The Emperor and the Empty Tomb: An Ancient Inscription, an Eccentric Scholar, and the Human Need to Touch the Past




WHEN WILHELM FROEHNER died in 1925, at the house on the Rue Casimir-Périer where he had lived since the reign of Napoleon III, he left behind among his possessions a curious inscription that might be the oldest surviving artifact of Christianity. The bachelor Froehner was a scholar and a collector of antiquities. Long before his death, he seemed like a relic. In his youth, he had published a pedantic critique of Flaubert’s historical novel Salammbô; the novelist’s reply, a masterpiece of withering irony, was often included in later editions of the book. Politics of the distant past had frustrated Froehner’s academic career. Amid the upheavals of the Franco-Prussian War, the German-born Froehner was expelled from his post at the Louvre. So for half a century, he made himself an indispensable presence in the auction houses of Paris as a trusted appraiser and arbiter of authenticity. A confidant of several minor aristocrats, he knew the antiquities trade inside and out, in an age when roguish archaeology and audacious forgery prevailed. Froehner was never wealthy. His tastes as a collector ran to the obscure and inexpensive. Any bric-a-brac with writing on it was beyond his capacity to resist. Only the aura that a few thousand years can give to an object, what Froehner himself called “the iridescence of centuries,” clearly separate his habits from the compulsions that go by the name of “hoarding.” The collection of more than 3,400 items he left behind was destined for backroom storage, with the exception of the marble slab known as the Nazareth inscription.

By the time he died, Froehner had been in possession of the Nazareth inscription for nearly 50 years. He apparently never mentioned the object to another soul; he did not show it off in private company. He never tried to sell it, nor are there any signs that he felt a sense of obligation to bring a historical document of such obvious significance into the light. It is inconceivable that a man of Froehner’s training and experience could fail to recognize what an interesting object he had his hands on. His silence is that of a dragon content to brood over a treasure, of which the world is anyway ignorant. Toward the end of his life, Froehner boasted that much of his collection was unseen, “virgin.” With his own eyesight failing him, and a nonagenarian’s sense that the entire culture of Europe was succumbing to a dreadful crisis, he relished the fact that he had secretly “deciphered texts,” while keeping them from an ungrateful and unworthy world. Froehner, sadly, took to his grave all but the most exiguous details about how he came into possession of the stone, putting us at one further remove from being able to grasp its meaning. The Greek text of the Nazareth inscription is easy enough to interpret. But the origin of the stone, and its historical significance, are puzzles that remain both unresolved and tantalizing.

The Nazareth inscription is a block of marble, about two feet tall, a foot wide, and two inches deep. The first of its 22 lines of text, carved in slightly irregular Greek letters, announces an “Edict of Caesar.” The text itself bears telltale signs of translation from the original Latin, the language of Rome’s empire. In the body of the law, the emperor demanded that tombs and graves remain forever undisturbed. No one was permitted to remove a buried body. The emperor warned that anyone removing a corpse from the grave would be charged with tomb robbery, to be treated as a capital offense equal to public sacrilege. Judged only by its content, the inscription would be an interesting enough document in the history of Roman rule. But in Froehner’s private inventory, he noted that the inscription was “sent from Nazareth in 1878.” The intrigue is obvious. Nazareth is famous for only one thing. Did the inscription have something to do with the controversy over that empty tomb? Could it suggest that a Roman emperor was aware, however dimly, of unsettling claims about a crucified man rising from the dead in a remote province of his far-flung empire? If so, the inscription might stand as the oldest physical trace of the world’s largest religion — an echo of the early Christian story, bouncing off the hard surface of Rome’s power.

Decades of scholarship have not yielded conclusive answers, and the original circumstances behind the Nazareth inscription may remain forever beyond our grasp. But any attempt to approach the ancient stone confronts its modern history — a story of this eccentric scholar, the vanished world of dealers, collectors, and savants in which he moved, and the enduring human need to touch the past.

