The Nazareth Inscription

Does the “Nazareth Inscription” confirm the resurrection?

by Ibn Anwar, BHsc (Hons), MCollT

    Some hours ago, an article dated April 1st, 2015 that makes the bold claim that “Caesar confirmed the resurrection” was brought to my attention.* The article is written by Henry B. Smith Jr. who earned his MAR (Master of Arts in Religion) from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and is the director of development for the Associates of Biblical Research. In the article, he confidently claims that the so called “Nazareth Inscription” was enacted by Claudius Caesar and it confirms the Christian belief regarding the resurrection of Jesus. What follows is an examination of this claim.

The “Nazareth Inscription” is in Greek but scholars believe that it was translated from Latin. [1] The scanned image below is a transcription of the Greek and its translation by the late premiere Textual Critic Bruce Metzger.

Metzger, B. M. (1980). New Testament Studies: Philological, Versional, and Patristic. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill. p. 76

Metzger, B. M. (1980). New Testament Studies: Philological, Versional, and Patristic. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill. p. 76

“It is my pleasure that graves and tombs—whoever has made them as a pious service for ancestors or children or members of their house—that these remain unmolested in perpetuity. But if any person lay information that another either has destroyed them, or has in any other way cast out the bodies which have been buried there, or with malicious deception has transferred them to other places, to the dishonor of those buried there, or has removed the headstones or other stones, in such a case I command that a trial be instituted, just as if they were concerned with the gods for the pious services of mortals. For beyond all else it shall be obligatory to honor those who have been buried. Let no one remove them for any reason. if anyone does so, however, it is my will that he shall suffer capital punishment on the charge of tomb-robbery.” [2]

Upon close inspection and reading of the “Nazareth Inscription” above, one can safely conclude that it proves nothing concerning the resurrection. Firstly, we do not know for certain that this inscription actually originates from Nazareth as pointed out by Prof. Bruce Metzger: “Nothing is recorded of its previous history except a brief note in Froehner’s handwritten inventory: “Dalle de Marbre envoyee de Nazareth en 1878.” One should observe that the dote does not say “discovered at Nazareth , but “sent from Nazareth.” Whether the marble slab had been erected originally at Nazareth, or had been brought there from some other locality, either in antiquity or in modern times, is quite unknown. In the 1870’s Nazareth (like Jerusalem) was a natural market for dealers in antiquities.” [3] 

Mark Chancey believes that it is likely that it originated in or near Galilee, but he offers no corroborating evidence for this claim. Though we respect his scholarly credentials, that is but guesswork. But despite his conjecture on the likelihood of the inscription’s Galilean origin, he does essentially agree with Metzger that the document that accompanied the inscription says that it was sent from Nazareth and not that it had actually been discovered there:

“Yet, as has often been pointed out, the inscription’s sparse accompanying documentation said only that it had been sent from Nazareth, not that it had been found there. Since Nazareth was heavily involved in the European antiquities trade, it would have been a natural place for the inscription’s finder to take it. Theoretically, it could have come from anywhere; other proposed places of origin include Samaria and Asia Minor.” [4]

And so based on Froehner’s handwritten document, the item containing the inscription may well have been auctioned or sold in Nazareth by one of its many antique dealers and purchased there but not actually originating from the place. As Chancey points out, the item may have originated from Samaria or Asia Minor. In Craig A. Evans’ (a prominent Christian evangelical New Testament scholar) estimation, the slab of marble bearing the inscription is not from Nazareth at all:

“The very interesting “Nazareth Inscription” (SEG VIII 13), which records Caesar’s decree against grave robbery and vandalism, though discovered in Nazareth, is in fact of unknown provenance. In all probability it had not been set up in or near Nazareth.” [5]

The article by Smith Jr. and many other such missionary articles would have us believe that the inscription bears Roman law imposed around the time after Jesus’ death as a response to the disappearance of his body entombed in his sepulcher. The Roman emperors who supposedly enacted this law at the time was supposedly either Tiberius or Claudius but the conservative scholar F. F. Bruce questions the latter ascription and De Zulueta seems to have doubts concerning the former. [6]

The fact of the matter is we do not know the inscription’s date, the Caesar’s identity and its true origin and this is poignantly stated by Allan Millard: “Its date is uncertain, the Caesar is not named, nor its origin known.” [7] Likewise, Craig Evans affirms that we do not know its date of origin:

