Dear Professor Bart Ehrman, Please explain, if you will…..

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by Neil Godfrey

Dear Professor,

You wrote on October 21 2016 in your post Mythicists: Did Nazareth Exist? for your paying readers the following:

Mythicists often argue – one of them named Rene Salm has written an entire book arguing – that Nazareth did not exist.  And if no Nazareth, then no Jesus of Nazareth.

I have always found this argument to be not only wrong but flat-out silly.  I probably won’t use the word “silly” in the debate, since I don’t want to insult anyone, but really….

So the reason the argument on this point by the Mythicists is wrong is that it’s been proven to be wrong.  The reason it is silly is this.

Suppose we grant the point that Nazareth didn’t exist (even though it did).  How would that have any bearing on the question of whether the man Jesus was an actual historical being?  Saying that Jesus did not exist because he could not have been born in Nazareth is like saying Barack Obama does not exist because he could not have been born in America.

I find arguing with Mythicists, for the most part, terribly frustrating.   Possibly you can see why. (my emphasis)

I am mystified. Though you “have always found this argument to be . . . flat-out silly” (I agree it is silly) I have never heard René Salm (or any mythicist) make that argument.

In fact Rene Salm nowhere argues that because Nazareth did not exist therefore Jesus did not exist, neither in The Myth of Nazareth (that you read prior to writing Did Jesus Exist?) nor in Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth (in which he responded to your book DJE? and that you assured us you read “twice”).

mon_coverWhat Salm did write in The Myth of Nazareth in relation to the significance of Nazareth not existing in the early first century was the following:

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. . . . .

The implication is . . . irrefutable: if there was no Nazareth before his birth, then Jesus did not come from Nazareth. . . . .

It is not my intention here to question the conventional understanding of Christian origins, that a man by the name of Jesus . . . lived in Palestine in the early first century CE and inspired the religion we now call Christianity. . . . I restrict consideration to the archaeology of Nazareth, with the purpose of showing that the provenance of Jesus, as set forth in the gospels, is not historical.

He — whoever he was (or wasn’t) — certainly was not Jesus “of Nazareth” in Lower Galilee. . . . It remains to be determined why the evangelists found it necessary to invent such a Jesus.

(MoN, pp. xii-xiii, 148, 157-8, 308, my emphasis)

Would you like to explain what has prompted you to now impute such a silly argument to René Salm in particular and inform us who the mythicists are who have published that argument?

Fabricated self contradiction

Dear Professor, you further write to your paying readers:

A Mythicist like Salm argues that yes, it did exist in different periods of history (still exists today as a city, as those of you who have visited Israel know).  But it was uninhabited in Jesus’ day.

You may notice that the argument that it existed but was uninhabited contradicts the argument that it never existed; some of the mythicists are not terrifically consistent in their logic, from one argument to the next.

zindlerAfter you made a similar false charge in DJE? Salm corrected you on this point on page 341 of Bart Ehrman and the Quest of the Historical Jesus of Nazareth. In the Q&A at the end of the Milwaukee Mythicist sponsored debate with Dr Price you assured us all that you had read that book “twice”. So the question arises: Since Salm has made it consistently clear that it is the site, not the town or village, that was uninhabited in Jesus’ day, why you continue to repeat this disinformation.

You have twice read Salm’s explanation:

Secondly, I don’t claim that “the town came to be reinhabited” but that the site came to be reinhabited. It may seem like a minor detail, but the first chapter of my book shows that a settlement indeed existed in the basin in the Bronze and Iron Ages. It was not called “Nazareth” but “Japhia” [MON 53–55]. Again, one wonders if Ehrman paid attention to the book.

Plugging one’s ears . . .

Bart (if I may), you further wrote:

Salm also, I should note, argues that the ancient place of the city could not have been on the hillside where it has traditionally been located but two kilometers away in the valley; he also points out that archaeologists have never dug in this alternative site. But then he argues that therefore it never existed there. Well, if the site hasn’t been excavated, how could there be “evidence” that it never existed?

