Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Jesus Family Tomb

When I started to read this book, I thought I would be able to offer some kind of reasoned appraisal of whether Simcha Jacobovici and his colleagues had really found the tomb of Jesus who is called Christ. I can't. The real broth and marrow of their argument hinges on one point of biblical scholarship and one point of pure science which I lack the expertise to challenge or affirm. I can tell you that their probability calculations and their DNA testing are far less significant than they would have us believe. Indeed, it almost seems that they added statisticians and geneticists to their argument to give it the window-dressing of science.

The window-dressing of science:


First, there is the matter of their probability calculations for the tomb with the ten ossuaries. Charlie Pellegrino reasoned that fourteen percent of the men in ancient Jerusalem were named Joseph, and nine percent were named Jesus; therefore, only about one of every seventy nine males would be named "Jesus, son of Joseph," as was one they found. So far so good. Similarly, only one out of 24 was named Maria. Only one out of 193 would match Mariamne. The Mariamne logic was tenuous but so far he was still doing reasonably well. Then we come to the problem. Charlie wrote, "At this point, I multiplied one over 79 by 1 over 24 by 1 over 193. What I got was 365,928. Meaning, based on a preliminary calculation, it was possible to say that the number of men likely to be called 'Jesus, son of Joseph' to be found in a tomb with a Latinized Maria and to be associated in that same tomb with Greek-inscribed 'Mariamne, also known as Master' accounted for only one in 365,928."

Have you spotted the mathematical flaw in his reasoning? His calculations would be correct if he had found a tomb with only three ossuaries, and those three were labeled as indicated. But what if he had found a tomb including every ossuary from first century Jerusalem? Would the odds still be one in 366,000? Of course not. The odds would be one in one. As it turns out, he found neither a tomb with three ossuaries nor one with every ossuary. He found one with ten ossuaries, thus making any given name far more likely than if there had been only three.

Take it one step at a time so it will be clearer. If you find a tomb with one ossuary, the odds that it would be "Jesus, son of Joseph" would be one in 158. Not one in 79. Only half of all people are men, so if "Jesus, son of Joseph" was one of every 79 men, he was one of every 158 people. If you find a tomb with ten ossuaries, the odds are about one in 16 that one of those people will be named "Jesus, son of Joseph." The actual math is as follows: there is a 157/158 likelihood that any given ossuary will NOT include a "Jesus, son of Joseph." Therefore, the likelihood that ten of them will not include such a person is 157/158 to the tenth power, or about .938. In other words, there are 62 chances out of 1000, or about one in 16, that any given collection of ten ossuaries will include a "Jesus, son of Joseph." While that is rare, it is not so rare as the one in 79 they started with.

Extending Charlie's equation all the way out, the likelihood that he calculated as one in 365,928 is actually only one in 3,327. In other words, that combination is a hundred times more likely than they had thought.

To their credit, the researchers did consult a professor of statistics. That scholar looked at far more circumstances than the three I have described above, and concluded that the odds were closer to 1 in 600 that the combination could occur. Jacobovici allowed that he would still bet with the odds 600 to one in his favor, but he missed another arithmetical subtlety. About 80,000 people lived in ancient Jerusalem in the span of the first century. If you split them all up into 8,000 random groups of ten and buried them in those groups, assuming the Jesus Tomb combination had one chance in 600 of occurring (as the professor calculated), then that combination of names would occur 13 times in those tombs (8,000 divided by 600)! Sure, 13 out of 8000 is uncommon, but it is not an extremely rare occurrence.

Two points in summary:

1. By including Charlie's original mental arithmetic in the final report, the authors make their finding seem exceedingly rare, but by doing so they are being misleading.

2. Their conclusion, that this is the family tomb of Jesus, called Christ, is not supported by astronomical odds, as they seem to want us to believe.


The DNA analysis is hardly worth mentioning. The DNA only proves one thing: that the second Mary (Mariamne) is not maternally related to "Jesus, son of Joseph." Any additional conclusions drawn from that evidence are unscientific supposition. The authors have suggested that Mary could be the wife of Jesus, and their conviction is strengthened by the fact that one of the other ossuaries is marked Judah, son of Jesus. Since the Jesus in the tomb had a son buried with him, they reason, and since people buried together must be related by blood or marriage, it seems logical to assume that the non-relative buried in his family tomb is his wife. It is reasonable, but it is by no means an inescapable conclusion. There are also other possibilities, even if we accept as absolute the premise that people in the same tomb must be related by blood or marriage. Mariamne could be the wife of one of the many other men buried in the tomb. The woman named Mariamne could be the daughter of the man named Jesus, in which case they would share no maternal DNA. And so forth. The husband-and-wife conclusion may be the most likely from the evidence, but is not proven. The DNA tests only demonstrate that the authors' conclusions (husband and wife) are not proven wrong. That is not the same as proving them right.

The real case:


Is this the family tomb of THE Jesus, called Christ, or isn't it? The evidence hinges on two points, neither of which I am capable of evaluating, but I think I can outline the case for you.

