by Neil Godfrey
Updated with mostly typo corrections, 6:30 am, 8th Dec. 2012.
Perhaps many readers of Bart Ehrman are impressed enough with his public reputation to be confident that when they read his book on mythicism, Did Jesus Exist? (DJE?), they are reading yet another fine, erudite, devastating critique by a scholar who knows what he is talking about.
A few who have also read René Salm’s book, The Myth of Nazareth (MoN), on the other hand, will shake their heads in disbelief that such a distinguished scholar is exposed as intellectually stark naked when he writes about that book. Ehrman, once again, demonstrates for any who are prepared to look that he clearly has not read the book he is reviewing. He even makes a complete fool of himself with simplistic retorts that only demonstrate his utter ignorance of what he describes as “the highly technical field of archaeology”. Ehrman exposes himself as a very shallow thinker when faced with serious challenges to a paradigm he had always, by his own admission, taken for granted.
The point of it all
Ehrman curiously thinks that Salm is arguing that if Nazareth didn’t exist then there was no historical Jesus, either:
The logic of this argument . . . appears to be that if Christians made up Jesus’s home-town, they probably made him up as well. . . Salm sees this issue as highly significant and relevant to the question of the historicity of Jesus. (DJE? pp. 191, 193)
But Salm’s argument is at no point so black and white and, contrary to Ehrman’s innuendo, does not simplistically assume that Jesus did not exist if Nazareth did not exist.
If Nazareth did not exist in the time of Jesus, then questions quickly arise: Why did the evangelists place him there? Was there something regarding his real provenance that they found objectionable? What was that provenance? If Nazareth was a persistent and recurrent invention in the gospels, then we leave the realm of error and enter the realm of elaborate fiction. This recognition would require a fundamental reappraisal of the Jesus story, and a paradigm shift in Christianity. . . . .
The implication is . . . irrefutable: if there was no Nazareth before his birth, then Jesus did not come from Nazareth. . . . .
It is not my intention here to question the conventional understanding of Christian origins, that a man by the name of Jesus . . . lived in Palestine in the early first century CE and inspired the religion we now call Christianity. . . . I restrict consideration to the archaeology of Nazareth, with the purpose of showing that the provenance of Jesus, as set forth in the gospels, is not historical.
He — whoever he was (or wasn’t) — certainly was not Jesus “of Nazareth” in Lower Galilee. . . . It remains to be determined why the evangelists found it necessary to invent such a Jesus.
(MoN, pp. xii-xiii, 148, 157-8, 308)
Nothing new, but everything anew
Ehrman mischievously implies that Salm is claiming to present new discoveries,
Like so many mythicists before him, Salm emphasizes what scholars have long known: Nazareth is never mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, in the writings of Josephus, or in the Talmud. It first shows up in the Gospels. (DJE? p. 193)
One wonders if Ehrman really did read the book because Salm acknowledges that he is relying on what scholars have long known and he goes way beyond the lack of references in the classical literature in this respect. Ehrman seems to have missed what it was that Salm himself claims:
It is well known that Nazareth is not mentioned in the writings of Josephus . . . . [Salm does discuss the possible or debatable references to Nazareth in the Talmud -- which leaves one wondering if Ehrman is not aware of these] . . .
This work [The Myth of Nazareth] has not presented any new material, but has brought a radically new analysis to material long known. The archaeology of Nazareth — based on tombs and oil lamps, pottery, graffiti, and so forth — has been in the public domain for decades.