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In the Louvre, there is a famous bronze statuette of Hercules resting after his labors. Behind his back he holds the golden apples of the Hesperides. The godlike hero leans wearily against his club, over which is draped the skin of the Nemean lion. The resting Hercules is a superb exemplar of Hellenistic art by the master Lysippos (who had for a time served as the personal sculptor of Alexander the Great). As so often, the original has perished, but the work was widely appreciated in antiquity, and numerous copies survive. The most famous of these — the Farnese Hercules — is an oversized marble imitation from the third century AD, rediscovered in the Renaissance, and now in Naples. The Louvre’s version is also a late copy, possibly Roman in date, and not uncovered until the 19th century. It stands in the Louvre today — indeed, it stands as a single piece altogether — thanks only to a whole chain of events surrounding its recovery, restoration, and expatriation that would in our more enlightened age violate every best practice and international covenant on the books.

Because the man who brought us the Louvre’s statuette is also probably the conduit of the Nazareth inscription, it is worth knowing a little about his character and modus operandi. The bronze Hercules was recovered, in pieces, starting in the 1870s. A Roman antiquities dealer named Bonichi was traveling through the town of Foligno when he saw a peasant bearing a beautiful bronze leg. Inquiry revealed that the leg had been recently dug up and that another peasant had taken a larger fragment, including the torso with the other leg, missing a foot. Bonichi was disappointed to find that the owner of this fragment was away, and the wife would not sell in her husband’s absence. So Bonichi returned to Rome with nothing but the first leg, leaving behind money for a telegram, with instructions to send him a sale price when the husband came home. No word arrived, and Bonichi would discover that the torso had ended up in the hands of a collector named Guardabassi. Incensed, Bonichi sued, claiming that the telegram money was an earnest deposit. The suit failed. Nursing his spite, Bonichi refused to sell the leg, so the pieces of Hercules were damned to permanent separation.

The source of this picaresque story, and its hero, is Count Michał Tyszkiewicz. The count convinced Bonichi to sell him the leg, but only upon a pledge of honor that it would not be resold to his rival. Then, to talk Guardabassi out of the torso, Tyszkiewicz had to swap a prized specimen from his own collection, an ancient mirror. Now owner of both pieces, Tyszkiewicz had the fragments of Hercules reassembled, and the missing bits filled in, by a Roman dealer, Martinetti, well known for his magic as a restorer. The whole Hercules was sold to Napoleon III, whence it came into the possession of the Louvre. Some years after, remarkably enough, Tyszkiewicz spotted the unrecovered foot in the window of a tobacco shop, bought it, and shipped it to Paris. Even today this third foot — the original — is displayed beside the statuette in the Louvre. It is an awkward reminder, like the seams in the bronze, of the fragility and fallibility of cultural transmission.

Count Tyszkiewicz was in every sense a man of the 19th century. The scion of a Polish-Lithuanian house that traced its ancestry back to the 15th century, he was born in Vienna in 1828. In 1860, he traveled to Egypt and “excavated” at several sites, when archaeology still meant a form of genteel treasure hunting. Tactile contact with the ancient past became Tyszkiewicz’s obsession, and he matured into one of the great collectors of the age. He bought a villa in Rome and stationed himself there for most of his adult life. The city was not yet fully adapted to modernity. Its hills were covered with vineyards. On Sundays, peasants streamed into town for cigars and kept the shops freshly supplied with the antiquities they had turned up in their fields. The count used his fortune to amass an enviable collection. Tyszkiewicz’s house became an obligatory stop for cultured travelers and archaeologists passing through the eternal city. In his own lifetime, he was a generous benefactor, and today his former possessions are a conspicuous presence in museums from Boston to Berlin and beyond. Numberless treasures recovered in a century of imperialism and plunder passed through his hands. And it was possibly Tyszkiewicz who gave his friend Froehner the Nazareth inscription.

