Nazareth, General Overview of the Evidence

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by Neil Godfrey

NazGate_coverNazarethGate by René Salm furnishes readers with far more than the published archaeological evidence for the existence of Nazareth at the supposed time of Jesus. In taking up the task of mastering the research literature on the archaeology of Nazareth Salm has found that archaeologists well-known for their proclamations of finds that are relevant to our understanding of Jesus have a track record of questionable methods and reliability. Hence the pun on the Watergate scandal in the title as well as the subtitle: quack archeology, holy hoaxes, and the invented town of Jesus. Salm has done the work to earn the right to make these judgements.

In my previous post I touched on Salm’s exposure of the “less than optimal” work of Ken Dark. (Compare also A Critique of Ken Dark’s Work at the Sisters of Nazareth Convent.) There is much more. But here I am pausing to set out for easy reference a very general summary of the archaeological evidence for Nazareth. That is, what follows is taken from the scholarly published literature as distinct from unverifiable popular press reports. The former are testable; the latter — even if quoting opinions of certain archaeologists — are not.

Salm is able to point to the apparent influence his earlier book, The Myth of Nazareth, has had on the chagrined re-writing of some of the claims made about the archaeological evidence. Hopefully this new work will help raise a more public awareness of the tendentiousness (even incompetence) of the claims of some of the archaeologists who press claims for evidence that Nazareth was the home of Jesus.

From the Bronze Age to Roman Times

In the Bronze and Iron ages there was a significant settlement in the region of what we know as the Nazareth valley area. It was known as Japhia in the Bible. This city was destroyed by the Assyrians around 700 BCE.

From 700 BCE to roughly 100 CE: no material evidence exists testifying to a settlement in this region.

Hellenistic settlement?

Eleven pieces of moveable evidence (pottery, oil lamps) have at times been upheld as evidence that a settlement was re-established in the centuries prior to the turn of the era.

In every case but one these pieces of evidence have been redated to later times; the exception is a piece redated to the earlier Iron Age.

Early Roman Period

Kokh Tomb
Kokh Tomb

Approximately two dozen kokhim tombs in the Nazareth basin. According to “Hans-Peter Kuhnen — a leading expert on kokhim tombs in Galilee — those tombs first spread to the areas north of Jerusalem from the south, and they did so not before about the middle of the first century CE.” Given that around 90% of the artefacts from the Nazareth basin that have been published have been found in these tombs, it follows that the bulk of Nazareth evidence dates to well after the turn of the century.

That “Herodian” oil lamp

Examining the published literature (e.g. Varda Sussman), one learns that “Herodian” is an erroneous label and the lamp is more securely dated to well beyond the period of Herod the Great.

The hill on which their city was built

and they got up and drove Him out of the city, and led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city had been built, in order to throw Him down the cliff. — Luke 4:29

There is no cliff in the region over which one can toss anyone to their demise.

The hillside does reach 20% in places and his too steep for the construction of dwellings.

Could they have terraced the hill for this purpose? Problem is there is no indication of any terracing in the region around the traditional site of the village — around the Venerated Area of Nazareth. Besides, there is a nice flat valley floor nearby.

Then again, the hillside is pockmarked with hollows, caves, and silos — some extending to several superimposed chambers within the earth. The Franciscan area — where most of the excavations have taken place — is literally honeycombed with cavities with over 68 identified silos once used for the storage of grain. This could not have been an area of habitations. Rather, the material record emphatically demonstrates that it was an area used for agricultural activity and associated food storage. (NazarethGate, p. 137)

Dozens of kokhim tombs on the hillside further shows the area was not used as a settlement. Even the Venerated Area is located in the middle of a Roman-era cemetery. The Church of the Annunciation sits on three to five such tombs. Tourist guidebooks do not advertise this fact.


As mentioned, this post is only a general overview of the relevant archaeological evidence (or lack of evidence) for the existence of Nazareth in the early first century.

How this state of play has been misrepresented in the media, often with the encouragement of media-savvy archaeologists, is elaborated in depth in NazarethGate. I look forward to posting more from this book.

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20 thoughts on “Nazareth, General Overview of the Evidence”

  1. So does this mean that the gospels that mention Nazareth could not have been written until Nazareth was reestablished after 100 ce? Or that references to Nazareth were added later?

    1. 100 CE is a rough indicator, not a precise divider. We can allow that a village appeared in the are after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Some of the moveable evidence is dated in round figures from 50 CE to much later, say around 150 CE and beyond. So technically we can even allow for a resettlement from around 50 CE.

      The evidence that the Gospel of Mark originally mentioned Nazareth is not secure. Matthew certainly mentioned the township and used its existence to explain the name given to Jesus — notwithstanding (as a few scholars have pointed out) no religious leader anywhere else is named after the place of his birth; and how would a place nobody supposedly heard of act as an identifier anyway?

