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An Imperial Reaction to the Empty Tomb?

November 17, 2018

Kyle Harper sent me a link to his newly published essay  in the Los Angeles Review of Books on the “Nazareth Inscription,” which is thought to be authentic, and may be an imperial reaction to the early Christian claim about Jesus’ empty tomb:  here.  I confess that I hadn’t known of this artefact previously (surely, one of many things I don’t know).  As Harper grants, it’s not clear whether the inscription is to be taken as a first-century response to early Christianity, but some have so proposed.  (I note that there is also an entry on this artefact in Wikepedia here, along with a number of other web links.)

Whatever the case about the impetus for, and import of, this inscription, Harper tells the fascinating story of the somewhat eccentric scholar  who owned the item among his many artefacts, and Harper points out the frustrating gaps in our knowledge about this particular item.  Such is the nature of historical evidence quite commonly.

While I’m at it, I’ll also remind interested readers of Harper’s recent book, The Fate of Rome, which I posted about previously here.  I also found a previous work by him, From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity (Harvard University Press, 2013), informative in researching for my book, Destroyer of the gods (Baylor University Press, 2016).

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  1. Thanks, Professor Hurtado.

    I’ve placed lots of background information about the Nazareth Decree, and a few thoughts, on a special page. (Kyle’s historical type article was not replete with biographical references 🙂 )

    the Nazareth Inscription – archaeological witness to the crucifixion?


  2. Tom Hennell permalink


    I don.t think we disagree on your first point; when early Christians presented the resurrection of Jesus it was the appearances of the risen Lord, rather than the empty tomb accounts, that they appear mainly to have talked about – although they certainly maintained both.

    I take your second point that the Roman authorities might have seen these accounts in a different light; but then we can still read several early ‘authoritative’ discussions as to which aspects of Christian preaching and behaviour should have been considered seriously ‘criminal’. Not just the notice in Tacitus of the Neronian actions against Christians, but also the correspondence on just these matters between Pliny and Trajan. The common theme in these accounts is that the Christian’s incorrigible contumacy, their refusal to acknowledge or respect the orders of legitimate authority, rightly merited the death penalty. For Tacitus in particular, the actions of Christians in venerating a risen Christ who had previously been condemned and executed under full Roman authority, represented a clear and dangerous challenge.

    There is a substantial literature around these accounts, and what they indicate about how the imperial authorities viewed Christianity; but I am not aware that allegations of illicit exhumations feature anywhere in the notional charge sheet.

  3. Tom Hennell permalink

    very intriguing Larry; and thanks for passing this on.

    Assuming that the inscription is authentic; and that it was indeed found in or around Nazareth; I am still unpursuaded that we can infer it as a material response to Christianity. Although of course an awareness of Christianity amongst imperial authorities in this period is explicit in Tacitus.

    But in respect of this artefact; two questions:

    – when did the formulation ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ become openly used in Christian circles? We find it in Mark, and regularly in Luke/Acts; but never in Paul or any of the other New Testament writings. I would suggest that it is only from the use of that formula that non-Christians could have associated Christianity with Nazareth.

    – when did Christians associate the narratives of the risen Jesus with the ’empty tomb’? Again Paul very obviously does not do this – and I recall Geza Vermes using this observation to support the proposition that the empty tomb should be considered most likely a historical fact. If early Christians did not appeal to the tomb narrative as validating their claims for the risen Jesus, then the narrative was less likely to be a later creation. But equally, it is then less likely that the authorities might have associated interference with tombs, with Christianity.

    • It’s not clear what the original placement of the inscription was, whether Nazareth or somewhere else. All we think we know is that it was acquired in Nazareth. Per Acts, one of the older labels for Christians was Nazarenes, so Jesus was likely associated with Nazareth early on. It’s difficult to think that someone would have invented that association, as it was a “nothing” village.
      As to Paul and the tomb, Tom, I disagree. Note that in 1 Cor 15:1-7, Jesus’ burial is one of the key components of the gospel-tradition. I think it makes no sense to refer to his burial followed by his resurrection unless the one had something to do with the other: i.e., resurrection = vacating/cancelling his burial.

      • Tom Hennell permalink

        Not sure Larry;

        the Nazareth connection does seem an essential element to the proposed understanding of the inscription as a specific response to Christian claims. If it had been excavated in Ephesus, I would suggest, nobody would be thinking twice about it.

        It does seem that later Jewish antagonists of Christians preferred the label ‘Nazarene’ – partly perhaps to avoid conceding the messianic implications of ‘Christian’; but also as ‘Nazarene’ seems to have been pejorative in some way that we do not fully understand. Which might explain its reported use by Tertullus in Acts 24. But do any early Roman sources share this usage?

      • I don’t know of instances of Roman usage of “Nazarene(s)”. And, yes, the notion that the “Nazareth inscription” relates to early Christian claims about Jesus’ empty tomb is only a hypothesis, not a slam-dunk claim.

    • David Madison permalink

      Tom, we may assume that the appearances of the risen Jesus took precedence over the empty tomb in convincing people of the Resurrection. I don’t think we can assume much more than that. We can’t say that Paul did not consider the empty tomb to be an important circumstantial detail. We would only be able to do that if the empty tomb was missing from an account which contained other circumstantial details. But Paul gives us no such account. He doesn’t describe the circumstances in which Jesus was crucified or buried, nor the circumstances in which Jesus appeared to people.

      Furthermore, what was significant for Paul might not be what was significant for the authorities. It is unlikely that anyone in authority had memorised a list of people who claimed to have seen the risen Jesus. On the other hand, the authorities might be particularly interested in the fact (assuming it was a fact) that Jesus’ tomb was empty. Especially if they were suspicious of the followers of Jesus.

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