The Battle of the “Jesus Family Tomb”

On the last Sunday in February of 2007, I got an e-mail from a friend of mine with a provocative subject line:

“Don’t Go To Church Today”

I opened the e-mail and found a link to a web page announcing the discovery of the tomb of Jesus. Complete with bone-boxes with the names of Jesus, his mother Mary, his brother Yosi, his disciple Matthew, his wife Mary Magdalene, and his son Judah.

At first I thought it was a joke. Then I saw that these people were serious.

They were due to release a documentary on the Discovery channel, and the producer–Simcha Jacobovici–was an Emmy award winning journalist. He had backing from James Cameron, director of the movie, The Titanic.

Furthermore, they had a well-known Biblical scholar with a strong archaeological background on their team–James Tabor–chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina.

And they had a statistician on board, Andrey Feuerverger, from the University of Toronto. His calculations were said to show very high odds that this was the authentic tomb of Jesus. They were quoting odds of 600 to 1.

At that point, I began wondering if maybe I shouldn’t skip church after all.

Because if this tomb was legit, then Jesus didn’t rise from the dead and Christianity was a crock.

But Was It Legit?

I have many friends who simply assumed right away that the whole thing was a scam. Yet another try by those pesky “secular humanists” to disprove Christianity. For these friends, that was the only possible conclusion. For them, Jesus obviously rose from the dead, and therefore this tomb must be a fake.

That’s not how my brain works. In Myers-Briggs terminology, I’m an INTP, and that means I’m always open to new evidence.

I decided that I had to look into this. Evidence is evidence, and you don’t ignore it just because it screws up your current theological position. You can change your theology. I’ve done that often enough in my life.

It seemed clear that the “Jesus Family Tomb” might mean a massive change in theology for a lot of people.

I read all the info I could find online about this Jesus Family Tomb, but it was pretty thin. There was a documentary due to come out a week later–the next Sunday night–but I didn’t figure a documentary would go very deep.

Fortunately, the producer of the documentary had a book coming out on the subject in just a few days–The Jesus Family Tomb, by Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino, with a foreword by James Cameron.

On Wednesday morning, the day the book came out, I bought a copy at my local Barnes & Noble. I went home and started reading.

The Evidence

As I read the book, I quickly saw two things:

  1. Everything hinged on the math.
  2. The math as explained in the book was wrong.

The book didn’t actually explain Andrey Feuerverger’s calculations. Instead, it gave a hokey, lame, non-mathematician’s version of the math. It was wrong, but it was unclear just how wrong. Sometimes you can do the math wrong and still come to a correct conclusion.

I couldn’t tell if the errors in the math would change the result.

I knew it was possible that the book had done the math wrong and yet still got the right answer. It was possible that the Jesus Family Tomb was legit. It was possible that doing the math right would show that the tomb was likely to be the final resting place of Jesus of Nazareth.

By Thursday night, I had finished the book and now I had a clear picture of all the information. I knew I had to get to the bottom of this. The math was clearly wrong, but I felt confident I could redo it correctly. I’d worked on this kind of problem before when I looked into the alleged Bible code back in 1998.

Doing the Math

So I opened up a spreadsheet and started entering numbers. I didn’t have all the data I needed, but I did have another book about the famous James ossuary that filled in enough of the missing pieces to get a preliminary result.

An hour later, I had my answer.

Not only was the math in the book wrong, it was wildly wrong.

The odds were not 600 to 1 in favor of this being the tomb of Jesus.

The simplest math calculation showed that the odds were more than 10 to 1 AGAINST this being the tomb of Jesus. And if you added in one historical fact, the odds got even longer.

For all I knew, at that moment I was the only person in the world who had done the math even approximately right. Most mathematicians don’t have a high interest in first-century Jewish archaeology as it relates to the New Testament. And most archaeologists and New Testament scholars don’t know much about math.

