Unraveling the Myth of Nazareth
Today we have a mystery that incites passionate opinions in some, to a degree that only religion can deliver: the question of whether Nazareth, traditionally the town in which Jesus Christ was raised, actually existed at the time. Obviously this question would have enormous implications for those who consider the Bible to be a literally true historical document, and for Christianity as a whole.
Back in episode #666 we examined that weightiest of questions: the historicity of Jesus Christ, not just whether there might have been some dude rolling around named that and having followers, but an actual distinct individual named Jesus of Nazareth who was executed by Pontius Pilate. At the risk of rekindling that particular firestorm, that episode's essential conclusion is that we don't know; neither side brings sufficient evidence. But that was not a lightly made conclusion and it's actually a lot more nuanced than that; go back and listen to that episode if you want the full story.
It is a question that is argued, typically with emotions running very high, generally by advocates in two groups: firebrand atheists and firebrand Christians, both of whom have an ax to grind, and many of whom wear it as their whole identity. Today's question is really just a proxy for that one. If Nazareth existed, it supports the claim of the authenticity of Jesus; if it did not, it supports the claim that Jesus was fictional. But we want to take it today as a separate question, to be investigated and answered free of any baggage or emotions or axes to grind.
And so we must first define it. Exactly what are we asking? Because Nazareth is, today, a perfectly real city, and has been for a very long time. It is just where the Bible stories say it is. It's in modern-day Israel, is a city a bit shy of 100,000 people, 70% of whom are Muslim Arabs and 30% of whom are Christians. It has almost no Jewish people at all, and is often referred to as the Arab capital of Israel. Nazareth is generally accepted as the town where Jesus was raised, and the Catholic Church maintains the Basilica of the Annunciation, built on the site where they traditionally believe the home of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus was located. The city's accepted history goes back past Roman times, through the Iron Age, the Bronze age, and the Stone Age, with undisputed archaeological evidence from all those periods. None of this is in any meaningful dispute, and so we might well be tempted to stop and ask why are we even considering this question? Nazareth is there, it was there thousands of years before Jesus; kind of dumb to ask if it was there during the time of Jesus.
And this brings us to the crucial specific of the question we're asking. Granted, people lived in and around that area in the stone age, the iron age, Roman times, whenever. But if we can prove that whatever settlement may have existed had not yet been named Nazareth, then we have grave implications for the historicity of the Bible. This is why some pursue this question, and it gives us exactly the question we need to answer.
For it turns out there is some reason to doubt the settlement was called Nazareth at the time of Jesus, which would make it hard for there to have been a Jesus of Nazareth.
There is an absence of evidence that the settlement was named Nazareth prior to the early 4th century, which is when we have the earliest non-scriptural reference to it. This came from Eusebius, an early chronicler of church history. In one of his writings, he asserted that an earlier chronicler, Sextus Julius Africanus, who lived around the year 200 CE, had said that people from Nazara and Cochada, "villages of Judea," had kept genealogical records. That would be the earliest known mention of Nazareth, and it was written some 300 years after the death of Jesus. But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence; just because we don't have any earlier writings calling the town Nazareth doesn't mean it wasn't named that.
A particularly keen absence of evidence is in the writings of Flavius Josephus, a Jewish general from Galilee (the region of Israel where Nazareth is) who was later granted Roman citizenship and became an important author and historian of the region. Josephus was born just about the time Jesus died and traveled all over as a general. In his books he mentions a total of 45 city names in Galilee — and Nazareth is not among them, prompting some to conclude it must not yet have existed with that name. However, this needs some context. Archaeology done in Nazareth does not support a large town having been there. Nazareth would have been tiny, perhaps little more than a few houses, and could easily have escaped Josephus' chronicles. Plenty of towns did — by the time the Talmud was written, it mentioned 63 towns in Galilee; so there were plenty that Josephus skipped. And not even the Talmud's larger list included Nazareth, even though its 4th century authorship postdated the mention of Nazareth by Eusebius.
