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Analysis of Andrey Feuerverger's Article on The Jesus Family Tomb

At the end of February, 2007, James Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici held a press conference to announce their belief that the family tomb of Jesus of Nazareth had been found.

They also announced the forthcoming release of a documentary and book on the topic. They claimed that the odds were about 600 to 1 that this was in fact the family tomb of Jesus.

This claim ignited a firestorm of controversy for about a week, and then it died down. Virtually all experts in history, archaeology, New Testament studies, and related subjects pooh-poohed the work. Statisticians looked at the explanations made in the documentary and book and pointed out serious problems. The man in the street shrugged and ignored it all.

The problem is that almost nobody had access to the actual paper written by the statistician for the project, Prof. Andrey Feuerverger, of the University of Toronto. Dr. Feuerverger submitted his article to The Annals of Applied Statistics, a peer-reviewed journal, with a request that its contents should not be circulated until the publication date.

Because of this request for secrecy, most of the comments about Dr. Feuerverger's work have been based on the public explanations by Simcha Jacobovici, et. al. That's really too bad, because Jacobovici's explanations were very naive mathematically.

In late October of 2007, The Annals of Applied Statistics asked me to serve as one of the referees for Feuerverger's paper and to contribute a discussion article to the journal for publication alongside the main article. This was fairly late in the game and the journal gave me a very tight deadline, but I agreed to try. They also asked me to contribute any supplemental material I might have, such as my own calculations on the tomb. I took the opportunity to do some new calculations on the tomb. Because of Feuerverger's request for secrecy, I decided to say nothing more in public about the tomb until his journal article appeared.

The Annals of Applied Statistics ultimately published Feuerverger's article in the spring of 2008. Here are the relevant documents:

  • Feuerverger's article, along with a copy of his software for analyzing the tomb
  • My discussion article responding to Feuerverger's article, along with a 29-page PDF file outlining my own computations
  • The discussion articles written by the other referees, including Feuerverger's response to the comments of the various referees

Once Feuerverger's article was published, I felt free to comment on it in public here on this page. At the same time, I also revealed my most recent calculations. 

The main points I would like to make are these:

  • Andrey Feuerverger did an excellent piece of mathematical work on a difficult subject
  • His results depend critically on certain assumptions (provided by Simcha Jacobovici)
  • Those assumptions are widely rejected by scholars
  • Feuerverger has stated that his original calculations were based on at least one unlikely assumption
  • Without that assumption, he notes that his calculations lack "statistical significance"
  • With a more realistic set of assumptions, I compute that the odds drop to less than about 2%
In the rest of this article, I'll expand on each of these main points.

Feuerverger's Math

Let's note from the outset that analyzing the Talpiot tomb is difficult. Damnably difficult. This should be obvious, since a number of people have written articles on it, and they've gotten widely varying results.

The probability calculation given in the documentary "The Lost Tomb Of Jesus" was very primitive and there was a factor of 4 which the documentary called "Adjusting for unintentional biases in the historical sources". That was a completely unintelligible explanation, and the discussion in the book by Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino was equally useless.

Here is the calculation, as described in the "Tomb Evidence" PDF file from the Discovery Channel's web site:

  • "Jesus son of Joseph" probability = 1/190
  • "Mariamne" probability = 1/160
  • "Yose" probability = 1/20
  • "Maria" probablity = 1/4
  • "Adjust for unintentional biases": multiply by 4
  • "Adjust for all possible First Century Jerusalem Tombs": multiply by 1000
  • Multiply all of the above to get a probability of 1/600 that these names could be there by random chance
This computation is very primitive, but the documentary and book claimed that Feuerverger would explain it all in his forthcoming paper. Since Feuerverger's paper was not publicly available, nobody knew how the calculation was being done, except for the referees, who were asked not to tell.

When I received version 2 of Feuerverger's article in October, 2007, I saw immediately that he was doing something much more sophisticated than the calculation described above. Feuerverger's approach is not the only way to attack the problem, but I believe it is a perfectly valid mathematical approach.

