In his report on Christ’s resurrection, Matthew writes that an angel rolled away the massive stone that was blocking the entrance of Jesus’ tomb and then sat on it.
The terrified guards fled in terror.
This same angel whose appearance looked like lightning told the women who had come to visit the tomb that Jesus had risen from the dead and was now on His way to Galilee (Matthew 28:1-10).
Matthew then adds this strange addendum, reporting on what happened when the guards told the chief priests and elders about their encounter with the angel.
Matthew writes that the chief priest bribed the guards into saying that the disciples had stolen Christ’s body after the guards had fallen asleep.
But then Matthew adds this odd statement.
14 If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day. (Matthew 28:14-15 NIV)
The Jewish leaders assured the guards that if Pilate found out about what happened, they would not be held personally responsible for falling asleep.
In other words, they were expecting Pilate to hear about this, and then Matthew adds this rumor that the disciples stole Christ’s body was still circulating in his day.
Most believe Matthew wrote his biographical account of Jesus’ ministry several years later, so obviously, the Jewish leaders were still using the story about the disciples stealing the body of Christ to discredit the rapidly growing early church.
So this leads to an interesting and certainly controversial archaeological find called the Nazareth inscription.
It is uncertain when or where it was discovered, but according to Clyde E. Billington Ph.D. in his article, The Nazareth Inscription: Proof of the Resurrection of Christ?, the 24-inch (ca. 61 cm) by 15-inch (ca. 38 cm) marble tablet made its way into the Froehner Collection in 1878, where they noted it originated in Nazareth.
It had a message written in Greek carved on the tablet, but no one bothered to translate it until the Paris National Library acquired the Froenner Collection in 1925.
When French scholar M. Franz Cumont released a translation of the tablet in 1930, it caused immediate controversy because the inscription stated that anyone who stole a body from a grave would be subject to capital punishment, or execution.
Now it was already illegal to steal grave goods, but it was considered more of a civil matter, but this tablet specifically warned against stealing bodies from sepulchers.
It is believed the table was written during the reign of the Roman Emperor Claudius around 41 AD. This was a few years after Christ’s crucifixion believed to have taken place during the Jewish Passover between 30 AD and 33 AD, with the most likely date being April 3, 33 AD.
Since the gentiles tended to both cremate bodies and bury the urns holding the ashes in individual graves, rather than in family tombs or sepulchers, the edict was directed primarily at Jews and Jewish Christians.
In his article, Clyde E. Billington provided a translation of the Nazareth inscription:
THE NAZARETH INSCRIPTION TRANSLATION
By Clyde E. Billington, Ph.D.
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.
Since, grave robbers had basically no interest in stealing bodies, making it a capital offense (execution) to steal a body is very unusual and most would suggest under normal circumstances totally unnecessary.
Yet twice, in line 7 and line 12, it warns against removing bodies from these tombs.
In his article, Billington cited a couple of interesting points about the inscription.
First, there are some who dispute its legitimacy, but Billington notes the tablet contains terminology, legal and otherwise, found in other official declarations written by Emperor Claudius:
“For example, of the 90 words used in the Nazareth Inscription, there are only 14 Greek words or phrases that are not found in other known rescripts of the Emperor Claudius,” Billington writes. “And nearly all of these words deal with the specifics of the reason for which this rescript was written, i.e. breaking into tombs, stealing dead bodies, and moving them to other places.
As for the inscription itself, Billington makes several interesting points.
He says that verse 6 refers to stealing a body with “wicked intent.” In other words, we are not talking about teenage boys involved in a bit of mischief, but rather there was an evil purpose to the theft.
Why would someone want to steal a body? What could possibly be considered an evil purpose?
Line 8 also specifically says it is illegal to move the large stone covering the sepulcher. Of course, this would not be the first time angels broke human laws. They did the same thing when they broke the disciples out of jail (Acts 5:17-20).
In lines 9 and 10, the edict adds that if someone stole a body, a special tribunal would be set up to examine the issue. Billington believes the description of the tribunal as one involving ‘human religious observances’ suggests it was a religious tribunal that would have the backing of Roman authority.
This implies that the demand for such an unusual law may have come from religious leaders as well.
Billington also adds the tablet itself may have actually originated in Sepphoris, the former Roman capital of Galilee, which was only five miles away from Nazareth.
But this find certainly substantiates what Matthew writes in his Gospel that the Jewish leaders were still pushing the story of the disciples stealing Christ’s body several years after Christ’s resurrection.