The (unacknowledged) tombs under the Church of the Annunciation
(By René Salm, author of The Myth of Nazareth: The Invented Town of Jesus)
Above is a map of the venerated area of Nazareth with modern buildings and streets indicated. The Church of the Annunciation (CA, in the lower part of the map) is a major destination of pilgrims coming from throughout the world, and is the largest Christian structure in the Middle East. Under the church is the traditional maiden home of the Blessed Virgin Mary (“M”), where she received the annunciation from the Archangel Gabriel:
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. [Lk 1:26-28 KJV]Not mentioned in any guidebook, however, are three Roman-era tombs less than ten meters from that holy site, now called the “Chapel of the Angel.” These tombs are marked by a “K” which stands for “kokhim,” a well-known type of tomb prevalent during Roman times in Palestine. Two other tombs also may have existed under the present church (in parentheses on the map), but the evidence for them was destroyed during construction of the edifice. Nevertheless, early twentieth-century witnesses mention them in obscure scholarly reports. In Judaism, corpses are a source of ritual impurity. The Pentateuch mandates that “everyone who is unclean through contact with a corpse” must be put outside the camp for seven days (Num 5:3). The Talmud mandates that tombs be a minimum distance (“fifty ells,” or about twenty-five meters) from the nearest habitation. Of course, the implications of this are explosive where the Christian claims at Nazareth are concerned. Mary’s family was certainly Jewish, and the tombs under the Church of the Annunciation are tombs under her very house!
Fully realizing the potentially fatal implications for traditional doctrine represented by the presence of these tombs, the principle modern archeologist at Nazareth, Father Bellarmino Bagatti, strove to ignore their existence—even though they were described, mapped, and drawn by his predecessors who were also priests. Only one of the tombs next to the Chapel of the Angel is mentioned in his standard two-volume work, Excavations in Nazareth. Bagatti lamely suggested that the tomb (with several graves) dated to Crusader times. It is a desperate explanation, however, for there is no record of such a macabre Christian custom of burying Crusader dead at the house of the Blessed Virgin Mary! A Roman-era wine press has also been located ten meters north of the Chapel of the Angel. In sum, the archeological evidence clearly shows that this was a cemetery and agricultural area in later Roman times—not the location of dwellings.
On December 21, 2009, news regarding an excavation in Nazareth was
released simultaneously to multiple press agencies around the globe.
Many articles immediately touted discovery of house remains “from the
time of Jesus,” a view allegedly expressed by the archaeologist herself.
However, the brief official statement (recently taken offline) from the
Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) does not support this thesis. The
IAA release is the primary report and supersedes secondary sources such
as articles in the press and interpretive remarks. This will continue
until a scholarly report with independently verifiable itemizations,
diagrams, and discussion appears in print.
No “house from the time of Jesus” has been found at Nazareth
The IAA report makes no mention of first-century remains, much less of evidence from the turn of the era (“time of Jesus”). Consistent with other excavations in Nazareth, structural remains found in this excavation date to “the Roman period,” which lasted into the fourth century CE. The only other dating divulged in the report is of structural remains from the Mamluk period. The alleged presence of a “small camouflaged grotto” could point to a hiding place at the time of the Second Jewish Revolt (132-135 CE), consistent with other material from Nazareth, not to the time of the First Revolt (c. 70 CE).
The excavation took place between Nov. 11 and Dec. 7, 2009, under the direction of IAA archaeologist Y. Alexandre. It took place in the so-called “venerated area” next to the Church of the Annunciation, located on the Nazareth hillside. At this time, the official release from the IAA is the primary report and ultimate source of information on this excavation. As is normal, statements going beyond it must be supported by the presentation of verifiable evidence, and statements contradicting it must be viewed with skepticism.
Prominent American and Israeli archaeologists raise doubt about the alleged Jesus-era house in Nazareth
An American archaeologist rails against Yardenna Alexandre’s announcement:
...What I find most notable is that to date the excavators have yet to report even one shred of evidence that places this structure in the first century CE as opposed to the second century. People can “trust” all they wish, but it is precisely this type of trust that leads the gullible to pay no heed to the requirements of evidence. Instead, they buy into the spurious idea that the traces of farms, Roman bath houses, garrison works, vineyards, caravanseries, synagogues, etc., have been discovered from a turn of the era Nazareth. These edifices do not exist in the factual record, but they widely populate apologists’ fiction.The same archaeologist writes:
…After reading the MFA [Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs] press release, which states that the ceramics found at the site were perhaps second century CE, I contacted a friend of mine who is a director at the Albright. He confirmed for me that the typology is first-second century CE, and presently the ceramic finds are so sparse and disjointed that it is still too early to rule out stratigraphic intrusion. So, judging from the finds themselves, the “Jesus era” is apparently first-second century CE or perhaps even later. Obviously, this dig adds little if anything to our previous body of knowledge at this time, as we already have scarce first-second century ceramic remains at Nazareth and an evidentiary profile that confirms occupation of the site in the second century CE.
It really looks like our Israeli and Franciscan friends are merely up to their old tricks. I find it highly revealing that an IAA [Israel Antiquities Authority] representative would state that we have a “few written sources that [let us] know” that “Nazareth was a small, Jewish village” in the “first century CE.” Anyone care to venture a guess as to what these written sources might be? Nazareth is a cash/political cow and professional/confessional bulwark that they will never allow to crumble, no matter what the evidence might be.
BTW, if anyone is interested in an excellent summary of the archaeological recoveries at Nazareth to date, I would highly recommend Rene Salm’s book on the subject… [I]t provides an excellent inventory and analysis of the evidence, a feat all the more remarkable when one considers that Salm is not a formal member of our profession.
[Dec. 30, 2009. Emphasis added and name withheld.]
