I recently read a report prepared by an archaeologist from the Israeli Antiquities Authority which stated that Nazareth could not have been occupied during the Herodian Period (the time of the birth of Jesus Christ) because no ruins or other archaeological evidence from that period had been found in or around Nazareth. He did state that evidence of both earlier and later periods had been found, but that Herodian artifacts were completely absent. Is there archaeological evidence to support its’ occupation during the time of Christ’s birth? Thank you for your time and consideration.
This attempted criticism of biblical reliability has been making the rounds quite a bit lately. Perhaps this is partly because of the time of year. It is surprising how often this argument is used given the fact that it is a spectacularly weak argument for a number of reasons.
1. First of all, it is simply not true.
2. Second of all, even if it were true (that there is no hard physical evidence of Nazareth from the first half of the first century), it would still be an extremely weak argument.
3. Third, it requires an assumption which is so far fetched as to make the argument verge on ludicrous.
1. Let me begin with the first point. The fact is that there is plenty of evidence that there was Jewish occupation of the Galilean location known as Nazareth in the first century. The criticism above is based on rather old archaeological evidence which is now outdated. Recently, an arab merchant discovered the remains of a Roman bath house on the site of Nazareth from the first century AD. See http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2003/oct/22/research.artsandhumanities for more on this recent discovery. A quote from a prominent archaeologist on the most recent evidence is as follows: Professor Carsten Peter Thiede, a scholar in archeology and religion who spent 20 years excavating the area of Qumran and the Dead Sea with the Antiquities Authority, describes the place in his most recent book "The Cosmopolitan World of Jesus" (2005), in which he analyses the historical implications of the discovery of the bath house. Prof Thiede says in his book: “Returning to the discovery of the Roman baths in Nazareth, we realize that such an installation, should it really turn out to be Roman and to have been available to non-Roman inhabitants like Mary, Joseph and Jesus, would merely underline what we could have gathered from the sources anyway. The only real surprise to many may be the conclusion that Nazareth was anything but a nondescript village with a handful of poor Jews.”
Besides, the remains of a first-century synagogue in Nazareth were also found recently. http://www.uhl.ac/NazarethVillage/FirstCenturySynagogue/
There is plenty more evidence, both historical and archaeological that Nazareth was indeed occupied at the time of Jesus’ birth. At this point, it is reasonable to say that we can put to rest the claim that there is no evidence Nazareth was occupied in the second century. It is simply not true!
2. Besides, even if it were true (that no remains of Nazareth from the first century had ever been found), the argument would still have been very weak. First of all, even the skeptics, intent on destroying faith in the Bible, have long conceded that Nazareth was in existence in that spot in the second century. Even if it were true (it is not) that no physical evidence proving the village existed in the second century, this would be truly weak evidence that the village did not exist in the first century. Relatively small villages do not leave a huge archaeological footprint. (Of course, this argument is no longer needed, as we now have confirmed 1st century artifacts). Lack of proof of the town before the second century would be extremely week evidence that it did not exist.
Add to this the simple fact that Jesus was known as the Nazarene and his followers were known as the Nazarenes in the first century. Does it not make reasonable sense to believe that Jesus would have been known by the name of an non-existent town and his followers called by a dirisive title of a non-existent village? Because we know that the gospels were written in the first century, this question must be answered.
Add to this the fact that historical evidence supports the existence of Nazareth as a settlement in the first century. For example, the 3rd century historian Julius Africanus reported that during the persecution of Domitian in the late first century a man by the name of Conon was brought to trial. He is reported to have stated at his trial, "I am from Nazareth of Galilee. I am a descendent of Christ to whom I give worship since my forefathers." The idea that the followers of Jesus would be called after the name of a non-existent city is really quite a stretch of reason.
3. Let me share what I believe is the "kicker" to the argument. It is the reason I believe it borders on ludicrous to accept the contention that Nazareth did not exist in the first century. Here is what the skeptics are claiming: They believe that the gospel writers invented the existence of a village by the name of Nazareth which did not at that time exist. Why they would do this foolish thing, given that thousands of eye-witnesses to the life and ministry were still alive, is not explained. Remember that even the most liberal scholars will agree that Mark, Matthew and Luke were all written before AD 80. Probably Mark was written in the 50s or even the 40s. In any case, let me continue the irrational argument of the critics of the biblical narrative. According to this argument, the very existence of Nazareth was invented out of thin air by the gospel writers. Here is where the argument becomes bizarre. According to these people, Nazareth did in fact come into existence in the mid second century. In other words, according to this argument, the Gospel writers invented the existence of a town in upper Galilee and then later, by coincidence, a town with the exact same name did in fact come into existence, in the approximate place that the Gospel writers had invented its existence. That would truly be quite a coincidence.
Bottom line, the claim that Nazareth did not exist in the first half of the first century cannot be maintained by serious scholarship. Recent discoveries have moved the idea from difficult to defend to impossible to reasonably defend. This spurious criticism is coming, not for good scholarship, but from a biased desire to undermine belief in Christianity–coming from people with presuppositions which guide their "research."