Nazareth, Faith, and the Dark Option—an Update
(American Atheist, January 2009. Used with permission.)
By René SalmAmerican Atheist has always championed the no-nonsense view of religion, and readers may note with a certain pride that this magazine has now emerged as a leading—if not the leading—advocate for the wholesale revision of Christian beginnings. Atheists have never shirked the challenge to take on the goliath of establishment Christianity, and today that challenge must include the controversial archaeology of Nazareth, which Frank Zindler has called “the Achilles’ heel of a popular god.” Readers will recall two articles in previous American Atheist issues on this topic , articles which preview and alert readers to my recent book, The Myth of Nazareth: The Invented Town of Jesus (American Atheist Press, March 2008). The opposition has now responded with the literary equivalent of a scream, and I’d like readers to know that the popular Christian god is in a heap of trouble and may be teetering.
The organ of this brouhaha is an obscure journal with a small distribution but long name: The Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society. Mercifully, the annual publication has a catchy abbreviation: BAIAS (no pun intended). Concerned scholars must have been properly miffed at the various writings on Nazareth coming from the Atheist camp, for they contribute no less than 47 pages (a third of the issue) to five rebuttals. Wow. Apparently we have indeed struck the Achilles’ heel, or at least a very raw nerve.
Much of the BAIAS material deals with an ambitious commercial enterprise presently underway in Nazareth to recreate Jesus’ hometown. The resort is known as “Nazareth Village.” When complete, the project will contain streets and several dozen 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…”  I don’t have recent figures, but as of 1999 an international consortium of Christian groups (called the Miracle of Nazareth International Foundation) had raised a whopping $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. (Gulp…)
In the interests of full disclosure, perhaps I should say that I’ve got nothing against Pat Boone. I also greatly admire Jimmy Carter’s advocating for free and fair elections, think his work with Habitat for Humanity is wonderful, and wish my teeth were half as shiny as his. The problem has to do with Nazareth, and specifically with the fact that certain scholars associated with the Nazareth Village project claim to have found evidence there for a town at the time of Jesus, that is, for a settlement before the First Jewish War (70 CE).
One of the main thrusts of my book is to carefully show that the scholarly Nazareth literature is littered with previous claims of this ilk, and that they are all bogus, inevitably resulting from misdating, mislabeling, misinterpreting—or even from pure invention.
Now, in the 11th hour, as it were, the world is being confronted with the possibility that a small group of scholars, intimately associated with a mega-resort, has ‘found’ all-important Jesus-evidence that has somehow eluded archaeologists digging for the last hundred years. Furthermore, they claim this evidence was just lying around on the surface of the site. I, for one, am skeptical!
The Nazareth Village resort lies on a 15-acre plot of land called the Nazareth Village Farm (NVF). The scholars under discussion (Stephen Pfann, Ross Voss, and Yehudah Rapuano) surveyed the farm, dug on it, and published a lengthy report in the 2007 issue of BAIAS (pp. 19–79).
The report appeared too late for inclusion in my book, but I had little difficulty showing that their Jesus-evidence does not exist. It consists of eleven small pieces of pottery—shards to which the NVF scholars assign an early date but which the standard textbook dates as late as the second century CE. In other words, the NVF scholars were choosing arbitrarily early dates for a few objects, and resting their Jesus-case on what amounts to mere preference.
Significantly, in my book I show that the rest of the material from the Nazareth basin dates after the time of Jesus. So, an early dating for the NVF objects in question is not consistent with the evidentiary profile for the area.
Perhaps more embarrassing for the authors of the NVF report are a number of flagrant double-datings in their pottery report. Unbelievable as it may sound, they dated certain artefacts one way in certain passages, and another way in other passages. One can only conclude that either the NVF authors were very sloppy, or they were capable of looking at the same piece twice and coming up with different dates for it.
Since The Myth of Nazareth had already appeared when this was published, I wrote a 15-page “Response” to the long NVF report and sent it to BAIAS, challenging them to publish it in their next (2008) issue. That issue has now appeared and is the subject of the rest of this article. In the Response I spell out the above confidence-sapping errors, with chapter and verse. I also made sure that a few copies of the book got into their hands.
Well, all this confrontational material was too much, I guess, because the good scholars on the other end apparently went ballistic. Not only was my “Response” published in the next BAIAS, but a wholesale correction of the previous pottery report also appeared—one now three times as long as the original, under the title “Amendment.” The scholars in question averred that there was, in fact, no incompetent ‘double-dating.’ It was simply, they explained, a minor (!) difficulty of “misnumbering”…two numbering schemes that apparently were not harmonized. Uh-huh.
A clever proposal?Professor Ken Dark, a British archaeologist not affiliated with the Nazareth Village Farm, has also been digging in and around Nazareth for the last several years. He wrote a review of The Myth of Nazareth which appeared in BAIAS along with the material mentioned above. As expected, the review is hostile. It is also, in my opinion, fairly weak simply because it evades the main thesis of my book, which is that there is no demonstrable evidence from the Nazareth basin dating to the time of Jesus and to Hellenistic times. Prof. Dark’s review does not acknowledge the shoddy history of scholarship relating to Nazareth, nor does it note the 800-year lacuna in evidence from the Nazareth basin (ca. 730 BCE–ca. 70 CE), nor even the post-Jesus dating for the all-important oil lamps. These are mainstays of my book’s argument. It is as if evidence simply doesn’t matter to the tradition. And, in fact, it doesn’t (see below).
