Skeptical blogger Tim O’Neill has criticized claims by piano teacher Rene Salm that the town of Nazareth did not exist at the time when Jesus is typically understood to have lived. In turn, Neil Godfrey (I previously wrote ‘librarian Neil Godfrey’, but Neil objected to this), has described O’Neill’s criticism as ‘ignorant anti-rationalist nonsense‘, and written a response to O’Neill. This article examines Godfrey’s response to O’Neill.
The literature under discussion
In 2007 the article ‘Surveys and Excavations at the Nazareth Village Farm (1997–2002): Final Report‘ was published in the Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society by Stephen Pfann, Ross Voss, and Yehudah Rapuano. This article is also known as the ‘Nazarath Village Farm Report’. In 2008 the Bulletin published Rene Salm’s ‘A Response to ‘Surveys and Excavations at the Nazareth Village Farm (1997–2002): Final Report’, which criticized the report of Pfann, Voss, and Rapuano.
Salm’s article was accompanied by the article ‘Nazareth Village Farm: A Reply to Salm’ by Ken Dark, ‘On the Nazareth Village Farm Report: A Reply to Salm’ by Pfann and Rapuano, and a review by Ken Dark of Salm’s book ‘The Myth ofNazareth. The Invented Town of Jesus. Scholar’s Edition’ (2008). Also published in the same edition of the Bulletin was ‘The Nazareth Village Farm Project Pottery (1997–2002): Amendment’, by Rapuano, in which he re-presented the diagrams in the original article, correcting three cases in which diagrams had been misnumbered in the original article. However, Rapuano did not withdraw or alter any of the conclusions he had made in the original report.
Godfrey’s claims: “the very worst practices found among the most culpable of researchers”
Godfrey’s response to O’Neill opens with this claim.
What Tim O’Neill has done in his attacks on René Salm earlier this year over his claims that there was no village of Nazareth at the time of Jesus is defend the very worst practices found among the most culpable of researchers.
On what basis does Godfrey make this claim? In his criticism of Salm, O’Neill makes the following statement.
Okay, then let’s actually look at the evidence of archaeologists, then consider the armchair objections of the piano teacher from Oregon named Rene Salm and let objective sceptics decide who is more likely to be correct.
It is O’Neill’s view that professional archaeologists are more likely to be correct in their assessment of archaeological evidence, than a piano teacher.In his criticism of O’Neill, Godfrey mischaracterizes this as “defending the right of academics to make pronouncements of breakthroughs and new discoveries and then say, “Nope, you can’t examine all the details of the data for yourself. I’m a professional! How dare you question my judgements!”“. In fact O’Neill never says anything like this.
Godfrey’s claims: “Only one of them, Rapuano, is a trained archaeologist”
Godfrey claims that only one of the authors of the Nazareth Village Farm report “is a trained archaeologist”.
The Nazareth Village Farm report was the work of three persons. Only one of them, Rapuano, is a trained archaeologist who, however, customarily works in Judea far to the south.
There is only one archaeologist (Rapuano) whose evidence Salm questions. Later O’Neill will refer to all three authors of the report as “three qualified archaeologists” — unaware, it seems, that only one of the authors has qualifications in archaeology!
One of the authors, Ross Voss, is an archaeologist with “Thirty eight years of archaeological excavation experience“. The other author is Stephen Pfann, whose academic title is “Researcher/Archaeologist University of the Holy Land“. When presented with these facts, Godfrey explained what he had meant.
I made it very clear that there are three archaeologists who wrote the report but that only one of these has formal qualifications in archaeology. The other two are not qualified. They have experience, yes, but not qualifications.
This is not what Godfrey said originally. His original claim was that the article was authored by “three persons”, not “three archaeologists”, and he originally said “Only one of them, Rapuano, is a trained archaeologist”, not “only one of these has formal qualifications in archaeology”.
Godfrey further claimed that the experience of the other two authors did not qualify them as archaeologists, and described them as “Religious nutters without qualifications going out there to find proof the Bible is true“.
That is exactly the point being addressed by Salm in his SBL paper, isn’t it. Religious nutters without qualifications going out there to find proof the Bible is true and calling themselves archaeologists because they do it all the time — “field experience”. That’s yours and O’Neill’s definition of “qualified archaeologists”???? You are a bunch of clowns!
