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Did Nazareth Exist?

One question I repeatedly get asked is about my opinion on whether the town of Nazareth actually existed.  I was puzzled when I started getting emails on this, some years ago now.  What I came to realize is that mythicists (i.e., those who think that there never was a man Jesus; he was invented, a “myth”) commonly argue that Nazareth (like Jesus) was completely made up.   I still get the emails today – a couple within the past month.   I tried to deal with this issue at length in my book Did Jesus Exist?   But since I get asked the question still, apparently by people who haven’t read my book (!) – I thought I would repeat some of what I say there.  Here is an excerpt on the issue:

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One supposedly legendary feature of the Gospels commonly discussed by mythicists is that the alleged hometown of Jesus, Nazareth did not exist but is itself a myth.  The logic of this argument, which is sometimes advanced with considerable vehemence and force, appears to be that if Christians made up Jesus’ hometown, they probably made him up as well.   I could dispose of this argument fairly easily by pointing out that it is irrelevant.  If Jesus existed, as the evidence suggests, but Nazareth did not, as this assertion claims, then he merely came from somewhere else.    Whether Barack Obama was born in the U.S. or not (for what it is worth, he was) is irrelevant to the question of whether he was born.

Since, however, this argument is so widely favored among mythicists, I want to give it a further look and deeper exploration.   The most recent critic to dispute the existence of Nazareth is René Salm, who has devoted an entire book to the question, called The Myth of Nazareth.   Salm sees this issue as highly significant and relevant to the question of the historicity of Jesus: “Upon that determination [i.e., the existence of Nazareth] depends a great deal, perhaps even the entire edifice of Christendom.”  Like so many mythicists before him, Salm emphasizes what scholars have long known:  Nazareth is never mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, in the writings of Josephus, or in the Talmud.  It first shows up in the Gospels.  Salm is also impressed by the fact that the early generations of Christians did not seek out the place, but rather ignored it and seemed not to know where it was (this is actually hard to show; how would we know this about “every” early Christian, unless all of them left us writings and told us everything they knew and did?).

Salm’s basic argument is that Nazareth did exist in more ancient times and through the Bronze Age.   But then there was a hiatus.  It ceased to exist and did not exist in Jesus’ day.  Based on archaeological evidence, especially the tombs found in the area, Salm claims that the town came to be re-inhabited sometime between the two Jewish revolts (i.e., between 70 CE and 132 CE), as Jews who resettled following the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans relocated in northern climes.

Salm himself is not an archaeologist: he is not trained in the highly technical field of archaeology and gives no indication that he has even ever been on an archaeological dig.  He certainly never has worked at the site of Nazareth.  Still, he bases almost his entire case on archaeological reports about the town of Nazareth.   In particular he is impressed by the fact that the kind of rock-cut tombs that have been uncovered there – called kokh tombs, otherwise known as locula tombs – were not in use in Galilee the middle of the first century and thus do not date to the days of Jesus.  And so the town did not exist then.

This is a highly problematic claim, to start with.  It is hard to understand why tombs in Nazareth that can be dated to the days after Jesus indicate that there was no town there during the days of Jesus.  That is to say, just because later habitation can be established in Nazareth, how does that show that the town was not inhabited earlier?  Moreover, Salm fails to stress one of the most important points about this special kind of rock-cut tombs: they were expensive to make, and only the most wealthy of families could afford them.   There is nothing in any of our records to suggest that Nazareth had any wealthy families in the days of Jesus.  And so no one in town would have been able to purchase a kokh tomb.  So what does the fact that none were found from the days of Jesus indicate?  Precisely nothing.  The tombs that poor people used in Palestine were shallow graves, not built into rock, like kokh tombs.  These poor-person graves almost never survive for archaeologists to find.

I should also point out that these kokh tombs from later times were discovered on the hillside of the traditional site of Nazareth.  Salm, however, claims  that the hillside would have been uninhabitable in Jesus’ day, so that, in his opinion, the village that eventually came into existence (in the years after 70 CE) would have been located on the valley floor, less than a kilometer away.  He also points out that archaeologists have never dug at that site.

This view creates insurmountable problems for his 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?   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?