At least, Prof. Dark admits that the earliest evidence from Nazareth is “ambiguous.” That is a tacit admission that the case for Nazareth in the time of Jesus is not certain. Folks, an admission of uncertainty is probably the most we’re going to get from the tradition!
For the standard scenario of Christian beginnings, the existence of tombs directly under the Church of the Annunciation at Nazareth is a particularly distressing issue, one emphasized in my book. That massive church (the largest Christian structure in the Middle East) is a prime destination of Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land. There, the Blessed Virgin allegedly received the annunciation from the Archangel Gabriel. For the faithful, tombs have no place under that structure because, according to Jewish religious law (Torah), Jews could not live in the vicinity of tombs, which are a prime source of ritual impurity. So, the Mishna (an ancient commentary on Jewish law) mandated that tombs must be located outside the village proper. Thus, tombs under the house of Mary have largely been denied by the tradition.
However, The Myth of Nazareth (Chapter Five) devotes many pages to various tombs under the Church of the Annunciation, and notes that several of them have not been denied by a number of archaeologists. Ken Dark also seems to appreciate that the tombs are undeniable. So, in the 2008 BAIAS, he offers a new twist on Nazareth history, one which cleverly accommodates both the tombs in the Venerated Area and the presence of the Holy Family. He suggests that early Nazareth was a two-stage affair. The first stage (Nazareth at the time of Jesus) was an agricultural village, apparently lacking tombs. Then, in the second century CE, the Nazarenes began to construct tombs on the hillside. Thus, the tombs detectable under the Church of the Annunciation do not affect the story of Mary—those tombs didn’t yet exist when she lived.
At first it seems like a clever scenario, but a little thought shows that Prof. Dark is hardly doing the tradition a favor by advocating this line of thinking. On the contrary, by insisting that the Nazareth tombs came later, Dark also dates the wealth of artefacts found in those tombs to post-Jesus times.
If anything, his line supports the view argued in my book, for I demonstrate that the post-Iron Age tombs at Nazareth are post-Jesus (i.e., Middle Roman and later), and that the wealth of pottery found in them is also later. Thus, Dark strongly supports a case for Nazareth in post-Jesus times, while impoverishing a case for Nazareth in the time of Jesus by excluding from consideration all the evidence found in the tombs. Hey, with enemies like Dark, who needs friends?
A Dark OptionThere is, unfortunately, another option which is rather dark (pun intended). The tradition’s case—and the British archaeologist’s scenario—can only be established by the verification of Hellenistic–I CE finds in the Nazareth basin. My book has pretty convincingly removed all prior claims of such evidence.
Thus, the only chance for the tradition to exonerate itself is if new evidence comes to light, evidence which directly and incontrovertibly supports a settlement at the turn of the era. Presumably, such finds would be non-funerary, for both Dark and myself seem to agree that the tombs at Nazareth date to post-Jesus times.
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 scepticism 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?
It’s all too late. Archaeologists have been digging at Nazareth for over a hundred years and, as my book attempts to show, all the recovered finds include not a single artefact that can with certainty be dated before 100 CE. In other words, no demonstrable evidence dating either to the time of Jesus or to earlier Hellenistic times has been found. This is quite sufficient to decide the issue against the traditional view of Nazareth. The case is closed!
No one, of course, is opposed to ongoing research at Nazareth, but that research will inform us about the nature of the Late Roman-Byzantine village, not about a mythical settlement at the turn of the era. That question has already been answered, and answered convincingly.
We should all look with great suspicion on new evidence ‘coming to light’ which conflicts with the evidentiary profile of the last hundred years, new evidence which astonishingly reopens the case for settlement in the time of Christ. Given the revelations documented in my book, and the lengthy history of duplicity associated with Nazareth archaeology, we have every right to insist that any new evidence be rigorously documented as to findspot, circumstances of discovery, and description (preferably accompanied by photo or diagram). Any claim of new, pre-70 CE evidence, should raise an alarm red flag. Such a claim tells us more about the persons making it than about Nazareth.
Fact versus FaithWhen it comes to the archaeology of Nazareth, there are now two camps, each capable of looking at the same evidence and reaching radically different conclusions. One camp I have called the tradition. It continues to claim the existence of Nazareth in the time of ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ (whose historicity is now increasingly questioned) and insists that the town was there, even as the gospels say, regardless of the facts in the ground.
For generations, the tradition has been defending itself by demanding, “Prove me wrong.” So, empiricists come up with the required facts, only to discover that the facts don’t seem to matter to some people. Unfortunately, there’s simply no way to disprove a myth. After all, neither you nor I can prove that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. We can go to the North Pole, can dig up there (under water and ice!) all we want, and can find absolutely no evidence for his gift-packing facility nor for his team of flying reindeer. But to a believer, we can’t prove those don’t exist. All the believer has to say is, “Well, you didn’t look in the right places,” “He’s hiding,” or even “He’s invisible.” Unfortunately, common myths involving Jesus are every bit as weird.
