Pt. 4: Heavenly deception

Jerry Vardaman’s career

Ephraim Jeremiah Vardaman (1927-2000) was a native of Dallas, Texas. His career spans much of the South. “Jerry” Vardaman received a Th.D in 1957 from the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary of Fort Worth, Texas. (His dissertation was entitled Hermeticism and the Fourth Gospel.) He then taught New Testament archaeology for fifteen years (1958-72) at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (hereafter SBTS) in Louisville, Kentucky. Vardaman was thus teaching at SBTS in Louisville when he participated in the Caesarea Maritima excavations of 1962, along with a number of his students. Vardaman subsequently taught at Mississippi State University (1973-81) where he founded the Cobb Institute of Archeology. He obtained a second doctorate in 1974 from Baylor University (Waco, Texas) with a dissertation entitled The Inscriptions of King Herod I. This last is significant in that it attests to Vardaman’s specialization in inscriptions. All the above mentioned schools are flagships of conservative Christian scholarship in the “Bible Belt.” However, Vardaman also undertook postdoctoral work at both the University of Oxford and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Vardaman was an ordained Baptist minister.

The SBTS advertises itself as “The oldest of the six seminaries affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention” and “One of the world’s largest theological seminaries with a full-time equivalent enrollment of over 2,000 students.” Its mission is “to be totally committed to the Bible as the Word of God, to the Great Commission as our mandate, and to be a servant of the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention by training, educating, and preparing ministers of the gospel for more faithful service.”

Are you called?

A penchant for microletters and heavenly deception

Despite his impeccable conservative credentials—or perhaps because of them—time and again Vardaman goes against the mainstream of scholarship. He appears like a bull in a china shop, disregarding historical facts and even logic in fierce defense of conservative Christian views. Unfortunately, his radical positions have made no sense to most scholars. In numerous cases (far more than is generally recognized) Vardaman claimed to have discovered astonishing new primary evidence, evidence generally rejected by academe. The best known is the infamous case of the microletters on coins—microletters (or “micrographic lettering”) which no one but Vardaman ever saw. There is no proof that the primary evidence in this case ever existed. All Vardaman produced was his own hand-drawn sketch of what he thought existed.

But the coin imbroglio is only the beginning… Vardaman claimed that microletters were on numerous artifacts. Ronald L. Conte, Jr., is a Catholic scholar who corresponded with Vardaman and was one of the few to accept the latter’s theories. Conte writes: “Vardaman has also made a close study of microletters on other artifacts, including the Lapis Venetus, the Lapis Tiburtinus, and the weight of Archelaus.” Later on the same page Conte reveals the following words from Vardaman’s hand: “And Ron, believe me when I say that I now have microletters for Pilate in Palestinian areas slightly later than Rufus/Gratus…” Apparently, Vardaman was able to “see” microletters just about everywhere.

R. Carrier has the following to say regarding the microletters: “…stone, by its roughness and its exposure to weathering, would be even less likely to preserve such markings, even if they had ever been made. Indeed, stones of the day were not polished, making it literally impossible for microscopic letters to be inscribed on them in any visible way.” It goes without saying that in none of Vardaman’s microletter claims (stone or coin) has the evidence been verified by others.

“Microletters” was a specialty of Vardaman throughout his career. His 1974 Ph.D dissertation (for Baylor Univ.) reveals another example:

Did I share with you information on the the important new inscription about Herod I from Cos – giving his full name as Gaius Julius Herodes—which is exactly what I read on microletters in 1974 when I published a Ph. D. dissertation on him (Corpus Inscriptionum Herodianarum)? [From R. Conte]

Thus, throughout his career, Vardaman produced claims of mystifying evidence that no one else ever saw. All these claims seem to have an overarching purpose, for Vardaman used them to construct an entirely new chronology of Jesus, one which ‘resolved’ certain difficulties (e.g. the census of Quirinus) by dating Jesus’ birth to 12 BCE, Pilate’s governorship of Judaea to between 15 and 26 CE, Jesus’ crucifixion to 21 CE, and Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus to 25 CE. Needless to say, this extraordinary chronology has also not been accepted by mainstream scholarship.

