On the "Family Tomb of Jesus"

News of the "family tomb of Jesus" balderdash first emerged on Feb. 23 and at that time I figured (as one commentator said) that it might just be a Purim joke. It might have been easier to take seriously had that indeed been the case.

Since then, it's been roundly criticized by scholars all over the spectrum. Given the speed with which this was done, I've decided the best service I can do here is act as a sort of "clearinghouse" for the most relevant and pointed information. I ordered a copy of the book (but didn't watch the TV show) authored by the two leading writers behind this (Jacobovici and Pellegrino) and will be essentially reviewing it here, as I also comment on the arguments.

The Statistical Argument -- do the odds really show that this has to be the family tomb of Jesus?

The DNA Argument -- what did they prove with the DNA concerning "Jesus" and "Mary Magdalene"?

The Patina Argument -- did they show that the James ossuary belonged with the rest?


Foreword by James Cameron: Cameron reveals himself as quite uncritical. He seems to think this tomb discovery is doing Christians a favor by debunking the Christ myth, as it is manifested by pagan copycat theorists [vii]. He notes Osiris, Attis, and Dionysus as god-man who all died at Easter and rose after three days -- which is false in each case.

He also seems to think that lack of things like fingerprints, bones, or portraits of Jesus, or that he did not write anything [viii], actually casts doubt on Jesus' existence (it doesn't -- the same could also be said for Socrates, as well as numerous other major figures of ancient history). He apparently thinks the Gospels don't help because they are not impartial records [ix].

Cameron says that his study of the history of the Titanic, and the conflicting accounts he got, led him to believe that "history is a consensus hallucination." [ix] But there is a vast, vast difference between accounts that might be told by persons under severe physical and emotional distress, about what they remember of a disaster that took place in the darkest night, and the memories of a living person with whom one spent several years, who was observed calmly by many witnesses, and whose teachings were designed for rote memorization.

Cameron seems to gives credence to Gnostic Gospels found at Nag Hammadi [x]though he doesn't say a word about their dates; in this he seems to have accepted the Ehrman-Pagels thesis. These Gospels are given no credence because they are very, very late, much later than the canonical Gospels, and indicate a Jesus who never would have emerged in first century Jewish Palestine. We recommend readers try a more sober work, Philip Jenkins' Hidden Gospels.

Cameron was drawn into this matter by Pellegrino and Jacobovici some years ago; they made him sign confidentality agreements [xii] and they presented their case, which he found "compelling".


Chapter 1: Vault of the Ages. Jacobovici takes the pen for the next few chapters, and it turns out to be mostly first-person narrative rather than argument of the case. That's left for Pellegrino later in the book, so we'll reserve comments on such arguments as Jacobovici alludes to under we reach Pellegrino's material.

Jacobovici hints that the disciples stole the body of Jesus and then reburied it in this "lost" tomb [2]. He then goes on to tell the story of the find itself. While it might be interesting to see if Amos Kloner remembers events the same way Jacobovici does, it doesn't seem to be that important.

The only point worthy of note is that Jacobovici claims that one of the ten ossuaries went missing before it was "properly scrutinized" (my emphasis) for markings. [15] One cannot help but wonder whether he is laying ground for further insinuation that the James ossuary really was #10 and all the data about the tenth ossurary found at Talpiot was taken down wrong because it wasn't handled "properly."



Chapter 2: The Investigation Begins. Once again, more narrative here than fact or claim. He describes how he made the Mary Magdalene/Mariamne connection when his "chief researcher" [44] just "googled" the name "Mariamne" and from whatever came up -- we're not told what, much less given an actual URL -- decided that "according to modern scholarship," Mariamne was the "real name" of Mary Magdalene. [45] It's not made clear here, but later, Bovon [64] is given as the authority; we'll get to that in Pellegrino's section.


Chapter 3: The Lost Tomb. More narrative as Jacobovici tells how he met Oded Golan (owner of the James ossuary) and James Tabor. After this Jacobovici lets Pellegrino take over to present arguments in a more systematic way.


