Category Archives: Archaeology

Applies to all works related to archaeology whether in Australia or Egypt or Israel. No distinction between New Testament related archaeology and OT related. Includes Qumran archaeology. Treatment of texts of Dead Sea Scrolls is covered within Biblical Studies.

Religion Prof Watch (Quote Mining a Review on Nazareth)

The following appeared on Religion Prof’s blog today:

I discovered that [Polish scholar Anna] Oracz has written a review of Rene Salm’s denialist take on the village of Nazareth. Her conclusion is summed up well in this sentence: “anybody seeking an honest evaluation of the evidence in “The Myth of Nazareth” will be disappointed.”

I’ve read The Myth of Nazareth and was surprised that anyone would find reasons to conclude it was a dishonest treatment of the archaeological evidence as published in the scholarly literature. It turns out that the bulk of Oracz’s criticism is over René Salm’s daring to criticize the influence of Catholic Church in influencing the interpretations and (frequently poorly supported) claims of archaeologists with obvious Christian sympathies. As for being disappointed, I was disappointed that the review simply skipped over the bulk and substance of Salm’s book and made no comment about any of the evidence it cited to demonstrate its case as well as the flaws in many claims of archaeologists funded by churches and the tourism industry of Israel. The closest Oracz appeared to come to a specific criticism to refer to the chapter titles (none of their content) and to a comment he made on one archaeologist’s grammatical slip:

In discrediting the Christian point of view Salm is resorts to different means. For instance, the author points out a grammatical mistake in Bagatti’s work. After quoting a passage from the Christian archaeologist, he writes:

We note, first of all, the incorrect English grammar. The subject is plural and the two examples are given, but the verb is singular (p. 113).

A more informative comment would have cited Salm’s more critical analysis when he wrote those words:

“Indeed, Bagatti corrects Richmond’s error, but he still mentions the word “Hellenistic” upwards of a dozen times in his Excavations — rarely, however, in connection with identifiable evidence. A careful review of his tome shows that there are astoundingly few artefacts involved:

The only pieces which seem to indicate the Hellenistic period is [sic] the nozzle No. 26 of Fig. 233, and 2 of Fig. 235, a bit short for the ordinary lamps, but not completely unusual.  (pp. 309–10.)

This is a second surprise. We note, first of all, the incorrect English grammar. The subject is plural and two examples are given, but the verb is singular. It is of no moment whether the faulty grammar is due to the author or to the translator, for — since Bagatti nowhere claims Hellenistic structural remains — we here have the remarkable admission that the entire Hellenistic period at Nazareth is represented by only two pieces: an oil lamp nozzle, and number “2 of Fig. 235.” In contradiction to the above statement, a careful review in fact shows that Bagatti alleges other Hellenistic shards in his Excavations.[234] He has evidently ignored these latter instances in his above summation which concludes his book. Certainly, two pieces are precious little upon which to base the existence of a village. Apparently, however, they constituted the sum total of pre-Christian evidence at Nazareth as of 1967, the publication date of Excavations (Italian edition). Such staggering importance is therefore placed on “the only pieces” from Nazareth witnessing to Hellenistic times, that they merit the most careful scrutiny.”

Only in the second last sentence does the reader get a hint of what has been missed in the review:

Nevertheless, in my opinion this book is interesting because its points out the problems which could arise with the interpretation of the archaeological data from the hometown of Jesus.

If we read only McGrath’s comment we would be left with the impression that Salm is some sort of dishonest denialist.

I think a more appropriate word in place of “honest”, given the content of Oracz’s review, would have been “disinterested”. I am not aware that anyone has been able to substantiate any charges of “dishonesty” in Salm’s study.

But anybody seeking an honest [disinterested] evaluation of the evidence in “The Myth of Nazareth” will be disappointed.

Salm certainly approaches his survey of the archaeological publications with a clear interest to be alert to where orthodox biases have led to misleading, sometimes incorrect, claims about the evidence for a village of Nazareth in the Second Temple era.

(Oh, and Oracz even cites Vridar to support her claim that Salm’s book “provoked a lively discussion”. Someone notices us here!)

One more point

One interesting detail in McGrath’s post — he writes of “mythicists”:

All of them have an anti-religious bent, whether it be Communist or modern online atheist opposition to religion in general . . .

