This Ancient Relic Has Long Been Linked To Jesus’ Tomb – And Now Experts Finally Know The Truth

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For many years, a particular marble tablet has been a source of historical fascination. This artifact bears a stern warning from a Roman emperor – and some have suggested that it relates to Jesus of Nazareth. Believed to date back some 2,000 years – to the time when Jesus’ tomb had apparently been found empty after his resurrection – the tablet was thought to be a strongly worded order to leave graves undisturbed. But recent research has cast serious doubt on this interpretation.

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The warning on this slab of marble – which is known as the Nazareth Inscription – makes sense when you think of Christian belief regarding Jesus’ death. After all, the Bible tells us that Jesus rose from the dead. But by disappearing from his own tomb, Jesus effectively disturbed it himself. Hence the Roman emperor’s warning that grave defilement was punishable by death.

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The documented history of the Nazareth tablet starts in the 1878. That was when Wilhelm Froehner came into possession of the inscribed marble slab. Born in the German city of Karlsruhe in 1834, by the 1870s Froehner had taken French citizenship and was living in Paris. He was a curator in the Department of Greco-Roman Antiquities at the French capital’s Louvre Museum.

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Froehner apparently secured the tablet from a source in Nazareth, as he himself recorded in his inventory. Unfortunately, he did so with only a brief note which read, “Marble slab sent from Nazareth in 1878.” He kept the piece in his own collection. And that’s all we know about the provenance of the marble tablet, which is 24 inches tall, 15 inches in width, and two inches thick.

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Froehner’s note leaves us none the wiser as to whether the slab was discovered in Nazareth or only sent from there by an unknown dealer. Certainly, in the mid-19th century Nazareth was a city with a thriving antiques market. In a paper published in 1955 in the Journal of Biblical Literature and titled the “The Burial of Jesus,” J. Spencer Kennard wondered if Nazareth had been “nothing more than… a shipping center” for the tablet.

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And Kyle Harper, a Roman historian at the University of Oklahoma, told Science News in March 2020, “How exactly Froehner acquired the stone will probably always remain obscure.” So, a frustrating lack of knowledge is an immediate obstacle to properly understanding the Nazareth Inscription. That has meant that the artifact has been a source of controversy for many years.

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However, although that angle of research on the provenance of the tablet is something of a blind alley, we do have the text inscribed on it to analyze. Today, the slab is kept at the French National Library in Paris, where it’s been since Froehner’s passing in 1925. The language is ancient Greek and the inscription on the somewhat battered slab runs to 22 lines.

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Published in a 2005 edition of Artifax, a translation of the original Greek by Clyde E. Billington states that the text is titled “Edict of Caesar.” The trouble is, we don’t know for sure which Caesar is being referenced. Caesar was simply a title taken by whoever happened to be the Roman Emperor. It follows from the original Caesar – Julius Caesar – and probably came into use from around 68 A.D. or 69 A.D.

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The tablet goes on to describe the sanctity of tombs, ordering “that these remain undisturbed forever.” It then describes what you’re not allowed to do when it comes to any grave. The text says if anyone has “extracted those who have been buried,” or “has moved with wicked intent those who have been buried to other places,” they have committed a serious offense.

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The tablet also declares that “moving sepulcher-sealing stones,” is a grievous crime. And the punishment for such actions? The tablet is clear that if someone is convicted of these crimes they should “suffer capital punishment under the title of tomb-breaker.” So, interfering with a grave was a highly reprehensible offense that was punishable by death.

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In fact, it was the text carved into the marble tablet that led some to theorize that the ancient artifact had a direct link to Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. And the assumed origin of the tablet – Nazareth in ancient Galilee, which is now in modern Israel – added to this idea. After all, Jerusalem – where Jesus was crucified by the Romans – is also in the area.

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So, the theory is that the tablet was created as a reaction from Imperial Rome to the fact that Jesus’ tomb was found to be empty. It seems that eminent French archaeologist Franz Cumont was the first to formally put forward this theory in 1930. If his hypothesis is accurate, it would mean that the tablet is the oldest known artifact connected with the New Testament story of Christ.