First a preliminary note on ossuaries. They were bone-boxes used for a particular Jewish ritual of reburial which was practiced in Jerusalem only for a very short time, less than a century, which began a few decades before the birth of Jesus (which is presumed to be between 7 B.C. and 4 B.C.) and ended a few decades after his death (which is presumed to have occurred after the summer of 28 A.D.) In other words, ossuaries are self-dating. They are all, more or less, from the time of Jesus.

The ossuary of James

The Tomb of the Ten Ossuaries, which was originally discovered in 1980, only had nine ossuaries in it when the authors assembled their case. What happened to the other one? The authors have concluded that it is the one which is now the subject of a legal dispute in Jerusalem, the ossuary of "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." The New Testament books of Matthew (13:55) and Mark (6:3) specifically identify that Jesus of Nazareth had four brothers: James, Joseph, Simon and Judas. The authors' case that their Jesus is Jesus Christ is significantly strengthened if (a) the James ossuary really is the missing tenth one, and (b) that is the legitimate inscription. Qualified scientists seem to agree that the James ossuary really is the missing one. The authors present the geological evidence, and to a layman it seems to be indisputable proof that the James ossuary was in the same tomb as the others for 2000 years. Without knowing how much mineral variation occurs from tomb to tomb, and without seeing their hypothesis tested scientifically, I can't swear to their conclusion, but I will say that I am convinced of this portion of the argument. A professor of geochemistry and geomicrobiology did review the evidence and concluded that the James ossuary had to be in the same tomb as the others for centuries, and I'm willing to concede this point.

The other part of the argument is virtually a cipher. The state of Israel is prosecuting one man now for having added "brother of Jesus" to the original inscription. One scientist did study the inscription and concluded that the complete phrase was probably etched into the ossuary in ancient times, but this does not present overwhelming evidence, and the fraud case has yet to be tried, so no certain conclusion can be drawn about the "Jesus equation" until there is conclusive peer-reviewed evidence on the authenticity of the James inscription. I am unable to form any opinion about the authenticity of "brother of Jesus" at this time.

Why is this such a big deal? If they both say "son of Joseph," and are buried in the same tomb, isn't it obvious that James is the brother of Jesus? Yes, that much is true, but there is a subtlety ignored by that line of reasoning. The more important issue is not whether James actually is the brother of Jesus, but whether it really says so on the ossuary. The phrase "brother of ..." is not something which is normally inscribed on an ossuary. Of all the other ossuaries which have ever been found, only one reads "brother of," and that man is presumed to have been the brother of a very important honcho - a miracle worker mentioned in the Talmud, Chanania ben Akasha. The almost inescapable conclusion is that the ancients would not have inscribed an ossuary with "brother of 'x'" unless 'x' was a very important man. If the phrase "brother of Jesus" is really there, it raises the stakes on the James ossuary. If the inscription reads only "James, son of Joseph," then James is probably the brother of the man buried beside him named Jesus, who is also the son of Joseph, but the words provide no further information about the identity of any of the three anonymous men. On the other hand, if the inscription reads "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus," it means that the specific Jesus in question was not just an anonymous man, but probably a very important one, perhaps even a miracle worker.

The ossuary of Mariamne

The authors of "The Jesus Family Tomb" are convinced that their Mariamne Mara is Mary Magdalene. Their conclusion is based on biblical scholarship, which includes linguistic analysis of the canonical gospels as well as the apocrypha. (There are more than four gospels, but only the four famous ones have "made the cut" into the New Testament. Here is detailed information about the others.) In evaluating everything we know about the times of Jesus from all of the available sources, the authors and their experts have concluded that the ossuary's inscription "Mariamne, known as the Master" almost has to refer to Mary of Magdala. This is not a case which I am prepared to confirm or refute based upon my limited knowledge of the subject, and it is not a subject about which I can become sufficiently expert quickly, since it involves documents written in many languages, translated and re-translated over the years, almost all of them of uncertain provenance. It is to be debated by scholars who have spent their lifetimes preparing to do so, and I would need to hear all sides of their arguments before I would be willing to draw any conclusions. But I can see, as can you, as can the authors, that if this is the tomb of Mary Magdalene it becomes much easier to believe that this Jesus is biblical Jesus. If the authors can convince me that this is Mary Magdalene, then this assuages any doubts I may have about the rest of their case, and I am willing to say that they have found Jesus, who is called Christ.

But they have not yet convinced me.

In fact, one scholar has said that even if "Mariamne the Master" has to be Mary Magdalene, he is not convinced that the inscription even says that. He believes that the inscription actually reads "Mary and Martha."


Is it possible that the authors have found the tomb of Jesus? Yes, it is possible.

Is it the statistical slam dunk certainty which the authors claim? Not at all. It hinges in several disputed aspects of the James and Mariamne ossuaries.


You can find the entire Discovery Channel Documentary (separated into segments) online at YouTube.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

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9:58 AM  

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