“The date of the inscription is unknown, but most epigraphers think it is from the first century, though possibly just before the turn of the era.” [8]

Above all else, the decree or edict addresses Roman subjects that practise cultic ancestral worship as seen in the first line of the edict which reads οϊτινες είς θρησκείαν προγονων έποίησαν η τέκνων ηοίκείων (whoever has made them as a pious/cultic service/worship for ancestors or children or members of their house). The term used here is θρησκείαν and its application in the text denotes pagan worship of ancestors, children and other members of the household. This point is mentioned by Asst. Prof. of New Testament, International Theological Seminary in Los Angeles Joseph Park:

“An inscription which does explicitly mention the worship (θρησκείαν) of ancestors, children, and other members of the household is the “Nazareth Inscription” (SEG viii 13, 1st. cent.)…” [9]

Unless Christians wish to say that Jesus was worshipped through such pagan devotion, then the inscription has nothing to do with him. And the line specifically describe the entombed individual as an ancestor, a child or a member of the household of those that placed him in the grave or tomb. As far as the New Testament is concerned, none of Jesus’ family was involved in the burial of Jesus. The location and sepulcher was supposedly provided by a Joseph of Aramathea who was not a member of Jesus’ family but his disciple (John 19:38).

In sum, there is absolutely no evidence or proof, either textually or historically, that this inscription bears any bearing on Jesus or his alleged resurrection. The renowned Christian evangelist and conservative Norman Geisler together with Joseph Holden agrees with this conclusion:

“Since Nazareth was such a small village, scholars have conjectured that the edict may have been issued in response to the rumor passed on by authorities in Israel regarding the robbing of the grave of Jesus, but there is no certainty that the inscription is attached to the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.” [10] (emphasis added)

One of the authorities on the inscription, Pieter William van der Horst writes: ” Franz Cumont, the first editor of the inscription (Un rescrit imperial sur la violation de sepulture, Revue historique 163 [1930] 241-266), suggested that, owing to the altercations between Jews and Christians over what had happened to the body of Jesus, and in order to prevent the occurrence of future disturbances arising from similar circumstances, Pilate inquired of Tiberius what should be done; the inscription would then be an extract of the emperor’s response, engraved on a slab of marble and set up at Nazareth where Jesus had lived and which had been hostile to him. This must be regarded as absolutely unproven.” [11] (emphasis added)


* The article may be read here

[1] Evans, C. A. (2016). ‘He laid him in a tomb’ (Mark 15.46): Roman Law and the Burial of Jesus. In Kristian A. Bendoraitis & Nijay K. Gupta (Eds.), Matthew and Mark Across Perspectives: Essays in Honor of Stephen C. Barton and William R. Telford. New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark. p. 61

[2] Metzger, B. M. (1980). New Testament Studies: Philological, Versional, and Patristic. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill. p. 77

[3] Ibid. pp. 75-76

[4] Chancey, M. A. (2005). Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee of Jesus. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 57

[5] Evans, C. A. (2008). Nazareth. In Craig A. Evans (Ed.), Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus. New York: Routledge. p. 423

[6] Metzger, B. M. Op. Cit. p. 90; F. F. Bruce says, “too many uncertainties about the inscription to justify more than a tentative consideration of the possibility that it might have some bearing on the spread of Christianity in Claudius’ reign.” On it being from Tiberius, De Zulueta simply says that it is possible but questions whether it is probably from him: “a possibility that our rescript is part of Tiberius’ answer to Pilate, but probability is another matter.”

[7] Millard, A. (2000). Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus. England: Sheffield Academic Press. p. 110

[8] Evans, C. A. (2016). Op. Cit. pp. 60-61

[9] Park. J. S. (2000). Conceptions of Afterlife in Jewish Inscriptions: With Special Reference to Pauline Literature. Tubingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck. p. 20 fn. 19

[10] Holden, M. J. & Geisler, N. (2013). The Popular Handbook of Archaeology and the Bible. Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers. p. 363

[11] van der Horst, P. W. (1991). Ancient Jewish Epitaphs: An Introductory survey of a millennium of Jewish funerary epigraphy (300 BCE – 700 CE). Kampen, The Netherlands: Kok Phors Publishing House. p. 160

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