Bart Ehrman’s “unture” claims about the Nazareth arguments

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by Neil Godfrey

1st edition cover design for The Emerald City ...
1st edition cover design for The Emerald City of Oz (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bart Ehrman has stridently insisted he really did read the mythicist works he reviewed in Did Jesus Exit? (DJE?) so we must take him at his word. And being a scholar we know he is a gentleman and therefore honest, so we must conclude, I think, that he was very tired or unwell and badly losing concentration when he read René Salm’s and Frank Zindler’s writings casting doubt on the existence of Nazareth. I can see little in common between Ehrman’s “representations” of their arguments and their actual works themselves. This post will point to some of the most incomprehensible discrepancies — incomprehensible, that is, IF Ehrman really did read Salm and Zindler with any elementary comprehension and attention.

(Earl Doherty chose not to address this question in his review #23 of Ehrman’s book because it is not a question he as examined and, as Ehrman himself says — p. 197 of DJE? –, whether Nazareth existed or not does not, of itself, decide the question of Jesus’ existence. Earl Doherty’s reviews of Ehrman’s DJE? have been updated, revised and collated as a Kindle e-Book on Amazon.)

Unture claim #1

Ehrman addresses the argument over the existence of Nazareth in pages 191 to 197 of his book. Curiously, Ehrman says the argument that Nazareth did not exist is “one of the more common claims found in the writings of mythicists” (p. 191).

It is?

It is not found in any of the writings of Earl Doherty nor, from what I have read, in any of the writings of Robert M. Price (though I understand he has made some mention of it on an audio session) or Thomas L. Thompson or Richard Carrier. I think G. A. Wells makes passing mention of it. Ehrman does not help us here because he footnotes not a single source for his claim.

Unture claims #2 and #3

As anyone who has read earlier analyses of Ehrman’s work on this blog would expect by now, Ehrman offers readers no citations, no evidence in support of his accusations. He simply makes them up.

Ehrman writes:

The logic of this argument, which is sometimes advanced with considerable vehemence and force, appears to be that if Christians made up Jesus’s home-town, they probably made him up as well. (p. 191)

I like that weasel-phrase “appears to be” — it is a favourite of James McGrath, too. It means one can always plead that one never made any accusations but only that your stupid words “appeared” to be stupid. Of course, as anyone who has read earlier analyses of Ehrman’s work on this blog would by now expect, Ehrman gives readers no citations, no evidence in support of his accusations. He simply makes them up.

#2 —

I had not even known that Zindler had written anything about Nazareth until I read Ehrman’s response to it. (Zindler’s main “mythicist” publication certainly does not discuss it.) So I looked it up. There is a copy online, Where Jesus Never Walked. Now Zindler’s article is rich with humour. At times he can be downright funny. Is this the trait that Ehrman interprets as diabolical “vehemence and force”?

#3 —

And here is how Zindler expresses the significance of the evidence against Nazareth existing in the time of Jesus. Observe that it is not quite how Ehrman says it “appears to be”:

While one might be able to ignore as insignificant for historical Jesus studies the demonstration that a single gospel locality is fictive, the demonstration that as many as a dozen localities are mythical cannot be ignored and has enormously important implications. (my emphasis)

And here is how René Salm sees the significance of the possible nonexistence of Nazareth for Christianity:

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. (pp. xii-xiii of The Myth of Nazareth.)

So when Ehrman says “the logic appears to be that if Christians made up Jesus’s home-town, they probably made him up as well”, it “appears” that Ehrman has not bothered to read what mythicists say the logic and implications actually are.

