A mysterious tablet bearing a Roman emperor’s orders from around 2,000 years ago has long been thought by some scholars to refer to early Christian claims of Jesus’ resurrection from a tomb in the Middle Eastern village of Nazareth. But new research has opened up an entirely different possibility —that the marble slab issued a general demand for law and order after Greek islanders vandalized the tomb of their recently deceased ruler.
For the Christian theory to be correct, the document bearing 22 lines of Greek text — known as the Nazareth Inscription — would probably have been written on a piece of Middle Eastern marble. That also would make the tablet the oldest object linked to early Christianity.
Instead, a chemical analysis of the marble puts its origins in a quarry on the Greek island of Kos, near Turkey’s southwestern coast, says a team led by Roman historian Kyle Harper of the University of Oklahoma in Norman. That suggests the unnamed emperor’s edict, decreeing that anyone who disturbs tombs and graves or destroys corpses be killed, was a response to a break-in at the grave of a Kos tyrant named Nikias by his former subjects, the researchers report in the April Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. Nikias ruled Kos during the 30s B.C. before being overthrown.
News of the people of Kos dragging Nikias’ body from its resting place and scattering his bones apparently spread by word of mouth and created a scandal. Not long after that incident, one Greek poet used the life of Nikias as an example of a reversal of fortune. The researchers propose the tablet was probably issued by the first Roman emperor, Augustus, as a call for law and order in the eastern Mediterranean. The tablet’s message and the style of the inscribed Greek lettering suggest the document dates to between roughly 2,100 and 1,900 years ago.
“It was completely unexpected that the [Nazareth Inscription] stone came from Kos,” Harper says. “Our argument about the tyrant Nikias is not 100 percent certain, but it’s the best explanation we have.”
Chemically connecting the Nazareth Inscription marble to Kos “is entirely novel,” says Harvard University’s Christopher Jones, a Classics historian and authority on ancient Greek and Roman inscriptions. But there are still questions about whether the document concerns the assault on Nikias’ tomb, says Jones, who did not participate in the new study.
Nikias had been a supporter of Roman general Mark Antony, who with Egypt’s Queen Cleopatra was defeated by Octavian — the future emperor Augustus — in a civil war that ended in 31 B.C. It’s unclear why Augustus would have responded to an attack on the tomb of someone who had supported his political enemy, Jones says.
It’s possible that Augustus’ edict was part of a broader effort to deter attacks on rulers’ tombs in the Middle East and Asia Minor, a region covering much of present-day Turkey and adjacent lands, John Bodel, a historian of ancient Rome at Brown University in Providence, R.I., suggests. Inscriptions and legal texts from that time refer to such incidents, typically aimed at the graves of autocratic, corrupt local rulers, says Bodel, who was not part of the new investigation.
The attack on Nikias’ tomb “may have been pretty spectacular,” but it wasn’t an oddity, he holds. Kos lies off the coast of Asia Minor, where historians have argued that public attacks on local rulers’ tombs initially spread. That’s one reason why Roman historians have long doubted claims that the Nazareth Inscription referred to early Christianity, Bodel says.
Harper’s team analyzed two small samples of marble powder drilled from the back of the Nazareth Inscription. An unusual chemical composition was identified, characterized by elevated levels of a specific form of carbon, carbon 13, and unusually low levels of a specific form of oxygen, oxygen 18. Among marble quarries previously studied throughout the Mediterranean, that geochemical makeup most closely matched a marble source on Kos.
Archaeologist Robert Tykot of the University of South Florida in Tampa agrees that the edict was probably written on Kos marble. But further studies are needed to confirm that conclusion, including a comparison of strontium and manganese signatures in the Nazareth Inscription marble to those characterizing different Mediterranean quarries, he says.
Without a firm date for when the Nazareth Inscription was carved, it’s possible the object was inscribed during the 1800s by someone with access to Kos marble and the ability to write in the appropriate version of Greek, Tykot cautions. An expertly faked artifact from the dawn of Christianity would have proven irresistible to wealthy antiquity collectors at the time.
The Nazareth Inscription’s origins and context have been a mystery for 90 years, since the inscription was first published in 1930. An antique collector named Wilhelm Froehner had acquired the marble item in Paris in 1878. Froehner wrote in his notes that the object had been “sent from Nazareth,” a claim that cannot be verified.
An unscrupulous antiquities dealer could have misled Froehner about the inscribed tablet’s place of origin in order to increase its value as a purported relic of early Christianity. But Froehner never specified the seller’s name.
“How exactly Froehner acquired the stone will probably always remain obscure,” Harper says.