There has been a lot of hype surrounding James Cameron’s Discovery Channel special by filmmaker Simcha Jacobvici The Lost Tomb of Jesus. I hadn’t commented on it because 1) it sounded pretty silly, and 2) I wanted to watch the show before I commented on it. Well I have seen the show and now I can comment.
The resurrection never happened! Jesus died and was buried with his family. We were all misled by a massive conspiracy of the early church! Heh. Naw, I’m just messin’ with ya. I am still pretty confident in the Good News (that is, the bodily resurrection of Jesus) of the Gospel.
Here are the factors that are supposed to lead us to believe that the family tomb discovered in Talpiot in southeastern Jerusalem is the tomb of Jesus Christ: 1) The names discovered on six ossuaries (the other four did not have inscriptions) include Jesus son of Joseph, Joseph, Mariamne (possibly Mary of Magdala), Mary, James the brother of Jesus, and Judah son of Jesus; the odds of all these particular names (and how they were inscribed in various Hebrew and Hellenized forms) being seen together and it NOT being Jesus Christ’s tomb is 1 in 600. 2) Mitochondrial DNA analysis of samples from the ossuaries of Mary (of Magdala) and Jesus says that they are not related; it would be very rare for non family members to be in the same family tomb unless they were married.
Let me start with the second claim. Firstly, Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is different from nuclear DNA. Mitochondrial DNA is inherited completely from the mother and generally cannot be used for identification purposes. In the documentary, samples taken from the Jesus and the Mariamne ossuaries were analyzed and it was determined that the two were not brother and sister or mother and son. This is, apparently, important because in the time period the only reason two unrelated people would be placed in the same family tomb would be because they were married. If Jesus and Mary were married, this would give support for the statistics. The problem with this is that there is very little support for a Jesus / Mary marriage, let alone them having a child (which is suggested in the documentary). Numerous other posts address this fact so I won’t really get into it. All the conspiracy theorists and gnostics can go ahead and believe that Mary and Jesus were married and had a child together, but the legitimate scholars along with all of church history will go ahead and disagree. And aside from this, what is not mentioned in the film is that mtDNA is passed from mother to child, so the two samples could have been from a father and daughter. The did a great job of proving the two samples were not related, unfortunately you can’t test for marriage through DNA analysis! So far, I’m not convinced.
Now we have the names and the statistics. Their conclusion is “that the probability factor is 600 to 1 in favor of this tomb being the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and his family.” Others, once again, have looked at the stats, I point you especially to Magic Statistics: Our bulging “How not to do statistics” file just filled up and burst and a follow up at Back of the Envelope: A little statistics and the tomb of Jesus (which also discusses the issue of Mary Magdalene) as well as Darrell Bock: Fun with Numbers, Key Stats Reconsidered. They aren’t very impressed. Even the statistical consultant to the film Dr. Andrey Feuerverger think the film didn’t lead people to the right conclusions about his statistics. He also noted one thing that I was thinking about:
There are certain additional facts regarding this archeological find which are of interest, but the precise ways in which they may or may not enter into statistical computations are debatable. Examples of these include [Ed. Note: I only include one of his examples]:
The apparent absence of ‘negatives’ in the finding, i.e. of archeological details that would in and of themselves invalidate ‘the hypothesis’ or that would appear to lessen its likelihood.
Seriously. Read it all. Also, the statistics hinge on the James oussary, the validity of which is highly contended (as well as the name and relationship of Mariamne). If it is part of the Talpiot tomb, it brings their stats to the 600 to 1 as stated, if it is not authentic, it severely hurts them. They tested the material makeup of the James ossuary and compared it to the ossuaries of the Talpiot tomb and they seemed to match. But even that is contended. To me, it seems that if they were both from the same tomb they would have had the same spectral makeup and not just a similar one. Also Darrell Bock points out that “the catalogued tomb sizes do not match, being 10 cm off in one of the key dimensions” (the documentary claims they are all the same size). That is a problem for the odds. It is striking that there appears to be the clustering of names, but is “striking” enough to mean anything. It appears not. I am still unconvinced.
Summary: I am unconvinced.
After the documentary, Ted Koppell hosted an hour long discussion titled The Tomb of Jesus: A Critical Look. The first half was looking at the archaeological and historical side of the issue. The debate took place between Simcha Jacobvici and James Tabor (Professor of Religious Studies at UNC and a liberal Christian) on one side, with William Dever (Professor Emeritus from the University of Arizona, he is not a Christian and said he has no stake in the implications but takes issue with the scholarly aspects) and Jonathan Reed (Professor from the University of LaVerne) on the other. The second half of the program centered on the religious implications. Opposite to Jacobivici and Tabor were Darrell Bock (Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary and a conservative Christian), Rev. David O’Connell (president of the Catholic University if America), and Judy Fentress-Williams (Professor, Virginia Theological Seminary). The debate was very interesting and at some points I almost felt bad for Jacobivici (although he was often fairly rude and would continue talking over others even when asked to stop or move on) as even Koppell seemed against him at points.
The odd thing is that the most tension and arguing came in the first section, not the second (although it was there as well). Dever pointed out that some of the experts were quoted out of context. For instance, apparently the expert that decoded some (all?) of the names on the ossuaries doesn’t agree with the conclusions, but we never saw that. It was also brought up that one of the principle archaeologists (Connor) of the original find in 1980 only noted 9 ossuaries and not 10 (leaving the James one out), this was not in the film. Dever notes that the sample for the stats is not nearly large enough and could be missing numerous names.
I was really impressed by the Christians in the second section (and have been more so by Bock after reading through his blog), they all came across as intelligent and informed people that were not irrational even in their discussion of the importance of faith. Bock pointed out that the large issue here is not that the documentary implies that Jesus was married and had a kid, but that if it were true it would deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Tabor and him argued over the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 15 (Tabor being the liberal thinks Paul didn’t mean a physical, bodily resurrection, whereas Bock, the conservative, is all for it). (Here is Tabor’s response to the evening quoted at Bock’s blog.) Fentriss-Williams notes, quite well I think, that there is danger in the presentation and that the reenactments can push things too far: “Entertainment moves the viewer away from being a critical thinker.” Koppell then adds that dramatization “lends artificial credibility to the hypothesis.” Interesting. I can add more about the discussion if anyone is interested.
What does this all come down to? None of the evidence and arguments presented are persuasive. And definitely not persuasive enough to bring harm to my faith. If it was true and the tomb truly was that of Jesus Christ and his family, the early disciples, historians, and the history of the church is wrong. There must have been massive conspiracies to cover up not only the non-resurrection of Jesus, but the marriage of Jesus and the birth of his child. I think Jonathan Reed had it right (paraphrased): it is like having many chains linked together to get from one point to the end and at each chain link there are numerous “ifs” that need to be resolved by peer review and discussion in order for the chain to remain intact. That didn’t happen. The ifs just don’t add up for me.
I hope this doesn’t become a larger issue than it already has. I am assuming that after people have seen the show, they will lose interest because it isn’t as compelling as it was led on to be. I truly hope that the Christians out there will look at this critically and not be shaken by it, because really, there isn’t any reason to fret.