I’ll first talk a little about the excavation before discussing the new edifice. Neither the archeologist (Y. Alexandre) nor anyone else has published any verification of material findings or claims. That is one major problem with the excavation. The closest we have had to an objective report was a (very) brief IAA statement which made no mention at all of finds from the time of Jesus. That report has now been taken off the web, so the world must now rely entirely upon the claims of the Church regarding the primary evidence: “the house dates with certainty from the time of Christ… pottery and ceramics are from the Hellenistic Period.” All this is typical. For two thousand years the faithful have similarly relied exclusively on ‘in-house’ reports regarding their founder Jesus of Nazareth—namely, the Gospels.
There is, however, a statement in the Catholic literature which, I submit, should be taken seriously: “Up till then [that is, the recent ‘house’ discovery], there was no scientific evidence affirming the existence of a village of Nazareth of the epoch of Christ.” After a hundred years of digging, this belated admission is entirely correct, besides being an oblique nod to my work. Coming from the Catholic Church, it is categorical assurance (were any still required) that the last century of excavation in Nazareth has utterly failed to vindicate the traditional story of Jesus.
Now, to The Mary of Nazareth International Center. The humble Mary, Mother of God, must be proud as she looks down from her heavenly throne on the spanking new edifice which, curiously, marks not her home but that of an anonymous next door neighbor. You see, Mary herself lived across the street at the present Church of the Annunciation. Who her (now-exalted) neighbor was nobody really knows …or seems to care. It couldn’t have been Joseph, for he evidently lived to the other side of Mary’s dwelling (the Church of St. Joseph is 100 m. north of the Church of the Annunciation). Anyway, an unknown Nazarene is now posthumously venerated by the Catholic Church at this new Center. The impressive edifice consists of several areas including: (1) a 120-seat theatre for rent, amenable to performances, conferences, and motion pictures. (2) A cafeteria-restaurant for “coffee break, an ice-cream, or even a full meal,” for hungry sinners requiring sustenance of a physical nature. (3) A Boutique where one can buy “olive tree wood, icons, cards, souvenirs, books, CDs and DVDs, ceramics, candles, confections, jams, olive oil, and spices”—evidently, all one could possibly need to get to heaven. (4) A botanical garden “with a breathtaking view.” (5) A chapel. (6) Offices of the Chemin Neuf association, which runs the Marian Center.
The Chemin Neuf (“New Path”) association seems to be the arm of the Roman Catholic Church which reaches out especially to young adults. Founded by a certain Père Laurent Fabre, it’s motto is “Let Mary be your guide through the Scriptures.” Chemin Neuf exists in many countries. There is a photo online of its local director in Nazareth, a certain Marc Hodara. Looking very much the Catholic foreman, he stands in front of the Marian construction site wearing dark glasses, a prominent crucifix, and a construction hat emblazoned with the letters “MH”.
Certainty at Nazareth?The founder of the Mary of Nazareth Association is a certain Olivier Bonnassies. He has written (regarding the Nazareth house excavation): “One is able to establish the date of these stones—they are datable because of pottery and ceramics; and they date to before Christ, that is, before the Hellenistic period, which is to say before 67 B.C., the year of the conquest of Pompey, which made Palestine roman.” This confusing statement aptly summarizes the position of the Catholic Church regarding Nazareth. It contradicts itself and is quite unsubstantiated. In the first place, skeptics and scholars alike must consider the alleged ‘pottery and ceramics’ mythical for, as mentioned above, no report has appeared in the literature regarding them. In other words, they don’t exist in the scholarly record. Secondly, the time “before Christ” is not “the Hellenistic period” (which ended with Pompey’s conquest in 63, not 67 BCE). So, if material there were to date to the Hellenistic period (which I very much doubt), that would hardly substantiate a settlement at the turn of the era. Finally, the claim of evidence from “before the Hellenistic period” adds another layer of confusion and moves us back several centuries before ‘Christ.’ In sum, we don’t really know what Bonnassies is saying here.
Oh, well. I’m not sure he himself knows what he is saying.
(Bonnassies, a highly trained media expert, has emerged as the lynchpin of the Catholic Church’s recent [and well-funded] media blitz to combat atheism, skepticism, and a rational view of the “facts” underlying Christianity. For more on this Catholic VIP, see here.)
The Nazareth coin boondoggle
Is the tradition deceitful or just incredibly sloppy?
The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming book published by American Atheist Press addressing Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist?
Ehrman’s book contains disturbing and quite unsubstantiated claims
relating to the archaeology of Nazareth. One such has to do with a cache
of “165 coins” (DJE 195). These coins have been passed from scholar to
scholar in the recent literature with apparently no concern for where
the coins were found nor for their dating. I will here recap this coin
brouhaha, which seems to have become a pet claim for those who are now
arguing the traditional case for Nazareth’s existence at the time of
It is part of my contributory chapter.—R.S.
It should first be noted that, prior to 2006, very few coins were found in the Nazareth basin (a resumé is below in Citation #1). I dispose of the coin evidence in two short paragraphs of my book, The Myth of Nazareth (p. 196). The earliest coin from the Nazareth basin dates to the time of Emperor Constantius II (r. 337-361 CE). In 1997-98 Yardenna Alexandre, an archaeologist working for the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), excavated near Mary’s Well at the northern end of the Nazareth basin. The first notice of this excavation appeared much later in the form of a “pre-publication notice” for the IAA dated “1st May 2006” which—curiously—has to my knowledge never been published. Ms. Alexandre shared that signed notice with me via email during my research for the book. It is a standard half-page report, similar in form to those routinely produced for the IAA and generally published in the Israeli journal Atiqot.
In her report Ms. Alexandre notes that remains from the excavation dated generally “from the Roman, the Crusader, the Mamluk and the Ottoman periods.” She signals the presence of “Middle Roman pottery.” Nothing in the report dates material earlier than this. Alexandre also notes “the dredging of many 14-15th century small denomination coins.” She makes no further mention of coins. I did not even mention Alexandre’s notice in my book because it was “pre-publication” and because it reported no verifiable material evidence dating to Early Roman times, that is, to the time of “Jesus,” or to BCE times.
