Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Who the hell is Rene Salm?

Though it apparently came out last summer, I just recently caught wind of a book called The Myth of Nazareth by a fellow named Rene Salm. In it, Salm attempts to argue that the town of Nazareth did not come into being until after the time Christ, which would in turn make a powerful argument that Christ was merely a mythological figure. Apparently this is the first volume of series of books that Salm is cooking up that question the traditional origins of Christianity. It's all very interesting if true, but I'm troubled that I seem to find can't find any credentials for Salm save for a few notes here and there that refer to him as "a historian" and a composer.

If it is indeed the case that this Salm fellow has no formal archaeological training and is in fact just an amateur historian, this book ceases to be especially intriguing. Granted, Robert M. Price certainly seems to be excited by it, but there's a paucity of what I would consider to be unbiased reviews floating around out there. It is (rather predictably) being fiercely attacked on religious sites like Theology Web*, and while the sole review on Amazon says that it's the best thing since toast, said review was written by an author who is featured prominently on Salm's website.

Still, I think I may have to order this book, if only for curiosity's sake.** That's not to say that I don't find a rather large bit of Salm's thesis, that there's some kind of conspiracy amongst archaeologists to promote incorrect dating for the founding of Nazareth, pretty freakin' hard to swallow. After all, books that purport to offer stunning new insights (from a laymen, especially) into a well-studied field should be treated with caution (see here), and philosophically attractive theses should be treated with even more caution. I'm not especially bound up in the idea of a purely mythological Jesus (Unlike, I should note, Robert M. Price) so I'm not going to cry if Salm turns out to be mistaken.

That's a good thing too, because at this point I think there's even odds that Salm has his head up his ass.

*Actually, a large percentage of the unfavorable reviews floating around out there trace back to a Theology Web user called J.P. Holding, aka Robert Turkel, aka the guy that runs that Tektonics apologetics website. He's not held in high regard even for an apologist, and a Google search for "Robert Turkel intellectual dishonesty" returns nearly 900 hits.

** The same reason I own this book, written by a fellow who apparently thinks trolls are real...

21 comments:

Antagonist Jason said...

I remember checking out several books about the shroud of Turin in high school, and one of them mentioned the idea that Nazareth wasn't a city yet in the early 1st century.

Also, I've read some threads on TW, and most people there seem to be quite reasonable, but I only read threads about creationism.

Joshua said...

I'm afraid that Robert M. Price is probably not the best judge. I like some of the man's work, but he's a radical mythicist. Given the choice between two theories, I think Price would simply choose the one that looked the most interesting and subversive.

James Randi has just done a Youtube clip endorsing Salm's book. I love Randi, but this is not his field. I really hope someone with ANE archeological credentials steps in soon.

Skippy the Skeptic said...

Yeah, Randi's talking outside of his expertise here, I'm afraid. Apparently an archaeologist by the name of Ken Dark from the University of Reading did a full a review of Salm's book and basically took it apart, but it was in the Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society and it isn't available online anywhere I can find.

The more I look into what Salm seems to be peddling, which seems to be some sort of "Christianity is actually rooted in Buddhism " sort of deal, the more I suspect that he's daft. Plus that Lindsay Falvey fellow who reviewed Salm's book on Amazon -also- wrote the foreword to one of Salm's articles about "Buddhist and Christian Parallels" (Hint: Both say to be nice to people.) so it seems like he's pretty much out as an objective reviewer.

I dunno, there's no reason that I can see, and maybe I'm just unimaginative, to bother making up the detail of Jesus being from Nazareth. Hell, for Matthew and Luke it's enough of a -problem- that they put forth elaborate stories for how Jesus was -actually- born in Bethlehem instead. It would have made more sense (especially for prophecy-minded Christians and proto-Christians) to just ignore Nazareth altogether and say "Yeah, well, he's from Bethlehem". But maybe I've been reading too much Ehrman and I'm stuck in the mode of accepting the more difficult reading.

Joshua said...

I just got a look at Prof. Ken Dark's review through EBSCO. It's pretty damning, even though I think Dark made it clear that he was keeping his gloves on.

