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Nazareth archaeology causes breakdown in peer review
The peer review system in Biblical Studies is broken. In 2014, one of the most prestigious journals in the field was unwilling to give the Nazareth archaeological evidence a reasoned (not to mention an appropriate or fair) evaluation. Anybody who thinks that “peer review” in the field of Biblical Studies is necessarily neutral, objective, or even scholarly, needs to think again. The journal in question is the august Palestine Exploration Quarterly (PEQ), established in 1875.
The backstory of PEQ's interaction with my work is as follows: I wrote an article in late 2013 rebutting in no uncertain terms the shoddy work of Ken Dark at Nazareth. My article specifically dealt with Dark’s rather astonishing claims (below) regarding the Sisters of Nazareth Convent site. Frank Zindler, colleague, author, and editor of American Atheist Press was impressed with the manuscript and passed a copy along to the noted British minimalist Philip Davies. Davies liked the article and even reworked it, toning down the polemical language and shortening it somewhat. He sent it back to me in early February, 2014, with the suggestion that I submit the article to PEQ.
The PEQ has a complex submission process as well as a byzantine set of formatting requirements (fonts, punctuation, illustrations, footnotes, bibliography*#8230;). Thus, even though my article rebutting Ken Dark’s work was already ‘tight,’ I rewrote it a couple more times to conform to PEQ’s stringent requirements. I can honestly say that when the article was finally sent in on March 13, it was probably the most revised piece of work I’ve ever written. Davies, Zindler, and myself all knew that the article’s content would be provocative. But we also knew that PEQ would have a hard time rejecting it on content or formal grounds.
If there were difficulty, it would be political. After all, I am bucking the received tradition. Then again, I am an uncredentialed outsider, one seeking to show that a well-published professor and a working archaeologist in the field (Ken Dark) is responsible for less than professional work at Nazareth, work which also invariably supports a traditionalist view of the settlement’s history.
Dark’s impossible hypotheses
My article dealt with Ken Dark’s adventurous conclusions regarding the Sisters of Nazareth Convent site, and specifically with the archaeologist’s several “interim” publications relative to the site. The Sisters of Nazareth Convent is about one hundred meters from the Church of the Annunciation. It has long been known that kokh-type tombs are on the premises (one with a surviving rolling stone). Above-ground structural remains are also present, remains which Dark interprets as “domestic” in nature but which I show in my article to be clearly agricultural.
Dark further argues that an habitation was constructed at the site, that it was abandoned, and that the locus was then used for a tomb. This is all very curious—to my knowledge Dark is the first to propose that Jews constructed tombs under previously inhabited dwellings. I write “tombs” in the plural because the British archaeologist immediately extrapolates this novel habitation-tomb sequence to other sites in Nazareth, as if hewing tombs under recently abandoned habitations were unremarkable or even typical. Of course, Dark nowhere demonstrates that the other structures were habitations (the first habitation from Nazareth “in the time of Jesus” was claimed in 2009 by Y. Alexandre to much fanfare—see Scandal 6), or that such alleged habitations dated before the tombs, etc. Dark’s line of thinking defends the increasingly remote possibility that a town of Nazareth actually existed before the tombs were hewn. This is the point of his fairly desperate arguments which are, however, thoroughly indefensible on archaeological grounds.
But there is much more. Dark adopts an erroneous chronology for the site and proposes that all the above-noted activity (construction of dwelling, abandonment of dwelling, construction of tomb, and abandonment of tomb) took place within the first century CE. What a busy century it was! Conflating all these events, however, is necessary if one wishes to (1) interpret the in-situ walls as elements of a dwelling; (2) incorporate the undeniable presence of a tomb under the ground; (3) show that the site was inhabited in the first century CE (supporting the existence of Nazareth in that era); and (4) show that the dwelling preceded the tomb (which is the least repugnant option, for Jews would not live contemporary with an onsite tomb, nor on a site that had in the past been funereal). In all this Dark ultimately wishes to show that habitation occurred in the first century CE.
A major problem with Dark’s confused scenario is that he supposes that the kokh type of tomb came to an end c. 100 CE. This is very convenient for those who wish to backdate much funereal material at Nazareth “to the time of Jesus.” But the kokh tomb continued in use through the fifth century CE, as shown by the well known work of H.-P. Kuhnen. Not surprisingly, Kuhnen’s writings are not mentioned in Dark’s bibliographies—a critical oversight which shows the tendentiousness of the Britisher’s argument.
There was no dwelling under the Sisters of Nazareth convent. Filtration basins, crudely chiseled low walling, cisterns, and other signs clearly show that the site was dedicated to agricultural use. As a result, the kokh tomb underground could have been hewn at any time between c. 50 CE and c. 500 CE. Jews never lived there, but worked in this hillside area which they also used for burial—a quite usual scenario. In any case, the slope of the terrain is too great to have permitted a dwelling. But Dark ignores all these inconveniences.
