‘name’. I believe that the word onoma or ‘name’ was an early Greek substitution for the Latin word titulus. The word titulus was used in Latin for the written accusation posted at the site where a condemned person was to be executed. See for example the titulus: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” which was posted over Christ’s head at His crucifixion.
The Roman practice of posting a titulus at an execution site was foreign to the Greek-speaking half of the Roman world, and there was no equivalent Greek word to translate the Latin word titulus. This can even be seen in all three of the synoptic Gospels in the New Testament, where the Greek words aitia (‘legal charge’) and variants of the verb grapho (‘write’) are used together to describe the titulus of Christ, see Matt. 27:27, Mark 15:26, Luke 23:38. However, by the time that the Apostle John wrote his gospel, the Latin word titulus had become a loan word in the Greek language in the form titlos. John 19:19 uses the word titlos for the written charge placed over the head of Christ. The fact that the Nazareth Inscription uses the Greek word onoma or ‘name’ and does not use the later Latin loan word titlos strongly suggests that the Nazareth Inscription was written sometime before the Apostle John wrote his Gospel in the late first century AD.
In summary, the Nazareth Inscription fits well in a Jewish context where there were family tombs with ‘sepulcher-sealing stones’. In addition, the fact that dead bodies were being moved ‘with wicked intent’ suggests something unusual was happening. The highly unusual imposition of the death penalty for removing dead bodies from tombs supports this interpretation and also strongly suggests that the Nazareth Inscription was issued to deal with what the Roman emperor saw as a major problem. I believe that this problem was the new sect of the Nazarenes, which taught that Jesus Christ was the King of the Jews and that He had resurrected from the dead.
The Roman emperor who wrote the Nazareth Inscription—almost certainly Claudius—probably saw the new Jewish sect of the Nazarenes as a dangerous, anti-Roman religious movement. It should be remembered that Jesus’ followers believed that He was the Messiah, the King of the Jews. Roman emperors took a great deal of interest in people who proclaimed themselves kings. It should come as no surprise that a Roman emperor might want to nip this new religious-political movement in the bud. It should be remembered that the home base of the violent and rebellious Jewish Zealots was located in Galilee, and this may have caused the emperor to confuse the new sect of the ‘Nazarenes’ with Jewish Zealots. And it should also be remembered that the first name given to Jewish Christians was ‘Nazarenes,’ clearly connecting them to the area of Galilee. In addition, it should also be remembered that one of Jesus’ disciples was named Simon the ‘Zealot’.
To counter the Nazarene/Christian teaching that Jesus had been resurrected, Jewish leaders claimed that His disciples “came by night and stole him away” (Matt. 28:3 NASV). It is almost certain that this was the version of the resurrection of Christ, which came to the ears of the Roman Emperor Claudius, who consequently issued the Nazareth Inscription and had it posted in the city of Nazareth.3
The Date and place origin of The Nazareth Inscription
There has been a great deal of scholarly debate about the dating of the Nazareth Inscription. The French scholar M. Franz Cumont, who first published the Nazareth Inscription, placed its date between 50 BC and 50 AD. He based his dating of this rescript on the style of its epigraphy (Cumont 265). However, the American scholar Frank E. Brown of Yale University argued “ … that our inscription comes from the decade after the stamping out of the [Jewish] revolt of 132–135 AD” (Brown 19). On the other hand, both Cumont and Prof. F. de Zulueta argued for dating this Inscription in the reign of the Emperor Caesar Augustus, 31 BC to 14 AD (Cumont 265; Zulueta 186).
M.P. Charlesworth in his book Documents Illustrating the Reigns of Claudius and Nero lists the Nazareth Inscription as one issued by Claudius, but writes that it “ … is of doubtful provenance and date, but some scholars ascribe it to Claudius” (Charlesworth, 3). It will be argued in this article that textual evidence and historical synchronisms provide strong support for dating the Nazareth Inscription to the early reign of the Emperor Claudius, 41–54 AD.
Textual support for dating the Nazareth Inscription to the reign of Claudius is very compelling. But before dealing with this evidence, it is first necessary to deal with a theory, first advanced by Cumont, that the Nazareth Inscription was originally written in Latin and translated into Greek (Cumont 265). Cumont believed that the translation from Latin into Greek was probably done by the Imperial Chancellery. There is, however, no compelling reason for believing that the Nazareth Inscription was composed originally in Latin. There are other examples of imperial letters written in Greek, which almost certainly were not first composed in Latin.
