Archive for the ‘Evidence fo Jesus’ Category

The Nazareth Inscription: Proof of the Resurrection of Christ?

Part One: Translation, Commentary, and Date

by Clyde E. Billington, Ph.D.

Published: 15 November 2012 (GMT+10)

This article originally appeared in the journal Artifax and is reproduced here with permission.


The Nazareth Inscription is a Greek inscription on a marble tablet measuring approximately 24 inches by 15 inches. The exact time and place of its discovery is not known. In 1878 it became an addition to the private Froehner Collection of ancient inscriptions and manuscripts, but the details of its acquisition are unknown. Froehner’s inventory of this Inscription simply states: “This marble was sent from Nazareth in 1878.” This is all that is known about the time and place of its discovery (Cumont 241–242, Zelueta 1–2). While Froehner did make a Greek miniscule transcription of the original Greek uncial version of the Nazareth Inscription, he never published either the miniscule or the uncial version, and the contents of the Nazareth Inscription remained unknown to the scholarly world for more than fifty years.

The Nazareth Inscription

In 1925 the Froehner Collection was acquired by the Paris National Library, where the Nazareth Inscription was rediscovered and read by M. Rostovtzeff. Rostovtzeff told his friend, the French scholar M. Franz Cumont about this Inscription in the Paris National Library (Cumont 241–242). With the encouragement of Rostovtzeff, Cumont published a Greek transcription and a translation of the Nazareth Inscription with a commentary in his article Un Rescrit Imperial Sur La Violation De Sepulture in the French journal Revue Historique, CLXII, in 1930. The Nazareth Inscription took the scholarly world by storm because, as will be seen, it could be read as an imperial decree against the Apostles stealing Christ’s body from His tomb and faking His resurrection. It is also very similar to the Jewish high-priestly version of the resurrection of Christ as found in Matthew 28:11–15—in other words, His disciples stole His body from the tomb.

Cumont’s publication of the Nazareth Inscription led to a snowstorm of scholarly articles; more than twenty were published by the end of 1932. None of these early articles questioned the authenticity of the Nazareth Inscription. It is highly unlikely that it is a forgery. As will be seen, the Greek text of this Inscription and its historical connections provide strong support for its authenticity. However, its interpretation and possible connection to the story of the resurrection of Christ are still hotly debated today.

The purpose of this paper is to determine if the Nazareth Inscription is an imperial response to the story of the resurrection of Christ. While the views and opinions of key modern scholars will at times be discussed, it is not the intent of this study to do reviews or critiques of the many articles written on the Nazareth Inscription.

While there are several English translations available of the Nazareth Inscription (Zulueta 184–185; Brown 2–3), I disagree with them on the translation of a few key Greek words and phrases, and I have for this reason chosen to provide my own translation below.

The Nazareth Inscription Translation


2. It is my decision [concerning] graves and tombs—whoever has made

3. them for the religious observances of parents, or children, or household

4. members—that these remain undisturbed forever. But if anyone legally

5. charges that another person has destroyed, or has in any manner extracted

6. those who have been buried, or has moved with wicked intent those who

7. have been buried to other places, committing a crime against them, or has

8. moved sepulcher-sealing stones, against such a person I order that a

9. judicial tribunal be created, just as [is done] concerning the gods in

10. human religious observances, even more so will it be obligatory to treat

11. with honor those who have been entombed. You are absolutely not to

12. allow anyone to move [those who have been entombed]. But if

13. [someone does], I wish that [violator] to suffer capital punishment under

14. the title of tomb-breaker.

Notes and commentary on my translation

While the Greek word ‘decree,’ diatagma, used in line one1 of the Nazareth Inscription may suggest to modern readers some sort of imperial legal process, the fact of the matter is that the Nazareth Inscription is almost certainly a rump or abridged version of an imperial rescript. As will be seen below, a rescript was a letter of response sent by the emperor to some sort of an imperial official. It was not uncommon for imperial rescripts to be treated as legal decrees. See Charlesworth, Documents Illustrating the Reigns of Claudius and Nero, p. 14 where the Emperor Claudius himself calls one of his rescripts on Jewish rights touto mou to diatagma or “this decree of mine.” As will be seen below, there is an imperial rescript of the Emperor Claudius which fits the pattern of the Nazareth Inscription very well. The rescript process will also be discussed in detail below.

