René Salm discusses Nazareth and Nazarenes, James and Paul, Christianity and Buddhism, and Ventures Old and New
René Salm is best known for his publication The Myth of Nazareth: the Invented Town of Jesus that reviews the state of the archaeological evidence for the existence of Nazareth at the supposed time of Jesus. I first came to know of Salm on the original Crosstalk discussion list where I was impressed with the way he debated the question with scholars. In the following interview Salm refers to his Crosstalk discussions and interested readers will find one of his earliest posts to that list on the topic of Nazareth here. Robert M. Price has reviewed Salm’s book here, and I have discussed another review of it here.
But René Salm has much more to contribute to the discussion of Christian origins than his studies on the archaeology of Nazareth, and the following interview will introduce readers to his investigations into Christian origins, including pre-Christian movements, such as the Natsarenes/Nazarenes and gnosticism, and the specific roles of James (“the brother of the Lord”) and the apostle Paul.
Salm is working on a new book and has been building a new website (Mythicist Papers) on Christian origins, both discussed below.
For a broader view of his interests and achievements, including as a writer and musician, follow these links:
And of course his NazarethMyth.info webpage. This page includes further biographical information with a “personal statement” by Salm.
1. What led to your interest in Nazareth archaeology?
René Salm: My interest in Jesus mythicism. As recently as ten years ago I was not a ‘mythicist’ and, in fact, would have considered the mythicist theory far too fringy to be taken seriously. On the other hand, I had not seriously considered it—because I hadn’t needed to. But, as my researches into Christianity deepened, I realized that Jesus’ very existence was much more open to doubt than I had previously imagined. This led to my Nazareth work. In the late 1990s I came across a couple of passages in obscure works which doubted the existence of Nazareth in the time of Jesus.
Online (in the original Crosstalk forum) this doubt met very strident and universal opposition. However, none of the scholars so vociferously defending Nazareth’s existence gave any reasons. They merely pointed the ﬁnger to other scholars. I realized that here was a critical ‘test case’ of Jesus’ existence. After all, if Nazareth did not exist at the turn of the era, that would indeed be a hard pill for historicists to swallow. So, I began to research the issue myself, becoming self-educated in archaeology along the way.
2. When did your nazarethmyth website ﬁrst appear?
I believe that was in late 2006, a couple of years before my book was published. At that time I was self-publishing the book in fascicles. That’s how Frank Zindler of American Atheist Press got wind of it and immediately determined to edit and publish it.
3. You are clearly interested in both Buddhism and Christianity, and just as Marcus Borg published Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings you have published online Buddhist and Christian Parallels: Compiled from the Earliest Scriptures. In your view, was Christianity something new?
René Salm: Yes and no. I think Christianity is much less unique than Christians like to think. It’s like asking, “Is today new?” Well, yes, it is. But it has 24 hours, the sun rises and sets, and so on—as do all the other days. So, compared to days that have passed and have yet to be, today is not all that new. In my opinion, Christianity is a new expression of something very old, which I call ‘universal gnosticism.’ The essence of gnostic Christianity had already received extraordinary expression with the Buddha’s teaching, and also with that of Zarathustra. When one makes a detailed comparison of the saying of Jesus with those of these earlier figures, one sees immediately close and often astounding parallels.
4. And yet, wouldn’t you say that Christianity offers something different?
René Salm: Yes, I think it does. But what is radically different about Christianity (from, say, Buddhism) seems to be precisely what is false in it, beginning with the hyper-inﬂated biography of Jesus of Nazareth — including his virgin birth, his miracles, his resurrection after physical death, and even his provenance from Nazareth, which I have shown didn’t yet exist when Jesus was supposed to be alive. The Nazareth issue has revealed some very dark aspects of the religion to me. I don’t think it’s by chance that Christianity has a very bloody and ethically compromised history (as compared, say, with Buddhism).
The problems of the religion didn’t start with the pedophile scandals of recent years; nor with the extermination of heretics, witches, and — truth be told — often saintly people in the Middle Ages; nor with crusading conquerors, ecclesiastical degenerates, and Papal opulence. The problems of Christianity predate these symptoms. They go back to the very beginning, to lies in the basic fabric of the gospel story. Jesus of Nazareth is a myth. The doctrine that the divine Son of God sacrificed himself on earth and redeemed us from our sins is a myth. This is the so-called Pauline kerygma. It’s all a crock — an absolute crock. Yet it has been bought hook, line, and sinker by all self-professing “Christians.” The kerygma is the very foundation of the religion. But it’s a myth. Christianity, sadly, was created by a dedicated bunch of liars.
5. Your comments remind me very much of Burton Mack’s criticisms of the foundational Christian myth in the Gospel of Mark that he makes in A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins. Are you saying, then, that there is nothing good in Christianity?
