The Nazareth Inscription (2000)

Richard Carrier

 

Several authors have advanced a particular inscription as early evidence of the empty tomb story in the Gospels. I will not attempt to trace all uses of this argument (I have encountered several), but I will note the two most important examples: it was used most recently by Norman Geisler and Ron Brooks [1] and most popularly by Josh McDowell [2]. I will quote McDowell in full:

Michael Green [Man Alive, 1968, p. 36] cites a secular source of early origin that bears testimony to Jesus' empty tomb. This piece of evidence "is called the Nazareth Inscription, after the town where it was found. 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 (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."

How such an inscription makes it "look very much" like the empty tomb story made it to Rome is not immediately obvious to one who is familiar with Roman law: as we shall see in the second part of this essay, the inscription contains nothing new in it, and decrees like this were issued even by emperors as late as Severus (early 3rd century A.D.), thus the inscription bears on an old and never-ending problem, and repeats an old and traditional solution. It thus provides no evidence for any specific event. Green is also wrong when he says that Pilate had to report to the emperor: this presumes a level of bureaucracy that did not in fact exist in ancient Rome--until, at best, the time of Diocletian (late 3rd century A.D.), and even the government then is unlikely to have involved such a level of correspondence. Simply put, the Roman Empire lacked the personnel and the finances to handle such a load of paperwork. Rome depended on its governors making hundreds of independent decisions daily--for the emperor had quite enough to do.[3] Try to imagine every attorney general in the United States sending to the President a report on every legal case they had to tackle--even with today's monstrous government and efficient communications this would be absurd. In Rome's empire, governing personnel only referred unsolved problems to the emperor, or matters that bore on the safety of the empire. Though this did happen frequently, there is no evidence or even a claim that Pilate referred to the emperor either the issue of Jesus's execution or any matter of an empty tomb (the late forgery of the Acts of Pilate is the exception that proves the rule).

Therefore, there is absolutely nothing linking this inscription with Christianity apart from the town it was found in (even though Jesus was not buried in Nazareth), and its "possible" date (even though Green's dating admits that it may come from well before the time of Jesus' burial), and those details are too trivial to make much of a case (and are probably incorrect to boot). Worse, that same case is weakened by the presence of details in the inscription that have nothing to do with the empty tomb story, so that this decree cannot really be explained as the outcome of that event. These unexplained details are underlined in the translation below.

Here is a photograph of the inscription (on a slab of 0.6 x 0.375 meters), followed by a translation, which is awkward not only because I have made it literal and line-by-line, but also because its author badly translated the original Latin of the decree (even the Greek is misspelled in places), and appears to have omitted words or placed them out of order:


The Nazareth Inscription: F. Cumont, 1930
The Nazareth Inscription: Photoplate from F. Cumont, Revue Historique, Jan-Apr. 1930, p. 243.

Edict of Caesar: [4]
It satisfies me that the graves and tombs
[that] whoever, for the cult worship of ancestors,
makes, or [for the cult worship] of children or household members,
that those [graves and tombs] remain unmoved
throughout their existence. And if anyone charges that
anyone has either destroyed them, or in some other
way made off with what was buried in them, or to another
place with knavish malice
took [these things], for the purpose of doing injury to
the buried, or [had] the doorstone or [5]
[other] stones switched, against that
man [who is accused] I order that a trial
occur, just like [a trial] concerning the [cult worship of] gods,
for the cult worship of men.
For it shall be much more necessary
to honor the buried:
[so] let no one at all move them.
Otherwise, that man I
want condemned to death for the charge [6]
of digging through tombs