Unture claim #4

Frank Zindler . . . tries to deconstruct on a fairly simple level the geographical places associated with Jesus, especially Nazareth. (p. 191)

Ehrman has a fairly difficult to fathom the idea of what constitutes a “fairly simple” argument for the nonhistoricity of certain gospel place-names. Bringing all the following to bear upon such a discussion (as Zindler does) is apparently considered a “fairly simple” treatment in Ehrman’s eyes:

  • citing the absence of archaeological evidence for places,
  • the absence of any contemporary evidence for the existence of certain places,
  • a critical examination of the literature on the Greek words that have sometimes been popularly accepted as evidence of similar-sounding names,
  • a comparison of the ancient geographical descriptions of certain places that some scholars have associated with biblical place-names and a demonstration that the biblical settings do not match the external descriptions or geography,
  • a demonstration that the biblical names are evidently puns on some activity Jesus performed in those places,
  • scholarly discussions about the origins of some of the place-names as can be traced through the manuscript evidence
Not only Nazareth, but Capernaum, Bethphage, Bethany, Bethabara, Magdala, Aenon, Gethsemane, Golgotha, Calvary are all as fictitious as the Land of Oz’s “Emerald City”.

They are, for most part, theological puns . . .

Nazareth is given no more than four and a half pages in Zindler’s fourteen-page article. Zindler also addresses the evidence that Capernaum, Bethphage, Bethany, Bethabara, Magdala, Aenon are all as fictitious as the Land of Oz’s “Emerald City”, and refers further to Gethsemane, Golgotha, Calvary in the same context. They are, for the most part, puns appropriate to the particular miracles or other events that took place there. (I have myself posted the evidence for some of this on my blog.) The evidence that does exist testifies that not one of them was known to anyone within generations of the time the Gospels were written.

Unture claim #5

Ehrman seriously downplays the significance of the existence of Nazareth for the question of Jesus’ historicity. True, of and by itself, the existence of Nazareth cannot decide whether Jesus existed. But at the same time the question is not as irrelevant as Ehrman claims when he states:

If Jesus existed . . . but Nazareth did not . . . then he merely came from somewhere else. (p. 191)

Bethlehem, perhaps? But Ehrman is blithely sweeping mountains of scholarship aside with this fatuous assertion. Much indeed has been written by his peers explaining that the contradictions in the birth narratives between the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are to be explained by the “fact” that Jesus was known to have come “from Nazareth” as opposed to the town prophesied to be where the Messiah was to hail from — Bethlehem. And much has been written, also by his peers, on the question of Jesus being known as “Jesus of Nazareth”, and what this meant, and its significance — and the relevance of it coming to designate the town itself, whatever other cultic associations the original epithet had.

Scholarship has tied Jesus to Nazareth much more firmly than Ehrman appears to suggest when he says the question is of no relevance at all.

Unture claim #6

Ehrman writes that Zindler vacuously declares a bible verse he does not like to be an interpolation:

[Zindler] claims that Mark’s Gospel never states that Jesus came from Nazareth. This flies in the face, of course, of Mark 1:9, which indicates that his is precisely where Jesus came from (“Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee”), but Zindler maintains that that verse was not originally part of Mark; it was inserted by a later scribe. Here again we see history being done according to convenience. If a text says precisely what you think it could not have said, then all you need to do is claim that originally it must have said something else.* (p. 191)

And after leading readers to think that Zindler has no evidence for his view, on page 356 we read Ehrman’s end-note attached to this:

I do not mean to say that Zindler does not cite evidence for his view. [But clearly that’s what he implied for his readers. How many of them will check this end-note 150 pages later?] He claims that the name Jesus in Mark 1:9 does not have the definite article, unlike the other eighty places it occurs in Mark, and therefore the verse does not appear to be written in Markan style. In response, I should say that (a) there are two other places in Mark where the name Jesus does not have the article; (b) if the problem with the entire verse is that the name Jesus does not have article (sic), then if we posit a scribal change to the text, the more likely explanation is that a scribe inadvertently left out the article. Nazareth has nothing to with it; and (c) there is not a single stitch of manuscript evidence to support his claim . . . This latter point is worth stressing since it is the reason that no serious scholar of the textual tradition of Mark thinks that the verse is an interpolation. (p. 356, my emphases)

It is odd that Ehrman should say he will rebut Zindler by mentioning that there are two other places in Mark where the article is not used when Zindler himself said the very same thing — that there are other places in Mark where the article is not used. Did Ehrman really read Zindler’s argument for himself?

