Archaeology22-line text condemns disturbing tombs, removing corpses

Hi-tech test shatters claim ancient inscription is 1st proof of Christianity

Study indicates the marble bearing the ‘Nazareth Inscription,’ a mysterious 1st century text linked by some to Jesus’s resurrection, was quarried in Greece, not the Holy Land

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

Left: 'Christus Pantocrator' at the Cathedral of Cefalù, c. 1130. (Andreas Wahra/ CC-BY-SA/ via wikipedia) Right: The Nazareth Inscription, Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, France. (Journal of Archaeological Science)
Left: 'Christus Pantocrator' at the Cathedral of Cefalù, c. 1130. (Andreas Wahra/ CC-BY-SA/ via wikipedia) Right: The Nazareth Inscription, Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, France. (Journal of Archaeological Science)

After a century of debate, scientists using hi-tech isotope analysis have identified the origins of the marble from an inscription claimed by some scholars to be the oldest physical evidence of Christianity.

The so-called Nazareth Inscription is a 22-line imperial Greek edict against grave desecration that some have claimed constitutes the oldest physical evidence of early Christianity. It was discovered in Paris in 1925 with no provenance, aside from an obscure journal entry from its deceased owner that it was “from Nazareth.”

Now, however, the search for its origins has gained a hi-tech boost with a new isotope study probing the the marble on which it’s carved. According to the study, the elemental makeup of the marble slab does not indicate a connection between the Nazareth Inscription and the eponymous Holy Land city associated with Jesus Christ. Rather, it was quarried on the Greek island of Kos.

According to the authors of “Establishing the provenance of the Nazareth Inscription: Using stable isotopes to resolve a historic controversy and trace ancient marble production,” published in the monthly peer-reviewed Journal of Archaeological Science, their study is the first known use of “stable isotope analysis to identify the quarry of an important inscription whose provenance was unknown.”

The study was carried out by scholars from the University of Oklahoma and Harvard University in the US and Université de Lorraine in France.

The Nazareth Inscription is a 60-centimeter tall, 37.5-cm wide, and 6-cm deep (roughly 23.5 x 15 x 2 inches) slab of marble upon which are etched 22 lines of text that, to some scholars and Christian believers, hearken to Jesus’ resurrection. The edict was translated into Greek from Latin, but its meaning is clear: An unnamed Roman emperor threatens dire consequences for disturbing corpses or tombs.

In a translation included in the isotope study, the emperor states, “Edict of Caesar. It is my pleasure that graves and tombs which anyone has prepared as a pious service for forebears, children, or members of his household are to remain forever unmolested… No one whatsoever shall be permitted to remove them. If anyone does so, however, it is my will that he shall suffer capital punishment on the charge of desecration of graves.”

Michael Langlois, who holds a PhD in Historical and Philological Sciences from the Sorbonne and is today a researcher at the French Researcher Center in Jerusalem. (Veikko Somerpuro)

According to French epigrapher and historian Michael Langlois, “the inscription is of special interest to Christianity because it condemns the disturbance of tombs and removal of corpses.” He cites the Book of Matthew, the first gospel in the New Testament, in which Jewish Temple priests suggest that Jesus’ empty tomb (Chapter 28, Verse 13) is a result of his disciples removing their leader’s body during the night.

The idea of corpse removal “is presented as an excuse for his disappearance by those who reject the resurrection account. So, if a Roman ruler from the time of Jesus condemns such activity, it is tempting to connect it to the biblical account — and even to suggest that it was written precisely because of Jesus’ resurrection!” Langlois told The Times of Israel in an email.

While the historical occasion of the issuance of the circa 50 CE imperial edict is puzzling, it is only rivaled by the mystery surrounding the artifact’s provenance. There is no true record of where it came from before it ended up in wizened Paris-based collector Wilhelm Froehner’s hands circa 1878. Upon his death in 1925, Froehner left some 3,400 largely uncatalogued items. About this inscription, he merely wrote in a journal, “sent from Nazareth in 1878.”

The Nazareth Inscription, Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, France. (Journal of Archaeological Science)

According to scholars’ palaeographical dating (dating on the basis of the shape of a text’s script), the inscription was written between the late 1st century BCE and the first half of the 1st century CE.

Epigrapher Langlois, who did not participate in the isotope study, agreed that the script “does fit the turn of the Christian Era (first centuries BCE and CE), but we cannot exclude other dates.” He further cautioned, “As we find more and more inscriptions, we realize that some of the shapes considered typical of a certain period may actually be found in other times.”

Assuming that the Nazareth Inscription was written by the upper margin of 50 CE, however, this later estimate would still predate the first recorded New Testament account of Jesus’s life and death, the Gospel of Mark, by several decades. Therefore, it could be the first physical “proof” of Jesus’s resurrection.

That is, of course, if it is real.