Chapter 4: The Jesus Equation. This is where Pellegrino, in between more narrative, explains the case from the statistical side. So now it will be time to collect the arguments and data for the first time here.

Other than that we would note Pellegrino's error concerning the nature of resurrection -- despite his friend's assurances, no "spiritual resurrection" or ascension will do the job. No such concept existed in Judaism of the day.

One of my early suspicions was that the original "database" used to arrive at the statistics was too small, perhaps only dealing with Jerusalem within a single moment in time. Pellegrino claims [74f] that his calculations account for Jerusalem only, but during the whole century ossuaries were used. Tabor continues to use the same basis.

This is not as bad as I thought, but it is still far from enough: It needs to include ALL Jews from Judaea and Galilee as well, and arguably could include those of the Diaspora. Note this on Darrell Bock's blog:

I spoke with Roland Deines today (of Nottingham). He makes the argument that Israel in this period had around 4 million. Doing the math based on the catalog of Tal Ilan on the names over three centuries, he suggests that we have a Jesus, son of Joseph about 1 out of every 740 ossuaries.

This is much larger than Pellegrino's estimate of 1 out of 79 [75] and would seem to invalidate the calculations as a useful tool for the case.

I would also relate this to the point that Jesus' family would not be buried in Jerusalem, but in Galilee. Tabor has argued that James was established in Jerusalem for quite a while; but that is only one family member out of several -- and if we want to argue that way, then we can argue that any member of any Judean or Galileean or even Diaspora family could be so "established" in Jerusalem -- as a merchant, or a priest, or whatever -- and thus the statistics are invalidated again. Indeed, Tabor fails to explain why father Joseph would remain buried in Galilee if the family had gotten this type of prestige.

In this next section we'll have a look at points related to the ossuaries and their identifications.

Related point: The crosses. Though not strictly part of the statistical argument, and indeed Pellegrino declines to make it part of the argument, it is worth making a point of how Pellegrino uses what he thinks are "cross" marks to support his case. As he notes, Kloner [79] explained crosslike symbols on the ossuaries as mason's marks.

Pellegrino seems to be somewhat lost in dealing with this issue. He says one of the ossuaries without a name had such a mark that was "larger than a mason's mark had any right to be" but he doesn't explain to us how he arrives at a measure for how much "right" a mason's mark can have to be a certain size. Then for a bit he seems to argue that claims that the cross would never have been used as a Christian symbol so early were tautologous; but then does a 180 and refers to Murphy-O'Connor to validate that "the early Jesus movement would not have adopted an instrument of torture as a religious symbol." [80]

This is very much correct; but to get around this, Pellegrino proposes that early followers of Jesus may have used "crosslike symbols" that were not representing the cross on which Jesus was crucified [80]. But his only evidence for this contrived argument is:


Chapter 5: Beyond the Book of Numbers. This is not an argument chapter, but more narrative. Their theorization that Jesus really did have a son named Jose' that was passed off as a younger brother of his so he wouldn't be killed [91] begs a complex of questions.

There's also the first hint of malfeasance with the James ossuary. The lack of correspondence of the James ossuary with the allegedly missing tenth ossuary comes down to two points:

Jacobovici is reported as making much of the ossuary being recorded with "rounded measurements" [91] -- as though to imply that it was so close that maybe it still is the James ossuary, with rounded numbers. That is a hapless appeal, as Goodacre reports:

John Poirier asks about the issue of the dimensions of the missing ossuary and compares them with the dimensions of the James ossuary:
Another thing that doesn't add up are the dimensions of the ossuaries in question. As I posted on this list on Oct 8, 2006, Tabor's claim that "the dimensions of the missing tenth ossuary [from the Talpiot tomb] are precisely the same, to the centimeter, to those of the James Ossuary" is bogus. *BAR* lists the dimensions of the James ossuary as 50.5 cm x 25 cm x 30.5 cm, while the report on the Talpiot tomb published in *Atiqot* 29 (1996) 15-22, lists the tenth ossuary as measuring 60 cm x 26 cm x 30 cm. Tabor has been aware of this discrepancy at least since Nov 23, 2006 (when I first heard Tabor's complaint about a piece I wrote for *Jerusalem Perspective*, in which I cite this along with several other problems with his theory). He could only continue to hold his theory after that date, therefore, if he has reason to suspect that the published report on one of the two ossuaries is in error.

