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Calculating Christ: The discovery of the 'Lost Tomb of Jesus'

The Lost Tomb of Jesus documentary has made a public sensation. A DVD of the film has also been released and a book adapted from the documentary (entitled The Jesus Family Tomb: The Discovery, the Investigation, and the Evidence That Could Change History, no less) is also available now.

Soon after the documentary and book came out, at least one critical account in book form also arrived—and you can read this one for free. The Jesus Family Tomb Controversy: How the Evidence Falls Short by Dillon Burroughs, at this time of writing, is available for free download as a PDF file, from either the Amazon or Nimble Books website. You can also get a shorter version of the main arguments in a pamphlet co-authored by Dillon, “9 Facts That Disprove The Lost Tomb of Jesus”, which can be downloaded from the website here.

The main claim in dispute is that the tomb of Jesus, his mother Mary, his brother Joseph, his purported wife Mary Magdelene, his purported son Judah, and others was uncovered in 1980 during excavation for construction in Talpiyot, near Jerusalem. The ossuaries—burial boxes for bones of the deceased—were removed from the site and stored in Israel but they were left unidentified until Toronto-based archeologist and filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici (known for his TV series The Naked Archeologist) and Canadian-born Hollywood director James Cameron (The Titanic and Terminator) came along.

Jacobovici also claims to have rediscovered the tomb which had been covered over since the 1980s. Watching his team do the detective work to find it makes for exciting television. A viewer is compelled to believe that the filmmakers did in fact uncover the tomb, marked with the distinctive chevron and circle symbol (which irreverently reminds me more of a Star Trek insignia than a religious symbol, but that’s just me).

But is it the tomb of Jesus? What’s a skeptic to think?

What’s at stake?

First let me state that I doubt any such findings—even if confirmed—would invalidate the Christian story by proving the material death of Christ. Many Christians do have a deeply held belief that Christ rose from the dead and ascended bodily into heaven; any solid evidence that his bones were kept in an ossuary might create serious religious difficulties for them. But the actual bones are long gone, so we have no conclusive evidence that the remains of the Biblical Jesus were ever kept in the container with his name on it. Moreover, not all Christian faiths require Christ’s resurrection and ascension to be physical.

I would expect though that the greater damage to faith might come from the major overhaul of the Christian story that would be needed if all the Jesus tomb claims were to be upheld: that Jesus was married, that Mary Magdalene was his wife, that he had a son, and that he lived and died as a mortal.. This extensive revision of the Bible narrative would probably force a similar revision of Christianity within the churches that base themselves on a traditional understanding of the Bible. But it would not necessarily require the wholesale invalidation of Christianity or religion in general. In short, it would not be the atheists’ silver bullet.

Nor, could the Jesus tomb story completely undercut the position of atheists, agnostics or other non-Christians by proving the historicity of Jesus, as some religious figures have suggested. If the Jesus-tomb claims are confirmed, the most they show in this regard is that the Biblical figures had some basis in reality—not that any one of the figures was a god or had divine powers. No evidence of miracles is being claimed.

Moreover, the claims would corroborate parts of the Bible (at least as it is currently constituted) while contradicting other parts, thus providing both ammunition and difficulties for both those disputing and those supporting the Bible’s literal veracity.

So, my own sense of the situation is that if the tomb and ossuaries were confirmed as those of Jesus’s family, there would have to be some rethinking on all sides, although the faith of either believers or non-believers is unlikely to be destroyed. There is too much wiggle room for both positions.

But we are far from having to have those debates yet. The credibility of the claim about Jesus’s tomb has yet to be established.

The critical response

The criticism of the Jesus-tomb claims (at least in academic circles) begins with the fact that they were first presented at a press conference and then on television, rather than in peer-reviewed journals or at other professional venues. This means that those with expertise in the subjects dealt with by the documentary did not have an opportunity to submit the claims to an intensive examination before they went public.

Archeologists and historians have noted that the history of the Jerusalem area during the era in question, the culture and practices of the people of that time, and the interpretation of the literature from this period are very complicated. Yet the filmmakers seem to have made huge simplifying assumptions in fields where consensus has not been reached. A great deal of assessment is needed to weigh the evidence put forward to support the conclusions reached. But those experts are being asked by media to present 15-second clips summing up their responses to the claims made on a television show—without having access to the research in the first place.

I sympathize with them in this. Taking research to the public before the professionals have a chance to evaluate it is akin to releasing movies without giving critics a chance to review them first. It smacks of a lack of confidence that the product would stand up to examination: better get it out to the consuming public before the bad reviews can sink it. But of course this is a much more serious and complex matter than whether a movie is a hit; the peer-review process is intended not only to weed out bad work altogether but also to find faults that can be repaired in order to improve the work in the end and provide conclusions that can be a dependable foundation for future work in the field. Without such ongoing examination, we end up with a body of work built on sand, to borrow a religious metaphor.

However, my journalistic side also sympathizes with Jacobovici and his team. They were not out to provide academically sound research but rather to give people something to think about. They’ve made what they consider an earth-shattering discovery and they want to get the news out to the people, instead of spending years debating picayune points with professional nitpickers.