This representation of Salm’s argument is doubly mystifying because since the publication of DJE? you have been reminded twice that you asked this question of René Salm while researching for DJE? and Salm made the answer clear to you back then, five years ago, as we read in BEQHJN on pages 363-364:

I have already shown that archaeology can indeed show the absence of settlement. However,Ehrman seizes upon the fact that no one has dug on the valley floor — which is where he supposes the settlement existed later. He writes:

This view [that archaeologists have never excavated the Nazareth valley floor] creates insurmountable problems for [Salm’s] thesis. For one thing, there is the simple question of logic. If archaeologists have not dug where Salm thinks the village was located, what is his basis for saying that it did not exist in the days of Jesus? [DJE? 195]

I have two problems with this tack. Firstly, Ehrman specifically asked me this question via e-mail when he was researching the book. My answer was clear and his feigning ignorance here I find a tad deceitful:

Bart,                                    July 13, 2011

Thanks for the email. To answer you… I take a scientific approach, looking at the evidence, and drawing conclusions therefrom. There is absolutely nothing in the material evidence to suggest habitation in the Nazareth basin at the turn of the era. I think my book makes that clear. Is there anything to suggest that Nazareth was NOT on the valley floor at the turn of the era? Well, yes — there is no evidence whatsoever on the hillsides of their presence at that time. What has been excavated at Nazareth is more than ample to infer a dating for the people who lived on the valley floor, for they of course are the ones who built the tombs and agricultural installations on the hillsides… — Rene

In other words, from the ample evidence (which all dates to CE times) on the hillside, we can with certainty infer a dating for the settlement on the valley floor. It’s a no-brainer, for the people who lived on the valley floor are obviously the same ones who worked the agricultural installations and built the tombs on the hillside. Thus, the dating of the ample material on the hillside (numbering hundreds of objects and 20+ tombs) is quite diagnostic and conclusive and requires us to date the settlement to CE times.

. . . tra la la, cannot hear

Dear Bart, you appear to persist in unprofessionally relying upon unpublished hearsay and avoiding major published reports and published conclusions of the archaeologists that René Salm has brought to our attention. You solicit money for charity by writing for your blog subscribers

[A]rchaeologists have in fact dug on the hillside where ancient Nazareth has long believed to have stood, and have found important remains – one house, and a farm, and most important, various coins from various periods, including the time of Jesus. So certainly Nazareth was there, exactly where it was supposed to be. The archaeologists have concluded that the village/hamlet must have had something like fifty houses in about a four-acre area.

On the supposedly Jesus-era house, many readers would have been hoping you would have responded to what you read twice in BEQHJN, pages 344-346:

The “house from the time of Jesus”


To continue our review of “demonstrable material evidence from ca. 700 BCE to ca. 100 CE” (point #1), Ehrman points to the much-touted 2009 excavation of a “house from the time of Jesus” [DJE? 196–97] — excavated by the now-familiar Yardenna Alexandre, an archaeologist working for the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA).

News of this small excavation broke just before Christmas 2009:

On winter solstice morning a veritable gaggle of international media representatives were assembled on Franciscan property in Nazareth, Israel, for the promised news. They stood outside the Church of the Annunciation, a few yards from the fabled spot where the fourteen-year old Virgin Mary received the assignation from the archangel Gabriel that she would be bearing God, or the Son of God, or God with Us (“Emmanuel,” Mt 1:23)…

AP, UPI, Reuters, and Agence France Presse were all present (I mean, at last year’s press conference, not at the fabled Annunciation for which there were no witnesses). By nightfall the news had circled the globe. HOUSE FROM THE TIME OF JESUS FOUND IN NAZARETH screamed the FOX headline…

The timing smacked of propaganda, not news, but a couple of other aspects of the excavation also aroused my suspicion. First of all, results of this excavation have never been published in any scholarly way. (“Publication” here must be carefully distinguished from the plethora of “news articles” that appeared in the general press.) A possible exception was a short one-paragraph statement from the IAA that was briefly on the Internet. It made no mention of first-century remains, much less of evidence from the turn of the era (“time of Jesus”), but only to “the Roman period” which, of course, lasted into the fourth century CE.

Once again we see Ms. Alexandre evading professional responsibility by not publishing her results so that the rest of the world can verify that what she claims is true. In the Nazareth house excavation she made vaunted claims which immediately circled the world but she failed to produce evidence to substantiate them. We will see this again in the coin imbroglio below.

A second suspicious aspect of this house excavation is that the site was quickly covered over by a Christian tourist venue so that no further authentication nor verification is possible. The “Mary of Nazareth International Center” now stands on the site. Hence, we have (1) no verification in the published literature, and (2) not even the possibility of verification due to subsequent construction at the site. No one can ever really know what was at the “Nazareth house.”

