The Resurrection of Christ, after His death on the Cross, constitutes the mainstay of Christian faith. This victory over death, Christians believe, is epitomised by the empty tomb. The Bible tells of the great stone that was rolled away by the angel to reveal a tomb devoid of anything but the shroud; no body of Christ was ever found. But what evidence do present-day Christians—or anyone, for that matter—have of the empty tomb? The Bible testifies to it, for sure, but what else does? Since the 1930s, there appears to be some other testimony: the Nazareth Decree.
The inscription of the Nazareth Decree is in Greek and translates as follows, line by line:
1. EDICT OF CAESAR
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 sepulchre-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 honour 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.
The Nazareth Decree belongs to Roman law and there is very strong indication it was decreed by Emperor Claudius around 41AD. It is engraved on a stone slab 24 x 15 inches. The exact time and place of its discovery is unknown; 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 states: “This marble was sent from Nazareth in 1878”. In 1925, the Nazareth Decree moved together with the Froehner Collection to the Paris National Library.
It was translated into French in 1930 and then into English in 1932.
The Roman Emperor Claudius ruled during 41 – 54AD. Claudius was well educated, published books on history, wrote in Latin and Greek and used to hold council in both languages depending on the language of those present.
Herod Agrippa I, a grandson of Herod the Great, was King of Galilee in 37 – 41AD and acquired Judea and Samaria 37 – 41AD following the exile of Herod Antipas (who ordered the beheading of John the Baptist) and his wife Herodias to Gaul (France). Herod Agrippa I was raised and educated in Rome where he was a friend of Claudius.
It was customary for local rulers to send correspondence to the Emperor regarding local issues and for the Emperor to reply. The reply can be in the form of an edict/law that would be universally applied to the whole Empire or just to deal with the local issue. The Emperor would dictate the edict, written on papyrus or parchment. The local ruler might abridge the edict and having it engraved on stone for display so as to receive wider recognition.
Death penalty for ‘moving bodies’
It is thus likely that Agrippa I sent to Claudius asking his opinion about how Agrippa would deal with the new sect of Christians, then known as the “Nazarenes”.
To counter the Nazarene/Christian teaching that Jesus had been resurrected, Jewish leaders claimed that His disciples “came by night and stole him away” [Matt. 28:3]. It is almost certain that this was the version of the Resurrection of Christ which came to the ears of the Roman Emperor Claudius who consequently issued the Nazareth Inscription and had it posted in the city of Nazareth.
The Decree is directed to the inhabitants of Palestine who comprised both Jews and gentiles. It announces the penalty of death for moving bodies from tombs. Gentiles believed that the spirit of the deceased seeks revenge from those who hurt the dead person. Surely a gentile would not dare move a dead body. Beside, most gentiles in Palestine (and other areas of the Empire) would burn their dead; unlike the ancient Egyptians who would mummify for their special belief in the afterlife. Thus it is clear the Decree was directed to the Jews.
The Decree mentions family tombs, another practice specific to Jews. Further, it refers to “Sepulchre” and “Sepulchre sealing stones”; both also very specific to the Jewish burials.
Tomb robbery was well known in ancient times but rather for robbing valuables and stones and masonry to be used for building but not for “moving” bodies of the deceased. This Imperial Decree is directed definitely for “moving bodies”.
Why should an Emperor in Rome send a decree to his dominion Palestine regarding “moving bodies” from Jewish tombs with the death penalty as punishment? Why send it especially at or shortly after the year 41AD, less than a decade after the Crucifixion of Christ? Could it have been a reaction to the events of Christ’s Passion Week in Jerusalem in around 33AD, with the consequent “Empty Tomb”. Admittedly the abridged version of the Decree as engraved on the stone does not mention Christ, or His followers the Nazarenes.
When the Roman soldiers went to the authorities in Jerusalem to inform them about the empty tomb, the High Priests bribed them with money so that they say that the disciples of Jesus came and took his body from the tomb whilst the soldiers were asleep (Matt 28:11-15). Fearing a potential threat to the Jewish religion and Roman rule, the High Priests and Roman authorities tried to subdue the new religion, but to no avail. Herod Agrippa I, being himself a Jew, was uneasy about these events and to the growing number of the Nazarenes in his domain. He sends to his friend Emperor Claudius a request: what should I do with this new sect? Claudius answers with an edict which Agrippa found so important as to engrave an abridgement of on stone to make it well publicised throughout his land that the death sentence is the punishment of any who would dare “move” a dead body.
The Nazareth Decree is evidence of an “empty tomb”. It is important historical material evidence that points to the Resurrection of Christ. It could be ranked as the second evidence of the Resurrection; the first is the Shroud now in Turin. The first comes in stone, the second in linen.
Ahmes Labib Pahor is Consultant ENT Surgeon at National Health Service (NHS) in UK and is a researcher of Christian history topics
30 April 2016