Also, as much as I appreciate the academic peer-review system and consider it essential, I also recognize that it’s a method of self-regulation and control of intellectual disciplines, and is not always open to giving radical, new approaches a fair hearing. If one is more concerned with the court of public opinion anyway than in winning the approbation of the academic establishment, why not go directly to the public? This wouldn’t be the first time that a discipline-shaking scientific theory or discovery were announced in a popular venue rather than in an academic journal or at a conference.

I could also point out how many times the results of skeptical investigations have been reported in magazines, newsletters and press releases without serious academic or professional peer review. Why shouldn’t someone who carries out such extensive and exciting research that purports to change traditional religious views also be allowed to take his case to the public if he sees fit?

So, the media hoopla surrounding the Jesus-tomb claims might lead us to take the claims less seriously than if they had gone through a more conventional review process involving experts in their field, but it should not lead us to dismiss the claims altogether.

So let’s look at the other critical arguments that have been made. I’ll just list some of them very briefly before settling on one I find most interesting for skeptical research in general:

  • The Poverty Argument: Only relatively affluent families in Jesus’s time could afford rock-cut tombs such as the one that is claimed to be the Jesus tomb, and Jesus’s family was poor.
  • The Location Problem: If the family could have afforded a rock-cut tomb, it would have been created in their hometown of Nazareth, not just outside Jerusalem.
  • The Family Muddle: Why does the so-called family tomb of Jesus contain so many people who are not known members of the family? It’s a big leap to assume they are all previously unrecorded members of the family (brother, son, and so on) or in-laws (wife). Some of the ossuaries in the tomb are completely unidentified—who are they?
  • The Plain Box Dilemma: The ossuary said to have held Jesus is plainer than the others found in the tomb. Wouldn’t we expect the founder of a religion to have a more ornate burial box? Or at least something describing him as King of the Jews or Saviour or Lord or some such?
  • The Inscriptions Difficulty: Jews were buried in shrouds at the time and only afterwards when tombs became crowded would those remains—mainly bones—be moved to ossuaries, on which identifications were hastily scratched. So the names indicate only who was thought to be in the box at the time they were moved. We do have confirmed cases of misidentifications, such as once when female DNA was found in an ossuary marked “son of”.
  • The Inscriptions Difficulty II: It was customary in Jerusalem at the time to include the place of origin on the ossuary when the person interred was from outside Judea. You’d expect Jesus’s ossuary to describe him as Jesus of Galilee. The fact that the ossuary gives Yeshua’s descent from his father indicates the family is from Judea.
  • The Inscriptions Difficulty III: The readings and translations of some of the inscriptions on the ossuaries are controversial. Even the reading of the inscription purported to be “Yeshua bar Yehosef” (Jesus son of Joseph) has been challenged.
  • The DNA Irrelevance: The marriage of Jesus to Mary Magdalene is proposed as a solution to the problem raised by DNA showing that the people interred in two ossuaries were not blood relatives. But unrelated DNA cannot prove marriage. Several other ossuaries in the tomb were not checked for DNA. If they also turn out to be unrelated, are those individuals also to be considered in-laws? We can reach no conclusions about relations based on unrelated DNA.
  • The Historical Hitch: We have no historical or Biblical records indicating Jesus was married or had a child, or identifying the name Mariamene on an ossuary with Mary Magdalene. Both Jewish and Roman historians agree that the tomb where Jesus’s body was left was empty at some later point and thus Jesus’s bones should not have been there to be encased in an ossuary. Also historical records indicate that James, the brother of Jesus and a founder of Christianity, was buried separately, although the filmmakers try to make a case that a supposedly missing tenth ossuary from the Jesus family tomb belonged to James.
  • Improbable Probabilities: More on this one coming up.

These are only some of the difficulties raised. Granted, there are possible answers to these problems. You can probably think of some yourself. But little hard evidence is available to support those answers. This shows the number of assumptions the filmmakers must have made to eliminate these obstacles and make their entire theory fit together.

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Ancient figures

Nowhere is this more telling than in the last difficulty listed. The filmmakers go to great lengths to make the case that statistics are on their side. What are the odds, they ask. that ossuaries bearing the same names as Jesus and his kin could be found in one place and not be the tomb of Jesus’s family?

In the film, University of Toronto mathematician Andrey Feuerverger is recruited to calculate this probability, and he does his calculations very carefully.

The likelihood of all those names being found together and not being those of the Biblical Jesus’s family is one in 600, he determines.

An American religion professor, James Tabor, goes further and includes the controversial ossuary of James in his more liberal calculations and comes up with odds of one in 42 million.

Now, the spread in the odds between these two calculations is enough to make one wonder. But even discounting the James ossuary and sticking with the more conservative figure, we have plenty to doubt here.

