Some people who claim that Jesus did not even exist argue that there never was a town of Nazareth. So hey, how could he be from there? It didn’t exist and he didn’t either. It’s all a myth.
Really. They base this claim on a book written by a fellow named Rene Salm.
I was asked about Salm’s book a couple of weeks ago, and remembered I had posted on the issue, and Salm’s book, in 2012 (!). Here’s the (current) question and my (previous) answer.
Rene Salm’s 2008 book “The Myth of Nazareth: The Invented Town of Jesus (Scholar’s Edition)” makes an archaeological argument that Nazareth was not settled until after the First Jewish War, c. 70CE. It goes into great detail and appears to be quite scholarly, but I don’t know what to make of it.
Bart, are you aware of this book or its author?
When I dealt with Salm’s book in 2012, it was because he presented a paper at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting and I thought it was very odd indeed. Here’s what I said.
Several people have sent me private emails asking why René Salm was put on the program at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting, given the fact that he is not a scholar and has no credentials in the field. For those of you who don’t know, Salm has written a book claiming that Nazareth did not exist in the first century, so that Jesus couldn’t be there. He argues this in part because he doesn’t think Jesus existed and so wants to discredit the Gospel stories by saying the Christian authors made the whole thing up.
Several scholars (well, everyone who mentioned it to me) were outraged that Salm was allowed to be on the program. This meeting is of a learned society and is to be for scholars with established expertise. It is not to be a venue for people without qualifications to spout their wild theories. Salm claims that those who oppose him have a theological or religious bias against his views, but this simply is not true. EVERYONE who is an expert opposes his views – Jewish, Christian, agnostic, or other. There is not a single archaeologist of ancient Israel that gives him the least credit. That doesn’t make him wrong. But it does mean that if he wants to argue that every real scholar is in error, he should get some credentials first.
In any event, I thought it might be worthwhile to reprint here what I say about Salm’s book in my book Did Jesus Exist? Apologies for those who have read this already. I have removed the footnotes here, but you can find them in the original.
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.”
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 that in fact it is the case: there were coins in the collection that date to the time prior to the Jewish uprising.
I WILL MAKE ADDITIONAL COMMENTS ON SALM’S BOOK IN MY NEXT POST. [/mepr-show]