What Tim O’Neill has done in his attacks on René Salm earlier this year over his claims that there was no village of Nazareth at the time of Jesus is defend the very worst practices found among the most culpable of researchers. He is defending the right of academics to make pronouncements of breakthroughs and new discoveries and then say, “Nope, you can’t examine all the details of the data for yourself. I’m a professional! How dare you question my judgements!” And just to be sure you get the point, the same researcher calls upon an “independent” peer to back him up in his assertions of breakthroughs and new discoveries: but nope, we can’t give you all the detail of the data that you’d like. And let no-one mention that both the researcher AND his “independent” peer are committed to stamping out your doubt — that these new discoveries are true. That’s never spoken out loud. Are you some anti-religious bigot to think this might matter?
First, the background. 2007 saw the publication of “Surveys and Excavations at the Nazareth Village Farm (1997–2002): Final Report” (the Nazareth Village Farm report) in the Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society (BAIAS). The following year, the same peer-reviewed journal published René Salm’s criticism of that report (“Response”), along with a defence of it by two of the report’s authors (“A Reply to Salm”), another defence by the director of a related project, Ken Dark (“Nazareth Village Farm: A Reply to Salm”), and finally a 23 page “Amendment” by Y. Rapuano correcting some of the deficiencies Salm had pointed out in the original report. The same 2008 issue of BAIAS also contained a scathing review by Dark on Salm’s book, The Myth of Nazareth. Salm responded to that review on his website (http://www.nazarethmyth.info/bibl.html).
René Salm’s book, The Myth of Nazareth: The Invented Town of Jesus, surveys earlier reports that have been produced on the archaeology of Nazareth. Salm itemizes the history of archaeological finds at Nazareth and compares these with claims that go beyond that evidence by researchers who have a demonstrable religious bias.
That leads to one little detail that Tim O’Neill happens to overlook in his attack on Salm. The Nazareth Village Farm report was the work of three persons. Only one of them, Rapuano, is a trained archaeologist who, however, customarily works in Judea far to the south. It is Rapuano who dated the pottery at the NVF and who, Salm shows, wrongly uses early Judean parallels (e.g. from Jericho and Gezer) to date the Galilean pottery at Nazareth, thus producing false early datings. Another of the NVF report authors has extensive field experience but is untrained, and all three are or have been closely connected with the religious institutions dedicated to discovering and restoring — for public “educational” purposes — the town of Jesus. The religious bias of the funding body and persons behind the report should not be overlooked. The Nazareth Village Farm report begins by acknowledging the religious and tourist motivation of its authors:
For nearly two decades, the University of the Holy Land (UHL) and its subsidiary, the Center for the Study of Early Christianity (CSEC), has laboured to lay the academic foundation for the construction of a ﬁrst-century Galilean village or town based upon archaeology and early Jewish and Christian sources. It was hoped that such a ‘model village’ would provide a ‘time capsule’ into which the contemporary visitor might step to encounter more eﬀectively the rural setting of Galilean Judaism and the birth-place of early Christianity. At Nazareth Village this educational vision is currently being realized (for a popular publication on the Nazareth Village Farm project, see Kauﬀmann 2005).
Understand exactly what the University of the Holy Land (UHL) and the Center for the Study of Early Christianity (CSEC) are: See
(its mission is to produce “communicators of the scriptures” and “pastors”; “the land of the Bible is [its] classroom”; its total faculty numbers nine persons)
- The UHL began as the Center for the Study of Early Christianity (CSEC) but the CSEC has since become a subsidiary of the UHL. Both are under the direction of Stephen Pfann. The CSEC is dedicated to establishing in beside the site of the archaeological dig “a ‘model village’ [to] provide a sort of time capsule into which the contemporary visitor might step to encounter more effectively the message of Jesus in its original setting.”
It is not an insignificant detail that all those involved in the archaeological dig at the Nazareth farm, the authors of the report, and the institutions they represent, are dedicated to discovering (and restoring a replica of) the Nazareth of the Gospels as a religious enterprise. The archaeologist at the centre of Salm’s criticisms is Jehudah Rapuano. One can glean an insight into his religious interest in the Nazareth site from online scribblings from years back, from his choice to do his Masters degree at the University of the Holy Land, his association with Zion Public Radio (“Israel Talks, We Listen”), and his belief that there is even literary evidence that Nazareth was a settled village in the time of Jesus (presumably the Gospels are his authority) (see his and Pfann’s reply to Salm in the BAIAS).
