What is the Nazareth Inscription?

by Luke Wayne
06/11/2019

The "Nazareth Inscription" is an inscription in stone containing the text of a Roman decree pronouncing the death penalty on anyone who would disturb a tomb, remove a body from a tomb, or move a sealing stone from a sepulcher. The vast majority of scholars date the inscription in the first half of the first century AD, and many believe there is a connection between the Roman edict recorded thereon and the early Christian testimony of the empty tomb and the resurrection of Jesus, though the precise nature of that connection is debated. However one reads the evidence, the inscription almost certainly provides at least a small piece of supporting evidence for the resurrection in one way or another, if a somewhat circumstantial one.

A Brief History of the Inscription

The artifact popularly known as the "Nazareth Inscription" is a slab of marble with the words of an edict of Caesar carved into one side. Exactly which Caesar is not specified, but the style of writing and other such factors lead most scholars to date it to some time in the first century, probably during the first half of that century during the reign of Augustus, Tiberius, or Claudius Caesar. The inscription was first acquired in 1878 by the 19th-century curator Wilhelm Fröhner, though its significance was not recognized until 1930 when a scholar named Franz Cumont first studied the stone and published a paper on it. Research on the inscription is complicated by the fact that Fröhner noted only that he acquired the stone in Nazareth, but made no further notation as to where the stone was from. Thus, scholars have long debated whether the stone was originally unearthed in Nazareth or merely brought there for sale, possibly from Syria, Samaria, or even Judea.1

The Contents of the Inscription

The inscription in its entirety reads as follows:

"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." Clyde E. Billington, “The Nazareth Inscription: Proof of the Resurrection of Christ?” (Artifax, Spring 2005) https://biblearchaeology.org/research/new-testament-era/2857-the-nazareth-inscription-proof-of-the-resurrection-of-christ-part-i (Accessed 6/10/2019)

There are four basic points to the law:

  1. Tombs must not be disturbed/destroyed
  2. The body within the tomb must not be extracted or moved
  3. The sealing stone must not be moved
  4. If anyone moves an entombed body, they are to be put to death

Looking at the Decree in Context

Roman culture took tampering with someone's buried remains seriously. Private tombstones were often adorned with curses on those who might desecrate the grave. For example, one such tomb reads:

"Gaius Tullius Hesper had this tomb built for himself, as a place where his bones might be laid. If anyone damages them or removes them from here, I wish for him that he may live in physical pain for a long time and the gods of the underworld may not admit him when he dies." Jo-Ann Shelton, As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History - 2nd edition (Oxford University Press, 1998) 94

First century Jews likewise took the matter seriously. Josephus, for example, even tells stories of divine wrath poured out on those who disturbed a righteous man's remains.2 The issue was certainly a matter of public concern. However, the formal legal punishment for such a crime was rarely as severe as death. By the third century AD, the influential Roman jurist Julius Paulus Prudentissimus did state that those who violate graves, vandalize tombs, move bodies, etc. should be exiled or sentenced to hard labor in the mines, depending on social class,3 and a sentence to the mines was often pretty much a death sentence, but it was not legally regarded as such. One technically could survive the mines, even if it was highly unlikely. In the first century, the penalty was typically only a fine. Thus, the law presented on the Nazareth inscription is unusual in its severity.

We do find at least one other example of the death penalty being assigned for disturbing the bodily remains in a tomb, the document BGU IV 1024, which records a series of court rulings in Roman Egypt.4 The ruling seems to have had only local reach and to have resulted from a very specific circumstance. This seems to be the most likely case with the Nazareth Inscription as well. It likely presents Rome's official response to something that happened locally in Galilee, or perhaps in Syria, Judea, or Samaria, and to have been enforced only in that region rather than representing an empire-wide policy.