Whereas I know quite a lot about both. I have a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from UC Berkeley and had some experience in tracking down wrong probability calculations. And I also had done more than twenty years of research for my series of historical novels set in first-century Jerusalem.

I had exactly the weird and diverse background needed for this mad science problem.

That’s when I decided to go public.

Getting The Word Out

One of the first things I did was to e-mail a guy I knew, Mike Heiser, who has a Ph.D. in Biblical Hebrew  from the University of Wisconsin. I had met him online years earlier when we both were writing books about the alleged Bible code. I didn’t believe in the Bible code on scientific grounds. Mike didn’t believe in it on linguistic grounds.

I told Mike what I’d done with my calculations on the Jesus Family Tomb and he got extremely excited. Turned out he had been interested in this tomb for some time (long before the announcement by the documentary maker). He already knew a lot about the archaeology of the tomb and was writing an article about it.

Mike encouraged me to get the word out. I spent a good part of Friday and Saturday writing up a preliminary report on my website in an article titled Statistics And The Jesus Family Tomb.

By Sunday, I had notified a bunch of my writer friends about this article. Like good writers everywhere, they blogged about it and linked to my site. And I started seeing traffic to the article.

Sunday night, the infamous documentary by Simcha Jacobovici finally aired. A lot of scholars in the New Testament Studies and archaeological worlds watched the documentary and blogged about it. Virtually all of them panned it. For various reasons, they weren’t buying the claim that this was the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.

A lot of their blogs questioned the math. But they weren’t thinking like mathematicians. They felt in their gut that the math was wrong, but they couldn’t explain why.

I left comments on a few of their blogs to say that I had worked out the math, and I gave a link back to my website.

The Aftermath of the Math

Within days, the bloggers had read my article and started blogging about me and my work. The consensus was that I’d hit the nail on the head. My own opinion was that I’d made a nice start, but it wasn’t the final word. This first probability estimate was very simple and there was a lot of room for refinement.

One of the bloggers was Jay Cost, a political science Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago. Jay was heavily into probability as it applies to social sciences. He e-mailed me to ask why I hadn’t used Bayes’ Theorem in my article. He gave me a link to his own blog article.

I hadn’t really thought about Bayes’ Theorem, but I read Jay’s article and realized that this was a sound approach. I e-mailed him and we teamed up to look at the whole thing more carefully. Jay also put me in touch with James Tabor, the one academic who was publicly saying that he thought the tomb was authentic.

For the next few weeks, I spent a lot of time discussing the tomb with James Tabor. He had read my article and could see right away that I’m no fundie and that I was seriously open to all data. So he gave me any info I asked for.

James and I were on opposite sides of the argument, but we had a mutual respect from the get-go. Whoever invented the buzzword “thinking outside the box” might have been talking about James Tabor. He has a lot of unconventional ideas, and I find that interesting. Of course, unconventional ideas usually turn out to be wrong. That’s okay, because when a way-out idea turns out to be right, you get a revolution. So I like James and enjoy hearing his ideas. Like most people in the religion department, he’s not strong in math. Like most math geeks, I’m not strong in Hebrew or Greek. James formed an e-mail group with several interested scholars and stats guys, including Jay and me. We spent several weeks in intense discussion.

At the end of that time, Jay Cost and I jointly wrote an article, Bayes’ Theorem And The Jesus Family Tomb. We looked at a variety of different assumptions to see if any of them could lead to good odds for the authenticity of the tomb. We couldn’t find any. In many cases, the odds got extremely long against the tomb.

During all this time, I was quite interested to hear the opinion of Andrey Feuerverger, the statistician from the University of Toronto hired by the documentary makers. The problem was that Simcha Jacobovici in his book and in his documentary never really explained what Dr. Feuerverger had actually done.

I e-mailed Professor Feuerverger, asking if I could see a preprint of his results. (When I was a grad student in theoretical physics, everybody sent out preprints long before the official publication of their articles in the academic journals.) Feuerverger e-mailed me back to apologize that he couldn’t send me anything until his paper was published in the journal he’d submitted it to.