The friendship of Tyszkiewicz and Froehner was as inevitable as it was unequal. Tyszkiewicz was a genuine blueblood. Froehner was the son of an impoverished music teacher from Karlsruhe. Tyszkiewicz had an aristocrat’s conviction that the ability to gauge the worth of an artifact was something that could not be learned: “It is pre-eminently a question of instinct, which cannot be acquired, but must be born in a man.” Froehner escaped his provincial origins by teaching himself a dozen languages. Tyszkiewicz turned noblesse oblige to the task of preserving, and sharing, the glories of ancient culture. Froehner saw nothing indecent about burying his treasure in his own basement. But still the friendship between the connoisseur and the savant seems foreordained. Both devoted their lives to the trade in art and antiquities. They moved in the same circles. Their tastes were in sync. Tyszkiewicz and Froehner shared a passion for Roman medallions — special edition, oversized coins minted by the Roman emperors. Froehner wrote a book on them. Rumor circulated that Tyszkiewicz had written it but let his friend claim authorship. More likely, Froehner wrote the book but let his wealthy friend be flattered by the rumor. Their resources and abilities were complementary. Tyszkiewicz knew that men of taste ultimately needed men of erudition:

To them it falls to explain subjects, to define dates, to distinguish styles, to fix attributes. This task demands so much learning, and such lengthy researches, that it seems difficult, especially at the present day, to be both a great savant and a great connoisseur — to excel at once in the region of erudition and in that of sentiment. The best that both connoisseurs and savants can do, is to remain each in his sphere, living on good terms, and enlightening each other by wise counsels.

Tyszkiewicz and Froehner enlightened each other for decades. Over four hundred letters between them survive. Fittingly, after the count’s death in 1897, it was Froehner who published the sale catalog of the Tyszkiewicz collection. The objects in the count’s estate underscore why the Nazareth inscription would have been outside the scope of the connoisseur’s usual interests. The passions of Tyszkiewicz were for beauty, for art, for precious materials — not for the bric-a-brac of Roman governance. Tyszkiewicz was a man whose daily routine was to take out and admire his gems after his morning smoke. The Tyszkiewicz collection was dominated by jewelry, sculpture, medallions, cameos, intaglios. One representative letter to Froehner seeks advice on the purchase of a bust of Jupiter, a bronze statuette, a silver medallion, a glass, an Etruscan gold ring, and other precious items, including three inscriptions on bronze. Tyszkiewicz told Froehner outright that he was interested only in things that were “beautiful or important.” As a collector, Froehner could not afford to be so discriminating, and as a scholar, Froehner’s interests were more encompassing than his noble friend’s.

In the voluminous correspondence between Tyszkiewicz and Froehner, the Nazareth inscription is never mentioned. If Tyszkiewicz gave the inscription to his friend, it was precisely because this sort of object, a scuffed marble stone, was more to the taste of the savant than the connoisseur. We know that such items passed between the two on occasion. In his personal notebook, on May 31, 1878, Froehner recorded that Tyszkiewicz gave him a “Greek inscription,” probably the Nazareth inscription itself. It is likely that the gift does not appear in their letters because the count presented the stone to Froehner in person. For, like everyone else in 1878, the count had come to Paris for the world fair.

The commotion aroused by the Exposition Universelle held at the Trocadero in 1878 is hard for us to comprehend. The third of the Parisian world fairs, it was an extravagant statement by a proud republic still licking its wounds from the poor showing in the Franco-Prussian War. The marvels of modern technology took center stage. In fact, Thomas Edison was the star of the show, with the phonograph and the light bulb stupefying audiences for months. The Exposition was also a chance to remind the world of France’s cultural superiority, and here archaeology and the fine arts figured prominently. The Exposition was a magnet for art lovers and archaeologists, and Tyszkiewicz observed that every art dealer in Rome had decamped for Paris. We know that sometime early in the Exposition, which opened in May, the count himself was there. In May 1878, Tyszkiewicz had the means, motive, and opportunity to gift his friend an unassuming slab of marble bearing a Greek inscription, in Paris.