Now that is simply not true. Thomas Brodie? Timothy Freke? Peter Gandy? Herman Detering? Paul-Louis Couchoud? Arthur Drews? Tom Harpur? Robert M. Price? Edward van der Kaaij? Francesco Carotta? Even René Salm . . . .  from what I see they have all sought to promote what they consider to be a higher form of spirituality or religiosity than anything that relies upon literalist dogmatism.

(Not that I think there is necessarily anything wrong with an anti-religion bias — so long as one expresses it honestly, with understanding, tolerance, and with the best information one can acquire. You know, like, with the mindset that says “there but for the grace of buddha, krishna, allah, yahweh and elvis go I”)

McGrath, James. 2019. “Mythicism and Diametrically Opposed Ideological Propaganda.” Religion Prof: The Blog of James F. McGrath (blog). July 3, 2019.

Oracz, Anna. 2015. Review of R. Salm, The Myth of Nazaret. The Invented Town of Jesus (Review), by Rene Salm. The Polish Journal of Biblical Research 14: 211–14.


Miscellaneous point — Mount Vesuvius and the argument from silence

I was following up PZ Myers’ interest in a particular claim by Tim O’Neill in a larger criticism of Jesus mythicists —

….. in particular his rebuttal to the “argument from silence”, which claims that Jesus should have been mentioned in many historical sources if he had existed, but he isn’t, so he didn’t. Most telling was his listing of the feeble number of brief mentions of the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in classical records — if the Romans didn’t leave us many documents of this colossal disaster in their backyard, why should we expect them to have mentioned some minor Jewish preacher off in some provincial backwater? He also points out how rare it was for any writings to have survived from 2000 years ago, which lit up a lightbulb floating above my head.

This is exactly the same as the common creationist argument that if evolution were true, we ought to be neck deep in tyrannosaur and stegosaur and diplodocid bones, and because the fossil record is so spotty and incomplete, evolution is false. Never mind that taphonomy shows that finding the bones of a dead animal surviving for even a decade is rare and requires unusual conditions.

It turned out that PZ had unfortunately misread Tim’s point and Tim, even though he joined the commenters at the end of PZ’s post, failed to correct PZ’s misconception. In fact Tim lists five surviving ancient references to the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. What he claims to be the significant silences for his argument is the failure in the ancient record to mention the names of the two major urban areas (Pompeii and Herculaneum) destroyed by the eruption. If those towns were not major political and cultural icons in the ancient world then I would suggest that the failure to find accounts of their burial mentioning them by name is not particularly surprising. It would, indeed, have been surprising if we lacked some reference to the eruption of Vesuvius itself.

A quick reading of Tim’s essay has led to the impression that if the ancient records failed to leave us a trace of such a major event as the eruption of Vesuvius then how much less likely is it that we should find a reference to an obscure preacher, Jesus, in Galilee. That is not the actual argument of Tim, however, so that rhetorical point about the particular argument from silence regarding Jesus does fail.

But the question that does arise is an important one.

What sorts of things did people write in documents, books, etc? Who or what institutions had an interest in preserving what sorts of documents, records, literature, etc?

No doubt chance plays its part. But it is a mistake to assume that what has survived has done so entirely by chance. As with dinosaur fossils, special conditions, not merely chance alone, account for the preservation of some and not others.

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Stonehenge — Coincidences, Assumptions and Theories

Fascinating. Stonehenge’s location may be related to a certain natural landscape feature that quite by chance coincided with the sun’s coordinates for the midsummer solstice.

So I learned last night from a doco that featured the theory of Mike Parker Pearson. Gullies running from the stonehenge in a line pointing to the position of the midsummer solstice sun on the horizon were long assumed to be manmade simply because of that alignment. Elementary, My Dear Watson.

Archaeological excavations on those pathways, however, apparently led to the realization that they were not manmade at all but were a geological structure, presumably gouged out by a retreating glacier long before Stonehenge itself.

(Okay, don’t tell me everyone else knew that and I am the last to catch up!)

If so, then we evidently have an explanation for the location of Stonehenge, way out there in the otherwise middle of nowhere.



The Politics of Archaeology

We laugh now at the idea that the Soviets and Nazis used scientific research to buttress their ideologies but archaeology is still being used to support nationalist ideologies and justify illegal occupations today. From Ynetnews:

Culture Minister Miri Regev has ordered the Israel Antiquities Authority to put plans in motion to undertake far-reaching archeological restoration of many historical Jerusalem sites, in a bid to strengthen Jewish bonds to the ancient city. . . .

“The immense importance of the archeological digs taking place in Jerusalem cannot be questioned. The digs are uncovering the deep roots we have in our land,” Israel Antiquities Authority Chairman Israel Hasson in a letter to Regev.

