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The Myth of Nazareth, Does it Really Matter?
The Myth of Nazareth: The Invented Town of Jesus
Does it really matter?
by René Salm
A recent American Atheist column contained surprising results of new research into one of the most important venues of the Christian story: the town of Nazareth. This topic has been contentious for many years, and it is no coincidence that significant research into the dubious origins of Christianity should first appear in these pages, given what I consider the common sense and scientific acumen indigenous to Atheists. Of course, damaging material such as this puts the very stiff Christian neck in a scientific noose, as it were, and the Christian press has no interest in kicking the chair out from under itself. A nudge by well-intentioned Atheists at this critical juncture won’t hurt... With the knowledge that Nazareth did not exist in the time of Jesus, we have our fingers wrapped around one of the chair legs and are now poised to give it a decided heave.
The column in the November-December issue of American Atheist was aptly titled “Why The Truth About Nazareth Is Important.” This topic is indeed important, but not for the most obvious reason. After all, where Jesus really came from is hardly earthshaking. What must matter to all Christians, however, is the inescapable fact that the evangelists invented this basic element in the story of cosmic redemption. The proof is now at hand that “Jesus of Nazareth,” a long-standing icon of Western civilization, is bogus.
There can be no return to the comforting familiarity of the past, for with the proof that Nazareth did not exist at the turn of the era, the gospels leave the realm of history and forever enter the realm of myth. It is a swift kick to the solar plexus of Christian inerrantism, the scholarly equivalent of a punch sending the opponent to the mat—perhaps even a knock-out.
THE MYTH OF NAZARETH boots Christian certitude out the window, and the door is now wide open to ask, “What else did the evangelists invent?” As after the recent power shift in Congress, there will be questions… Up until now the tradition has been able to fend off attacks from the intellectual left because those attacks lacked proof. Now, archaeology has supplied the proof, and with it the balance finally shifts. The Church’s position must fall like a house of cards. After all, Nazareth is mentioned in all four canonical gospels and is neither an insignificant nor a passing element. If the tradition invented his hometown, then who can place faith in other aspects of the Jesus story, such as his virgin birth, miracles, crucifixion, or resurrection? Were these also invented? What, in other words, is left in the gospels of which the average Christian can be sure? What is left of his or her faith?
Scholars can now apply this radical new information to problems that have bedeviled them for three centuries, as they fruitlessly have tried to reconcile contradictions and make sense out of four narratives that obstinately refuse to agree. For example, it has long been known that the birth stories in Matthew and Luke are incompatible (in the Gospel of Matthew the Holy Family comes from Bethlehem, not Nazareth). Again, why is Jesus so often interacting with Pharisees in the Galilee, where they were hardly known before 70 CE? Why does Luke write about a preposterous Roman census in which everyone returned to his birthplace to register for taxation (2:1-7)? The Romans were far too practical to mandate such a recipe for instant social chaos. Besides, the evangelist was in error by several years (a different type of census took place in 6 CE). In any case, Galilee was not within the area of direct Roman jurisdiction (it was administered by the puppet ruler, Herod Antipas). To make a long story short, the invention of Nazareth now brings another alternative to the fore: these elements are not historical at all. They, too, are make-believe.
For readers who may not have the prior article at hand, I would like to summarize the results of my research on Nazareth carried out over the last eight years. Chronologically, those results can be reduced to the following five points:
(1) The earliest settlement in the Nazareth basin was destroyed about 730 BCE during the Assyrian conquest of the Holy Land. Before that time, the Bronze-Iron Age settlement (which had been in existence for some 1300 years) was not known as Nazareth but as Japhia, a town mentioned in the Bible and in Egyptian records.
(2) The destruction of Japhia was followed by a hiatus in settlement lasting from late VIII BCE until late I CE. During those eight centuries no one lived in the Nazareth basin.
(3) Nazareth came into being between the two Jewish revolts (70 CE–135 CE). That is, the town appeared when most scholars allege that the evangelists were writing their gospels. The appearance of Nazareth toward the end of the first century CE is confirmed most significantly by the 29 earliest oil lamps (the most datable finds), which date 25 CE–135 CE. In addition, the 20-odd Roman tombs in the basin all postdate 50 CE.
(4) It is not possible that Mary, Jesus, and Joseph lived where tradition says, namely, in the vicinity of the Church of the Annunciation. Not only was Nazareth not yet in existence during the time of the Holy Family, but Jewish law mandates that domiciles not be near tombs (corpses are a source of ritual impurity). This is significant because the venerated area was part of the village cemetery and agricultural district. For over fifteen hundred years, in fact, Christian pilgrims have been visiting and worshipping at a Late Roman cemetery and wine press.
(5) Nazareth was at first a Jewish village (without the admixture of heretics or pagans). It has lasted continuously from about 100 CE to the present.
The invention of Nazareth is proof positive that the evangelists were spinning a yarn, that the Gospels are myth in a big way, and that the Christian faith is, well… (supply the appropriate word). No longer can conservatives tout “gospel truth,” one of the three solas of the Reformation: Sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura (“Only grace, only faith, only scripture”). As the third leg of this triad dissolves before our very eyes, the other two must soon succumb as well.
Without Nazareth there can be no Christianity. After all, the village is more than the alleged hometown of Jesus. It is also the venue of the Annunciation. We all know the story: “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary” (Lk 1:26-27). The Church will now have to look for another venue where God united with the Blessed Virgin in the mysterium verbi, to produce a son both divine and human and to boggle the mind of man ever since. But we needn’t hold our collective breath as twenty-first century priests and nuns scour the Galilee for the real site of the annunciation. If such bull-headed clerics and conservatives do embark on that misguided vision quest, we should wish them better luck than their first choice, for the present Church of the Annunciation sits in a Roman cemetery dating a couple of hundred years after the time of Christ. It’s too late, though... “The situation is hopeless,” goes an Austrian proverb, “but not serious.” So also with Nazareth. The situation is hopeless for the tradition, but hopeful for freethinkers everywhere.
When one door closes another opens. If Nazareth did not exist in the time of Jesus, then the enigmatic term “Nazarene” (or “Nazorean”)—frequently found in Mark and in the other gospels—cannot refer to a place at all but must refer to something else, something long forgotten. This makes sense, for in the Acts of the Apostles (24:5) Paul is accused of being a “ringleader of the sect of the Nazoreans.” Obviously, he was not the ringleader of inhabitants of Nazareth! The Semitic root of Nazarene means “guard, preserve” (verb) and “branch, shoot” (noun). Thus, Paul was accused of being a leader of people who were trying to preserve something they considered precious. What that was has yet to be determined. In any case, the (probably pre-Pauline) religion of the Nazarenes must have been very different from the Christianity we know today.
Celebrate, freethinkers… Christianity as we know it may be finally coming to an end!
More information on the contents of this article and the forthcoming Popular Edition is available at www.nazarethmyth.info . The author can be contacted at [email protected] or by letter addressed to: Kevalin Press, P.O.Box 50201, Eugene OR 97405.