Nazareth in the First Century

It seems that Richard Dawkins may be right about infectious memes. But they aren’t just an issue for religious people. I have on multiple occasions encountered claims by atheists who insist that there was no village of Nazareth in the first century, often citing outdated or misunderstood archaeological data, or worse still, things written by people who are not themselves archaeologists and yet nonetheless feel they are qualified to offer a completely different interpretation of the existing evidence than professional archaeologists do.

Even as I thought of gathering some data into a blog post, Helen Bond posted information about lectures by Ken Dark about archaeology in Galilee. One of the lectures includes a treatment of the evidence from Nazareth in the first century. The presence of kochim tombs with fragments from ossuaries indicates that the people living there were Jewish and that this is the relevant time period. It isn’t clear to me from what I’ve read whether there is a closer proximity of dwellings to  tombs than one would expect if the purity concerns advocated by the Pharisees were observed there. If so, then it will have to be said that Geza Vermes was extremely insightful when he suggested that in Jesus we see an authentic Galilean spirituality which was often in dialogue with and at odds with the vision of the Pharisees, who sought to transfer the purity of the temple into everyday life.

Even before recent work was done, however, we had a Jewish inscription related to priestly courses which mentioned Nazareth in roughly the third century. One merely had to note the unlikelihood that priests resettling after the destruction of the temple in the year 70 would have founded a town with the name of a fictional site invented by Christians, and one had sufficient evidence to make it likely that Nazareth existed before then.

For those who may have bought into the “Nazareth never existed” nonsense, I encourage you to reflect on the fact that you have listened to the archaeological equivalent of young-earth creationists. They might well be genuinely skeptical in other areas, but in this one they’ve bought into a conspiracy theory, and one that simply does not fit the evidence we’ve long had, much less the evidence that has come to light more recently.

 

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  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    Name me a single person who denies that Nazareth was settled in at least a part of the 1st century AD.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/ James F. McGrath

      Rene Salm says there there wasn’t even a Nazareth then. And apparently James Randi bought into it, if I remember correctly a talk I heard.

      • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

        [citation needed].

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/ James F. McGrath

          Salm has a web site, “The Myth of Nazareth.” I’ve interacted with him here before.

          • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

            According to Salm,

            The Myth of Nazareth shows that the village came into
            existence not earlier than 70 CE (the climax of the First Jewish War),
            and most likely in early II CE—the same era in which the canonical
            gospels were being edited.

            -So Salm does admit that Nazareth might have been settled in the 1st C AD after 70 AD.

          • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/ James F. McGrath

            So is your point that I ought to have been more precise and said “in the time of Jesus”? That might have been better. Centuries do not have hermetic seals at their beginnings and ends, and so are used for convenience of reference.

            Salm seems to be adamant only that Jesus was not inhabited and did not exist in Jesus’ time. He seems quite happy for it to have existed earlier and later, as long as it vanished completely in Jesus’ time.

  • GakuseiDon

    Strangly enough, there is also the meme that there was no functioning town of Bethlehem in the time of Jesus, so Jesus couldn’t have been born there either: either.http://www.religioustolerance.org/xmaswwjb.htm

    “Perhaps the most important reason to suspect the accuracy of Matthew and Luke is that Bethlehem in Judea did not exist as a functioning town between 7 and 4 BCE when Jesus is believed to have been born. Archaeological studies of the town have turned up a great deal of ancient Iron Age material from 1200 to 550 BCE and lots of material from the sixth century CE, but nothing from the 1st century BCE or the 1st century CE.”

    and

    “Many archaeologists and theological scholars believe Jesus was actually born in either Nazareth or Bethlehem of Galilee, a town just outside Nazareth”

    • Gary

      I’d feel better if the web site originated at a university, not that I’m doubting anything. But “Ontario Consultants”… And the final paragraph,
      “Funds for Oshiri’s archaeological study have run out. He is attempting to raise additional support so that the investigations can continue.”
      Doesn’t give me a warm and fuzzy.

  • http://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/ jesuswithoutbaggage

    Just recently I encountered the claim that Nazareth did not exist in the time of Jesus. I had never heard that before. Without further research I did not take it too seriously, but I did recall that Nazareth was mentioned prominently in a book I had read on nearby Sepphoris.

    It is interesting how eagerly people grab hold of spurious information that supports their viewpoint and state it as fact (proof). Of course, this happens with Christians too.

  • lance Geologist

    When people try to make the Bible into a science book or an archeology text, I think the message becomes lost.Even if the early oral accounts are not absolutely factual or we can not find evidence, one can still get the message.Walk the areas around the sea of Galilee, they are so close it would seem reasonable that many of the religious “sites” are nearby or the “sites” visited today are in fact the ones mentioned.What difference does it make?False or unverified details do not invalidate the overall message.

