Nazareth, the Caesarea Inscription, and the hand of God—Pt. 5

by Enrico Tuccinardi

Translated from the French and edited
by René Salm

Prof. Avi-Yonah in Caesarea, 1962,M. Govaars, Photographs of Caesarea Maritima, Israel, 2008, p. 11.

Prof. Avi-Yonah in Caesarea, 1962.

Enter Jerry Vardaman
        The discovery and interpretation of the Caesarea inscription are attributed to professor of archaeology [at the Hebrew University] and excavation director Dr. M. Avi-Yonah, a name generally considered a guarantor of seriousness and objective neutrality in archaeological matters.[Ed. note 2]
        But is this in fact how events took place?
        The first surprise the researcher encounters is that Avi-Yonah’s complete article regarding the Caesarea inscription, in the English language, did not appear in an international journal specializing in archeology but in an obscure memorial edition, The Teacher’s Yoke, edited in 1964 by Professor E. Jerry Vardaman for the press of Baylor University, a private Christian school in Waco, Texas. Why relegate the most extensive article on an important Israeli archaeological find to an obscure edition from a Texas university?
E. Jerry Vardaman(Ephraim Jeremiah Vardaman)

E. Jerry Vardaman

        Jerry Vardaman supplied an Introduction to Avi-Yonah’s article. There, we find the answer to the above question: Vardaman was himself the discoverer of the Caesarea fragment 1 (the all-important fragment which contains the word ‘Nazareth’). At that time, Vardaman was professor of biblical archeology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas. Why was he even in the Caesarea Maritima excavation?
        Jerry Vardaman probably first became interested in biblical archaeology in the 1950s when he came under the tutelage of the great American archaeologist William Foxwell Albright, an evangelical Methodist scholar. The many issues which Albright took up included problems relating to the existence of Nazareth. He was familiar with the theories of Samuel Klein regarding ha-Kalir’s liturgical poems, including their references to villages in Palestine. Albright had himself met the Jewish scholar and greatly admired his extraordinary talmudic learning.9
        In the year 1959, before engaging in a series of archaeological excavations, Vardaman studied for a time with Albright at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Letters between the two archaeologists attest to warm relations between them several years later, namely, at the time of the Caesarea excavation in 1962.10
        Maria Luisa Rigato, a Catholic scholar, writes:

Avi-Yonah reports: During the excavation campaign of 1954-58 in Israel, “in the excavations at Caesarea conducted by the Department of Archaeology of the Hebrew University […], fragments of a Jewish inscription […] of exceptional interest were found.”

This discovery occurred in 1958, and in 1962 Avi-Yonah published his conclusions on the nature of the three fragments, assigning them a date of the third / fourth century.11

        The scholar has Avi-Yonah’s text in front of her, but she ‘embellishes’ it with elements which are not present in the article, most particularly regarding dates. She notes that the discovery by Avi-Yonah was in 1958. However, the date is false. The first archaeological excavation in Caesarea was in 1956, but the fragments of the inscription were not found in that campaign. The two and only fragments which the excavation director, Avi-Yonah, found were uncovered in 1962. These are Avi-Yonah’s fragments “A” and “B.”
        It should also be noted that Prof. Vardaman and his colleagues at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) did not participate in the earlier excavation, but only in the second one of 1962. Ms. Rigato omits to state that—together with the the Dept. of Archaeology of the Hebrew University—these excavations were financed by the SBTS, which furnished Avi-Yonah with his excavation collaborators, including Prof. Vardaman and student volunteers from the SBTS. This point has some importance—for Vardaman, as we have noted, was the actual discoverer of fragment A of the Caesarea inscription.
        Ms. Rigato dated the discovery of the Caesarea inscription to 1958, as we have seen. In that year, S. Talmon published the photo of a fragment C which indubitably refers to the list of priestly families—as inscribed on marble tablets mounted to the walls of the synagogues, according to Klein. Strangely, fragment C was soon lost and has never been recovered. However, publication of the 1958 photograph proved critical to subsequent developments.

The lost (and largest) fragment C from a photo published by S. Talmon in 1958. It allegedly contains parts of lines 14-17 of the list of priestly courses.

The lost (and largest) fragment C from a photo published by S. Talmon in 1958. It allegedly contains parts of lines 14-17 of the list of priestly courses.

        We can conjecture that the discovery of fragment C was crucial to the decision of the SBTS to subsidize the 1962 excavations in Caesarea. The reason is plain: fragment C clearly demonstrates that a list of priestly courses was affixed to the wall of the Caesarea synagogue,[Ed. note 3] a list similar to that elucidated by Klein. Now, Klein had shown that the list included—in its eighteenth line—the name of the town “Nazareth” (Natsrath). For all the Jewish savant’s erudition, however, this was still a theoretical reconstruction. There was still no hard evidence to prove that Klein was correct in all particulars, most especially regarding “Nazareth.”
The Caesarea inscription as reconstructed by Avi-Yonah.Fragment C (top) is lost. Fragments A and B supposedly begin and end the same lines of text.

The Caesarea inscription as reconstructed by Avi-Yonah.
Fragment C (top) is lost. Fragments A and B supposedly begin and end the same lines of text.