And this is the trained archaeologist the Israel Antiquities Authority licenses to undertake a dig at Nazareth — a dig which the report itself said had a religious and tourist motivation. And this is the author whom Tim O’Neill says we are lunatics not to trust when he pronounces his views on the evidence for Nazareth.
This post goes through O’Neill’s key criticisms and concludes with a demonstration that he has put himself squarely in the anti-intellectual, we-must-always-defer-to-the-authoritative-pronouncements-of-scholars-and-never-be-so-impertinent-as-to-question-them corner of the fight.
One theologian (another who regularly calls upon the less learned to lay aside their questions and simply defer to the judgments of scholars) has said he finds Tim O’Neill’s personal denigration of René Salm and criticism of his supposed arguments about Nazareth “very helpful”. Tim O’Neill himself expresses satisfaction with his post:
I put this together in a thread on the James Randi forum where some Mythers tried the “Nazareth never existed” tack. After this post, they totally abandoned that line of argument.
Tim O’Neill does have that affect on some people attempting to engage in a serious intellectual discussion. Anyone interested in discussing the facts and reasons in a civil manner and avoiding ad hominem soon learns to ignore his blustering online persona. His language and tone are further evidence of his anti-intellectualism and bullying demands to have others submit to his own arguments (or he’ll call you bad names).
(Tim O’Neill is always welcome to reply to this or any other post on this blog, by the way, but only if he abides by the blog’s comment policy and moderation rules. But of course, if he does that, he will lose the force of his primary weapons: bluster and insult. I think he’d lose interest.)
O’Neill has the ability and patience to dig out many sources but few of his readers would have the like patience or opportunity to actually test his claims by checking those sources for themselves. Some of those readers may find this post “very helpful”.
Falling over at the start
Let’s actually look at the evidence of archaeologists, then consider the armchair objections of the piano teacher from Oregon named Rene Salm and let objective sceptics decide who is more likely to be correct.
O’Neill is off to a bad start. There is only one archaeologist (Rapuano) whose evidence Salm questions. Later O’Neill will refer to all three authors of the report as “three qualified archaeologists” — unaware, it seems, that only one of the authors has qualifications in archaeology! Worse for O’Neill, those “armchair objections” were taken seriously enough by a peer-reviewed journal to publish them and for one of the authors of the original report to publish amendments to that report as a direct response to Salm’s article.
O’Neill then demonstrates that, though he only vaguely recalls what Salm himself wrote, he does not know the basic facts at the heart of the debates.
I recalled that [Salm] had actually accepted the dating of some of the agricultural terraces at Nazareth and of the recently excavated house there. I was wrong – Salm is much more intransigent than that.
And O’Neill is more wrong than he realizes. He says here that the recently excavated house (of Jesus’ time!) was “there” at the site of the agricultural terraces at Nazareth. And this is from one who is trying to make fun of someone he wants to portray as “an armchair hobbyist”. A simple web search will inform O’Neill that that house is not “there” at the site of the agricultural terraces at all. Look on Google maps to see for yourself. For convenience, here is a snapshot from Google Maps where I have pinpointed the approximate areas of the sites under discussion. (Go to “32°42’04.28″ N 35°17’33.78″ E” in Google Maps to explore the area yourself.) O’Neill has confused the NVF (where no house was excavated) with Yardena Alexandre’s excavation in the immediate area of the Church of the Annunciation.
O’Neill then introduces this nonsense:
Reading Salm on this subject reminds me of the days, many years ago, when I actually used to bother reading Creationist material so I could debate Creationists. Salm’s book, The Myth of Nazareth: The Invented Town of Jesus, bears many similarities to Creationist classics like Duane Gish’s Evolution? The Fossils Say No!. You have an amateur with no training in the relevant field. You have them desperately trying to critique published work by actual specialists and experts and nitpick at it to find reasons for doubt. You have triumphant leaping on the smallest error (eg a mislabeled diagram) as evidence of incompetence if not outright fraud. You have an assumption that the experts secretly know they are wrong and are trying to deceive laypeople for nefarious reasons. And you have a driving ideological bias motivating all of the above, but masquerading as objective critical analysis for the public good. The resemblance is uncanny.