The small, unobtrusive Mary’s Well excavation received no further scholarly attention until the Dec. 2007 appearance of the NVF report in BAIAS authored, we recall, by Stephen Pfann, Ross Voss, and Yehudah Rapuano. (See Scandal 5.) That 61-page article begins with a section “The Nazareth Farm site discovery and survey,” and continues with sections entitled “The Nazareth Village Farm: initial survey,” “GPS mapping survey,” followed by a lengthy “Summary of excavated areas.” Then, on p. 38 we read a section on “The stone quarries” and, one page later, “Area A: finds made during the construction of the Nazareth Village”:
[Citation 1]Of course, I was flabbergasted to read the italicized words above. In her IAA report communicated to me Alexandre had mentioned nothing about coins from “Hellenistic, Hasmonaean, Early Roman” times. Had such critically important coin evidence been found in her excavation, she surely would have included it in her official report! It is also interesting that Alexandre’s report has never been published, despite the now regular dust-off “Alexandre, forthcoming”—we are almost fifteen years after the original excavation and her report has still not appeared! My first response to this coin anomaly was an article which appeared in American Atheist magazine (Jan. 2009, pp. 10-13). I cite the pertinent paragraphs:
Various finds were made during the construction of the Nazareth Village Project in 2000-2002 and were recorded by Mark Goodman. These conprise [sic] a number of unstratified finds including a coin and pottery vessel fragments from Area A (Figs. 19 and 20).
[Fig. 19 follows. It is a coin from the time of Tiberius II (578-82 CE). The authors add a few lines of description of the coin which, incidentally, includes the Chi-Rho staurogram. Fig. 20 is of a Gaza Ware bowl of the Early Bronze III.—R.S.]
This represents the latest Byzantine coin that has been found in the Nazareth area.
From Bagatti’s excavations in Nazareth 4 coins were found, all Byzantine (mid-fourth to early fifth century) and 2 coins from the vicinity: one Late Roman (the earliest coin, mid-third century) and one Byzantine (late fifth to early sixth century). These were recorded as follows: Grotto no. 25: 3 unidentifiable Byzantine (one with head of Emperor; two very small, typical of late fourth to early fifth century AD) (Bagatti 1969:I:46). Grotto No. 29 (embedded in the plaster): one with head of Emperor, apparently Constans (AD 337-350) (Bagatti 1969: I, 210, Fig. 172). In addition there were finds from the village: one coin of Anastasius (AD 491-518) (Bagatti 1969: I, 234). Surface find from ploughing the land around the village: one coin of Gordian III (AD 238-244) (Bagatti 1969: I, 251). More than 60 other coins from the Islamic to Mamluk Period were unearthed in the 1955 excavations (Bagatii 1969: II, 194-201). In addition, 165 coins were uncovered by Yardenna Alexandre in the 1997-1998 excavations at Mary’s Well, Nazareth. The coins were overwhelmingly Mamluk, but also included a few Hellenistic, Hasmonaean, Early Roman, Byzantine, Umayyad and Crusader coins (Alexandre, forthcoming).
The unstratified pottery vessels included a complete Gaza Ware bowl (Fig. 20), which was found during the clearance operations which prededed the construction of the Nazareth Village… [NVFR 39–40. Emphasis added.]
[Citation 2]So far, then, we have an imputation of turn of the era evidence: the NVFR authors (Citation #1) are imputing such evidence to Yardenna Alexandre. Also curious is that Pfann et al had no obvious reason to bring up Alexandre’s findings at all: her excavation had nothing to do with the Nazareth Village Farm but was conducted two kilometers away. Why were the NVFR authors bring up an excavation that had taken place a decade earlier and far away, and why were they alleging finds there that were not even in Ms. Alexandre’s IAA report?
Undoubtedly there is great pressure on the tradition now to discover such telling evidence from Nazareth. Continuing pilgrimage depends on it. The incipient Nazareth Village depends on it. Perhaps the entire Jesus-story depends on it. This is the time for stalwart defenders of the tradition to exercise their resourcefulness and acumen in defense of the Christian story and to prevent a wound to the Achilles’ heel from festering and becoming fatal. Let’s not be too surprised if remarkable new ‘finds’ at Nazareth conveniently appear in the next few years—finds substantiating a settlement there at the time of Christ. To fit the demands of the tradition that are now in print, the forthcoming material will have to be early and non-funereal.
Well, guess what? According to the NVF report, a cache of Hellenistic and Early Roman coins has recently been ‘found’ at Mary’s Well (at the Northern end of the Nazareth basin). Wow. Nothing remotely similar has ever been found in the Nazareth basin. The earliest coin found there dates to about 350 CE. A cache of Hellenistic and Early Roman coins is exactly the sort of evidence which the tradition needs in order to decide the matter in its favor.
My skepticism is increased by the fact that I possess a pre-publication report (dated 2006) from the Israel Antiquities Authority signed by the archaeologist who dug at Mary’s Well. In it she mentions no early coins at all. The only datable coins she signals were from the 14th–15th centuries CE. Hmm… What’s going on here?
All of a sudden, claims of Jesus-era evidence are being made at Nazareth. Putative turn-of-the-era evidence is popping up all over the place—on the surface at the Nazareth Village Farm (see above), at Mary’s Well… Where next?
