It is sometime before AD 50. A Roman emperor orders an edict – those caught robbing tombs and extracting bodies will be put to death. Strange, is it not? Found in Nazareth of all places, it comes to be known as the Nazareth Inscription. Its unique and uncanny characteristics make the edict an interesting puzzle piece that fits perfectly in a post-resurrection context – a very human response traceable to the initial Jewish position on Jesus’ resurrection and the Roman insecurity about the potential rise of a king who could have challenged the empire.
Tomb violation (Violatio sepulchri) was already a crime under Roman law at least as far back as 43 BCICicero, De Legibus, II. However, the Nazareth Inscription appears to have been something slightly different. Because of the brevity of the inscription, it is generally thought to be a redacted replica and not an original. Still, what it tells us is quite intriguing,
“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.” IIBillington, Clyde E. “The Nazareth Inscription: Proof of the Resurrection of Christ?”. Artifax (Spring 2005).
Apparently, during the time the inscription was likely made, Romans did not typically bury their dead but cremated them. Graves were mostly housing for urns. According to the Dictionary of Roman Religion,
“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.” IIILesley and Roy Adkins, Dictionary of Roman Religion, p. 34
It’s unlikely that an edict would be ordered for such a vast minority if the target of the order were the Romans. Additionally, the Romans were not known to have family tombs. Both the very few who were buried and urns with cremated remains were placed in individual graves in cemeteries, and not in family tombs.
Both, the limited number of inhumation of corpses and the mention of family tombs make the Nazareth Inscription far less likely to be directed at Romans and far more reasonable to have been directed at the Jews. The Jews did not cremate their dead, they buried them. And the Jews are well known for burying their dead in family tombs.
The few burials of Roman bodies were buried underground, not in tombs. Yet, there is no mention of bodies being dug up; the word used for removal is “extracted” – does not fit within the Roman tradition, fits perfectly within Jewish tradition. There is no mention of urns being stolen or human ashes being scattered – this too fits better within the Jewish tradition. The minority of Roman burials that were of dead bodies (as opposed to cremation) were burials in wood or lead coffins. Yet, the Nazareth Inscription makes no mention of coffins. This too fits within the Jewish burial rites better than those of the Romans.
The vast majority of the Greco-Roman burials were done in cemeteries. Yet, the Nazareth Inscription makes no mention of cemeteries. The mention of “graves and tombs,” especially with the usage of “family tombs” (foreign to Roman tradition), do not fit at all within the Roman tradition but fit perfectly within the Jewish tradition. And finally, “sepulcher-sealing stones” were not used for inhumation burials by gentiles in the Roman Empire – another fact that is completely foreign to Roman tradition but which also fits perfectly within the Jewish tradition.
What could the Nazareth Inscription have to do with Jesus’ resurrection? Once word got out that Jesus’ body was missing from his tomb, the Jews responded by speculating that Jesus’ disciples stole the body. We see this mentioned in the biblical text,
“When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.'” (Matthew 28:12-13)
If this was the earliest Jewish response to the resurrection, then it was likely the formal positions of the Jewish religious leaders that Jesus’ disciples stole his body from the tomb. And if this was the formal position of the Jewish leadership, it would have quite easily found its way to the Roman leadership. The Roman leaders, believing that this supposed theft was actually true, would undoubtedly want to put the Christian “myth” of resurrection to rest and reiterate the Violatio sepulchri already in effect, except in an edict specifically targeting the Jews and exacting the harshest punishment of death for violators.
The general dating of the Nazareth Inscription is fairly broad – between 50 BC and AD 50 – a span of 100 years. However, several factors allow us to come to a reasonable conclusion of a more narrow dating window.
Jerusalem was conquered by the Romans in 63 BC, and a military conquest would hardly be the likely catalyst of such an edict in the early season of the tumultuous relationship between Rome and Israel. There is no conceivable reason why a Caesar would care to not only pass an edict for such a thing but to target Jewish burial sites and be concerned with the theft of Jewish corpses immediately after Rome started to rule in the region.
There is, however, good reason for a Caesar to have ordered the inscription targeting the Jews after AD 30 – after the resurrection. For one, because of the various uprisings in the area, Rome was more interested in gauging the diplomatic pulse of the Jews to make smarter political decisions.