I thought that was that, but it wasn’t.

Andrey Feuerverger’s Work At Last

Months passed, and in October of 2007, Feuerverger’s editor at The Annals Of Applied Statistics sent me an urgent e-mail asking me to serve as a referee on Feuerverger’s paper, which had been submitted months earlier.

I agreed to referee the article and immediately received a copy of Feuerverger’s paper. The journal also offered me the chance to publish a response to Feuerverger’s article. And they also offered me space on their website to include any amount of other electronic material for download.

I read through Feuerverger’s article and enjoyed reading it very much. It was clear that the documentary producer, Simcha Jacobovici, simply hadn’t understood any of the math Feuerverger had done.

This really irked me. Feuerverger had taken a lot of heat from the scientific community when the whole foofah broke into the news. People had said a lot of things about him, based on what they thought he had done. I had said some things about his calculations. But what we all thought Feuerverger had done had been filtered through Simcha Jacobovici. So we got a very mistaken picture of his calculations.

Feuerverger’s math was fine. It was very much more sophisticated than the math shown in Jacobovici’s documentary and book. Feuerverger used a different approach in his analysis than I had used, but he did a very careful job analyzing the information that he was given.

And that was the problem. Some key pieces of information that Feuerverger was given were wrong. He couldn’t have known that without having a lot more background in archaeology than most statisticians have.

It looked to me like a classic failure to communicate.

I spent quite a lot of time writing up a response to Feuerverger’s paper. Part of this was for Feuerverger’s eyes only, explaining why certain ideas he’d been given by Jacobovici were wrong. Part of my time went into a ten page response article for The Annals Of Applied Statistics, explaining the six faulty assumptions that his calculations were based on.

I also took the opportunity to do a new and more sophisticated set of Bayesian probability calculations analyzing the tomb in even more detail than before. Here, I added in some new ideas that I’d come up with after reading an article by Kevin Kilty and Mark Elliot — one of the very few articles anywhere that have argued that the Jesus Family Tomb hypothesis might be correct. (Working with two different sets of assumptions, they came up with odds of either 6% or 48% that the tomb is authentic.)

I’ve summarized my final conclusions in an article here on my site, Analysis of Andrey Feuerverger’s Article on The Jesus Family Tomb.

Did Jesus Rise From the Dead?

I often hear from Christians asking why I don’t get a probability of zero. After all, they argue, Jesus rose from the dead and therefore the tomb can’t be authentic. End of discussion — for them, anyway.

My response is that all probability calculations depend on your assumptions.

If you take as an axiom that Jesus rose from the dead, then the tomb can’t be authentic. This is obvious, and nobody argues with this. But of course, not everybody accepts this claim as axiom, so this is a pretty weak result. (My own position is that the alleged resurrection of Jesus should NOT be treated as an axiom. (An axiom is a statement that you assume without proof is true.) Instead, the resurrection should be treated as a hypothesis — a possibly true statement that must be tested by the known evidence.)

The much harder question is what happens if you take as an axiom that Jesus never rose from the dead? What if you assume that his mortal remains are somewhere in Jerusalem? In that case, what is the probability that the tomb in Talpiot that Simcha Jacobivici calls the “Jesus Family Tomb” was in fact his final resting place?

That is the probability problem we are all trying to solve. It’s a hard problem, because there are several other assumptions you have to make in order to do a calculation. For example, precisely who would you expect to be buried in a “Jesus family tomb” if it existed? His mother? Which of his brothers? Who else? What are the legitimate spellings for these people? Before you do the calculation, you have to decide on each of these questions.

