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Was the 'Nazareth Inscription' a Roman response to Jesus' empty tomb? New evidence says it wasn't.

Known as the Nazareth Inscription and the Nazareth Decree, this carved marble slab preserves an edict issued by a Roman emperor identified as "Caesar."
Known as the Nazareth Inscription and the Nazareth Decree, this carved marble slab preserves an edict issued by a Roman emperor identified as "Caesar." (Image credit: Bibliothèque nationale de France)

A stern warning carved in Greek on an ancient marble slab declared that a Roman emperor would pass harsh judgement on grave robbers, promising a severe punishment for their crimes. This artifact, known as the Nazareth Inscription, was long suspected to be an official Roman response to the disappearance of Jesus' body from its tomb. 

However, new evidence suggests otherwise.

Scientists conducted the first isotope analysis of marble sampled from the slab, describing the results in a new study. Their findings offer fresh clues about where the carved edict came from and call into question its relationship to early Christianity.

Related: Proof of Jesus Christ? 7 pieces of evidence debated

Standing 24 inches high, 15 inches wide and 2 inches deep (60 by 15 by 6 centimeters), the slab was acquired in Paris in 1878 by the German collector Wilhelm Froehner. His notes on where it came from are vague, specifying only that it was "sent from Nazareth"; the site where the artifact was discovered, who found it and how it ended up in Paris are details that have been lost to history, the study authors reported.

Scholars published a translation of the inscription in 1930. Its 22 lines of text begin with "Edict of Caesar" and then proclaim that tombs and graves shall stay "forever unmolested." Should anyone remove human remains for illicit purposes, or disrespect or destroy remains in any way, "he shall suffer capital punishment on the charge of desecration of graves," the inscription went on, according to the new study. 

The researchers further noted that the lettering style, along with the content, suggests that the warning was carved "sometime between the later first century B.C. and the first century C.E."

Because of the slab's apparent age, its anti-grave-robbing message and its alleged origin in Nazareth — the town where Jesus was raised — some experts have argued that Roman authorities carved it after hearing that early Christians were heralding the disappearance of Jesus' body as proof of his divine resurrection. 

"'Sent from Nazareth in 1878' is a clue that stirs the imagination but proves little," said lead study author Kyle Harper, a professor of classics and letters and Senior Vice President and Provost at The University of Oklahoma. 

"And, it turns out, the note is very likely wrong," Harper told Live Science in an email.

Chemical fingerprints

For the new study, researchers turned to geochemical analysis to investigate the slab, now in the collection of the Bibliothèque national de France. They carefully abraded a very small section on the back of the slab to expose the original marble underneath, and then collected samples of marble powder. The scientists analyzed that powder for stable carbon and oxygen isotopes (forms of an element with a different number of neutrons in the nucleus), to see if they could find a match to marble in a specific geographic location, resolving once and for all where the artifact came from.

"We believe that it is the first time stable isotope chemistry has ever been used to establish the provenance of an inscription, period," Harper said. "It has been used for big architectural elements, sarcophagi and statues, but not, so far as we are aware, an inscription."

Related: Photos: 1st-century house from Jesus' hometown

They discovered that the unique isotopic fingerprints of the marble were a close match for a signature found in white marble from the Greek island of Kos, near Turkey's southwestern coast. If the slab's marble came from Kos, which is far from Nazareth, that diminishes the likelihood that the message had anything to do with early Christianity, the study authors reported. 

Rather, it places the anonymous Caesar's warning in a new context, recalling an incident that took place decades prior to Jesus' purported demise. One possibility is that the inscription was a stern response to an incident that took place on Kos in the 30s B.C. After an unpopular official named Nikias died, locals broke into his tomb and desecrated the body; Nikias had been a powerful figure, and it's likely that the Roman edict promising to punish grave desecration was a response to the fate suffered by Nikias' corpse, according to the study.

"We got lucky twice over," Harper explained. "First, it was a very direct match with a rather unexpected marble quarry, so we could really pinpoint its origins on Kos. Second, it happened that we know of an episode of tomb violation that was very famous in the exact right period. I would have never hoped for such a remarkable alignment."

This information provides a new twist — and a likely resolution — to an archaeological mystery spanning more than a century, the researchers concluded. 

The findings were published online in the April 2020 issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

Originally published on Live Science. 

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Mindy Weisberger is a Live Science senior writer covering a general beat that includes climate change, paleontology, weird animal behavior, and space. Mindy holds an M.F.A. in Film from Columbia University; prior to Live Science she produced, wrote and directed media for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Her videos about dinosaurs, astrophysics, biodiversity and evolution appear in museums and science centers worldwide, earning awards such as the CINE Golden Eagle and the Communicator Award of Excellence. Her writing has also appeared in Scientific American, The Washington Post and How It Works Magazine.

