Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Topical Update: Rene Salm's Nazareth Miss

From the June 2009 E-Block. Damage to ministry time was minimal from jury duty yesterday,  but enough so that it was better to call up a back issue. Besides, I'm still behind on getting those up.


One of my chapters in Shattering the Christ Myth was devoted to the thesis of Rene Salm that the village of Nazareth itself did not exist. In that chapter I discovered a number of errors by Salm -- thanks due to Dr. James Strange of the University of South Florida, a leading expert on Nazareth -- to say nothing of a certain amount of dishonesty. (You can read about some of that in the TheologyWeb thread found here, even if you do not have STCM.) In the meantime, Salm has also received the questionable endorsement of magician/paranormal debunker James Randi (much to the consternation of some members of Randi's forum!). 

Dr. Strange had quite a chuckle over the pretentious use of the phrase "Scholar's Edition" on the cover of Salm's book, and you might suppose that a chuckle was all scholars would have over what Salm had to say. Surprisingly, this has not been the case. I was alerted to the fact that some scholars of archaeology did indeed descend to give Salm a review, and even allowed him to comment, though this seems to have been because Salm himself submitted one of his papers to the journal (which they printed; and it offers basically a repeat of his arguments from the book and his website). The journal, The Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society, recently offered three evaluations of Salm's thesis, and we'll encapsulate their report (and compare it to ours) in this update, as well as consider Salm's own replies on his website. Needless to say, the archaeologists are not kind to Salm in their evaluations. 

Item #1: "On the Nazareth Village Farm Report: A Reply to Salm"

This article was authored by Stephen Pfann and Yehudah Rapuano, both of whom have been taken to task by Salm in his writings. The first portion of the article concerns alleged difference between two mapping reports Salm looked at; I did not touch on this issue in my book, but in brief, Salm raised one of his charges of dishonesty based on the alleged differences. Pfann and Rapuano reply is sufficient to reprint:
Contrary to Salm's assertion, there were actually no 'substantial different claims' between Haiman's report and our own. Ours is simply more detailed concerning the pottery finds, adding to it the data from the several seasons of actual controlled excavations.
After this, a summary statement is made which is worth reprinting in full:
Earlier pottery from the Hellenistic and Early Roman periods, which was found during our survey, no matter how meagre the fragments and numbers might be, bears witness to a time in which complete vessels of these types were once in use in the somewhat smaller town with a commensurately smaller population. A surface survey rarely provides sufficient data to unravel a site's history. This is why controlled excavations are necessary to provide stratigraphic evidence drawn from undisturbed layers. As it turns out, the excavations did confirm the surface survey's initial finds but this time by controlled excavations and from definable archaeological contexts. No claim was made to state that the pottery finds from the Hellenistic and Early Roman periods were 'substantial' with respect to the Late Roman period finds, as Salm contends. However, the finds, connected with the agricultural terraces, were certainly sufficient to substantiate the presence of an agrarian-based population at Nazareth during those periods.
In terms of specific evidence, Pfann and Rapuano also affirm the coin evidence of Yardenna Alexandre at Mary's Well, and later, evidence of lamps datable to the Early Roman period (the one where Jesus' Nazareth would be). On his website, Salm claims to have a "signed copy" of Alexandre's report and says that it "makes absolutely no mention of such early coins" to the period of Jesus. Given Salm's past record of dishonesty, and his lack of serious scholarly credentials, I believe the balance of who is telling the truth lies on the side of Pfann and Rapuano.

They then note that Salm produces an alleged quote from the Nazareth Village paper ("beginning with the early to late Roman period") that does not appear in the paper.

An issue is addressed next which is one I made some note of: Salm three times accused archaeologists of incompetence because he thought that they looked at the same object and dated it differently at two different times. The actual problem was more pedantic, and more or less as I predicted: The problem was one of misnumbering and editing, not "double dating" as Salm alleged. (In other words, if a report contained two different dates for an item labelled "4G", Salm assumed that the archaeologists looked at item 4G twice; in actuality, because of editing errors, two different items were given the label "4G" inadvertently - which I supposed was the actual problem, while Salm instead gravitated to a far less charitable conclusion of archaeological incompetence.)

They also note that there are indeed catalogues that give detailed descriptions of the items found and "support for their assigned dating." Salm made much of such information not being provided in the reports, and used it to rhetorical advantage to suggest a cover-up.

The conclusion of Pfann and Rapuano is fairly strong and deserves to be quoted:
Salm's personal evaluation of the pottery, which he rehearses from his book The Nazareth Myth, reveals his lack of expertise in the area as well as his lack of serious research in the sources. By ignoring or dismissing solid ceramic, numismatic and literary evidence for Nazareth's existence during the Late Hellenistic and Early Roman period, it would appear that the analysis which René Salm includes in his review, and his recent book must, in itself, be relegated to the realm of 'myth'.