Feuerverger’s figuring amounts to a probability of more than .998 (599/600) that the tomb is that of the Biblical Jesus’s family (1.0 representing complete certainty). But calculations of probability are largely a measure of what we know versus what we don’t know. Let me explain:

If you know I have a bean in one hand but you don’t know which one, then you can calculate the probability that it is in my left hand as .5 (or one in two). It’s not 1.0 because you don’t know it’s not in my right hand. Once I open my hands and show you it’s in my left hand, your calculation of the odds that the bean is in my left hand jumps to 1.0 because you now have complete knowledge.

If you know I put beans under nine of 10 cups, then the odds of it being under any given cup you can figure to be .9 or nine out of 10. It’s not 1.0 because you don’t know that the given cup is not the very one that is missing a bean. Your knowledge takes you to .9 and your ignorance keeps you from going higher.

Same thing with Feuerverger’s Jesus tomb calculation. With absolutely conclusive evidence—if we somehow knew there were no other people then with the same names as Jesus and his family and we had complete knowledge on all the other issues raised— then the probability of the tomb with those names belonging to Jesus’s family could be determined to be 1.0. But other people in Jesus’s time did have similar names. What keeps the probability from quite getting to 1.0—by Feuerverger’s reasoning—is our not knowing whether this tomb is that one in 600 occurrence of another family with the same names.

Note, coincidence has not been ruled out by these calculations. On average every 600th tomb could have that concentration of names. Given thousands of tombs, there could be several others with the same cluster of names.

Still, the odds provided by the filmmakers are impressive.

But—and here’s the big but—the calculations are made on certain assumptions that hide other bits of missing knowledge.

For example, to help connect the Yeshua (Jesus) of the ossuary to the Jesus of the Bible, the name Mariamene e Mara on another ossuary in the family tomb is taken to refer to Mary Magdelene of the Bible and, contrary to the Biblical account, she is held to be Jesus’s wife.

This is a startling claim, to say the least, that runs against two millennia of tradition and scholarship. We won’t get into a debate on this issue here, but suppose we speculate that the odds of the Biblical Jesus being married to Mary Magdelene are one in ten, or .1, which most scholars would consider generous.

Similarly, the claim that the ossuary of Yehuda bar Yeshua (Judah son of Jesus) is that of the Biblical Jesus’s son is controversial. Suppose we give this one also a probability of .1 for our calculations.

Now, instead of assuming that we know Jesus was married to Mary Magdelene and had a son Judah, let’s bring our uncertainty—our lack of knowledge—on these matters into the calculations. Now the probability of the tomb being that of Jesus’s family is reduced from .998 to .0099 (599/600 x .1 x .1), or less than one in 100.

Even if we give a much more generous probability to each of the Mary Magdalene and Judah claims (say, .25 or one in four), we still end up with the odds of a match being pretty low (one in 16 in this case).

I have no idea, of course, what the chances of Jesus being married to Mary Magdelene and fathering Judah really are. No one does. But this hypothetical calculation shows the wide skewing of probability that occurs when assumptions are made.

Now go over that list of problems raised by critics, note the assumptions made by the Jesus-tomb proponents to overcome them, and assign odds for each of those assumptions being correct. Then multiply them out and you will get figures far different from those presented in the documentary. In all likelihood, the probability of the tomb being that of Jesus would approach nil.

Suspect calculations

But even if we were to accept all their assumptions as valid, the calculations are suspect for other reasons raised by critics.

For one thing the frequency of names such Yeshua and variations of Mary in Israel at the time — upon which the calculations were based — is uncertain. I’ve read estimates from experts giving a much higher frequency of names — including Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Matthew and Judah — than was used in Feuerverger’s calculations. One source, for example, says that over fifty percent of female residents of the area were called some variation of Mary.

Archaeologists say they have run across clusters of these names before and thus know that the basis for the statistical analysis is flawed.

In other words, we are missing huge amounts of knowledge from which to make certain judgments. If we were to take into account our ignorance on these matters, the probability that the tomb is that of Jesus and his family would have to be estimated at much, much less — close to zero, in fact.

To be fair, it should be noted that Feuerverger has wisely included a “fudge figure” in his calculations to account for the investigators’ bias. But this may not have been enough.

In fact, I question the value of such calculations of probabilities at all when so little is known. Their presentation in the documentary seems to be a polemical point, intended to persuade those who don’t examine the assumptions very closely, rather than evidence of any value.

We’ve seen this with many paranormal claims, when statements such as “What are the odds?” are made to make the claims appear more reasonable than they are.

Now, all this is not to say that the Jesus-tomb claims couldn’t be correct. If we were to gain some of that missing knowledge on any of the issues where the filmmakers have made huge assumptions to fill gaps, we might come up with calculations that would improve or decrease the odds—and eventually confirm or disprove the claims.

The lesson for skeptics is that whenever claims are backed up with “what are the odds?” kind of arguments, we should look for the assumptions and the missing knowledge behind them.

2 responses to “Calculating Christ: The discovery of the 'Lost Tomb of Jesus'”

  1. Richard Bell says:

    Simcha Jacobovici is not an archaeologist. He has a B.A. in Philosophy and Political Science from McGill University and an M.A. in International Relations from the University of Toronto.

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