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How long can the historical associations of places be remembered? By Ken Dark, author of "Archaeology of Jesus' Nazareth" published by Oxford University Press

How long can the historical associations of places be remembered?

In Archaeology of Jesus’ Nazareth, I discuss a first-century building in Nazareth probably believed by the end of the seventh century to be where Jesus was brought up. Earlier, Egeria—the Western Roman woman writing in the 380s—says that the house of Mary, mother of Jesus, was on what may be the same site. This raises the question—of much wider applicability than just to first-century Nazareth—of whether local memory of an association between a place and the people who lived there could really be preserved for more than three centuries.

The answer to this question once seemed clearcut. Sociologists, historians, and social anthropologists such as Maurice Halbwachs and David Henige, working in the late twentieth century, stressed the ways in which the communal recollection of memories could be adapted and altered to fit the current concerns of people in changing circumstances. They doubted that anything historically reliable could persist purely in the shared memories of non-literate people for more than about 200 years. 

In terms of religious history, although this has no significant implications for the reliability of the Gospels as historical texts—they were all written well within that c.200-year bracket—it has major implications for the authenticity of those places associated with Gospel passages by fourth-century Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land. When these pilgrims claimed that specific places were the exact locations of particular events in the Gospels, without any written evidence later than the Gospels themselves, one would, according to this “200-year rule,” be inclined to disbelieve these identifications. No association between places and events, it was said, could reliably be remembered simply by word-of-month testimony from the early first to the fourth centuries. 

“Can local memory of an association between a place and the people who lived there be preserved for more than three centuries?”

However, twenty-first century studies challenge this twentieth-century scholarly consensus. Several striking instances of correlation between archaeological discoveries and topographical traditions have cast doubt on the existence of a 200-year “historical horizon.” There are so many examples of this that here I can give just a few examples. 

Only this year, for instance, a rescue excavation at Leicester cathedral in England confirmed the local story that a Roman temple formerly stood on its site. The present cathedral originated as an eleventh-century church, and no Roman temple in Britain can be shown to have been in use after the early fifth century—so there was an approximately an 700-year gap between the temple and church. Even assuming that Roman ruins discovered during construction of the church in the eleventh century most likely led to the post-medieval legend, the memory of this would have had to have been preserved by the people of Leicester in unwritten form for centuries.

This is nowhere near the longest time that unwritten knowledge seems to have preserved the historical associations of a place. The anthropologists Frances and Howard Morphy have recently drawn attention to scores of inland indigenous Yolngu place-names in Arnhem Land, in the north of Australia, which give details of an earlier coastline identified by twenty-first century geological research and otherwise invisible for about 3000 years. Consequently, there seems no other possible conclusion than that local people, living in the same—but geomorphologically altered—landscape, preserved detailed topographical knowledge of the former coastline over three millennia through their unwritten names for these places alone.

Returning to the Nazareth, a local story recorded in 1881 by the nuns of the Sisters of Nazareth convent said that a big church had once stood on the present Sisters of Nazareth convent site. This place had indeed been the site of a large church, probably razed to the ground by fire in the capture of Nazareth in 1187—694 years earlier. Yet the existence of that church was only discovered during the nun’s subsequent excavations, when they found its ruins buried metres deep below ground-level.

“There seems no doubt that the 200-year rule cannot be taken as the sort of cultural law that it once seemed.”

Of course, by no means all such topographical legends and traditional stories have a basis in fact. Many are certainly no more than fabrication and others contain embellishment or “editing” in later centuries. But judging from archaeological and anthropological cases of this sort of correlation—and the list of them is growing constantly—there seems no doubt that the 200-year rule cannot be taken as the sort of cultural law that it once seemed. While it is impossible to use this to say that the legendary associations of a place always have some basis in historical fact, it may show that they can.

This brings us back to the “house of Jesus.” It is plausible on this basis that the historical associations of a place—even a place in Nazareth—could have been remembered between the early first century and the 380s, or even 670s. But we cannot tell for sure that it was.

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