Zindler writes:

Mark, unlike the later gospels, mentions Nazareth only once; in chapter 1, verse 9, which tells us that “Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee.” It is of more than a little interest to learn that scholars suspect this verse to be a later addition just like the last twelve verses of the gospel. If this is true — and I am quite certain that it is* — this leaves the oldest gospel without any knowledge of a place called Nazareth. Once Nazareth found its way into the gospel of Mark, it grew in importance in the later gospels.

* When referring to Jesus, Mark always — except in a few cases where there are strong grammatical reasons to prevent it — uses the definite article with the name, referring to the Jesus, not just Jesus. In verse nine of chapter one, however, the name is “inarticulate,” unlike the more than 80 cases in Mark where it carries the article.

If Ehrman wanted to refute Zindler’s claim he should not have simply said “Hey, there are exceptions”, but explained why those exceptions (exceptions that Zindler himself acknowledged) are not explained in terms of grammatical reasons.

We see here that Ehrman’s claim that Zindler himself simply announced the verse was an interpolation because he did not like what it said is not true. Zindler writes: “It is of more than a little interest to learn that scholars suspect this verse to be a later addition . . . ” (Zindler unfortunately does not name these scholars. Perhaps he will in his soon-to-be-published response to Ehrman.)

How can he rebut Zindler by repeating something Zindler said — especially when Zindler offered an explanation of why the exceptions don’t overturn his case, and Ehrman fails to address that explanation?

Unture claim #7

. . . and (c) there is not a single stitch of manuscript evidence to support his claim . . . This latter point is worth stressing since it is the reason that no serious scholar of the textual tradition of Mark thinks that the verse is an interpolation.

When Ehrman accuses Zindler’s case of being without any merit because there is no manuscript evidence to support his view, then we know he is being nothing short of mischievous. Ehrman knows as well as any other scholar that there are clear cases of interpolation without manuscript evidence, and that often there is only internal evidence to support scholarly arguments for interpolations.

I might also add that another piece of evidence that Mark 1:9’s reference to Nazareth was not in the original text is that the author of the Gospel of Matthew who copied this passage from Mark did not include the word Nazareth. (Some have objected to this argument on the grounds that the copyist had already used Nazareth a few verses earlier, but this objection falls to the ground when one counts the other places in Matthew where words are repeated in nearby verses.)

Also of significance is that elsewhere in Mark’s gospel Capernaum, not Nazareth, is presented as the home-town of Jesus.

Unture claim #8

And so what happened, in Zindler’s view, is that later Christians who did not understand what it meant to call Jesus the NZR (branch) [i.e., the Hebrew NZR was the “Branch” of the prophecy of Isaiah 11:1] thought that the traditions that called him that were saying he was from a (nonexistent) town, Nazareth.

Zindler does not marshal any evidence for this view but simply asserts it. (p. 192)

Bart is being at his mischievous best once again. Sometimes I wonder if some less than scrupulous New Testament scholars think only they know anything about what their peers publish, and that no layperson would ever find out, so they can tell the public any sort of nonsense they like if they think it helps maintain their status as legitimate public intellectuals.

True, Zindler did not provide sources for his claim. But if a lay reader like me can recognize an argument that is well-known among the New Testament establishment, I would have a hard time being convinced that Ehrman did not know of it and its academic respectability. I am sure Bart Ehrman knows of Nazarene Jewish Christianity by Ray A. Pritz, even if only via reviews and published responses to Pritz’s work. Ehrman will also know that one of the principal sources for key aspects of the explanation espoused by Zindler is the “Church Father” Epiphanius; he will also know the voluminous scholarly literature debating the origin and meaning of the term “NZR” that is often translated in English Bible’s as “of Nazareth” is really another word more like “Nazorean” or “Nazarene” (which is well understood as NOT deriving from “Nazareth”) and others. He knows that in the history of the scholarship of the meaning and origin of this word, many have denied its origin had anything to do with a town, and that it was a term that indicated a cult (e.g. Loisy, Guignebert, and the discussions found in the most recent landmark work on early Jewish Christians by Skarsaune and Hvalvik.)