The next stage in this developing scandal is a four page “Reply to Salm” published in the subsequent 2008 issue of BAIAS. In it (p. 106) the Nazareth Village Farm proponents once again impute early evidence to Alexandre. Now, however, they go one step further and allege to have even received a verbatim statement from her attesting to their Early Roman coin claim:
[Citation 3. Pfann and Rapuano write…]So, Pfann et al are here claiming that the two critical sentences from their former 61-page report were a verbatim quotation from “Dr. Alexandre herself.” A glance above at Citation #1, however, shows that the sentences in question lack quotation marks and are simply part of their prose. In any case, it would be a curious quotation. Dr. Alexandre would be referring to herself in the third person, and Pfann and Rapuano would have embedded two of her verbatim sentences into their prose without any acknowledgment of attribution. Hmm… Presumably, then, in this whole boondoggle regarding the Nazareth coins we are to believe the following sequence of events:
Pace Salm, Dr. Alexandre herself provided the following text to quote in our report: ‘In addition, 165 coins were uncovered by Yardenna Alexandre in the 1997-1998 excavations at Mary’s Well, Nazareth. The coins were overwhelmingly Mamluk, but also included a few Hellenistic, Hasmonaean, Early Roman, Byzantine, Umayyad and Crusader coins.’
– Alexandre excavated 165 coins at Mary’s Well but omitted critical information about Hellenistic and Roman coins in her official IAA report;Finally, Ehrman enters the fray, decidedly aligns himself with the tradition, and adds a disturbing new twist. (In the following passage I insert my comments in brackets.) Directly after Ehrman’s over-the-top statement of “Many compelling pieces” of Jesus-era evidence being found at Nazareth (DJE 195), he writes:
– While withholding such early coin information from the IAA, Alexandre subsequently selectively shared it with Pfann et al working at the other end of the Nazareth basin;
– Pfann et al include that quite unprecedented coin information (relating to Alexandre’s excavation) in their 2007 report dealing with the NVF;
– After being critiqued by myself, Pfann et al alleged that the two sentences under scrutiny were a verbatim quote from Alexandre, despite the fact that the information conflicts with an emailed report from Alexandre which I had in my possession for already two years.
[Citation 4]“In this excavation”? Ehrman is apparently now claiming that those alleged Hellenistic, Hasmonean, and early Roman period coins were found at the NVF! He doesn’t seem to understand that we are speaking of two different excavations: one at Mary’s Well and one at the NVF. I am carefully putting us on notice here because, given past shenanigans at Nazareth, anything and everything is possible. Who knows? Given the prominence of Ehrman’s book, pretty soon the tradition may run with this new and very false line that Jesus-era coins have been found at the Nazareth Village Farm (by Alexandre?). I wouldn’t put it past them for trying…
For one thing, archaeologists have excavated a farm connected with the village, and it dates to the time of Jesus. [Ehrman is speaking of the NVF, and he bases this assertion on Rapuano’s eleven pieces of ‘evidence’ falsely dated to the time of Jesus. (Scandal 5.)—R.S.] Salm disputes the finding of the archaeologists who did the excavation (remember that he himself is not an archaeologist but bases his views on what the real archaeologists—all of whom disagree with him—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 century. This suits Salm’s purposes just fine. But as it turns out, among the coins were some that date to the Hellenistic, Hasmonean, and early Roman period, that is, the days of Jesus. Salm objected that this was not stated 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. (Emphasis added.)
Let us be clear here: when Ehrman writes “Alexandre has verbally confirmed that in fact it is the case” he is reporting hearsay. Without published finds at Mary’s Well from the pen of Alexandre (and she has dragged her feet on this) any imputation of Hellenistic to Early Roman coins ascribed to her is just that: an imputation. It is not “evidence.”
Conclusions: (a) In 1997-98 Alexandre excavated a large cache of 14th-15th century CE coins near Mary’s Well at the northern end of the Nazareth basin. Her IAA report noted no coins dating prior to the fourteenth century CE. (b) Turn of the era coin finds were later imputed to Alexandre by Pfann, Rapuano, and now Ehman—finds which have never been published. (c) Poor scholarship mars the work of all the above academics, in that the NVF report was riddled with errors (as my “Response” in BAIAS 2008 shows, requiring the publication of a wholesale “Amendment”). Furthermore, Ehrman conflates two excavations into one. Finally, Alexandre herself has been reported to claim that her original IAA notice was not definitive and omitted critical Jesus-era evidence—yet she refuses to set the record straight via publication.
I leave it for the reader to decide: is all this just atrocious sloppiness on the part of the tradition at Nazareth and a series of oversights, or is it evidence of scholarly collusion and perhaps even deceit?—René Salm
In 2012 Yardenna Alexandre finally published, in the form of a complete book, an apparent final report to her 1997–98 excavations near Mary’s Well in Nazareth. The book is very problematic for a number of reasons and a formal response from myself is scheduled for publication in the summer of 2014 as one chapter in the forthcoming book The Tombs Under the House of Mary (and Other Nazareth Scandals 2006–2014). It can be stated here that the treatment of new coin discoveries in that book is replete with errors and particularly suspect. Not only is there a case of “double-dating” (dating one coin to c. 100 BCE on one page and the very same coin to 131 CE on the next page), but all the photographs depict the wrong coins, references are to wrong pages, etc.
Another chapter in my book will thoroughly discredit the work of Prof. Ken Dark in Nazareth, and shows him to be a rather inept apologist for the tradition, with little awareness of Palestinian archaeological issues and chronologies.
Please stay tuned for the appearance of this book from American Atheist Press, so necessary to show the continuing efforts of archaeologists to obfuscate where they should—on the contrary—assiduously cleave to the facts.—R.S.
A major report on Nazareth archaeology was published in the 2007
issue of the Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society (Vol.
25, pp. 19–79), too late for inclusion in the first edition of the book,
The Myth of Nazareth. The study is entitled “Surveys and
Excavations at the Nazareth Village Farm (1997–2002): Final Report,” and
is authored by Stephen Pfann, Ross Voss, and Yehudah Rapuano. This
extended 60-page article probably is the most significant contribution
to the archaeology of the basin since Bagatti’s Excavations in Nazareth (1967/69). It is referred to below as the NVF (Nazareth Village Farm) report.