“The digs’ results provided the appropriate response to anyone wishing to dispute our right to Jerusalem, alongside the fact the sites are a tourist attraction of the highest order and research being conducted there is foremost in the world,” Hasson added.

Regev herself told Yedioth Ahronoth that the desire to strengthen Jewish bonds to the city was at the heart of the initiative. “Even if (Palestinian Authority President) Mahmoud Abbas made an effort to dig hundreds of meters into the ground he will not find a Palestinian coin from 2,000 or 3,000 years ago,” she explained.


I thought the Palestinians were in large part the descendants of the people of the Palestine of 2,000 to 3,000 years ago. See Keith Whitelam’s Rhythms of Time.


The God El (statue here is from Megiddo) was worshiped by Palestinians prior to the rise of the kingdom of Judah and was subsequently adopted by the priests of that Palestinian kingdom.

Exodus, part 2. Habiru, Rameses II and the problem of Pithom

These posts for most part are following the argument of Wright, Elliott and Flesher in “Israel In and Out of Egypt”, a chapter in The Old Testament in Archaeology and History (2017), edited by Jennie Ebelilng, J. Edward Wright, Mark Elliott and Paul V.M. Flesher.

For Part 1 — see Exodus, part 1. Semites in Egypt

In Part 2 we look at the state of Egypt between the fifteenth and thirteenth centuries BCE.

Canaanites enter Egypt

In the previous post we saw that it was Egyptian weakness that allowed Asiatics to enter Egypt, often as unwelcome guests. In the Late Bronze Age, however, it was Egyptian strength that brought Canaanites into their homes.

Egypt was at the height of its power in the fifteenth century, especially under pharaohs Thutmose III and Amenhotep II of the eighteenth dynasty.

Thutmose regularly raided Canaan eventually to establish Egypt’s undisputed hegemony there. The crucial battle was at Megiddo in 1482 BCE.

One of the Canaanite place-names Thutmose had inscribed was Jacob-El. So the biblical narrative is not totally alien to this era.

Canaanites during this era of Egyptian domination became commonplace in Egypt. Canaanites brought tribute to Egypt; many were taken as hostages, especially as children, to be reared in Egyptian values before returning as loyal subjects to their original home cities.

Amenhotep boasted of transporting 89,000 people from Canaan to Egypt.

Perhaps there is an archaeological correlation; the population in the hill country in Canaan was drastically reduced during this period. Amenhotep III (1390-1353 BCE) records that his temple was filled with “male and female slaves, children of the chiefs of foreign lands of the captivity of His Majesty.” (Wright, p. 251)

Pharaoh Akhenaten

Many of us know the story of Amenhotep IV (1353-1336 BCE). He changed his name to Akhenaten in honour of his new god, Aten, the sun-disc. Many consider him the first monotheist. He was certainly a monolatrist, exalting his one god above all others as the only one truly worthy of worship and sole creator of the universe. He removed himself from the old capital dominated as it was by priests and temples for the old order and its chief god, Amen, and established a new city as the capital with new forms of art and architecture, and a new religion. Inscriptions and images of the old god, Amen, were erased from public monuments, temples and tombs throughout Egypt.

With his death his religious reforms also died and soon his own monuments to Aten suffered the same fate as he had inflicted on Amen. The old religion and its priesthood was restored.

Did Akhenaten’s religion influence the Israelites?

Even though Akhenaten’s monotheistic changes took place less than a century before an Israelite exodus could have happened, there is no indication that their religion was influenced by his activities. (Wright, p. 252)

Canaanites call on Egypt for help

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Some of my recent reading . . . .

On an alternative historical Jesus

— Once more from Lena Einhorn, an interview with Mythicist Milwaukee: Who Was Jesus? w/ Lena Einhorn


On a tiresome Christian (or any religious) trope

— From Valerie Tarico: Why It’s Time to Call Bullshit on Prayer Requests


More to discover in Qumran

— From Haarez: New Dead Sea Scrolls Fragments Found in Judean Desert


Identifying those time-wasting tricks

— From Jeremy Sherman @ Alternet: People Who Will Say Anything to Win an Argument: The art of deciding when you’re talking to a brick wall (See how many academics, not just lay folk, you find deploying these tactics)


And something important

— From Will McCants: Donald Trump’s sharp contrast from Obama and Bush on Islam has serious implication (Sam Harris tweeted that he found this piece “obscurantist”. He appears to have forgotten some of the moves towards understanding the issues in his book co-authored with Maajid Nawaz.)