There is an even bigger problem however.  There are numerous compelling pieces of archaeological evidence that in fact Nazareth did exist in Jesus’ day, and that like other villages and towns in that part of Galilee, it was built on the hillside, near where the later rock-cut kokh tombs were built.   For one thing, archaeologists have excavated a farm connected with the village, and it dates to the time of Jesus.  Salm disputes the finding of the archaeologists who did the excavation (it needs to be remembered, he himself is not an archaeologist but is simply basing his views on what the real archaeologists – all of whom disagree with him — have to say).   For one thing, when archaeologist Yardena Alexandre indicated that 165 coins were found in this excavation, she specified in the report that some of them were late, from the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries.   This suits Salm’s purposes just fine.  But as it turns out, there were among the coins some that date to the Hellenistic, Hasmonean, and early Roman period, that is, the days of Jesus.  Salm objected that this was not in Alexandre’s report, but Alexandre has verbally confirmed (to me personally) that in fact it is the case: there were coins in the collection that date to the time prior to the Jewish uprising.

Salm also claims that the pottery found on the site that is dated to the time of Jesus is not really from this period, even though he is not an expert on pottery.  Two archaeologists who reply to Salm’s protestations say the following:  “Salm’s personal evaluation of the pottery … reveals his lack of expertise in the area as well as his lack of serious research in the sources.”   They go on to state: “By ignoring or dismissing solid ceramic, numismatic [that is, coins], and literary evidence for Nazareth’s existence during the Late Hellenisitic 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.’”

Another archaeologist who specializes in Galilee, Ken Dark, the Director of the Nazareth Archaeological Project, gave a thoroughly negative review of Salm’s book, noting, among other things, that “there is no hint that Salm has qualifications – nor any fieldwork experience – in archaeology.”  Dark shows that Salm has misunderstood both the hydrology (how the water systems worked) and the topography (the lay out) of Nazareth, and points out that the town could well have been located on the hill slopes, just as other nearby towns were, such as Khirbet Kana.  His concluding remarks are damning: “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.”

But there is more.   As it turns out, another discovery was made in ancient Nazareth, a year after Salm’s book appeared.   It is a house that dates to the days of Jesus.   Again the principal archaeologist was Yardena Alexandre, the excavations director at the Israel Antiquity Authority, whom I again wrote.   She has confirmed the news report.   The house is located on the hill slopes.   Pottery remains connected to the house range from roughly 100 BCE to 100 CE (i.e., the days of Jesus).  There is nothing in the house to suggest that the persons inhabiting it over this time had any wealth: there is no glass and no imported products.  The vessels are made of clay and chalk.

The AP story concludes that “the dwelling and older discoveries of nearby tombs in burial caves suggest that Nazareth was an out-of the-way hamlet of around 50 houses on a patch of about four acres… populated by Jews of modest means.”   No wonder this place is never mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, Josephus, or the Talmud.   It was far too small, poor, and insignificant.  Most people had never heard of it and those who had heard didn’t care.   Even though it existed, this is not the place someone would make up as the hometown of the messiah.  Jesus really came from there, as attested in multiple sources.

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More on the Name “Nazareth”
More on Greek Numerals

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Comments

  1. Jana  March 1, 2015

    sorry I’m late and need to catch up/no internet again … someone thinks Jesus’s house did: (they are dusting for fingerprints now .. kindly joking)
    http://www.livescience.com/49997-jesus-house-possibly-found-nazareth.html

  2. Wilusa  March 1, 2015

    I know there’s been confusion about the words “Nazareth” and “Nazarite.” Are some of the mythicists claiming people expected the Messiah to be a “Nazarite” (whether or not anyone actually did), and invented a place name that would appear to be related to it?

  3. Wilusa  March 1, 2015

    Can’t resist adding this thought! If the existence or nonexistence of “Nazareth” proves nothing, one way or the other, as to whether a man called “Jesus of Nazareth” really existed, it’s equally true that the existence or nonexistence of “Arimathea” proves nothing, one way or the other, as to whether a man called “Joseph of Arimathea” really existed.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2015

      The difference would be whether Nazareth means anything (no), and whether Arimathea means anything (yes)

      • Wilusa  March 3, 2015

        As far as I know, there’s still just *speculation* about the origin of the word “Arimathea”…the same as with “Iscariot.” And “Nazareth” could have been coined to suggest a link with “Nazarite” (haven’t read your next post yet!).

        I don’t seriously doubt that Jesus came from Nazareth. But…a link with Bethlehem (a real place, of course) was “made up” because some of his followers thought the Messiah had to be born there. So it seems *possible* – at least to me – that a link of some sort with “Nazarite” could have been “made up” too.

        Another thought: Are archaeologists sure the “Nazareth” they know of was called by that name in Jesus’s day? (Probably should reread all of this post, even before going on to your next one…)

        • Bart
          Bart  March 4, 2015

          Yeah, they’re pretty sure.