These independent studies [Catholic reports supplemented by a number of studies principally by Israeli specialists] have not been incorporated into the overall assessment of the site [until MoN]. This series brings together all the primary reports for the first time. and allows an independent and objective opinion to be formed regarding the site’s history. (MoN, pp. 292, 307, xv)
Ehrman gets kind of desperate when he imputes (without citation, of course) to Salm the suggestion that “every early Christian” did not know where Nazareth was, all on the basis of the known history of pilgrimages to the site:
Salm is also impressed by the fact that the early generations of Christians did not seek out the place but rather ignored it and seemed not to know where it was (this is actually hard to show; how would we know this about “every” early Christian, unless all of them left us writings and told us everything they knew and did?) (DJE? p.193)
I can’t quote Salm saying refuting this innuendo because, as far as I am aware, Ehrman’s suggestion was something he dreamed up ex nihilo after a smoke one evening. But Salm does discuss the history of early pilgrimages to the site:
When Christianity was officially sanctioned by Constantine the Great, the Jewish settlement of Nazareth suddenly emerged from obscurity. . . . Only from this time do we begin to have unmistakable geographical references to Nazareth in Lower Galilee. Suddenly, the small settlement was thrust into the Christian and imperial limelight . . . (MoN, p. 292)
Mark 1:9 again
We return here to a point raised in the previous post: Ehrman scoffs at any suggestion that Mark 1:9 is not evidence that Nazareth was the real home-town of Jesus (the Bible says it! Ehrman believes it!):
Salm, like Zindler, wants to insist that Mark did not indicate that Jesus came from Nazareth: Mark 1:9, for him, is a later insertion. (DJE? p. 194)
Now there Ehrman scored a hit pretty close to the bull’s eye! Not the whole verse, but certainly the word “Nazaret” or “Nazareth” (depending on which manuscript one is reading.) When I wrote my last post I had added some reasons to Zindler’s in support of the claim that this word was not in the original text of the Gospel of Mark, but since then I have had another look at Salm’s book and am reminded that he also added the same points himself in MoN. I will not repeat that detail here. It can be found in the post previous to this one.
(In addition to those points, Salm also notes — p. 299 — that if the word is indeed genuine to Mark’s original version, it would indicated that the gospel was written at the earliest near the end of the century when Nazareth was inhabited.)
Ye olde ad hom
Ehrman once again (as we saw so often through Earl Doherty’s analysis that is now available online here) advertises his weakness in applied logic.:
Salm himself is not an archaeologist: he is not trained in the highly technical field of archaeology and gives no indication that he has even ever been on an archaeological dig. . . . Still, he bases almost his entire case on archaeological reports about the town of Nazareth. (DJE? p. 194)
Firstly, Ehrman is falling into the trap of arguing against the man instead of against the argument itself; and secondly, his following statement does not follow. It is, as they say in Latin classes, a non sequitur. Here we may turn to a more recent statement of René Salm for a response:
Not being an archaeologist myself, I am often asked: “How can you date evidence, Mr. Salm?” or: “How can you presume to correct professional archaeologists?” or: “How can you have any opinion on these matters?” However, there is a misunderstanding inherent in these questions, for I have never dated anything at all. I have simply identified the relevant archaeological experts and quoted their published datings: Hans-Peter Kuhnen on kokhim tombs, Varda Sussman on bow-spouted oil lamps, Roland Deines on Jewish stone vessels, Amos Kloner on circular blocking stones, and so on. The case regarding Nazareth does not rest on my opinion at all. Anyone who disagrees with The Myth of Nazareth is not disagreeing with me but is taking issue with the leading archaeological experts in the world. As we shall see, this is fatal for traditional conclusions regarding Nazareth. (From René’s SBL paper, linked on an earlier post on Vridar: Carrier on Brodie, Salm at SBL, Nazareth and Pious Fraud . . . . )
Take a look at that post for additional quotations from Salm’s book that are relevant to this question.
Gotcha! Nope . . .
Dr Bart Ehrman stoops to juvenile retorts when he writes:
In particular, he is impressed by the fact that the kind of rock-cut tombs that have been uncovered there . . . were not in use in Galilee the middle of the first century and thus do not date to the days of Jesus. And so the town did not exist then.
This is a highly problematic claim. It is hard to understand why tombs in Nazareth that can be dated to the days after Jesus indicate that there was no town there during the days of Jesus. That is to say, just because later habitation can be established in Nazareth, how does that show that the town was not inhabited earlier?. (DJE? p. 194)
Um, yeh. But if the rock-cut tombs were in use in the early first century (“time of Jesus”) then that would argue that the town whose dead they buried did exist then. So is Ehrman really trying to say that if the only evidence for the existence of Nazareth at this time is invalid then that means nothing?