Updated: I forgot to include this one earlier. . . .

Mehdi Hasan in The Guardian: We accept that Russian bombs can provoke a terror backlash. Ours can too


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

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: read more »

Archaeology as Manufacturer and Destroyer of Historical and Contemporary Identities

I’ve been struggling with a virus since returning from my recent o/seas trip and unable to focus on blogging after work hours these past two weeks but a Jerry Coyne blog post has roused me from my lethargy:

The anti-Semitism of UNESCO

The visceral illogic of his post leaves me somewhat dismayed. Does he really believe — is he even aware that he is saying — that present-day cultural monuments of devotion for one religious and historical identity should be replaced by monuments to ancient myths that have not existed in the land for millennia in the interests of an opposing religious and historical identity? Is he really oblivious to the politics of archaeology, to the way archaeology has long been used as an ideological and nationalistic propaganda tool?

Did he even read in full the Unesco draft decision [link is to pdf] that he curiously declares to be “anti-semitic”? (I’m reminded of yesterday’s debate. If something goes against X, X always says it is because it was “rigged”.)

I will probably delete any comment that expresses an view that clearly demonstrates a failure to have actually read the UNESCO document which I copy in full below. I’m interested in informed discussion. read more »

Nazareth, General Overview of the Evidence

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

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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. read more »

Possible Discovery of Mary Magdalene’s House

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

A Catholic priest decided to build a Christian retreat in Galilee and was required by Israeli law to check for remains of archaeological interest first. By pure chance (but we know God was the one behind it, of course) Father Juan Solana then unearthed the first synagogue in that region to be discovered from the first century period. We are not told how it was dated to the first century or whether it was closer to the second century end or the BCE end, or how we know it was a synagogue, but no doubt such details will quickly follow.

Some sceptical scholars till now had argued that the absence of synagogue buildings in the Galilee from the time of Jesus was easily explained by simply understanding that when the gospels tell us of Jesus preaching in synagogues they meant he was preaching in group gatherings in homes and other private dwellings. This discovery finally puts well-deserved dirt on the faces of those sceptics.

And there’s a bowl they discovered, too, 2000 years old so of course we must seriously accept the very real possibility that Jesus himself washed his hands in it. Accordingly it is now a holy relic.

The volunteers on the dig all pray before they start work so we can be confident they have divine guidance in all that they find and interpret.

They’ve even discovered what sounds very much like a veritable Jesus-miracle-working well: read more »

The Dark Resurgence of Biblical History

emergence_Biblical history and biblical archaeology have fought back to a new ascendancy after surviving the double-edged scrutiny of opponents they disparaged as “minimalists”.

For a moment it looked like genuine historical inquiry into ancient Palestine had the potential to displace the paraphrasing the Bible and the tendency to interpret nearly every archaeological artefact through the Bible. “Biblical History” and “Biblical Archaeology” blanket the archaeological remains of Palestine with the tapestry of the Bible’s story of Israel. Naturally this means that the tapestry’s tale appears distorted in places but the primary structure remains clear:

  • Israel emerged in Canaan as a distinctly religious and ethnic identity in the early part of the first millennium
  • After a period of some kind of unity culminating in David’s rule, Israel split into two political entities, Israel in the north and Judah in the south, and continued to dominate the region up until the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities
  • The Jews returned after the Persians “liberated” them from their Babylonian exile and continued as a distinctly “Jewish” civilization up until the time the Romans dispersed them; the religions of Judaism and Christianity emerged from the religious thought and writings of this Second Temple era.

Other groups who make an appearance in this biblical history for most part do so as external conquerors to be overcome or as indigenous corrupters to be left behind.

This kind of history begins with the Bible and archaeological discoveries are significant insofar as they can add some colour or modification to that biblical narrative.

Is this comparable to beginning with the tales of King Arthur’s Camelot and using those to recreate the history of early Britain?

Doubling the excitement

Valid historical investigation should always ensure the horse is positioned in front of the cart.

Start with the “hard” evidence like the carved stones, baked clay and forged metal found in the ground. What can be reconstructed from these? After having done that we can compare the results with literature that first appeared in considerably later strata.

If we find that the literature describes just what we have found and calls it Camelot then that’s exciting. On the other hand, if the literature’s narrative of Camelot is significantly at odds with what we have found then we have double excitement: before us lie two quests — the quest to learn more about the real world history found through the hard evidence in the ground; another quest to understand the origin of the Camelot narrative.