In the period from the first century BC through the first century AD, almost all educated Romans could speak and write in Greek. It is known from ancient sources that debates in the Roman Senate at times took place in Greek. If the Emperor Claudius was the author of the Nazareth inscription, as this article will argue below, then there are very good reasons for assuming that the original version of the Nazareth Inscription was dictated directly into Greek by Claudius himself.
Claudius, while he at times found it necessary to play the part of a fool before he became emperor, was actually a very well-educated man, although apparently weak of will. He was especially dedicated to the Latin writings of Cicero, and wrote a book defending him titled Defense of Cicero against the Writings of Asinius Gallus. The Roman historian Suetonius calls this book “ … a work of no little learning” (Suetonius vol. ii, 77).4 Claudius loved Cicero, and I believe that Claudius’ rescripts in Greek show clear evidence of the stylistic features of Cicero’s Latin writings, as also does the Nazareth Inscription. As anyone who has read Cicero in Latin knows, he loved very long sentences filled with clauses tied together with relative and demonstrative pronouns. The best way to approximate Cicero’s Latin style in the Greek language is to use participles, which serve much the same function as relative and demonstrative pronoun clauses do in Latin. In the Nazareth Inscription, as well as his other rescripts, Claudius makes frequent use of Greek participles and his sentences tend to be quite long. As will be seen, Claudius was very proficient in Greek.
Claudius, before he became the emperor, was a friend of the famous Roman historian Livy, who encouraged him to write history. Claudius wrote his many histories in both Latin and Greek. Suetonius in his The Lives of the Caesars writes of the Emperor Claudius: “ … he even wrote historical works in Greek, twenty books of Etruscan History and eight of Carthaginian” (Suetonius, vol II, 77). In the first century when Claudius wrote, Etruscan was a dead language, and he may have been one of the last people who could translate it.
Suetonius also writes that Claudius “ … gave no less attention to Greek studies, taking every occasion to declare his regard for that language and its superiority” (Suetonius vol. ii, 77). In addition, Suetonius states that Claudius as emperor held court in both Latin and Greek, depending on the language of the person speaking to him (Suetonius ii, 77). Claudius was unquestionably fluent in Greek, and it is nearly certain that, when Claudius dictated official rescripts for the Greek-speaking, eastern half of the Roman Empire, he dictated them in Greek.
One additional feature must be considered before examining some of the textual evidence for dating the Nazareth Inscription to the reign of Claudius. Cumont correctly noted in his article that the Nazareth Inscription was a ‘rescrit’, or rescript. When a Roman official wrote a letter of inquiry to the emperor asking some legal or political question, then the emperor would write a rescript letter back answering those questions, and in the process sometimes make law.
One of the best examples of this rescript process is the letter written by the Emperor Trajan (ruled 98–117 A.D) to Pliny the Younger. Governor Pliny the Younger had earlier sent a letter of inquiry to the Emperor Trajan asking for guidance on how to deal with Christians. Pliny the Elder wrote a rescript letter in reply, giving Pliny the Younger legal guidance on how best to proceed in handling Christians (Pliny ii, 400–407).
While the Nazareth Inscription does not give the name of the Emperor who wrote this rescript letter, or the name of the author of the letter of enquiry, there is little doubt that the Nazareth Inscription is an Imperial rescript, as Cumont correctly noted. As will be seen below, an imperial rescript letter could have the force of law and could be referred to in Greek as a diatagma or decree, the very Greek word used in the Nazareth Inscription.
The Greek title on the Nazareth Inscription calls it a Diatagma Kaisaros or “Decree of Caesar.” In other words, the Nazareth Inscription is an imperial rescript, which had the force of law. However, it should be noted that rescripts were often local in their scope, and that they frequently dealt with unusual legal, religious, or political issues, which had arisen in a specific city or province.
Most rescripts did not have the force of universal law throughout the entire Roman Empire, but were, as was noted above, local in nature. However, on some occasions rescripts could decree universal Roman law. For example, the Jewish historian Josephus provides one rescript letter of Claudius in which the Emperor protected Jewish rights throughout the entire Roman Empire. This rescript letter is given by Josephus in Greek, and it is likely that he found it written in Greek in the imperial chancellery. This rescript has many connections to the Nazareth Inscription and for this reason it is translated in its entirety below.
Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus, Pontifex Maximus, Tribune, Twice-Elected Consul states: King Agrippa and Herod,5 persons dear to me, have asked that I assent to guaranteeing the same rights to the Jews in all the areas under Roman rule, as has been done for those Jews living in Alexandria. Not only do I happily grant this request to those who have asked me, but [I do so] also because I am convinced that [King Agrippa and Herod] are worthy [of having their request granted] and because of their loyalty to and love for the Romans. I especially determine it to be just that no Greek city deny [to the Jews] these same rights, since they were guaranteed to them by the god [Caesar] Augustus. It is therefore fitting that the Jews, in all [parts] of the world ruled by us, be unhindered in observing their ancestral [religious] customs. I also now command [the Jews] that they make use of this my generosity to them in the most reasonable manner [possible] and that they not show contempt for the religious beliefs of other ethnic groups, [but rather] that they obey their own [religious] laws. I also order that the leaders of cities, colonies, and municipalities,6 both inside and outside of Italy—including kings and dynastic governors, through their own officials—have this my decree [diatagma] engraved [on a stone tablet] and posted outdoors for not less than 30 days in a public place where it can be easily read from paved ground [ Charlesworth, 14; Josephus, AJ, XIX, 5, 3].7
It should be noted that the above rescript was called by Claudius a diatagma or a ‘decree’, and that it was to be engraved in stone and publicly posted, just as was also apparently done for the Nazareth Inscription. It is very likely that when this decree on Jewish rights was posted, it was posted in an abridged version. There would be no reason to include the portions of this letter referring to Agrippa and Herod in the publicly posted version of this decree. The poor spacing of the letters in the Nazareth Inscription and its rump or abridged form—which will be discussed below—strongly suggest that it too was intended for public posting.
It should also be noted, in the rescript on Jewish rights translated above, that even kings and dynastic governors were ordered by Claudius to post this decree. This fact destroys the assumptions and consequent arguments used by Frank E. Brown for his dating of the Nazareth Inscription. Brown’s dating of the Nazareth Inscription (mid 2nd century AD) was largely based on his assumption that the Nazareth Inscription was as imperial decree and that it therefore could not have been written during the rule of any Jewish king over Galilee. Brown writes:
In the realms of such kings, created and upheld in independence by the emperor and the senate for the purpose of securing the frontiers, no constitution of the emperor was valid [Brown 14].
Clearly Brown’s assumption is false, and his consequent arguments for dating the Nazareth Inscription are faulty and unreliable. The Emperor Claudius in the above rescript clearly gives orders to “kings and dynastic governors.” This rescript letter of Claudius was available to Brown in Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews, and he should have read it and also other passages in Josephus, where Josephus clearly states that the Roman governor of Syria had authority over all the kings and dynasts in his province, including the Jewish King Herod Agrippa I.
There is one more feature to be considered before attempting to date the Nazareth Inscription. As was suggested above, not only is the Nazareth Inscription a rescript, but it is also a rump or shortened version of the original imperial rescript letter. This is clearly seen by the fact that the name and all of the titles of the emperor are missing. For example, a typical rescript letter sent by the Emperor Claudius to the people of Alexandria begins:
Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus, Germanicus, Emperor [Autokrator], Pontifex Maximus, Tribune, Consul, sends greetings to the city of the Alexandrians (Charlesworth 3).
This same rescript letter of Claudius continues on to give the names of the Greek leaders of Alexandria who had sent him the earlier letter of inquiry. It was common for an imperial rescript to give the name[s] of the person[s] who wrote the original letter of inquiry. The name[s] of the author[s] of the letter of inquiry is not given in the Nazareth Inscription. The omission of the name[s] of the author[s] of the letter of inquiry and the omission of the name and titles of the emperor issuing this decree strongly support the assumption that the Nazareth Inscription is a rump version of an imperial rescript.
In addition, the very text of the Nazareth Inscription itself clearly shows that it is a rump or abridged version of an original imperial rescript letter. For example, this can be seen by both the Greek word te which is placed ungrammatically after the word tumbous, ‘tomb’ in line 3 of the Greek text and also by the disconnected definite article tai, “the” found in line 11. These were almost certainly scribal errors made by the abridger and/or engraver.