          I’m not aware of much speculation on Arimathea, apart from my own musings….

  4. Jim  March 1, 2015

    Larry Hurtado (on his blog) noted Ken Dark’s most recent BAR publication on this: Ken Dark, “Has Jesus’ Nazareth House Been Found?” Biblical Archaeology Review 41, no. 2 (2015): 54-63, 72.

    I don’t have access to BAR. Would you consider “forcing” 🙂 one of your grad students to post a summary of this article on your blog? If any of us ever passes through town, we promise to take the student out to the other kind of bar for beer.

  5. MikeyS  March 1, 2015

    Today, if you are asked where you are from, you will reply so and so. If its a tiny hamlet or village then they may further say they have never heard of the place and you will reply, oh its near X where X is a larger place like a town where most will say ah, now I know! Postal codes today reflect that as well. Maybe to help the postman? Boston is actually a small town in Lincolnshire, UK! 😉

    My point is why would Jesus be referred to as someone from somewhere that few if anyone knew where that was? Jesus of Galilee would surely be more appropriate or where the nearest biggish town was? Wasn’t the early folowers of Jesus called ‘Nazerenes’? Or was that a later development?

    Surely any archeologist would want to do a dig where God was born to try and unearth some REAL evidence that he existed or the place existed? Forget the valley of the Kings in Egypt, Jesus was KING of the Jews and much more interesting but then he wouldn’t have had a gold mask on his face or buried in a sealed up tomb somewhere. Or maybe he was and why nobody found the body! 😉

    I may post on another aspect of all this sometime and that is IF the whole purpose was to get people across the world to worship the unique one and only Creator God, then does it make any difference whether Jesus was real or not or Nazareth a real place or not? Historically of course, theologically as you always point out Bart, no it doesn’t.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2015

      The normal thought is that they were called Nazarenes because they followed a person from Nazareth.

  6. stephena  March 1, 2015

    Great post. Though you understand that this argument (“just because it isn’t mentioned doesn’t mean it didn’t exist/happen”) is the same one Christian apologists use to excuse multiple and contradictory versions of different stories in the “synoptics.” They claim (perhaps with some validity?) that just because one version or event wasn’t mentioned by a writer – or told in a different way, such as including different people at the resurrection – doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen ALONG WITH other versions.

    Also, someone posted on facebook the point that the author of “Matthew” seems to dream up the word “Nazarene” from a non-existent prophecy in the Hebrew Bible (“”…and came and lived in a city called Nazareth. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets: “He shall be called a Nazarene.” Matthew 2:23.)

    Wouldn’t this be evidence of Nazareth being an imaginary place, given that Matthew has made up other events in order to “fulfill” prophesies – which were interpreted as no such thing by Jews at the time?

    What about these two points?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2015

      The problem is that there the “prophecy” that Matthew cites does not exist!

      • EMR  April 25, 2015

        Well, the writer of Matthew was using a prophecy to Samson and applying it to his Messiah, very dishonest, like many other of the prophecies in the New Testament.

  7. doug  March 1, 2015

    As an atheist humanist, I find it sad to see some atheists resorting to the “throw all the mud you can and hope some of it sticks” tactic of making unfounded claims such as Nazareth having not existed in Jesus’ time.

  8. Adam0685  March 1, 2015

    Do you think Jesus was born in Nazareth? A few weeks ago I went to both Bethlehem and Nazareth. I always thought Jesus was born in Nazareth but most there focused on Bethlehem as Jesus’s birth place. Is there stong evidence for either?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2015

      Yes, I think so. I’ll deal with your question — it’s a good one — in a post in the next day or two.

  9. Dan  March 1, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Is there any information, outside of the bible, on when this inhabited area became large enough to be noted in records or on a map and called Nazereth?

    Also, I believe some have argued that Jesus was called a Nazirite and (from wikipedia) “Nazirite” (Ναζιραιος) is only one letter off from “Nazorean” (Ναζωραιος) in Greek. Could the later authors of the Gospels have confused these two terms?

    Dan

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2015

      It’s possible, but they are etymologically unrelated.

      Nazareth does start to appear in Christian sources outside the Bible, but I’m not sure when it shows up in non-Christian sources.

  10. Servelan  March 2, 2015

    Do you include or reference the gospel of the Nazarenes in any of your books, or, given its somewhat ephemeral nature, is it even possible to use as a reference? (I’d look this up myself as I have some of your books but they’re kind of…buried…in a bookshelf somewhere)

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2015

      I made a fresh translation of it in my book, done with my colleague Zlatko Plese, Apocryphal Gospels; the translation is replicated (with an introduction) in our popular version, called The Other Gospels.