A Fight for history

Twenty to thirty years ago a few scholars opened up the first challenges to the dominance of “Biblical history” in Biblical studies. Here is how one of those scholars, Keith Whitelam, looking back described what happened in the wake of the publication in 1987 of The Emergence of Early Israel in Historical Perspective by Robert Coote and himself: read more »

The Rhythms of Palestine’s History

whitelamThe reality of Palestine’s long history from the Bronze Age to the present has been lost behind the myths of the Bible.

Think of Palestine’s past and images of Israel displacing the Canaanites from around 1200 BCE, establishing a united kingdom, even an empire, under King David and then his son Solomon slip easily into our minds. We think of the divided kingdom: apostate Israel in the north ruled from Samaria and Judah in the south with its Jerusalem temple. We know these kingdoms were removed by the Assyrians and Babylonians by around 600 BCE and that the Jews returned once again after a period of captivity.

And they re-returned to “the land of their fathers” to “re-establish the Jewish State” as proclaimed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence of 1948. The historical right of the Jews to the land of Palestine remains evident today to possibly most Christians and anyone taught this historical outline.

Archaeological-Historical Periods in Palestine

  • Early Bronze Age 3150-2000 BCE
  • Middle Bronze Age 2000-1550 BCE
  • Late Bronze Age 1550-1200 BCE
  • Iron Age 1200-587 BCE
  • Persian 538-332 BCE
  • Hellenistic 332-63 BCE
  • Roman 63 BCE – 330 CE
  • Byzantine eras 330-636 CE
  • Early Caliphates 636-661 CE
  • Umayyad, Abbasid, Fatimid, Seljug 661-1098 CE
  • Crusaders 1099-1291 CE
  • Ayyubid and Mamluk 1187-1517 CE
  • Ottomans 1517-1917 CE
  • British 1920-1948 CE
  • Israeli 1948 – present

The question we might ask, then, is what is the history of the Palestinians? The biblical narrative leaves them no room for a history in the land. Are they late trespassers? Are they rootless Arabs with no genuine attachment to any land in particular?

Until his retirement Keith Whitelam was Professor and Head of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Stirling and Professor and Head of the Department of Biblical Studies at the University of Sheffield. His recent publication, Rhythms of Time: Reconnecting Palestine’s Past, surveys the archaeological evidence for the history of Palestine from the Bronze Ages through to the end of the Iron Ages and compares what he sees with the Palestine from more recent times according to travelers’ reports and current geo-political maneuverings.

He concludes that our Western view of Palestine’s history has been determined by the biblical narrative and conflicts with the archaeological evidence before us.

The past matters because it continues to flow into the present. However, Palestine has been stripped of much of its history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is as though Palestine only came into being with the British Mandate (1920-48) and came to an end with the declaration of the modern state of Israel (1948). The growth of towns, the shift in villages, or the population movements of three millennia before have become divorced from this ‘modern’ Palestine. (Kindle Locations 42-46).

Whereas others who have been gaining their independence from imperial domination ever since the nineteenth century and especially since World War 2 have been able to construct their own national histories as an essential part of their national identities, read more »

A New Gospel Discovery (For Real, this time!)

newgospelH/T Archeologia Biblica e Storia della Chiesa, blog of Antonio Lombatti, Scoperto un nuovo vangelo in Copto = A New Gospel in Coptic Discovered . . . 

Newfound ‘Gospel of the Lots of Mary’ Discovered in Ancient Text (article by Owen Jarus in Live Science)

The manuscript is 1500 years old. Reportedly discovered by Anne Marie Luijendijk, a professor of religion at Princeton University.  It’s opening lines:

“The Gospel of the lots of Mary, the mother of the Lord Jesus Christ, she to whom Gabriel the Archangel brought the good news. He who will go forward with his whole heart will obtain what he seeks. Only do not be of two minds.”

A key word there is “lots”. I’ll explain.

The book is very small. It can fit easily in the palm of one’s hand. It appears to have been used in ways not unlike the way some people read their daily horoscopes:

A person seeking an answer to a question could have sought out the owner of this book, asked a question, and gone through a process that would randomly select one of the 37 oracles to help find a solution to the person’s problem. The owner of the book could have acted as a diviner, helping to interpret the written oracles, [Luijendijk] said.

It would apparently be opened up at random (or by spiritual guidance?) for the right “lot” to be found to advise the reader or inquirer.

Sample oracles:  read more »