Note the details here that require explanation: (1) the law is prefaced by a reference to the importance of family burial cult, and thus the motivation for the law seems to have been a grievance against those who were depriving people of the right to pay cult to their dead ancestors, a circumstance that has little connection with the supposed case of the missing body of Jesus; (2) the first thing it aims at preventing is not the taking of bodies, but the moving of entire tombs and graves, which makes no sense as a concern that would arise from the mere theft of a body; (3) the second thing it prohibits is the destroying of tombs, which again makes no sense in the case of the empty tomb story; (4) the edict goes out of its way to mention a worry that body-snatchers are stealing bodies to do injury to them, which again makes no sense as a concern that would arise from the empty tomb account; (5) the law goes out of its way to prohibit stealing a doorstone, yet none of the empty tomb accounts mention the stone being carried off, and it is not clear what this would even have to do with that case; (6) then the law prohibits switching stones, which likely refers not only to doorstones but to all stones, since the actual word for doorstone is used in the previous section while the generic "stone" is used here, and this is very likely a law against taking a stone from a tomb's walls or alcoves, in order to use it elsewhere, and perhaps putting in its place an inferior stone, a worry that has no link at all with the story of Jesus' tomb, and thus begs for an explanation.

So there are six details in this edict that make no sense at all if it was inspired by the reported theft of Jesus' body, but which do make sense if something much more widespread and quite different was going on that called for such an edict, with so many specific crimes involved, and a central focus on preserving the observation of the proper burial cult for their ancestral tombs, and, in connection with this, preventing tombs from being relocated, and their stones from being stolen. Only in the midst of all this is the theft or abuse of bodies mentioned, and this is obviously connected with the general issue evident throughout the decree, and thus not with a specific theft event such as that of Jesus.


An excellent summary of the history and nature of this inscription in English, complete with a list of all other work on it up to that time, is F. de Zulueta's article "Violation of Sepulture in Palestine at the Beginning of the Christian Era," Journal of Roman Studies 22 (1932), pp. 184-97, and this relies heavily on the most decisive research and commentary on the stone, available only in the French of F. Cumont's "Un Rescrit Impérial sur la Violation de Sépulture," Revue Historique (Jan-Apr. 1930), pp. 241-66. I refer to these in what follows:

The Date: Zulueta concludes that the most extreme possible dates of the inscription, based on the style of lettering, are 50 B.C. to A.D. 50. He thinks it most likely in the middle, thus around the turn of the era, long before the death of Jesus. Cumont agrees, believing the edict to be of Augustus, although it may even be of Julius Caesar from the time of the Alexandrine War. Both arrive at this conclusion because the edict states simply "Caesar" and does not qualify with the specific successor's name, as is almost always the case. Thus, the claim that it dates to the reign of Tiberius or Claudius is not only unsupported by any evidence, but is all but contradicted by the evidence. A Claudian date was conjectured by Dr. De Sanctis only because Galilee (where Nazareth is located) was not under the empire until the time of Claudius, but this is not very decisive for two reasons: first, allied states often voluntarily appealed to Julius Caesar or Augustus for a ruling in some issue (especially in time of war, when the power of Rome was the only effective law enforcer around); second, it is very doubtful that the inscription is actually from Nazareth.

The Location: the inscription's origin is not clearly known. It was found in the collection of a man named Fröhner when it was donated to the Paris National Library in 1925. His notes on the item state nothing more than "Dalle de marbre envoyée de Nazareth en 1878." That's it. This translates as "Slab of marble sent from Nazareth in 1878." Zulueta observes that this does not say "found" in Nazareth (découverte à), but sent from there, and it has been shown that Fröhner's "notes on the provenance of his treasures are very exact," thus he can be counted on to have chosen his words carefully.

In the late 19th century there were only two major market centers for all antiquities recovered in Palestine: Jerusalem and Nazareth. Thus, Zulueta makes the plausible conjecture that the slab was recovered either in Samaria or Decapolis and either purchased in or shipped out of the nearest possible place, which would be Nazareth. Indeed, Zulueta also observes that the text uses the plural form "gods" which would have been offensive to Jews, making the most likely origin the Hellenized district of Decapolis. In line with this is the constant emphasis in the decree of the cult of the dead, even as being on par with the religious worship of gods, a choice of words and phrases that would not have been much approved by Jews, no matter how much it might have been true, but would have made perfect sense in a community of Greeks. On the other hand, there is an historical event in Samaria that could have served as a cause of this decree: in 8 A.D. some Samaritans entered the Temple after midnight and tossed around corpses they had presumably illegally exumed elsewhere, possibly provoking the recall of the governor Coponius.[7] Even so, Zulueta leans in favor of Decapolis, since this edict seems to be unconnected with a Temple violation, and to be aimed more at Greeks than Jews.