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Other later writers also promoted the idea that this tablet was directly linked to Jesus. One of those was Michael Green, who discussed the tablet in his 1967 book Man Alive. Green wrote, “[The tablet] is an imperial edict, belonging either to the reign of Tiberius (14 A.D. to 37 A.D.) or of Claudius (41 A.D. to 54 A.D.).”

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Describing the tablet’s message, Green continued, “And it is an invective, backed with heavy sanctions, against meddling around with tombs and graves! It looks very much as if the news of the empty tomb had got back to Rome in a garbled form… This edict, it seems, is the imperial reaction.”

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So, there certainly have been those who have accepted the idea that this 2,000-year-old tablet was a direct response to the resurrection of Jesus and the disappearance of his mortal remains. But there is no way to give a precise date for the time when these words were inscribed on the marble slab. Consequently, researchers had to depend on analyzing the text.

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Frances de Zulueta was one of the scholars who analyzed the language of the inscribed text. Born in 1878, de Zulueta was a law professor at the U.K.’s Oxford University from 1919 to 1948. His examination of the style of writing led him to the conclusion that the tablet dated from between 50 B.C and 50 A.D. Those dates supported the possibility of the connection with Jesus.

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De Zulueta believed the lettering was likely created in a region called Decapolis, which was heavily influenced by Greek culture. Decapolis was a collection of 10 cities not far from Jerusalem and Nazareth. This placed them on the far eastern border of the Roman Empire. So, if the tablet had been made in Decapolis, again this would support the idea that it could refer to events in nearby Galilee.

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So, how likely is it that a Roman emperor would go to the trouble of issuing an edict against grave violation? Well, the looting and destroying of tombs was something that often concerned peoples through the ages. It seems that some ancient societies – including the Romans – were especially scandalized by the idea of tomb violation.

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The Roman philosopher and politician Marcus Tullius Cicero – who lived from 106 B.C. to 43 B.C. – wrote about a law that the ancient Greek city of Athens had on the statute books. This expressly forbade the destruction of any tomb. It seems that it’s entirely possible that Roman rulers may also have been concerned.

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In 2007’s Death in Ancient Rome: A Sourcebook, Valerie Hope quotes some of the relevant Roman laws. One read, “Those guilty of violating tombs, if they remove the bodies or scatter the bones, will suffer the ultimate penalty if they are of the lower orders. If they are more reputable, they will be deported to an island.”

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Hope also quotes some epitaphs attached to Roman tombs. One such message from the first or second century A.D. reads, “Gaius Tullius Hesper had this tomb built for himself, as a place where his bones will be laid.” And the epitaph continues with a dire warning for any would-be grave desecrators.

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Hesper’s message goes on to proclaim, “If anyone damages them [the bones] or removes them from here, I wish for him that he will live in physical pain for a long time and that the gods of the underworld will not accept him when he dies.” So, punishment for grave violation would continue even after death – or, at least, Hesper hoped it would.

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In the light of this evidence about Roman attitudes to tomb violation, it seems reasonably plausible that a Roman emperor would issue an edict forbidding interference with graves. And presumably, it might have been all the more likely if an emperor believed he was dealing with the grave of a troublesome religious leader who’d been executed by the authorities. Like, say, a man such as Jesus Christ.

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So, there was a variety of supporting evidence to point to the authenticity of the Nazareth Inscription. As we’ve seen, it had an apparent connection with Nazareth, not far from Jerusalem where Jesus was buried. Scholars had testified to the fact that the ancient Greek script seemed to be authentic. And the Romans appear to have taken a keen interest in discouraging tomb violation.

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The belief that the Nazareth Inscription is a genuine artifact related to Jesus was one that was promoted through the 20th century. But there were doubters. One of those was the University of Oklahoma’s Kyle Harper, whom we mentioned earlier. Speaking to Newsweek in April 2020, Harper expressed his skepticism.

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Harper pointed out, “The marble was long linked with Christianity because Nazareth is known for literally nothing else but Jesus of Nazareth.” Clearly, that’s hardly a scientific basis for the claims of links with Christ. Harper, who is a professor of classics and letters at the University of Oklahoma, has been fascinated by this slab of marble and the controversy it’s generated since his student days.

