Scholar’s Chair Interview: Dr. Clyde Billington

This month in the Scholar’s Chair, we get to hear from Dr. Clyde Billington. Dr. Billington is the current president of the Near East Archaeological Society and the digest editor of Artifax magazine.  He is also the executive director of the Institute for Biblical Archaeology. He taught for 22 years at the University of Northwestern in St. Paul, MN, where he was a full professor of ancient and medieval history, and where he also taught biblical archaeology.  He has over 50 articles that have been published in a variety of scholarly sources.  He holds 4 university degrees, including a Ph.D. in ancient history from the University of Iowa.  Dr. Billington is now retired and lives in Florida with his wife Ellie.

I was first introduced to Dr. Billington through an article he wrote that was reprinted on the website of the Associates for Biblical Research on the Nazareth Inscription, and important artifact in New Testament studies. Since the Nazareth Inscription was recently in the news again, I thought I’d ask him about his extensive research into it.

BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY REPORT: Welcome Dr. Billington! What sparked your interest in ancient History?

DR. CLYDE BILLINGTON: I am a strong believer in the use of the grammatical-historical method of Biblical interpretation /hermeneutics.  This means that to properly interpret the Bible, it is vitally important to know not just what the Bible says grammatically, but also to know its historical and cultural background. 

For example, it is impossible to properly understand events related to the birth of Jesus Christ without a proper understanding of marriage in the New Testament Period.  In ancient Jewish Ketubah marriage, it was very common for a young woman to be married, as was Mary to Joseph, and still be a virgin.  

By the way, English translations that say that Joseph was “espoused” or “engaged” to Mary, are incorrect; they were legally married!  All of this to say that ancient history is a perfect match for someone who wants to develop an in-depth understanding of the Bible, and thus I decided to obtained my Ph.D. in ancient history.

BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY REPORT: You’ve researched the Nazareth Inscription, which is one of the most important artifacts in biblical archaeology related to the New Testament.  Where did it come from and what is it? 

DR. CLYDE BILLINGTON:

THE NAZARETH INSCRIPTION (Translation by Clyde Billington, Ph.D.)

The Nazareth Inscription is an edict from a Roman Emperor outlawing the stealing of bodies from Jewish tombs. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

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 sepulcher-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 honor 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 Inscription is a Greek inscription on a white marble tablet measuring approximately 24 inches by 15 inches by 2 ½ inches.  The exact time and place of its discovery is not known.  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 of this Inscription simply states: “This marble was sent from Nazareth in 1878.” This is all that is known about the time and place of its discovery.  While Froehner did make a Greek transcription of the original Greek version of the Nazareth Inscription, he never published it, and the contents of the Nazareth Inscription remained unknown to the scholarly world for more than fifty years. 

Nazareth from the east. Photo: Todd Bolen, BiblePlaces.com

In 1925 the Froehner Collection was acquired by the Paris National Library, where the Nazareth Inscription was rediscovered and read by M. Rostovtzeff.   Rostovtzeff told his friend, the French scholar M. Franz Cumont about this Inscription in the Paris National Library.  With the encouragement of Rostovtzeff, Cumont published in 1930 a Greek transcription and a French translation of the Nazareth Inscription with a commentary in his article Un Rescrit Imperial Sur La Violation De Sepulture in the French journal Reveu Historique, CLXII. 

The Nazareth Inscription took the scholarly world by storm because it could be read as an imperial decree against the Apostles stealing Christ’s body from His tomb and faking His resurrection.  It is also very similar to the Jewish high-priestly version of the resurrection of Christ as found in Matthew 28:11-15, in other words “His Disciples stole His body from the tomb.” 

Cumont’s publication of the Nazareth Inscription led to a snowstorm of scholarly articles; more than twenty were published by the end of 1932.  None of these early articles questioned the authenticity of the Nazareth Inscription.  It is highly unlikely that it is a forgery.  The Greek text of this Inscription and its historical connections provide strong support for its authenticity.  However, its interpretation and possible connection to the story of the resurrection of Jesus Christ are still hotly debated today. 

BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY REPORT: There is has been a great deal of debate about the dating of the Nazareth Inscription.  Why do you believe it dates to the reign of the Emperor Claudius?

Emperor Claudius, shown as Jupiter. Found at Lanuvio, Italy, and currently housed in 1865.Vatican Museum. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins. https://ferrelljenkins.blog/2012/10/23/acts-18-photo-illustrations-the-emperor-claudius/

DR. CLYDE BILLINGTON: The French scholar M. Franz Cumont, who first published the Nazareth Inscription, placed its date between 50 BC and 50 AD.  He based his dating of this rescript on the style of its epigraphy.  However, the American scholar Frank E. Brown of Yale University very questionably argued: “… that our inscription comes from the decade after the stamping out of the [Jewish] revolt of 132-135 A.D.”