To this it can be added that a tiny village of no more than a few hundred inhabitants, none of whom are even remotely likely to have been literate (or even speakers of Greek[8]), is not where such an inscription would be set up. Jerusalem would have been a candidate, but not Nazareth, where the inscription would be useless and a pointless expense. Though the poor quality of the inscription demonstrates that it was put up by a private person, who either was or who hired a scribe who was somewhat incompetent in Greek (but who apparently knew Latin), even this sort of person would not go to all this trouble and expense to put up a slab like this where no one would read it--though even if he did, its location would have nothing to do with the interests of the emperor or governor.[9] All of the above evidence decides fairly strongly against a Nazarene provenance, and in favor of an Augustan date.

Laws Against Graverobbing

Whatever the case, it was in my opinion already a capital crime for non-Romans to disturb graves in the time of Julius Caesar, thus this Nazareth Inscription cannot be a new law, and for this reason is even less likely to be connected with Jesus in any specific way, even if post-Augustan.

We know that at one point the law was as follows: Gaius, in a textbook on Roman law called the Institutes (c. 160 A.D.), speaking in the context of traditional law, says that as soon as a body is buried in a tomb by its owner, the tomb and body become religiosus, consecrated to the gods of the underworld. Violation of any such thing is an act of sacrilege (2.2-10). When we examine the Nazareth Inscription, this is what we see going on: Roman law is being promulgated among Greeks. First, the Roman idea that trials concerning tombs of men are just like trials concerning the things of the gods is an explanation of the Roman legal principle of religiosum. The rest of the law is therefore an elaboration of the Roman crime of sacrilege, being applied to a previously non-Roman territory.

Marcian's Institutes (c. 310 A.D.) reports that "it is laid down further in the mandates on sacrilege that provincial governors are to track down those who commit sacrilege, brigands, and kidnappers, and punish each according to the degree of his offense. And it is so provided in the constitutions, that those who commit sacrilege are to be punished with a fitting penalty extra ordinem" (14; cf. Digest of Justinian: 48.13.4.2).[10] The crucifixion of Jesus is an example of trial extra ordinem. It essentially means the governor has a carte blanche when it comes to deciding guilt and punishment. Note, also, how sacrilege is equated with brigandage and kidnapping--it is thus an extremely grave crime.

What penalties were typical? Ulpian's Duties of the Proconsul (c. 220 A.D.) states that "Many have been condemned to the wild beasts for sacrilege, some even burned alive, and others hanged on the gallows." Even the lightest penalty is "deportation to an island." (7; D. 48.13.7) and in his Praetor's Edict from the same period "the action for violation of a tomb entails infamia" (2; D. 47.12.1), i.e. "disgrace," a formal legal term entailing loss of important rights as well as gaining a severely poor reputation--the criminal becomes "infamous" and loses the right to represent himself or others in any court of law, and the right to stand for or hold any office.[11] Ulpian continues that "by tomb we understand any place of burial" (ibid. 25; D. 47.12.3.2), and that Septimius Severus (between 193 and 211 A.D.) reinforced by decree that "corpses are not to be detained or molested" (ibid. 25; D. 47.12.3.3) and that "provincial governors are to take severe action against those who despoil corpses" (ibid. 25; D. 47.12.3.7).

Though these sources are late, they are almost certainly reflecting and codifying laws and traditions that are very old. In fact, that Severus would have to reinforce the law about bodies by decree shows that emperors more than once had occasion to issue such decrees for reasons entirely unrelated to Christianity, and therefore the Nazareth Inscription can have no certain connection with Jesus. It also shows that no matter how severe the laws, people still broke them, and regularly got away with it, so much so that frustrated emperors had to keep issuing decrees--considering the near total lack of a system of criminal detectives in the ancient world, and the complete absence of forensic techniques, laws were notoriously difficult to enforce.

