Jesus Mythicists Trying to Refute Nazareth: The Case of René Salm

Some Jesus mythicists (those who claim there was no historical Jesus who founded the Christian religion in the early first century CE) have attempted to argue that the village of Nazareth is a myth, by which they mean that it never existed and did not exist during the time Jesus is usually thought to have lived. This claim is important for the mythicist’s agenda that the historical Jesus is a fictional character; New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman explains that “The logic of this argument, which is sometimes advanced with considerable vehemence and force, appears to be that if Christians made up Jesus’s hometown, they probably made him up as well” (1).

Salm’s Nazareth Contention and Archaeology

There are obvious reasons why mythicists want to get rid of the Nazareth element of the story in Jesus. As we noted in an earlier article, this is because Nazareth contains strong elements suggesting historicity in the gospels rather than whole cloth fiction writing.

Skepticism over Nazareth was given some force in the work of an American music teacher called René Salm who authored The Myth of Nazareth: The Invented Town of Jesus (2008). If Salm’s hypothesis is correct, then it would, the mythicist thinks, provide support for the hypothesis that Jesus is also an invented figure. If the village from which he came is a fictional creation, then why can’t Jesus also be? Published by the American Atheist Press (as we noted earlier, the mythicists are almost always atheist), Salm’s book argues that the evidence for the existence of Nazareth at the time of Jesus is unconvincing. He argues that Nazareth was inhabited before the Assyrian Conquest, only to then be abandoned for centuries before once again being settled “towards the end of the first century of our era, following the momentous cataclysm of the First Jewish War” (2). If his hypothesis is correct, Nazareth indeed existed, but it existed way before Jesus’ traditional date of birth (around 4 BCE) and only after Jesus’ traditional date of ministry that ended around 30 CE. Salm’s hypothesis has, despite its many flaws, been popular within the atheist community in which his views are widely cited and accepted.

But the atheist community is not the scholarly community and Salm’s book has made no inroads into contemporary scholarship at all. Contrary to Salm’s views, archaeologists and historians agree, based on extensive archaeological excavations, that the village of Nazareth was consistently inhabited in the Hellenic, Hasmonean, and Early Roman Periods (3). In other words, the village was, according to archaeologist Yardenna Alexandre of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “inhabited in the Iron Age (tenth–eighth centuries BCE) and the late Hellenistic to Early Roman periods (late second century BCE to early or mid-second century CE)” (4). Archaeologists who have excavated the site discovered a wealth of items from Nazareth dating to the time of Jesus. These include homes, courtyards, coins, pits, tombs, sherds, pottery, bowls, jugs, jars, vessels, lids, lamps, and more.

Salm’s Attempt to Rescue the Mythicist Hypothesis

Salm has tried to argue with these discoveries, which has led to at least one glaring inconsistency worth noting in his hypothesis. He argues that Nazareth, when it eventually came into existence (after 70 CE), would have been located on the valley floor less than a kilometer from the hillside of the traditional site. He then claims that archaeologists have never dug at that site. But if this is the case, then one must wonder how Salm could assert that Nazareth did not exist during the time of Jesus if no-one has dug at the site he allegedly claims the village was located. As Bart Ehrman points out,

“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?  This is a major flaw: using forceful rhetoric, almost to the point of indiscretion, Salm insists that anyone who thinks that Nazareth exists has to argue “against the available material evidence.”  But what material evidence can there be, if the site where the evidence would exist has never been excavated?  And what evidence, exactly, is being argued against, if none has been turned up?” (5).

Salm has objected to the views of experts elsewhere; for example, he claims that some of the bow-shaped lamps discovered in Nazareth aren’t as early as archaeologists say they are. He attempts to place these lamps in the Middle Roman, or post-70 CE, period. However, contrary to Salm’s views, an evaluation of these items has put their first appearance “after the reign of Herod” (6), and therefore in the early first century during the time of Jesus.

But Salm attempts to wiggle out of this by dating the lamps to 25 CE. This date is alleged because, speculates Salm, it would have taken a few years for the lamp to spread to the rural villages. But Salm’s explanation strikes one as desperate; he does not, for instance, explain why it would take a whole twenty-five years for a common lamp, which was easy to make, to spread when it only takes a few days to walk to the rural villages anyway.