I have written a post on the views of another vociferous anti-mythicist, Charles Guignebert, titled Would the Historical Jesus of Nazareth Really Have Been Named Jesus of Nazareth? Guignebert has nothing nice to say about the mythicists of his own day, but his honesty with respect to this question stands in stark contrast to Ehrman’s subterfuges. From that post:

There is no doubt that the authors of the Gospels (at least those of Matthew, Luke and John) indicated to readers that “Jesus the Nazarene” meant that Jesus came from Nazareth.

But Guignebert is thoughtful and reluctant to jump quickly to the “obvious” conclusions.

The first disturbing observation which forces itself upon the scholar is that no ancient pagan or Jewish writing mentions Nazareth. The pagan texts may readily be disposed of, for since the straggling little Galilean village neither played an important part in the Jewish rebellions, nor attracted Greek or Roman colonists, the obscurity which surrounds it is hardly surprising. But with regard to the Jewish texts, there is no such explanation, yet the name of Nazareth is to be found in the Bible, nor in the Talmudic literature, nor in works of Josephus, though the latter is particularly well informed on Galilean affairs, and enumerates a number of towns and villages in that country.

The damaging effect of this unanimous silence may be mitigated, but it cannot be entirely done away with. The mythicists have naturally made the most of it . . . Their argument, however unconvincing [Guignebert wrote before the publication of Salm’s study of the archaeological reports of the area], has at least performed the service of stating the problem and illuminating its various aspects. (p. 80)

It is refreshing to read a scholar intellectually honest enough to concede an argument of the mythicists points to a genuine problem in the evidence instead of knee-jerking from any side that opposes a point made by mythicists almost on principle.

Guignebert discusses the various arguments that have been used to mitigate the silence of the name in Jewish literature and comes to this conclusion:

In other words, there still remains room for doubt as to its existence in the first century. (p. 81)

This is a refreshingly honest grappling with the evidence.

I won’t repeat here Guignebert’s detailed arguments that the word most likely did not refer to a village originally. They are in the earlier post.

More mischievous yet . . . .

And all these shenanigans are from Bart Ehrman’s page-and-a-bit devoted to Frank Zindler’s chapter or article on Nazareth.

What will we find in his four pages purportedly addressing René Salm’s publication on Nazareth?

I’ll cover that in a future post.

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17 thoughts on “Bart Ehrman’s “unture” claims about the Nazareth arguments”

    1. It would be scandalous to accuse a scholar of saying anything untrue. I once sparked enough strife over suggesting one person wrote with some dhonissety. There is a sacred rule among scholars: not one of them can ever be guilty of speaking an untruth.

      1. I just wasn’t sure if the spelling typo “unture” was deliberate or not, since you repeated it for all eight untrue claims.

        I know what you mean, though. Apologists get away with a lot because they’re pretending to do real scholarship, and genuine scholars are loath to call them liars due to their behavioural code.

  1. “If Jesus existed . . . but Nazareth did not . . . then he merely came from somewhere else. (p. 191)”

    For someone who claims to be a skeptic, Ehrman is every bit as naive as the more blatant religious apologists he debates. He truly cannot understand that if “Nazareth” and a dozen other city or place names can be shown to be puns, then that is reason enough to doubt not only the entire Jesus legend, but the historicity of Jesus himself — and would be in any other literary context without controversy.

    1. Just to play devil’s advocate: Ancient Hebrew writing is chock full of puns. While we may be skeptical today of the existence of many of the Hebrew heroes, that doesn’t mean first-century readers and writers were. These were considered real people, about whom the writings contained many puns, and it seems natural that Jesus-chroniclers would appreciate the style.

    2. > Ehrman is every bit as naive as

      Or he could be simply lying to protect his paycheck. Who is gonna pay him and all the other legions of “serious scholars” to do research on a figure of the same historicity as Batman? Whole livelihoods depend on Jesus having been real.

      > He truly cannot understand that

      Or he could be simply pretending to not understand, because some academic code of honor protects him and the other liers from openly being called liars by other academics, and he can simply brush off external accusations by comparing them to religion-driven evolution deniers unable to pass serious peer review with their “crank theories”.