  • afmeincke
    Jesus never existed. He was a concoction of the Jews. A gift to the Gentiles who had no god. The Jews wrote their own bible and made themselves the "chosen" people. They wrote their own ticket. No god nor deities wrote any bibles. All religious books were written by mortal men. Hokus Pokus. There is no Wizard!
  • Graeme
    Religious texts were simply designed to keep illiterate goat herders towing the party line
  • GarryO
    Linking to a story 'Who Was Jesus?' undermines science. It is as if the writer actually believes in this nonsense. We know that paid scribes manufactured this cult for their masters. It is time that secularism and Freethinking were introduced back into the classroom and serious efforts made to combat the virus of religion.
  • fiji
    However, 24 inches high, 15 inches wide and 2 inches deep means 61, 38 and 5 centimeters, no less, no more. It is just a conclusion, not a reproach.
  • sagitarriatjefferspin
    Wow. Is there an implicit assumption that there was no trade in times of antiquity?
    I'm not defending the biblical provenance of this item. But leaping from the idea that there are indications that the marble came from Kos, to that it could not have been used in Judea, is not anything close to a "likely resolution".
    (If we're going to say we believe in "science", well, then let's actually practice logic and science! Instead of conjecture, at best.)
  • Graeme
    sagitarriatjefferspin said:
    But leaping from the idea that there are indications that the marble came from Kos, to that it could not have been used in Judea,
    Why would you want to import a piece of rock from another country when you have plenty of your own. The real leap is that it was anything to do with the myth of Jesus in the first place. Have you heard of Occam's razor
  • student of Christ
    Now here's a person who "thinks" through to the formulation of their thoughts and ideas before writing them down! I "feel" great sorrow for afmeincke, Graeme and GaryO; they write through their emotion and without any true experience nor forethought!
    I am an engineer, I am a veteran pilot and I am a true believer in miracles and the existence of Christ Jesus, both in the present day and in the past. Being an engineer requires me to research, prove and disprove what others accept more easily, it is not an easy life being dedicated to the welfare of others; however, I do it because I believe that there are a great many "kind and good" people out there who need someone to help make life doable. I am a veteran pilot, flew F-15s and F-4s before that back in the 70s, yes in combat and in peacetime both. I have seen what both death and bravery looks like in the eyes of my fellow man and the difference between within their eyes at the time of leaving this life; a christian is happy to go, shows no fear, but gladly gives up his life life for his fellow man. He is also braver and more resolute than any non-christian I've ever met or served with! I believe in miracles because I have been the benefactor of 5 each throughout my lifetime. There can be no possibility of any other way these 5 events within my life could have been otherwise, just not possible... And these 5 events have nothing to do with belief or faith; they're just facts of life!
    Let's try an experiment for those of you who laughingly doubt my word... walk up to and turn on the gas burner on your stove, now place your fingers and hand well into the flames! No, what do you say; what a fool am I to think my hand won't be cooked alive and that in response I will feel great pain and not only that... I will be reminded of my foolishness for a good long time from now as well! So afmeincke, Graeme and GaryO; how did you come to those conclusions, what you say, just common sense? No, I say to you, it is belief, experience and or advice that an elder shared with you early in your life? Well then I say this to you... before you write such emotional nonsense again, or even think or utter it to yourself; just imagine that same experience that just your hand may have felt, feeling it over and throughout your whole mind and body "forever!" Do you chose still to disbelieve in what these scattered prophets chronicled similarly in each of their books 2 thousands years ago? Do you not question the reasoning that any "one man" in such a hard life would take the time to chronicle what he believed was the word of God come to him? Would you still disbelieve that all 12 disciples (all 12) of Christ would travel out into the world each fleeing from persecution while chronicling the words given to him by God? I chose not to press my luck against what those men have written and you; if you still haven't run, not walked to your closest church and asked for forgiveness of your miserable trite way of thinking, then you are far braver men than I! I do not wish to burn in such a way... forever! You say it's impossible... then you go first...
  • student of Christ
    Yes, and what can be more simple (Occam's Razor) than 12 different men traveling 12 different directions and and chronicling the similar events and story of a man's life and calling it "the word of God"
    I bade you; attempt to duplicate those exact happenings, cradle to grave, in even this day and age... good luck to you!
  • raywood
    Fine, LiveScience. I don't care much about the Jesus story, one way or the other.

    What I do care about is science. I would like to have confidence that you will give equal time to the story of some discovery that presently seems to favor the Christian account. Not to make a religious believer of anyone; simply to demonstrate (and to keep on demonstrating) that you are not beholden to anyone's pro- or anti-religious agenda. Please don't degrade science by making it ideological.
  • Graeme
    student of Christ said:
    Yes, and what can be more simple (Occam's Razor) than 12 different men traveling 12 different directions and and chronicling the similar events and story of a man's life and calling it "the word of God"
    I bade you; attempt to duplicate those exact happenings, cradle to grave, in even this day and age... good luck to you!
    It is not hard to duplicate something that never happened, I am glad you said similar events as they can't even get the facts the same and tell the same fairy tale.
    As for sticking your hand in the fire, pray to your god and then try it for yourself, and you will see that your so called miracles were nothing but chance.
    Attributing chance as miracles, and anything good that happens as the action of god and anything bad as the action of the devil, has been the christian way of hiding from the facts for 2000 years.
    If you are an engineer you will understand the concept of infinity. To be a God you must have infinite power and knowledge and sit outside of time as time did not exist before the big bang and therefore know the past, present and future, otherwise you are just an advanced powerful alien (Scientology).
    What is a human compared to infinity? Absolutely nothing. Yet the narcissistic religious nutters believe that a being of infinite power loves them, the very definition of narcissism. If there was such a being (definitely not the Abrahamic god) we would be infinently less than an ant to it/them.