  11. Goat
    Goat  March 2, 2015

    Being a native North Carolinian, one of my favorite lines is Matthew 26:73 – “After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them, for your accent gives you away.”

  12. shakespeare66  March 2, 2015

    Well, archeology has proven to answer that mystery. It is no longer a mystery, but a fact.

  13. webattorney  March 2, 2015

    Off topic, CNN”s “Finding Jesus” program revealed nothing new. It just seemed to prove that Shroud of Turn is a fake. I can’t believe CNN would just re-hash the same old stuff. What did you think of the program that aired on March 1, 2015?

  14. oatz01  March 2, 2015

    Off topic, we had a scholar from our local theology grad school give a sermon about Mark recently. He posited that Mark 9:1 (kingdom of God coming with power) was fulfilled in the next passages dealing with the transfiguration. I know you don’t hold that view but do you find it even plausible? Maybe a post topic one of these days.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2015

      Yes, that’s a standard interpretation, and it may well be what Mark himself wanted his readers to think. But it’s a little hard to see how Jesus’ being transfigured is the same thing as “the Kingdom of God having come in power”!

  15. RonaldTaska  March 2, 2015

    Once again your work gets criticized by both sides: The mythicists on the one hand and the fundamentalists on the other hand. Although I respect your work so much, I have no idea how you put up with this ….

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2015

      I pretend to have a thick skin. (Which, alas, I do not have.)

  16. hgb55  March 2, 2015

    Rene Salm says on his web site that his new book about the Nazareth myth and hoax will be published soon by American Atheist Press.

    The title of the book is “NazarethGate: Quack Archeoloogy, Holy Hoaxes and the Invented Town of Jesus. Salm says this about the new book: “This sequel to THE MYTH OF NAZARETH shows that recent “evidence” for the town’s existence at the turn of the era is as contrived as may be Jesus himself. Chapters include an examination of the 1962 forgery of the Caesarea Inscription (the earliest ‘evidence’ for Nazareth); the bogus ‘house from the time of Jesus’ (which made global headlines just before Christmas, 2009); recent deceptive (and false) claims regarding ‘Hellenistic’ coins at Mary’s Well; and the persistent failure to even acknowledge the existence of several Roman-era tombs under the ‘House of Mary’ (aka, the Church of the Annunciation).”

    American Atheist Press, the publisher, is run by Jesus Mythicist Frank Zindler, who promotes a number of fringe and exotic arguments and interpretations about ancient history, religions and the nature of evidence and reasoning. What’s strange is that Zindler tells me Jesus and other bible characters and towns like Paul, Peter, Bethany and Nazareth are fictions and myths but twice he told me that Bigfoot could very much be a novel primate roaming across North America since there are plenty of places for such creatures to hide.

  17. Jacobus  March 2, 2015

    Prof. Ehrman, where can one find a dependable overview of the archaeological digs done in around Nazareth as well as some summary and synthesis of what Nazareth looked like during the time of Jesus? I see for instance in the gospels of Matthew and Luke that Nazareth is described as a “city” (polis) (alongside with Capernaum etc.). In the Gospel of Mark the only word linked to Nazareth is “hometown” (patris) in the sense of Jesus’ hometown. The technical nature of the term makes me think that Nazareth is seen in Mark as Jesus’ birth town.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2015

      You might start with Jonathan Reed’s book on archaeology and the historical Jesus.

      • Jacobus  March 3, 2015

        Anything else than Jonathan Reed’s? It seems there is very little.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 4, 2015

          I cite the archaeology reports in my discussion in my book; he probably does too. Those would be the best places to turn.

  18. Jason  March 3, 2015

    Somewhat adjacent to the subject, had you ever heard the hypothesis that the Gospel Writers all misunderstood Jesus to be a Nazareen when he was actually a Resident of Bethlehem or some other out of the way cow-town who had taken the vows of a Nazerite? Does that make sense in the context of Greek-literate Jewish and early Christian authors?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2015

      Yes, I deal with that in today’s post. The problem is that the two words are not related etymologically.

  19. Jim-Prup-Benton  March 3, 2015

    It is not just the mythicists who raise doubts. Charles Guignebert was as strong a combatant of their nonsense as you were — and even used the name for them at least in his JESUS, published in the Thirties of the last century. (This is the only book of his I have or have read, but he states that he spent most of his THE PROBLEM OF JESUS — published in 1914 — on their claims and their falsity. I am checking the old book sellers on the net to see if I can find an affordable copy in English.)