That's too large of a discrepancy for "rounding" to have any relevance (and it seems likely that the James ossuary is measured "roundly" too...to within a half a centimeter).


Chapter 6: A Mary Named Mariamne. This is yet more narrative, in which it is recorded how Bovon was interviewed concerning the Mariamne of the Acts of Philip. It adds nothing new in terms of argument to the claims of the prior chapter on the subject.


Chapter 7: The Twin. A very short chapter that begins by begging the question that Jesus had a wife and son, and then tries to explain why the evidence does not support this thesis. Thomas is argued to be Jesus' twin brother. This does not even warrant a response since it's just trying to explain away history by creating history.


Chapter 8: The "Jesus Equation" Revisited". An account of how they called on Andrey Feurerverger to check the stats, and how he came up with the same results. Nothing new added here, though it is interesting to compare the words attributed to Feurerverger in the book to those now appearing on his website.

In the book, he seems to be as enthused as Jacobovici: "It really is a possibility...that this particular site is in fact the tomb of the New Testament family. It is a possibility that I think now needs to be taken seriously." [112] He was reportedly "especially impressed" (mathematically) with the Mary Magdalene connection with relation to the Acts of Philip. Now his site says such things as:

The results of any such computations are highly dependent on the assumptions that enter into it. Should even one of these assumptions not be satisfied then the results will not be statistically meaningful. Here are some of the more important ones...
-- We assume that `Marianemou e Mara' is a singularly highly appropriate appellation for Mary Magdalene. Note that this assumption is contentious and furthermore that this assumption drives the outcome of the computations substantially
-- We assume that the Latinized version Marya is an appropriate appellation for Mary of the NT
-- We assume that the presence of Matya does not invalidate the find but we assign no evidentiary value to it (other than factoring in its combinatorial role). We also assume that the Yehuda son of Yeshua ossuary does not invalidate the find but we ignore it in the computations. (This last assumption is contentious, although note that there is more than one possible explanation as to how it might have occured.)
-- We assume that this tombsite observation represents the `best' of many `trials'. It is estimated that there are approximately 4400 inscribed male ossuaries and somewhat fewer than half as many inscribed female ossuaries in existence. The number of `trials' is then taken as being approximately 1100. The computations do not take into account families who could not afford ossuary burials or who did not have sufficient literacy to have their ossuaries inscribed, and does not take into account families living outside of the Jerusalem area.

Emphasis mine on the last. Suffice to say, it appears the good doctor was given erroneous data which produced erroneous conclusions. Other than this, interesting points are that the "1 in 600000" number comes of factoring in missing names of Jesus' recorded brothers, as opposed to the prior 2.4 million to 1 number, which did not [114].

We may also note that the "Dark Ages" are mentioned, though historians have now abandoned that prejudicial term.


Chapter 9: The Jesus Standard. Interesting short bit about an ossuary belonging to Alexander, the son of Simon, but its whole purpose is to set up an objection that since scholars accept this person's identity as the same as the Alexander of Mark's Gospel, with far supposedly worse odds than they've calculated for the Jesus tomb, they ought to be fair and accept the Jesus tomb as valid too.


Chapter 10: Whence Came the Nazarenes. The authors discuss the Ebionites and the Knights Templar, suggesting that it was the latter who broke into the tomb at some point and moved some of the skulls, arranging them in such a way as to suggest that they knew it was the tomb of Jesus.


Chapter 11: The Rediscovery. Back to narrative from Jacobovici. The narrative material takes up far more pagination than the evidence material. One wonders why they don't spend more time analyzing patina evidence and proving their case.


