Salm’s Nazareth Correspondence with Kuhnen Demonstrates O’Neill’s Falsehoods

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by Neil Godfrey

Hans-Peter Kuhnen: Photo from agefotostock

This post is an important and necessary follow up to my previous one about the falsehoods of O’Neill’s attacks on Salm’s work. Any readers with a serious interest in the dating of Nazareth and the seriousness of René Salm’s study of the archaeological record should be aware of the evidence that demonstrates how carelessly false Tim O’Neill’s public statements about his work really are.

Contrary to O’Neill’s assertions Salm did not mistranslate [my previous post demonstrated this by showing the locations of sites Kuhnen listed] or misinterpret Kuhnen as Kuhnen himself affirms in the following email exchange between Salm and Kuhnen and that I copy here with permission.

This first extract Kuhnen wrote initially to a third party but then copied to Salm himself. Bracketed clarifications are by Salm and the bolded highlighting is by me:

In my answer to Mr. Salm’s interesting question I referred to my Ph.D. thesis of 1982, published 1989 under the title “Studien zur Chronologie und Siedlungsarchäologie des Karmel (Israel) zwischen Hellenismus und Spätantike. Beihefte zum Tübinger Atlas des Vorderen Orients B 72 . Wiesbaden 1989. On pages 49 – 72 of this book you’ll find a chronological analysis of Hellenistic – Roman tombs excavated up to then in Palestine. My chronology is based primarily on internal evidence, i. e. the combination of finds, a method common in European prehistory, but up to now not yet introduced in Palestinian archaeology. My “comparing [comparison—RS] table of datable tombs” (Kombinationstabelle der Funde aus Gräbern”. Beilage 3) clearly proves that all kokim tombs of my “phase I”* (2nd [cent. BCE]- early 1st century AD) are concentrated in the Judean hills around Jerusalem. The earliest kokim tombs of Galilee appear in my “phase II”, starting around the middle of the 1st century AD. Therefore, from the evidence published up to the 1990s, Mr. Salm is right that there is no clear evidence of tombs of the period of Jesus in Nazareth.
… I definitely share your scepticism about the historicity of the New Testament. Last year I held a seminar and an excursion at the Institute of Biblical Archaeology of Mainz University on Holy places on the shore of the Lake of Galilee, which showed clearly that the localization of New Testament sites in Galilee is the work of Byzantine historiographers and not of the writers of the New Testament. 

* “Kombinationstabelle der Funde aus Gräbern” is the heading of Appendix 3 (“Beilage 3”) of Kuhnen’s PhD thesis. The heading literally means “Combination table of finds from tombs.” That’s of course quite different from Kuhnen’s translation. The word “Kombination” in German has inferences that the English “combination” lacks, including “comparison” (hence my bracketed clarification). The German “Tabelle” variously can mean many things: “table, list, chart, index, schedule, synopsis, summary” (from my large Cassell’s English & German dictionary). I ILL’ed Kuhnen’s thesis years ago and don’t have it at hand, but if … memory serves, the appendix in question is in the form of a list. So, I would translate the entire phrase as “Comparison list of finds from tombs”, or “Master list of finds from tombs”, or even “Master summary of finds from tombs.” Of course, we’re not talking about Nazareth finds here, but those in the vicinity of Mt. Carmel in Lower Galilee, about 30 km WNW of Nazareth. — RS.

So , from an archaeological point of view, Salm’s arguments about a completely Judean “theatre” of NT history cannot be disregarded, but it seems to me that discussion will go on for a long time. [Jan . 4, 2010]

Here are a couple of further snippets from Kuhnen’s emails to Salm. They demonstrate that there has been no daylight (“misunderstanding”) between Kuhnen and Salm on tomb dating. Kuhnen even states that he considers Salm’s study sufficiently worthy to be included in his curriculum. (Unfortunately not every email has the date stamp preserved.) In the posts directly to Salm himself Kuhnen wrote in German but Salm has added translations:

– Kuhnen writes: “Hinsichtlich der Datierung der bekannten Gräber haben Sie sicher recht.” (“Regarding the dating of the known tombs [in Nazareth] you are certainly correct.” (Dated May 15, 2009)