Godfrey was asked the following questions.
* Could I be clear however on the fact that you are now saying you believe all three authors are archaeologists?
* On what basis did you make your claim that they are not qualified simply because they ‘have experience, yes, but not qualifications’?
Can you provide any evidence that the scholarly community considers either Pfann or Voss to be ‘unqualified’? Do you consider them insufficiently qualified to comment and publish on the subject? If so, please provide your evidence.
Godfrey did not answer. He was also asked these questions.
Does the scholarly community only accept as qualified, those with formal qualifications in archaeology? Does the scholarly community not accept as qualified, those with no formal qualifications in archaeology but decades of field experience, and/or formal teaching positions in the field?
Again Godfrey did not answer, nor did he provide any evidence for his claim that Pfann and Ross are “Religious nutters without qualifications going out there to find proof the Bible is true”.
Godfrey’s claims: “he only vaguely recalls what Salm himself wrote”
Godfrey writes (O’Neill’s quoted words in italics):
O’Neill then demonstrates that, though he only vaguely recalls what Salm himself wrote, he does not know the basic facts at the heart of the debates.
I recalled that [Salm] had actually accepted the dating of some of the agricultural terraces at Nazareth and of the recently excavated house there. I was wrong – Salm is much more intransigent than that.
In this quotation from O’Neill, he does not say or demonstrate that he “only vaguely recalls what Salm himself wrote”; he corrects a previous recollection he had. Nor does this statement demonstrate that O’Neill “does not know the basic facts at the heart of the debates”.
Godfrey then claims O’Neill has misunderstood the site of the Nazareth Farm.
He says here that the recently excavated house (of Jesus’ time!) was “there” at the site of the agricultural terraces at Nazareth. And this is from one who is trying to make fun of someone he wants to portray as “an armchair hobbyist”. A simple web search will inform O’Neill that that house is not “there” at the site of the agricultural terraces at all. Look on Google maps to see for yourself. For convenience, here is a snapshot from Google Maps where I have pinpointed the approximate areas of the sites under discussion. (Go to “32°42’04.28″ N 35°17’33.78″ E” in Google Maps to explore the area yourself.) O’Neill has confused the NVF (where no house was excavated) with Yardena Alexandre’s excavation in the immediate area of the Church of the Annunciation.
But O’Neill said no such thing. He said “I recalled that had actually accepted the dating of some of the agricultural terraces at Nazareth and of the recently excavated house there‘” To what does “there” refer? It refers to Nazareth, which is precisely where the recently excavated “Jesus-era house” is located, near the Church of the Annunciation.
Godfrey’s claims: “fabricated fancy”
O’Neill made the observation that “Reading Salm on this subject reminds me of the days, many years ago, when I actually used to bother reading Creationist material so I could debate Creationists”.
Salm’s book, The Myth of Nazareth: The Invented Town of Jesus, bears many similarities to Creationist classics like Duane Gish’s Evolution? The Fossils Say No!. You have an amateur with no training in the relevant field. You have them desperately trying to critique published work by actual specialists and experts and nitpick at it to find reasons for doubt. You have triumphant leaping on the smallest error (eg a mislabeled diagram) as evidence of incompetence if not outright fraud. You have an assumption that the experts secretly know they are wrong and are trying to deceive laypeople for nefarious reasons. And you have a driving ideological bias motivating all of the above, but masquerading as objective critical analysis for the public good. The resemblance is uncanny.
Godfrey responded that “O’Neill’s assertion that Salm’s book has an uncanny resemblance to creationist literature is fabricated fancy. It is a falsehood”, making the following critique of O’Neill’s assertion.
Creationists dispute the interpretation of all the scientists and the science itself. Salm in fact is quoting the archaeological reports and defending published scholarly findings against popular press releases that have overtaken the imaginations of the likes of even Bart Ehrman. Creationists do not publish in scientific journals and prompt amendments to scientific reports. Salm has done exactly that. Salm is not disputing the science or the findings. He is, in fact, sifting the actual data reported and evaluating it against incautious claims and conclusions and pointing to the self-confessed religious and financial biases of some of those responsible for the archaeological reports and popular press releases. He is holding religiously motivated scholars to account for making announcements that go way beyond the actual data published in their reports.