Chapter 12: The Voices of Time. Pellegrino returns for more narrative of his own about how the crew went around getting samples to study.


Chapter 13: GATTACA: The DNA Story. DNA story? More like DNA pamphlet. To this day, in June 2009, the official website STILL doesn't report what the DNA "evidence" is; it just gives a primer on DNA. From the start many people found claims about DNA dubious because they figured we didn't have the DNA of Jesus or of Mary; in this, they wrongly assumed what this thesis was going to be arguing, but I fault Jacobovici for that, because he didn't present what they were going to argue from the start.

So what did they argue? Just that the person in the "Jesus, son of Joseph" ossuary was not related by blood to the person in the "Mariamne" ossuary. Obviously this also fits with Mariamne being a close friend of the family, or a wife of one of the other men in the tomb, and so on. In fact, all that was ruled out is that they can't be mother and child (what about father and daughter?) or "maternally, brother and sister" (what about paternally by a different mother, or cousins, or...) [172]. And of course, this fits as well for any number of other Marys/Mariamnes and Jesuses that would have been out there.


Chapter 14: A Crime Lab's Jesus. When this first broke, the patina evidence seemed to me the strongest possible argument this thesis had -- even stronger than the stats argument. The basic idea was that the James ossuary -- whose presence in the tomb would have boosted the stats argument through the roof -- showed the same patina "fingerprint" as those in the tomb, so they argued that they could add it in to the stats.

I won't belabor the point; this one's been refuted by their very own expert, Robert Genna, who said in the television panel discussion (I did not see this, but did confirm it from someone who did see it):

The elemental composition of some of the samples we tested from the ossuaries are consistent with each other. But I would never say they’re a match… No scientist would ever say definitively that one ossuary came from the same tomb as another...We didn’t do enough sampling to see if in fact there were other tombs that had similar elemental compositions...The only samples we can positively say are a ‘match’ from a single source are fingerprints and DNA. (Source: Discovery Channel debate with Ted Koppel which followed the documentary on Sunday night)

Witherington had also noted that the soil type is very common (terra rosa) and that there was no mention of a special sort of soil found on the James ossuary from a place nowhere near the "family tomb".

In the Ch. 5 report above we gave a couple of reasons why the James ossuary was not a match; now let's add a few more reasons from Witherington, showing that Oded Golan had the James ossuary in his possession prior to the discovery of the "family of Jesus tomb":

...Oded Golan's family has testified that he had that ossuary in the 70s...one of his old girl friends also said she saw it back then, and she doesn't even care for the man any more...photographic evidence, apparently corroborated by the FBI at the trial shows that he had it before the Israeli law changed on this subject...I have detailed photos of the James ossuary including photos of the pitted nature of the bottom portion of the face of the box, caused by water damage over a long period of time. This ossuary was not in a dry cave for centuries, definitely not, and this distinguishes it from the ossuaries that came out of the Talpiot tomb so far as I can see.

In light of all of this, James Tabor resorted to a contrivances:

I should clarify here that such a possibility is not linked solely to the matter of the 10th missing ossuary that I raised in my book, The Jesus Dynasty. It was Shimon Gibson who first made the point that the James ossuary could be an 11th ossuary, taken from the tomb when it was left open Friday afternoon to Sunday morning, March 28-31st, 1980.

I think one of Witherington's blog commenters put it well:

Floating the idea that "James" is the 11th ossuary is ad hoc and a sign that this theory is in very grave danger. Supporters of Ptolemy could add epicycle after epicycle to explain the movement of heavenly bodies without recourse to the Copernican theory. It did not make them correct.

Conclusion: Jacobovici mostly just reiterates the case from prior pages, but something he adds undermines his own case, thought he obviously doesn't realize it. He argues that the crosslike symbol found on the ossuaries is -- no, not a Christian cross, but the Hebrew letter tao, as a mark of the righteous. If that's so, then there's no reason why the "family tomb" need be that of Jesus especially as opposed to any other Jewish person.