It appears that Bart Ehrman was not at all well when he wrote the above. Salm’s book is actually a discussion of the entire panoply of evidence relating to the town of Nazareth from the Stone Age right through to Byzantine times. MoN demonstrates from the scholarly scientific record that “Nazareth” (or “Japhia” — a nearby town in Old Testament times), lost all evidence of human habitation at the end of the eighth century BCE. Archaeologists without any affiliation to the Christian Church have dated the artefacts testifying to the renewal of habitation to the late first and second centuries CE.
Silence is louder than . . . ?
Ehrman then resorts to his favourite escape-route: the good old argument from silence! “So what if the material evidence does not support the existence of Nazareth at the time of Jesus?” he suggests. “Huh! The people were so poor that they had nothing to leave behind as evidence! Q.E.D.! ”
So what does the fact that none were found from the days of Jesus indicate? Precisely nothing. (Recall here Daniel Dennett’s maxim:
I advise my philosophy students to develop hypersensitivity for rhetorical questions in philosophy. They paper over whatever cracks there are in the arguments. (Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, p. 178)
The tombs that poor people used in Palestine were shallow graves, not built into rock . . . These poor-person graves almost never survive for archaeologists to find. (DJE? p. 194)
(Leaving one or two readers, perhaps, to wonder how Jesus ever learned to read Scriptures and to acquire such a deep knowledge of the Scriptures and Israelite culture and history, as the Gospels indicate he did, if he grew up in such a place. If it was such a backwater of none but a very few such poor folk then one wonders how it ever acquired a name as an urban site at all. And why in heaven’s name would Jesus ever be named as “from Nazareth” if no-one had ever heard of such a place?)
Living (or lying dead or praying) on a steep hill, without terraces . . .
Does “Tricky Dicky” have any counterpart with Bart Ehrman’s name? I ask because Ehrman scurrilously suppresses any indication that Salm actually has the support of evidence on his side for his claim that the hillside traditionally associated with the Gospel Nazareth was, in fact, the most unlikely place for a settlement at that time:
I should also point out that these kokh tombs from later times were discovered on the hillside of the traditional site of Nazareth. Salm, however, claims that the hillside would have been uninhabitable in Jesus’ day so that, in his opinion, the village that eventually came into existence (in the years after 70 CE) would have been located on the valley floor, less than a kilometer away. (DJE? p. 195)
I quote from Rene Salm’s recent SBL paper because he includes a figure here:
The Tradition has insisted since ancient times that Nazareth existed on the hillside, as we read in Luke 4:29: “And they led him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw [Jesus] down headlong.” . . . .
However, the hillside location of Roman Nazareth is hardly tenable. Firstly, the Nazareth basin lacks any satisfactory cliff which would accommodate the Lukan scene. Secondly, the incline of the hill is steep and reaches a grade of 20% in places. This is not steep enough to throw someone off a cliff, but it is certainly too steep for ancient Galilean villagers to build homes.
Here is Salm’s argument from the book that Ehrman says he read:
The Bronze-Iron Age evidence from the hillside does not betray settlement there at all, but agricultural and funerary use. It is therefore clear that the settlement was always on the valley floor, where we should expect it — the valley floor is flat and amenable to habitations. That is the only possible conclusion from the evidence unearthed to date.
The area could hardly be less conducive to ancient dwellings. . . . The rocky, steep, and cavernous nature of the limestone hillside is self-evident . . . .
The valley floor is now heavily built over and will in all likelihood never be excavated. This is convenient for those who claim a village there in the time of Christ, but it is untenable on several grounds. First of all, it is hardly likely that the village predated its tombs. The dozens of scattered tombs . . . all postdate 50 CE. This shows that the village did also.