Godfrey’s response here does not address any of the points O’Neill actually raised. Instead of addressing the points of similarity between Creationists and Salm identified by O’Neill, Godfrey lists a series of points of difference. But O’Neill never disputed these points of difference; he identified points of similarity, points which Godfrey never addresses. Here are the similarities O’Neill raised.
1. “You have an amateur with no training in the relevant field.”
2. “You have them desperately trying to critique published work by actual specialists and experts and nitpick at it to find reasons for doubt.”
3. “You have triumphant leaping on the smallest error (eg a mislabeled diagram) as evidence of incompetence if not outright fraud.”
4. “You have an assumption that the experts secretly know they are wrong and are trying to deceive laypeople for nefarious reasons.”
5. “And you have a driving ideological bias motivating all of the above, but masquerading as objective critical analysis for the public good.”
Godfrey did not address any of these five points raised by O’Neill. This fact was pointed out to Godfrey in discussion; he did not respond.
Godfrey’s claims: “Tim’s mind”
Godfrey quotes the following statement from O’Neill.
Rapuano expresses himself with the usual caution required of a professional archaeologist, while at the same time giving his trained assessment of their dating provenance.
Godfrey then claims to know that O’Neill actually meant something completely different to what he wrote.
This translates in Tim’s mind into:
When Rapuano says a fragment “could possibly” be from the Hellenistic or early Roman eras, then unless you treat the Hellenistic to early Roman periods as an established fact for that fragment you are being “ludicrous”.
Godfrey’s claim to know O’Neill’s mind in this way is unpersuasive, especially unaccompanied by any evidence. In reality, O’Neill never makes any such statement, or any statement like it.
Godfrey’s claims: “he has had to depart from the standard reference”
Godfrey represents Salm’s argument thus.
What Salm argues is that where Rapuano provides external support for his assessment the fragments can as well be dated to after 70 CE (the fall of Jerusalem) as before it.
He then claims Rapuano “attempted to correct that deficiency in his Amended report subsequently”.
Rapuano clearly did not dismiss this criticism as easily as O’Neill did, since he attempted to correct that deficiency in his Amended report subsequently. New parallel comparisons are introduced to support some of the claims, but to do so he has had to depart from the standard reference, Adan Bayewitz, for Galilean pottery dating and resort to less relevant (often quite different) Jericho and Judean sources. He has also turned to Fernandez who, Salm shows in his book, consistently dates objects much earlier than other authorities without clear rationale. Tim O’Neill does not question any of this. Rapuano has spoken: pottery “may be”, “could be” Hellenistic or Early Roman (compare Fernandez!), so O’Neill throws all caution to the wind and demands we all accept on authority of one scholar that it is Hellenistic or Early Roman.
There are several problems with this paragraph of Godfrey’s. Firstly, Godfrey provides no evidence that any such “deficiency” actually existed, still less that Rapuano “attempted to correct” it; no evidence is provided for Salm’s assertion. Secondly, Godfrey provides no evidence for the claim that in introducing “New parallel comparisons” Rapuano had to “depart from the standard reference, Adan Bayewitz, for Galilean pottery dating” or that Rapuano had to “resort to less relevant (often quite different) Jericho and Judean sources”.
Thirdly, Godfrey repeats (without substantiation), Salm’s claim that Fernandez (a source cited by Rapuano), “consistently dates objects much earlier than other authorities without clear rationale”. Although Godfrey gives the impression Rapauno is relying significantly on Fernandez, in fact Rapuano only cites Fernandez with regard to ten artefacts out of a total of 77, and only on five of those occasions is Fernandez the only source cited.
Six out of the ten date ranges cited from Fernandez start within the first century, but in only three of those cases does Fernandez give a date range which ends inside the first century. On two occasions the date range given by Fernandez is within the same range given by another source,  and on one occasion the date range given by Fernandez is later than the date given by another source. There is certainly no evidence here that Fernandez “consistently dates objects much earlier than other authorities without clear rationale”.
Finally, Godfrey provides no evidence for his claim that O’Neill “O’Neill throws all caution to the wind and demands we all accept on authority of one scholar that it is Hellenistic or Early Roman”. O’Neill never says any such thing, or anything like it.