Nobody knows exactly who should be in a “Jesus family tomb.” Nobody knows what the most probable spelling for the tomb occupants should be. You can study each set of assumptions. Most plausible sets lead to probabilities below about 2%. It is possible to make a set of assumptions that bump the probability up a bit higher than that, but my view is that it’s hard to justify any of these. I can’t see a way to legitimately get up above 6%, but even getting that high requires stretching. Assumptions that seem reasonable to me lead to a probability estimate of about 2%. If you push these to be a bit more conservative, you can get the probability very much lower than 2%.

None of this should be considered a “proof” that Jesus rose from the dead. (This ought to go without saying, but whenever something should go without saying, I’ve invariably found that it’s necessary to say it.) With the historical data we have, it’s impossible to prove that Jesus rose from the dead. It is also impossible to prove that he didn’t, unless you make a metaphysical assumption along the lines of “God does not exist” or “It is not possible for God to raise anyone from the dead.”

The correct statement is that the Jesus Family Tomb does not give us strong evidence that Jesus did not rise from the dead. The actual evidentiary worth of the Jesus Family Tomb is very low.

Let’s be clear. It could have been different. If the tomb had presented different evidence, it could have made a very strong case against the alleged resurrection of Jesus.

But it didn’t.

The Story Isn’t Over

I should also be clear that if new evidence comes out, it could change my opinion. In particular, if it turned out that the famous James ossuary were authentic and had been included in the Talpiot tomb, then that would have a very large effect on my probability estimate. I mention this because Simcha Jacobovici and James Tabor have argued that the James ossuary may have originally been in the Talpiot tomb. (I don’t think their argument is strong.)

The James ossuary bore the inscription “James son of Joseph brother of Jesus.” The owner of the ossuary, Oded Golan, was eventually arrested on forgery charges. The forgery trial dragged on for years and finally ended in a verdict of not guilty. But opinion among scholars seems to be split on which parts of the inscription, if any, are authentic. I’m open to the authenticity of this inscription, but I can see no reason to think the ossuary was ever part of the Talpiot tomb.

In my view, most academics have been too quick to dismiss the Jesus Family Tomb. A group of them eventually made a joint public statement that the odds of authenticity for the tomb are “virtually nil.” I believe the tomb is unlikely to be authentic, but I don’t agree that the odds are “virtually nil.”

To me, “virtually nil” means that the odds are vanishingly small — less than one in a billion, say. I don’t see that. I’d put the odds at less than 1 in 50. The case is not closed. Maybe it never will be.

Friendships Formed

Quite early in my investigation of the Jesus Family Tomb, Jay Cost introduced me via e-mail to Dr. James Tabor. Some people thought that James and I ought to be mortal enemies, because we came to different conclusions about the tomb. But that’s not the way my brain is wired, and that’s not the way James’s brain is wired either. We both thought the tomb was important. We both thought that the academic community was dismissing it too readily. And neither of us thinks that a difference of opinion is a reason to make an enemy. So James and I became friends.

As it turns out, James is co-director of an ongoing archaeological dig on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. (The other co-director is Dr. Shimon Gibson, who by chance was the artist who drew the original drawings of the Talpiot tomb on the first weekend when it was excavated by archaeologists, back in 1980.)

I wanted for years to go work on the Mount Zion dig, but I didn’t have the money. Eventually, I republished my City of God series of novels as e-books, and that earned me the money I needed to go work on the dig. I’ve now dug there during the 2015, 2016, and 2017 seasons. (The 2018 season was not open for me to apply, so I didn’t go. But I hope to keep going each year until the dig ends.)

I’ve really enjoyed working on Mount Zion. During the 2016 season, James and I spent a couple of days digging literally side-by-side in the upper area. And we’ve spent many hours over the seasons talking about archaeology and history. Both of us are obsessed with James, the brother of Jesus, who was brought to trial in the palace of one of the chief priests — possibly the very palace we’re currently excavating (although nobody yet knows who owned the palace).

One of the benefits of working on the Mount Zion dig is that the team normally stays in a hotel inside the Old City of Jerusalem. So I’ve now spent quite a few weeks living in the Old City, and it’s given me a feel for the place that I never would have gotten by merely visiting on a tour bus.