The Inscription and the Empty Tomb

There is much that is uncertain about the inscription. We don't know for sure which Caesar issued the law, nor do we know exactly where or when the stone was originally posted. Any conclusion based on the inscription must be tentative. Yet, when one considers the likely options, the stone seems to support the Christian claims of the empty tomb and the resurrection in one of three ways. Let us consider:

Option 1: The Law was a Direct Response to the Discovery of the Empty Tomb - Some scholars have actually speculated that the law was Tiberius Caesar's direct response to the empty tomb of Jesus. It forcefully addresses both removing bodies and tampering with sealing stones on sepulchers, so it at least sounds a lot like the situation on Easter morning. If the story reached Rome that the tomb of a crucified 'rebel' who claimed to be a Jewish king had been found empty with the stone rolled away, and if Jesus' opponents in Jerusalem were spreading the story that His disciples had stolen the body to fake a resurrection, Caesar may well have responded with this kind of force to discourage the spread of a potentially revolutionary movement. This option has its difficulties. It seems highly unlikely that the Jewish leaders could have protected the guards from legal consequences (most likely execution) if Caesar himself heard that they had failed to protect the tomb. It also seems likely that the Gospels or the Book of Acts would have reported it if Rome had made such a harsh public response so swiftly on the heels of the resurrection. Still, it remains entirely possible, and would thus make the inscription a direct testimony that the stone really was rolled away and the tomb was indeed found empty.

Option 2: The Law was a Later Roman Response to the Growing Christian Movement - Most scholars have been rather hesitant about if not outright dismissive of option 1. Yet, many scholars still do see a connection between the law and the early Christian preaching of the resurrection. One option considered far more plausible is that the law was not passed immediately after Jesus' death nor as a direct response to the empty tomb itself. Rather, the decree was made by Claudius Caesar in the 40's AD as a response to the early Christian preaching of the risen Christ. On this scenario, the inscription would not be direct evidence of the empty tomb itself. It would, however, be an early line of evidence that the empty tomb and even the sealed stone rolling away was already a widespread part of the Christian testimony about Jesus' resurrection from the very earliest days of the movement. Thus, the inscription would further support the fact that the gospels indeed preserve the resurrection story just as it was told by the earliest witnesses from the very beginning.

Option 3: The Law is from before the death of Jesus and in response to a different incident - There are also scholars who, despite the apparent connections to the Christian story of an empty tomb and a moved sealing stone, believe that the inscription has no actual connection to Jesus or Christianity whatsoever. They often place the decree further back, during the time of Augustus, and attach it to some other local incident (known or unknown) which provoked the severity of the regional law. Even on this version of events, the inscription still provides at least some evidence for Jesus' resurrection. If a law were already in force making it a capital offense to steal a body, then body-stealing explanations for Jesus' empty tomb and the early Christian preaching of the risen Jesus become even more ridiculous than they already are! The disciples, who already fled and abandoned Jesus at the time of His arrest, would be highly unlikely to risk execution to go move Jesus' entombed body. It also seems rather crazy to think that some other unrelated person with nothing to gain and everything to lose would do so. Thus, even if the law comes before Jesus' death and has nothing to do with it directly, it still provides a small piece of supporting evidence to the overall historical case for the resurrection.

Having said all of this, there are presently too many questions surrounding the Nazareth Inscription to make it a central piece of any argument, nor do we need to! There is plenty of evidence in our more solid sources to show that the empty tomb and the resurrection itself are historical realities. But as a small bit of circumstantial icing on the cake, the Nazareth Inscription fits well with the larger historical case.

 

  • 1. For a good summary of the range of scholarly opinions on origins and dating of the inscription, see the academic paper "The Nazareth Inscription: A Controversial Piece of Palestinian Epigraphy" published at: https://www.academia.edu/3590266/_The_Nazareth_Inscription._A_Controversial_Piece_of_Palestinian_Epigraphy_1920-1999 (Accessed 6/10/2019)
  • 2. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 16, Chapter 7
  • 3. Paulus, Opinions, 1.21.2-14, as cited in Jo-Ann Shelton, As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History - 2nd edition (Oxford University Press, 1998) 94; see also The Enactments of Justinian: The Digest, Book 47, 12:11
  • 4. James G. Keenan, Roman Criminal Law in a Berlin Papyrus Codex (Loyola University Chicago, 1989) 18, https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/b778/2a48b67daa7b50aafe9087964f3e925c5048.pdf (Accessed 5/27/2019).