The Nazareth Village Farm
The Nazareth Village Farm lies on fifteen acres to the south and west of the ancient settlement area, which was on the valley floor. The NVF was obviously the site of ancient agricultural activity and terracing. Though it was too steep for ancient habitations (20% grade), it is here that an ambitious plan is now underway to recreate Jesus’ hometown, known as “Nazareth Village.” When complete, this project will contain streets and stone houses “inhabited by actors and storytellers in authentic garb, [who] will illuminate the life and teachings of Jesus. A Parable Walk, museum, study center and restaurant are also planned…” (according to the NVF publicity). According to the first page of the report we are considering in this Scandal Sheet, “For nearly two decades, the University of the Holy Land (UHL) and its subsidiary, the Center for the Study of Early Christianity (CSEC), has laboured to lay the academic foundation for the construction of a first-century Galilean village or town based upon archaeology and early Jewish and Christian sources.” As of 1999, an international consortium of Christian groups (called the Miracle of Nazareth International Foundation) raised $60 million for the project. Contributors in the U.S. include former President Jimmy Carter, Pat Boone and Rev. Reggie White, the former Green Bay Packer football star.
Most of the NVF report is chronologically “non-diagnostic,” that is, the terraces and other structures (e.g. watchtowers) are virtually undatable. However, several score pottery shards were itemized (among the hundreds which were found), and they reveal the eras in which those terraces were worked in antiquity. The critical last ten pages of the report (pp. 68–78) deal with the pottery. They were authored by Y. Rapuano, and it is his contribution to the report (because of its importance for dating purposes) that most concerns us.
Curiously, there were two (competing?) surveys of the NVF area conducted in the past, both in 1997. One was officially sponsored by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). [See ‘Nazerat (Nazareth) Area, Survey’ in Hadashot Arkheologiyot 1999; English p. 90, Hebrew p. 113]. This IAA survey concluded that “Sherds, mostly dating to the Late Roman period (2nd–4th centuries CE), were scattered on the surface.” This quite believable verdict is consistent with my researches on Nazareth, which show that the town came into existence between the two Jewish revolts (c.70–c. 130 CE). Note: the IAA report was authored by Mordechai Haiman, a respected Ph.D in archaeology. It makes no mention at all of evidence from the time of Christ. Incidentally, the Haiman survey was apparently carried out at the same time as the initial excavations by UHL/CSEC (April, 1997). Presumably, Haiman had access to precisely the same empirical information.
Perhaps the backers of the Nazareth Village Farm were unsatisfied with the IAA report, for a different survey report has appeared on the internet (unsigned and copyrighted by the University of the Holy Land, whose President is Stephen Pfann). This unofficial report is titled, “Summary of Excavations of the Nazareth Village.” (At the time of this writing, the UHL report is still available at http://www.uhl.ac/dig.html.) This revisionist report claims to find much evidence at Nazareth Village Farm dating both to the time of Christ and to Hellenistic times. Both of these eras, we recall, are entirely unmentioned in the IAA survey.
The conclusion of the UHL report is a marvelously imprecise sentence: “Potsherds were found on the surface of the terraces dating from various periods beginning with the early to late Roman period.” This phrase also occurs repeatedly in the recent 60-page NVF article (cf. pp. 19, 24, 28, 32, 56). However, we shall see (below) that the shards found at the NVF all date to the later Roman period, not to earlier times at all.
One may wonder what the phrase, “early to late Roman period” means. After all, if a potsherd is dated in this way, then is it Early Roman, Middle Roman, or Late Roman? The question is not merely academic, for upon it may hinge the existence of Nazareth in the time of Jesus.
Well, if a potsherd is characterized vaguely as “early to late Roman,” then it might actually be later Roman, entirely consistent with other evidence from Nazareth. What I am getting at is that the phrase “early to late Roman period” has absolutely no force as regards Early Roman times—none, at any rate, if the pottery came from later Roman times, as the official IAA report had already suggested.
All the shards dated by Rapuano in the NVF report are small—usually too small to confidently date an artefact. Sometimes the fragments are “tiny.” Yet Rapuano still ventures a dating for them. This may be one reason his report is peppered with tentative words such as possibly, probably, evidently, appeared to be, etc.
Most importantly, whenever Rapuano dates a shard to the Hellenistic period or to I CE (the eras most valuable in establishing Nazareth in the time of Jesus), he expresses doubt through one of the above tentative words. In short, Rapuano is (by his own admission) on shaky ground when claiming pre-70 CE evidence.
Problems of double-datingSurprises await the person who patiently itemizes all of Rapuano’s findings. We recall that Bagatti, in an embarrassing but revealing lapse, assigned the same shard on one page to the Iron Age and on another page to Roman times (Scandal 2). Rapuano is capable of not one, but four similar gaffes. The fact that there are four cases of double-dating in this NVF report seriously undermines the confidence one can place in it and points to incredible sloppiness or absent-mindedness.
The cases of double-dating are as follows: (1) On page 75 of the NVF report Rapuano assigns Fig. 41:32 to “the third century to early fifth century AD.” But on the preceding page he has already dated the same shard (41:32) to the Ottoman period! The difference is one thousand years (or more), for the Ottoman period began in the 14th century.
(2) On page 73 of the NVF report (6th line), Rapuano itemizes artefact 41:4. He describes it as the “plain rim” of a bowl of Adan-Bayewitz Type 1E (“mid-third to early fifth century AD”), and states that the findspot was locus 31 of Area B2. On p. 75, however, the archaeologist writes that the findspot of shard 41:4 is Locus 7 of Area B2. Rapuano describes it differently than before, and now dates it from the “early second century to the later fourth century AD.” He completely forgot that he already looked at this shard!