      The more likely explanation is that Jesus the “Nazarene” or whatever variants we have of that term originally referred to a cult or sect in which the term had some other meaning that the author of the first gospel tried to deny/hide by reassociating it with the town of Nazareth.

      This could have been almost any time after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

      1. Jesus belonged to the Nasorean sect. Epiphanius speaks of a pre-Christian group called the Nasasaioi. The Nasorean sect never quite died out, it still survives today in southern Iraq as part of a larger Mandaean sect whose members trace their religious heritage back, not to Jesus but to Yahia Yuhana , better known to Christians as John the Baptist. They state that Yshu Mshiha (Jesus) was a Nasorean. After the death of John the Baptist or about that time, Jesus brother (James the Just, aka Doubting Thomas) headed the Nasorean sect, he James was murdered by his own sect members.

  2. Assuming Rene Salm has shown the short-fallings of the archaeological data for Nazareth, I am puzzled. Why does this imply that Nazareth was invented, as opposed to an alternative thesis, that the conventional or consensus location of Nazareth is incorrect? All I see from the NT is that Nazareth was in Galilee, had a synagogue, and was located on a hill. Surely there are multiple archaeological sites that fit this criteria. I am reminded of Gamala, for which the archaeological site accepted for decades didn’t fit the description in Josephus — until the actual site of Gamala was discovered which fit all the details to a tee. Why not look for a better archaeological match instead of jump to a conclusion that Nazareth never existed?

    1. “Why does this imply that Nazareth was invented, as opposed to an alternative thesis, that the conventional or consensus location of Nazareth is incorrect?”

      Beyond the reference to the subtitle of the book itself, which Neil does not really own or seem to embrace, the post makes no claim that “Nazareth was invented.” The focus of the post seems to be bad archaeology. You probably need to read Salm’s book to understand what he meant by arguing that Nazareth was invented and whether or not he considered your alternative hypothesis (which seems an entirely plausible alternative).

      On an unrelated note, your new book is now available for pre-order on Amazon. I ordered my copy today and look forward to reading it this summer. Cheers.

      Best regards,


        1. Tell them who you are. And then ask the publisher or author for a “complimentary, ” or perhaps a “review copy. ”

          Then write a simple formal review?

      1. Beyond the reference to the subtitle of the book itself, which Neil does not really own or seem to embrace

        Salm makes a very powerful case for the unprofessional behaviour of certain archaeologists, their clear biases and mishandling of evidence in the service of their faith or publicity. After reading Ken Dark’s response to Salm in BAIAS and the further discussions since I have lost all respect for Dark as a professional. I will be having more to say about a number of others in future posts.

    2. It could well be that there is another site unrelated to the Nazareth that has existed since mid to late Roman times up till today that was the actual town of Jesus. Perhaps it was destroyed and lost forever in the first revolt against Rome and another village was constructed in the site of present-day Nazareth and took the same name. Although this would seem unlikely if Luke’s description of the site as a “city” is as historical as its having a cliff.

      But Rene Salm’s central argument is that the Nazareth of the turn of the era, the town of Jesus and the gospels, is an invented town. It only began to become an urban dwelling between 70 and 135, and Frank Zindler argues that it only acquired the name of Nazareth as a result of the work of Eusebius (and was only “discovered” by Constantine’s mother … details for another time.

      The suspicion that the town was a literary invention pre-dated archaeological digs, too:

      • It is unknown in the OT (though nearby Japhia is mentioned);
      • of the 63 Galilean towns in the two Talmuds there is no mention of Nazareth;
      • Josephus fortified towns nearby Japhia and mentions 45 urban dwellings in Galilee but not Nazareth;
      • no geographer or historian before the fourth century CE mentions Nazareth;
      • Origen made serious efforts to study the biblical sites in his own region but does not know where Nazareth is;
      • Origen did not know if the place should be called Nazareth or Nazara;
      • Nazareth is not mentioned in other NT books — including the oldest texts, the epistles, nor is there any activity in Nazareth in the book of Acts, or most apocryphal gospels and gnostic works;
      • The Mark 1:9 reference (the sole one in Mark) is arguably an interpolation;
      • In Luke the name appears only in the later stratum of that gospels — it is not in “proto-Luke”;

      — From Frank Zindler’s Foreword to NazarethGate.

      So there are reasons to suspect there was no Nazareth until it became a literary invention in the gospels. There’s always a possibility it will turn up somewhere else, but unless there are good reasons to go looking . . . .

      I think also it’s worth keeping in mind the many puns in the gospels, especially Mark, of both personal names and place names; and the theological metaphors attributed to places. Bethsaida, Bethphage — they may have been real, but they also were conveniently apt names as settings for narrative acts. As Fredriksen and Mack have written about the “cleansing of the Temple” action by Jesus, it may have been historical, but why add unnecessary explanations when we find a completely satisfactory one in the requirements of the plot itself?