Jacobovici uses Mark's story of a young man fleeing naked for this: "Clearly, embedded in the text is the hint that Jesus had a son." [208] Why? Because his name is not given, and such a son would need to be kept secret. Which leads to the question of why Mark didn't preserve the secret better by not telling the story at all.


A reader gave us notice of an item from the Jerusalem Pos (now offline) which said:

Several prominent scholars who were interviewed in a bitterly contested documentary that suggests that Jesus and his family members were buried in a nondescript ancient Jerusalem burial cave have now revised their conclusions, including the statistician who claimed that the odds were 600:1 in favor of the tomb being the family burial cave of Jesus of Nazareth, a new study on the fallout from the popular documentary shows.
The dramatic clarifications, compiled by epigrapher Stephen Pfann of the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem in a paper titled "Cracks in the Foundation: How the Lost Tomb of Jesus story is losing its scholarly support," come two months after the screening of The Lost Tomb of Christ that attracted widespread public interest, despite the concomitant scholarly ridicule...
The most startling change of opinion featured in the 16-page paper is that of University of Toronto statistician Professor Andrey Feuerverger, who stated those 600 to one odds in the film. Feuerverger now says that these referred to the probability of a cluster of such names appearing together.
Pfann's paper reported that a statement on the Discovery Channel's Web site, which previously read "a statistical study commissioned by the broadcasters...concludes that the probability factor is 600 to 1 in favor of this being the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and his family," in keeping with Feuerverger's statement, has been altered and now reads, "a statistical study commissioned by the broadcasters... concludes that the probability factor is in the order of 600 to 1 that an equally 'surprising' cluster of names would arise purely by chance under given assumptions."

(Note that this reflects our own observations above, and Tabor's early qualification which did NOT match what was claimed by the tomb website.)

Another sentence on the same Web site stating that Feuerverger had concluded it was highly probable that the tomb, located in the southeastern residential Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot, was the Jesus family tomb - the central point of the film - has also been changed. It now reads: "It is unlikely that an equally surprising cluster of names would have arisen by chance under purely random sampling."....
....Shimon Gibson, who was part of the team that excavated the tomb two and half decades ago and who appeared in the film, is quoted in Pfann's report as saying he doubted the site was the tomb of Jesus and his family.
"Personally, I'm skeptical that this is the tomb of Jesus and I made this point very clear to the filmmakers," Gibson is quoted as saying.
"We need much more evidence before we can say that the Talpiot tomb might be the family tomb of Jesus," he added.
In the film, renowned epigrapher Prof. Frank Moore Cross, professor emeritus of Hebrew and oriental languages at Harvard University, is seen reading one of the ossuaries and stating that he has "no real doubt" that it reads "Jesus son of Joseph." But according to Pfann, Cross said in an e-mail that he was skeptical about the film's claims, not because of a misreading of the ossuary, but because of the ubiquity of Biblical names in that period in Jerusalem.
"It has been reckoned that 25 percent of feminine names in this period were Maria/Miriam, etc. - that is, variants of 'Mary.' So the cited statistics are unpersuasive. You know the saying: lies, damned lies, and statistics," Cross is quoted as saying.
The paper also notes that DNA scientist Dr. Carney Matheson, who supervised DNA testing carried out for the film from the supposed Jesus and Mary Magdalene ossuaries, and who said in the documentary that "these two individuals, if they were unrelated, would most likely be husband and wife," later said that "the only conclusions we made were that these two sets were not maternally related. To me, it sounds like absolutely nothing."
Furthermore, Pfann also says that a specialist in ancient apocryphal text, Professor Francois Bovon, who is quoted in the film as saying the enigmatic ossuary inscription "Mariamne" is the same woman known as Mary Magdalene - one of the filmmakers' critical arguments - issued a disclaimer stating that he did not believe that "Mariamne" stood for Mary of Magdalene at all.

-JPH