The conclusion: "To conclude: despite initial appearances, this is not a well-informed study and ignores much evidence and important published work of direct relevance. The basic premise is faulty, and Salm’s reasoning is often weak and shaped by his preconceptions. Overall, his central argument is archaeologically unsupportable."

Skippy the Skeptic said...

Hmm, I have a buddy with a JSTOR membership so maybe I can bug him into helping me get a copy of the review. It's really starting to look like this Salm fellow is a schmuck, which is kind of a pain because both Salm's book and that hokey "Zeitgeist" movie have come out in rapid succession with furious but incredibly freakin' WRONG arguments against Christianity.

We're going to be stuck listening to apologists picking these self-made strawmen apart for years.

Joshua said...

"We're going to be stuck listening to apologists picking these self-made strawmen apart for years."

That's what I'm afraid of as well. Sort of like how Creationists have never let us live down Haeckel's drawings or the piltdown man - even though it was fellow scientists who caught the fraud.

BTW, I can send you a PDF of the review if you can provide an e-mail address.

Skippy the Skeptic said...

That would just be boffo, man. My e-mail is skippytheskeptic@gmail.com

Vic said...

I looked at the book when it came out at the American Atheist conference last year. I didn't pick it up because I did have some doubts as to Salm's credentials and was going to wait for him to get ripped apart. Truthfully, though, I haven't really heard any well reasoned critiques. Just angry emotional ones.

I think it is true that the archeological data from the early first century for Nazareth is mysteriously missing. I just don't think anyone actually wanted to say it, so Rene jumped on the chance. I may pick up the book after all.

Skippy the Skeptic said...

"Truthfully, though, I haven't really heard any well reasoned critiques. Just angry emotional ones."

That's true of the ravings of Turkel and his ilk, but Dark's article was very even in tone wasn't based on any biblical claims at all. Thanks to Joshua I have a pdf of the Ken Dark article. Copyright laws prevent me from posting it here, but I can send you a copy if you'll get in touch with me and leave me an e-mail address.

I think the bigger clue that Salm is talking out of his ass is that he's using this book to set up -another- book in which he's apparently going to claim a common origin for Christianity and Buddhism, which is pretty far-fetched even on the face of it. It just so happens that all this evidence he's "uncovered" just happens to neatly support his preconceived idea...

JAK said...

Skippy -

I'd like a copy of the Dark article. You know where to send it.

JAK said...

I recall some discussion from somewhere (I'll have to dig for it when I get home) suggesting that "Nazarene" is an inadvertent corruption of "Nazarite", Nazarite referring to some flavor of Hebrew ascetic.

Even if the Nazareth angle is an intentional fabrication, though, I'm not sure that it provides much justification for a mythical Jesus conclusion.

Vic said...

The Nazareth angle wouldn't be a justification for the Christ Myth, just a additional piece. The theory is built primarily on textual criticism of the New Testament and didache and elaborated with secular historical documents and comparative mythology. The non-existence of Nazareth thing would certainly help, as does the non-existence of the synagogues.

I don't think it's provable one way or the other, unless we find something truly amazing.

JAK said...

Vic -

I certainly didn't intend to imply that the (non) existence of Nazareth is the only (or best) line of reasoning for a Mythical Jesus position.

Personally, I've got no problem stipulating the existence of a real, historical wandering preacher/prophet by name of Jesus/Joshua who attracted a small following and perhaps even ran afoul of the authorities and was executed. That's about as radical a premise as "There's a guy in my neighborhood named Phil", really, and barely rises to the level of interesting.

One can scrape the mythological and theological barnacles (as have come down through the Bible) off of a real Jesus just as easily as a mythological Jesus.

Skippy the Skeptic said...

I'm personally not especially attached to the idea of purely mythological Jesus. I think you can look at Jesus on his own terms as a Jewish apocalyptic prophet without the later divinity stuff tack onto him. Comparative mythology certainly does have its place regarding the origins of Judaism and Christianity, but if you look at the bulk of what Jesus seems to have said, you end up with a fellow espousing a slightly different spin on a relatively common strain of Jewish apocalypticism. Most of what we think of as Christianity today probably isn't what Jesus taught, but rather it represents one interpretation of his teachings and life that came into existence in the centuries after he died. I don't think any of that require jumping through any magic hoops.