Godfrey’s claims: “a misreading of much of Salm’s original article”
Godfrey objects to Ken Dark’s review of Salm’s critique of the Nazareth Farm Report as ‘a misreading of much of Salm’s original article’, but does not provide evidence for this claim. He represents Dark as saying “Now it’s your job to ignore those words of caution and defer to his other words as dogma! And no, you can’t examine the evidence more closely for yourself”, but does not provide any evidence for this either. Dark does not actually say any such thing.
Godfrey’s claims: “absence of evidence is evidence”
Returning to O’Neill’s response, Godfrey makes the following claim.
O’Neill then repeats Bart Ehrman’s argument that absence of evidence is evidence that there were poor people burying their dead in shallow graves. (He makes up an imaginative scenario to account for this — a very poor city gradually grew richer and richer till there were rich people’s tombs there.)
O’Neill did not argue that “absence of evidence is evidence that there were poor people burying their dead in shallow graves”. What O’Neill says is this.
As I note above, settlements established enough to sustain families who can have rock-cut kokhim built for them don’t pop up out of nothing. They grow from smaller, poorer, earlier settlements. So the kokhim on their own imply a smaller, poorer, earlier settlement on the site. And that’s precisely what the other archaeological evidence from the Hellenistic and Early Roman periods indicate, both by their nature (low status items, roughly made), their distribution and their number. We know there was a larger, richer town there later, the evidence indicates that clearly too.
This is not an argument based on the absence of evidence, it is an argument based on evidence, specifically “rock-cut kokhim” (a tomb cut out of the rock). O’Neill’s argument is that the presence of these tombs is evidence that there were families wealthy enough to sustain them. Additionally he points out that such wealthy families “don’t pop up out of nothing”, but are the result of “smaller, poorer, earlier settlements” developing. He does not basis this on the absence of evidence either, but states specifically “that’s precisely what the other archaeological evidence from the Hellenistic and Early Roman periods indicate”. O’Neill’s argument is based firmly on the archaeological record.
Godfrey’s claims: “Presumably O’Neill concludes”
Godfrey makes another assertion about O’Neill’s argument, without actually quoting O’Neill.
O’Neill then claims that the abundance of springs in the region is evidence that it must have been settled. People would loved to have set up home around springs. Presumably O’Neill concludes that every spring in the Levant was the site of a village for 2000 years before Christ.
Turning to what O’Neill actually wrote, we find that it is not what Godfrey claimed.
Zvi Gal’s Lower Galilee in the Iron Age (Eisenbrauns, 1992) notes that the site would have been attractive precisely because of its abundance of springs:The area around the city (of Nazareth) consists of limestone formation. There are several springs within this small Nazareth valley. The topography of the area and the fact it has many surrounding springs, proves that it was occupied during ancient periods.(Z. Gal, p. 15)
It can be seen that O’Neill does not present an argument he has made himself. On the contrary, he quotes archaeologist Zvi Gal saying “The topography of the area and the fact it has many surrounding springs, proves that it was occupied during ancient periods”. Godfrey’s claim that “Presumably O’Neill concludes that every spring in the Levant was the site of a village for 2000 years before Christ” is completely baseless; O’Neill never said anything like this.
Godfrey’s claims: “O’Neill uncritically parrots”
Godfrey misrepresents O’Neill again in his next paragraph.
Finally, O’Neill uncritically parrots the popular press reports of Yardenna Alexandre claiming that archaeologists have uncovered tombs in Nazareth from the time of Jesus. He needs to read a bit more widely, including Salm’s book (that he claims to have read). He would know of a work that has apparently been gaining in influence in recent years, Palästina in griechisch-römischer Zeit by Hans-Peter Kuhnen. He would know (does Alexandre know?) the persuasive evidence that the kokh tombs in question here almost certainly did not appear in Galilee as early as they did in Jerusalem.
Leaving aside the fact that O’Neill was not actually parroting a news report (he did not quote from any news report at all, but from a report by the Israeli Antiquities Authority), Godfrey does not say why he uses the phrase “uncritically parrots” to describe O’Neill citing an event which has actually taken place; the popular press did report what Yardenna Alexandre said. Citing an event which has actually taken place by referring to news reports which describe the event taking place, is not uncritical parroting; it is simply mentioning an event which has happened, and citing the source which reported the event happening.