Ulpian then reports in the same passage that despoiling of corpses had granted a civil action since the time of Labeo, i.e. before Augustus and thus well before the date of Jesus. That means that Joseph of Arimathea, for example, could have sued anyone who removed the corpse of Jesus from its tomb after its final burial [12]--for if Joseph was indeed a councilmember, he would have been a Roman citizen as almost all such men were. This civil action likely coexisted with the criminal action for sacrilege [13]. Also, the loss of a civil suit very often resulted in infamia--though this could be avoided by settling out of court, it would be dangerous to assume that Joseph would accept such a settlement.[14]

Finally, Macer's Public Prosecutions (c. 230 A.D.) reports that "the offense of violating a tomb can be said to come under the Lex Julia de vi publica...where it is provided that nothing shall be done to prevent the occupant from being entombed" (1; D. 47.12.8). By definition, a Lex Julia was passed by Julius Caesar or Augustus [15], and therefore this law would have already been in place in Jesus' day. The particular law in question here is a law against the use of force in public, such as any act of breaking and entering entails, and like most felonies was a capital crime for non-citizens. Paul's Views (c. 220 A.D.) concludes that "Those guilty of violating tombs, if they remove the bodies or scatter the bones, will suffer the supreme penalty [i.e. death] if they be of the lower orders; if they be more reputable, they are deported to an island. Otherwise, the latter will be relegated [i.e. banished] and the former condemned to the mines" (5; D. 47.12.11). In Paul's day this distinction between higher and lower persons replaced what had formerly distinguished citizen and non-citizen (in Paul's day, all inhabitants of the empire were citizens, by imperial decree as of 212 A.D.). Thus, the case seems to strongly favor the fact that the Nazareth Inscription is merely extending or explaining already-existing Roman law to an Eastern province, and is not a novel decree.

Conclusion

The Nazareth Inscription provides no evidence for Christianity or its claim of an empty tomb. It contains no new or unusual laws regarding graverobbing, the decree itself is not unique, and it has no references or direct links to Christianity of any kind. Moreover, it's date is most likely pre-Christian, its origin is not likely to be Nazareth, and its contents are not explainable even as a muddled imperial reaction to the theft of Jesus' body. To tie this to Christianity requires piling dozens of conjectures onto scores of speculations, and the rejection of a good supply of contrary indications and evidence, and none of this is either necessary or reasonable.


[1] When Skeptics Ask: A Handbook on Christian Evidences (1990), p. 206. The exact same paragraph appears even more recently in Geisler's Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (1998), p. 48. The statement in both is as follows:

A slab of stone was found in Nazareth in 1878, inscribed with a decree from Emperor Claudius (A.D. 41-54) that no graves should be disturbed or bodies extracted or moved. This type of decree is not uncommon, but the startling fact is that here "the offender [shall] be sentenced to capital punishment on [the] charge of violation of [a] sepulchre" (Hemer, BASHH, 155). Other notices warned of a fine, but death for disturbing graves? A likely explanation is that Claudius, having heard of the Christian doctrine of resurrection and Jesus' empty tomb while investigating the riots of A.D. 49, decided not to let any such report surface again. This would make sense in light of the Jewish argument that the body had been stolen (Matt. 28:11-15). This is early testimony to the strong and persistent belief that Jesus rose from the dead.

The link with the Jewish riot in Rome is imaginative but pure speculation.

[2] The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict (1999). This is the 2nd ed. of the original ETDAV publ. in 1972, rev. in 1979. For a complete critique of the latter, see The Jury is In. The Nazareth Inscription is mentioned in the 2nd ed., pp. 244-5, § 9.6A.2B.1C; and in the 1st ed., p. 218, § 10.4A.2B.1C; in both places the material is identical but for one word (a "which" is replaced with a more correct "that"). McDowell adds to his 2nd ed. the exact quote from the previous work, n. 1 (p. 67, § 3.3A.3B.2C.6D).

[3] cf. Fergus Millar, The Emperor in the Roman World (1977) and Andrew Lintott, Imperium Romanum: Politics and Administration (1993).