“Sensational finds coming from the market are always suspicious, and there is always the possibility that they might be forgeries. The Nazareth inscription is no exception,” said Langlois.

Provenance and the 19th century antiquities markets

Today, the inscription is housed in the National Library of France Bibliothèque nationale de France. But until collector Froehner’s 1925 death, it was unknown to the world.

In a 2018 Los Angeles Review of Books treatment of the Nazareth Inscription, ancient Rome historian Kyle Harper — who is also one of the authors of the isotope study — writes that Froehner was a one-time Louvre scholar who, ousted from his post, turned into an authenticator of antiquities for moneyed minor aristocracy. Of  Froehner’s own large collection, Harper writes, “His silence is that of a dragon content to brood over a treasure, of which the world is anyway ignorant.”

Since the Nazareth Inscription’s discovery in 1925, there have been two prevailing schools of thought over its origins: one, that it stood in Nazareth, Jesus’s hometown and reflected whispers of awareness in the halls of official Rome of early Christianity. Or, two, that it has nothing to do with Nazareth at all.

That is the conclusion reached by the new isotope study, which found that the marble was quarried on the Greek island of Kos.

According to the scientific article, the first scholar to publish on the inscription, Franz Cumont in 1930, stated that “the law could have been part of the general restoration of religion, morals and social order by the first emperor, Augustus.”

Augustus (photo credit: CC-BY-SA Till Niermann, Wikimedia Commons)
Augustus (CC-BY-SA Till Niermann, Wikimedia Commons)

As to the historical impetus of the particular inscription, the authors have a hypothesis: During the 30s BCE, Kos was ruled by a dictator called Nikias, whose importance was great enough to have been known by Octavian Caesar (the future emperor Augustus) and Mark Antony. “Like many rulers in the east, Nikias was likely a partisan of Mark Antony and Cleopatra in their famous conflict against Octavian. Sometime after his death, for reasons that remain obscure, the people of Kos broke into the tomb of Nikias and desecrated his corpse… The affair was scandalous enough that a near contemporary Greek poet used the life of Nikias as a byword for the reversal of fortune,” write the authors.

“Occam’s razor suggests that the Edict of Caesar was prompted by an episode of tomb desecration on the very island where the marble was quarried,” reason the authors.

That is, again, if the inscription was actually written at the turn of the Common Era.

“When an artifact surfaces on the antiquities market, its context is lost, and it becomes almost impossible to offer a full interpretation of the find,” said Langlois. “And of course there is also the issue of authenticity: there were a lot of biblical forgeries on the antiquities market in the late nineteenth century.”

The forgeries did not end in the 19th century, of course: The recent high-profile scandal in which the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, was forced to announced that its store of invaluable Dead Sea Scroll fragments are all forgeries is just one recent example of a collector’s lack of caution around sensational finds.

A Dead Sea Scrolls fragment from the book of Micah, part of Museum of the Bible’s Scholars Initiative research project published by Brill in 2016. (Image by Bruce and Kenneth Zuckerman and Marilyn J. Lundberg, West Semitic Research, courtesy of Museum of the Bible)

The impetus of antiquities collectors to prove that the Bible is historically accurate makes them easy prey to forgers, said Langlois. “But I fail to see what kind of historical discovery would lead someone to become a believer. Faith, by definition, exists when we have reached the boundaries of science. I do not need to have faith that 2+2=4,” mused Langlois.

“As we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, let us remember that this is a matter of faith. Actually, this is arguably one of the greatest acts of faith for Christians throughout the world,” he said.

A Holy Land-Kos connection

Was collector Froehner — or his friend and patron Count Michał Tyszkiewicz who likely gifted him the inscription in 1878 during the Paris Exposition Universelle — duped by some imaginative antiquities dealer? Or, tantalizingly, could the inscription somehow have made its way from Kos to the Holy Land?

According to the isotope study, King Herod, who ruled circa 37 BCE until his death in 4 BCE, had ties to Kos. Jewish historian Josephus records that Kos citizens were at the center of the Herodian court’s intrigues, and that the king himself endowed a gymnasium on Kos, as is recorded in an inscription found on the island. Likewise, Herod’s successor, Herod Antipas, who ruled the Galilee during Jesus’s lifetime, until 39 CE, is also “honored in contemporary inscriptions that survive on the island of Kos.”

A 2000-year-old coin from the rule of Herod Agrippa, found in Nahal Shilo in the West Bank in January 2019. (COGAT)

While the study heavily leans toward the Nazareth Inscription being quarried on Kos in light of the tomb desecration of local tyrant Nikias, it cannot resolutely negate the possibility that it once also stood in Nazareth, especially taking into consideration the contemporary diplomatic connections to the Herodian courts.

“It opens the intriguing possibility that the marble used in the Nazareth Inscription traveled to Palestine on commercial networks that mirrored political networks – indeed linking Kos and Galilee – which are also visible in the epigraphic and historical records,” write the authors.

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