In 1925 the German-born archaeologist and museum curator Wilhelm Froehner died. A life-long bachelor, Froehner channeled much of his energy and resources into a vast collection that some might say bordered on hoarding and left behind him a rich assemblage of artifacts (many of which went up in smoke in 2004). Among this vast array of antiquities was a 2- foot-by-2-foot block of marble known as the Nazareth Inscription.
The 22-line writing on the marble slab contains an “Edict of Caesar” that prohibited the disturbance of graves and demanded that that body-snatchers be charged with the capital offense of tomb-robbing. This was quite the innovation in Roman law but, people wondered, where was this inscription from? And to what was it responding?
The eccentric Froehner never showed the slab or its inscription to anyone; for 50 years he kept it a secret in his apartment in Paris. Even after his passing all anyone knew about the slab’s history was a note in Froehner’s inventory stating that it was “sent from Nazareth in 1878.” The reference to the Holy Land was tantalizing. Was it possible, scholars asked, that this inscription was a response to the most famous of missing bodies: the one absent from the tomb of Jesus? If it was, this inscription might be the oldest physical evidence of the emergence of Christianity, refracted through the heavy-handed response of Roman imperial power.
When information about the tablet was first published, the famous 20th-century classicist Franz Cumont supplied two explanations for the occasion of the inscription’s making. The first was that in the waning years of the Roman republic even sacred sites likes temples and tombs were caught up in the violence and indiscriminately plundered. Perhaps the stone is a response to the upheavals of this period. The second is that it was a response to the claims of Jesus' followers that their leader had been resurrected from the dead. Even at the time at least some people thought that Jesus’s body has simply been stolen. Perhaps the Roman emperor, upon hearing these stories of wandering corpses and empty tombs decided to send a message that grave-robbing and the religious movement based on it were unwelcome in the empire? In one early Christian text, Roman officials decide to withhold the body of the martyr Polycarp so that Christians wouldn’t start worshipping him. Perhaps an emperor decided to erect this message beside the supposed empty tomb of Jesus.
Even so how would the inscription have gotten from Jerusalem, to Nazareth, to Paris? Inscriptions, even heavy ones, have legs. There is ample evidence that ancient inscriptions were moved by eager antiquarians and collectors such that without specific information (dates, names, and locations) it is impossible to ascertain where they came from. That’s one of the challenges with the NazarethInscription—the edict of Caesar doesn’t even tell us which Caesar is involved—and 19th-century Nazareth was a center for antiquities trading. Without knowing where the inscription was discovered it was impossible to say for certain what it was about. The whole story was something of a mystery.
For roughly a century scholarly debate could never really settle on an answer. Classicist and University of Oklahoma Provost Kyle Harper, who has been fascinated by the inscription since he was in graduate school, decided to settle the matter once and for all. Harper told me “I was intrigued by the impasse among scholars; is this a crucial witness of early Christianity (possibly the oldest physical thing that in any way authentically reflects a reaction to the Jesus movement), or not?”
Harper obtained permission from the National Library of France (the current home of the Nazareth Inscription) to test a small sample of marble from the back of the fragment. Geochemists at the University of Oklahoma, then ground the marble into dust to obtain and measure its “genetic fingerprint.” The tests revealed that the marble came from a small quarry on the 70-mile long Greek island of Kos, off the coast of Turkey. Given the distance from Kos to the Holy Land, it’s highly unlikely that the inscription was made in Nazareth or Jerusalem.
Nevertheless, the result are illuminating. Kos was not one of the larger marble manufacturers in antiquity. Around 20 B.C., when it is likely that the inscription was made, the tomb of the tyrannical ruler Nikias of Kos was pried open and his body removed. According to the ancient Greek poet Crinagoras of Mytilene, the locals dragged the body of Nikias out of the tomb and brought “the poor hard-dying wretch to punishment.” It is likely, Harper and his colleagues at the University of Oklahoma argue in their article for the Journal of Archaeological Science, that the inscription was made in response to these events. While it’s disappointing that the inscription is not connected to Jesus, Harper told me that, “it is satisfying to find another explanation that provides such a great fit for what we know about the marble inscription.”
What the slab reflects, Harper added, are “the efforts of a distant but powerful emperor to try to rule across a vast space with a limited bureaucracy. We can only speculate, but probably the stone was made visible as a warning that in the future people who violated the sanctity of tombs would suffer official punishment.” Grave-robbing, as any archaeologist will tell you, is a cross-cultural phenomenon. The removal and desecration of unpopular rulers has a very anti-establishment and revolutionary feel to it. Even if the residents of Kos weren’t attacking living rulers, the rejection of one authority could easily lead to the rejection of another. For the Romans, inscriptions like this one were the only tangible presence of the emperor throughout the empire. In the Nazareth Inscription the emperor addresses a fear not just for ancient people in general but for high-status individuals in particular: the fear that their tombs would be desecrated after their deaths.
The so-called Nazareth Inscription may not refer to the vanishing corpse of the man Christians celebrate as “King of Kings” but, nevertheless, does obliquely gesture to the desecration of the corpse of an ancient king. It’s just not the one people were hoping for.