In order to deny the fairly overwhelming evidence from Nazareth, the tradition must resort to increasingly farfetched arguments from silence, such as that the tombs [from the time of Christ] are somewhere on the hillside but have simply not been discovered. (MoN, p. 67, 217, 289)
Salm also points out that sites where tombs are present would not have been inhabited by Jews, a detail Ehrman forgot when he insisted that the tradition is correct to place Nazareth in the location where tombs have been found.
Salm explains that Christian pilgrims visiting the site have always expected to see the hill from where Jesus was about to be pushed to his death (according to Luke 4). So on a hill must be the site of Nazareth! Accordingly, on a wry note Salm remarks:
Until relatively modern times the uneven, sloping terrain, and the cavernous nature of the ground have conspired to prevent the construction of private dwellings on the mountainside. But the unfavorable characteristics of the area did not prevent the construction of ecclesiastical structures, a fact which attests to the power of tradition to overcome almost all obstacles. (MoN, p. 219)
No stone turned
To return to Ehrman’s point above, that Salm himself (never any of the archaeologists or theologians to whom Salm refers, of course) suggests that the real Nazareth was actually located about a kilometer away from the archaeological digs. The digs are on the (theologically correct) hills, but the town is really in the valley basin below — Ehrman writes:
He also points out that archaeologists have never dug there.
This view creates insurmountable problems for his thesis. . . . If archaeologists have not dug where Salm thinks the village was located, what is his basis for saying that it did not exist in the days of Jesus? (DJE? p. 195)
Once again we see Daniel Dennett’s devious rhetorical question (see above) brought into play. Unfortunately for Bart Ehrman at this point, he has let slip another indication that he never actually read the book he claims he did. Had he really read MoN he would have known the answer to his question. Salm explains it well enough. Context is everything. As goes the surrounding area so, it is reasonable to assume, goes our tiny focus within that area:
The context [of broader geography and history] is critical, for it alone will validate the radically different history of the site which is presented [in MoN]. [This book will show that] the existence or non-existence of a settlement in the Nazareth basin is consistent with what we know of surrounding settlements in Lower Galilee. Multiple surveys of the area have been conducted, and many sites in the region have now been excavated. Whatever we may say of the history of Nazareth, it was certainly compatible with broader considerations. (MoN, p. xiii)
Is Bart Ehrman really so ignorant of the fundamentals of archaeology that he failed to realize that a particular location must inevitably be influenced by its neighbouring regions? At the macro level, we must point out that the archaeology of Megiddo, for example, is not irrelevant to the fate of a village within a stone’s throw from its walls.
Closer to home, archaeologists have discerned that the fate of the likely village in the basin area can be assessed from the existence or not of surrounding evidence, such as tombs. No tombs means that people were either burying their dead many miles away so no-one can relate their graves to this site, or that they were burying them under their beds and thus were not very good Jews after all, or that they were dead themselves.
Ehrman has suddently forgotten, here, that archaeologists have been able to establish the existence of a village in the basin area from such surrounding evidence. Japhia, for example, was the Old Testament village in this locality. Bronze and Iron Age evidence from the surrounding region has confirmed the existence and location of this biblical toponym.
Read on only if you are eighteen or older
My “conspiracy theory” cap came on when I read the following by Ehrman. There is only one other person I know in internet land who accuses Salm of “forceful rhetoric, almost to the point of indiscretion”, and that person has admitted to me he has never read Salm’s book. (The same aspiring would-be scholar has also virtually accused this blog of posting nothing but a tirade of venomous, hate-filled insults against anyone with an advanced education in biblical studies.) I find it hard to believe Ehrman based the following on anything he has actually read by René Salm himself:
This is a major flaw: using forceful rhetoric, almost to the point of indiscretion, Salm insists that anyone who thinks that Nazareth exists has to argue “against the available material evidence.” But what material evidence can there be, if the site where the evidence would exist has never been excavated? (DJE? p. 195)
That last rhetorical question (remember Daniel Dennett above) has been addressed, but let’s look at what possible evidence Ehrman could be thinking of when he accuses Salm of “using forceful rhetoric, almost to the point of discretion”. Here is the complete paragraph in which the offending passage (“against the available material evidence”) is found. Readers overly sensitive to “forceful rhetoric” and “indiscretions” are advised to press the “Get Me Out Of Here” button now:
Because there is no demonstrable evidence from the turn of the era, the claim of a village at that time has no substantiation at all. Those who argue for a village at the time of Jesus have nothing material on which to base their opinion, and they must argue against the available material evidence. This is the situation with Nazareth: material evidence on one side confronts arguments from silence on the other. (MoN, p. 289)
If anyone suspects I have skipped the really offending “forceful rhetoric almost to the point of indiscretion”, I am happy to quote (on request) the paragraph or two either side of this one, too.