The historian Richard Carrier has studied Vardaman’s claims and considers that the archaeologist had simply gone “insane.” However, I don’t explain Vardaman’s behavior in this way. Vardaman was not clinically insane—he functioned perfectly adequately in an academic setting for decades, receiving two doctorates, leading excavations, publishing, and teaching. This is not the profile of an insane person but of a super-committed Christian willing to do anything, say anything, and write anything in defense of “the Word of God.”

Vardaman suffered from what I would call “relative morality.” I do not think he believed himself evil or duplicitous. Much as Tertullian in Roman times could council bishops to “lie” in order to promote the faith, Vardaman believed that a higher standard of faith exonerates actions which might seem as indiscretions to non-believers. This reminds me of a modern sect of super-committed pseudo-Christians (the Moonies/Unification Church) which similarly teaches the doctrine of “heavenly deception.”

It is with the above in mind that we must look at Vardaman’s career and specifically at his 1962 Caesarea activity. Once again Vardaman produces astonishing new evidence: an inscription which establishes the existence of Nazareth in the second century CE. In every way, this “fits” his profile: (1) it is an inscription, and Vardaman was an expert on ancient inscriptions; (2) it is “new evidence,” and we know that Vardaman was very aggressive in producing new evidence throughout his career; (3) it supports the conservative Christian position, and Vardaman was a committed Christian; and (4) it rewrites history or, at least, seeks to authenticate an important element of traditional Christian history for the first time.

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.

Vardaman’s motive

The photo published in S. Talmon’s 1958 article brought fragment C for the first time to the attention of interested scholars. We can be certain that Vardaman, an expert in ancient Jewish inscriptions, knew of this publication well before 1962. Talmon associated fragment C with Caesarea, and the fragment unambiguously contains a portion of the list of twenty-four priestly courses. After the appearance of Talmon’s article (in “Scripta Hierosolymitana, vol. IV:162-99), Vardaman would naturally have been very interested in finding the part of the inscription which mentions Nazareth, recognizing the potential such a find would have on the question of the town’s existence—at least in over-heated conservative circles. (In fact, the list of priestly courses is too late, in every sense, to impinge on the question of Nazareth’s existence at the turn of the era.)

We now know—from the series of posts appearing on this website—that fragment C had nothing to do with the area to the north of the Crusader fortifications in Caesarea which Avi-Yonah and Vardaman excavated in 1962 (“Area A”). We know this through the subsequent work of Marylinda Govaars (1983, 2009), work which shows that no synagogue ever existed in the vicinity. However, in 1962 Vardaman was not aware of this later work of Govaars which is essentially revisionist.

Like Avi-Yonah and Samuel Klein decades before, Vardaman gladly accepted the existence of a synagogue in Area A. This view accorded with his desire to find the “Nazareth” fragment there. It also accorded with a pronounced Israeli thrust to find an ancient synagogue in the vicinity. As I mentioned in another post, Avi-Yonah’s funding for the 1962 excavation was largely through the “Rabinowitz Foundation for the Exploration of Ancient Synagogues.” Avi-Yonah was not merely digging. He was digging with an agenda—an agenda to authenticate an ancient synagogue.

The above is borne out by the reports. Avi-Yonah grabs at every straw to authenticate a syngogue. He produces improbable interpretations which tie various structural and movable evidence to a “synagogue structure” in Area A—interpretations which Govaars systematically refutes. For example, Avi-Yonah associated fragments B and C with “the synagogue associated with Area A = Field O, on the basis of proximity and content” (Ameling:67) even though the findspots of those fragments were almost 100m away. Avi-Yonah does similarly with a chancel screen, coins, walls, etc. Wherever possible (even when improbable) he contrives evidence of a synagogue.