Salm then turns his attention to tombs, or kokhim (a Jewish form of rock-hewn chamber tombs with long, narrow burial shafts radiating from a central nave) that were found at Nazareth. Salm argues that while these tombs were used at early as 200 BCE in Palestine, they only came to be used in Galilee much later. He quotes one German archaeologist Hans-Peter Kuhnen who writes about the origin and spread of kokhim in Palestine. Salm quotes Kuhnen saying that “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” (7). Salm reads into this quote Kuhnen claiming that there were no kokhim in Nazareth at the time of Jesus; only after 50 CE, alleges Salm, did the kokhim spread to Galilee. But nowhere is Kuhnen saying that the kokhim did not reach Galilee until the mid-first century; rather, Kuhnen specifies the “mountain regions of Palestine” and then gives examples of mountainous sites from the north of Upper Galilee close to the modern Lebanon border. This location cited is far from the lowland region in which Nazareth is located, so Kuhnen is not denying that these tombs were in Nazareth.

Another problem the kokhim present Salm is that they are expensive tombs that we would not expect to find until a settlement had become well-established and built up a higher social echelon wealthy enough to commission their construction. So the kokhim, even on Salm’s dating, imply an earlier period of settlement that pre-dates their establishment. So, even if one granted Salm the date of 50 CE for the establishment in Nazareth, this implies settlement in Nazareth existing much earlier and thus during the time of Jesus.

Salm has, in the face of an avalanche of recent evidence of ceramic shards from the “Nazareth Farm”, criticized the “opinion(s)” of archaeologists who publish in peer-reviewed journals. He claims that the “NVF evidence for Nazareth in the time of Jesus rests on no more than Y. Rapuano’s opinion” (8). But one must wonder at Salm’s humility. Is he aware that he is matching himself against a trained expert in Rapuano, who is a trained archaeologist who has visited the site, excavated there and elsewhere, and published peer-reviewed reports? Who should we trust to present us with accurate information on this subject? Should we trust a music teacher and armchair theorist (who has visited Nazareth only once as a tourist) or a trained archaeologist who excavates and analyzing artifacts for a living? Whichever way we answer this question, it remains a fact that the “opinion” of trained scholars is important and valuable. It is through opinion that scholarship itself progresses: scholars evaluate data, present their findings, and reflect on their findings by presenting their opinions in journals that open their hypotheses to falsification. It certainly does not look good for Salm to accuse a trained scholar of mere opinion.

Sale Accuses Scholars of Conspiracies

In more recent times and in response to even more evidence (of coins) coming from Nazareth, Salm has accused archaeologists of fraud and conspiracy. He is skeptical of the 165 coins found by Yardena Alexandre at a site at Mary’s Well in Nazareth which included Hellenistic, Hasmonaean, and Early Roman coins. The reason for the skepticism? Because in 2006, Alexandre shared with Salm a pre-publication copy of her official Israeli Antiquities Authority report on the excavation at Mary’s Well. But Salm contends that in this copy, Alexandre made no reference to the 165 coins or to the coins from Hellenistic or Hasmonaean times. So, why is she claiming that she found 165 coins in her final report when she didn’t mention them to him in her pre-publication copy? This, moans Salm, is proof of conspiracy.

But Salm conveniently fails to mention a few details that undermine his charge of conspiracy. First, he ignores that the pre-publication copy he refers to was simply a summary rather than the full report. Second, he ignores the rather important detail that the pre-publication copy did, in fact, refer to “worn coins”, which are the same coins Alexandre mentions in her final report. Alexandre has since completed a fine analysis of these coins in a chapter in her Mary’s Well, Nazareth. The Late Hellenistic to the Ottoman Periods (2012) report. In response, Salm published a second book titled NazarethGate: Quack Archaeology, Holy Hoaxes and the Invented Town of Jesus (2015) that claims to expose a conspiracy involving various authorities from the likes of the Israeli Antiquities Authority to archaeologists like Rapuano and Alexandre, and New Testament scholars like Bart Ehrman, and more. Essentially, anyone who disagrees with him and accepts the uncontroversial fact that Nazareth existed during the time of Jesus is a part of this web of conspiracy.

Salm also tries to dismiss their dating of the coins. After receiving a photo of the coins from Israeli Antiquities Authority, Salm dismisses them as “far too worn and pitted to ascertain even the crudest design feature. These bronze coins could be from any era” (9). Here we again have the scenario of an amateur dismissing the work of trained professionals in the area of numismatics (the study of coins). One is essentially required by Salm, an armchair theorist who has only stared at a photograph, to dismiss the interpretation of a well-known expert in the coins of this period who is not only trained in this field but has also held the very items in his hands taking into account weight, size, and features not accessible through a photograph. As Tim O’Niell has remarked, we are to conclude that “(a) Berman [the numismatist who studied these coins] is totally incompetent, (b) Berman is another fraud and part of the vast “NazarethGate” conspiracy or (c) Salm is just biased, unreliable, inexpert and wrong. That is not a difficult choice to make” (10).

