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by Neil Godfrey

NazGate_coverUntil some major new finds turn up at new digs I am convinced that there is no archaeological evidence for the existence of Nazareth at the time of Jesus. I have been slowly reading the first six chapters of René Salm’s new book, NazarethGate: Quack Archeology, Holy Hoaxes, and the Invented Town of Jesus, stopping to consult wherever I can his footnotes, his citations of various archaeologists’ works, and at this point I have found his argument to be both

  • decisive with respect to the non-existence of Nazareth until well into the latter half of the first century CE
  • and absolutely devastating in his analysis of archaeologist Ken Dark’s published efforts to prove the presence of early first century domestic dwellings there.

Many people understandably find the minutiae of archaeological reports and debates to be tedious. They are not light reading, especially for anyone new to a particular study. Sensibly they are willing to defer to the specialists in the field. I am by no means a specialist but I can still read the literature — it is not as complex as advanced mathematics or quantum physics — and follow exchanges of views among archaeologists and readers of their reports. Reasonably intelligent lay readers are able to distinguish between those claims made with the support of clear evidence and others made on the basis of more speculative reconstructions. With some extra effort those same readers can also identify where a scholar has misunderstood or misused the works of others. Nor after a little immersion is it very difficult to detect tell-tale signs of ideological bias. (I elaborated on this point in Can a lay person reasonably evaluate a scholarly argument?)

I would love to see serious engagement with the detailed arguments in Salm’s book. I would love to see how specific questions and data are addressed. Maybe Salm’s conclusions can be overturned after all, or at least modified. We won’t know until we see further reports, discussions and responses.

Unfortunately it appears so far that scholars (and others) who ardently oppose the very idea that Nazareth did not exist at the time of Jesus, and who loathe the mere mention of Salm’s books, are not very different from that handful of scholars (Maurice Casey, Bart Ehrman, James McGrath) who have attempted to publicly refute the writings of Jesus mythicists. Their reviews of Salm’s first book (The Myth of Nazareth) leave the knowledgeable reader with the strong suspicion that they read no more than a few snippets of the book and those with ideological hostility. The main arguments are ignored.

Though I acknowledged that the field of archaeology is complex enough for most people to defer to the specialists, some lay critics of Salm tend to rely upon authorities indiscriminately for the purpose of hectoring and belittling a lay scholar who has genuinely mastered the published literature in this particular niche topic. I would love to see people like Tim O’Neill engage seriously with both Salm’s arguments and his critiques of Dark’s published work.

René Salm’s method

Salm does not attempt to hide his outsider status. His account of how he undertook his study of the archaeology of Nazareth reminded me of some of my own experiences in embarking on serious biblical studies. Both of us found the now defunct online discussion group where scholars and lay persons met, CrossTalk, an informative starting point. Salm writes:

From the start I left no stone unturned, did not hurry, skip any steps, nor overlook even minor reports. Lacking a relevant Ph.D. I knew that thoroughness would be my only credential — one that would have to be earned. 

I began with the most accessible secondary material: encyclopedia articles and entries in secondary reference works. Scouring the footnotes and references, I slowly accumulated the obvious primary sources. Among these, the largest was B. Bagatti’s long tome Excavations in Nazareth (vol 1, 1969). . .  This book was the first (and often only) resource used by scholars who ventured to write about Nazareth’s archeology. . . 

[Salm then describes his heavy use of the University of Oregon library and special help of a librarian who was able to procure for him “obscure books and hard-to-find articles”.] He validated my status as a resident scholar so that the University of Oregon’s critical interlibrary loan facilities would be made available to me as if I were a member of the faculty. 

Accumulating the necessary research material also required trips to major libraries in Seattle and San Francisco. . . 

