The Jesus Tomb and Bayes’ Theorem

Finally, a mathematician actually gets the math right on the Jesus Tomb hypothesis. Conclusion? We have not found the tomb of Jesus. For those who already know the backstory and want to jump right to it, read Bayes’ Theorem and the “Jesus Family Tomb” by physicist Randy Ingermanson. He approached the problem like a physicist dealing with any old problem in data analysis (the problem is not so much different from how particle accelerator data are analyzed). He was assisted by political scientist Jay Cost, another who has good experience running Bayesian models like this. This expands on Ingermanson’s work on this published under peer review as Randall Ingermanson, “Discussion of: Statistical Analysis of an Archaeological Find,” Annals of Applied Statistics 2.1 (2008): 84-90 (responding to Feuerverger).

Backstory: James Tabor and some others have been pushing the claim that a tomb uncovered in the Talpiot district of Jerusalem (hence now called the Talpiot tomb) is the actual burial place of Jesus (and we not only have his “coffin,” but his DNA! As well as evidence he had a child named Judas by Mary Magdalene, also buried therein, also with her DNA!), and they published a book and a documentary arguing their case. (I’m just being colloquial. The tomb’s not full of coffins, of course, but ossuaries, a cultural analog). They had a mathematician backing them (Dr. Andrey Feuerverger), but his math has been consistently bogus from day one. For example, even though we have vastly better odds of randomly getting a name in a group of ten-to-thirty bodies than in a group of five, he kept running the math for five, even though there were ten-to-thirty bodies buried in that tomb. He also adopted a number of dubious (and some outright refuted) factual assumptions (for example, regarding the names of the women in the tomb: see, as one instance, the penultimate paragraph of my previous article on this tomb). By these devices, he found the odds were 600 to 1 in favor of this being the actual tomb of Jesus.

What happened: Ingermanson and Cost apply the correct math (Bayes’ Theorem, valid historical premises, proper treatment of variables, and correct mathematical models, e.g. acknowledging that more than five people were buried there). They find that by standard historical assumptions, the odds are 1 in 19,000 against the Talpiot tomb being the tomb of Jesus, and even by more generous assumptions the odds are 1 in 1,100 against (I put my own assumptions into their model and came up with 1 in 200 against), while even the most fanatical “I desperately want this to be the tomb of Jesus” estimator can only get odds of 1 in 18 that the Talpiot tomb is the tomb of Jesus. Thus, it probably isn’t, even if we are ridiculously generous to the hypothesis that it is.

So much for that. Done and dusted.

Amazing Proofs of Jesus!

There seems to be an odd rise the last year or so in forgeries or other bogus claims of “archaeological” finds attesting to first century Christianity. In actual fact, we have no (that’s zero) archaeological evidence pertaining to Jesus or Christians from the first century (and very, very little even from the second). But last year there was a claim of some mysterious find of “lead codices” that was quickly exploded by experts as a fraud (see my summary: Lead Tablets of Jesus!).

And this year already two wild claims have started circulating. First, that a “first century” manuscript of the Gospel of Mark has been found (claimed by the quasi-fundamentalist Christian scholar Dan Wallace, during a debate with Bart Ehrman), by which is meant, a tiny fragment of a few incomplete words (shown at right, if this is the manuscript in question; you see, no one has come forward as its owner or stated even where it is, not even Wallace, who nevertheless wants to make a big splash with a book about it next year–there is always some money-making angle with these things).

Like the lead codices story, which became big international news before anyone was consulted who actually knows what they are talking about, this, too, has quickly become news, already garnering an article in Forbes (and, I’m told, even making TV news). But alas, it’s dubious for two reasons: first, no one will say where the manuscript is (it therefore is unlikely to be in any academic institution; as such it would already have an accession number and alphanumeric identifier, and of course they would insist on being identified); second, if the image circulating is the same fragment (the image’s authenticity has not been established; it appears to have been “leaked” by a “private collector,” supposedly its owner), it’s far more likely to be a fake than an authentic manuscript at all, much less from the first century (indeed as a forgery, it’s so crappy, the best argument against it being fake is that it was so badly faked: the papyrus shows no fray lines, the scribal lines are not evenly spaced, the lettering is inconsistent, and there are no other typical indicators of authenticity). Several heavy-hitting experts have weighed in on this, all in the “give me a break” column. You can find links to their reports on Thomas Verenna’s blog (here and here).