F. de Zuluet, in his 1932 article Violation of Sepulture in Palestine at the Beginning of the Christian Era, p. 184, and Frank E. Brown in his 1952 article Violation of Sepulture in Palestine, p. 2 both translate the Greek phrase threskeian progonon in line 3 of my translation as “cult of their ancestors,” thereby suggesting that the Nazareth Inscription fits best in a pagan Greco-Roman context, where religious rituals were performed at graves by relatives. However, the word threskeian is best translated as ‘religious observance’. It is used five times in two known imperial rescripts dealing with the Jewish religion (Charlesworth, Documents, pp. 5, 14, 15). It is also used in this same way for the Jewish religion by the Jewish historian Josephus [AJ, 17.9.3]. In addition, this same Greek word (threskeian) is used several times in the New Testament as related to Christianity, see Acts 26:5James 1:26–27, andCol. 2:18. The Greek word threskeian therefore does not necessarily suggest pagan religion and can best be translated as ‘religious observance’ or even simply as ‘religion’.

It must be noted that lines 3 and 4 assume the existence of family tombs where only dead bodies—not the ashes of cremated humans—were placed. It should also be noted that there in nothing in this decree which assumes or states that the ashes of the cremated dead had been moved, lost or scattered, or that funeral urns had been destroyed or stolen. This decree also does not mention bodies or funeral urns being dug up out of the ground. Inhumation or burial in the ground in cemeteries was for both corpses and funeral urns with human ashes, the normal gentile method of burial in the Roman Empire.

The ancient Jews did not cremate, while on the other hand, cremation was more common than the inhumation of corpses for both Greek and Roman gentiles. Lesley and Roy Adkins in their Dictionary of Roman Religion write:

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 (p. 34).

In other words, most burials in the gentile areas in the eastern half of the Roman Empire in the first century AD were by cremation and inhumation of funeral urns with ashes, and not the inhumation of corpses.

The Nazareth Inscription fits very well within a Jewish family tomb context, but it does not fit at all within a gentile Greek or Roman context.

Gentile burials in the early Roman Empire, for both bodies and urns, were in individual graves in cemeteries, and not in family tombs. Only a few of the very wealthy were buried in mausoleum-style tombs, and even these mausoleum-style tombs were for individuals, and not for family burials. There are no known examples of family tombs, like those in Second Temple Israel, to be found among the other ethnic groups in the Roman Empire. This fact strongly suggests that the Nazareth Inscription was written for Jews and Jewish Christians and not for pagan gentiles. Incidentally, catacombs were nothing more than underground cemeteries, and they too were not divided into family tombs.

There are six features in the Nazareth Inscription which do not fit a non-Jewish, gentile context. First, there is no reference to bodies being dug out of the ground, only of their being ‘extracted’ from tombs and graves. Second, there is no reference to human ashes being scattered or to the urns of cremated individuals being stolen or destroyed. Third, there is no reference made to coffins, and most Roman inhumation burials of dead bodies were in wood or lead coffins. Fourth, as was mentioned above, there is an assumption of the existence of family tombs, and the gentiles in the Roman Empire did not have family tombs. Fifth, there is no reference to cemeteries, in which almost all Greco-Roman burials were made. And six, ‘sepulcher-sealing stones’—see my discussion of line 8 below—were not used for inhumation burials by gentiles in the Roman Empire. In other words as was stated above, the Nazareth Inscription fits very well within a Jewish family tomb context, but it does not fit at all within a gentile Greek or Roman context.

The Greek phrase doloi poneroi in line 6, ‘with wicked intent’, is almost certainly the equivalent of the Latin ‘cuius dolo malo’, which is found in later Roman law (see Justinian’s Digest 47.12.3). The Latin cuius dolo malo translates as: ‘by someone’s evil design’. However, Zulueta renders this Greek phrase doloi poneroi by the adverb ‘maliciously’ in his translation of the Nazareth Inscription (Zulueta, 185). Frank E. Brown in his translation in his Violation of Sepulture in Palestine, p. 2, renders this same Greek phrase as ‘with malice aforethought’. Brown’s translation is far better than Zulueta’s, but still does not give the full sense of what is being said.