Both Cumont and Prof. F. de Zulueta argued for dating this Inscription in the reign of the Emperor Caesar Augustus (31 BC to 14 AD).  M. P. Charlesworth in his book Documents Illustrating the Reigns of Claudius and Nero lists the Nazareth Inscription as one issued by Claudius, but writes that it: “It is of doubtful provenance and date, but some scholars ascribe it to Claudius.” I date the Nazareth Inscription to the reign of the Emperor Claudius (41-54 AD) and more specifically to the reign of his good friend, the Jewish King Herod Agrippa I (41-44 AD).

 The Nazareth Inscription is clearly a shortened version of a rescript letter.  When an ancient Roman official would write a letter about some problem to the Roman Emperor, he would respond by sending back a rescript letter to this official on how to deal with this problem and in the process often make a law to solve the problem. 

The Jewish historian Josephus, (AJ, XIX, 5) provides another rescript letter in Greek by the Emperor Claudius dealing with Jewish rights. The form, vocabulary, and syntax of this rescript of the Emperor Claudius are nearly a perfect match with the Nazareth Inscription.  In other words, it provides very strong proof that the Nazareth Inscription was written by Claudius.  Incidentally, this rescript on Jewish rights was sent to King Herod Agrippa I, and it ordered him to post this rescript in written form in a paved, public place.

Historical evidence and synchronisms provide strong support for dating the Nazareth Inscription to the early reign of the Emperor Claudius (41-54 AD).  The historical support for dating the Nazareth Inscription to the reign of Claudius is very compelling.  For example, the heading of this document reads simply “Edict of Caesar” which clearly indicates that the title “Caesar” had come to be synonymous with the title “Emperor.”

The title “Caesar” was not used in this way during the reign of Caesar Augustus, but only for later Emperors!  Caesar Augustus is known to have been very careful about including the Roman Senate when he made any laws; he knew what happened to Julius Caesar.  However, later emperors frequently ignored the Roman Senate.  The title of the Nazareth Inscription “Edict of Caesar” strongly argues against Caesar Augustus being its author.

BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY REPORT: What do you believe is the most reasonable explanation for the historical context of the Nazareth Inscription?

DR. CLYDE BILLINGTON: I believe that King Herod Agrippa I, who according to Acts 12:1-9 killed the Apostle James and jailed the Apostle Peter, wrote a letter to his good friend the Emperor Claudius about the growing problem of the Christian movement in Jerusalem in ca. 42 AD.  In his letter, King Herod Agrippa said that the followers of Jesus Christ were teaching that He was the King of the Jews and that He–and also some of his dead followers– had been resurrected from the dead.  It is also highly likely that King Herod Agrippa I, who was related to the High Priests, told Claudius  the Jewish, high-priestly version of the resurrection of Christ, in other words, “His disciples stole his body from his tomb.” 

Claudius, a childhood friend of Herod Agrippa I, was almost certainly alarmed because he feared a Jewish revolt, which almost happened under the earlier reign of the Emperor Caligula in 41 AD, who had ordered that his idol be placed in the Temple in Jerusalem. The actual revolt of the Jews against Roman rule did begin in 66 AD under Nero (54-67 AD), the successor of Claudius. 

To solve the problem of a resurrected King Jesus Christ, Claudius issued the Nazareth Inscription threatening death to anyone who “has moved with wicked intent” bodies from tombs.  The “wicked intent” was the supposed faking of the resurrection from the dead of King Jesus Christ.   Both Claudius and Herod Agrippa would have taken a great deal of political interest in the resurrected King Jesus Christ.

Claudius’s imposition of the death penalty for this crime clearly indicates that he was very concerned about something other than just tomb-robbing and/or tomb desecration.  True tomb-robbing and tomb desecration in later Roman law were civil, and not criminal offenses.  The Nazareth Inscription does not mention robbing or desecrating tombs but only the moving bodies from tombs to other locations.

The Nazareth Inscription only fits a Jewish context, since only the Jews buried their dead in rolling-stone tombs from which bodies could be easily taken.  It should be noted that the Nazareth Inscription mentions moving “sepulcher-sealing stones,” in other words moving rolling stones placed over family tomb entrances.  

A rolling-stone, sepulcher-sealing tomb at Horvat Midras, 19 miles southwest of Jerusalem. It was in use during the Roman Period — up until A.D. 135, and is one of the best examples of the type of tomb Jesus may have been buried in. Scripture indicates that a stone was “rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb” (Mark 15:46) when Jesus was buried and that the women “found the stone rolled away from the tomb” (Luke 24:2) on the first day of the week. Photo: www.HolyLandPhotos.org

The ancient Greeks and Romans never had family tombs sealed with “sepulcher-sealing stones.”  During the time of Christ, the ancient Greeks and Romans more commonly practiced cremation rather than inhumation in graves in the earth.  They also believed that an unburied individual would haunt the living as a ghost until buried or cremated, and thus they generally quickly buried or cremated their dead.  Incidentally, the ancient Romans generally buried their un-cremated dead in the ground in individual graves, much like we do today.   The Nazareth Inscription simply does not fit a pagan Greco-Roman scenario. 

It should also be noted that the Nazareth Inscription deals with stealing bodies from tombs and moving them “with wicked intent” to other locations.   Why would anyone want to do this, and especially why would the highly superstitious Greeks and Romans ever want to do this?  Only the resurrection of Christ fits the scenario of the Nazareth Inscription.

