In the 1930s, a mysterious marble tablet held at the Louvre in Paris started catching the attention of religious scholars. Etched with a warning to keep grave robbers away from tombs and accompanied by a cryptic note that claimed it “came from Nazareth,” the slab was soon linked to Jesus’ death—a written reaction, many theorized, to his body’s disappearance and biblical resurrection.
The nature of the so-called Nazareth Inscription has been hotly debated in the decades since. Now, a chemical analysis of the stone slab has led a modern team of researchers to argue for a far less biblical origin story: that the tablet isn’t from Nazareth at all, but was instead created after Greek islanders vandalized the grave of a ruler who died decades before Jesus.
These findings, published recently in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, could clarify some of the inconsistencies in the tablet’s tale. Inscribed with a Greek “Edict of Caesar” that threatens capital punishment for grave robbers, the document doesn’t mention any specific people or places by name. But its approximate age of about 2,000 years—suggested by the style of its Greek lettering—and ambiguous origins led some to consider it the oldest physical artifact connected to Christianity, John Bodel, an epigraphist at Brown University who was not involved in the new study, tells Science magazine’s Ann Gibbons
Others, however, were more skeptical of the link, pointing out that the variant of Greek inscribed on the tablet was rare outside of Greece and Turkey and would have therefore been out of place in Nazareth, a city in the Middle East.
To investigate the slab’s origins, a team led by Kyle Harper, a Roman historian at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, extracted a small sample from its reverse side and chemically analyzed its composition. The marble wasn’t a match for anything found in the Middle East, instead bearing a much closer resemblance to rocks in a small quarry on the Greek island of Kos.
These findings make it highly unlikely the tablet was inscribed in Nazareth, Bodel tells Science.
Combined with the timing of its creation, the tablet’s new geographic origin suggests it was inscribed in response to the death of Nikias, a tyrant who ruled Kos during the 30s B.C. before being overthrown, reports Bruce Bower for Science News. After Nikias was buried, his former subjects dragged the disgraced ruler’s body from his tomb and scattered his bones, per an ancient Greek poem. In response to the ensuing scandal, the first Roman emperor, Augustus, may have ordered this tablet, and perhaps others, created to re-establish order in the eastern Mediterranean.
“Our argument about the tyrant Nikias is not 100 percent certain, but it’s the best explanation we have,” Harper tells Science News.
Augustus may have had additional reasons to issue such an edict. During his reign, Nikias supported Roman general Mark Antony, one of the emperor’s political enemies. Rather than voicing concerns over the nature of Nikias’ burial specifically, Augustus may have simply been taking note of other similar attacks on rulers’ tombs—an unfortunately common phenomenon in the Middle East and Asia Minor, Bodel tells Science News.
Further investigations will be necessary to really nail down the slab’s starting point, Jonathan Prag, a historian at the University of Oxford who wasn’t involved in the study, tells Newsweek’s Hannah Osborne. Comparing the text to other inscriptions with known roots in Kos and Nazareth could be a logical next step, he says. By way of trade, rocks from Kos could have also made their way to Nazareth.
A more unsavory scenario might exist as well: that the tablet was inscribed by a well-informed forger in the 19th century, just before it was acquired by a French collector named Wilhelm Froehner in 1878, archaeologist Robert Tykot of the University of South Florida tells Science News.
At some point, Froehner (or his seller) was probably duped into an expensive buy—though as Harper tells Science News, “how exactly Froehner acquired the stone will probably always remain obscure.”