How could Tyszkiewicz have come into possession of the Nazareth inscription? At this point, our ignorance starts to impose itself, for such essential details have perished with Froehner. We know that Tyszkiewicz traded with dealers in the East. And there may even be ghostly traces of a shipment of inscriptions that Tyszkiewicz carried to Paris in 1878. Froehner’s sketch of the Nazareth inscription in his notebook records the detail that “the Jewish Lazarus-inscription came from Jaffa at the same time.” There is only one inscription that could possibly be meant. It is a gravestone dug up in the 1870s at Jaffa which found its way to Paris. Today it is in the Louvre, but in 1878 it was on display at the Exposition Universelle, where it was transcribed and published by a rising star in the field of archaeology and epigraphy, Charles Clermont-Ganneau.

Clermont-Ganneau was Froehner’s junior by only a dozen years, but he cuts a more modern figure. Clermont-Ganneau helped set the field of biblical archaeology on reputable foundations. While the “archaeology” practiced by Tyszkiewicz differed from centuries of tomb robbing mainly in the social class of its practitioner, Clermont-Ganneau engaged in something recognizable as academic archaeology. He made some of the earliest credible discoveries illuminating the Hebrew Bible. He rose to modest celebrity as a zealous enemy of forgery, biblical forgeries especially. In 1873, he exposed the Moabite pottery discovered by an unscrupulous dealer, Moses Shapira, as “crockery.” A decade later, Clermont-Ganneau again embarrassed the dealer in a savagely efficient dismantling, published in the London Times, of Shapira’s claim to have found an ancient scroll with a theretofore unknown version of Deuteronomy. Humiliated, and bankrupt, Shapira put a bullet through his own skull. Clermont-Ganneau went on to enjoy a career crowded with honors, capped by membership in the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres and a professorship at the Collège de France.

In 1878, Clermont-Ganneau was between missions to Palestine when he visited the Exposition Universelle and saw on display an ossuary — a “bone box” of the kind used by Jews during the Roman period — that captured his attention. The ossuary was exhibited by a Mr. Desbuissons, who allowed Clermont-Ganneau to make a study of it, published in the 1878 edition of Revue Archéologique. Clermont-Ganneau hastily published studies in the same issue of two further artifacts he found in the possession of Mr. Desbuissons. One of these is the “Jewish Lazarus-inscription,” from Jaffa, that Froehner noted came over with the Nazareth inscription. The other is a Greek inscription, shipped from Rhodes, of little interest except that it eventually ended up in the collection of Froehner. Unfortunately, Desbuissons is unknown; a cartographer and an architect of that name are recorded, but no Desbuissons has left a trace as a collector or archaeologist. We have come tantalizingly close to the chain of transmission. Perhaps Tyszkiewicz gave Froehner the Nazareth inscription, while Desbuissons acquired the other pieces from the count. If so, then Froehner must have known of the inscription from Rhodes and been interested enough to acquire it from Desbuissons later. Certainly Clermont-Ganneau did not see the Nazareth inscription in the house of Desbuissons with the other objects, for the flamboyant scholar could hardly have resisted the urge to publish such a sensational find.

We can describe the mise-en-scène of the Nazareth inscription’s arrival in Paris, even if the final details are as imprecise as the lines of an impressionist painting: the influx of treasure and tourists for the Exposition Universelle, an aristocratic connoisseur, a recent shipment of Greek inscriptions from the East — from Jaffa, from Nazareth, from Rhodes. Somehow, at this moment, the most interesting piece of the lot fell into the hands of the enigmatic Froehner, destined to remain an object of his private fascination, unshared with the world for half a century.

