Tablet thought to have guarded tombs after Jesus’s death may not be what it seems

The famous “Nazareth inscription” warns grave robbers that stealing bodies is punishable by death—but the marble tablet likely isn’t from Nazareth. © BNF

A marble tablet warning grave robbers away from tombs soon after the disappearance of Jesus’s body may not be what it seems. That’s the conclusion of a new chemical analysis of the marble, which finds that the object was quarried in Greece, not the Middle East. Instead, the famous “Nazareth inscription” was likely created to guard the grave of a Greek tyrant who died a few decades before Christ.

A former curator at the Louvre, Wilhelm Froehner, acquired the tablet in Paris in 1878, probably from an antiquities dealer from Greece or the Middle East, and kept it in his private collection until his death. He left behind a cryptic note that it “came from Nazareth.” That led the French archaeologist Franz Cumont to propose in 1930 that it was connected to Jesus’s disappearance.

Other clues come from the 22 lines of Greek inscribed on the 60-centimeter-tall tablet. These include an “Edict of Caesar,” in which he threatens capital punishment for anyone who robs the grave or “casts forth the persons buried there.” This suggested to some biblical scholars that the tablet represented the Roman emperor’s reaction to the news that Jesus’s body was missing from his tomb—and to the controversial claims of his resurrection. The tablet was considered by many biblical scholars to be the oldest physical artifact connected to Christianity, says epigraphist John Bodel of Brown University, who was not involved in the new study.

But epigraphists have argued more recently that the Greek used on the inscription was rare outside of Greece and Turkey. The tablet likely had nothing to do with early Christianity, Bodel argues.

Historian Kyle Harper, who had been intrigued by this debate since he was in graduate school, set out to test the competing hypotheses with the help of geochemists at the University of Oklahoma, Norman, where he is provost. After getting permission to extract a minute sample from the back of the tablet, which is housed at the National Library of France, the geochemists ground 1 milligram of the marble into powder and used laser ablation to release the gas from the marble’s minerals. By measuring the ratios of carbon and oxygen isotopes, they captured the unique chemical fingerprint of the marble. The tablet’s chemical signature closely matched that for white marble from a small quarry on the Greek island of Kos, off the coast of Turkey, the team reports in the April issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The finding proves the tablet “is not from Nazareth,” Bodel says. He notes that the method can’t disprove a scenario in which the stone was transported from Kos and then inscribed. But the type of Greek marble used makes it highly unlikely it was inscribed in Nazareth or nearby, Bodel says.

If the tablet wasn’t carved to protect Jesus’s tomb, why was it made? Based on the style of the inscription and the age of the quarry, Harper and colleagues propose the object was carved in the first century B.C.E. for a ruler on Kos known as Nikias the Tyrant. Sometime after his death in about 20 B.C.E., angry citizens of Kos pried open his tomb and dragged out his corpse, according to an ancient Greek poem.

Then-Emperor Augustus, who knew of Nikias, may have ordered the tablet to re-establish law and order in the region, Harper says, although that inference has not yet been proved. Harper’s team plans to use stable isotope analysis on other Roman and Greek marble artifacts, too, he says. “We want to apply this to other tales.”

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