In layman's language, here is what Andrey Feuerverger's calculation did:

  1. He first made a list of the persons one should expect to find in a family tomb of Jesus
  2. For each of those persons, he made a list of the "relevant" names that could apply to that person (such as the formal version of the name and any abbreviated forms of that name)
  3. He then estimated how often each of the forms of these names were actually used in first-century Jerusalem, using the frequency of names found in ancient literature and inscriptions
  4. He made a random simulation by populating the ossuaries in the tomb with randomly chosen names from first-century Jerusalem
  5. He tracked how often a randomly chosen tomb was as "relevant and rare" as the Talpiot tomb
  6. He then used the results to estimate a probability that the Talpiot tomb might belong to some family other than the family of Jesus
  7. Finally, he computed the probability that a family tomb as "surprising" as the Talpiot tomb would be found in the vicinity of Jerusalem if the names are chosen at random. This probability was 1/655
This is a rough explanation of what Feuerverger did. The actual computation is quite a bit more complicated than this. Feuerverger's software (written in the freely available "R" statistical programming language) is now available on The Annals of Applied Statistics web site. To get a copy of the R language, visit www.r-project.org

I have read through Feuerverger's paper several times. While I have a few quibbles here and there, I think that the statistical method he has outlined is a valuable approach to this problem and other similar hard problems.

It is not the only approach. Several other workers have used methods based on Bayes' Theorem. Jay Cost and I were the first to do so, back in March of 2007. Some of the others who have done so are:

None of us agree with Feuerverger's calculation. His estimate is a probability of about 99.85% that the Jesus family tomb is one of the 1100 tombs in the vicinity of Jerusalem.

Feuerverger then uses Bayes' theorem to estimate the probability that the Talpiot tomb itself is the Jesus family tomb. This requires a bit of probability theory, and also some extra assumptions. He computes a range of possible answers, going as low as 94% to as high as 99.94%. All of these are much higher than anybody else gets.

The reason that everyone else gets a lower answer than Feuerverger is that almost nobody accepts some of the assumptions that he began with. Feuerverger, of course, is not an archaeologist, and he did not invent these assumptions. He got them from Simcha Jacobovici, who is a documentary producer with a strong interest in archaeology.

In the next section, I'll briefly summarize the assumptions Simcha Jacobovici made.

Jacobovici's Assumptions

A number of Simcha Jacobovici's assumptions have been strongly criticised by scholars in the relevant fields. Some of these assumptions have an important impact on the probability calculations. I identified six key assumptions that make a difference to the math, and I discussed these briefly in my discussion article in The Annals of Applied Statistics. I'll go over them even more briefly here.

Let me note that these assumptions are the link that ties the archaeological data to the math. I'm not an expert in Biblical studies, archaeology, epigraphy, history, or onomastics, so I relied on the opinions of a wide variety of people who are. Links to articles by many of those people are found in a link directory at the bottom of this article.

Here are the six key assumptions that make a difference to the math:

  1. The "Mariamenou" inscription on one of the ossuaries would be an appropriate name for Mary Magdalene but for very few other women in ancient Jerusalem.
  2. The most appropriate name for the ossuary of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is "Maria".
  3. The most appropriate name for the ossuary of Joses, the brother of Jesus, is "Yoseh".
  4. Jesus was as likely as any Jewish man of his time to have a son.
  5. Jesus was as likely as any Jewish man of his time to be buried in a rock-cut tomb at Talpiot.
  6. Mary Magdalene would be likely to be buried in the family tomb of Jesus.

Why Most Scholars Reject These Assumptions

I have not been able to find any scholar who accepts all six of these assumptions. In this section, I'll explain what impact each one has on the calculation, and why scholars find them problematic.

#1: The "Mariamenou" Assumption

#1 on this list has an enormous impact on the calculations, because "Mariamenou" is the possessive form of a very rare name. It contributes a factor of 1/44 to the test statistic that Feuerverger calculates. Without this assumption, Feuerverger notes, his calculations would no longer have what mathematicians call "statistical significance." This does NOT mean that his calculations would be unimportant. It means that those odds of 94%+ would drop to at best about 48%. That is still "significant" from a historical point of view! It would mean the odds were 50-50 that the tomb belonged to Jesus.

I have discussed the "Mariamenou" inscription at length with several notable scholars who have written articles about the Talpiot tomb on the web. (I thank Richard Bauckham, Stephen Pfann, Mark Goodacre, and James Tabor for taking the time to discuss the matter with me.) The question I posed them can be boiled down to this: "Suppose you found this inscription in a tomb in ancient Jerusalem BY ITSELF. Would you consider it likely to be the tomb of Mary Magdalene?"