(3) On page 77 of the NVFR (top line), Rapuano itemizes artefact 43:3 as “a small bowl with a cupped rim.” He states that the findspot was Locus 2 of Area C3. No dating is offered for the shard, which from the diagram is part of a rim. But later, even on the same page, the archaeologist again itemizes artefact “43:3.” The findspot is now Locus 5 of Area C3, and Rapuano dates it “from the end of the first century to the mid-third century AD.”
(4) On page 74 of the NVFR, under the section “B-2 – L-34”, Rapuano itemizes artefact 41:8 as “The tiny fragment of a rim, probably of a small bowl of the Roman period.” Farther down on the same page he writes: “Fig. 41:8 is the edge of the rim of what was evidently a Galilean bowl with a plain rim (Adan-Bayewitz Type 1E) dating from the mid-third century to earlier fifth century AD.”
From these cases we see that the archaeologist is, presumably, capable of looking at the same shard at different times, forgetting that he already examined it, and coming up with different dates, descriptions, and findspots for it. How curious! Needless to say, this hardly bolsters our confidence in his work, nor in the entire Nazareth Village Farm report.
What coins?On page 39, the authors of the NVF report suddenly launch into a review of coin evidence from the rest of the Nazareth basin. We may wonder why a report, otherwise purely concerned with the Nazareth Village Farm, includes a discussion of coins at Mary’s Well (at the distant northern end of the basin), or of Bagatti’s numismatic finds in the Venerated Area. The answer is that the authors are here being revisionist as well. They bluntly allege that coins found at the northern end of the basin (Mary’s Well) “included a few Hellenistic, Hasmonean, Early Roman, Byzantine, Umayyad and Crusader coins.” But the archaeologist who dug at Mary’s Well (Y. Alexandre) never claimed coins dating before Byzantine times! (I have exchanged emails with the archaeologist on precisely this point.) In other words, in the review of those remote loci several reckless and unsubstantiated claims are made—claims which now support a village at the turn of the era.
The potteryRapuano itemizes about 75 artefacts, mostly small pottery shards. Of these, only 15 artefacts (20% of itemized finds) are furnished with a typological parallel, invariably to an artefact in the volumes of Adan-Bayewitz, Common Pottery in Roman Galilee. (1993). A parallel is essential, because it allows the reader to verify what would otherwise be the archaeologist’s unsubstantiated opinion. But we see that in 80% of cases, Rapuano’s itemizations are not accompanied by parallels. Hence the characteristics and dating of most of Rapuano’s evidence amount to no more than the (unverifiable) opinion of the archaeologist himself.
In eleven cases, Rapuano insists on a pre-70 CE dating. These claims represent the totality of the NVF evidence for a pre-70 CE Nazareth, and yet they are all without foundation in fact. It is revealing that in every one of these cases no typological parallels are available. Put bluntly, the NVF evidence for Nazareth in the time of Jesus rests on no more than Y. Rapuano’s opinion. He can point to no parallels in the published literature for his venturesome pre-70 CE claims.
As we have noted, without standard parallels to published literature an archaeologist’s claims must be considered non-diagnostic and are rejected as (arbitrary) opinions without substantiation. It can also be noted that Rapuano’s early datings conflict with the evidence from the rest of the Nazareth basin, as determined in the pages of The Myth of Nazareth.
Finally, it should be mentioned that in most of these early dating cases Mr. Rapuano admits uncertainty. In eight of the eleven cases he himself writes “tentatively,” “possibly,” “probably,” or “likely.” He simply is not sure! His own uncertainty shows us that we cannot seriously consider the presence of people at the site of the Nazareth Village Farm at the turn of the era.
Finally, in those relatively few cases where Rapuano actually offers a typological parallel, the dating range is fully compatible with a post-70 CE beginning for Nazareth. In other words, all the datings—when properly supported by a parallel—are consistent with a post-70 CE beginning for Nazareth. There is no real conflict between the NVF report (properly examined) and the emergence of the settlement after the First Jewish War. This is the main conclusion of this Scandal Sheet.
For the preceding reasons, Rapuano’s datings regarding the NVF pottery must be considered tendentious. In particular, there is no support for his early datings, those which would substantiate a village in the time of Jesus. Indeed, there is no evidence at all in the NVF report for a settlement before 70 CE.—René Salm
The published Nazareth literature demonstrates a predictable trait
found particularly among Catholic scholars, namely, both the forward–
and backdating of evidence to the centuries immediately preceding the
first Jewish Revolt (66–73 CE). My review has shown that the basin was
not settled during eight centuries (c. 730 BCE to c. 70 CE), a period I
term the Great Hiatus. The existence of this hiatus is carefully
substantiated in my book, The Myth of Nazareth. Here I would
like to simply note some of the more egregious attempts on the part of
the tradition to “fill in” the hiatus in order to authenticate a
settlement at Nazareth in the time of Jesus, as is required by
“Herodian” and the misdating of Nazareth evidence
First of all, we can mention that as long ago as 1930, Catholic scholars themselves noted with alarm that “no trace of a Greek or Roman settlement” was found in the venerated area of Nazareth (that is, where the Church of the Annunciation and nearby structures now stand. See Myth pp. 65 ff.). From this time on, attempts are found in the literature to postdate Iron Age finds, as well as to backdate later Roman finds, in an effort to authenticate ‘:on paper’ what cannot be authenticated in the ground of Nazareth. These attempts are individually described in my study. Thus it is that chronologically mislabeling material is rife in the Nazareth literature, as I shall briefly describe now.
We have already encountered an example of postdating Iron Age material (Scandal Sheet 2), where Bagatti is capable of assigning the same artefact on one page of his Excavations in Nazareth to the Iron Age, and on another to “Hellenistic-Roman” times. It was demonstrated there that this was a ploy to falsely introduce the word “Hellenistic” again into his tome. Though postdating Iron Age material is indeed found (Kopp, Bagatti, Finegan), the more prevalent modus operandi is a wholesale backdating of Middle and Late Roman artefacts to “Early Roman” and even to “Hellenistic” times. The reasons are obvious: there is a great deal more later Roman evidence from the basin than there is Iron Age material. Also, Middle Roman evidence is only one century removed from the target period (the turn of the era), not 5–12 centuries as is the case with Iron Age artefacts.
A large part of this deceptive dynamic involves terminology. Thus, the word “Herodian” is misused by traditional archaeologists to denote bow-spouted oil lamps which, in fact, are found in the Galilee only after c. 25 CE (as explained at Myth pp. 167 ff.). They continued to be made and used in the Galilee until c. 150 CE. Thus, this type of lamp found in the Nazareth area (and called “Herodian”) considerably postdate the reign of Herod the Great. This problem alone is a major stumbling block for the cursory reader. It is no wonder that many archaeologists refuse to use the problematic phrase “Herodian oil lamps,” given the fact that these lamps in Galilee postdated the time of Herod the Great by several decades, and those at Nazareth may even have postdated the entire Herodian dynasty (whose last survivor died c. 100 CE).
Furthermore, “Herodian” has been applied to the kokh tomb, an important type of tomb found in the Holy Land as late as the fifth century CE! It is clear that labeling such tombs “Herodian” is extremely misleading, and tends to misdirect the unwary reader to the time of Christ. Invariably, however, we find that these tombs and oil lamps are termed “Herodian” by Bagatti, James Strange, and other Christian archaeologists.
The German scholar Hans Peter Kuhnen has shown that the kokh tomb (of which over twenty exist at Nazareth) first appeared in the Galilee only after c. 50 CE. This critical and much-overlooked fact is carefully noted in my book. It means that all the material found in kokh tombs, including Tombs 70–72 at Nazareth, as well as the Feig tombs (outside the Nazareth basin) dates after the middle of the first century CE. Whenever we encounter Nazareth evidence, we must immediately ask: Was this material found in a kokh tomb? If it was, then all that evidence must have been placed in situ after the time of Christ (perhaps long after). It cannot be used as pre-Jesus evidence. This simple maneuver alone removes 90% of the evidence alleged for the putative town of Nazareth at the turn of the era!
When we realize these two facts—(1) that the earliest bow-spouted oil lamps (“Herodian”) at Nazareth postdate c. 25 CE (they may be as late as c. 150 CE); and (2) that the kokh (“Herodian”) tombs postdate c. 50 CE (they were also used for many subsequent centuries)— then the case for Nazareth at the time of Jesus dissolves before our very eyes. Nazareth certainly came into being after the middle of the first century CE.
After all, there are no pre-kokh tombs in the Nazareth basin (unless we skip all the way back to the Iron Age). There are also no provable I BCE oil lamps, nor other I BCE pottery evidence. Of course, we have a few artefacts here and there which could date before the turn of the era. But the fact that they invariably come from kokh tombs removes them from consideration as pre-Jesus evidence. In any case, and in every case (I have examined and tabulated them), these few questionable artefacts have a lifespan of use which stretches well into Middle Roman times, thus making them eminently compatible with a beginning for Nazareth c. 70 CE.
For example, Nurit Feig notes one oil lamp which she terms “Hellenistic” (1990, Illus. 9:10), but in a footnote in her Hebrew article she then writes that “Lamps of this type are dated between the middle of the fourth century BC and the first century CE.” In this case she also interestingly draws comparison to a “lamp found at Shimron dated by Lapp from the first century CE.” The latter dating (known only to those who have read the Hebrew article together with its footnotes) is undoubtedly correct, for the Feig lamp was found in a kokh tomb which, as we have seen, existed in the Galilee only after the middle of I CE. This proves that the lamp was deposited in situ no earlier than the latter half of I CE, and possibly well into II CE.
The Feig tombs lie outside the Nazareth basin (they are 2.6 km east of the Ch. of the Annunciation, and one kilometer from the crest of the hill, that is, from the edge of the basin). These tombs may have been hewn by residents of a nearby community (such as Afula), and her article would be better titled “Burial Caves near Nazareth” rather than “Burial Caves in Nazareth.” Due to their removed location, the Feig tombs cannot be used as primary data for Nazareth, and hence I do not use them as such in my study. It is clear, in any case, that Feig uncovered nothing which contradicts a settlement at nearby Nazareth beginning after 70 CE, whether or not her tombs belonged to that settlement.
A remarkable conclusion of my research into Nazareth archaeology is that not a single artefact can with certainty be dated before 100 CE (unless, of course, one goes back to the Iron Period). Given the extant scholarly literature (which continues to defend the traditional history of Nazareth, quite to the exclusion of the evidence from the ground), this state of affairs is nothing less than shocking!
In the next Scandal Sheet, we shall look at further evidence of “backdating” Roman evidence to the time of Christ, including three jugs which Feig (under the influence of Catholic archaeologists) calls “from the Early Roman Period” (1990, fig. 9:1–3). To anticipate for a moment, it can be stated here that these jugs were also found in kokh tombs, thus clearly signaling a post-Jesus dating.
The 1962 forgery of the so-called “Caesarea inscription”
The following is a summary of investigative research which took place during the summer of 2013. It presents new material relative to the “Caesarea inscription”—now in quotation marks because of the stunning revelations below. Those revelations which show that the inscription never actually existed. It must be viewed as an invented construct of Christians who have wished to authenticate the existence of Nazareth in Roman times, and also of Jews who in 1962 wished to authenticate the existence of a synagogue in Caesarea at the site of the “discovery.”
A complete and detailed series of fifteen entries is to be found on my companion Mythicist Papers website beginning here.
The “Caesarea inscription” has been considered—since its discovery in 1962—as one of the most telling pieces of evidence for the existence of the settlement of Nazareth during Roman times. The inscription ostensibly records a list of twenty-four priestly families who migrated from Judea to Galilee. Conservative scholars immediately dated that migration to the first century CE, assuming it took place after the First Jewish Revolt. In fact, a migration after the Second Jewish Revolt is more likely (Horsley, Leibner). More recent research has even shown that the migration of priestly “courses” never actually took place. It was a self-authentication exercise by priests in rabbinic times. They wished to link their present homes in the Galilee to pre-destruction Judean roots (Trifon). Conservative scholars have ignored these untoward findings. However, the truth regarding the inscription is far more radical, for no one has heretofore suspected that the inscription is itself a forgery. This conclusion is announced now for the first time on this website and on my companion weblog Mythicist Papers.
At the beginning of the Summer 2013, spurred by a fellow mythicist who was unsuspectingly using the “Caesarea inscription” as evidence for the existence of Nazareth, I decided to dig a little more deeply into the nature and genesis of this curious artifact. An Italian scholar in Europe, Enrico Tuccinardi, had already written an article on the inscription published in the 2010 Cahier of the Cercle Ernest Renan (Paris). I read his article and asked Mr. Tuccinardi for permission to translate it into English for my Mythicist Papers website. He agreed and became a collaborator in the exciting revelations to follow. For those who may wish to read Tuccinardi’s article in six parts, it begins here.
The “Caesarea inscription” is in three fragments. Fragment A is the one with the word Nazareth chiseled in its entirely. This is the fragment whose discovery caused such a stir, for until that time no ancient proof for the village existed—only attestations in Christian writings. From the beginning, however, one circumstance regarding the discovery of this fragment stood out for me as particularly suspicious: the scholar who found it was the late Jerry Vardaman, a notorious character known to the world as the pseudo-forger of microletters on ancient stones and coins. His involvement with the fragment A was a colossal red flag.
My suspicions were well founded. As Mr. Tuccinardi in Italy, a colleague in Israel, and myself proceeded to investigate what had been published about this inscription, it gradually became apparent to us that many additional circumstances were extraordinary. None of the three fragments had a verifiable findspot. One (fragment C) was lost. Fragment B itself appeared to have been tampered with. The three fragments did not match one another in color, size of lettering, or line spacing. Furthermore, no evidence could be found for a synagogue in the vicinity where these fragments were allegedly recovered (Govaars). Without a synagogue, of course, there would be no reason for such fragments to be present in that location, for such inscriptions only existed in ancient synagogues. All these indications led to the conclusions that Michael Avi-Yonah (the director of the 1962 excavation) was quite sloppy, and that Jerry Vardaman (his assistant) was less than candid as regards his astonishing “Nazareth” discovery.
In late August 2013, Mr. Tuccinardi discovered shocking new information regarding Jerry Vardaman. This was in the form of two letters written in 1972, ten years after the Caesarea excavation. The first letter is from the director of the American Schools of Oriental Research, the widely respected G. Ernest Wright. He inveighs against Vardaman’s character and abilities, accusing him of bribery, gross incompetence, and a complete lack of moral fibre. I have never read a more damning assessment of one scholar by another.
The second letter is a response by the SBTS director, William E. Hull. It advises Dr. Wright that Vardaman had been relieved of his post at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisville, KY)—no doubt as a result of Wright’s letter. Unfazed, Vardaman then assumed a professorship at Mississippi State University where he subsequently founded the Cobb Institute of Archaeology.
However, it was clear that both the circumstances of discovery of the “Caesarea inscription”, as well as the character of the discoverer were suspicious. To this I soon added a detailed timetable of Vardaman’s activity during the 1962 excavation season. He was absent from the excavations for long stretches of time, his whereabouts unknown. He was in Jerusalem at least once. Most curious, he left the excavation one week early and precisely on the day in which the “Nazareth” fragment was found. All this was remarkably suspicious in that it would fit the profile of someone who (1) engaged a forger in Jerusalem to produce the fragment A, and (2) someone who was relieved of his excavation permit on the same day as the “Nazareth” fragment was found.
The clincher lay for me in a statement from Wright’s 1972 letter. In it he says that “[Vardaman’s] attempt to dig at Caesarea some years ago was quietly stopped when the word was passed to the appropriate Israeli authorities.” Here was clear indication that the reason Vardaman left the excavation suddenly and prematurely was that the Israeli authorities quietly intervened. That was the very day of discovery of the “Nazareth” fragment. Evidently, someone in a position of influence was obviously suspicious and alerted the authorities. We must remember that Vardaman already had a history of bribery and of entanglement with the Jordanian police. The Israeli authorities in this instance took no chances and quickly removed Vardaman from the excavation. There can no longer be any doubt regarding the genesis of the “Nazareth” fragment A of the so-called “Caesarea inscription” (an inscription which we can now affirm never existed). Prof. E. Jerry Vardaman arranged for it to be forged in Jerusalem during the weeks prior to August 14, 1962. He then planted the forged fragment A in an excavation basket or wheelbarrow laden with debris destined for the dump. Vardaman casually directed a worker (Shalom Attieh) to sift through the wheelbarrow ‘one more time,’ and in this way the Nazareth fragment was “discovered.” Vardaman then brought the astonishing fragment—important enough to influence early Christian history—to the immediate attention of the excavation director, Michael Avi-Yonah, and to the attention of everyone else. However, someone knowledgeable of Vardaman’s compromised history was suspicious. He alerted the authorities who intervened and immediately removed Vardaman from the excavation, one week early.
The incompatibility of the three fragments, the very suspicious circumstances of discovery, the reprehensible character of the discoverer, and the damning letter of Dr. Wright all show beyond any reasonable doubt that the fragment A with the word “Nazareth” is a forgery perpetrated by the known lawbreaker Jerry Vardaman.
It is no longer possible to view the list of priestly courses from Caesarea as a valid historical artifact. The “Caesarea inscription” must henceforth be removed from the evidence for the town of Nazareth in Roman times.—René Salm