BIBLE ARCHAEOLOGY REPORT: A recent study analyzed the composition of the marble of the Nazareth Inscription tablet and concluded that the marble likely came from a quarry on the Greek island of Kos (Cos). The authors of the study suggest an alternate historical context: that the inscription was ordered by Caesar Augustus, decades before Christ, in response to an event described in an ancient poem in which the people of Kos are said to have broken into the tomb of the tyrant-ruler, Nikias, and desecrated his corpse. As a historian, how do you respond to this theory?

The Nazareth Inscription. Photo Credit: Poulpy / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

DR. CLYDE BILLINGTON: This chemical study of the origin of the Nazareth Inscription’s marble was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, but this article has several major problems, not with its scientific study, but with its assumptions and conclusions. 

The first major problem is the assumption that because the marble on which the Nazareth Inscription is inscribed came from Kos, and also the likely fact that it was inscribed on Kos proves that it could not have dealt with the resurrection of Christ.  I actually accept these two facts as reliable, but I believe that they support the connection of the Nazareth Inscription to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

Shipping goods, including white marble, overland by donkeys, camels, or oxen was at least 10 times as expensive as shipping by sea.  In addition, with good winds, ships could average 4-6 mph, in other words more than 100 miles a day by sailing both at day and at night.  Pack and draft animals could only average at most about 20 miles a day, and then they had to be fed, watered, and rested. 

It should also be noted that Kos was a major port on a well-known shipping route which connected Israel to ports in Asia Minor and Greece, as can be seen from Acts 21:1-4.  In this passage of Scripture, Paul sails from the island of Kos to Rhodes, to Patara in Asia Minor, to Tyre in Phoenicia and then to Ptolemais and on to Caesarea in Israel.  Ptolemais was the port city for Sepphoris and Nazareth, which were located only about 25 miles away from the Mediterranean Sea. 

 The cheapest and quickest way to have a marble tablet cut and inscribed was to order it from Kos, and then have it delivered by ship to Ptolemais and then carted overland to Nazareth.  Incidentally, the white marble found in some ancient, floor mosaics in Israel almost certainly also came from Kos since there is no white marble to be found at any site in Israel, and Kos was the closest and most convenient source for white marble.

An aerial view of the island of Kos, Greece. Photo: Karelj / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The second major problem is the assumption in this article in the Journal of Archaeological Science that the Nazareth Inscription pertains to the hated Greek tyrant Nikias, whom the ancient people of Kos are said to have dragged from his tomb and to have abused his corpse in ca. 20 BC. 

Supposedly, according to this recent article, Caesar Augustus was outraged at this desecration of the corpse of Nikias and thus posted the Nazareth Inscription. It should be noted that this story about the abuse of Nikias’s corpse by the people of Kos comes only from a poem and not from an ancient historical source.  There is also not a single historical source, including this poem, that mentions Caesar Augustus or his supposed anger at the people of Kos over the desecration of Nikias’s corpse.   

 In addition, Nikias’s and Augustus’s names do not appear in the Nazareth Inscription.  Caesar Augustus is also not mentioned by name in the ancient poem dealing with the desecration of Nikias’s corpse, and there is also no mention made in this poem of any official action of any sort being taken by any Roman official.  It should also be noted that there is no mention at all made in the Nazareth Inscription of abusing a corpse but only of moving corpses to other locations in order to perpetrate a fraud, in other words, the fraud of the resurrection of King Jesus Christ.

The third major problem with the Nikias theory is the fact that the Nazareth Inscription mentions multiple bodies being taken from tombs, not just one.  It should be noted that Matthew 27:5 states that when Jesus was resurrected, “The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.”  In other words, the plurality of bodies mentioned in the Nazareth Inscription matches well with the resurrection of Christ and also of some of His dead saints, but it does not match at all with the single corpse of Nikias.

Incidentally, ancient historian Kyle Harper of the University of Oklahoma has said that the theory that the Nazareth Inscription was written by Caesar Augustus because of the abuse of Nikias the Tyrant’s corpse that it, “has not yet been proven.”  I don’t believe that it will ever be proven, because the Nazareth Inscription almost certainly deals with the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

One final point, the Nazareth Inscription does not prove that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.  What it does prove is that the story of Christ’s resurrection was already well-known, even to the Emperor Claudius less than ten years after His crucifixion.  Modern people thus must decide, did Jesus Christ actually rise from the dead or did his Apostle perpetrate a fraud by faking His resurrection.  I believe that he rose from the dead.

I want to thank Dr. Billington for taking the time to share with us in detail about the Nazareth Inscription. You can learn more about this artifact in Dr. Billington’s article, “The Nazareth Inscription: Proof of the Resurrection of Christ?” which is available here:
https://biblearchaeology.org/research/new-testament-era/4658-the-nazareth-inscription-proof-of-the-resurrection-of-christ

You can learn more about the Institute for Biblical Archaeology and Artifax magazine here: http://bibleartifax.com/

Cover Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Clyde Billington

Disclaimer: I allow each archaeologist to answer in his or her own words and may or may not agree with his or her interpretation of their work.

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