And now a new claim is going around that an early “first century” tomb has been found in Jerusalem that provides the earliest evidence of Christianity ever found. This was a discovery made by the same bozos who touted the “Jesus tomb” a while back (more on that shortly), and I’m really bothered by James Tabor’s continual involvement with them. He’s a great guy, but he’s really not coming off well here. The only evidence that this is any such thing as they claim (other than just another Jewish tomb) is a barely intelligible inscription and a barely decipherable carving. Each in turn:

(1) The inscription is in Greek and “might” say “God Yahweh Raises [Agb]” or some such, but doesn’t. The verb is not in fact there. Tabor just “conjectures” that hypsô is an abbreviated third person form of the verb hypsô [hypsôsen] and that it means “to raise up,” but the verb hypsô actually means to “lift up” as in “exalt,” and there are other things hypsô could be an abbreviation for (like hyps[ist]ô, “to the highest”), and it could even just be the verb hypsô, “I exalt [thee]” and so on (e.g., the agb could be hagiô, the omega ligatured to the iota, in which case it’s “to the holy and most high,” etc.). Point is, it’s unclear. Moreover, even if it were a verb of resurrection (though this would be the rarest verb used for that, even in Christian literature), the entire point of Jews reburying the bones of their dead in ossuaries was to facilitate their resurrection; so declaring that God would raise the inhabitant (possibly the person whose name begins with Agb) is exactly in line with Jewish thinking and thus not at all indicative of any peculiarly Christian sentiment.

(2) The carving is being claimed as a fat-headed stick-figure man in the mouth of a weird fish, and therefore the earliest known depiction of Jonah in the Whale, known in later centuries as a common Christian symbol of personal salvation and resurrection. But as experts have pointed out, it is far more likely an amateur carving of a nephesh, or Jewish tomb monument, with eaves and pinnacle, a common motif on Jewish ossuaries of the period, or even more likely an amphora or krater (depending on how much importance is placed on which end is up: for a good example of a reconstruction, and useful commentary on the whole fiasco, see Mark Goodacre on James Charlesworth on Talpiot Tomb B). That this is more obvious is that as a fish the drawing is bizarre (little tiny absurdly itty bitty fins; scales that look coincidentally more like architectural decoration), but as a nephesh or amphora much less so; even the so-called “man” would have to be a freak (as it is, depicting Jonah with a three foot dick; a head swollen to the size of a medicine ball; and ambiguous arms). This is very unlikely to be a depiction of Jonah in the Whale.

For, again, a gallery of heavy-hitting experts all weighing in on the “give me a break” column, see Thomas Verenna’s roundup post, which includes links (here). The most important are Robert Cargill and Eric Myers and the most educational for laymen (albeit much longer) is by Christ Rollston, which also gets you up to speed on the backstory. Needless to say, this bogus “find” is linked to a heavily-marketed book, The Jesus Discovery: The New Archaeological Find That Reveals the Birth of Christianity, by James D. Tabor. But given that he has been so thoroughly disgraced by expert analysis on this (and yet gives the book an absurdly confident title like that), I can only assume he has tenure, as otherwise he would cease to be employed by now. This is really beyond the pale.

It’s even more discrediting that Tabor still stands by the “Jesus Tomb Wingnut Team” interpretation of an inscription in the other Talpiot tomb as “Mariamene” (as supposedly a variant of Mariamne, supposedly a distinctive spelling of Mary Magdalene), when it is unmistakably Mariamê kai Mara, “Miriam and Mara,” one very common Jewish name, the other unconnected to Jesus. An earlier epigrapher confused a single letter as nu (N) which is actually kappa [K], the one being an upside down version of the other (a common mistake even for an expert to make who might be getting tired trudging through hundreds of inscriptions). This is so glaringly obvious there can be no reasonable dispute in the matter. Yet he keeps on claiming it says Mariamene. Lately he has been willing to allow that it “might” say Mariame kai Mara…after I pointed this out. But why didn’t he notice it before? The many statistical analyses run for the names in the tomb are also horribly fallacious (the conjunction of names there given the actual population in the tomb is simply not improbable enough to ensure this tomb has any connection with Jesus), but he can’t be expected to understand that (he’s not a mathematician and hasn’t studied statistics or statistical logic). But surely he can read Greek properly. He seems more inclined to stick to the guns of a bizarre theory than actually admit it’s too bizarre to be credible. That was not the “lost tomb of Jesus” ; and neither is this “new” find connected to Christianity.

The lesson to learn here is never to trust the media, much less the rumor mill, when claims of an amazing new find like this crop up. Wait for the evidence to actually be presented, for many independent experts to actually analyze it. Then see what survives. Usually, nothing.