  3. Alternately, if a tradition of Jesus the Nazorean was (for some obscure reason) associated with an actual village of Nazareth that sprang up in the 2nd or 3rd century CE, then why don’t the gospel stories fit that actual village? The disparities are just as much a problem for a 3rd CE Nazareth as a 1st CE or 1st BCE Nazareth. (Not that I’ve got money riding on the outcome — I’m just curious as to the logic on this controversy. Haven’t read Salm’s book[s] yet, so I’m really just curious.)

    1. Salm acknowledges that the town came into existence some time between 70 and 135 CE. My own take on this would be that it is unlikely any of the evangelists and few of their readers actually knew the town of Nazareth at first hand. Only Luke offers any topographical colour and that is entirely for narrative purposes. And we know Luke was capable of inventing historical details to fit his plot’s designs.

      But then it is also possible that the post 70/135 village was not given the name of Nazareth till the time of Constantine’s mother.

      Did Matthew invent the obscure town nobody had heard of to deflect attention from a less comfortable meaning of that other cultish term applied to Jesus?

  4. This isn’t a new idea. I don’t remember when or where I first heard of the idea that Nazarene meant being a member of a sect rather than an inhabitant of a village. It was at least 20 years ago.

    The idea was that by the time the gospels were written, the original meaning had been forgotten. The Gospel authors assumed the term referred to Jesus’ place of birth because it never occurred to them Nazarene could refer to a sect.

    But the word Nazareth is not used in Paul’s epistles or in the old testament. One would expect the name to be found elsewhere if the village/town was ancient.

    Nazarene may derive from the word “Nazarite” which is a person who has taken a vow to refrain from something. (http://biblehub.com/topical/n/nazarite.htm)

    I read somewhere that there are no references to the town Nazareth (outside of the gospels) before the 4th century when St Helen, mother of Constantine was touring the Holy Land building churches and buying relics. Some enterprising elders rapidly changed the village’s name to Nazareth and built a shrine in a cave in the hope of gaining some funding.

    It seems to have worked.

    “The first shrine was probably built sometime in the middle of the 4th century, comprising an altar in the cave in which Mary had lived. A larger structure was commissioned by Emperor Constantine I, who had directed his mother, Saint Helena, to found churches commemorating important events in Jesus Christ’s life. The Church of the Annunciation was founded around the same time as the Church of the Nativity (the birthplace) and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (the tomb). Some version of it was known to have still been in existence around 570 AD, but it was destroyed in the 7th century after the Muslim conquest of Palestine.”

    from http://www.galenfrysinger.com/israel_church_of_the_annunciation.htm

    1. Last I looked, the word “Nez” or naz also meant a (reasonably) high point or lookout? Possibly related, I speculate, to the later French “nez.” Or the English “nose.” Or ” nasal.” Some later residents, perhaps due to linguistic confusion, were said to be supercilious. Or to have had their noses in the air.

      This doesn’t rule out a relation also, to the oath of a Nazarene, or a Nazarite.

    2. One day I’ll do a post on some of the possible meanings of “NZR” and cognates attributed to Paul’s sect and Jesus. But till then you can read of several in NazarethGate.

      1. Meanwhile, Salm also covers them in archived posts at http://www.mythicistpapers.com/ under the heading “Nazarene”; particularly http://www.mythicistpapers.com/2013/02/18/the-natsarene-nazarene-religion-pt-5/. His position (which I find generally convincing) is that it derives from the pan-Semitic root “nun-tsade-resh, ‘watch, keep, preserve,’” and he develops a speculative case for a broad and much more ancient “gnostic” tradition associated with it.

  5. In an attempt to show that Jesus fulfilled a supposed scriptural prophesy of Judges 13:5 (which actually referred to Samson), the unknown author of Matthew might have confused “Nazareth” and “Nazarene” (a person from Nazareth) with “Nazirite” (a man who lives apart and has made a vow of abstinence). This isn’t too surprising if you realize that the gospel authors’ native tongue was probably Aramaic, the (Old Testament) Scripture was originally in Hebrew, they were likely reading it as the Greek Septuagint, and they were writing the gospels in Greek.

  6. The key words are netser/netzer, natsar, n_tser, etc, and nazir

    There are linguistic discrepancies due “a peculiarity of the ‘Palestinian’ Aramaic dialect wherein a sade/tsade – s/ts -between two voiced (sonant) consonants tended to be partially assimilated by taking on a zayin (z) sound” –

    Carruth, S; Robinson, J McC; Heil, C. (1996) Q 4:1–13,16: the temptations of Jesus : Nazara. Peeters Publishers. p 415. ISBN 90-6831-880-2.

    Natzeret is the word netzer plus the feminine ending, designated by the letter Tav

    and Nazeroth is the feminine-plural

    ‘Nazarite’ is supposedly an ‘Anglicisation’, but that is the translation given to use in the OT.

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