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Epigraphy is the branch of classical studies devoted to the investigation of ancient inscriptions. In an already rarified field, epigraphy is a peculiar vocation, reserved for those with the prodigious memory and ample patience it requires. There are only a few dozen libraries in the world properly furnished to support the work of a good epigraphist. The discipline came into its own in the age of Froehner and Clermont-Ganneau, thanks in part to their efforts. The painstaking collation and publication of weighty epigraphic corpora in the late 19th century transformed our knowledge of the classical civilizations. Both the Greeks and Romans had a predilection for writing on stone. Their inscriptions tell us about everything from the intrigues of the imperial court to the price of fellatio in Pompeii. There are cities whose entire history has vanished, except for the stray names and incidents they happen to have recorded on stone. But most inscriptions are unglamorous and highly formulaic. Epigraphy is about repetition and pattern, and the art of the epigraphist lies in the recognition of similarity and variation. A fragmentary inscription might be deciphered through knowledge of the hundred other stones just like it, or its true significance revealed in the slightest deviation from the expected. The epigraphist must know how the tree differs from the forest, which requires an intimate knowledge of the whole forest. And epigraphy is by its nature a collective enterprise — the assembly of knowledge, piece by piece, into an edifice that exists purely for its own sake.

Epigraphy is as much about context as content. The placement of a stone, or its use, often proves decisive to its interpretation. Thus our incertitude concerning the origins of the Nazareth inscription is a loss. Did it once stand in a public forum, or guard a private tomb? Did it even come from Nazareth? Epigraphists speak of “wandering stones,” inscriptions that have been moved over the centuries, and whose modern find-spot is therefore a red herring. We cannot exclude the possibility that some unscrupulous handler along the way sought to profit from inventing a rare and dramatic place of origin for the Nazareth inscription. But we should not go so far as to accept the misleading idea, often mooted in the scholarship on the Nazareth inscription, that Nazareth was a hub of the antiquities trade in this period. Fernand de Saulcy, a scholar and friend of Froehner, remarked that the village was “little known to Europeans.” When Mark Twain visited in 1867, on the journey that forms the subject of Innocents Abroad, he observed that “Nazareth is wonderfully interesting because the town has an air about it of being precisely as Jesus left it.” The 1876 Baedaker advises the visitor to camp in the orchards on the north side of town and employ the services of an honest muleteer named ‘Isa el-Hakim. Nazareth remained an exotic detour, and it is hard to credit the idea that Froehner’s inscription was cycled through the antiquities trade of Nazareth. On balance, it remains easier to believe that the stone is actually from the town or somewhere in its orbit.

Because the Caesar whose edict is recorded on the stone is not named, we are thrown upon the inexact science of paleography, the study of letter forms, to narrow down the inscription’s date. The letters of the Greek alphabet morphed, slowly and unevenly, over the centuries. The shape and detail of a Greek letter can disclose the period and even occasionally the region of the hand that drew it. A Greek theta (θ), for instance, might have a dot or a dash across its middle. The horizontal bar might stop at the edges of the circle or hang over them. The circle might be more or less ovular. Each of these permutations, multiplied across the 24 characters in the Greek alphabet, can yield insights to the trained eye of the epigraphist.

The paleography of the Nazareth inscription confirms that it is a document from the earliest decades of the Roman Empire. Its alphas always have a broken horizontal bar. Its thetas have a dot in the middle rather than a dash. The omicrons are perfect circles. Every sigma has four bars, and the outermost bars are completely horizontal. So too the feet of the omegas lie flat on the line. It was at once obvious that the script of the Nazareth inscription bears a striking resemblance to two inscriptions from first-century Jerusalem. One commemorates the head priest of a synagogue, bearing the Greek name Theodotus. The other is known as the Temple Warning inscription, a document from Jerusalem that had been uncovered in 1871 by none other than Clermont-Ganneau. It is a stern notice to gentiles not to pass the sacred boundary of the great temple. The temple had been grandly refurbished by Herod the Great, and the inscription must date sometime between the renovation, completed in 23 BC, and the onset of the war between the Romans and the Jews in 66 AD that soon led to the destruction of the holy city. By the standards of epigraphic paleography, the similarities between these two documents and the Nazareth inscription are a dead-on match. And since the inscriptions of the later first century reflect the triumph of a different style of Greek epigraphy in Palestine, the Nazareth inscription must belong to the first half of the first century AD, with a decade or two margin of error.

