Monday, March 5, 2007

More on the Jesus tomb story

 Here are some more articles on the shaky archeaological and scientific basis for the sensational claims of the "Jesus tomb" advocates.

Has James Cameron Found Jesus's Tomb or Is It Just a Statistical Error? by Christopher Mims Scientific American Online 03/02/07. Mims focuses on the contribution of the statistician Andrey Feuerverger who contributed a key statistical calculation to the James Cameron documentary:

Despite his previous lack of interest in biblical archaeology, Feuerverger would spend two years on what turned out to be a labor of love. At the end of all of his figuring, he told the documentarians, including director James Cameron of Titanic fame and award-winning investigative journalist Simcha Jacobovici, that there was a one in 600 chance that the names — Jesus, Matthew, two versions of Mary, and Joseph — scribbled on five of the 10 ossuaries (or caskets for bones) found in the Talpiot tomb could have belonged to a different family than the one described in the New Testament.
Mims' account is a good explanation of how a sound statistical calculation can be misused to support false or unfounded claims. Mims cites Feuerverger himself:

Even the Discovery Channel, which is set to air the controversial documentary on Sunday, March 4, seemed confused by Feuerverger's calculations, declaring on its Web site that that the odds are "600 to one in favor of this being the JESUS FAMILY TOMB."

Feuerverger says he was neither asked nor did he attempt to calculate the odds that the Talpiot tomb was the final resting place of Christ, the Messiah. As Aleks Jakulin, a statistician at Columbia University, points out, "I doubt Professor Feuerverger really estimated 'the odds that these ossuaries were not Jesus's family's final resting place.' Instead ... one should say that one in 600 families (on the conservative side) would have that particular combination of names purely by chance, based on the distribution of individual names in the population." (my emphasis)
Here is one case where the importance of some minimal scientific literacy comes in. As Mims goes on to explain, the statistical calculation has meaning only if the underlying assumptions of the calculation are sound. In this case, there are a number of assumptions that have to be made on incomplete information, including what names were most common among Jewish residents of Judea, the liklihood of Jesus' family being buried in Jerusalem, and the liklihood of their being buried in a tomb instead of in the ground.

It seems that the advocates of Cameron's film are particularly eager to promote the idea that Mary of Magdala and Jesus were married. This is a favorite theme of New Age fans of Gnosticism, and has also been popularized by The Da Vinci Code. But the distinctiveness of the name on the tomb which the film claims is that of Mary Magdalene, "Mariemene e Mara", is disputed by other scholars. And even if there were general agreement that the reference was distinct to Mary Magdalene, even that would solve the question of whether the bones actually buried there were hers. Forensics on people who died two millenia ago are not exceptionally precise.

In a blog post at,
Says Scholar Whose Work Was Used in the Upcoming Jesus Tomb Documentary: "I think it's completely mishandled. I am angry." 03/02/07, the same writer, Christopher Mims, discusses the fact that the particular claims made in this documentary were largely handled as show business, not as science. He quotes archeaology professor Jodi Magness:

Let me tell you what I think. So first of all if you're writing for Scientific American, so it's important to point out that this debate is taking place in a most unscientific of manners.

Archaeology is a scientific and academic discipline and there are proper fora for these discussions--if you're a scholar and you have something you want to present to the larger world, there are proper ways of doing that, specifically publishing papers in peer reviewed journals or at meetings,so yourcolleageus can respond to it.

If after that you can go ahead and announce that and people can say "Well I've responded to this," then that's fine. But I've been slammed with [interviews for] this now - it was announced in the public media.

I'm reacting to something that has not been published or peer reviewed and I haven't even seen the film - the entire way this has been done has been an injustice to the entire discipline and also to the public.
Mims concludes:

Even if scholars conclude the whole thing is bunk, I have a feeling this will become a permanent part of the our culture's conspiracy lore, like the JFK conspiracy, the staging of the moon landing, the Turin Shroud, and all the rest before it.

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