“Ihre Überlegungen sind sehr anregend, besonders Ihre Hauptthese, dass die Evangelien im wesentlichen die Realität nach dem Jahr 70 n. Chr. beschreiben. Auch Ihrer Einschätzung von Bagatti stimme ich zu. Er und einige andere seiner Kollegen (de Vaux, Humbert) sind meines Erachtens typische Vertreter einer kirchlichen Archäologie, die in der Archäologie das bestätigt sieht, was sie schon vorher wusste.” (“Your reflections are very exciting, particularly your main thesis that the gospels essentially describe the post-70 CE reality. I also agree with your estimation of Bagatti. He and some of his other colleagues (de Vaux, Humbert) are, in my opinion, typical apologists for an ecclesiastical archeology that simply confirms what it already knows.” 

“Insgesamt finde ich, wie gesagt , Ihre überlegungen sehr interessant, und habe darüber auch schon den Studenten in meinem derzeitigen Seminar an der Uni Mainz berichtet. Im nächsten Semester möchte ich an der Uni Mainz ein kritisches Seminar zum Thema “Archäologie und Neues Testament” anbieten. Dabei werden wir sicher auch Ihr Buch behandeln.” (Translation: “In all, I find your reflections very interesting, as mentioned above. I have already communicated your views to students in my current Seminar at the Univ. of Mainz. Next summer I would like to offer a critical seminar on the Archaeology of the New Testament. In it we will certainly discuss your book. (Second half of May 2009.)

I said in my previous post that contrary to the impression created by O’Neill Salm has engaged with Kuhnen’s work in considerable depth and most certainly was not “quote mining” a single sentence. Here is a list of all of Kuhnen’s works consulted by Salm from the bibliography of his second book, NazarethGate:

Kuhnen, H-P.

1986. Nordwest-Palästina in hellenistisch-römischer Zeit. Bauten und Gräber im Karmelgebiet. Weinheim: VCH Verlag.

1989. Studien zur Chronologie und Siedlungsarchäologie des Karmel (Israel)
zwischen Hellenismus und Spätantike. (Tübinger Atlas zum Vorderen Orient. Beiheft B 72.) Wiesbaden.

1990. Palästina in griechisch-römischer Zeit. (Handbuch der Archäologie. Vorderasien II,2.) München: C. H. Beck.

1994. Mit Thora und Todesmut: Judäa im Widerstand gegen die Römer von
Herodes bis Bar Kochba. (Führer und Bestandskataloge III.) Stuttgart: Württ. Landesmuseum .

2002. “Bestattungswesen Palästinas im Hellenismus.” In: Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Göttingen), pp. 211 f.

2007. “Grabbau und Bestattungssitten in Palästina zwischen Herodes und den Severern.” In: A. Faber, P. Fasold, M. Struck, M. Witteyer (Eds.), Körpergräber des 1.–3. Jh. in der römischen Welt. Kolloquium Frankfurt am Main 2004. Frankfurt: Schriften des Archäologischen Museums Frankfurt am Main, 57–76.

2009. (with W. Zwickel): Archäologie und Politik im Land der Bibel: 60 Jahre Gründung des Staates Israel. (Kleine Arbeiten zum Alten und Neuen Testament). Mainz: Spenner.


Tim O’Neill Misreads (Again) the Evidence on Nazareth

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

Having finally caught up with Tim O’Neill’s October 2019 post on his History for Atheists blog, JESUS MYTHICISM 5: THE NAZARETH “MYTH”, I have decided to address a new point he makes since I last responded to his Nazareth assertions. Most of his October post is a rehash of what I demonstrated was erroneous in More Nazareth Nonsense from Tim O’Neill. But he has added a new point in an apparent attempt to refute at least one key part of my original criticism and it is that new point that I address here.

I have invited Tim O’Neill to discuss his criticisms on condition that he refrain from abuse and insult. He has responded by declaring I am not worth engaging with because I resort to “nitpicking”, otherwise known as “fact-checking”. Perhaps he will see this post as another example of “nitpicking”, this time in response to his claim that René Salm has based a key part of his argument on a mistranslation of a single sentence in Hans-Peter Kuhnen’s Palästina in griechisch-römischer Zeit.