There are also several disjointed grammatical phrases, which strongly suggest abridgement. In addition, the fact that the Greek word kai (‘and’) is not used even once in the Nazareth Inscription—the Greeks normally made frequent use of kai in their literary works and inscriptions—suggests abridgement. This abridgement of an imperial rescript should not come as a surprise. The shortening of an imperial rescript, for the purpose of engraving it on stone and publicly posting it, was almost certainly a regular feature in the Roman world. Only the relevant parts of an imperial rescript needed to be engraved when it was to be publicly posted.
The dating of The Nazareth Inscription by its text
The Nazareth Inscription contains words and grammatical structures, which are very similar to those found in several other Greek rescripts of the Emperor Claudius, especially those which in some way deal with the Jews. For example, of the 90 words used in the Nazareth Inscription, the only Greek words or phrases not found in other known rescripts of Claudius are: taphous (graves), tumbous (tombs), ametakinetous (undisturbed), katalelukota (destroyed), kekedeumenous (those entombed), ekserriphota (extracted), dolo ponero, (wicked fraud), katoxus lithous (tomb stealing stones), kriterion (tribunal), metakinesai (move), kephales katakriton (capital punishment), and tumburuxias (tomb-breaker). Nearly all of these words deal with the specifics of the reason for which this rescript was written, i.e. breaking into tombs, stealing dead bodies, and moving them to other places.
A number of similar phrases are also used in both the Nazareth Inscription and other rescripts of the Emperor Claudius, as the following chart illustrates:
OTHER RESCRIPTS OF CLAUDIUS
[Decree of Caesar]
|mou to diatagma8
[religious observances of men]
[paternal religious observance]
[I order that…to no one]
[I order that nothing]
|kathaper peri theon
[just as concerning gods]
|kathaper ek progonon
[just as from parents]
|mallon…xre to alethes eipein
[moreover it is required to tell the truth]
|mallon deesei tous kekedeumevous timan
[moreover it is necessary to honor the dead]
This is only a partial list but serves to illustrate that the Nazareth Inscription fits well with the vocabulary and style of the rescripts of the Emperor Claudius.
As was noted above, both Cumont and Prof. F. de Zulueta argue for dating this Inscription in the reign of the Emperor Caesar Augustus, 31 BC to 14 AD (Cumont 265; Zulueta 186). However, the use of the phrase “Decree of Caesar” argues for a later period than Caesar Augustus, in other words for a later period when the name Caesar had become established as a synonym for Emperor, just as it is used in the New Testament by both Jesus and the Jews. As will be seen in Part Two of this article, it is very likely that the Nazareth Inscription was written in 41 AD.
In conclusion, the Nazareth Inscription is a rump version of an imperial rescript, which was issued by the Emperor Claudius for posting in a public place, probably in Nazareth. The context of the Nazareth Inscription clearly proves that it was written for Jews and not gentiles, and that it was almost certainly issued by Claudius in response to the story of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.
Part Two of this article will deal with the historical context of the Nazareth Inscription and will show how the Nazareth Inscription itself fits very well with known historical events found both in the New Testament and in first century historical sources.
Editors’ update (2023): Was the Nazareth Inscription a response to the desecration of deceased tyrant Nikias from the Greek island of Kos?
A 2020 paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science challenged the idea that the Nazareth Inscription was connected to Jesus’ empty tomb.1 Researchers led by historian Kyle Harper reported their analysis that the marble tablet’s chemical signature closely matched that of a quarry on the island of Kos, off the coast of modern Turkey. From a Greek poem by Krinagoras, it is known that, around 30–20 BC, disgruntled citizens of Kos exhumed their recently deceased ruler, Nikias, from his grave. They dragged his body into the public square and desecrated it. The researchers believe this is likely the occasion that prompted the edict on the Nazareth Inscription, from emperor Augustus rather than Claudius. Thus, caution is in order when advancing the Nazareth Inscription as evidence for the Resurrection of Christ.
Still, some scholars continue to defend the Nazareth Inscription’s possible connection to Christ. The chain of custody, as far as it goes, reported that this artifact came from Nazareth, even if the marble might have originally been quarried from Kos. Marble in Israel had to be imported from somewhere, and Titus Kennedy notes that Turkey was a common source, including marble from Kos specifically brought to Israel by Herod the Great.2 Plus, it is questionable that the situation on Kos would have warranted the involvement of Augustus. Some have also questioned whether the content of the Nazareth Inscription matches the situation with Nikias as well as it does Jesus. For example, sepulcher-sealing stones were a feature of tombs in Israel, but there is reason to doubt that this would describe the tomb of Nikias. We leave it to readers to do further research and draw their own conclusions.
