Nazareth – the evidence mounts

February 23rd, 2015

Excavated tomb in Nazareth

I have written before about archaeological excavations in Nazareth and sceptics who claim Nazareth didn’t exist as a village at the time of Jesus (and hence the gospels must be wrong) – see Did Bethlehem and Nazareth exist in Jesus’ day? and Nazareth re-visited.

I have just come across some new information that was first published more than two years ago in an academic journal, but has now been written up in a more widely-read magazine.

Excavations at the Sisters of Nazareth convent

Dr Ken Dark has a PhD in archaeology from Cambridge University and is Associate Professor at Reading University. He has been doing archaeological work in Galilee for more than a decade, and has published several papers on his findings. In 2012 he published on the results of an excavation under the Sisters of Nazareth convent in the centre of the present city of Nazareth.

He concludes from the remains of a structure, and the dating of some artefacts found there and two tombs, that this is the remains of “an exceptionally well-preserved domestic building, probably a ‘courtyard house'” dating from about the middle of the first century. Unusually, it appears that the house went out of use a little later that century and the tombs were cut into the abandoned house before the end of the first century. (One of the tombs is shown in the photo above.)

Archaeological evidence for Nazareth in Jesus’ day

Archaeological evidence of first century Nazareth is sparse, because the area has been built over by the present day city. Archaeologists have to work with just a few available sites. But the evidence for the ancient village of Nazareth continues to mount:

  • Excavations in the 1950s and 1960s on the site of the Basilica of the Annunciation in central Nazareth were judged by the Israel Antiquities Authority to be “the nucleus of the small Roman-period village.”
  • A number of tombs and graves dated to the first century have been found in the vicinity of Nazareth.
  • First century coins have been found at Mary’s Well in Nazareth (located about a kilometre from the convent site, and probably outside the ancient village), and there is some evidence of a Roman bath house nearby. On their own, these provide little conclusive evidence, but they add to the picture.
  • The Nazareth Village Farm site is located nearby to the above sites, and was once a farm on a hill just outside ancient Nazareth. Excavations over the past decade have found several structures (a winepress, several watchtowers and agricultural terraces). Coins and pottery found at the site confirm that there was an agrarian community at Nazareth in the first century.
  • In 2009, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced it had uncovered the remains of a first century house at the International Marian Center site nearby to these others. Artefacts again indicated the house was occupied in the first century, probably before 70 CE.
  • Finally there is this latest excavation, indicating a house occupied in the middle of the first century.

The conclusion of a number of archaeologists working in the area is that Nazareth at the time of Jesus was a small village of only a few hundred people, and possibly a little larger a few decades later. Agriculture was carried out nearby, the village’s water supply came from a spring not far outside, and some of the houses were built of stone.

You would think that evidence would be pretty conclusive, but it isn’t that simple.

Sceptics about first century Nazareth

There are sceptics who argue that Nazareth didn’t exist at the time of Jesus, and this is just another evidence that Jesus was a fictitious character. I’m not aware of there being any archaeologists among them, nor anyone who has worked on digs at Nazareth. The main spokesperson for this group is Rene Salm.

They claim that the archaeologists working in this area are incompetent and/or biased (apparently they are accused of serving the cause of christian apologetics or Jewish tourism). They argue that the evidence points to later dates for all the remains discovered so far. However, in a location where so little of the area can be excavated, it is impossible to prove there was no occupation in the mid first century. The most they can hope to show is that the evidence is ambiguous.

However the archaeologists have rebutted Salm’s claims and arguments, saying that in many cases his alleged facts are demonstrably in error, and the evidence is clear. Salm hints at conspiracy, especially when a paper he prepared was rejected by an academic journal.

The motives for scepticism

When it comes down to choosing who to believe, the qualified archaeologists or the inexperienced amateurs, there really is no choice. It is feasible that an amateur could pick up an occasional mistake by the experts, but when half a dozen professional archaeologists working on several different sites all come to the same conclusion, the cumulative evidence is very strong.

René Salm’s claim that Nazareth did not exist in the days of Jesus is dead wrong and is rejected by every recognized authority – whether archaeologist, textual scholar, or historian; whether Jewish, Christian, agnostic, or other.

Bart Ehrman

It is hard not to conclude that the sceptics are being driven by ideology rather than evidence. Their continued unwillingness to accept the growing evidence reflects badly on their claims to base their views on rationality and evidence.

The arguments about the Sisters of Nazareth site

Dark’s dating is based on the artefacts found at the site and the type of tombs found. Salm contests both.

  • He argues that the artefacts found were not in locations that provide good dating evidence, but it is hard to see how he would know since he wasn’t there. The most he can say is that Dark hasn’t outlined the evidence in sufficient detail for Salm to draw a conclusion.
  • The dating of these ‘kokhim’ tombs is complex and certainly beyond my ability to make judgments. Everyone seems agreed that there were kokhim tombs in Galilee in the first century, but Salm argues (I imagine correctly) that these tombs were in use for several centuries afterwards and were rare in the first century, so a later dating is more likely. But while that may be true, in itself it says nothing against the dating selected by Dark, based on a number of references.

Salm seems to have taken the in-principle feasibility of a later date as evidence of a later date (which of course is not necessarily so), whereas Dark has based his conclusion on the evidence as he sees it. Again, he is the expert, he has investigated the site, and his fellow scholars apparently accept his expertise and judgment.

What next?

Archaeological excavations continue where there is opportunity, and several of the digs listed above have not yet produced final reports. It will be interesting to see what evidence turns up next.

It seems likely that the sceptics will find themselves on a small island of disbelief as the tide of evidence rises around them. It will also be interesting to see how they respond.

Read more

Picture: Tomb 1 from Ken Dark’s paper (photo by Dr Dark).

4 Comments

  1. It doesn’t surprise me that evidence is mounting for this. It has always seemed a bit foolish to me to attempt to build skepticism on the shaky ground of how poorly we understand today the history of so long ago.

  2. Yes, archaeology is very much an example where absence of evidence may be evidence of lack of opportunity to dig, not lack of artefacts. All the more reason to accept the evidence when it is found.

  3. but Salm argues (I imagine correctly) that these tombs were in use for several centuries afterwards and were rare in the first century

    Kuhnen says kokhim tombs were built until the early third century, but doesn’t make that claim specifically for Galilee. And he all out denies that they would be rare in the first century, which he in fact regards as their heyday.

    It looks like Salm pushes a very extreme line on the kokhim tombs.

  4. Hi, thanks for that. It seems on other occasions Salm has been accused of misrepresenting, overstating or plain inventing evidence, so maybe he’s strayed into that territory here too?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *