“Jesus has a Nazareth problem” (interview transcript)—Pt. 1

“Don’t miss this incredible interview!”
—Mythicist Milwaukee

     The recent Mythicist Milwaukee podcast (April 12, 2016) covered a surprising number of important topics: a review of the term “mythicism”; the recent emergence of Jesus mythicists within the academy (T. Brodie, and several teaching scholars known to me who resist public acknowledgment of their position); the gospels’ incompatibility with Nazareth archeology; Marcion as a formative influence on the canonical gospels; the term “Nazarene”; my views regarding Yeshu ha-Notsri (early first century BCE) as the real prophet underlying the Christian religion; and the remarkable resemblance of sayings and parables in the gospels with Buddhism, especially as regards the common doctrine known as “karma.” I decided to transcribe and upload the interview to this website not only in response to a request, but also because this format allows for the rich addition of links, which add a whole dimension to the dialog. Clicking on the links even identifies some people whom I diplomatically did not mention by name in the actual interview. There are also rare added comments in green.
Screen shot 2016-05-16 at 4.57.44 PM     The interview with Rob Moore and Brian Edward is given here verbatim except for a few minor edits for grammar and readability. Some embedded time cues help orient the reader to the hour-long audio version (YouTube).


Rob Moore: A special thanks to all the sponsors of the Mythicist Conference III in October: author of the new book Mythos Christos; Edwin Herbert; Atheist Republic, Godless Engineer; Kenosha-Racine Area Freethinkers; Atheist Milwaukee; Freedom From Religion Foundation; The Sophia Wolf Quadracci Memorial Fund for Stem-Cell Research; and please remember that your purchase of a $300 sponsorship table for the event includes one ticket to the conference and one ticket to the VIP party and also gets you mentions on all our social media platforms as well as this podcast. And a very special shout-out and thank-you to all of our patrons who support the show.

Welcome back live, ladies and gentlemen! It’s the Mythicist Milwaukee show, where we keep the all-seeing eye of Horus on the secular movement. I’m your host, Rob Moore. With me is again—it seems like it’s been a few weeks—the co-host with the mo-ost… He’s the brains to my brawn… [laughter]… In fact, he’s such a brain, his name is an anagram of ‘brain’: it’s Brian! What’s going on today, Brian?

Brian Edward: Hey, thanks, I appreciate that. Umm, got back from church on Saturday, which I sometimes do… You know, it’s supposed to be kind of the express mass… You go in at 4:30, but it went to about six o’clock. One and a half hours. The priest picked on St. Thomas, actually. Called him out.

Doubting Thomas gets a bum rap.

Doubting Thomas
gets the ultimate bum rap.

Rob: And why in fact were you in church?

Brian: I do it out of respect for my parents.

Rob: Oh, okay. So it’s kind of the family bit.

Brian: They’re going to come to the debate in October.

Rob: Nice, nice. So it’s a nice Catholic parish, open to some discussion? No fundamentalist weirdness going on there?

Brian: [Sighs.] Well, that’s open to debate—for a later debate.

Rob: Do you find that fundamentalism is encroaching on traditional Catholicism?

Brian: I think that Catholicism tends to be watered down.

Rob: The Catholic laity is not quite as familiar with actual Catholic dogma…

Brian: Right.

Rob: Adherents are added through missionaryism and whatever else…

Brian: They’re really pushing a bible-study program. They’re really trying to get people involved, because of the age… I was certainly on the younger end of the spectrum.

Rob: Crazy, crazy. Well, it’s been a couple of weeks since we had a regular podcast. We had a very successful debut of Buzzed Belief a couple of weeks ago, and haven’t had a normal podcast since. So… are you looking forward to…

Brian: I’m fired up… I’ve been wanting to talk to René for quite some time.

I may already be contemplating mythicism.

I may already be contemplating mythicism.

Rob: Yeah. He’s an actual mythicist and a guy who’s even familiar with the term ‘mythicism.’ He’s René Salm. He’s an author—author of The Myth of Nazareth: The Invented Town of Jesus. And he’s got a new book called NazarethGate: Quack Archeology, Holy Hoaxes, and the Invented Town of Jesus. He’s lived in nine countries from Sri Lanka to Lebanon to the United States. His universal approach to religion emphasizes our common spirituality over differences hardened by dogma and simple names. He’s a new age guy. I’ve looked at his website. He does some music… he does some different stuff on there… Besides being an author, he’s worked as a composer and as a mental health technician, caring for those severely disturbed—perhaps some disturbed by religious tradition. René considers himself among the ‘New Atheists’ and also among the growing number of Jesus mythicists, that is, scholars who believe that Jesus of Nazareth did not exist as a human being but was invented by the early Church. Right up our alley. Please welcome to the program René Salm. Are you there, René?

René Salm: Yes, I am. Thank you for having me.

Rob: Thank you so much for joining us. It’s rare enough that we talk to someone who’s so closely linked to what got us all started, and that is in fact mythicism. Tell me about the term ‘mythicist,’ I was just looking it up…

René: Yes, well… I appreciate being acknowledged as ‘closely linked.’ I started my Mythicist Papers website, well, about six or seven years ago now. And at the time, the word ‘mythicist’ was not even known to people we would call mythicists. Just a few years ago they were trying to settle on the correct term for us people who do not believe in the existence of Jesus of Nazareth in history. There was “mythist” for awhile… I don’t know if you remember… Then there was a detractor (who will remain nameless) who called us “mythtics” [chuckling]. And the word “mythicist” percolated down, and I decided to make it the title of my website—Mythicist Papers—and I think that had a little to do with catalyzing that word. You know, I modestly put that out there, because this was five or six years ago when we were even more unknown than we are now. Let’s put it that way, although I do think we’ve made a lot of progress in the last few years.

"Mythicism" seems to be catching on. A keyword search on Amazon.com returned 36 books (May 16, 2016).

“Mythicism” seems to be catching on. A keyword search on Amazon.com returned 36 books (May 16, 2016).

Rob: I don’t think you should take that modestly… I think the information that you’ve just imparted to us puts you right there at the beginning of those among us who may have coined a word. It doesn’t exist yet. It’s not in the dictionary. It’s not in the Urban Dictionary. In fact, I tried to put the first definition for “mythicism” in the Urban Dictionary, and I am feeling the sting of the prejudice. It has not been approved, nor have I even been contacted. It’s stunning. And I’ve had other stuff approved on Urban Dictionary. I feel that we’ve been wrongly prejudiced against… So, no, I think you probably did coin the term.

René: You know, it’s got to change, because a lot of dictionaries are supposed to incorporate new words according to usage, and “mythicist” is now being used not just by mythicists themselves, but—in the last couple of years especially—it’s been taken up by scholarship more widely. So now, when you use the term “mythicist,” there’s no doubt what you’re talking about. Some people say “Jesus mythicist,” but we now have Bart Ehrman’s 2012 book Did Jesus Exist, and he pretty much put the whole mythicist argument out there in front of the layperson. And in scholarship, too, they have no excuse for not knowing what mythicists are, or that they exist, because we’ve had scholars like Dr. Thomas Brodie, who have openly acknowledged that they’re mythicists. He is a scholar from within the guild, and he also came out in 2012 with a book that claimed that Jesus did not exist. So right now we are, in my opinion, in a state of massive denial that there are people like mythicists who deny the existence of Jesus. And I’m sorry to say that Ehrman happens to be in that camp, saying that there’s nobody in the guild… [that] you can’t find anybody who denies the existence of Jesus. Whereas, there are now [such people]… There aren’t very many, but there are a few in the guild, and there’s a number of scholars that I personally know, because they’ve communicated with me, who are very sympathetic to mythicism but for obvious practical reasons they don’t publish on the subject. Yet their work is undermining the historical existence of Jesus by the day. Every year we have very encouraging work being done—mostly in Europe, I have to say. A lot in this country too. But there’s a lot of work being done in Germany and so on by scholars who are questioning not only the existence of Jesus in one way or another—but the existence of Paul is now also entering into the matter!

More evidence of mythicism's growing popularity, though this cover seems to be from a mythical book. (Click photo for source page).

More evidence of mythicism’s growing popularity, though this cover seems to be from a mythical book. (Click photo for source page).

Rob: Wow.

René: And my own work with Nazareth is also entering into the subject and, I think, is an important element in all this discussion. Because, of course, Jesus is known as “of Nazareth” and when you take away the Nazareth element you’re left with Jesus of “Nowhere.”

Rob: It’s pretty compelling stuff.

René: I’ve already had some people acknowledge—they’re waffling—“Well, if Nazareth didn’t exist, blah blah blah.” So there are scholars who are acknowledging the integrity of my work. And just the other day one scholar said that “Jesus has a Nazareth problem,” and this is an archeologist who’s written a book. And that’s very encouraging to me.

Brian: “Jesus has a Nazareth problem”! So, is it mythicism that got you into archeology, or the other way around?

René: It’s definitely mythicism that got me into archeology. Let me confide in you: I have no innate interest in archeology. [Chuckles.] Coming from a background where I was a musician for a number of years… I worked in mental health… But for about forty years—I’m sixty-three years old now, by the way—ever since my twenties I’ve been more than a little interested in religion, and in aspects of religion ranging from Buddhism, to Christianity, to Zoroastrianism—just anything that you could call religion… It’s that interest that prompted me to investigate Christianity and its origins, because I wanted to learn about it—for my own curiosity. And that’s still what motivates me. I’m not motivated by making money—I’ve never made a whole lot of money at this. [Laughter.] In fact, I’ve probably lost a lot! And I’m not motivated by reputation, so I don’t have a lot to lose in that sense. But the curiosity that I had in early Christianity has propelled to try to understand Jesus. That was my original intention in my twenties already.
     In a discussion online—we’re going back almost twenty years now—there was a list called CrossTalk. It’s pretty much defunct—it’s been defunct for about fifteen years. There were a lot of interesting discussions on that list. One of the topics that would come up regularly was the existence of Nazareth. It would quickly be pooh-poohed. People would just laugh. And they would joke about it and really use it as an excuse for levity. But it kept coming around. So I did a little research and figured “I’ll settle this quickly.” I went down to the library and looked it up. I was very surprised to find that it was being taken seriously. Nazareth’s existence at the time of Jesus was doubted already back in 1899, I think it was, when the Encyclopedia Biblica was published. And the article there was claiming that Nazareth was not the hometown of Jesus. And now that quote is now on my website—nazarethmyth.info—it’s right at the top of the website. So the idea that Nazareth did not exist is pretty old. And I knew that, if this was true, this was a major, major, element that would put the kabosh on Jesus. Because without Nazareth traditionalists have a lot of explaining to do.

Rob: So is there opposition to the idea that Nazareth didn’t exist, or is that part of the research agreed upon?

René: I’m sorry… You’re cutting in and out. But I basically followed up that research and started to collect the information, the relevant articles. And then I started getting into the archeological reports. And one thing led to another, and I presented my results to this list on CrossTalk, this internet list, and the feedback was uniformly negative. But there were a few who were willing at least to listen. Already in the years 2000–2003, roughly in there, that I gathered all the important archeological reports, and it was clear to me way back then that the case is pretty much closed—if you look at the evidence. If you look at the oil lamps, and the tombs, and the stone vessels, and everything that constitutes material evidence for the village, you don’t find anything before the year 100 CE. So that’s roughly seventy years after Jesus is supposed to have died. And that’s when the first evidence clearly comes in, that people were living at the place we call Nazareth.

Nazareth today is the largest arab city in Israel. 70% of its residents are muslim.

Nazareth today is the largest arab city in Israel.
70% of its residents are muslim, of which those above are bowing towards Mecca.
The Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciation looms in the background.

[15’15”] Brian: Now, how big is Nazareth supposed to be? The research that I did said that it was a small hamlet of about fifty [houses?] and caves. Is that what’s supposed to be there?

René: A small town? Yes, although scholarship is divided here. And to tell you the truth, I don’t think they know where to go at this point. [I.e., they are in complete confusion.—RS] The small town idea comes from the New Testament (they claim) where—I think it’s in the Gospel of John—Nathaniel asks “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” [Jn 1:46] That’s used very superficially to claim that Nazareth was very small. But actually, it’s asking “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”—that’s not saying anything about it’s size. But it’s natural that scholars who want to defend the Christian tradition would claim it’s very small, simply because there’s very little evidence [for the existence of Nazareth in the first century]. So when there’s very little evidence you’re going to say, “Well, it was so small that we haven’t found the evidence.” [That’s of course an argument from silence.–RS]
     They’ve also tried to attack my conclusions by saying, “Well, nobody’s excavated under the valley floor, where the modern city is, and that’s where you might find a lot stuff.” But, you see, there are many contradictions going on here because, on the other hand they claim that the village was not on the valley floor, it was up on the mountain where the Gospel of Luke says that the village was located on the top of a hill. And you all remember in Luke, Chapter 4, where Jesus is in a synagogue in Nazareth, and he angers the people by reading a certain Old Testament passage and commenting on it, and they take him and attempt to throw him off a cliff. Well, this is very problematic for several reasons: there’s no cliff in the Nazareth area, there were no synagogues in rural Galilee before the second century—although some people now are trying very hard to argue that—and the entire Sitz im Leben, the whole background of the New Testament, is pretty obviously second century. It’s becoming increasingly clear that no Pharisees were up there before the Bar Kokhba revolt in the 130s CE. So Jesus interacting with Pharisees up there in Galilee, this is an anachronism, just like [the presence of] synagogues. But when you get specifically to the Nazareth issue, all of these elements argue against the existence of a village there at the turn of the era. It’s about two hundred years off—because you have to figure that a village worthy of a name came about in Middle Roman times.
     The tradition now, I think, is not sure where exactly to go, because there’s another recent thrust to actually make Nazareth a large town [at the turn of the era], and I don’t really know where that’s coming from… Luke also uses the word polis, the Greek word for “city” when he describes Nazareth. So, in the gospel of Luke, he obviously intends there to be a large number of people. It’s a “crowd” that drags Jesus and tries to throw him off the cliff. In Luke’s conception, Nazareth is not a small town. So the tradition is between a rock and a hard place. My job is just to show that there is no evidence for either a small or a big town [at the turn of the era]. In my first book I also point out some of these other problems: there were no Pharisees up there, there were no synagogues… things like this. In the second book, NazarethGate, that just came out last December, I go further and tackle some of the archeological problems, the excavations that have taken place since my first book. There was a claim of a house from the time of Jesus…

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