- Harper, K. et al., Establishing the provenance of the Nazareth Inscription: Using stable isotopes to resolve a historic controversy and trace ancient marble production, Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 30, April 2020.
- Kennedy, T., Excavating the Evidence for Jesus, Harvest House, Eugene, OR, 2022, p. 268.
Adkins, Lesley and Roy Adkins, Dictionary of Roman Religion, New York: Facts on File, 1996.
Brown, Frank E., Violation of Sepulture in Palestine in American Journal of Philology, vol. LII, 1, No. 205, pp. 1–29, 1952.
Charlesworth, M. P., Documents Illustrating the Reigns of Claudius and Nero, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952.
Cumont, M. Franz, Un Rescrit Imperial Sur L Violation De Sepulture in Revue Historique, LXIII, 2e, pp. 241–266, 1930.
Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, trans. by Louis Feldman. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.
Pharr, Clyde, The Theodosian Code and Novels and the Sirmondian Constitutions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1952.
Pliny the Younger, Letters, trans. by William Melmoth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958.
Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, vol. ii, Claudius, Bk. V., 1959
Tacitus, Cornelius, The Annals, trans. by John Jackson, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962.
Zulueta, F. de, Violation of Sepulture in Palestine at the Beginning of the Christian Era in The Journal of Religious Studies, 1932.
- The line numbers used for my translation match the line numbers of the original Greek text. Return to text.
- There is a reference to the stealing of bodies from tombs in a decree of the Emperor Honorius in 386 AD. However, the context of this decree makes it very clear that the problem being addressed was the theft of the bodies of Christian saints to be sold as relics. See Clyde Pharr, The Theodosian Code (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1955, p. 240, code 9.17.6 Return to text.
- It is possible that the Nazareth Inscription was originally posted in the city of Sepphoris, a former capital of the Galilee. Sepphoris was located only about five miles from Nazareth, and was probably the largest city in the Galilee. The exact year when Herod Antipas shifted his capital from Sepphoris to his newly-built city of Tiberias is not known but must have taken place during or just before the ministry of Christ. Even if the Nazareth Inscription was posted at Sepphoris, it was clearly written against the sect of the Nazarenes. However, the early and frequent references to Christians as “Nazarenes” argue for the posting of the Nazareth Inscription in the city of Nazareth. Return to text.
- Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, trans. by J.C. Rolfe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press) vol ii, pp. 75–79, Bk. V, chs. 41–42. Return to text.
- In Louis H. Feldman’s translation of Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities he translates the Greek phrase “basileos Agrippa kai Herodou” as “Kings Agrippa and Herod.” [Feldman vol. ix, 351] However, in the Greek text the word “basileos” is in the genitive singular and must go only with the name of Agrippa, and not with that of Herod. It appears that Herod had not yet been made the king of Chalcis at the time that this rescript was issued. Josephus states in The Antiquities of the Jews that the Emperor Claudius made Herod king of Chalcis at the request of his brother Agrippa. [AJ xix.277] Agrippa I was both the full brother of this Herod and also his father-in-law. Agrippa I’s daughter Bernice was his brother Herod’s wife. It was this same Bernice, who along with her full brother Agrippa II, who heard the Apostle Paul, see Acts 25:23. This Bernice was to go on to later fame as the lover of the future Emperor Titus. Return to text.
- Both the Greek words colony “kolonion” and municipality “mounikipion” are clear Latinisms. This, however, does not prove that this rescript was originally composed in Latin and then translated into Greek. In John 19:19 the Apostle John in Greek calls the inscription placed over the head of Christ at his crucifixion a “titlon,” [from the Latin “titulus”] which is without a doubt a Latinism. There are no New Testament scholars who would argue that the Gospel of John was originally written in Latin and translated into Greek. The use of Latinisms does not necessarily prove that a text was first written in Latin and then translated into Greek. Return to text.
- Translated from the Greek text provided by M.P.Charlesworth, in his Documents illustrating the Reigns of Claudius and Nero, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952, p. 14, document 15. Return to text.
- Charlesworth, Documents, p. 14. This phrase is used twice in other rescripts of Claudius. Return to text.
- Charlesworth, Documents, pp. 14–15. This identical phrase is used three times in other rescripts of Claudius. Return to text.
- Charlesworth, Documents, p. 5. Return to text.