If I have understood their answers correctly, they unanimously said that such an inscription COULD apply to any Mary in Jerusalem, including Mary Magdalene, but there is no reason to think it is more likely to refer to her than any of the other Marys. (There were roughly 8500 women named Mary who died in Jerusalem in the relevant time period, and we don't know whether Mary Magdalene was one of them.)

This completely undercuts Jacobovici's assumption. It is important to note Feuerverger's most recent comment on this point. Here is what he says in his response to the discussion articles in The Annals of Applied Statistics:

Without benefit of the last element -- i.e., (g) -- of the itemization above, I do not regard the assumption A.7 -- concerning the most appropriate name rendition for Mary Magdalene -- as being equally adequately justified by the remaining elements (a) through (f) on that list. In particular, this means that we cannot (on the basis of our RR procedure) say that the Talpiyot find is statistically significant in any meaningful way. -- Andrey Feuerverger, 2008.

In plain language, Feuerverger agrees with all the scholars that the "Mariamenou" inscription doesn't imply "Mary Magdalene."

It would appear that Simcha Jacobovici stands alone in still accepting the "Mariamenou" inscription as a likely indicator of Mary Magdalene.

#2: The "Maria" Assumption

#2 on the list of assumptions asserts that "Maria" is the most appropriate appellation for Mary, the mother of Jesus. "Maria" is a short form of the more formal name "Mariam." The mother of Jesus is called by both names in the New Testament.

Stephen Pfann has compiled the data on the usage of "Maria" and "Mariam" for all the Marys in the New Testament. Mark refers to her only once and uses the form "Maria" (Mark refers to all the Marys as "Maria"). Matthew calls her "Maria" four times and "Mariam" once. (Matthew refers to all the Marys as "Maria" except the one time he calls the mother "Mariam.) Luke refers to the mother eleven times as "Mariam" and once as "Maria." (Luke uses both "Mariam" and "Maria" in referring to the other Marys.)

Looking at the data Pfann compiled, it is clear that the various authors felt free to use either "Maria" or "Mariam" for the various Marys, with no hard rules. Some of the authors tended to use the formal version more often. Some tended to use the short form more often. The name usage depends more on the AUTHOR than on the PERSON referred to.

Given this, I can see no solid ground for the assumption that "Maria" is the more appropriate appellation for Mary, the mother of Jesus. The name used on her ossuary (if she had one) would depend on who paid the engraver.

#3: The "Yoseh" Assumption

#3 on the list of assumptions makes a similar claim about "Yoseh" being the most appropriate appellation for Joses, the brother of Jesus. "Yoseh" is the short form of the formal name "Yehosef". The New Testament data for this name is very sparse. Mark refers to this brother exactly once, using the Greek name "Yoses" which corresponds to the Hebrew/Aramaic forms "Yosi" or "Yoseh." (This fits Mark's tendency to use short forms.) In a parallel passage, Matthew refers to the brother exactly once, using "Yehosef." That is all the data there is -- just two references to the brother, equally split between "Yoseh" and "Yehosef".

Given this sparse data set, one cannot be dogmatic. Stephen Pfann has discussed this issue at length on his web site, and I have gotten opinions from other scholars. I don't believe there is any way to know for sure that this brother was exclusively called either "Yoseh" or "Yehosef". It seems most likely that some called him by the familiar "Yoseh" and some by the formal "Yehosef."

Jacobovici has argued that Mark is earlier than Matthew, so one should prefer Mark's data to Matthew's. This is weak, because most scholars believe that Mark is only about 10 years earlier than Matthew, so the time difference is quite small.

This assumption has been vigorously defended by Kilty and Elliott, who show that it makes a rather large difference in the calculations. If the brother MUST be known as "Yoseh", Kilty and Elliott provide a simple estimate that the tomb has a probability of 48% of being the tomb of Jesus. If the brother MUST be known as "Yehosef", they estimate that the probability drops to 6%. Feuerverger has not published a similar comparison, but his calculations are very likely to show a similar change.

I have not seen any compelling case that the brother of Jesus was ALWAYS known as "Yoseh." I think that the calculation should allow for either possibility.