All this is simply background to Ehrman’s glib affirmation that the house Alexandre excavated “dates to the days of Jesus” [DJE? 196]. Ehrman writes that he had “personally written to the principal archaeologist, Yardena Alexandre,” and she told him all kinds of things which he believes without published evidence. This is the problem with Nazareth archaeology: scholars are trusting their peers in lieu of relying upon verifiable evidence. In an article for American Atheist I wrote — almost a year before the Christmas ‘discoveries’:

Archaeologists have been digging at Nazareth for over a hundred years and, as my book attempts to show, all the recovered finds include not a single artefact that can with certainty be dated before 100 CE. In other words, no demonstrable evidence dating either to the time of Jesus or to earlier Hellenistic times has been found…

We should all look with great suspicion on new evidence “coming to light” which conflicts with the evidentiary profile of the last hundred years, new evidence which astonishingly reopens the case for settlement in the time of Christ. Given the revelations documented in my book, and the lengthy history of duplicity associated with Nazareth archaeology, we have every right to insist that any new evidence be rigorously documented as to findspot, circumstances of discovery, and description (preferably accompanied by photo or diagram). Any claim of new, pre-70 CE evidence, should raise an alarum red flag. Such acclaim tells us more about the persons making it than about Nazareth.

To show the vacuity of Ehrman’s sources, he closes his Nazareth section by discussing an AP story. Nota bene: here we witness a premiere New Testament scholar arguing on the basis of information from the Associated Press. Ehrman’s parting summation is vacuous: “Jesus really came from there, as attested in multiple sources.” Presumably, those sources which he finds so persuasive include AP, Reuters, and Agence France Presse. (Bolding mine)

On the supposedly Jesus-era farm

For one of my earlier posts examining the details and various criticisms of Salm’s argument see More Nazareth Nonsense.

Ehrman is referring to the “Nazareth Village Farm Report” (NVFR), a 61-page boondoggle that brings “Christian archaeology” to a new low. That report was published in the 2007 issue of the Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society (BAIAS). My eight-page “Response,” published in the subsequent issue of BAIAS, showed that nothing in the NVF report reflects settlement at the turn of the era. The core issue is the report’s characterization of eleven pieces of pottery as “early Roman” (i.e., potentially dating to the time of Jesus) or even “Hellenistic.” The archaeologist responsible for the NVF pottery datings is a certain Yehuda Rapuano. I took him to task in my rebuttal, showing that in every case the shards in question could have been produced as much as a century after ‘the time of Christ’ — this according to the standard dating references that Rapuano himself used. My published conclusion as stated in BAIAS: “in every case where Rapuano suggests a pre-70 dating, he offers no support” [2008:102]. In other words, he arbitrarily assumed the earliest possible dating for these shards. On that arbitrary basis, the entire NVF report claimed settlement contemporary with ‘the time of Jesus.’ In fact, the artifacts in question fit in very well with my overall thesis that Nazareth was first settled in the years between the two Jewish revolts. As with the two stone vessels mentioned above, they constitute no evidence at all for human presence at the turn of the era.

Incidentally, there were several other problems in the NVF report, e.g., some of the artifacts were given different dates, findspots, and even descriptions from one page to another (‘double dating’). In all, it was a very embarrassing report, which is why it had to be completely rewritten after my rebuttal appeared.

At the minimum, the NVF excavation is controversial and constitutes weak evidence indeed (much less the principal evidence) for a village “at the time of Jesus.” Yet Ehrman claims that this evidence is “compelling,” presumably solely on the basis of Rapuano’s authority as an “archaeologist.” But I will affirm here that authority is not sufficient, for authority does not replace evidence.

The Nazareth Village Farm is associated with a multimillion-dollar megaresort called the Nazareth Village. The resort’s stated vision is to recreate streets and stone houses “inhabited by actors and storytellers in authentic garb, [who] will illuminate the life and teachings of Jesus. A Parable Walk, museum, study center and restaurant are also planned…” It has been well funded by an international consortium of Christian groups called the Miracle of Nazareth International Foundation. Since the project’s inception the consortium has raised over $60 million towards the venture. Contributors in the U.S. have included former President Jimmy Carter, Pat Boone, and Rev. Reggie White, the former Green Bay Packer football star.

Here the intimate connection between academia and commerce is patent, witnessed also by the fact that the Nazareth Village resort is under the auspices of the evangelical University of the Holy Land (UHL) whose Director, not surprisingly, is none other than Stephen Pfann — the principal author of the NVF excavation report. (BEQHJN, pp. 343-44, my bolding)

And those “Jesus-era” coins

I quote only the conclusion of Salm’s full discussion in BEQHJN, p. 353f:

Regarding these coins, we can conclude the following:

(a) In 1997–98 Alexandre excavated a large cache of 14th–15th century CE coins near Mary’s Well at the northern end of the Nazareth basin. Her IAA report noted no coins dating prior to the fourteenth century CE.

(b) Turn-of-the-era coin finds were later imputed to Alexandre by Pfann, Rapuano, and now by Ehrman — finds which have never been published.