Salm's reply: On his website, Salm characterizes the reply of Pfann and Rapuano as "desperate" and after a comment on the mapping surveys (which, since I did not address that issue, I cannot comment on) says:
Rapuano closes with a long (and thoroughly unconvincing) explanation as to why the earlier report was so remarkably flawed. Incidentally, he is not above redating Bagatti when it serves the tradition's purposes.
The latter "redating" is not explained, but I think it speaks for itself that Salm fails to describe Rapuano's explanation regarding editorial issues, and badly overdescribes three numbering errors as constituting a "remarkably flawed" report!

Item #2: "Nazareth Village Farm: A Reply to Salm"

This item by Ken Dark is also short (less than 3 pages) and spot-checks Salm on a number of mistakes, some of them of presumption, in other cases of failing to compare findings at Nazareth to other sites. For example:
Salm also ignores recent evidence for domestic structures terraced into hill-slopes at other Second Temple period settlements in the Galilee, refuting his argument that '[t]he steepness of the NVF (the average slope is 20%) and the discovery of a tomb reveal that this area also was not the site of ancient habitations'...
Dark also makes the same observations as Pfann and Rapuano regarding enumeration errors and dismisses Salm's suppositions that artifact dating is merely a matter of archaeologist opinion. One particular paragraph is worth quoting in full:
Salm is also unfair to Rapuano when he says, 'Rapuano's 75 itemizations are fairly peppered with tentative words such as possibly, probably, evidently, appeared to be, etc.' This is not suspicious, only a pottery analyst's usual scholarly caution. If Rapuano becomes more cautious relating to Second Temple period material, perhaps the most obvious reason is because he is sensitive to the interpretations that may be placed by others on pottery from Nazareth dating to this period. Confidence in Salm's knowledge of Roman period pottery in the Galilee is shaken by his criticism that 'where the archaeologist offers a typological reference' it is 'almost always to the same source: D. Adan-Bayewitz, Common Pottery in Roman Galilee (1993), Bar Ilan.' This is unsurprising: Adan-Bayewitz's excellent study is the standard work of reference on the Roman period pottery produced in the Galilee.
Dark also replies to Salm's claim of discrepancy between the reports on coins by saying that "Pfann etal. asked the site director (Yardenna Alexandre) for information about the coins from her site, which she provided and allowed to be included ahead of her own publication. There is no evidence here of an irregularity, only of Ms. Alexandre's "academic generosity."

Dark's conclusion is also worth a full quote:
...[I]t may be that the ceramic evidence for Second Temple period activity at the site of Nazareth Village Farm is, as published, ambiguous. However, field systems are notoriously hard to date using archaeological evidence and this does not make Salm's argument for a post-Second Temple date for the settlement at Nazareth any more credible. The available archaeological evidence from the centre of contemporary Nazareth, by contrast, suggests that the settlement of Nazareth existed in the Second Temple period and included the area around the existing Church of the Annunciation.
This relates to a point I made in STCM, that much of the evidence for Jesus' Narazeth would be under the modern city, and that casual finds (eg, during construction works) would have been the source of much information.

Salm's reply: Salm refuses to engage the most important specifics which rebut him, and dismisses Dark's commentary as "evasive" and unable to acknowledge that, in the field of archaeology, "absence of evidence is indeed evidence of absence." That, of course, is false; such is not always the case, but "absence of evidence" isn't the problem here.

One most critical matter is the evidence Dark alludes to at the same site of modern Nazareth. Salm has no reply to this, other than to say that Dark "ignores that the valley floor is the ideal village location" (and the actual site isn't? and isn't it a better site for farming than for building things over?) and to deny that the evidence exists. Dark's correction on enumeration is, as with the first article, not credited but ill-described ("He dismisses pottery and survey contradictions with a literary wave of the hand as if they are mere inconveniences.") and Dark is falsely accused of hiding disagreement with reports like Alexandre's by calling them "interim" (but nothing is said of Alexandre's academic generosity).

Item #3: Review of The Myth of Nazareth by Ken Dark

It is this review that is the "smackdown" that one would hope for, if any is; still and all, Dark spends only a few pages on Salm's book, and makes some of the same points I did. Dark notes Salm's lack of courtesy to scholars regarding enumeration errors, as well as his hypocritical dismissal of Strange as not qualified to do archaeology. (Dark also notes in turn that unlike Strange, he is a professional archaeologist, and has dug at Nazareth.) He also notes Salm's "intemperate, and usually not especially complimentary" dismissal of scholars.
Dark replies with five themes. The first reflects one of my own points (courtesy also of Strange) that "it is not possible to show archaeologically on the basis of available data that Nazareth did not exist in the Second Temple period (or at any other period), because the focus of activity at any period may be outside the - still few - excavated and surveyed areas." Not that Dark thinks this is the case: Salm, he says, "does not discuss them all in sufficient detail" to make his case, but his point is that:
The underlying premise of the book - that by reinterpreting archaeological data one could show that Nazareth as described in the New Testament did not exist - is, therefore, flawed, and its central research question is scientifically invalid.
The second theme has to do with an area I did not address, one that would be beyond my expertise to address: Salm is criticized for insufficient knowledge of the hydrology and topography of the Nazareth area. He notes that Salm's bibliography doesn't reflect adequate study on this point, and repeats the point made in the prior article concerning buildings on slopes. The most stunning point deserves a quote:
Incomprehensibly, there is no mention of the well-documented wadi - known from written, artistic and archaeological evidence - that ran through the centre of Nazareth, although this must have been one of the striking features of the locality until its nineteenth-century infilling.
The third and fourth theme have to do with the dating of the Nazareth Kokhim tombs, which is also beyond my expertise to address, so I did not do so in STCM. He notes the Salm's reconstruction of the chronology is invalid, and lacking reference to an important work on the subject, Rachel Hachlili's Jewish Funerary Customs, Practices and Rites in the Second Temple Period. Of note also is that Dark points out that in using a certain dating procedure now recognized to be fallacious, Salm is over 50 years out of date!

