Busted (11): The Nazareth Myth

A scene from modern-day Nazareth

A scene from modern-day Nazareth; Source – Wikimedia Commons

To some people, the very idea of Jesus is apparently so threatening, that they will go to great lengths to pretend he never even existed.  Some of the shoddiest biblical “scholarship” I have ever read defends the so-called “Jesus Myth” theory:  The idea that Jesus never existed—or that he was just a normal guy around whom great myths were developed after his death.  From Richard Carrier to Acharya S (a pseudonym for author Dorothy Murdock, apparently meaning “guru”), we get treated to numerous varieties of the Jesus myth.  One element of the Jesus myth is the idea that Nazareth, Jesus’ home town, did not exist in his day.  As this fringe argument goes:  Nazareth didn’t exist, and so Jesus didn’t either.  As evidence, they tell us that Nazareth is not mentioned in the Old Testament, the Talmud, or in other early rabbinic literature.

Some proponents of this idea include Dan Barker, who made this argument in his book, Losing Faith in Faith, and René Salm in his book, The Nazareth Myth.  Other fringe characters get in on this act, too, including world renowned archaeologist and New Testament scholar, James Randi.  What?  You’ve never heard of a James Randi floating around in NT circles?  That’s because he’s not actually a scholar, nor is he an archaeologist.  He’s a magician and a professional skeptic who spends his time debunking psychics and other paranormal fraudsters.  To be sure, Randi does some good work, but it would seem that in tackling Nazareth, he’s a bit out of his depth.  For that matter, so are Barker and Salm.

At any rate, let’s dig into this a little bit.  Salm and others contend that Nazareth actually did exist, just not at the time of Jesus.  The say that there was a settlement at Nazareth during the Bronze Age.  Over time, it was abandoned.  During the centuries surrounding Jesus’ life time, there was no settlement there.  Then, it came to be resettled during the last part of the first century or early part of the second.

Many people have argued against this theory, but oddly enough, I’m going to turn to a scholar that many Christians love to hate:  Bart Ehrman.  In his book, Did Jesus Exist?:  The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, Ehrman does a fine job of eviscerating the Jesus Myth theory.  He also directly addresses the Nazareth question.

Ehrman discusses Salm’s book, which came out in 2008.  Ehrman is quick to point out that “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.”1

In addition, Ehrman cites two archaeologists who specialize in the region (Stephan Pfann and Yehudah Rapuano), who inform us that Salm’s work reveals a lack of expertise in the field and a lack of serious research on his sources.  Pfann and Rapuano state that Salm ignores or dismisses solid pottery, coin, and literary evidence for Nazareth’s existence at the time.  They add that Salm’s analysis should, itself, be relegated to myth.2

Ehrman quotes another archaeologist who specializes in Galilee, Ken Dark, Director of the Nazareth Archaeological Project.  He states that Dark

…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.”…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.”3

I find it amusing that on the back cover of Salm’s book, we find the comment, “I am amazed by your work and can’t wait to see the pathetic attempts to reply! — Robert M. Price, PhD, ThD.”  You may remember Robert Price.  He’s the scholar who argued that the gospels are wrong because they mention synagogues, which he says didn’t exist in Jesus’ day.  Well, that assertion didn’t work out so well for Price.  Not only was he wrong…He was spectacularly wrong, as we related in an article of our own.  If that’s the best support Salm can dig up for his work, then he’s in deep trouble, indeed.

So much for Salm.  Dan Barker, another proponent of the Nazareth myth, doesn’t fare much better.  Dr. Justin Bass of Dallas Theological Seminary, who has debated Barker, writes the following about a recent debate exchange with Barker:

From the beginning of his opening speech, Dan stated that the city of Nazareth did not exist at the time of Jesus, to support his case that Jesus was a legend…However, archaeological discoveries have definitively proven that Nazareth did, in fact, exist at the time of Jesus…The first argument Dan made that Jesus is legend was completely at odds with the facts.4

Bass adds that Barker is a very kind person, but that, “…it seems, from his (Barker’s) own admission, that he was not exposed to Christianity’s hard ‘evidences or arguments’ before he turned to atheism…For over 30 years he has been fighting against a fundamentalist caricature of Christianity and misrepresenting many of the facts surrounding Jesus of Nazareth.”5

Bass also informs us that Barker often uses weak sources to support his arguments.  He relates the following example:

Barbara Walker is included in Dan’s “other scholars” (Godless, 270-72) and is his primary source when arguing in Losing Faith and Godless that the Jesus story is a fanciful patchwork from other pagan religions. Walker though only has a degree in Journalism and publishes other books on knitting. In fact, James White challenged Dan in their debate on using Walker as one of his chief sources on Jesus and Dan agreed he would remove her from later editions of Godless.6

So, to this point, we have shown two things:

  • Those who argue against the existence of Nazareth are, at best, on the extreme fringe of scholarly opinion. They use weak sources and allow their prefabricated conclusions to drive their work.
  • Solid archaeological evidence supports the contention that Nazareth existed during Jesus’ time.

But wait, there’s more!  One year after Salm’s book was released, further archaeological discoveries were made that prove Nazareth was inhabited during Jesus’ day.  Most exciting are the remains of a house, the first dwelling in Nazareth that can be dated to the time of Jesus.  An NPR article (closely based on an AP story about the find) states that the find “could shed new light on what the hamlet was like during the period the New Testament says Jesus lived there as a boy.”7

The article adds:

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. It was evidently populated by Jews of modest means…said archaeologist Yardena Alexandre, excavations director at the Israel Antiquities Authority.8

Finally, what can we say about the lack of references to Nazareth in the Old Testament, the Talmud, or other early rabbinic literature?  My response is a big “So what?”  Archaeological evidence—and the New Testament itself—paint Nazareth as a very tiny, insignificant place.  No wonder there wasn’t a lot of writing about it.  Remember Nathanael’s comment in John 1:46 (NIV):  “”Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”

In short those who argue against the existence of Nazareth are doing so in contradiction to the facts.  They have been thoroughly discredited, and should probably focus on other things.

Notes

  1. Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, HarperOne, 2012, p. 194
  2. Ibid, p. 196.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Justin W. Bass, “Fact Checking Dan Barker: From Our Recent Debate, June 6, 2015”, Daniel B. Wallace Blog (Wallace is Executive Director of CSNTM & Senior Professor of NT Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary), August 1, 2015, accessed Jan. 18, 2016 at http://danielbwallace.com/2015/08/01/fact-checking-dan-barker-from-our-recent-debate-june-6-2015/
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Archaeologists: Jesus-Era House Found in Nazareth, NPR, Dec. 21, 2009, accessed Jan. 18, 2016 at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=121724812
  8. Ibid.
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