Empiricists need not waste their lives endlessly fact-checking, double-checking, and triple-checking, while faith-based morons sit back and watch the comedy. In other words, we needn’t waste our time trying to convince unreasoning people. Those who want to believe in Santa Claus, and want to believe the Christian myth, certainly have that right. On the other hand, we have every right not to partake of such mindless delusions, and to see the world as clearly as our senses and reason permit.
Nazareth is a case in point, where facts are critical to one side and irrelevant to the other. Empiricists are good at collecting and analyzing facts. They bring them to believers, perhaps thinking “This will convince them,” and watch while the other side changes the rules or moves the goal posts. Theoretically, there’s no end to the impossible demands of faith. People have been digging in Nazareth for generations, and no evidence from the time of Jesus has been forthcoming. That’s good enough for empiricists, who sensibly conclude: a settlement at Nazareth didn’t exist at the turn of the era. But the tradition can still stubbornly maintain that Nazareth existed in those parts of the basin where we haven’t yet dug. That’s like kicking the can down the road. Even a trained archaeologist like Ken Dark continues this false pattern, as demonstrated in his book review of The Myth of Nazareth:
The initial question must be whether the stated aims of the book are archaeologically achievable. It would, hypothetically, be archaeologically possible to show that there was no Second Temple period [i.e. Persian/Hellenistic–I AD] settlement evidence on any of the sites so far excavated in Nazareth. But it is not possible to show archaeologically on the basis of available data that Nazareth did not exist in the Second Temple period (or at any other period), because the focus of activity at any period may be outside the still few excavated and surveyed areas. Hypothetically, it is possible that Late Roman pilgrims and church-builders were incorrect when they took the present site of Nazareth as its New Testament counterpart, and that New Testament period Nazareth was elsewhere. Elsewhere? That’s kicking the can down the road. After all, there’s no way we can dig everywhere, and there’s absolutely no reason why we should engage in the endless and futile effort of humoring the irrational wishes of theists. No. There comes a time when evidence (and its lack) must speak.
The two camps—rationalist and faith-based—are coalescing around many religious issues today, including the archaeology of Nazareth. The traditional camp now has an extensive Nazareth literature upon which to draw for future citations and authority—the writings of generations of hidebound archaeologists and scholars (Viaud, Kopp, Bagatti, Strange, now Dark). It is a self perpetuating culture which can (and probably will) go on ad infinitum, as the tradition cites false facts and skewed information, seeking only to appease the many who don’t care to think, anyway.
Then there’s the rationalist camp, which on this issue is represented by a small but growing literature on Nazareth (Cheyne, Zindler, Salm). There may now exist the critical mass needed for this view to also become a self-perpetuating alternative to the traditional, bogus position. I certainly hope that’s the case, and that we do not lose our initiative regarding this Achilles’ heel of Christianity. It may be that the rationalist and faith-based camps are speaking past each other, and probably always will. But our side needs to assert itself when the opportunity presents, if only because none of us wants mankind to suffer through another Dark Ages ruled by faith and unreason.
Endnotes1. “Why the Truth About Nazareth Is Important” (American Atheist, Nov-Dec 2006, pp. 14–19); “The Myth of Nazareth: The Invented Town of Jesus: Does it really matter?” (American Atheist March, 2007, pp. 13–14).
2. Biblical Archaeology Review, vol. 25, May–June 1999, p. 16. At the time of this writing (December 2008) the website for the Nazareth Village was http://www.nazarethvillage.com/research/.
3. The Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society, 2008:141–42.
Editor’s NoteIn all the disputation over coins and tombs and pottery shards—and now the claim that ‘Nazareth’ may have been located somewhere else—we must not lose sight of the fact that the so-called Venerated Sites at which the various Franciscan pseudoarchaeologists have been digging for the last century or so were situated where they are out of a necessity to make them fit the requirements of the Gospels’ descriptions as much as possible. Even so, the tradition has failed miserably in fitting the Venerated Sites into the picture painted by the Gospel accounts.
According to Luke 4:16–30, for example, there should be a synagogue at the top of Nazareth hill and a “brow of the hill” (cliff) over which the Jews once tried to cast Jesus down to his death. No such cliff exists, nor is there any reasonable place where such a cliff could have existed during the last hundred-thousand years. Of course, no synagogue remains have ever been found atop the Nazareth hill’or anywhere in the vicinity. In fact, no evidence of buildings of any kind dating to the turn of the era has ever been found at the Venerated Sites.
René Salm has presented exhaustive proof to show that the Gospel story cannot possibly be true if the Venerated Sites are, in fact, ‘Nazareth.’ Any archaeologist who claims some other site is the true Nazareth must either show that it better fits the Gospel descriptions or state publicly, plainly, and loudly: “The Gospels are in error!”—Frank R. Zindler