The proper translation of ‘doloi poneroi’ as ‘with wicked intent’ gives strong support to the conclusion that the Nazareth Inscription was a rescript written in response to the story of the resurrection of Christ, which many Jews and pagan Romans believed was a fraud perpetrated by Christian Jews.

This entire Greek phrase in line 6 reads as eis heterous topous doloi poneroi metatetheikota. The placement of doloi poneroi between heterous topous andmetatetheikota clearly indicates that it was the moving of dead bodies to other places that was being done ‘with wicked intent’. In other words, bodies were being moved to perpetrate some sort of a fraud. The proper translation of doloi poneroi as ‘with wicked intent’ gives strong support to the conclusion that the Nazareth Inscription was a rescript written in response to the story of the resurrection of Christ, which many Jews and pagan Romans believed was a fraud perpetrated by Christian Jews.

In line 8 in the Greek text, there is an epsilon e (‘or’) found between the words “sepulcher sealing [or] stones,” ‘katoxous e lithous’. This is almost certainly a scribal error. The Greek words katoxoi lithoi—without the Greek epsilon e (‘or’) between them—appears in several other Greek documents and translates as “sepulcher-sealing stones.” It is for this reason that I do not place an ‘or’ between these two words in my translation. Sepulcher-sealing stones were used for Jewish family tombs and were not used in Greco-Roman style burials, which were by inhumation in individual graves in cemeteries.

Even for Jews, the period of time that sepulcher-sealing stones were used for family tombs in Israel was relatively short, basically lasting less than 200 years and ending with the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. After the fall of Jerusalem, Jews in the Roman Empire buried their dead much like their gentile neighbors, in individual graves in cemeteries. This fact clearly indicates that the Nazareth Inscription had to be issued before 70 AD.

Continue reading at Nazareth inscription 1.

Here is an interesting answer to a critic’s assertion that no unbiased evidence of Jesus exists. 

The Lack of Unbiased Evidence for Jesus

Posted on November 14, 2012 | 1 Comment

When I speak to critics and skeptics, it is common to hear comments about the lack of unbiased evidence for Jesus from the first century.  They reject the New Testament evidence for Jesus as biased and point out that we lack the unbiased evidence for Jesus that as historians we would want.  I have all sorts of things I could say about the historical value of the New Testament despite the bias, but I am not going to go there.

I want to take a moment to think about this complaint about the lack of unbiased evidence.  What exactly would that look like?  Can someone give me an example of what an unbiased report about Jesus would be?  What sort of text would we be looking for?  Would we like a first century text by a Pharisee or a Sadducee that spoke about Jesus?  I would like to see that.  But I still do not see how that would be unbiased.  From everything we know, the Pharisees and Sadducees greatly disliked Jesus and wanted to see him dead.  That is hardly unbiased.  What about a Roman report?  Wouldn’t it be great if we found a report written by Pontius Pilate about Jesus’ trial?  I would love to see that.  But this is the person who signed Jesus’ death sentence.  Could he be considered unbiased by any stretch of the imagination?  To be honest, I cannot think of any possible example of a first century account of Jesus that would be unbiased.  Truth be told, I doubt there has been an unbiased account of Jesus in any century.

So when a skeptic says they won’t believe in Jesus unless they have an unbiased account of Jesus from the first century, they are doing the same thing as a child saying to their parent, “If you really love me, draw me a square circle, otherwise I will not believe you.”  It just is not possible.

This of course leads us back to the New Testament.  If the New Testament is rejected as being a biased account and if it is impossible to be unbiased, what really is the problem with the New Testament?  Do not get me wrong, as a historian I would love to see a great discovery of non-biblical first century reports of Jesus.  That would be extremely exciting.  But let us not fool ourselves about this whole biased versus unbiased business.

via The Lack of Unbiased Evidence for Jesus | Hope’s Reason.

Think on that for a while.

simul iustus et peccator,

Eric Adams
Rossville, GA