[4] I write here "edict," following the actual Greek word used, and I use this interchangeably with "decree" and "law" as synonymns throughout this essay, even though there is technically an important difference between an edict, decree, rescript, mandate, and lex ("law"). I do not wish to trouble readers with these technicalities (they ultimately do not matter here), but those concerned should be aware that though the decisions of the emperor were effectively the law they were technically not "laws" as such. And for those interested in the technicalities, Zulueta advances good reasons to regard this inscription as of either a mandate or a rescript, and most likely the latter, and not a decree or an edict. This is another example of the scribe's incompetence. A rescript is an official response by the emperor to a request from a governor (sometimes even a private citizen, though that is not likely in this case) concerning a growing problem, and Zulueta holds, with good reason, that it was most likely sent to the governor of Syria (p. 195), since it was probably meant for Decapolis, but it would have been sent to the governor of Judaea if it was meant for Samaria.

[5] The word here, katochos, means the stone that seals the tomb, but it can also mean the title stone--the stone that states who owns the tomb. Removing the latter is even more obviously a crime, and the term is perhaps meant to include both. Zulueta brings up the possibility that the scribe has accidentally added "or" between this word and the next word for a mere generic "stone." This is not an unlikely error, and if so the law does not after all refer to just any stones, but only these stones specifically. In such a case, "title stone" may be a more likely meaning: what is being outlawed in such a case is theft of a tomb by swapping property markers.

[6] There is an important legal distinction here lost on most commentators, but duly noted by Zulueta: the rule says the emperor orders a trial to occur (in Latin terminology, sic iubeo), but merely desires the death penalty (In Latin this would be sic volo). In other words, this punishment is a recommendation and not a requirement. The significance of this detail becomes clear in the second part of this essay.

[7] Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 18.29. The passage is problematic and it is not clear what the Samaritans were up to, what the point was for Josephus to mention this event, or whether something has become corrupt or omitted in his text here.

[8] Many scholars have argued that the heart of Galilee, especially around Nazareth in its proximity to Sepphoris, was very Hellenized and that Greek would have been known, at least a little. Recent work suggests the opposite: there is in fact no evidence of Greek or particularly Hellenic culture there in the time of Jesus (only after the first and second Jewish Revolts--not coincidentally when the Gospels were written). According to Mark Chancey and Eric Meyers, "How Jewish was Sepphoris in Jesus' Time?" (Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 2000, pp. 18-33, 61), "the evidence for the use of Greek in Galilee before and during the time of Jesus is extremely limited." The only evidence, in fact, in the area of Sepphoris and Nazareth, is a single Hebrew transcription of a Greek office title on a piece of pottery, coins with Greek inscriptions, Greek words on two weights found at Tiberias, "and a famous inscription discovered near Nazareth," the very one we are talking about (p. 33). But a Hebrew transcription is actually evidence against common knowledge of Greek; Tiberias was a new city, built in 20 A.D., by the Hellenizing Antipas (p. 23), and thus is unlikely to have been representative, or to have influenced Jesus in his formative years; coins in the area were deliberate propaganda aimed at advertising "Greekness" to the Romans so as to stave off antisemitic attitudes, and thus are not aimed at being read by the commons; and the Nazareth Inscription, as we see, is not at all likely to have come from Nazareth. In other words, all the "evidence" evaporates on close examination. Thus, "Hebrew language and literature, as well as Aramaic and Jewish culture, dominated the region at this time" (p 33).

[9] Zulueta notes that "Hellenistic sepulchral inscriptions are found which put civil and criminal prosecution side by side" (p. 190), citing F. Wamser, De iure sepulcrali Romanorum quid tituli doceant (1887), pp. 31-5. This may be one of those: a stone set up over someone's tomb to discourage (at least literate) thieves.

[10] The Digest of Justinian is a collection of laws made in the 6th century A.D. by imperial order, drawing on laws from as early as the Republic. The editors were known to alter texts to make them coherent and contemporary, but in this case it is most unlikely that what I discuss was not the law even in Republican times. Imperial edicts often aimed at reinforcing already-existing laws, not merely creating new ones, and this is even more the case when Roman law was being applied to regions where it was not already the standard. I use the translations of Alan Watson (U. of Pennsylvania Press, 1985), and shall abbreviate this work from now on as D.

[11] cf. s.v. "infamia," Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed., Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth, eds. (1996).

