Nazareth Decree

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NAZARETH DECREE. An inscription cut on a slab of white marble, sent in 1878 from Nazareth for the private collection of a German antiquarian named Froehner. It was not until 1930, when, on Froehner’s death, the inscription found a place in the Cabinet de Medailles of the Louvre, that the historian Michel Rostovtzeff noticed its significance. The Abbe Cumont published the first description in 1932.

The decree states: “Ordinance of Caesar. It is my pleasure that graves and tombs remain undisturbed in perpetuity for those who have made them for the cult of their ancestors, or children or members of their house. If, however, any may lay information that another has either demolished them, or has in any other way extracted the buried, or has maliciously transferred them to other places in order to wrong them, or has displaced the sealing or other stones, against such a one I order that a trial be instituted, as in respect of the gods, so in regard to the cult of mortals. For it shall be much more obligatory to honor the buried. Let it be absolutely forbidden for anyone to disturb them. In the case of contravention I desire that the offender be sentenced to capital punishment on the charge of violation of sepulchure.”

Evidence suggests that the inscription falls within the decade that closed in a.d. 50. The central Roman government did not take over the administration of Galilee until the death of Agrippa in 44. This limits the date, in the opinion of competent scholarship, to five years under Claudius. It is possible to date the inscription rather more precisely. The Book of Acts, confirmed by Orosius and Suetonius, the Roman historians, says that Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome (Acts.18.2). This occurred in 49. Suetonius adds that this was done “at the instigation of one Chrestos.” The reference is obviously to Christ, and Suetonius’s garbled account confuses two Greek words, christos and chrestos.

Claudius was a learned man, misjudged by his contemporaries because of physical defects due to the effects of what may possibly have been Parkinson’s disease. His interest in continuing Augustus’s religious policy led to a wide knowledge of the religions of the Empire and prompted investigation in the courts of any case involving cults or religious beliefs. Suetonius’s phrase and the act of expulsion probably reflect the first impact of Christianity in Rome, disturbance in the ghetto, proceedings in the courts, and a review of the rabbis’ complaints and the Christian apologia in reply before the court with the Emperor on the bench. He hears the Pharisaic explanation of the empty tomb (Matt.28.13), and, Nazareth having recently fallen under central control, he proceeds to deal with the trouble on the spot. Inquiries are made in Palestine, and the local authority asks for directions. The result is a “rescript” or imperial ruling. Claudius wrote more than one long letter on religious matters (e.g., a notable letter to the Jews of Alexandria in a.d. 41). The decree set up at Nazareth was a quotation from such a communication, verbatim or adapted from a larger text.


NAZARETH DECREE. The Nazareth Decree, housed in the Cabinet de Médailles in the Louvre, and coming originally from the collection of the Ger. antiquarian Froehner, was discovered by the historian Michel Rostovtzeff in 1930, and first published by the Abbé Cumont in 1932, although it appears to have reached Germany, according to Froehner’s catalogue, in 1878. It consists of a score of lines of irregular Gr., which had been set up at Nazareth, in all probability somewhere a little before the year a.d. 50.

The text runs: “Ordinance of Caesar. It is my pleasure that graves and tombs remain undisturbed in perpetuity for those who have made them for the cult of their ancestors, or children, or members of their house. If, however, any man lay information that another has either demolished them, or has in any way extracted the buried, or has maliciously transferred them to other places in order to wrong them, or has displaced the sealing or other stones, against such a one I order that a trial be instituted, as in respect of the gods, so in regard to the cult of mortals. For it shall be much more obligatory to honor the buried. Let it be absolutely forbidden for anyone to disturb them. In the case of contravention I desire that the offender be sentenced to capital punishment on charge of violation of sepulture.”

If the date of this inscr. is somewhere before the middle of the 1st cent., and in spite of thirty years of active controversy, this dating appears most likely, the emperor who caused it to be set up could have been none other than Claudius. Some points of confirmation immediately appear. Claudius was a curious person, a sort of Rom. James I, who would have been much happier with his books than with the affairs of state. Ancient historians persisted in calling him mad, but the more Claudius’ actual achievements are studied, the clearer becomes the impression that he was a man of learning and of no mean ability. He was prob. a victim of some form of cerebral palsy, whose faulty co-ordinations conveyed an impression of subnormality, and resulted, in his early years, in ridicule and misunderstanding, which damaged his personality. It is clear that, anxious to carry on the religious reforms of Augustus, he was deeply informed about, and genuinely interested in, the religious situation in the Mediterranean world.

A long letter, for example, has survived in which Claudius seeks to regulate the vast Jewish problem of Alexandria. This letter was found among the papyri in 1920, and appears to contain the first secular reference to Christian missionaries. It was written in a.d. 41, and expressly forbids the Alexandrian Jews “to bring or invite other Jews to come by sea from Syria. If they do not abstain from this conduct,” Claudius threatened, “I shall proceed against them for fomenting a malady common to the world.”

Note the language. It is the style of the Nazareth Inscription, and the language of a man who had studied the Jewish religious problem, and found it irritating. It would be surprising if Claudius, with these preoccupations, was not the first Rom. outside Pal. to hear of the Christians.

From a Rom. secular historian, Suetonius, it is known that there was some trouble in Rome, which Claudius had to settle, “over one Christ,” or “Chrestos,” as a misspelling puts it. The situation may therefore be reconstructed. The first Christian preaching must have begun in Rome in the forties of the cent., with intense opposition from the rabbis of the Jewish community. Claudius, curious about religion, and interested in the Jewish problem, heard the case. Triumphantly the Christians spoke of the empty tomb. The rabbis countered with the story of a stolen body.

Irritated by both sides, Claudius expelled all the Jews in Rome (Acts 18:2). He then made inquiries in Pal. over the origin of the cult, and heard again of the empty tomb. The local governor asked for directions, as Pliny did. Claudius bade him set up a decree, listing stern penalties, at Nazareth, the town named in connection with the case. If this line of reasoning is correct, it is in the words of an emperor that the 20th cent. read the first secular comment on the Easter story, and legal testimony to its central fact.

Bibliography

A. Momigliano, The Emperor Claudius and His Achievement; E. M. Blaiklock, The Archaeology of the New Testament (1970).