#4: The "Judah son of Jesus" Assumption

#4 in the list of assumptions is mostly ignored in Feuerverger's calculation. That's the problem. I know of no scholar who believes that Jesus definitely had a son, nor do I know of any who consider it very likely. The problem is that if Jesus had a son, we should have heard of him. The family of Jesus did not disappear after he died. Much the opposite -- the family of Jesus took a commanding role in governing the earliest "Jesus community" in Jerusalem. James, the brother of Jesus, was the leader of the community for about 30 years, until his execution about the year 62. After that, his cousin "Simon son of Clopas" took over leadership. (James Tabor has argued that this "Simon" was actually Simon the brother of Jesus. This is very much a minority opinion, but I rather like it. Either way, Simon was a near relative of Jesus who held the reins of governance of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem.) 

The important point is this: If Jesus had had a son who reached adulthood, he would have played an important role in the community and we would have heard of him.

The fact that the Jesus of the Talpiot tomb had a son is therefore evidence that weighs AGAINST the hypothesis that this is the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth. (Depending on your subjective historical view, the weight may be heavy or light, but it has to be negative.) Feuerverger's calculation does not account for this negative evidence.

#5: The Burial In A Rock-Cut Tomb

#5 in the list of assumptions is the fact that the Talpiot tomb is a rock-cut tomb. All our evidence says that Jesus was initially buried in a rock-cut tomb -- but NOT the Talpiot tomb. The New Testament data asserts that Jesus was buried in a tomb very close to the execution site (a couple of miles away from Talpiot). The New Testament also asserts that within a couple of days, the body had gone missing.

What happened to the body? The New Testament writers asserted that the body was resurrected and that the risen Jesus ultimately "ascended to heaven." It is not possible to investigate this claim scientifically. (However, if one accepts this explanation, then of course it mathematically rules out the hypothesis that the Talpiot tomb housed the mortal remains of Jesus.)

Those who prefer a naturalistic explanation for the disappearance of the body argue that it is most likely that Jesus was moved to a trench grave, the usual burial method for poor men.

In either case, the body of Jesus would not have ended up at the Talpiot tomb. For an analysis of the issues, see the article by archaeologist Jodi Magness on the web site of the Biblical Archaeology Society.

The problem is that Feuerverger's calculation simply assumes that Jesus was as likely as any other Jewish man of his time to be buried in a rock-cut tomb. A correct calculation should account for the fact that Jesus was LESS likely than other men to buried in a tomb like the one in Talpiot. (Again, there is a subjective element here on how much weight this should get. But again, it seems clear that the weight should be negative.)

#6: Does Mary Magdalene Belong In A Jesus Family Tomb?

#6 in the list of assumptions is that Mary Magadalene belongs in the list of candidates who would likely be buried in the family tomb of Jesus. The reasoning is that she was a close family friend who was present at the burial of Jesus. It is unclear why this should be enough. It is of course POSSIBLE that Mary Magdalene died in Jerusalem. It is POSSIBLE that she was part of the extended family of Jesus. It is even POSSIBLE that she was married to Jesus. But there is no sound historical evidence for any of these conjectures.

Because of that, Mary Magdalene has to be considered as AT BEST an unlikely candidate to be in the tomb. It is therefore an enormous stretch for Feuerverger to include Mary Magdalene in the tomb as part of his baseline calculation. A baseline calculation should include the persons actually known to have been part of the family of Jesus -- his mother and four brothers. Anything else is speculation.

Let me reiterate that it is perfectly appropriate to include Mary Magdalene in secondary calculations that consider variations from the baseline. But it should be clear that any such secondary calculations are going to be quite a bit less likely than the baseline calculation.

I have heard from many Christians over the years claiming that Jesus could not possibly have been married or had children -- for theological reasons. I don't see that. I'm not a particularly theological person to begin with, and my theology (such as it is) has no problem with the idea that Jesus might have been married and might have had children.

In my view, it just isn't historically likely that Jesus had a wife or children. If they existed, the historical record would very likely mention them. But it doesn't.

Some have argued that the New Testament covers up the wife and children of Jesus for theological reasons. Supposedly, the "early Christians" would have been shocked to hear that Jesus was married and had children, so this "fact" was covered up. 

