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Nazareth is a city in what is now northern Israel (within the pre-1967 borders). It is known as the childhood home of Jesus, who is described as a "Nazarene" in the Gospels, and it therefore attracts a lot of attention from Christians. However, some people (including René Salm and other Jesus mythicists) have questioned whether the connection with Jesus could have been true, and suggest that there is no evidence of Nazareth existing in Jesus's time. Nazareth is now a large regional centre with a population of 76,551. So it exists now, but its earlier history is less clear.
The idea of the non-existence of Nazareth was first publicised by the atheist activist Frank Zindler. Salm is now the leading proponent, in his books The Myth of Nazareth: The Invented Town of Jesus (2008) and NazarethGate: Quack Archeology, Holy Hoaxes, and the Invented Town of Jesus (2015). He claims that Nazareth did not exist before 70 CE.
Evidence against the existence of Nazareth falls into various classes:
- the absence of references to Nazareth in non-Christian sources
- inaccurate and contradictory accounts in the Gospels
- archaelogical evidence as to the nature and history of the site.
It's also not helped by the confusion between Nazarenes (people from Nazareth), Nazarites (an ancient Jewish ascetic sect with no connection to Nazareth), and Nazoreans (a 1st century CE ascetic Jewish sect whose connection to Nazareth is debated).
There is no mention of Nazareth in the Old Testament, the writings of Josephus, the Talmud, or other historical records prior to the Gospels in the New Testament of the Christian Bible. This observation was first made by Frank Zindler, and is largely unchallenged. However its significance is questioned by believers: it's also possible that Nazareth was too small to mention; if its only claim to fame was Jesus's stay there, then only Christians would care.
According to Salm, the Gospel of Mark suggests that Jesus was from Capernaum, a fishing village on the north shore of Lake Galilee. Although Mark mentions Nazareth once (Mark 1:9), Salm believes this is a later interpolation. Mark includes a lot of talk about ports and ships and fishing, and all four gospels mention the synagogue at Capernaum. It's clear that Jesus spent much of his adult life in Capernaum.
Matthew suggests that Mary and Joseph originally lived in Bethlehem, not Nazareth, later fleeing to the safer region of Galilee and settling in Nazareth. There is another problem with Matthew's account: in Matthew 2:23, it says Jesus "came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene." This suggests fulfillment of an Old Testament prophecy, but it appears to confuse Nazareth with a prophecy in Judges 13:5 which refers to Nazirites or Nazarites, those who have taken a vow of abstinence and observance (from Hebrew nazir, meaning consecrated).
Another argument for the Jesus's origin in Nazareth is the "argument from embarrassment" or "criterion of embarrassment", that it was a crap place to come from, conferring no status or authority on Jesus, and hence you wouldn't make it up. On the other hand, if you wanted to pretend he was a Nazirite but didn't actually know what a Nazirite was, then maybe you would make it up?
Luke has a scene in the Synagogue in Nazareth Luke 4:16-30, which Salm also believes is made up to deflect from an origin in Capernaum. The topology described in Luke 4:29, mentioning a city on the brow of a hill, does not match the actual location of Nazareth, suggesting that Luke either made it up or confused it with somewhere else. But other less skeptical authors like Maurice Casey suggest that Luke's account was an inaccurate rewriting of a basically accurate account in Mark. (It is generally accepted in Biblical scholarship that the author of the Gospel of Luke wrote by embellishing earlier sources including Mark.)
It is suggested by Salm and others that Jesus may have been associated with the 1st-century ascetic Nazorean sects of the Middle East (which followed John the Baptist and of which Mandaeism is a survivor); later Christians may have become confused or wanted to deny Jesus's debt to the Nazorean tradition and emphasise Christianity's originality and uniqueness. Salm suggests the town of Nazareth was founded early in the 2nd century CE, around the time that the later Gospels were being written, so confusion is possible. On the other hand, some people suggest that the term Nazorian may itself derive from Nazareth, requiring the town to pre-exist.
Salm questions the archaeological evidence, claiming that much of the evidence in favour of a community there in Jesus's time is from Franciscan (hence Christian) archaeologists, who interpreted everything in accordance with their beliefs, while Israeli archaeologists have been more skeptical.
Salm argues that the Caesarea Inscription, discovered in 1962, is a forgery. Fragment A of this contains the word "Nazareth" and is the best piece of evidence that the village existed in Jesus's time. However Salm notes that it was discovered by Jerry Vardaman who is proven to have forged other inscriptions, and its provenance and place of discovery are uncertain.
René Salm is an expert in religion but is not a trained archaeologist; for this reason some people doubt his ability to comment on archaeology. On the other hand, Jesus Myth theorist Robert M Price praised Salm's thoroughness, and noted, "Salm's archaeological outcome does fit quite well with other literary considerations".
While it is entirely legitimate to question the strength of evidence from archaeological digs, there are two problems with Salm's arguments from archaeology about the non-existence of Nazareth. Firstly, not all the area that Salm discusses has been excavated, so it's impossible to say what was there. Secondly, it is possible that Nazareth moved a little, as ancient towns often shift their location a little.
Does it matter?
The existence of Nazareth is not important in assessing whether Jesus existed, according to Bart Ehrman (who is agnostic about Christianity but believed Jesus did exist). It's possible Jesus came from somewhere else, but it wouldn't affect his teachings.
You could even argue that if Jesus was made up, they'd have given him a more impressive place of origin than a tiny inconsequential hamlet — but maybe they thought of that, or wanted to choose somewhere that would be hard to verify.
Nonetheless, while it's not a killer blow, each bit of evidence of inaccuracy adds fuel to various positions about Jesus and the Bible:
- The Bible isn't the infallible word of God. Finding one error would disprove infallibility.
- The Biblical account isn't very accurate at all, and while some kind of Jesus did exist, his deeds and sayings were widely embellished or distorted. It would add to the accumulated evidence for this.
- The Biblical account was entirely made up and Jesus didn't exist at all — Salm's position. As mentioned above, it may or may not be evidence for this.
- See the Wikipedia article on Nazareth.
- Did Nazareth Exist?, Bart Ehrman, Bart Ehrman's blog, accessed 13 May 2019
- Jesus of Nazareth: An Independent Historian's Account of His Life and Teaching, Maurice Casey, pp 128-129
- The Myth of Nazareth, The Myth of Nazareth web site (no authorship specified but evidently connected with René Salm), October 7, 2016
- The Book NazarethGate, René Salm, Mythicist Papers, accessed 13 May 2019
- The House of Peter: The Home of Jesus in Capernaum?, Biblical Archaeology, April 22, 2018
- Jesus’s birthplace and hometown, Dummies, Wiley
- See the Wikipedia article on Nazirite.
- Review: Rene Salm, The Myth of Nazareth: The Invented Town of Jesus. American Atheist Press, 2008., Robert M Price, 2009
- Nazorean and Nazareth, J. Spencer Kennard Jr., Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 66, No. 1 (Mar., 1947), pp. 79-81
- Caesarea Inscription, Nazareth Myth website, accessed 13 May 2019