In 2009, more evidence came to light and this time it was the discovery of a house in Nazareth dating to the early first century (11). Archaeologists had again made a find that did not fit Salm’s hypothesis, who then attempted to dismiss the dating of the structure and then refused to accept that it was a house, but rather a “winemaking installation” (12).

But this discovery was almost certainly of a domestic home: the structure, which archaeologists agree dates to the first century, conforms to the plan of a courtyard house, which is just one of the typical architectural forms of Early Roman-period settlements in the Galilee (13). One would think that if this house was a winemaking installation, the experts would have known before anyone else. But another first-century house was excavated by British archaeologist Ken Dark which had many of its original features still intact (largely with credit to later preservation over the centuries) such as doors, stairways, rooms, and windows. The walls, for example, conformed to the plan of a courtyard house and other associated finds, including cooking items, pottery, and a spindle whorl, indicated domestic occupation. These finds prove that Nazareth was occupied in the early first century and during the time of Jesus.

It is for these various reasons that Salm’s hypothesis that Nazareth did not exist during the time of Jesus has not been accepted by any scholars. Archaeologists Pfann and Rapuano conclude that,

“Salm’s personal evaluation of the pottery, which he rehearses from his book The Nazareth Myth, reveals his lack of expertise in the area as well as his lack of serious research in the sources. By ignoring or dismissing solid ceramic, numismatic and literary evidence for Nazareth’s existence during the Late Hellenistic and Early Roman period, it would appear that the analysis which René Salm includes in his review, and his recent book must, in itself, be relegated to the realm of ‘myth’” (14).

Ken Dark sums up that,

“To conclude: despite initial appearances this is not a well-informed study and ignores much evidence and important published work of direct relevance. The basic premise is faulty, and Salm’s reasoning is often weak and shaped by his preconceptions. Overall, his central argument is archaeologically unsupportable” (15)

References

  1. Ehrman, Bart. 2015. Did Nazareth Exist? Available.
  2. Salm, Rene. 2007. The Myth of Nazareth. American Atheist Press. p. 207
  3. Vlaminck, Benedict. 1900. A Report of the Recent Excavations and Explorations Conducted at the Sanctuary of Nazareth. Washington, D.C.; Viaud, Prosper. 1910. Nazareth et ses deux églises de l’Annonciation et de Saint-Joseph d’après les fouilles; Bagatti, Bellarmino. 1969. Excavations in Nazareth I: From the Beginning till the XII Century (SBF Collectio Maior 17). Jerusalem; Bagatti, Bellarmino. 2002. Excavations in Nazareth II: From the 12th Century until Today (SBF CollectioMaior 17). Jerusalem.
  4. Alexandre, Yardenna. 2020. “The Settlement History of Nazareth in the Iron Age and Early Roman Period.” Atiqot 98:25-92.
  5. Ehrman, Bart. 2012. Rene Salm at the Society of Biblical Literature Meeting. Available.
  6. Sussman, Varda. 1985 “Lighting the Way through History: The Evolution of Ancient Oil Lamps.” Biblical Archaeology Review p. 42-56.
  7. Salm, Rene. 2007. Ibid. p. 159,
  8. Salm, Rene. n.d. Scandal 5: The Nazareth Village Farm. Available.
  9. Salm, Rene. 2014. Nazarethgate: Quack Archeology, Holy Hoaxes, and the Invented Town of Jesus. American Atheist Press. p. 298
  10. O’Niell, Tim. 2019. Jesus Mythicism 5: The Nazareth “Myth”. Available.
  11. The Guardian. 2009. Nazareth dwelling discovery may shed light on boyhood of Jesus. Available; The Times of Israel. 2020. LISTEN: What do we know about Nazareth in Jesus’ time? An archaeologist explains. Available; Live Science. 2020. Biblical story of Jesus possibly explained by excavations in his hometown of Nazareth. Available.
  12. Dark, Ken. 2015. “Has Jesus’ Nazareth house been found?” Biblical Archaeology Review 41(2):54-72. p. 58.
  13. Dark, Ken. 2015. Ibid. p. 57.
  14. Pfann, Stephen., and Rapuano, Yehudah. 2008. “On the Nazareth village farm report: a reply to Salm.” Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society 26:105-108.
  15. Quoted by Bart Ehrman. 2012. Rene Salm at the SBL (2). Available.

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