Collecting the requisite material was of course only the first step. Each account, description, or excavation report had to be examined in a particularly careful way. It was not good enough simply to read the report, or even to collate all of its itemized artifacts in columns by type, date, and so on — things I learned to do quite early on. Incidentally, such collation could be quite revealing. For example, on one page Bagatti dates a certain pottery shard to the Roman period and on another page to the Iron Age. Such errors are quickly detected through careful and complete bookkeeping

All this was tedious, but the problem which required the most time, by far, was that each and every claim had to be tested. For example, in one place Bagatti claims that a fragment of pottery is “Hellenistic” — but the parallels he gives, when checked, date to the Iron Age. In another place, his alleged “Hellenistic” parallels actually date to Roman times. Richmond, too, in 1931 claimed that six oil lamps found in a Nazareth tomb were “Hellenistic.” Subsequent redating by specialists . . . shows, however, that all the lamps in question are Roman. 

There was also the problem of mislabeling. I learned that one scholar (J. Strange) termed the kokh type of tomb “Herodian” . . . . However, the important work of H.-P. Kuhnen shows that kokh tombs were not hewn in the Galilee before c. 50 CE. (They continued in use to c. 500 CE.) Thus, the term “Herodian” for these tombs is clearly erroneous and very misleading. . . . 

In the above and other ways it soon became clear to me that serious flaws characterize the primary reports, not to mention the secondary reference articles based on them. . . . 

Though I could read, tabulate, compare, and analyze the reports which came under my gaze, I could not venture any opinion myself, for I am certainly not a professional archeologist nor have I excavated in Nazareth. As a result, any opinion which I produced that disagreed with Bagatti, Strange, Richmond, etc., was necessarily the verifiable opinion of a leading specialist in the relevant field or subfield. This gave my writing ‘teeth,’ but it also required an enormous amount of time. In the process I could not help but become somewhat educated in Galilean archeology. That education extended to language classes at the university which afforded me the ability to also read excavation reports in Hebrew. . . . (NazarethGate, pp. 15-17, emphasis added)

Kokh Tomb
Kokh Tomb

Different from the earlier book

Salm’s second book, NazarethGate, is quite different from his first. The new work includes chapters that are (sometimes) edited versions of articles written and published since the first book. Some of these chapters are largely polemical (anti-Christian or anti-religion) in tone and written for militant atheist publications. The significance of the absence of Nazareth for the Jesus mythicist debate reverberates through a number of these chapters. If Nazareth did not exist, then clearly “Jesus of Nazareth” could not have existed either. I must point out that there is more nuance in the discussion than that: Salm is well aware of the arguments that some other “Jesus” figure lies behind the gospels and he is also very cognizant of the debates over the original derivation of “Nazareth” as an epithet or its cognates as the name of a sect, including the possibility of pre-Christian origins.

Frank Zindler writes the Foreword. He lists nineteen reasons to think that Nazareth did not exist in the early half of the first century, many of them having been extant prior to archaeological digs. This section nicely segues into Salm’s opening chapter (the Introduction) in which he adds further such reasons and addresses some of the complexities involved in understanding the meaning of “of Nazareth” and “the Nazarenes” etc in the Gospels.

What I was most keen to read in the new book were Salm’s responses to Ken Dark’s views.

Salm engages with Pfann, Rapuano and Dark

I rushed through the non-technical sections to take the more time where the archaeological reports were discussed in depth. Some of this was a good refresher from what I had read in The Myth of Nazareth, but since then Salm has attracted the attention of archaeologists working on the Nazareth site, especially with a critical article published in the Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society (BAIAS). His article led to the publication of a major amendment to the criticized work as well as a very negative review of The Myth of Nazareth by Ken Dark. (See above — Dark’s review was of the same type we have seen produced by Ehrman, Casey, McGrath of Doherty’s work — that is, it simply ignores the key arguments and leaves readers wondering if the reviewers really read more than a few sections of the work.) BAIAS published both Salm’s critique and a number of responses to it, but unfortunately and unlike the practice of some other professional journals, it did not include a final response by Salm to those replies. NazarethGate makes up for that lack.

But first, what are Salm’s main arguments for the history of Nazareth?

