5 votes, average: 4.80 out of 55 votes, average: 4.80 out of 55 votes, average: 4.80 out of 55 votes, average: 4.80 out of 55 votes, average: 4.80 out of 5 (5 votes, average: 4.80 out of 5)
You need to be a registered member to rate this post.
Loading...

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:

*******************************************************

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.


More on the Name “Nazareth”
On Debating a Fundamentalist

69

Comments

  1. Avatar
    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?

      • Avatar
        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..

      • Avatar
        John  March 5, 2015

        It’s back now, thanks.

  2. Avatar
    John  March 3, 2015

    Not at the moment together with my login link.

  3. Avatar
    rshaheen  March 3, 2015

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

  4. Avatar
    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

  5. Avatar
    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.

  6. 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.

  7. Avatar
    The Agnostic Christian  April 5, 2018

    Hi Bart,
    I was going to ask you this question too, but I decided to search your blog first and saw you have a couple of posts on the subject. I now have a question on something you said:
    “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?).”
    In this instance you seem to be arguing from silence (I know you come up with other arguments later in the post), and Salm seems to be arguing from the evidence (what little there is); that no one of the early Christians ever mentions Nazareth until a much later time, and that this would suggest to him that it is because it didn’t exist.
    In your recent debate with Licona on the historical reliability of the Gospels you argue against a Johannine authorship because he is not mentioned as the author explicitly until about 185 AD by Irenaeus.
    Your argument goes that the Bible never mentions John as the author, and the early Christians are silent on it for about 90 years. Licona replies that no one says it wasn’t him and that you are making an argument from silence, but you basically reply that you are simply seeking positive evidence from earlier sources that John wrote the Gospel, which there is none. In a similar way Salm seems to be demanding positive corroborating evidence that Nazareth existed during the time of Jesus.
    I’m not trying to trip you up or anything like that, it was just as I read, that part of the debate came back to my mind, because your argument stood out to me as a good, but it appears you are doing the opposite here. Shouldn’t we go by the evidence, not the lack of written confirmation for something?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 6, 2018

      My reason for thinking that John did not write the Fourth Gospel is not that he is not said to have done so for 90 years. My reason is that John, an illiterate lower-class day-laborer from a rural area in a remote part of the empire could almost certainly not write.

  8. Avatar
    mesmith26  July 12, 2019

    Mark 6:1,2 implies Jesus went back to his own country…began to teach in the synagogue…as a prophet in his own country, among his own kin, and in his own house. These statements have been taken to refer to Nazareth. With Nazareth as an “out-of the-way hamlet of around 50 houses on a patch of about four acre,” it would then have had no synagogue or building for multitudes to listen to Jesus. Thoughts?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 14, 2019

      Yes, that appears to be right. We have no evidence of a synagogue or other public buildings there at the time.

      • Avatar
        mesmith26  July 14, 2019

        With the seemingly embarrassing account of Jesus unable to perform miracles in his homeland & Mark being the earliest Synoptic source material, we may consider inclusion of such a visit to be historically accurate, correct? If so, why mention something like a synagogue in Nazareth if that would have been know to the readers to be inaccurate? “There’s no synagogue in Nazareth!” Was Nazareth not his hometown?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 15, 2019

          Yes, Nazareth was his hometown. But contrary to what the Gospels say, there is no evidence to suggest there was any synagogue building there at the time. And I certainly think it’s accurate to say Jesus never did any miracles there….

          • Avatar
            mesmith26  July 15, 2019

            Thanks for your time. To be clear, the author of the Gospel of Mark by stating Jesus spoke “at a synagogue” in his “hometown” would have been making a statement which readers would have known was false (e.g. Nazareth has no synagogue). Is it possible that the author of Mark knew that Jesus’ hometown was elsewhere- a town with a synagogue, and “Jesus the Nazarene” was a title given for another reason?

          • Bart
            Bart  July 16, 2019

            No, I’m not saying that. Mark was written far, far away from Palestine, and none of his readers would have any idea what Nazareth was like. (Any more than most readers on the blog — despite mass communication and air travel, completely unavailable to ancients — would know what my one-time hometown Fremont Nebraska is like)

  9. Avatar
    mesmith26  July 16, 2019

    So the author of Mark, writing in Greek, for a Gentile audience far away from Nazareth (potentially Rome, Antioch or Galilee) using oral history as reference (Q?) inserted information about Jesus’ hometown (it possessed a synagogue) which archaeology has now proven inaccurate (it was a small hamlet). Is that an accurate statement?

  10. Avatar
    JackieP  August 23, 2019

    Do you still feel the same way today, 4 years later, that you did in 2015 on Nazareth’s existence? Have you read any of Salm’s later writings? I just finished his chapter in Loftus’ Christianity in the Light of Science. I am not interested in defending or advocating for him, but merely wonder if you consider his later writings a mere rehash of things you still reject as implausible. Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  August 25, 2019

      Yes, I think I’ve read all his writings on the topic. I’m afraid he simply is not qualified in the matter. The people who are — those who are trained archaeologists, including those who have been at the digs — are completely unequivocal on the matter.

You must be logged in to post a comment.