René Salm: I wouldn’t say that. I would not throw the baby out with the bathwater, as might some of my atheist colleagues, those who repudiate all “religion.” You see, I believe that before Paul came along with his kerygma in the ﬁrst century of this era, there was a sectarian religion in Palestine with a profound seed of truth. That seed was gnostic, stringently ethical, and had something to do with the Semitic term “Natsarene.”
Incidentally, that term goes back millennia. In the Akkadian flood story, “natsar” (“preserve”) describes the ark that saves Noah (who has the gnostic name Atrahasis, “Ultra-wise”) and the seeds of future life. The rest of living things, as we know, died in this story of early cosmic judgement.
What my research is showing is that a very different sort of Christianity predated Paul — one that we would not recognize today. The religion of the Natsarenes was far too difficult for the ordinary person. It was devoted to the search for understanding and required total commitment, total sacrifice. It left no room for the world, for the enticements of pleasure, riches, and power. This ascetic religion had little to recommend it to the great masses, to the gentiles. Paul took care of that. He basically took this profound religion and debased it, made is “easy.”
He turned the all-consuming search for understanding into a religion of mere belief. In Christianity, the hard work has already been done for us — by Jesus. He died on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins. Paul created a ‘savior.’ All we need do is ‘believe.’ Very convenient!
6. So would you say that Paul ‘created’ Christianity?
René Salm: Yes, I think to a large degree he did. Of course, I’m not the only one to assert this. Paul concocted the abstract framework of the kerygma. This was his “aha” moment, the essence of his revelation on the road to Damascus. Subsequently, by his own admission (Gal 1:17), Paul went into Arabia for three years where in seclusion he patiently ﬂeshed out the details: the Son of God, death on the cross, the dying and rising savior (familiar from older religions), divine atonement for everyone’s sins. Paul crafted a coherent package of beliefs, one he could ‘sell’ to the gentiles. This was Paul’s genius. When he came back to Jerusalem to confront the apostles he was armed with a powerful message and quite prepared. They, of course, were appalled.
7. Would you elaborate a little more on the religion which preceded Paul?
René Salm: We have clues in the New Testament, from the writings ascribed to James preaching ethics over works, practice over belief. The discovery of the Nag Hammadi writings some sixty years ago has finally validated the existence of a very different sort of Christianity, one exceptionally early and gnostic. These writings were found entirely by chance, buried in the desert sands of Egypt. We have independent validation that the early Church expended great effort to destroy such writings in ancient times. This is precisely why the Nag Hammadi material was buried.
In many cases, the Nag Hammadi material includes the only surviving copy of enormously important Christian writings, such as the Gospel of Thomas. That gospel knows no crucifixion, no atonement, no miracles, no virgin birth. It teaches that the purpose of life is to seek and ﬁnd understanding, ‘enlightenment.’ This is gnostic.
Incidentally, the text lauds James “the Just” in the highest terms (GTh 12). The Gospel of Thomas is anti-Pauline. Today, then, we have the witness to at least two very different Christianities which are not at all compatible. It can be no coincidence that the figure of Thomas is the target of so much bile and caricaturing in the New Testament (cf. Jn 20:24 ff.).
8. Jesus is known as the Son of God. Did the pre-Pauline ‘Natsarene’ religion also have a Son of God?
René Salm: Yes, it did. The Son of God concept is not new with Christianity. Earl Doherty has noted that “In Christian devotion, the Son virtually eclipses the Father.” He is correct, but not enough recognition has been given to the fact that the divine “son” and “father” were important concepts millennia before the emergence of Christianity.
The Son eclipsed the Father in the second millennium BCE. Marduk assumed pre-eminence in Babylonia in the second millennium BCE. Marduk in cuneiform means “Calf [i.e. ‘son’] of the Sun.” He was a great sky god.
In ancient Arabia (Hadramaut), especially, the Son of God was supreme: he was the moon (with the name Sin). His father was Venus (Athtar) and his mother the sun (Shamash). These precursors of Christianity are very important, but have been long forgotten — and/or suppressed. I am presently researching them.
9. Why were they suppressed?
René Salm: Well, because in the marketplace of religion (and it is a ‘marketplace’), the Christians were competing with other religions for potential recruits. You see, for many centuries before the Christian era — in fact, for thousands of years — there was a struggle between two great camps, between two ways of seeing the world. Christianity represents the eventual victors, those of one camp which I call ‘solar.’ Christianity and Judaism are ‘solar’ religions: they worship the magnificence of that which can be seen by day, by the light of the sun — namely, the creation. Solar religions are this-worldly, materialistic, body-oriented. They believe that what is visible is ‘good’ and the creation of god.