  1. The earliest (Bronze Age) settlement was known in Biblical and Egyptian records as Japhia and was destroyed, after about 1300 years of existence, by Assyria around 730 BCE.
  2. The Assyrian destruction was followed by a hiatus in settlement lasting 800 years.
  3. “Nazareth came into being between the two Jewish revolts (70 CE–135 CE). That is, the town appeared when most scholars allege that the evangelists were writing their gospels. The appearance of Nazareth toward the end of the first century CE is confirmed most significantly by the 29 earliest oil lamps (of the bow-spouted type) which date from between c. 25 CE and the middle of the second century CE. In addition, the 20-odd Roman tombs in the basin all postdate 50 CE.”
  4. Tradition has placed the ancient town of Jesus in the region of today’s Church of the Annunciation, yet this region is dotted with Late Roman era tombs and agricultural remains. Even if tombs were dated earlier then we can be confident that Jewish people would not have chosen to make dwellings among or beside them.
  5. Evidence points to Nazareth being initially a Jewish village (without Christian “heretics” or pagans) from around 100 CE and lasting right through to today.

In 2008 (the same year Myth of Nazareth was published) BAIAS published responses to Salm’s criticism of the 2007 Nazareth Village Farm Final Report, including a large amendment to the original report, and in NazarethGate Salm makes the following points about those responses:

  • the amendment to the original “final report” was in fact a response to Salm’s criticisms and to more than twice the length (23 pages) of the original report
  • in the report [Yehuda Rapuano] attempts to do what he should have done the first time: to provide an accurate and error-free itemization of the [Nazareth Village Farm] pottery.” (p. 58)

When I read that Amendment it appeared to me that its author was saying that there were no anomalies in the dating of the Nazareth pottery after all, and the main conclusions of the original report were still valid. I had always wanted to know what Salm had to say in response — and here it is:

  • despite now providing clear itemizations and diagrams of the pottery, Rapuano “inexplicably abandons his only standard reference for pottery (Adan-Bayewitz) and adopts a remote, out-of-the-way and even unpublished comparisons to authenticate the few tiny, allegedly pre-70 CE artifacts which were apparently found lying right on the surface of the NVF [Nazareth Farm Village]. Of course, the inability of anyone to verify Rapuano’s new (and much inferior) parallels renders his pottery Amendment undiagnostic and as problematic as the report it claims to correct.” (p. 58 f.)

In another article S. Pfann and Y. Rapuano explained that the original errors Salm was pointing out were nothing more than an inadvertent “misnumbering”, yet the same article slipped in another major “amendment”. This time the phrase “Early Roman period” that they had previously used to infer that the Nazareth pottery finds belonged to the early and mid first century was now said in fact to actually extend “to the first half of the second century CE”! Thus in a single stroke all the NVF evidence is summarily removed “from the time of Jesus” and potentially dated one century later….” (p. 59)

Dark’s review

As for Ken Dark’s review of René Salm’s The Myth of Nazareth, I thought it to be as unprofessional (and as maliciously misinformative) as any review I have read by McGrath or Casey of Earl Doherty’s and some other works on mythicism. Salm points to another similarity that Dark falls back on:

[Ken Dark] asserts what has been the pet position of the tradition for a long time: that it is impossible to prove that Nazareth did not exist “in the Second Temple period (or at any other period).” Such double negatives are a sure sign of desperation, a last resort when no substantive argument is available. It claims correctness by mere fiat — and until proven wrong. . .

If there were any evidence at all for the existence of Nazareth “in the time of Jesus,” Dark would surely seize upon it as his central argument. (p. 60)

Does the following sound familiar to readers of this blog?

Dark insists upon Hellenistic and Early Roman presence at Nazareth while searching out reasons why such presence is not reflected in the material record. (p. 61)

Dark pleads for credulity by claiming that the smoking gun may well be under areas that have not been or cannot be excavated. After all, we cannot excavate everywhere, he reminds us.

In The Myth of Nazareth I address this fallacious argument by observing that various archeologists have thus far excavated over two dozen tombs from later Roman Nazareth, yet not one is dated to the turn of the era. “Is it possible to seriously maintain,” I ask, “that not one tomb from Hellenistic or Early Roman times has been found, though a score of later Roman tombs have?” (Salm 2008a: 290) (p. 60)

A core fallacy of Dark’s discussions of the archaeological evidence in the Nazareth region, Salm repeatedly notes, is his failure to acknowledge the work of Hans-Peter Kuhnen that demonstrates how dating scales for Jerusalem and surrounds do not apply to the Galilee. The kokh type tombs that appear around Jerusalem in the early first century do not make their appearance in the Galilee until well into two centuries later. Dark simply ignores this point in Salm’s book and in his subsequent review and other publications.