What is the relevance of all this to the Nazareth debate?

Salm argues that there is no secure archaeological evidence published in the scholarly literature that enables us to date a settlement in Nazareth at the time of Jesus. The evidence for a settlement in Roman times only begins to appear from the mid or late first century CE. If the kokh tombs around Nazareth could be dated to the early first century then there would be a reasonable case for Nazareth being occupied at that time.

Kokh tombs were known around the Jerusalem region long before and during the time of Christ but Salm insists that they did not appear in Galilee until towards the end of the first century.

Salm has used Kuhnen’s work to argue that it is a mistake to use the dates of Jerusalem sites for the Galilee region. The kokh tombs appeared in Galilee much later than they did around Jerusalem, he says.

What is a kokh tomb?

O’Neill’s new point

Here is the section of Tim O’Neill’s rebuttal of René Salm’s argument that I want to address.

Kokhim of this kind date from as early as 200 BC, but Salm insists that while they were used this early elsewhere in Palestine, they only came to be used in Galilee much later. For this he depends heavily on a single quote from German archaeologist Hans-Peter Kuhnen in his Palästina in griechisch-römischer Zeit (München: C.H. Beck, 1990). There Kuhnen discusses the origin and spread of kokhim in Palestine, appearing under the Hasmoneans and coming to dominate the style of tombs around Jerusalem by the time of Herod. He goes on to say (in Salm’s translation):

Apparently only later, from approximately the middle of the first century after Christ, did people begin to build kokh tombs in other upland regions of Palestine, as seen in Galilee at Huqoq, Meron, H. Serna and H. Usa. (Kuhnen, p. 254, in Salm, p.159)

Salm concludes from this that “kokh tomb use spreads to Galilee only after c. 50 CE” (p. 159), which he feels pushes the dates of the tombs in the Nazareth valley safely away from the period his theory needs to avoid.

But Kuhnen does not say that they did not reach Galilee until around the mid century: he specifies the “mountain regions of Palestine” (“Bergregionen Palästinas” in Kuhnen’s original German) and then gives examples of sites from the very north of Upper Galilee, in the mountains close to the modern Lebanon border and far from the lowland region in which Nazareth sits. Salm chooses to ignore where the illustrative examples Kuhnen are, translates “Bergregionen” as “upland” rather than “mountainous regions” or “mountain regions” (because the low-lying Nazareth region is not remotely “mountainous”) and so decides Kuhnen is saying kokhim did not reach Galilee generally – lower or upper – until “c. 50 CE”. Once again, he twists the scholarship and so shapes the evidence to fit his conclusion.

O’Neill, Tim. 2019. “Jesus Mythicism 5: The Nazareth ‘Myth.’” History for Atheists (blog). October 30, 2019. https://historyforatheists.com/2019/10/nazareth-myth/.

(My bolded highlighting of O’Neill’s words that I will show are “misleading” at best.)

O’Neill has only quoted a snippet of Salm’s relevant text and he has even misrepresented Kuhnen’s original passage. I don’t believe O’Neill did either of these things with deliberate dishonesty. I think he is so convinced that Salm is a fraud for daring to question the mainstream biblical scholars that he has only glanced at both Salm’s and Kuhnen’s words and once he thought he saw enough to “prove” his point he looked no further. It is “human” to see what we expect and want to see. He relies upon Salm’s translation of a critical passage so it appears he has not even consulted Kuhnen’s work for himself.

Response #1 — selective quoting

To his credit Salm quotes the original German of the section he translated so readers can hold him to account. Here is Salm’s complete quotation of Kuhnen:

15 Schiebestollengräber, die unter den Hasmonäern allmählich die älteren Kammergräber ersetzt hatten, beherrschten auch nach der Thronbesteigung des Herodes fast mit Ausschliesslichkeit die Friedhöfe der Stadt… Auch im jüdisch besiedelten Umland Jerusalems entstanden unter Herodes und dessen Erben Gräber des Schiebestollentyps, beispielsweise in Tell en-Nasbe und in el-‘Ezariye (Betanien) … Anscheinend noch später, etwa ab der Mitte des 1.Jh. n.Chr., begann man in den anderen Bergregionen Palästinas Gräber mit Schiebestollen anzulegen, was für Galiläa Huqoq, Meron, H. Sema und H. Usa… belegen.