No, O’Neill. Either you have not read the Creationist literature you say you have or you have not read Salm’s book with any attention. Had you done so you would see immediately the difference is stark. Creationists dispute the interpretation of all the scientists and the science itself. Salm in fact is quoting the archaeological reports and defending published scholarly findings against popular press releases that have overtaken the imaginations of the likes of even Bart Ehrman. Creationists do not publish in scientific journals and prompt amendments to scientific reports. Salm has done exactly that. Salm is not disputing the science or the findings. He is, in fact, sifting the actual data reported and evaluating it against incautious claims and conclusions and pointing to the self-confessed religious and financial biases of some of those responsible for the archaeological reports and popular press releases. He is holding religiously motivated scholars to account for making announcements that go way beyond the actual data published in their reports.
O’Neill’s assertion that Salm’s book has an uncanny resemblance to creationist literature is fabricated fancy. It is a falsehood.
O’Neill then veers off from addressing Salm’s claims directly, but then writes this:
Archaeologists date structures with no clearly determinant architectural or construction features all the time using find stratigraphy.
This sounds more impressive than it really is. (One respondent did pull Tim up on his inference here that “stratigraphy” was used for dating purposes.) The simple fact is that all the dates were assigned on the basis of the styles of the pottery fragments uncovered. Pottery fragments “on the surface” were dated to the Early to Late Roman period (see page 19, actually the first page of the report [6 MB PDF]). The report does not discuss the chronology or dates of the stratigraphy itself.
O’Neill then resorts to vague language and unfounded assertions:
Haiman’s surface survey did turn up some finds from [the Hellenistic and Early Roman] periods, which is why the brief initial report on his findings used the word “mostly” when noting that it had been mainly Late Roman Period sherds found in his work.
O’Neill is just making this up. There is no way of knowing that this was the reason Haiman used the word “mostly”. The report actually listed far more pottery fragments from the Byzantine-Mamluk periods than anything late Hellenistic or very early Roman. That there were verifiable Hellenistic and early Roman finds is the question under dispute. O’Neill is simply begging it rather than addressing it.
O’Neill crows loudest when he points out that the most “damning” aspect of the report claims pottery finds were on the Nazareth site are dated to the general period coinciding with the time of Jesus.
So how does Salm deal with all this? Badly. Given that he has no training in the discipline and so has never analysed an artefact in his life, he can hardly dispute Rapuano’s assessment.
“Badly”? In fact, the way Salm dealt with “all this” was to write a detailed response that was published in the same peer-reviewed journal.
“He can hardly dispute Rapuano’s assessment”? Yet the editors of the peer-reviewed journal published his criticisms of Rapuano’s assessment!
Tim fails to grasp the nature of Salm’s criticism. (If he does grasp it, he has certainly hidden it well from his readers.) He writes:
Rapuano expresses himself with the usual caution required of a professional archaeologist, while at the same time giving his trained assessment of their dating provenance.
This translates in Tim’s mind into:
When Rapuano says a fragment “could possibly” be from the Hellenistic or early Roman eras, then unless you treat the Hellenistic to early Roman periods as an established fact for that fragment you are being “ludicrous”.
Would that Tim O’Neill were as cautious as Rapuano!
What Salm argues is that where Rapuano provides external support for his assessment the fragments can as well be dated to after 70 CE (the fall of Jerusalem) as before it.
Rapuano clearly did not dismiss this criticism as easily as O’Neill did, since he attempted to correct that deficiency in his Amended report subsequently. New parallel comparisons are introduced to support some of the claims, but to do so he has had to depart from the standard reference, Adan Bayewitz, for Galilean pottery dating and resort to less relevant (often quite different) Jericho and Judean sources. He has also turned to Fernandez who, Salm shows in his book, consistently dates objects much earlier than other authorities without clear rationale. Tim O’Neill does not question any of this. Rapuano has spoken: pottery “may be”, “could be” Hellenistic or Early Roman (compare Fernandez!), so O’Neill throws all caution to the wind and demands we all accept on authority of one scholar that it is Hellenistic or Early Roman.
