Nazareth in the First Century

Nazareth in the First Century June 8, 2013

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encountered claims by atheists who insist that there was no village of Nazareth in the first century, often citing outdated or misunderstood archaeological data, or worse still, things written by people who are not themselves archaeologists and yet nonetheless feel they are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.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Name me a single person who denies that Nazareth was settled in at least a part of the 1st century AD.

    • 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.

      • [citation needed].

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

          • 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.

          • 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.

    “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.”


    “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.

  • 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


    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

    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 !


    Steven Avery

    Bayside, NY

  • 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: 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.

      • 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
    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

    • 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.

    • 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.

      • Michael

        “Nazareth” did not exist in 1st century Palestine, and as one presenting himself as knowledgeable on the subject you should know better. Nazareth was created in the 4th century to appease Empress Helena on her quixotic quest to find all of the imaginary locales depicted in the book of fiction known as the New Testament.

        Nazareth is never mentioned by any contemporaneous historians, church fathers, or in any Roman records. You know as well as I that nazir, nazarene or nazarite conveys no meaning as to a town where folks supposedly originate.

        Come back when you have something factually correct to say.

        • You sound like you’ve been drawing on armchair archaeologist Rene Salm and not recent work by archaeologists.

          Insults are not a substitute for substance, nor for knowledge of an academic field.

          • Michael

            Don’t get your panties in a bunch. You know as well as I that the ONLY artifacts recovered from the 1st century are votive oil lamps. The latest possible find of a couple of homes only indicate that the cemetery may have had a groundskeeper or may have belonged to a couple of ostracized Jews.

            There was no village, town, city or metropolis at that site and I challenge you to present any evidence to the contrary.

            Until you provide some accurate information to support your assertions insults is all that is forthcoming.

            I have yet to see you display any actual academic knowledge in the field and your protestations to my tone is beside the point. My dismissive tone comes from years of pointing out errors made by those (religionists) who refuse to acknowledge the preponderance of evidence which refutes the biblical narrative.

            May god b-less. ; )

          • You’re very amusing, as far as the pseudohistorical trolls that visit here repeating these claims go. You even claim to know what sort of underwear I wear, and yet you can’t even keep your claims straight. First you tried to claim that there was no settlement on the site because they found tombs, as though anyone outside of your bizarre imagination claimed that people had built their homes right where the tombs were. Now you are acknowledging what you presumably knew all along, that there was a settlement there. You claim to know whether or not the residents were ostracized, which is likewise bizarre. You then muddle the spectrum from village all the way through to metropolis, as though someone had ever claimed that the first century village in the orbit of the metropolis of Sepphoris would itself have been a metropolis.

            My goodness, what on earth drives people to repeat this sort of nonsense? And how can anyone possibly think that they sound well-informed, much less persuasive, when doing so?

          • Michael

            There was no settlement there. One or two houses does not a village make.
            There is also evidence that the “possible” 1st century dwellings belonged to Greeks/Romans.

          • Michael

            NAZARETH – The Town That Theology Built

          • Michael

            The Old Testament is fiction. The New Testament draws on the fictions of the old.
            Why discuss Jesus when one has yet still to prove the existence of a god, much less its offspring.

          • This is not about theology, this is about history and evidence. It is telling that you cannot seem to stay focused on that topic. But that is not quite as telling as the fact that you think that pasting links to YouTube represents an argument at all, never mind a persuasive one. But more importantly, you seem not to know the significance of the links you share. Israel Finkelstein is a fantastic scholar, and his work is helpful both in countering the claims of those who treat the Bible as straightforward fact, and those who pretend it is pure fiction. Archaeology allows us to see when later generations have rewritten their story. But it is no friend to mythicism and other forms of pseudohistory.

          • Michael

            I proffer videos which discuss the content and context of our discussion on the historicity of the bible or any of its colorful characters so that you may receive the words of historians and archaeologists in their own words.
            Otherwise you would be questioning my truthyness. It also saves me a lot of typing.

            The only biblical historians and archaeologists which support the biblical narrative are themselves believers.
            No bias there, huh?