Somit ist anzunehmen, dass Schiebestollengräber während des 1.Jh. n.Chr. in allen Landesteilen westlich und östlich des Jordan in Mode kamen… (Kuhnen 254–55).

(Salm, 159)

Kokh tombs [Schiebestollengräber], which under the Hasmoneans gradually replaced the older chamber tombs, also dominated the graveyards of [Jerusalem] almost with exclusivity after the accession of Herod… Under Herod and his heirs, the kokhi type of grave also appeared in the Jewish-populated surroundings of Jerusalem, for example, in Tell en-Nasbe and in el-‘Ezriye (Bethany)… Apparently only later, from approximately the middle of the first century after Christ, did people begin to build kokh tombs in other upland regions of Palestine, as seen in Galilee at Huqoq, Meron, H. Sema and H. Usa…

So it is evident that during the first century after Christ kokhim came into fashion in all parts of the land west and east of the Jordan15

(Salm, 159. My bolded highlighting)

O’Neill failed to quote the last sentence Salm translates from Kuhnen which underscores Salm’s reading of Kuhnen’s point: kokh tombs were not known outside the Jerusalem region [i.e. not only in northern Galilee] until around the middle of the first century CE and not before. O’Neill wrongly claimed Salm said the kokh tombs were used everywhere else in Palestine except Galilee in the early first-century thus making his claim look like special pleading. He stopped short of quoting the sentence that flatly contradicted and exposes his misrepresentation of Salm’s argument.

O’Neill further infers that Kuhnen only points to sites in the “very north of Upper Galilee, in the mountains close to the modern Lebanon” that were the late borrowers of kokh tombs. That is flat wrong as we see in Response #2.

Response #2 — ignorance of geography

The four sites listed by Kuhnen are not, contrary to O’Neill’s assertion, “in the mountains close to the modern Lebanon border”. Two of them are; the other two are further south and on lower ground even than Nazareth.

Huqoq — not far from the “Sea” of Galilee, ca 30 metres above sea level

Meron — mountainous region in the far north, ca 600 meters above sea level

Khirbet Sema — mountainous region in the far north, ca 600 meters above sea level

Horvat Usä — further south, approx 8 kilometres east of Acre, about 30 meters above sea level

See citation details below for source of maps

How “mountainous” is Nazareth by comparison? It is approx 350 meters above sea level.

But O’Neill has apparently not taken the time to consult Kuhnen’s book as Salm obviously did. Salm appears to have absorbed and incorporated Kuhnen’s intent from his larger argument as we shall see.

Response #3 — not only Galilee 

We now enter some serious “nitpicking” (“fact-checking”) with a look at the intent and thrust of Kuhnen’s discussion. Salm only quoted the first half of examples Kuhnen provided to illustrate his point about the apparent delay in the spread of kokhim tombs. The other half listed sites south of Galilee — in the region of Samaria.

= was für Galiläa Huqöq, Merön, H. Sema und H. Usä, für Samarien Samaria-Sebaste, ‘Ar’ara, Sīlet ed-Dahr und Wädi Bedän belegen. (Kuhnen, 255)

[only later. . . as seen in] Galilee Huqöq, Merön, H. Sema and H. Usä, for Samaria Samaria-Sebaste, ‘Ar’ara, Sīlet ed-Dahr and Wädi Bedän.

(Kuhnen, 255)

So Kuhnen is saying that the spread of the kokhim tombs spread not only to northern Galilee but to Samaria as well quite some time after they became common around Jerusalem. (For the sake of completeness of comparisons I have added the elevations.)

‘Ar’ara — ca. 150-200 m

Sīlet ed-Dahr / Silat ad-Dhahr — ca 400 m

Wädi Bedän — 200 m

So now the map looks like this and Salm’s point about the kokh tombs appearing in Nazareth well after they were familiar around Jerusalem looks even more reasonable. Continue reading “Tim O’Neill Misreads (Again) the Evidence on Nazareth”