[12] It is often overlooked that Jesus was never officially buried. Joseph placed Jesus in his tomb due to a lack of time, and under Jewish law this was a purely temporary measure for storing a body until it could be properly buried. "During the Second Temple period and later, Jews often practiced temporary burial...a borrowed or temporary cave was used for a limited time, and the occupation of the cave by the corpse conferred no rights of ownership upon the family...[and] Jesus' interment was probably of this nature" (Amos Kloner, "Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus' Tomb?" Biblical Archaeology Review 25:5, Sept/Oct 1999, p. 29). Kloner cites ancient Jewish writings: "Whoever finds a corpse in a tomb should not move it from its place, unless he knows that this is a temporary grave," for example "Rabban Gamliel had a temporary tomb in Yabneh into which they bring the corpse and lock the door upon it," just as Joseph does with Jesus (Semahot 13.5, 10.8, translations by Dov Zlotnik, The Tractate "Mourning", Yale Judaica Series 18, 1966, p. 84, 74).
           Thus, if the Disciples or anyone like Joseph himself had taken the body, it would not have been sacrilege, since the body had not yet been consecrated (it was not, in legal terminology, perpetuae sepulturae traditum, cf. Zulueta, p. 197). Indeed, if the body was taken, only Joseph and the family of Jesus could bring charges in such a case, and then only if some outrage ("injury") was performed on the body. This is yet another reason why the Nazareth Inscription cannot be related to the story of Jesus, since nothing in it would apply to the moving of a body from its temporary holding place. And for those who doubt it, note that Mary shows no qualms about what would otherwise be the illegal moving of a doorstone in Mark 16:3. This is also one of two significant rebuttals to the claim that no one would have dared steal the body, to create the illusion of a resurrection, for fear of dire punishment--the other is the fact that people were obviously getting away with this kind of crime so often that emperors had to keep reasserting the law. Emperors frequently tried to threaten death for everything and ended up stopping nothing.

[13] Zulueta assumes that the seemingly more popular recourse to a civil action entails that there was no criminal action until late, but this is not sound reasoning. It was quite common for a victim, just like today, to have simultaneous recourse to both a civil and a criminal action; cf. Barry Nichols, An Introduction to Roman Law (1962). Indeed, Zulueta's only evidence of the "popularity" of the civil action is its existence in what is reconstructed to have been the Praetor's Edict under the Republic, but since that edict only dealt with civil actions, we will not see in such a source any of the corresponding criminal actions that were available. He is thus falling victim to selection bias.

[14] This is an important fact that apologists should not overlook when proposing that "all that the Jews had to do" in order to refute Christianity was grab the body and parade it in the streets. Once the body had been consecrated, such an act would be so legally disastrous for anyone who tried it--since it would not be an act of stealth but publicly broadcast, leaving countless witnesses to testify in court to the outrage--that it is absurd to propose they would have done it. Even if the Jews knew where the body was, they were helpless. They could not touch it. They would be open to both civil and criminal sanctions, suffering infamy, exile, and financial ruin. Nor could they even display it. They could point to the tomb and insist it had a body in it, but they could not compel Joseph to open it and offer proof, and it would be no trouble to have already placed the bodies of other kin in there, such that even if he opened it for witnesses to peer in, this would offer no support to the Jews' claim that one of the wrapped and untouchable bodies therein was Jesus. No one by that time would ever be able to violate the body to see whose it was, not even Joseph himself. Although someone like Pilate could perhaps have done this (though still at great risk to his career) as an exercise of his imperium, there is no reason to suppose that he or any Roman would have cared to--the religious squabbles of Jewish sects were of no interest to them (as is evident even in Acts)--and there would be no occasion for a Roman official to prove a crime wasn't committed (the Romans had no concept of a public defender), yet the use of imperium had to be justified, such as by an immanent threat to public order, lest the magistrate be subject to prosecution when his term ended.

[15] Here is an occasion to point out how this differs from an edict or rescript (cf. n. 4): this Lex would have been proposed by either Julius Caesar or Augustus, and then actually passed by popular vote of all the citizens of Rome. Thus, the Nazareth Inscription is not a Lex, since the people of Rome are not mentioned, though it may borrow entirely from, or expand upon, an existing Lex (or a Senatus Consultum, a kind of unofficial "law," and the Republican precedent to the Imperial "decree") in order to transfer or advertise Roman laws to non-Roman peoples.


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