Dark ignores the three central planks of Salm’s argument in his “review”:

  1. the shoddy history of scholarship relating to Nazareth,
  2. the 800-year lacuna in evidence from the Nazareth basin (c. 730 BCE to 70 CE),
  3. the post-Jesus dating for the all-important oil lamps.

Salm demonstrates how Dark himself continues in the train of ideologically driven “scholarship” on Nazareth’s archaeological finds. Another driver Salm demonstrates comes from the IAA (Israel Antiquities Authority) and Israel’s tourism industry. Hints of Dark’s sentiments emerge in his practice of referring to biblical characters at “Saint” (e.g. St Joseph, St Mary) and preference for AD and BC.

Dark’s thesis for a Nazareth dwelling in the time of Jesus

But Dark’s own interpretations of the evidence are clear enough indicators of tendentiousness. Note Dark’s thesis to explain how the evidence for remains on the hillsides beneath the Sisters of Nazareth convent site points to an early first century dwelling in Nazareth:

  • A dwelling existed beneath the Sisters of Nazareth site at the beginning of the first century CE
  • That dwelling was abandoned towards the middle of the first century
  • Soon after this abandonment a kokh type tomb was hewn at that same site (still within the first century)
  • That kokh tomb was itself abandoned before the end of the first century.

The evidence Dark cites for this improbable scenario is that the kokh tomb was built in the first century, and that tomb cuts into a wall from an earlier dwelling.

Yet Salm demonstrates that Dark has completely misread the secondary (scholarly) literature in order to think that the kokh type tomb appeared in Galilee in the first century. (I have checked Salm’s sources for this claim myself and am happy to discuss Dark’s “astonishing” failure on this point further. In brief, Dark confuses “structural” evidence of tombs with evidence of the types of finds that had been deposited within the tombs!)

Further, Dark’s claim that the tomb “cuts into” a prior dwelling is in fact not based on the actual physical remains but on his speculation about how the tomb’s courtyard might have extended into what might have been a building associated with a distant rough-hewn stone wall.

The speculation introduces several unprecedented scenarios, one of which is that there is no documentation of Jews elsewhere hewing tombs beneath abandoned dwellings. Dark’s scenarios elsewhere assume that Jews were quite untroubled living right beside tombs — and despite the fact that remains of agricultural activities are often found around cemeteries.

Other details that Dark attributes to domestic dwellings are also found in agricultural and funereal sites and the low rough-hewn stone wall is only found in agricultural sites, not in people’s homes.

Moreover, the site itself is on a relatively steep hillside and there is no evidence of terracing. It thus seems a most unlikely location for a domicile, but being on a hillside does at least acknowledge that in the Gospel of Luke Jesus was said to have been threatened with being pushed off a cliff when he visited Nazareth. (A hillside will have to do in the absence of any cliff.)

Such is the tip of the iceberg of Salm’s critique of Dark’s efforts to demonstrate the existence of Nazareth in the time of Jesus.


In the next chapters I am about to read Salm’s discussion of that famous house at Mary’s Well “from the time of Jesus” the whole world heard about through a well-orchestrated media campaign on the eve of Christmas, 2009.


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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “NazarethGate”

  1. Thanks – while I’m familiar with most of the points made in this post, I’m a poor boy who’ll not be likely to afford Salm’s latest offering for a while, and look forward to further summary/reviews of it.

    And yeah, I find I can’t even mention Salm on Reddit without O’Neill or his acolytes (sock-puppets?) jumping on my ass like baiting bulldogs. Wish I had nearly as much free time online as ol’ Tim…

    1. Yes, good ol’ Timmie. If you see anything by him on this topic do let me know. I do know that others who had read another post of mine about his mistreatment of Salm’s arguments asked him to respond but he declined. See More Nazareth Nonsense from Tim O’Neill. I think he has said he is not allowed to post here but that’s baloney — what he means is that he is unwilling to accept my condition that he refrain from bullying and insults.

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