  • StevenAvery

    Hi,

    One of the problems of the Nazareth mythicist absurdity (which you discuss well with a spot of droll Brit humor that Americans might miss) is that it diverts discussion about a more fundamental issue as to whether we have the location of the Bible Nazareth correctly identified.

    And I posted on this on the comments in the Larry Hurtado blog:

    Recent Reports on Galilean Archaeology–Ken Dark
    http://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/2013/06/11/recent-reports-on-galilean-archaeology-ken-dark/

    and maybe a related piece I just wrote will show up on the Helen Bond / Ken Dark piece.

    Now that I know of this blog, I’ll have to see if you discuss Early Christian monotheism, early Christology and the related issues !

    Shalom,

    Steven Avery

    Bayside, NY

  • http://Dorianmattar.com Dorian Moises Mattar

    Nazareth goes back 1000 years BC, thats not in question. The issue is that it got destroyed or who knows what, and them rebuilt 150 years or so AD. I’ve read different claims from all sides about the period in between which is what is related to the bible’s story. I can’t find a REAL ARCHAEOLOGICAL writing about that period. If anyone knows of one, please link it.

    • Ignorantia Nescia

      There are some archaeological publications, but I don’t have links.

      One is Pfann, Voss, Rapuano, “Surveys and Excavations at the Nazareth Village Farm (1997–2002): Final Report” in Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society (2007), Volume 25. Salm has a critique in the following issue, with others’ replies to it. Actually, all of Volume 26 is dedicated to the Nazareth question.

      Alexandre also documents some Hellenistic and Early Roman coin finds in her recent publication. These are the coins Salm insisted didn’t exist because they weren’t mentioned in an earlier report. Salm’s tantrums about the “coin boondoggle” can be read here: http://www.nazarethmyth.info/scandaleight.html Many of his complaints are obsolete now Alexandre’s work has been published, but he may still cling on to them. I don’t know.

      • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/ James F. McGrath

        The treatment in Jerome Murphy-O’Connor’s archaeological guide to the Holy Land is also useful, even though it doesn’t include the most recent excavations, since it includes some of the textual references as part of the broader picture.

        I think that armchair critics like Salm, because they have no actual contact with archaeological digs or even archaeologists, can fail to appreciate that the relevant evidence is regularly beneath buildings currently in use, and excavation often depends on a property owner’s decision to demolish or radically renovate a current structure. Because there is so much of importance in Israel, it is standard procedure for the IAA to be contacted in such cases, I believe. But no one has the right to say “Some internet kook says there was no Nazareth in the first century, so let us dig underneath your house/store and see if we can prove him wrong.”

  • hisxmark

    What is undeniable is that religious tourism is big business in modern Israel, and was so even in Biblical times. And if you didn’t know know where a site was anymore after seven or eight armies had leveled the country and killed most of the population scattering the survivors, some clever entrepreneur could put a tourist tra.. er .. holy pilgrimage site any economically convenient, place and call it anything you wanted.
    I don’t know if Jesus lived within twenty miles of modern “Nazareth” and neither does anyone else. It would make no difference to anyone if it weren’t for the money tourism brings in.

  • Nehemiah Scudder

    Archaeologists have been searching the sites around “Nazareth for over a
    century and the sum total of valid early first century finds can be
    counted on the fingers of one foot. And the late first century kokh
    tombs are from the nearby village of Japhia, where Josephus lived for a
    time while commander of the Jewish forces during the first Jewish
    revolt.
    Those that subscribe to the “Nazareth never existed” idea are
    the archaeological equivalent of those that “bought into” the idea of
    Giordano Bruno that the earth orbits the sun, and the stars are not
    merely twinkly lights stuck to the inside of a crystal dome but distant
    suns, possibly orbited by worlds of their own. And we all know how silly
    an idea that turned out to be

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      You can keep telling yourself that, if it makes you feel better. But to be the next Giordano Bruno or Albert Einstein, one doesn’t just need to disagree with the consensus of experts. One must also be correct, and in this case, the evidence simply disagrees with your assertions.

  • Michael

    The discovery of Jewish tombs do not signify that they actually lived on the site.
    Actually, the opposite is true. Jews would never have lived on a cemetery as it
    would render them ritually unclean and so prevent them from making
    sacrifices, entering the temple, or otherwise fulfilling their duties to God.
    The tombs uncovered were either Greek or Roman.
    Nothing has ever been found at that site except votive oil lamps.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      The last statement is simply not true – the use of chalk vessels found in a first century home in Nazareth reflects the observance of Jewish purity rules. Your first statement is an attempt to state the obvious as though it is relevant, perhaps in the hope that someone might be fooled by the sleight of hand. Of course the dwellings were not on top of the tombs. On the other hand, people buried their dead in the vicinity of their villages.

    • Ann Watson

      Elementary, my dear. ; )