The news report to which Godfrey linked opens with the words “Archaeologists in Israel say they have discovered the remains of a home from the time of Jesus in the heart of Nazareth”, and contains a statement from Yardenne Alexandre saying “Until now a number of tombs from the time of Jesus were found in Nazareth; however, no settlement remains have been discovered that are attributed to this period”.
In criticism of Alexandre’s statement, Godfrey cites what he claims is “a work that has apparently been gaining in influence in recent years, Palästina in griechisch-römischer Zeit by Hans-Peter Kuhnen“. This work is actually a volume in the series Vorderasien (‘Western Asia”); the title translated into English is “Palestine in Greek and Roman Times”. It is also entirely in German.
It is unclear whether or not Godfrey has ever actually read this work, or whether or not he can even read German. He provides no evidence for his claim that this work “has apparently been gaining in influence in recent years”, nor does he provide any evidence for what he says is “the persuasive evidence that the kokh tombs in question here almost certainly did not appear in Galilee as early as they did in Jerusalem”. Although he implies such evidence is in the German book he cites, he is not explicit on this point.
Although he seems to want to give the impression that “Palästina in griechisch-römischer Zeit” contains “persuasive evidence” that the tombs did not appear in Galilee as early as in Jerusalem, and that this has become an influential position, he does not actually explain precisely what he does mean, nor does he present any evidence for his statements. It is possible he has borrowed information from another source which he does not identify, and either cited it uncritically without verification, or used it to make an argument of his own. He certainly does not present any evidence that this book published in 1990 disproves Alexandre’s statement that “Until now a number of tombs from the time of Jesus were found in Nazareth”.
Godfrey’s claims: “How it works”
At the end of his article Godfrey claims ” the authors of the Nazareth Farm Report do not yield sufficient information for anyone to assess their conclusions critically”. He presents no evidence for this claim. He also says “to say someone is a lunatic for not deferring to the authority of a researcher until that researcher makes the evidence available for checking is simply trying to intimidate and shut down questioning through intellectual bullying”, but never identifies anyone who has actually ever said such a thing.
Godfrey concludes thus.
Oh yes, there are about ten pottery fragments that Rapuano’s amended report that to the time of “Jesus” (Hellenistic to first century CE). Salm points out that Rapuano uses early, inapplicable Judean parallels for these. No doubt when Rapuano publishes a more detailed book explaining the data in detail people who like to understand the evidence (who are not satisfied simply to defer to academic authority without any thought that they should demonstrate accountability) will be keen to study the details of these ten fragments.
Godfrey gives the impression that it was only in Rapuano’s “amended report” that he cited any pottery fragments dating to “the time of “Jesus””. However, the original Nazareth Farm Report says clearly that in Area A-2 “many potsherds with the typical ribbing of the Early to Late Roman Period were found” (page 28). Salm made note of this in his reply (page 97), specifically because he wished to challenge the Early Roman Period dating (which overlaps with the time of Jesus).
Godfrey has overlooked Salm’s own count of eleven fragments in the original Nazareth Farm Report which are presented as dating to the time of Jesus; “the totality of the NVFR evidence for a pre-70CE Nazareth rests on eleven small pottery sherds” (page 101). If Godfrey had read Rapuano’s amendment (I asked him if he had read it, but he did not reply), he would have seen Raupano “explaining the data in detail”, just as he requires.
 Once on pages 114, 116, twice on page 118, once on pages 120 and 121, three times on 122, once on page 123.
 Once on pages 118, 120, 121, twice on page 122.
 Pages 114, 116, 118, 120, 121, 122.
 Pages 114, 120, 121.
 “Diez-Fernandez T 1.3 dated 45 BCE – 48 CE; Stepanski Romana 2002: 112, Fig. 7:11, dated mid 1st cent. BCE to mid 1st cent. CE”, page 114.
 “Meyers, Kraabel and Strange 1976: 220-222, jars Form T1 Pl. 7.20:15, dated 3rd cent. to early 5th cent. CE; Diez-Fernandez 1985, T 1.7:77 dated 212-240 CE”, page 118.
 “possibly Stepanski Romana 2002:111, Fig. 6:16, dated end of 1st cent. to mid first 3rd. cent. CE, possibly Meyers Kraabel and Strange 1976: 205-207, Fig. 18, 4th-early 5th; Diez-Fernandez 1985, T.21.3 (175-300 CE)”, page 123.