In these years, Rome was ruled by the first dynasty of emperors, the line running from Julius Caesar to Nero, known as the Julio-Claudians. The rise of the Julio-Claudians went hand-in-hand with the consolidation of the Roman Empire in the Levant. In this corner of the Mediterranean, the Roman Empire was built piecemeal. Greater Palestine was a patchwork of petty suzerainties, which the Romans were content to acquire patiently. The Romans profited from the iron-fisted rule of Herod the Great and were pleased to leave him in power as a loyal client. Only some 10 years after his death did the emperor Augustus annex Judea, the heartland of ancient Judaism. From 6 AD on, it was governed directly by Roman administrators, such as Pontius Pilate. So if the Nazareth inscription came from Judea, it could not date prior to 6 AD, since the emperors did not issue edicts concerning the domestic affairs of independent kingdoms. If the inscription indeed came from the North, from Nazareth in Galilee, it must be a few decades later still. Long after they had taken direct control of Judea, the Romans left Galilee in the hands of Herod’s sons. The hills of Galilee were too remote and too poor to matter, and the region was finally and unceremoniously incorporated into the empire during the reign of Claudius, in AD 44. If the inscription is from Nazareth, then, it can only belong to the small window between this date and the great unrest that followed about two decades later.

The purpose of the edict is suggested by the innovation it made in Roman law. Traditionally, tomb robbery had been punished by restitution or a fine. The edict laid down far more severe penalties for disturbing tombs and removing corpses. What is most notable is that the emperor equated the violation of tombs with the public crime of sacrilege against the gods, punishable as a capital offense. A non-citizen guilty of a capital offense could face the gruesome form of death known as crucifixion. For a citizen, conviction meant exile and loss of status. Only a privileged few residents of the Near East enjoyed Roman citizenship, so the edict in effect proclaimed the death penalty by torture for violators. The edict both looked backward, allowing trials for any acts of desecration already committed, and forward, to all such acts in the future. The motivation for the edict is to be sought in the need for stronger sanctions meant to suppress the disturbance of the dead.

The first editor of the Nazareth inscription, a scholar named Franz Cumont, conjectured two possible contexts for the edict, which have remained the leading contenders ever since. The first suggests that behind the edict lay the general upheavals in Rome’s transition from republic to empire. The end of the republic was a bloody affair, a chain of civil wars engulfing the entire Mediterranean. The victor standing at the end of it all was Augustus. The peace he won led to an era of restoration. Augustus claimed to renew the discipline and order that had made Rome great in the first place. Half-forgotten rituals were revived. The old morals were put in force once more. There was much to be done. The death throes of the republic had seen the eastern provinces indiscriminately ravaged. Tombs and temples alike were plundered. The Augustan peace brought an end to such violence, and the edict preserved in the Nazareth inscription was, perhaps, part of a general effort to restore order — in the household and in the city, between the living and the dead. Since such efforts belong to the last decades BC, and perforce to a fully Roman jurisdiction, this theory requires that the Nazareth inscription is a wandering stone, displaced from Greece, or more likely Asia Minor, before we pick up its trail in Palestine. While not impossible, this theory sits ill at ease with the stylistic parallels from Jerusalem, with the sharp focus of the edict on the inviolability of corpses and tombs, and with what we can piece together about the stone’s Palestinian origins.