So, since we know for a fact that Nazareth existed by name when the Talmud listed 63 towns in Galilee and yet it wasn't included; it should be no surprise that it also wasn't included in Josephus' smaller list. This does not logically support a conclusion that Nazareth didn't exist in Josephus' time.
Was it really just a few houses, so small it might have had no name at all? No, archaeologists have found more than that. On the grounds of today's Nazareth Hospital is a 15-acre site on which have been found a winepress, agricultural terraces, remnants of three watchtowers, two olive-crushing stones, components of an irrigation system, and evidence for stone quarrying. Pottery remnants have indicated continuous occupation from the Bronze Age to at least the 13th century. Today called the Nazareth Farm, it is only 500m from the houses and tombs that have been found in modern Nazareth, and that date to the time of Jesus. The fact that agriculture was happening, and that people were living and being buried there, may guide your opinion on whether such a settlement was likely to have a name.
No discussion of this topic would be complete without an examination of a marble tablet known as the Nazareth Inscription. This tablet, measuring 61 cm tall and 38 cm wide, has 14 carved lines of text in Greek. It is — or purports to be — an edict from an unnamed Caesar prohibiting grave robbing. It orders that anyone destroying a grave or a tomb be charged as a grave robber and sentenced to capital punishment. It became known to the rest of the world in 1878 when it was acquired in Nazareth by Wilhelm Fröhner, the curator for the Louvre in Paris. He described it in his manuscript inventory as "Marble slab sent from Nazareth in 1878."
The Nazareth Inscription has been claimed as evidence by both sides in the Nazareth debate. Supporters of a historical Nazareth claim the tablet was discovered in Nazareth and is believed to come from the time of Christ, and even claim that the edict was probably issued as a response to the disappearance of Christ's body from the tomb — likely a Roman ploy to dismiss Christ's miraculous resurrection as merely a case of grave robbing. Opponents of a historical Nazareth point to the fact that nothing in the tablet references Nazareth, or Christ, or is even dated. If Caesar had been inclined to issue a special edict about grave robbing, it would scarcely have been likely to be in response to the execution of a minor criminal in an unimportant land far away, and much more likely in response to something of importance to Romans — one highly plausible hypothesis is that the edict was issued by Claudius Caesar Augustus in response to the desecration of the tomb of Nikias, ruler of the Greek island Kos. We do know from isotopic analysis of the marble performed in 2020 that the tablet did come from Kos.
If true, then why would Fröhner have said that the tablet came from Nazareth? He didn't; he said only that it was shipped from Nazareth. In 1878, Nazareth was a significant antiquities market, and it seems to be the place that Fröhner bought it and shipped it to Paris. There's no implication at all that the marble was found in Nazareth; as a market center, antiquities would have been coming and going from there all the time.
So with insufficient reason to conclude the Nazareth Inscription relates to Nazareth in any way, we must strike it off our list of evidence to consider, and it does not play any role in helping us to reach a conclusion.
Back in episode #666, I pointed out that the anecdotal evidence for there having been a Jesus of Nazareth was so voluminous that it justified his existence being our default assumption, while acknowledging that there is insufficient evidence to either confirm or contradict this. This is not too different from the conclusion that I believe is best supported on the question of the existence of a historical Nazareth, but I think we have a stronger case this time. We know Nazareth has been there for a very long time, and that it was there as a settlement before we had proof of its name. Really, what all the arguments against a historical Nazareth boil down to is that nobody can disprove that it wasn't named something else at the time of Jesus. In my assessment, that's a pretty weak argument. We've got no reason to suspect it used to be named something else. My opinion, based largely on a lack of evidence to the contrary, is that all is as it appears to be, and that a historical Nazareth should be assumed, pending any new evidence.
Correction: An earlier version of this erroneously said Nazarath was the town where Jesus was born. Traditionally he was born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth. —BD
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