The Nazareth Inscription: The Earliest Christian Artifact?
The Christian proclamation is rooted in time and space. The creed proclaims that Jesus Christ was crucified by a Roman prefect named Pontius Pilate. The gospel makes claims to historicity that seem to invite the search for material evidence. And, to be sure, some of the figures portrayed in the New Testament texts appear in the epigraphic record. Mostly these affirm the existence of persons whose presence on the scene was never in reasonable doubt. For instance, an ossuary from first-century Jerusalem bears the name Caiaphas on its side; it may well belong to the high priest who oversaw the initial trial of Jesus. A dedicatory inscription from the city of Caesarea on the Judean coast presents evidence of Pilate’s tenure in the province. Of slightly greater consequence is an inscription from Delphi in Greece, naming the high-ranking governor Gallio, copied in the year AD 52. Gallio is represented by the Christian book of Acts in his capacity as a judge, hearing furious accusations made against the apostle Paul by fellow Jews. The date helps us build a chronology of Paul’s mission. Otherwise, what all of these inscriptions have in common is that they reflect minor characters in the background of the early Christian story, for reasons that have nothing to do with Christianity itself. They add plausibility to the historical backdrop of the New Testament, but none of these can be properly considered a trace of early Christian history.
The search for Christianity’s earliest material remains is mirrored in the hunt for manuscripts, which continues unabated today. The oldest physical traces of a Christian text are probably the scrap of papyrus known to textual critics as “P52.” Bought on the antiquities market in 1920, it is housed today in a library in Manchester, England. The scrap preserves a few precious words from the 18th chapter of the Gospel of John. The Gospel of John was probably written toward the very end of the first century or the opening decades of the second. The papyrus fragment belongs to the second century, sometime between AD 125–175 or perhaps a bit later. The dating of this fragment, and others like it, is dependent on the imperfect science of paleography, and remains hotly contested. These early crumbs of otherwise richly attested textual traditions can stir passions because of their possible proximity to the autograph — the romantic idea that only one or two sets of hands lay between us and the very first copy. These passions were agitated in recent years, as word rumbled that a new first-century papyrus fragment of Mark’s gospel was imminently to be made public. The fragment in question was just published, and it is, predictably, “merely” a text of the later second or early third century. There is still uncertainty and intrigue about the circumstances behind the rumor, amplified by the possibility that the Green family, the evangelical craft-store magnates and parvenu collectors from Oklahoma, may have had a hand in the affair. But we still lack a Christian text that can be dated to within one or two generations of the autograph. This circumstance is utterly unsurprising and holds for every author from the ancient world. Only in the case of Christian texts is this fact something like a recurring source of disappointment.
Forgers have often been tempted to fill this vacuum. Many of them are quite clever. The so-called “James Ossuary,” announced in 2002, bears an inscription claiming that it held the bones of “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” The box is undoubtedly authentic, but strong doubts have been cast on the inscription, which is probably the work of an expert hand trained to mimic first-century Aramaic. Textual forgeries are even more common. The “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” a text purporting to represent Jesus saying the words, “my wife,” hoodwinked an eminent Harvard professor in recent years. Inevitably, it has been asked whether the Nazareth inscription might be a forgery. But the Nazareth inscription is at once too good, and not good enough, to be a fake. It is virtually impossible that anyone in the 19th century would have had the ability to conjure a passing imitation of something as little understood at the time as the Roman law on tomb robbing — into ancient Greek, with perfect Palestinian paleography no less. And, if someone had been that astute, they should have created a document that does just a little more to convince us of its links with the Christian story. The authenticity of the Nazareth inscription has never been seriously doubted by the scholarly community.
Verifiable physical remains of Christianity, then, do not go back before about the middle of the second century, at least for those who need the kind of certainty offered by scientific archaeology. From the later second century, there is a continuous series of Christian inscriptions in the catacombs and an uninterrupted stream of Christian art and iconography. Christian tombstones start to appear in Asia Minor. Soon the vestiges of Roman persecution, and then of Christian churches, will appear. But to go further back is to enter a realm beyond physical proof. Nowhere is this conundrum better exampled than in the very heart of established Christianity, the Vatican itself. By the standards of critical archaeology, it is possible to say that Christians were venerating the spot said to mark the resting place of Peter’s bones from sometime in the course of the second century. Nothing requires, nor precludes, the belief that the place was hallowed even earlier. But as we reach back into the first century for some trace of Christianity we can touch, its remnants always recede just out of grasp.
This invisibility is totally unsurprising, after all. The Christian movement was tiny and irregularly scattered, and even at the end of the first century, the church only numbered in the thousands. Despite the zeal of believers and despisers alike, there is not much to be made of the fact that physical traces of early Christianity are absent. It would be far more unexpected if they were present. And this paradox is what makes the Nazareth inscription, and the story of its obscure provenance and long concealment at the hands of Froehner, at once so beguiling and so unlikely. If it is from the remote corner of the world that gave birth to Christianity, and if it was inspired by the emperor’s reaction to the tumult over the empty tomb, it would be the most ancient surviving artifact in any sense of the Christian faith.