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Thursday, March 01, 2007

the lost tomb of jesus

It's become an annual tradition: As Easter approaches, it is almost inevitable that someone will bring forth a claim that will overturn everything we think we know about Jesus and the early Christians.

This year's claim comes from James Cameron, producer of the Titanic move, and Simcha Jacobovici, director of The Exodus Decoded. They have teamed up to create the documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus, which will air Sunday night on the Discovery Channel. Just in case anyone has not heard about it, the film alleges that a tomb discovered in Jerusalem in 1980, containing coffins with the names "Mary" and "Jesus son of Joseph," among others, is the final resting place of Jesus of Nazareth. Already, I've read about a thousand blogs commenting on the film. (I read way too many blogs.)

What can I possibly add? Nonetheless, I feel compelled to comment.

It seems to me that, of all the claims made by the filmmakers, two stand out: The statistical evidence, and the DNA evidence.

Some bloggers' response to these two claims has been visceral, something like: "You can prove anything with statistics. These are all common names. And whose DNA are they comparing it to? This whole thing is a hoax, and James Cameron is a boogerhead." This type of knee-jerk response really does not refute the claims, and if anything, only serves to give free publicity to the film.

A more healthy, skeptical approach begins by trying to understand exactly what is being claimed. On closer inspection, the actual claims do not appear to be so impressive.

Statistician Andrey Feuerverger has given a probability of more than 99% that this is the tomb of the Jesus of the New Testament. Specifically, he says the odds are 600 to one. How did he get this number?

First, Feuerverger took the estimated frequency of each of the names Jesus, Joseph, Mary, Jose, and Mariamne in ancient Jerusalem, based on surviving historical sources. Then he multiplied the percentages together to see how likely it was to find this exact combination together in a tomb. It turns out that, even though each of the names are common, finding all of them together is not very likely. Only one in 2.4 million tombs would be expected to have all five of these names together. Next, Feuerverger divided the total by four, to account for possible unintentional biases in the sources that historians have used to determine name frequencies. This gives a more conservative estimate of one in 600,000.

Next, if I'm reading it right, this number is divided by the total estimated number of tombs in first century Jerusalem, about 1000. The final result is 1 in 600, that is, if there were 600 parallel worlds with the same overall name frequencies but different actual combinations, we should expect only one world to produce more than one family with this same combination of names.

Thus, in 599 out of 600 parallel worlds, if we find a tomb where these names match the members of a known historical family, it must be the same family.

Based on my knowledge of statistics (and I'm not an expert but I do have some understanding) I'd have to say that Feuerverger's analysis is sound -- as sound as the data.

But wait a minute. Jose? Mariamne? Who are they? What do they have to do with Jesus?

One coffin contains the Hebrew name Yose, which can be translated as Jose or Joses. In Mark 6:3, Jesus is said to have a brother named Joses. One coffin has the Greek name Mariamenou|Mara. Archaeologist Amos Kloner, who excavated the tomb, says this should be read as "Mariamene also called Mara." The name Mariamene, which other scholars have rendered Mariamne, is a variant of Miriam.

We know of no member of Jesus' family named Miriam. Mark 6:3 indicates that he had sisters, but their names are not given. The makers of The Lost Tomb of Jesus have speculated that this Mariamne is none other than Mary Magdalene.

This is where the DNA evidence comes into play. The filmmakers were able to get debris from the "Jesus son of Joseph" coffin and the "Mariamenou|Mara" coffin, and have it tested for mitochondrial DNA. The bodies have long since decomposed, although a few bone fragments remain. Many bones were found on the floor. Nevertheless, the samples of DNA indicate that the individuals from these two coffins are not related by blood. According to the filmmakers, the most plausible explanation for this is that they were married.

Now it's time to inject a healthy dose of skepticism into the discussion.

Here is a complete list of coffins found in the tomb, and the inscriptions (if any) found on each, as catalogued by Amos Kloner. Of the inscriptions, the first is in Greek and the rest are in Hebrew. In parentheses is the English equivalent.

1. Mariamenou|Mara (Mariamne [also called] Mara)
2. Yehuda bar Yeshua (Judas son of Jesus)
3. Matya (Matthew)
4. Yeshua bar Yehoseph (Jesus son of Joseph)
5. Yose (Jose)
6. Marya (Mary)
7-10. (no inscriptions)

Of the six coffins with names, four are male names. If Mariamne is not related by blood, she could be the wife of any of the four. As far as we know, the probability should be equal for each. Or she could have been married to a man buried in one of the four tombs without inscriptions. We don't really know whose wife she is.

I've also seen the suggestion that Mariamne and Mara were two people, perhaps a mother and daughter buried in the same coffin. If so, which was the mother and which was the daughter?

There are just too many possibilities that cannot be excluded. The suggestion that Yeshua and Mariamne were married simply would not stand up to statistical scrutiny.

And speaking of statistical scrutiny, let's take another look at Feuerverger's numbers. Let's suppose for a moment that Mariamne is simply another name for Mary (Magdalene). If so, the 600 to 1 ratio is off. Mary, according to the Lost Tomb website's data, is about 40 times more common than Mariamne. That reduces the odds to 15 to 1.

Or does it?

Let's suppose for a moment that Jesus really was married to a woman named Mary. If the woman in the tomb is named Mariamne -- a similar, but different name -- what are the odds that it truly is the same person? Is it possible that Mary Magdalene was also known as Mariamne (also called Mara)?

In the Greek text of the gospels, she is almost always referred to as Maria, but in a couple places (Matthew 28:1, John 20:18) she is called Mariam. Is that close enough to make the association with Mariamne Mara?

And what is a man named Matthew doing in Jesus' family tomb? No Matthew is listed among Jesus' brothers in the gospels -- only James, Joses, Judas, and Simon (Mark 6:3). So where are James, Judas, and Simon?

And what about this Judas son of Jesus? If the Jesus of the gospels had had a son, wouldn't someone have mentioned it? Wouldn't the boy have been automatically accepted as a leader of the early church, just as James was?

And really, if Jesus had a son, what are the odds that he would name him Judas?

Looking at all the evidence, there are some remarkable coincidences between the family of Jesus and the tomb that is the subject of this documentary, but the cumulative weight of the differences is too great to ignore. The exact combination of names may be rare -- as any exact combination would be -- but given that many of the names don't even match, there is little reason to imagine that the two are the same family.

Update 3/4/07: Dr. Feuerverger's website has a text document that discusses the assumptions that went into the calculation. He acknowledges that several of the assumptions are contentious. Also, Scientific American has an online article discussing the statistics.

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At 3/02/2007 6:18 AM, Blogger Pastormarkee said...

What a refreshing read. It has been to long since I have read some of your stuff. Well done and thx for your thoughts and research.

At 3/02/2007 11:58 AM, Blogger Chris Rosebrough said...

I've written a comprehensive rebuttal of the films claims. Please read it and decide for yourself whether or not the film claims are solid or a hoax.

You will find it at

At 3/04/2007 2:20 PM, Anonymous Antony said...

You have done a masterful job of disecting this, Bruce. Bravo!

At 3/06/2007 11:10 PM, Anonymous Questing Parson said...

What a great breakdown of the substance of the film. I bought the book the filmmakers wrote, also, and you have really addressed the issue in a more comprehensive manner than most. Thanks.

At 3/08/2007 8:18 AM, Blogger John said...

This is an outstanding analysis of the argument, Bruce.


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