Some Useful Links

If you want to read more about the alleged Jesus family tomb, check out these pages, which I have listed in roughly chronological order:

  • The web site created by Simcha Jacobovici and company to provide evidence alongside the documentary and book.
  • The “Tomb Evidence” PDF file that was originally posted on the web site of the Discovery Channel, summarizing Simcha Jacobovici’s evidence for the tomb. This PDF file contains a page title “Statistics Overview” that claims to represent the calculations of Dr. Andrey Feuerverger. A year later when Feuerverger’s article was published in The Annals Of Applied Statistics, it became clear that Jacobovici had badly misrepresented Feuerverger’s work.
  • Prof. Mark Goodacre’s blog at NT Gateway. Dr. Goodacre is a well/known New Testament scholar and he’s done a fair and even/handed treatment of the subject. This link shows all his blog posts for the month of March 2007, when the Jesus family tomb was a hot topic among New Testament scholars.
  • Jack Poirier’s article on “The Statistics Behind The Tomb”
  • Randy Ingermanson’s first simple spreadsheet analysis of the statistics of the tomb, which appeared on March 3, 2007
  • An article by Dr. Jodi Magness, “Has the Tomb of Jesus Been Discovered?,” arguing that the family of Jesus of Nazareth is unlikely to have owned the family tomb in East Talpiot that has been called the “Jesus family tomb. Prof. Magness teaches at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and specializes in Early Judaism.
  • Dr. Michael Heiser’s web site. Mike wrote a paper on the Jesus family tomb ossuaries back in 2003, when few other people were looking at the subject. Mike has a Ph.D. in Biblical Hebrew and Semitic Studies and I’ve known him since the bad old days when the Bible code was hot.
  • Prof. James Tabor’s blog. Dr. Tabor is another well/known Biblical Studies scholar, and he’s argued strongly that the evidence in favor of this being the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth is a lot stronger than most people are giving credit. The link here takes you to a 2018 blog post that summarizes his current thinking on the Jesus family tomb.
  • Randy Ingermanson’s second, more complicated spreadsheet analysis of the statistics of the tomb, which appeared on March 26, 2007
  • The technical article by Jay Cost and Randy Ingermanson using Bayes’ Theorem to analyze the tomb, posted on March 26, 2007
  • Stephen Pfann’s article on “The Improper Application of Statistics In The Lost Tomb of Jesus”
  • Stephen Pfann’s article “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria” analyzing how often the New Testament writers use the names Maria and Mariam.
  • Stephen Pfann’s article “Yoseh Can You See?” analyzing the occurrences of Yoseh and Yehosef in the original sources.
  • Jay Cost has written a nice summary article on the Jesus family tomb. Jay was the first to bring in Bayes’ Theorem to the discussion.
  • Dr. William Dembski, famous for his work on Intelligent Design, has written an article on “The Jesus Tomb Math” which you can find on his Design Inference web site. The article is co/authored with Robert J. Marks II.
  • Kevin Kilty and Mark Elliott have written an article using Bayes’ Theorem that analyzes the tomb using a simple model. Their probability estimate ranges from about 6% to about 48%, depending on which assumptions they make.
  • Prof. Andrey Feuerverger’s article in The Annals of Applied Statistics summarizing his original calculations.
  • Randy Ingermanson’s discussion article in The Annals of Applied Statistics responding to Feuerverger’s article.
  • The other referees’ discussion articles in The Annals of Applied Statisticsresponding to Feuerverger’s paper.
  • Feuerverger’s response to the referees in The Annals of Applied Statisticsin which he said clearly that he does not believe that his original calculations are statistically significant.
  • Randy Ingermanson’s calculations posted as a supplement on the web site of The Annals of Applied Statistics estimating that the tomb has less than a 2% probability of being authentic.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten (or missed) some of the important sites around the web, but the above will get you rolling in your quest for more info.


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