Today, our orientation is very solar. But it was not always so. Lunar religions held sway in the earliest times, roughly before Hammurabi in the early second millennium BCE (this was the time of the Aryan invasions from the north). Lunar religions validate what is unseen, hidden, and not manifest. They are what we might call ‘feminine.’ Lunar religions value the spiritual more highly than the physical. They tend to disparage the physical world and the body, and are today labeled ‘dualist.’ Lunar religions are gnostic. They value hidden wisdom, gnosis.
10. Why was the moon associated with gnosticism?
René Salm: The ancients saw the planets as divine beings — or, more precisely, as universal symbols such as that which is manifest (the sun), that which is unmanifest (the moon and stars), that which communicates truth to man (mercury, the “messenger” Hermes or Nabu/the “prophet”); the life-giver and nurturer (Venus, the earth goddess Ishtar) etc. After all, the planets were ever-present, always taking their familiar positions in the sky generation after generation. The moon is the original and quintessential gnostic symbol because it is able to shine in the darkness, which the sun cannot do. In fact, the sun was originally conceived as the offspring of the moon. What this means is that the unmanifest and hidden were originally superior to the manifest.
The Sumerians, Akkadians, and early Babylonians conceived of the cosmos in this way. Today we might consider this view very subtle, very advanced. Indeed, it was that. In my view, religion has degenerated over the last four thousand years. In the early second millennium BCE, from about the time of Hammurabi, civilization is solar—the manifest is ‘real,’ powerful, meaningful. The unmanifest does not ‘exist.’ This is essentially the world we have inherited today.
Nevertheless, if darkness is equated with ignorance — a universal equation — the heavenly body which shines in the darkness is the primary symbol of victory, of enlightenment, of achievement. That heavenly body is the moon. This is the ancient link between the moon and gnosticism. The parallels between this view and the ﬁrst chapter of the Fourth Gospel should not be overlooked (“In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” — Jn 1:4-5).
Incidentally, in the Mandean Book of John the Baptizer, John always “proclaims in the night” (Price’s “The Pre-Nicene New Testament” begins with this text).
11. Your work is associated with other works by atheists (Doherty, Price, Zindler), but it is also clear you have an interest in religious ideas and Buddhism. Do you consider yourself an atheist?
René Salm: Yes, I do. However, I don’t consider myself anti-religion. It all depends on how one defines terms. You see, I consider myself a seeker of enlightenment. To seek enlightenment one doesn’t need to believe in God, but in ‘truth.’ Buddhism is atheist, and I subscribe to what Buddhism teaches (at least, in the Theravadin formulation). For me there is no personal god, no soul, no life after death, no heaven and hell divorced from this life. It’s all right here to be realized.
12. What are you presently working on?
René Salm: I’ve just developed a second website, Mythicist Papers, which is in an early stage. Hopefully, that website will grow into a hub of resources for the objective study of Christian origins.
Then, I’m working on a major book project, “A New Account of Christian Origins.” The ﬁrst chapter’s written and is available online. A New Account will probably take years to write (The Myth of Nazareth required eight years), and I consider it my most important life’s work, from a scholarly perspective. However, the views presented in A New Account are sufficiently removed from ordinary investigation so that I’m ﬁnding it necessary to educate both myself and my readers in a good deal of obscure background, such as South Arabian religion in pre-Christian times, and the links between Christianity and the still little-known mystery religions. This education has led me to embark on a series of translations, which I’ll be uploading to the Mythicist Papers website hopefully over the next year or so.
13. This has been quite informative. Is there anything you’d like to add?
René Salm: Only that the mythicist and the careful researcher into Christian origins must keep an open mind. My research shows that time and time again the actual evidence debunks assumptions that we often don’t even realize we hold. We are at a turning point in history. I believe that these ﬁrst decades of the new millennium are witnessing an irreversible decline in Christianity.
Incidentally, the work of archeologists such as Finkelstein and of minimalists like Lemche, Thompson, and Davies, are also undermining normative Judaism. My work on the background of Christianity should support the view that both it and Judaism are primarily the repositories of myths and legends. We are asking now whether Jesus of Nazareth existed. But did King David exist? Did Solomon? Did Moses or Abraham? I think there will be irrefutable answers to these questions in the near future, answers which are altogether negative.
The world is moving in a new direction, towards a world in which the roles of normative Judaism and Christianity are much smaller than they’ve been. My small role is to help show that mankind’s quest for understanding is paramount and primordial, that it supersedes all religion and, indeed, lies at the root of all ‘authentic’ religion. I call that authentic religion universal gnosticism, and ﬁnd it in the lunar religion of ancient Sumer and Arabia, in Buddhism, elements of Samaritanism, the Greek mysteries, the pre-Christian Natsarene movement, and Mandeism.
René Salm: You’re most welcome.
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