      Anyway, it is kind of funny that in 2012, we have a whole branch of modern academia maneuvered itself into a position where it has to fake research results.

      1. I do not believe Bart is “pretending not to understand” etc and this sort of accusation is not helpful, especially since “they” engage in it against “us” enough already. McGrath is always saying I am “pretending” but that’s his mind-reading efforts. Ehrman is in a different situation from where I am, though. I can well imagine some scholars blocking from their consciousness any admission that would lead to recognition that all they have built their reputations and careers upon is more fairy tale than history. And part of that blocking exercise is to attack those people and ideas they see as the threats. (It’s crazy, there’s no need. An alternative paradigm only leads to new fields of exploration.)

        A whole lot of professional and social and psychological stuff comes into play. And those with a certain disposition will be the biggest bastards over it all. It’s all part of being human and part of the social framework. We can call a spade a spade and hold ourselves and others to account without mind-reading individuals.

  2. Really, I wouldn’t put too much stress on the expression “appears to be”. That’s standard scientific parlance, without any deeper meaning than that you can never be 100% sure of anything. I’m also not sure why you want to start dealing in “truths”, so the “unture” comes off as a bit silly. Some of the statements “appear to be” false (sorry for the weasel words), others just objectionable.

  3. Regarding Jesus’ place of birth and hometown.
    According to our most reliable and most likely best informed source*, the one closest to the period who was not influenced by Christian polemic, the non-mythological Jesus was born in a “certain village”.
    Jesus’ birthplace was forgotten or unknown by a relatively early date, so pious christian chroniclers .had to make one up for him.
    Or based on non-canonical and islamic sources, Mary gave birth to Jesus,alone, out in the desert, in the middle of nowhere, at a place with no name, because she was ashamed of having an illegitimate child, a mamzer, (Hebrew : a bastard, a child born in contravention of biblical law) and had fled from her community. Islamic sources should trump christian sources since they are the product of a more recent and presumably more correct Revelation.
    At worst such an individual would grow up to be a social outcast. At best, had her guardian lodged a complaint against her with the religious authorities, he and his mother would have been stoned outside the village gate,
    And according to the NT that Jesus was considered to be a crazy outsider, and had narrowly escaped stoning on several occasions. He appears to have been homeless, and certainly had problems dealing with authority figures, both frequent occurrences in the children of dysfunctional or single parent households.

    * Celsus’ Jewish informant.

  4. If Nazareth didn’t exist it can only mean that the gospel writers made it up out of thin air. Paul’s letters indicate that the early Xians had no idea where Jesus was from or when he supposedly lived. All their information about “Jesus” = “savior” (Isaiah 19:20) comes from “the scriptures” as does his name.

    1. And I pointed out that failing on Zindler’s part with respect to one of his arguments — he opened himself up to criticism from a novice. Ehrman, though, knows very well that the argument is expressed also among his peers and is not some amateur speculation.

      Ehrman has used the same accusation against Doherty, accusing Doherty of mindlessly decreeing some passages as interpolations when in fact Doherty did cite the academic sources for his claims. So one suspects it would have made no difference even if Zindler did cite his source for that argument.

      But if an argument is widely enough known in the academic community, does one need to cite a source for it every time it is mentioned?

      I cannot equate Zindler’s and Ehrman’s faults here. Ehrman consistently makes accusations about certain mythicists that are without foundation. He has ignored more messages pointing out evidence that contradicts his accusations and continues to make them, baseless though they are.

      1. ‘Ehrman has used the same accusation against Doherty, accusing Doherty of mindlessly decreeing some passages as interpolations when in fact Doherty did cite the academic sources for his claims.’

        You should read some of the stick Ehrman gave Doherty for having the audacity to cite or quote scholars!

        I refer you to http://vridar.wordpress.com/2012/03/31/devious-doherty-or-erring-ehrman/

        There is only one thing Ehrman dislikes more than mythicists not quoting sources, which is disgusting of them in his view, it is mythicists quoting sources, which Ehrman regards as utterly vile of them.

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