          • That is simply not the case. Indeed, one strong argument for the historicity of Jesus is the fact that he fits so awkwardly into the religious frameworks of those who investigate him, just as a crucified messiah was a problem back when things got started. Your persistent inability to simply focus on this as a secular matter of history suggests that your actual interest is in apologetics. But I’d suggest that the overwhelming scholarly consensus about the Jesus of history will serve you better than the embarrassing pseudoscholarship known as mythicism even if your aim is to attack religion rather than to study history. Just as conservative Christians only undermine their own credibility when they use creationist arguments, atheists who make or borrow mythicist claims do the same thing.

          • Michael

            Mark my words, Prof. The mythicists argument is getting stronger by the day and soon will no longer be considered as ‘on the fringe’. More evidence mounts which supports the mythicist position and undermines biblical claims.
            The cognitive dissonance you feel from conversing with me is evident in every believer I speak with.

            The bible is fiction and demonstrably so. That is what upsets you so. Not me.

            Creationism is a lost cause. Evolution is a fact. Biblical stories are just that – stories meant for an other people and another time. Trying to prove the history of the bible or any character in it is ultimately futile. There is even doubt as to the existence of Paul.

            You, in the future: Ridding oneself from beliefs frees the mind.

          • LOL. And “evolution is a theory in crisis”… Pseudoscholarship always pretends to be original free thinking, and yet the same patterns can be seen in denialism across a wide range of fields and disciplines.

          • Michael

            Oh, really? Facts disprove faith. I’ll let you watch and listen instead of all that difficult reading and such. ; )

            God is dead. Long live truth.

          • You still can’t seem to stay on topic, but must always turn from the historical question to “faith”. Evolution is not a theory in crisis. The historicity of Jesus is not a theory in crisis. Neither depends on faith. Both are matters of mainstream secular inquiry, and true believers and denialists only look foolish when they blather on the internet as though their fringe views were gaining credibility, because you can put together a “dissent from Darwin” or “dissent from Jesus” list. That isn’t how academic scholarship works.

          • Michael

            See?! This what the real problem is – you haven’t even had time to view one minute of either of those vids before you felt the need to blah blah blah. This shows that you are not interested in learning new things or my thoughts through an open discussion but only interested in preserving your beliefs.

            Science doesn’t lie. Religions always have. All of the hoaxes, frauds and lies have come from one side in this argument.
            If believers always have to resort to lies, frauds and hoaxes to shore-up their faith, of what good is that faith?

            You came with your beliefs and no amount of evidence from any source is good enough for you to alter them.

            This is the harm caused by religions.

          • Again, this is not a discussion of the falsehoods in religions, nor of the precision that science offers. Are you or are you not capable of talking about a matter of history? Whether someone like Jesus or Joseph Smith was a charlatan or a prophet may be a religious matter, but trying to combat either by denying their historicity is just foolish counterapologetics.

          • Michael

            There is no history to be discussed except what is recorded in the collection of tracts known as the holy bible.
            Later concretions of ridiculous assertions not withstanding, there is no more “history” in the bible than there is in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

            Yes, the bible mentions Egypt and the Euphrates River,
            like Tom Sawyer mentions Missouri and the Missouri River.

            Try and find Tom Sawyer’s birth place or grave.
            Arguing over the historicity of Tom Sawyer is just the same.

            The reason no one believes in Zeus anymore is that mothers do not teach their children to believe in Zeus.
            Stop teaching kids christianity and it will collapse under it own weight of lies and follow the rest of
            man-made gods into obscurity.

          • Putting a collection of different literature all in a single category, and thinking that it is an argument to then mention it in the same sentence as some other work of literature, is not an argument, much less a persuasive one.

            Creationists do it all the time. Can you really not hold up a mirror and see yourself?

          • Michael

            Pot calling kettle…

          • Michael

            What “different literature”? Fiction is fiction.

          • Michael

            You want to see me? I am a 61 year old Ordained Minister with a Doctorate of Divinity.
            Most folks call me Rev. Dr. Michael Jones.

            You may call me Mike, if you wish. ; )

          • Michael

            Butler University, eh?
            Got ‘ya beat… University of Hawaii, Hilo ; )

    • Ann Watson

      Elementary, my dear. ; )

      • Michael

        One should think. ; )