It is also worth dropping in here what Salm means, exactly, by “material evidence”. I quote here from his recent SBL paper:
We should first agree on what constitutes the “demonstrable material record.” All can agree that it is found in scholarly publications. Note my inclusion here of the word “scholarly.” Many opinions are now current on the Internet and in the popular press which claim, for example, the existence of a house in Nazareth from the time of Jesus, the existence of coins dating to Hasmonaean times, and even that a bath-house in Nazareth existed at the turn of the era—one in which Jesus himself may have bathed. However, these popular claims do not meet scholarly standards of publication, description, context, itemization, parallels, etc. That is, they do not allow other scholars to verify the nature of the evidence and hence to weigh the claims themselves. These non-academic press reports—quite frequent these days—are not what one can term “diagnostic.” Until the evidence is itemized and described in a scientific way, such claims are the equivalent of unfounded opinion, hearsay, and innuendo.
The new peer review publications: AP, email and “They said it so persuasively!”
We shall see that Bart Ehrman is less constrained by any idea that scholarly publications should trump popular press releases.
The old farm canard as reported in the mass media is pulled out by Ehrman to “trounce” Salm’s reference to the scholarly citations:
Many compelling pieces of archaeological evidence indicate that in fact Nazareth did exist in Jesus’s day and that . . . it was built on the hillside, near where the later rock-cut kokh tombs were built. For one thing, archaeologists have excavated a farm connected with the village, and it dates to the time of Jesus. Salm disputes the finding of the archaeologists who did the excavation (remember that he himself is not an archaeologist . . . . ) (DJE? p. 195)
This blog post is already too long. Read Salm’s response to this old Nazareth farm site canard at The Nazareth Village Farm.
Towards the end of his “analysis” of René Salm’s book Ehrman seems to be giving up in despair. Gone is any pretence at being a public face of sound scholarship. All readers need to know is that Bart asked someone who told him that it was so!
Alexandre has verbally confirmed that . . . there were coins in the collection that date to the time prior to the Jewish uprising. (DJE? p. 196)
Salm’s response in his SBL paper clarifies what should be the obvious:
Accompanying a broadening in the definition of what constitutes an “archaeologist,” there has been a concomitant loosening in what constitutes “evidence” in the field of Christian studies. A major problem with Nazareth archaeology (as also with Biblical archaeology in general) is that mere assertions have often replaced verifiability, including proper publication, itemization, and so forth. Sometimes, scholars consider claims valid merely because one or another of their peers “said it is so.” Thus, reputation has often replaced evidence . . .
Ehrman voices complete satisfaction regarding the existence and dating of the pre-Jesus coins mentioned above. Upon examination, however, we find that he bases his opinion on the mere fact that he read a passage claiming their existence.5 In fact, the passage Ehrman saw6 was itself hearsay. Stephen Pfann and Yehuda Rapuano of the University of the Holy Land in Israel claimed to have received a private communication from Ms. Alexandre alleging the discovery of such early coins at Mary’s Well in Nazareth. That allegation is the basis for Ehrman’s statement: “Alexandre has verbally confirmed [to Pfann and Rapuano] that in fact it is the case: there were coins in the collection that date to the time prior to the Jewish uprising” (DJE? 196). Obviously, the standards for “evidence” in biblical studies have fallen to a very low threshold, indeed, when no more is required than the assertion of an archaeologist—no matter how astonishing that assertion may be.