The fifth and final theme for the review has to do with pottery. This is worth a quote:
...the fact that most pottery from Nazareth (as at the vast majority of excavated sites anywhere in the Roman world) consists of small sherds is presented by Salm as if this devalues their chronological significance. Few twenty-first-century archaeologists would credit Salm's assertion that: 'two- and three-inch fragments of pottery vessels are a precarious basis indeed for fixing the type and date of an artefact' (p. 125).
He also notes that Salm uses a dating scale put together "before the present standard published ceramic chronology of the area during the Roman period was formulated" and that Salm's "bibliography omits several important works on pottery dating" which Salm should have been able to obtain easily, even as an amateur. Of this he says, "their absence illustrates the basic flaw in Salm's use of the available source material and points of archaeological reference" (in spite of Salm's own supposition that perhaps he may have missed only "one or two brief reports"!). Dark's conclusion is also worth quoting:
...despite initial appearances, this is not a well-informed study and ignores much evidence and important published work of direct relevance. The basic premise is faulty, and Salm's reasoning is often weak and shaped by his preconceptions. Overall, his central argument is archaeologically unsupportable.
Salm's reply: As before, Dark is handled tendentiously ("weak review") and dishonestly ("deals in generalities,") and Salm even goes so far as to claim that Dark "yields on this major point" regarding the absence of Hellenistic pottery when, in fact, Dark pointed out why Salm's demand that such be there was misplaced (some Jewish communities did not choose to use Hellenistic pottery).
In direct reply, Salm says little; much of what he offers in "reply" is descriptive rather than in the nature of an answer. He claims that Dark "wrongly berates me for not mentioning a seasonal water source in the middle of Nazareth" but the water source Salm mentions is not a wadi, but a spring. He claims that he consulted Hachili's book, but it was not "in any way applicable" to his arguments (!) and also "entirely incompatible" with Dark's claims and doesn't present a contrary chronology. Once again, we'll let the fact of Salm's prior dishonesty stands in terms of who ought to be believed. To reply to Dark's final assessment, Salm quotes the assessment of his friend "L. Falvey" who is not a professional archaeologist, and accuses Dark of ignoring the lack of evidence.


It would have been nice to see the scholars take Salm to task in much more detail. However, one cannot blame them for doing as little as they did. Salm's reckless dishonesty - well-documented by STCM and by this article - makes it unnecessary to take him seriously. Salm misrepresents what others say without any hesitation, and refuses to admit to his own mistakes, even when caught "red-handed". In close, I think it is enough to quote these paragraphs from Salm's analysis on his website:
The scholars in question averred that there was, in fact, no incompetent 'double-dating.' It was simply, they explained, a minor (!) difficulty of "misnumbering"…two numbering schemes that apparently were not harmonized. Uh-huh.

Well, guess what? According to the NVF report, a cache of Hellenistic and Early Roman coins has recently been 'found' at Mary's Well (at the Northern end of the Nazareth basin). Wow. Nothing remotely similar has ever been found in the Nazareth basin. The earliest coin found there dates to about 350 CE. A cache of Hellenistic and Early Roman coins is exactly the sort of evidence which the tradition needs in order to decide the matter in its favor.

The traditional camp now has an extensive Nazareth literature upon which to draw for future citations and authority-the writings of generations of hidebound archaeologists and scholars (Viaud, Kopp, Bagatti, Strange, now Dark). It is a self perpetuating culture which can (and probably will) go on ad infinitum, as the tradition cites false facts and skewed information, seeking only to appease the many who don't care to think, anyway.

Then there's the rationalist camp, which on this issue is represented by a small but growing literature on Nazareth (Cheyne, Zindler, Salm). There may now exist the critical mass needed for this view to also become a self-perpetuating alternative to the traditional, bogus position. I certainly hope that's the case, and that we do not lose our initiative regarding this Achilles' heel of Christianity. It may be that the rationalist and faith-based camps are speaking past each other, and probably always will. But our side needs to assert itself when the opportunity presents, if only because none of us wants mankind to suffer through another Dark Ages ruled by faith and unreason.
With commentary like this, it is not difficult to assign Salm a place with others on the fringe like the makers of the Zeitgeist movie. It seems fairly clear that in Salm's world, no evidence will work against him because the case is already decided and any dissent is the result of a conspiracy.

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