    Yet Guignebert, while conceding that Nazareth probably existed at the time of Jesus, has questions about whether it is, in fact, the source of the word “Nazarene.” Some of his arguments depend on the Greek or Aramaic, and thus leave me out. (I am a dilettante and an autodidact, but most relevant to some of my arguments is that I am regrettably, but — at 68 — incurably monolingual. Sometimes I can slightly overcome this by comparing the whole group of translations at Bible Gateway — assuming that if there is a question of the Greek some will choose one rendering and some the other.) These arguments are mostly on page 83 of the English translation, but he has others, mostly that the term “Nazarene” seems to be used with more ‘weight’ than it would receive were it merely to mean “someone who comes from the obscure and minor village of Nazareth.” He also considers it highly significant that Paul never uses the term.

    I have no idea what Guignebert’s reputation is today. I discovered him as part of the one college course I have taken on the New Testament, taught by the Chaplain of Columbia College — the undergraduate part of the University, not the one in SC — and this was fifty years ago, though I note that people have brought his JESUS back into print. I’d be curious to hear your comments both on him and on his thesis.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2015

      I’m afraid I’ve never heard of him, so I don’t really know. But the question of where the word “Nazarene” came from is different from teh question of whether Nazareth existed, I think.

      • Jim-Prup-Benton  March 3, 2015

        I point out in my comment today that he concedes the existence of Nazareth, but doubts that it is the origin of “Nazarene” at least in all occurrences. As for Guignebert himself, he wrote in the first half of the last century, in fact he died in 1939, and was not translated into English (at least JESUS wasn’t) until 1956, but I believe he was highly regarded in his time — again, maybe he has been totally forgotten now, though there is a current edition of JESUS that was produced in the last few years. He also wrote THE PROBLEM OF JESUS — which seems to have been his criticism of the mythicists. And his JEWISH PEOPLE IN THE TIME OF JESUS was part of C.K. Ogden’s 40-volume HISTORY OF CIVILIZATION. (I’m getting it for Kindle later today and may comment on it in other discussions, if you do not feel I am wasting too much time on irrelevancies and nit-picking and ask me to shut up — a request that is OFTEN well deserved.)

  20. John  March 3, 2015

    Sorry to be off topic but has something happened to the search box?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 3, 2015

      A couple of people have asked us, but it is still there for us (both Steven Ray and me). Are you sure it’s not there?

      • Adam0685  March 3, 2015

        It is gone on mine to, along with the WordPress dashboard that used to show at the top right corner of the page. Maybe it was connected to that..

      • John  March 5, 2015

        It’s back now, thanks.

  21. John  March 3, 2015

    Not at the moment together with my login link.

  22. rshaheen  March 3, 2015

    Is there a Search box? Really a good idea and need. Where is it

    • Bart
      Bart  March 4, 2015

      It’s the top right of your screen: the magnifying glass.

  23. walstrom  March 3, 2015

    (Where I live there are infrequent power outages and I’ve managed to beat the problem of no internet by obtaining a mobile internet Dongle USB stick. You prepay minutes and your internet is available no matter where you are located, not unlike satellite phones. It might be handy to look into this.)
    FYI

  24. nichael  March 3, 2015

    I wonder if there might be a “platform-dependent” component to the problem:

    Here are a couple data points to add to the discussion:
    – I usually read using an iPad.

    – When I’m signed in I only see the search box *after* I tap on the “magnifying glass” icon to the right of my user-name over on the right-hand side of the “CIA” bar at the top of the page (I.e. The bar with the black background).

    – I only see the “magnifying glass” icon when I’m signed in to the site.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 4, 2015

      Yes, that’s how it is set up. You have to be signed in. And you have to click on the magnifying glass.

  25. Lef
    Lef  October 3, 2015

    This is a most interesting topic because it crops up often in conversations about Jesus. I am so glad the issue is put to rest by Bart D. Ehrman. Thank you Sir.

    I must also thank the lady named Judith in the Forum. I expressed doubt about Nazareth existing in the time of Jesus and this good lady pointed me to the search box which brought me here. I LOVE this search box, it’ll be a breeze to retrace something I’ve read. Thanks Judith, if you ever read this.

    This website is addictive, I have spent over 12 hours a day since becoming a member. I really do appreciate the scholarship of our host. Thank you Sir.

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