Finally, I show in my article that Dark’s methodology is seriously flawed. He blithely applies Judean (specifically, Jerusalem) chronologies to Nazareth without further ado—thus doing violence not only to his own results but to the intentions of other scholars (R. Hachlili, M. Aviam) who never intended their work to be so misused.
In sum, I conclude that Dark’s work is agenda-driven and that he is regrettably unacquainted with fundamentals of Palestinian archaeology. The latter perhaps owes to his coming to the field late in his professional career, for Dark has been known primarily for his work on Roman Britain.
My PEQ submission and the results
On the application form, PEQ solicited my recommendations regarding prospective peer reviewers. At the time, I considered this a thoughtful, even friendly touch, and suggested the following scholars (all familiar with my work): Philip Davies, Thomas Thompson, Robert Eisenman, Hector Avalos, Joan Taylor, and Hans-Peter Kuhnen.
For two months I waited while British journal went through its peer review process. Finally, I received a terse email from David Jacobson, the PEQ managing editor. The journal had rejected my article. An accompanying one-page email attachment (click on image below) shed little light on the decision. The reviewer obviously expended little effort in his curt report which sometimes comments ascerbically with the single word “No.” It appeared to me that the PEQ had treated my submission with contempt and had not taken it seriously. None of the people I had suggested was involved in the review committee. In fact, there was no “review committee,” for only one reviewer was involved.
Most importantly, however, the reviewer did not even seem to have understood my argument—if he even read the article! For example, he comments: “No archaeological context is presented—no pottery, coins, stratigraphy, photographs, etc. are tabled and discussed.” This is astonishingly inaccurate. I devote three pages of my article to a discussion of the pottery. Furthermore, no pre-Byzantine coins were discovered at the site, and no stratigraphical excavation has ever been conducted there. It quickly became evident that the reviewer was irremediably hostile to my argument and not familiar with the issues in Nazareth archaeology. Why then was he in a position to evaluate my submission? In sum, no one can claim that PEQ in this case was fair, objective, or made an effort to abide by even minimal standards of peer review. (A more detailed discussion of this peer-review report is on my Mythicist Papers website in two parts.)
When I relayed the news to Davies and Zindler, they expressed surprise and disappointment. Davies wrote: “I would have thought that some revisions might be requested, but a rejection is surprising.” Frank replied: “This is very disturbing but, of course, probably necessary concerning the financial loss they stand to suffer.” He then asked: “Did they give any reason for rejection? Too long? Too accurate?”
I shared the situation with another credentialed scholar who has authored several books and numerous articles in the Biblical Studies field. He informed me that sometimes journals fudge a little and farm out less respected submissions to one or more graduate students. Something similar appears to have been the case with my article.
It is clear that PEQ never had the intention of treating my challenging view on Nazareth archaeology in a fair manner. The journal, and its readers (the average credentialed scholar and scholar-to-be) are simply not ready for a reasoned and direct challenge to Nazareth archaeology, a challenge now being mounted and pregnant with serious consequences for the received tradition. This PEQ incident shows that mythicists must treat the vaunted “peer review” system with a big grain of salt. It is certainly not the august, necessary, or even accurate measure of quality as commonly claimed. Of course, my case is non-standard, for it is not often that a journal such as PEQ receives such controversial material, subject matter which is furthermore from an “outsider”—from one not within the professorial guild nor even lettered with the customary credentials. Nevertheless, it is precisely in such cases that the peer review system is supposed to ensure a fair, serious, reasoned, and scholarly evaluation. Unfortunately, we now know that this is not always the case. I fear that not only myself, but mythicism in general, is (and will continue to be) the victim of such scholarly hatchet treatments. The mythicist challenge may expect further crass assessments which have no intention of being “fair, serious, reasoned, and scholarly.” This peer review aberration is simply another example of why the field of Biblical Studies has, in the words of Philip Davies, still a long way to go before it reaches “academic respectability.”
But all is not lost. My article on the Sisters of Nazareth Convent site will appear as a chapter in my forthcoming book, The Tombs Under the House of Mary. In fact, the article was originally written as one of the book’s chapters. That chapter, when it appears, will be twice as long as the PEQ article and, of course, its rhetoric will not suffer from being “toned down.” Also, both my websites have now communicated details of this incident. Thus, I feel partially vindicated, and know that this PEQ incident will not be entirely swept under the rug. Dark’s absurd conclusions regarding Nazareth archaeology are indeed encountering a reasoned public rebuttal—mine.—R.S.
Uploaded 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
The Nazareth Village Farm Report
A ‘House from the time of Jesus’?
“Israel’s Evangelical Approach” and Nazareth
The Nazareth coin boondoggle
The 1962 forgery of the so-called “Caesarea inscription”
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