The main alternative is that the edict is a response to the Christian gospel and the bitter disturbances it aroused. The disciples of Jesus claimed that they found their master’s tomb empty. The 28th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew makes it abundantly clear that rival accounts of the empty tomb were in circulation. Jews who did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah spread the counter-claim that the disciples had stolen the body, and according to Matthew, they suborned the Roman guards into testifying as much to the governor. These polemics rippled outward across the Roman Empire. The Christian gospel was first proclaimed in the synagogues of diaspora Judaism, and the unsettling message of the resurrected Christ was a source of violent contention. For at least a generation, the principal way in which the Christian mission caught the attention of Roman authorities was in the internecine squabbling it set off in communities of Jews in towns all across the empire. In the reign of Claudius, this strife reached such a pitch that he expelled the Jews from Rome. Perhaps aware of lingering conflict over the claims of the resurrection, the emperor issued an edict laying down harsh penalties for violating tombs and the bodies resting within. A copy was then pointedly set up in the hometown of Jesus or perhaps the nearby Greco-Roman town of Sepphoris. The edict was not an effort to stymie the growth of a new world religion, so much as a reaction to simmering tensions among the empire’s many Jewish enclaves.

The theory as an undeniable elegance. It can account for the provenance, date, and purpose of the inscription. But we have come to realize, even more than a scholar of Froehner’s day could have known, how rare a physical trace of first-century Christianity would truly be. Epigraphy prefers patterns, and abhors a singularity. Our perplexity in the face of the Nazareth inscription is intense, precisely because of how unusual it would be to have a document that might let us touch some part of Christianity’s remotest past.

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The orientalist and historian Ernest Renan, in his Vie de Jésus, wrote, “For the historian, the life of Jesus finishes with his last sigh.” Renan was the teacher of Clermont-Ganneau and a colleague of Froehner, who in fact gave Renan historical and linguistic advice for the Vie de Jésus. Renan’s secular biography of Jesus, conceived while traveling in the Levant, was both a scandal and a sign of the times. It appeared in 1863 and helped open the floodgates to a kind of frank, critical study of Christianity that has continued ever since. From its origins, the field of biblical archaeology has been employed for the most contrary uses — from the piously apologetic to the ferociously skeptical. But in a century and a half of scientific archaeology, the search for a tangible piece of earliest Christianity, some physical remain that we might actually put our hands on, has proven dramatically unfruitful. The search has been all the more irresistible for that fact.

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.

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In his correspondence and diaries, sprawling over decades, Froehner never mentions explicitly his prized possession. The only oblique reference to be found is a note from his diary in September 1918. The Allied Armies had driven the Germans from France, and victory was assured. It had once seemed to Froehner that the capture of Paris was a foregone conclusion, but now that the city was saved, he took his precious marble inscriptions out of safekeeping. He inventoried them once more, and again kept his treasure to himself. With civilization secure outside the walls of his home, he was safe to enjoy his small fragments of its history.

It is easy to judge the faults of men like Tyszkiewicz and Froehner. Our codes and covenants of cultural heritage were forged as a brake on the very excesses and indulgences they practiced. If they had behaved according to our standards, the origins of the Nazareth inscription might be far more transparent to us, and this important puzzle of history more susceptible to resolution. The museums of the world are filled with artifacts that bear this sort of checkered past. For better and for worse, we owe a great deal to connoisseurs and savants like those who brought us the curious marble from Nazareth.

Perhaps it is more humane to regret than to judge Froehner’s selfishness. He lived a solitary life with his thousands of mute objects. Most of them are unprepossessing, even a little sad. A corroded ring. A slave collar. A multiplication table. Froehner grew to fear that the light might diminish them. He once related a tale about a friend in Constantinople who hurriedly left town and forgot to take a gilded statuette of Venus off a mantle. Exposed in the light for a year, the Venus entirely lost her luster. The owner threw the statuette in a drawer and left again for a journey. On his return it was as bright as it had been two thousand years before. Froehner kept his possessions safe in the personal darkness that gradually encircled him, as the old scholar lost his powers of sight. By the end, he could only run his hands over the cold, carved letters and wonder at the small piece of history that was, for a time, his and his alone.

¤

Kyle Harper is the senior vice president and provost at the University of Oklahoma.


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