The only reason to associate fragment C with Area A of Caesarea is of the most vague nature: the person who took the photo of the fragment (Aaron Wegman) lived in Kibbutz Sdot Yam, which is in the vicinity of Area A. Wegman was an amateur archaeologist and, of course, he could have seen the artifact anywhere.

We can now say that fragment C certainly did not come from Area A, for Govaars has shown that no synagogue existed there—and fragment C is a portion of a plaque which only existed in synagogues. Thus, from the very start—even before he embarked on the 1962 excavations—Vardaman was barking up the wrong tree. He thought (1) there was a synagogue in Area A; (2) fragment C came from that synagogue; and (3) any further fragments of the plaque of “twenty-four priestly courses” to be found in the vicinity would support and confirm both the existence of a synagogue and the existence of a plaque. He was wrong on all three counts.

Vardaman’s motive in excavating at Caesarea was not the same as Avi-Yonah’s. The latter wished to find a synagogue. In so doing, he was helping to authenticate the right of Jewish return to the land of ancient Israel. Nothing authenticates that right as firmly as the discovery of ancient synagogues dating to Roman-Byzantine times and thereafter. This was Avi-Yonah’s over-riding purpose and no doubt also the purpose behind the creation of the Louis M. Rabinowitz Fund for the Exploration of Ancient Synagogues.

But what was Vardaman’s motive? This is the critical question for us. It appears that the publication of fragment C in 1958 played a significant role in Vardaman’s interest in Caesarea, and in his decision to petition the SBTS for funding, etc. Enrico Tuccinardi writes: “the discovery of fragment C was crucial to the decision of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary to subsidize the 1962 excavations in Caesarea.” Even though there is (at this time) no proof for this assertion, Tuccinardi is certainly correct.

Even before Vardaman approached Avi-Yonah and the SBTS, he knew what he wanted to find: the word “Nazareth” on the inscription of the twenty-four priestly courses. There can be no doubt about this for two reasons: (1) Vardaman’s personal and intimate association with the discovery of fragment A (the fragment with the word “Nazareth”); coupled with (2) the fact that the discovery of fragment A is itself an anomaly in every respect. After all, the fragment does not belong in Area A (no synagogue was ever there), and it does not match the other fragments as regards color, line spacing, and epigraphy. We can now appreciate that Vardaman was not only barking up the wrong tree, but that he was also being extraordinarily deceitful (whether or not he thought he was being deceitful), for Vardaman produced an anomalous piece of evidence which fits neither the archaeological context in which it was found nor the marble inscription to which it allegedly belongs.

Getting the contract

Vardaman must have had no difficulty securing participation in the 1962 Caesarea excavation. He could offer Avi-Yonah both money and manpower from his school, the SBTS. We know that Vardaman was very influential at SBTS. He had just secured funding for his school from a wealthy Jewish antiquarian and numismatist, Jerome Eisenberg. The story was carried in the Gettysburg Times of September 2, 1966:

Eisenberg clip

From the above we see that in June 1961—the year preceding the Caesarea excavations—the SBTS realized a new museum funded by Mr. Eisenberg. It was Jerry Vardaman who secured this funding for his school. Thus, his school was very much indebted to Mr. Vardaman. It was at this time that Vardaman could ask virtually whatever he wanted.

And what did Vardaman ask from his school? He asked the SBTS for money and manpower (volunteer students) to participate in an excavation in Caesarea, Israel. Indeed, the SBTS agreed to Vardaman’s requests.

We see from the foregoing discussion that Vardaman was the critical link between Avi-Yonah (and the Israeli archaeological establishment) and the SBTS. It was Vardaman who secured funding, sponsorship, and student volunteers from the SBTS. In fact, it was Vardaman who conceived and organized a whole plan to discover the “Nazareth” fragment of the twenty-four priestly courses at Caesarea.

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About René Salm

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

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