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The Nazareth coin boondoggle
Is the tradition deceitful or just incredibly sloppy?
The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming book published by American Atheist Press addressing Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist?
It is part of my contributory chapter.—R.S.
Ehrman’s book contains disturbing and quite unsubstantiated claims relating to the archaeology of Nazareth. One such has to do with a cache of “165 coins” (DJE 195). These coins have been passed from scholar to scholar in the recent literature with apparently no concern for where the coins were found nor for their dating. I will here recap this coin brouhaha, which seems to have become a pet claim for those who are now arguing the traditional case for Nazareth’s existence at the time of “Jesus.”
It should first be noted that, prior to 2006, very few coins were found in the Nazareth basin (a resumé is below in Citation #1). I dispose of the coin evidence in two short paragraphs of my book, The Myth of Nazareth (p. 196). The earliest coin from the Nazareth basin dates to the time of Emperor Constantius II (r. 337-361 CE).
In 1997-98 Yardenna Alexandre, an archaeologist working for the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), excavated near Mary’s Well at the northern end of the Nazareth basin. The first notice of this excavation appeared much later in the form of a “pre-publication notice” for the IAA dated “1st May 2006” which—curiously—has to my knowledge never been published. Ms. Alexandre shared that signed notice with me via email during my research for the book. It is a standard half-page report, similar in form to those routinely produced for the IAA and generally published in the Israeli journal Atiqot.
In her report Ms. Alexandre notes that remains from the excavation dated generally “from the Roman, the Crusader, the Mamluk and the Ottoman periods.” She signals the presence of “Middle Roman pottery.” Nothing in the report dates material earlier than this. Alexandre also notes “the dredging of many 14-15th century small denomination coins.” She makes no further mention of coins. I did not even mention Alexandre’s notice in my book because it was “pre-publication” and because it reported no verifiable material evidence dating to Early Roman times, that is, to the time of “Jesus,” or to BCE times.
The small, unobtrusive Mary’s Well excavation received no further scholarly attention until the Dec. 2007 appearance of the NVF report in BAIAS authored, we recall, by Stephen Pfann, Ross Voss, and Yehudah Rapuano. (See Scandal 5.) That 61-page article begins with a section “The Nazareth Farm site discovery and survey,” and continues with sections entitled “The Nazareth Village Farm: initial survey,” “GPS mapping survey,” followed by a lengthy “Summary of excavated areas.” Then, on p. 38 we read a section on “The stone quarries” and, one page later, “Area A: finds made during the construction of the Nazareth Village”:
Various finds were made during the construction of the Nazareth Village Project in 2000-2002 and were recorded by Mark Goodman. These conprise [sic] a number of unstratified finds including a coin and pottery vessel fragments from Area A (Figs. 19 and 20).
[Fig. 19 follows. It is a coin from the time of Tiberius II (578-82 CE). The authors add a few lines of description of the coin which, incidentally, includes the Chi-Rho staurogram. Fig. 20 is of a Gaza Ware bowl of the Early Bronze III.—R.S.]
This represents the latest Byzantine coin that has been found in the Nazareth area.
From Bagatti’s excavations in Nazareth 4 coins were found, all Byzantine (mid-fourth to early fifth century) and 2 coins from the vicinity: one Late Roman (the earliest coin, mid-third century) and one Byzantine (late fifth to early sixth century). These were recorded as follows: Grotto no. 25: 3 unidentifiable Byzantine (one with head of Emperor; two very small, typical of late fourth to early fifth century AD) (Bagatti 1969:I:46). Grotto No. 29 (embedded in the plaster): one with head of Emperor, apparently Constans (AD 337-350) (Bagatti 1969: I, 210, Fig. 172). In addition there were finds from the village: one coin of Anastasius (AD 491-518) (Bagatti 1969: I, 234). Surface find from ploughing the land around the village: one coin of Gordian III (AD 238-244) (Bagatti 1969: I, 251). More than 60 other coins from the Islamic to Mamluk Period were unearthed in the 1955 excavations (Bagatii 1969: II, 194-201). In addition, 165 coins were uncovered by Yardenna Alexandre in the 1997-1998 excavations at Mary’s Well, Nazareth. The coins were overwhelmingly Mamluk, but also included a few Hellenistic, Hasmonaean, Early Roman, Byzantine, Umayyad and Crusader coins (Alexandre, forthcoming).