(c) Poor scholarship mars the work of all the above academics, in that the NVF report was riddled with errors (as my “Response” in BAIAS 2008 shows, requiring the publication of a wholesale “Amendment”).

Furthermore, Ehrman conflates two excavations into one. Finally, Alexandre herself has been reported to admit that her original IAA notice omitted critical Jesus-era evidence and was not definitive — yet she has refused to set the record straight via publication.

I leave the reader to decide whether all these irregularities are merely atrocious sloppiness on the part of several scholars or whether they are evidence of collusion and unethical behavior. (My bolding and formatting)

But Salm is not an archaeologist!

Professor Ehrman, you are quite correct when you have pointed out that René Salm is not an archaeologist. My question, however, is why you omit to inform your paying readers what you have read by Salm himself on his methods in MoN and twice read in BEQHJN on page 340:

Ehrman pulls rank. He focuses on my right to make assessments, “since Salm himself is not an archaeologist” [DJE? 194]. What he fails to appreciate, however, is that I have not made any archaeological assessments at all. I have collected, read, and cited the published reports of eminent specialists in many subfields of biblical archaeology. It is their verdicts regarding specific Nazareth finds that have decided the case. Moreover, I have not relied upon unpublished and quite unverifiable claims such as Ehrman is willing to do — as with Alexandre’s claim of a “house from the time of Jesus,” or the claim that coins from Mary’s Well date to Hellenistic times.

Ehrman’s appeal to authority is, in this case, doubly wrong.

Firstly, as just mentioned, he misinterprets my role, which is not that of an “archaeologist,” but merely that of a careful compiler.

Secondly, by appealing to credentials he ignores (or rejects) my imputation of fraud in Nazareth archaeology (point 7 above).

That much is clear. A reasonable person would decide the issue on the basis of the material findings — not on the basis of authority. And therein lies the difference between Ehrman and myself. (My bolding and formatting)

Salm’s argument summarized

NazarethGate is Salm’s more recent publication.

Dear Bart, You have told us several times that you find engaging with mythicists arguments very tiresome so I expect you have not put yourself out to read this post or explain how it is that there is so little evidence in your speaking and writing that you have actually read the works you find so “terribly frustrating” so I will turn to address general readers.

The above quotations refer to various “points”. Those points are listed in Salm’s own summary of his argument that Bart Ehrman assures us he read twice since DJE? Notice that Ehrman has failed to address any of Salm’s core arguments.

My book’s argument can be summarized as follows:

A. The material finds reveal the following:

(1) the lack of demonstrable material evidence from ca. 700 BCE to ca. 100 CE;
(2) the 25 CE+ dating of the earliest oil lamps at Nazareth;
(3) the 50 CE+ dating of all the post-Iron Age tombs at Nazareth, which are of the kokh type; . . . .

B. The following points impinge upon the question of pious fraud:

(4) the existence of Middle Roman tombs under the Church of the Annunciation.
(5) The non-rigorous nature of ‘Christian archaeology’ wherein priests train in seminaries and are unable to conduct a rigorous modern excavation;
(6) The monopoly exercised in Nazareth by the Catholic Church, evident in Church ownership of the so-called “Venerated Sites” where most of the digging has taken place (thus limiting access, evaluation, and publication);
(7) A persistent history of error, internal contradiction, and outright fraud which continues to mar critical findings from Nazareth.

Let me say at the outset that the case for or against Nazareth at the turn of the era rests entirely on part (A) above — that is, on the material finds in points 1–3. We may inveigh all we wish against shoddy digging, lack of access, and fraud, but once seen for what they are, these can and must be put aside so that we can focus on the verifiable material record regarding the turn of the era. That material record is damning as regards the existence of a settlement at Nazareth at ‘the time of Jesus.’

In his book Ehrman does not address most of the seven points above. In fact, he does not directly deal with the Nazareth evidence at all but with conclusions that others have made regarding that evidence (Bagatti, Dark, Alexandre, Pfann). However, a primary thrust of my book was to return to the material evidence and to show that those conclusions are generally inconsistent with the evidence. By accepting the conclusions of his colleagues on faith and without further ado, Ehrman entirely bypasses my book’s arguments and, in fact, writes as if the book had never been written. After all, The Myth of Nazareth shows that the conclusions of biblical archaeologists emphatically cannot be taken on faith — for the reasons itemized in points 5–7 above. (BEQHJN, pp. 339-40, my formatting and bolding)



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14 thoughts on “Dear Professor Bart Ehrman, Please explain, if you will…..”

  1. Is Ehrman right that Jesus of Nazareth would still have existed, even if Nazareth did not exist?

    Just as he is right that Obama could still be President of America , even if America did not exist?