Secondly, the rise of Christianity, which was entirely detestable to the Romans, would have been an extremely likely catalyst for the edict and the Nazareth Inscription. Tacitus, the Roman historian tells us that during the reign of Nero (AD 54-68), Rome was already struggling to suppress the Christian “superstition,”
“…the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time, broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also.” IVTacitus, Cornelius, Annals, XV, 44.
The suppression of Christianity did not start with Nero. It actually began at the resurrection. The first picture the Jews painted of Jesus for the Roman rulers was of a king who could potentially threaten Rome rule and authority over the people of the region. This picture with the addition of their claim that his disciples stole his body, would have likely been an interesting concoction to strike some fear.
The various features of the edict and the post-resurrection setting make AD 30-50 the likeliest time frame during which the inscription was likely created. This narrows down the list of Caesars who would have ordered it to Tiberius (ruled AD 14-37), Caligula (ruled AD 37-41), and Claudius (ruled AD 41-54).
Though we have a general pool of three Caesars, the ruler most likely to have ordered the Nazareth Inscription was none other than Claudius. And if this is the case, then the Nazareth Inscription would be dated AD 41-54, the period during which Claudius ruled. Why Claudius?
Claudius was a very intelligent ruler. He was especially fond of the Latin writings of Cicero, even wrote a book defending Cicero (Defense of Cicero against the Writings of Asinius Gallus). Recall that Cicero was one of the early writers who mentioned Violatio sepulchri in his writings. Not only does this reiteration of a preexisting form of the edict get mentioned by Claudius sourced from one of his heroes, Cicero, but Claudius’ rescripts in Greek show intriguing evidence of the stylistic features of Cicero’s Latin writings – the same thing is apparent in the Nazareth Inscription. For more details into the linguistic consistency between the two, please see ARTIFAX Magazine and The Institute for Biblical Archaeology. For additional details regarding the linguistic reasons for attributing the Nazareth Inscription to Claudius, please see the same resource noted above. For additional details on the attribution of the authorship of the Nazareth Inscription to Claudius, see this reprint.
There is no clear-cut certainty regarding the reasons for the Nazareth Inscription. However, there is ample evidence from the text, context, and historical setting to get a fairly good idea. We must speculate but the speculations are drawn from facts.
A Caesar who assumed the resurrection to be a myth but believed it to be a potential coup by some Christians, may very well have assumed Christians to be plotting some insurrection using the “myth” of a resurrected king to drum up confidence in those whom he may have thought to be a danger to Rome in some sense.
We don’t know for sure but it’s very possible that the edict inscribed on the Nazareth Inscription was an effort to suppress any similar attempts in the future. It is also possible that Caesar saw the claim of a resurrection king whom his followers worshipped to be a threat to his own glory. That could very well have led to or contributed to his reasons for suppressing Christianity as well. Thought most of the reasons for the Nazareth Inscription must be speculated since we don’t have proof, it is rather obvious that the central reason why a Roman ruler may have wanted to do it had something to do with the claims of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. There is no other conceivable reason why a Roman ruler would establish an edict targeting the Jews with the specifics of stealing a corpse, rather than what is generally stolen from tombs, namely valuables.What reason would anyone have to steal bodies from tombs? Nothing from history tells us that this was a big enough problem warranting an edict criminalizing it with the harsh penalty of death by a Caesar nonetheless. Click To Tweet
So why is the Nazareth Inscription intriguing with its implicit ties to the resurrection? Because…
While the Nazareth inscription is not proof of the resurrection of Jesus, it is certainly consistent with what one might expect as a human response to the Jewish claims that the disciples stole Jesus’ body and complaints to the Roman authorities. For reasons outlined here, the Nazareth Inscription was likely a direct response to the claims of a resurrected savior, a reborn King who in Roman eyes may have compromised its rule, and it best fits the earliest known Jewish response to the claims of Jesus’ resurrection.
References [ + ]
|I.||↵||Cicero, De Legibus, II|
|II.||↵||Billington, Clyde E. “The Nazareth Inscription: Proof of the Resurrection of Christ?”. Artifax (Spring 2005).|
|III.||↵||Lesley and Roy Adkins, Dictionary of Roman Religion, p. 34|
|IV.||↵||Tacitus, Cornelius, Annals, XV, 44.|
Arthur is an author, a former agnostic, and a current ambassador of Jesus of Nazareth who loves to share the best of reasons for God's ultimate reality. His love and passion are helping skeptics and Christians grow in their faith and knowledge of God through accessible materials.