In this case, Ehrman’s “compelling evidence” is no more than hearsay at third hand.
To place this in context, one should know that Alexandre’s supposed verbal assurances are not supported by her original academic report in which she made no mention of any coins dating to the Jesus era. That original report — an academic publication — dated them all much later. See The Nazareth Coin Boondoggle.
Ehrman then comes to archaeologist Ken Dark’s review of Salm’s book that was addressed on this blog in 2009:
Another archaeologist who specializes in Galilee, Ken Dark, the director of the Nazareth Archaeological Project, gave a thoroughly negative review of Salm’s book . . . . (DJE? p. 196)
I won’t repeat my response to Ken Dark’s review that can be found at Reviewing a Scholarly Review of René Salm’s The Myth of Nazareth.
Then we have that silly so-called discovery of the house that Jesus grew up in, or close enough, being dragged out by Ehrman. (This man obviously believes his reputation is so secure that no idiocy or vacuity can ever erode his fan base, or else he is experienced enough to know that most theologians will love him for saying anything, no matter how naive, against “mythicism”.)
[A] house that dates to the days of Jesus . . . was reported by the Associated Press on December 21, 2009. I have personally written the principal archaeologist, Yardena Alexandre, the excavations director at the Israel Antiquity Authority, and she has confirmed the report. The house is located on the hill slopes. Pottery shards connected to the house range from roughly 100 BCE to 100 CE (that is, the days of Jesus). There is nothing in the house to suggest that the people inhabiting it over this time had any wealth: there are no glass items or imported products. The vessels are made of clay and chalk.
The AP story concludes that “the dwelling and older discoveries in nearby tombs in burial caves suggest that Nazareth was an out-of-the-way hamlet of around 50 houses on a patch of about four acres . . . populated by Jews of modest means.” No wonder this place is never mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, Josephus, or the Talmud. It was far too small, poor, and insignificant. Most people had never heard of it, and those who had heard didn’t care. Even though it existed, this is not the place someone would make up as the hometown of the messiah. Jesus really came from there, as attested in multiple sources. (DJE? pp. 196-197)
When I first saw that news report about that house I truly expected all scholars to disown it, ridicule it, run like the wind from it. I wrote at the time: The Jesus-era House-in-Nazareth Discovery. Salm, of course, has also written about this at No “house from the time of Jesus”.
So Ehrman relies upon AP press as his scholarly source for scholarly arguments and conclusions, now.
As Salm wrote recently in his blog on this claim by Alexandre:
“Assertions and hearsay are hardly evidence,” I replied. “Perhaps you could convey to Yardenna Alexandre that she might publish more and talk less.”
In conclusion Ehrman attempts to poo-pooh the whole question:
Again I reiterate the main point of my chapter: even if Jesus did not come from Nazareth, so what? . . . In fact, it is not even related to the question. The existence (or rather, nonexistence) of Nazareth is another mythicist irrelevancy. (DJE? p. 197)
And this returns us to the first criticism Ehrman levels at René Salm and that was covered at the beginning of this post.
Ehrman, we might be suprised to note, at no point addresses the evidence Salm compiles that demonstrates the professional incompetence of many of the archaeologists who have worked on Nazareth, and how most of them have been trained in seminaries and are notorious for using the digs solely for the purpose of finding “proofs” for the Gospel stories. The Church ownership of the sites and the interest of Tourist industries is never addressed by Ehrman.
IF Ehrman is right
If Ehrman is right and the archaeologists he turns to for press-releases and hearsay assurances via email or over the phone are correct, then Nazareth presents us with a most astonishing historical phenomenon. As Salm points out, if Nazareth had always been inhabited — and if we are allowed to use one or at most two shards of pottery datable anywhere between 100 BCE and 400 CE as evidence of an inhabited settlement through all that time — then Nazareth would be one of those very rare metropolises that has had an unbroken existence for 4000 years! It would be world-renowned as an archaeologists’ dream-site.