  2. Yes, see Carrier ‘Proving History’, pp. 142-45 and ‘On the Historicity of Jesus’, pp. 400-401 ibid. p. 400,n34.
    Nazoraios was an attribute or label, meaning now lost. It was not understood even by the Evangelists; hence their attributing of the town as derivation and Jesus the Nazorian became Jesus of Nazareth. There is no grammatical connection between the two. Nazareth is a red herring. Whether it existed or not prior to 70AD has nothing to do with whether Jesus existed or not prior to 70AD.

    1. I presume when you say “Nazoraios was an attribute or label, meaning now lost” you mean the meaning of Nazoraios is now lost ie. ‘it’s meaning is now lost’ (not that it means ‘now lost’).

      Note RT France pointed out, in his book The Gospel of Matthew (pp. 92-93), that the Septuagint gives “Nazirite” as ναζιραιον, while Matthew gives Nazorean as the very similar Ναζωραῖος

      There is a relationship through the root words ‘netzer/natsar/na·ṣar’ – נָצַר – and its transliteration nazir.

      Nazirite/Nazarite, which comes from nazir, means (i) under a vow; (ii) consecrated; (iii) vow of ‘separation’; or (iv) crowned

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

      and Nazeroth is the feminine-plural.

  3. I have to wonder how many more ‘debates’ with Ehrman will take place with mythicists where Ehrman shows up, expresses his disdain for the audience in a polite sort of way, collects a paycheck and goes home. In a way, this pure failure of a debate is the fault of the mythicists: why do you appeal to these Defenders of the Faith for legitimacy? Why do you plead with them so desperately to take you and your arguments seriously? (Prayer-as-petition). Poor Frank Zindler and his (understandable) post-debate question: did you even read the book where we answered your [determination to misunderstand and represent our arguments]? And what did Ehrman say? No, or maybe I read it twice. It amounts to the same thing. But you might ask: why even write the book in the first place?

    I get the sense that a remark to the effect that Ehrman is a hack is somewhat unwelcome on sites like this (maybe, maybe not). But speaking only for myself, I come to all this after many years of reading Derrida, Lacan, Nietzsche, all the way back to Hegel, Kant, Spinoza. When you read these thinkers, you’re breathing a truly exalted air. Thinking is raised to a high art. I can take one look at Ehrman’s 20 or 50 appeals to authority and consensus – quoted on this site and elsewhere to great effect – and say, who the hell is this guy? How in this post-Nietzsche age – where thinking has to be both serious and passionate – can someone refute an argument by saying, ‘Well, no one among my New Testament studies friends believes this, so it’s not true’ – ? It’s so trivial, it’s not even laughable.

    1. Yes, this is how it has always been. I recall John Crossan’s refusal to read Earl Doherty’s book. I even see indications of the same tension in some very early twentieth century books. Salm hit the nail on the head when he wrote that Ehrman’s book was not written for the academy but for the public, to be read while watching television, as a reassurance that the status quo was unshaken. Trying to engage Ehrman or anyone like him in a serious discussion only starts to make “mythicists” look foolish. The audience for the debate is there among many respectable intellectuals (see my Who’s Who list in the right column here) and educated public.

      Many have expressed disappointment with Price’s failure to attack Ehrman in the debate. However in a sense he showed us all what mythicists ought to be doing. Still engaging with the scholarship, of course, but engaging with it much more seriously than the biblical studies academy itself, and getting on with exploring and testing arguments. Let the educated lay public then put the challenge to those in biblical studies and let them see for themselves (as happens now quite often) just how shallow they really are.

  4. What bothers me is Ehrman’s inability to understand the difference between something being “relevant” and something being “dispositive.”

    I have always thought that the report that Jesus was from Nazareth is one of the better candidates for the criteria of embarrassment. Anyone who was historicizing a mythical being would have made Jesus from Bethlehem or some place of prophetic significance. It isn’t a slam dunk but I think it weighs on the historicist side of the balance. Therefore, it is relevant.

    If Nazareth didn’t exist, it would not be dispositive because Jesus could have been from somewhere else, but it would certainly be relevant because it would remove one of the reasons for thinking that he did exist.

    1. Nazareth is probably related to Nazarite though their root words: nazir is a transliteration of ‘netzer/natsar/na·ṣar’ – נָצַר

      Natzeret is the word netzer plus the feminine ending, designated by the letter Tav, and Nazeroth is the feminine-plural.

      So, there’s likely to be an element of midrash in development of the name Nazareth.

  5. So which towns are we renaming to Metropolis and Gotham so that in two thousand years nutjobs can build a theme park with interactive characters from Superman and Batman historical times?

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