        What was required—from the point of view of a conservative Christian seeking evidence—was the actual word “Nazareth” found on a fragment of the Caesarea inscription. Only this would show that Klein was correct. Given such a ‘discovery,’ it would be possible to establish, once and for all, the existence of Nazareth at least from the second century CE onwards.
        A small fragment of marble—yet one containing the critical letters— was enough. On the basis of fragment C—that is, on the basis of the photo published by Talmon in 1958—it was already possible for Avi Yonah to theoretically reconstruct the entire inscription (reproduced at right), based on the studies of Samuel Klein.
        It is even more interesting to note that Samuel Klein himself was the first to localize the site of the Caesarea synagogue—later systematically excavated by Avi Yonah in 1956 and 1962.12 In other words, Klein both (a) reconstructed the list of priestly courses with their towns of residence, and (b) discovered the site which would validate that reconstruction post-mortem.
        As mentioned above, the SBTS furnished Avi Yonah with his principal collaborators—most notably Jerry Vardaman, whose role in the excavation was hardly marginal. Marylinda Govaars published some notes and photos taken by Vardaman in the course of the Caesarea excavations. She writes:

Vardaman, supervisor of area D, was instrumental in finding the fragment with the word ‘Nazareth’ on it. […] By virtue of being an assistant director, Vardaman had access to all the areas undergoing excavation during his two months at Caesarea […]13

        Two months may seem like a short period, yet in that span of time Vardaman’s contribution proved decisive. In his introduction to Avi Yonah’s article, Vardaman himself described the discovery:

        This fragment of the inscription was found August, 14, 1962, at a depth of 90 cm. below the surface of the sands of Caesarea. It was registered with pottery basket D.V.9. It was found near the end of the season of excavation, and due to fatigue, the men who were working with picks and hoes were becoming careless about spotting some of the objects which were turning up in this area of work. For this reason, as the excavator I gave strict instructions to the workman on the wheelbarrow (whose name was Shalom Attiah) to pay close attention to the debris which was being emptied there by the basket men. This proved to be most fortunate, for the particular fragment mentioned above (no.1) [=Fragment A] was found by Mr. Attiah as he searched through his wheelbarrow before carting the debris away to the dump. The Fragment was quickly washed and at first proved difficult to read intelligibly. The second line I immediately read as N Z R T (’Nazareth’), even though others read it as B Z R T (’drought’). The first letter of line 2 was only partially preserved of course. It must be realized that Professor Avi Yonah has done a brilliant job of epigraphical interpretation, having as he did so few clues as to the nature of the documents which Eleazar Oren and I found and reconstructing the whole so masterfully. Full credit for recognizing the significance and relationship of the various fragments to each other and to older sources must be given to his ingenuity as an epigraphist.14

        Thus, Vardaman recognized the importance of the discovery (confirmed by Avi Yonah in his article) and he also ascribed full credit for the reconstruction of the text to Professor Avi Yonah. But in a note published in a 1998 article, he augmented the narrative with a number of interesting details:

        I have not yet called attention to my discovery of the critical section of a Caesarean inscription of the twenty-four priestly courses, with its mention of a Nazareth as one of the villages settled in the late first century A.D. or early second century A.D. by the Jewish temple priesthood (the line of Hapizezzez, the eighteenth family, settled at Nazareth). Although the text was found in 1962, I was back in Jerusalem in the summer of 1963, studying in the first class organized by President Nelson Glueck of the new Hebrew Union College Archaeological and Biblical School. Professor Avi Yonah, indicative of his generous spirit, insisted that summer that I, as the one who came up with the text, should sit by his side in the King David Hotel when honors were bestowed upon him at a banquet (for those who had recently made outstanding discoveries in Israel). He confided to me privately that our joint discovery of this inscription resulted in his recent promotion from associate professor to full professor at the Hebrew University. Properly understood, the inscription shatters the theories of those who deny the existence of Nazareth in Jesus’ time or earlier.15

        In this last sentence, Vardaman is referring to those who, like Guignebert, pointed to the troubling silence of the literary sources and who thus dared to deny the existence of Nazareth in the time of Jesus.

—>   PART SIX: Vardaman’s microletters

Ed. note 2: On the dubious neutrality of Israeli archaeology in general, see The Politics of Archaeology in Israel and “Israel’s Evangelical approach” and Nazareth.–R.S.
9. W.F. Albright, The Archaeology of the Palestine and the Bible, New-York, 1932:72; The Archaeology of the Palestine and the Bible, New-York, 1932:72; S. Rosenblatt, The Days of my Years: An Autobiography, New York, 1976:12.
10. M. Govaars and J. Vardaman, Photographs of Caesarea Maritima, Israel. Indianapolis, 2008.
11. M. Rigato, Il Titolo della Croce di Gesu, Rome 2005, p. 54.
Ed. note 3: Marylinda Govaars has contested the presence of a synagogue in the area where the fragments of the Caesarea inscription were ostensibly found. Her important research will be taken up in a subsequent post.–R.S.
12. Letter of S. Klein, dated June 10, 1930. Department of Antiquities ATQ/226. Cf. Govaars and Vardaman, 2008.
13. M. Govaars and J. Vardaman, Photographs of Caesarea Maritima, Israel. Indianapolis, 2008.
14. Vardaman, J. and Garrett, J.L., The Teacher’s Yoke: studies in memory of Henry Trantham. Waco, Texas, 1964.
15. J. Vardaman, “Progress in the study of the sabbatical/jubilee cycle since Siloam,” in Chronos Kairos Christos II, Macon, 1998.

About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website

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