The unstratified pottery vessels included a complete Gaza Ware bowl (Fig. 20), which was found during the clearance operations which prededed the construction of the Nazareth Village…
[NVFR 39–40. Emphasis added.]
Of course, I was flabbergasted to read the italicized words above. In her IAA report communicated to me Alexandre had mentioned nothing about coins from “Hellenistic, Hasmonaean, Early Roman” times. Had such critically important coin evidence been found in her excavation, she surely would have included it in her official report! It is also interesting that Alexandre’s report has never been published, despite the now regular dust-off “Alexandre, forthcoming”—we are almost fifteen years after the original excavation and her report has still not appeared! My first response to this coin anomaly was an article which appeared in American Atheist magazine (Jan. 2009, pp. 10-13). I cite the pertinent paragraphs:
Undoubtedly there is great pressure on the tradition now to discover such telling evidence from Nazareth. Continuing pilgrimage depends on it. The incipient Nazareth Village depends on it. Perhaps the entire Jesus-story depends on it. This is the time for stalwart defenders of the tradition to exercise their resourcefulness and acumen in defense of the Christian story and to prevent a wound to the Achilles’ heel from festering and becoming fatal. Let’s not be too surprised if remarkable new ‘finds’ at Nazareth conveniently appear in the next few years—finds substantiating a settlement there at the time of Christ. To fit the demands of the tradition that are now in print, the forthcoming material will have to be early and non-funereal.
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.
My skepticism is increased by the fact that I possess a pre-publication report (dated 2006) from the Israel Antiquities Authority signed by the archaeologist who dug at Mary’s Well. In it she mentions no early coins at all. The only datable coins she signals were from the 14th–15th centuries CE. Hmm… What’s going on here?
All of a sudden, claims of Jesus-era evidence are being made at Nazareth. Putative turn-of-the-era evidence is popping up all over the place—on the surface at the Nazareth Village Farm (see above), at Mary’s Well… Where next?
So far, then, we have an imputation of turn of the era evidence: the NVFR authors (Citation #1) are imputing such evidence to Yardenna Alexandre. Also curious is that Pfann et al had no obvious reason to bring up Alexandre’s findings at all: her excavation had nothing to do with the Nazareth Village Farm but was conducted two kilometers away. Why were the NVFR authors bring up an excavation that had taken place a decade earlier and far away, and why were they alleging finds there that were not even in Ms. Alexandre’s IAA report?
The next stage in this developing scandal is a four page “Reply to Salm” published in the subsequent 2008 issue of BAIAS. In it (p. 106) the Nazareth Village Farm proponents once again impute early evidence to Alexandre. Now, however, they go one step further and allege to have even received a verbatim statement from her attesting to their Early Roman coin claim:
[Citation 3. Pfann and Rapuano write…]
Pace Salm, Dr. Alexandre herself provided the following text to quote in our report: ‘In addition, 165 coins were uncovered by Yardenna Alexandre in the 1997-1998 excavations at Mary’s Well, Nazareth. The coins were overwhelmingly Mamluk, but also included a few Hellenistic, Hasmonaean, Early Roman, Byzantine, Umayyad and Crusader coins.’
So, Pfann et al are here claiming that the two critical sentences from their former 61-page report were a verbatim quotation from “Dr. Alexandre herself.” A glance above at Citation #1, however, shows that the sentences in question lack quotation marks and are simply part of their prose. In any case, it would be a curious quotation. Dr. Alexandre would be referring to herself in the third person, and Pfann and Rapuano would have embedded two of her verbatim sentences into their prose without any acknowledgment of attribution. Hmm… Presumably, then, in this whole boondoggle regarding the Nazareth coins we are to believe the following sequence of events:
– Alexandre excavated 165 coins at Mary’s Well but omitted critical information about Hellenistic and Roman coins in her official IAA report;
– While withholding such early coin information from the IAA, Alexandre subsequently selectively shared it with Pfann et al working at the other end of the Nazareth basin;
– Pfann et al include that quite unprecedented coin information (relating to Alexandre’s excavation) in their 2007 report dealing with the NVF;
– After being critiqued by myself, Pfann et al alleged that the two sentences under scrutiny were a verbatim quote from Alexandre, despite the fact that the information conflicts with an emailed report from Alexandre which I had in my possession for already two years.