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Writing on his personal website, Harper expresses his view that, “The inscription has a curious modern history that obscures its real origins and meaning.” He also mentions the tablet’s German owner Wilhelm Froehner in somewhat less than flattering terms. Froehner, according to Harper, was “an enigmatic person.”

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The professor continues on the subject of Froehner, “He had owned the artifact for nearly 50 years at the time of his death, and he apparently took an odd satisfaction from secluding important antiquities in his private collection.” And Harper also considers the 1878 note that Froehner appended to the tablet. As we said earlier, it recorded that the tablet was “sent from Nazareth.”

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Harper believes that the tablet probably did come from Nazareth. He notes that a close friend of Froehner’s – Count Mical Tyszkiewicz – traveled to Paris in 1878 to visit the World Fair that was held in the French capital that year. Harper believes that the tablet may have been one of the items contained in a small collection of antiquities that the Count presented to Froehner at that time.

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Harper also considers the work of Franz Cumont, the first man to suggest that the tablet may have had a direct connection to the death of Jesus. The professor points out that although Cumont did air that theory, he also had a second line of thought. He believed that the tablet may simply have been a generalized appeal for law and order by the Emperor Augustus at a time when there was instability in the eastern Roman Empire.

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What’s more, Froehner – and perhaps Tyszkiewicz – may have been given false information about the marble slab by an unscrupulous antiquities dealer in Nazareth anxious to boost his prices. But as Harper points out, the controversy over the provenance and true meaning of the Nazareth Inscription had dragged on for decades in academia. Cumont seems to have supported two theories at once.

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What Harper was hoping for was to find a way to break this seemingly intractable deadlock of conflicting opinions. It was one of his old teachers – a man named Christopher Jones – who suggested that perhaps modern science might offer a method of solving the Nazareth Inscription mystery. Harper began to search for just such a method.

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Harper recalled on his website, “I wrote to the director of our School of Geosciences at the University of Oklahoma and asked if there were anyone on the faculty interested in stable isotope geochemistry.” Analyzing the marble tablet with this modern technique could potentially provide a breakthrough in the debate. After all, it could potentially pinpoint the true origin of the marble itself.

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Eventually, Harper got the necessary permissions to take two tiny samples of the marble from the tablet. The samples amounted to around one milligram of material. To put that in context, there are more than 28,000 milligrams in an ounce. But it was enough for analysis. When the results were revealed, they were astonishing.

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The results of the chemical analysis showed high levels of carbon-13 and uncommonly small amounts of oxygen-18 in the marble. This profile closely matched material from a marble quarry on the Greek island of Kos. It was now almost certain that the Nazareth Inscription had been carved into marble extracted from that island.

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But there was more. As Harper points out, in the first half of the first century B.C., Kos was led by Nikias, a man who was apparently deeply unpopular. After Nikias died, his tomb was violated and his remains were abused. A Greek poet of the time known as Crinagoras of Mytilene composed lines about this incident.

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According to Crinagoras, “For the people of the city pried open the bars of his tomb, and dragged out the wretch for the punishment of a second death.” And it was this event, Harper asserts, that the Nazareth Inscription was actually addressing – not the death of Christ. But that’s just one possibility.

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Some have claimed that the Nazareth Inscription may simply be an outright forgery dating from the 19th century. One such person is Robert Tykot, an archaeologist at the University of South Florida. He does concur with the idea that the inscription was likely carved on marble from Kos. But he also believes that the piece could be nothing more than a fake.

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As Tykot has said to Science News, the piece could have been created by a “well-informed forger in the 19th century.” And he’s pointed out that such a piece – purportedly from the earliest Christian era – would have been highly desirable to an avid antiquities collector. And as we’ve seen, Wilhelm Froehner seems to have been just such a man.

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Harper hasn’t gone so far as to claim that the Nazareth Inscription is a forgery, though. His favored theory, in fact, is that the tablet is linked to the tyrant Nikias. The chemical analysis shows that the marble was from Kos, ensuring that the tablet’s purported link to events on the island are at least plausible. On the other hand, it appears that the evidence supposedly linking the marble slab to Jesus of Nazareth is tenuous at best.

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