Again though, my opinions are probably shaped a great deal by all the Bart Ehrman books that I've read. Most of what I just talked about comes from his "Jesus - Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millenium" from a few years back.

AskWhy! Blogger said...

I know no more than any of you about Rene Salm, but you mostly sound like Christians in cavalierly dismissing something that is not the work of an authority. All religious belief is based on authority, but scientists, atheists and skeptics generally are supposed to eschew authority, and rightly so. By far the majority of those considered experts in this field of "biblical scholarship" are committed Christians or Jews. Their commitment to their beliefs means their judgement cannot be objective, and the false dating of burial lamps is typical. The Caesarea Maritima inscription I have seen used on Christian websites to prove that Nazareth existed at the start of the Bar Kosiba uprising. Yet it merely speaks of priests setting up a new home in a place called NSRT. When was this inscription made? Around 400 AD! Whatever one's source of information, if it is that important to you, then you should check it, as a good journalist does. They too are not experts, but good one's are often more reliable than experts like biblical ones.

Skippy the Skeptic said...

I'm an atheist myself, so you can be assured that I'm not cavalierly dismissing anything out of the hope that Christianity is somehow true. However, the case against Christianity isn't helped by self-proclaimed historians like Salm making hokey arguments that then get picked apart endlessly by religious folks on the internet as "proof" of the alleged intellectual bankruptcy of atheist scholarship.

When it comes to Salm, it isn't so much that he's not an authority, per se, but that he's making archaeological arguments that pretty much every actual archaeologist says are vacuous AND that these arguments are a key support to his own dicey claims linking Eastern mysticism with Christianity. A layman reaching a hugely different conclusion than most of the experts in a field that just happens to support an idiosyncratic claim that the layman is peddling in his books is, understandably, rather suspect.

If you've any interest, I may still have a PDF of the Ken Dark article discussing Salm's book floating around on one of the computers I use. I'd be happy to e-mail it you if you'd like to see it. Just shoot me a message at skippytheskeptic@gmail.com and I'll see what I can do.

Asian Connoisseur said...

Would it be possible to have the Dark review PDF posted to my email scotsmanmatt67@btinternet.com - thanks in advance

Matt

Jon Steinar said...

Salm is just using the evidence published on this town. He is not digging there or making his case out of whole cloth. In fact he is not the first to bring the subject up. Frank R. Zindler had written on the subject and other non existent towns in the gospels.
Bethlehem in Judea didn't even exist in this period according to Archeologist Aviram Oshri and others.
Look at the evidence and then see if there is anything to whine about.

Sean said...

Many thanks for the blog. Thus far it was the only place I could find any information on Rene Salm.
If I may, would you please be so kind as to email me a said PDF review?

Thank you ever so much.
Sean

Gil Gaudia said...

Rene' Salm spoke to our Nones group yesterday (Sunday, May 24, 2015) and although I know nothing about this site or the writers here, I must say that comments about Salm's "head up his ass," "schmuck," and lack of credentials, all evoke a sense of disappointment in me about the value of blogs like this. Our group of about 20 octo- and nona-generians include many Ph.D.s Atheists, engineers, and scientists (no archeologists) and we found his ideas rational, plausible and (at the very least)worthy of serious debate. If the remarks of some people here are to be taken seriously, they should first examine their smug dismissal of Mr. Salm in the context of: what did Albert Einstein's credentials look like in 1905 when he was a patent clerk while he published four major theoretical papers in the prestigious German academic journal Annalen Der Physik? The glorification of credentials, while not completely without merit (after all, I like to parade my Ph.D. in psychology at times)fails to consider the competence of many individuals outside of academia or the scientific establishment. I was almost denied the opportunity to earn a Ph.D. and eventual post-doctoral fellowship with world-renowned psychologist Albert Ellis because my credentials included "truck-driver," "elevator operator," "college dropout" and "Bronx accent." Try to live up to the agnostic, skeptic, Humanist, freethinking, scientific and rational reputation of open-mindedness before denigrating others.

Gil Gaudia, Ph.D. jggaudia@comcast.net

bluebird said...

how long ago are all these comments? I would like that pdf of the Dark review if at all possible? If you respond to this, then I might have hope of getting this info.....