Finally, Ehrman enters the fray, decidedly aligns himself with the tradition, and adds a disturbing new twist. (In the following passage I insert my comments in brackets.) Directly after Ehrman’s over-the-top statement of “Many compelling pieces” of Jesus-era evidence being found at Nazareth (DJE 195), he writes:
For one thing, archaeologists have excavated a farm connected with the village, and it dates to the time of Jesus. [Ehrman is speaking of the NVF, and he bases this assertion on Rapuano’s eleven pieces of ‘evidence’ falsely dated to the time of Jesus. (Scandal 5.)—R.S.] Salm disputes the finding of the archaeologists who did the excavation (remember that he himself is not an archaeologist but bases his views on what the real archaeologists—all of whom disagree with him—say). For one thing when archaeologist Yardena Alexandre indicated that 165 coins were found in this excavation, she specified in the report that some of them were late, from the fourteenth or fifteenth century. This suits Salm’s purposes just fine. But as it turns out, among the coins were some that date to the Hellenistic, Hasmonean, and early Roman period, that is, the days of Jesus. Salm objected that this was not stated in Alexandre’s report, but Alexandre has verbally confirmed that in fact it is the case: there were coins in the collection that date to the time prior to the Jewish uprising. (Emphasis added.)
“In this excavation”? Ehrman is apparently now claiming that those alleged Hellenistic, Hasmonean, and early Roman period coins were found at the NVF! He doesn’t seem to understand that we are speaking of two different excavations: one at Mary’s Well and one at the NVF. I am carefully putting us on notice here because, given past shenanigans at Nazareth, anything and everything is possible. Who knows? Given the prominence of Ehrman’s book, pretty soon the tradition may run with this new and very false line that Jesus-era coins have been found at the Nazareth Village Farm (by Alexandre?). I wouldn’t put it past them for trying…
Let us be clear here: when Ehrman writes “Alexandre has verbally confirmed that in fact it is the case” he is reporting hearsay. Without published finds at Mary’s Well from the pen of Alexandre (and she has dragged her feet on this) any imputation of Hellenistic to Early Roman coins ascribed to her is just that: an imputation. It is not “evidence.”
Conclusions: (a) In 1997-98 Alexandre excavated a large cache of 14th-15th century CE coins near Mary’s Well at the northern end of the Nazareth basin. Her IAA report noted no coins dating prior to the fourteenth century CE. (b) Turn of the era coin finds were later imputed to Alexandre by Pfann, Rapuano, and now Ehman—finds which have never been published. (c) Poor scholarship mars the work of all the above academics, in that the NVF report was riddled with errors (as my “Response” in BAIAS 2008 shows, requiring the publication of a wholesale “Amendment”). Furthermore, Ehrman conflates two excavations into one. Finally, Alexandre herself has been reported to claim that her original IAA notice was not definitive and omitted critical Jesus-era evidence—yet she refuses to set the record straight via publication.
I leave it for the reader to decide: is all this just atrocious sloppiness on the part of the tradition at Nazareth and a series of oversights, or is it evidence of scholarly collusion and perhaps even deceit?—René Salm
In 2012 Yardenna Alexandre finally published, in the form of a complete book, an apparent final report to her 1997–98 excavations near Mary’s Well in Nazareth. The book is very problematic for a number of reasons and a formal response from myself is scheduled for publication in the summer of 2014 as one chapter in the forthcoming book The Tombs Under the House of Mary (and Other Nazareth Scandals 2006–2014). It can be stated here that the treatment of new coin discoveries in that book is replete with errors and particularly suspect. Not only is there a case of “double-dating” (dating one coin to c. 100 BCE on one page and the very same coin to 131 CE on the next page), but all the photographs depict the wrong coins, references are to wrong pages, etc.
Another chapter in my book will thoroughly discredit the work of Prof. Ken Dark in Nazareth, and shows him to be a rather inept apologist for the tradition, with little awareness of Palestinian archaeological issues and chronologies.
Please stay tuned for the appearance of this book from American Atheist Press, so necessary to show the continuing efforts of archaeologists to obfuscate where they should—on the contrary—assiduously cleave to the facts.—R.S.
Updated June 30, 2014.
Coverups relating to Nazareth archaeology.
Hidden tombs under the house of Mary
(the Church of the Annunciation)
The shell game with Nazareth evidence
Alleged Hellenistic finds
“Herodian” and the misdating of Nazareth evidence
The Nazareth Village Farm Report
A ‘House from the time of Jesus’?
“Israel’s Evangelical Approach” and Nazareth
The 1962 forgery of the “Caesarea inscription”
Nazareth archaeology leads to peer review breakdown
Fact or faith?
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