On the authority of one scholar? Didn’t the editors of BAIAS invite an independent archaeologist to give his assessment? Well, sort of. Enter Ken Dark. Ken Dark immediately declared his lack of independence in his article by reminding readers he had poured scorn on Salm’s book in a review. Dark’s response was again personal and a misreading of much of Salm’s original article. So when Salm spoke of Rapuano using a “single source” Dark jumped on that as a criticism, yet if only he read the full sentence he would have seen that Salm was using that source as supporting evidence of his case against Rapuano! And Dark will repeat the same message: So Rapuano expresses some doubt? That’s because he’s a cautious scholar. Now it’s your job to ignore those words of caution and defer to his other words as dogma! And no, you can’t examine the evidence more closely for yourself.
O’Neill then repeats Bart Ehrman’s argument that absence of evidence is evidence that there were poor people burying their dead in shallow graves. (He makes up an imaginative scenario to account for this — a very poor city gradually grew richer and richer till there were rich people’s tombs there.)
O’Neill then claims that the abundance of springs in the region is evidence that it must have been settled. People would loved to have set up home around springs. Presumably O’Neill concludes that every spring in the Levant was the site of a village for 2000 years before Christ.
Finally, O’Neill uncritically parrots the popular press reports of Yardenna Alexandre claiming that archaeologists have uncovered tombs in Nazareth from the time of Jesus. He needs to read a bit more widely, including Salm’s book (that he claims to have read). He would know of a work that has apparently been gaining in influence in recent years, Palästina in griechisch-römischer Zeit by Hans-Peter Kuhnen. He would know (does Alexandre know?) the persuasive evidence that the kokh tombs in question here almost certainly did not appear in Galilee as early as they did in Jerusalem.
How it works
Researchers collect data. On the basis of that data they publish their theories or conclusions. If the original data is lost or otherwise inaccessible to other researchers then there is no way for anyone else to verify their results. That is axiomatic. Data integrity is absolutely vital among researchers. Without it, a published conclusions must be taken entirely upon authority. They cannot be verified. That’s not how the academic world of research works, or at least not how it should work. (This is where I came in to write this post.)
The reason Rene Salm was able to write his book, The Myth of Nazareth, was because archaeological reports contained sufficient information for others like Salm to check, cross-check and verify or question the conclusions of those reports. One could check, for example, the actual parallel matches being made to see if a piece of pottery was lining up with Hellenistic or Roman era styles, and what the specific match was. This way if an author spoke glibly about a vase dating possibly to the Hellenistic era and earlier Iron Age eras, yet only showed external matches with the Iron Age styles, then one could see that the author was being glib and overly generous by mentioning the Hellenistic era. He could cite no evidence for that. One could also trace, for example, the way the term “Herodian” evolved as a label to describe certain types of ceramics and see that it did not necessarily mean an object was restricted to the time of Hero. But the authors of the Nazareth Farm Report do not yield sufficient information for anyone to assess their conclusions critically.
Now maybe the BAIAS journal is not the appropriate venue for that. Maybe the authors of the report will sooner or later release a much more detailed book of their finds. That would be welcome. But to say someone is a lunatic for not deferring to the authority of a researcher until that researcher makes the evidence available for checking is simply trying to intimidate and shut down questioning through intellectual bullying.
Oh yes, there are about ten pottery fragments that Rapuano’s amended report that to the time of “Jesus” (Hellenistic to first century CE). Salm points out that Rapuano uses early, inapplicable Judean parallels for these. No doubt when Rapuano publishes a more detailed book explaining the data in detail people who like to understand the evidence (who are not satisfied simply to defer to academic authority without any thought that they should demonstrate accountability) will be keen to study the details of these ten fragments.
There are more details in O’Neill’s diatribe that I had planned to address, but this post is long enough already. You get the idea.
Rene Salm’s SBL paper [PDF download]
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