Rene Salm, The Myth of Nazareth: The Invented Town of Jesus. America n Atheist Press, 2008.
Reviewed by Robert M. Price
In all the discussion of faith and history such as that in Van A. Harvey’s classic The Historian and the Believer, archaeology inevitably comes to the fore as the source from which surprises threaten to emerge. What might upset faith’s apple cart? Many things might (including genetic research, as Mormons recently found out the hard way), not to mention the critical study of historical documents, but believers are adept at fending off evidence of that kind. For really rigorous thought experiments one usually imagines the delver’s spade turning up some gross inconvenience such as the bones of Jesus or the bone box of his brother. And yet it is the entire absence of archaeological evidence that has wrought great devastation to the credibility of the Bible (not to mention the Koran!). Old Testament minimalism has torn from our grasp the once-firm hold we thought we had on the historical character of ancient Israelite narrative. Who’d have guessed Davidic Jerusalem was only a crossroads with a gas pump? Solomon’s temple little more than a Vegas wedding chapel (if even that)? And now we have to ask ourselves: Can any good news come out of Nazareth? That all depends on where one stands, but Rene Salm has shown that we have an utter void of archaeological vestiges of the Galilean home town of Jesus. At least there was no such town in the early part of the first century. The area had indeed been inhabited in the Iron and Bronze Ages, but by the time of Jesus it had been empty and windswept for some eight hundred years. It began to be repopulated about the middle of the first century CE, twenty years after Jesus’ ostensible death.
Salm examines every bit of known evidence from the Nazareth Plateau. What a disparity between his results (none of them methodologically dubious, none controversial except in result) and the blithe generalizations of certain well-known Bible encyclopedias and Bible archaeology handbooks. Their authors write as if there were enough evidence not only to establish a Jesus-era Nazareth but even to characterize it in various ways. A great deal of the confusion inherited by these “experts” stems from the schizophrenic researches of Roman Catholic diggers and taggers charged by Rome to find out what they could about Nazareth. To them it seemed that Church tradition and Gospel narrative deserved to be considered evidence equal in importance to the yield of the ground. Their procedure was exactly like that of B.B. Warfield and his fellow inerrantists who insisted on giving equal weight to both the “claims” and the “phenomena” of scripture. The result is inevitably and even intentionally skewed.
Salm’s archaeological outcome does fit quite well with other literary considerations, namely the entire silence of both Josephus and the Mishnah when it comes to Nazareth. More than this, it seems to confirm a long-standing critical theory that “Jesus the Nazorean/Nazarene” first denoted a sectarian label, reflecting the Nazorean sect(s) catalogued by various Jewish, Christian, and Muslim heresiologists, notably including the still-living Mandaean (Nasorean) sect of Iraq. Jesus was considered to be a member, or at least a pious Jew of that type (Nasoreans were itinerant carpenters, among other things). It was only later, once a higher Christology had begun to feel uneasy with notions such as Jesus receiving instruction from John the Baptist or even from village tutors, that some preferred to understand “Nazarene” to mean “of Nazareth.” And by this time, there was a Nazareth, which the gospel writers were only too happy to retcon, or retroject, into the first century BCE.
One fears Rene Salm will prove as welcome amid the conventional “Nazareth” apologists as Jesus was among the Nazarene synagogue congregation in the gospels. But for others, it must now become apparent that we must bracket the gospel stories till we can independently reconstruct an account of Christian origins from the evidence on the ground—or the lack of it. New Testament minimalism: full speed ahead!