But this is an anachronism -- it assumes that the "early Christians" held some dogmatic belief in the importance of celibacy. There were no "early Christians," in my view. There was a Jesus movement that was thoroughly Jewish in the early decades. This movement was strongly messianic, like many other Jewish groups of this time.

Over the span of many decades, the Jesus movement evolved into Gentile Christianity. The celibacy thing came in centuries later. It played no role in the Jesus movement in Jerusalem in the decades before the Jewish revolt.

Furthermore, "coverups" don't work in a small community where everybody knows everybody. If Jesus had a family, everybody in the earliest Jesus movement would have known this.


My New Calculations

The editor of The Annals of Applied Statistics asked me to include any calculations of my own that I thought worth publishing. The editor suggested that I might post the simple spreadsheet that I used in March of 2007 in an article that I wrote with Jay Cost.

I decided instead to run a new set of calculations. I had two reasons for doing so:

  • I wanted to respond to the work of Kevin Kilty and Mark Elliott, who wrote a paper in September of 2007, estimating a probability of about 48% that the tomb belongs to Jesus of Nazareth
  • I had some new ideas that I wanted to explore that were substantially more sophisticated than my original spreadsheet calculations
Therefore, in November and December of 2007, I spent some time doing a new series of calculations. The full report on those calculations is given in a 29 page article titled Analysis of the Talpiot Tomb Using Bayes’ Theorem and Random Variables. This article is included as a supplement on the web site of The Annals of Applied Statistics.

A key issue that I wanted to investigate was the question: "Who would be in a Jesus family tomb?" James Tabor has argued quite hard on his blog that one should expect the family tomb of Jesus to contain only certain family members of Jesus:

  • Mary, the mother of Jesus
  • Yoseh, the brother of Jesus
  • Possibly James, the brother of Jesus
Tabor discounts the likelihood of finding Simon or Judah, the other two brothers of Jesus. Tabor believes that Simon is the "Simon son of Clopas" who took over the leadership of the Jesus community after the execution of James, the brother of Jesus. (I have to say that I rather like his reasoning on this point.) He also believes that Judah lived past the Jewish revolt (A.D. 66-70) and so was unlikely to be buried in Jerusalem in the family tomb. (Judah is traditionally considered the author of the book of Jude.)

Tabor's hypothesis on Simon is not the majority opinion of historians, but it is possible. His hypothesis on Judah is quite plausible, but not certain. I thought it worthwhile to pursue these conjectures mathematically. In fact, I took this idea all the way to the logical conclusion.

I studied all 32 possible hypotheses on "who is in a family tomb of Jesus?"

Here's what I did. There are five known members of the immediate family of Jesus: his mother Mary and his four brothers, James, Simon, Judah, and Yoseh. If there was a real family tomb of Jesus, then each of these five people was either buried or not buried in the tomb. There are 32 distinct possibilities. So there are 32 different hypotheses you can make about who was in the tomb.

I wrote software to study each of these 32 "tomb hypotheses". In each case, I asked how well this hypothesis fit the data. Of course, some fit the data better than others. For each hypothesis, I calculated a probability that the tomb was the family tomb of Jesus, given that this particular hypothesis was true. I was interested to see which hypothesis gave the highest probability.

This idea occurred to me after reading the article by Kevin Kilty and Mark Elliott. In their case, they assumed that all 32 hypotheses were equally likely to be true, and used that assumption to compute a certain number in their equation. I realized on reading their paper that we could instead investigate each of these as a separate hypothesis.

There were a number of mathematical wrinkles that needed to be ironed out. If you have a technical background, you can read the full description of my calculations in the article posted on the web site of The Annals of Applied Statistics.

I made a couple of assumptions in these calculations that are most likely too favorable to the "tomb hypothesis":

  • My equations assumed ONLY that "Jesus was less likely than the average man of Jerusalem to have a son." Most historians would probably say that Jesus was MUCH less likely. It's not easy to put a number on "MUCH," so I didn't.
  • My equations assumed ONLY that "Jesus was less likely than the average man of Jerusalem to be buried in a rock-cut tomb." Most historians would probably argue that Jesus was MUCH less likely. Again, I didn't know how to put a number on that, so I didn't.
As a result, my estimates are probably too high. I thought it better to be too high than too low. With that in mind, here is my result:

The probability that the Talpiot tomb belonged to Jesus of Nazareth is less than about 2%.

How much less than 2%? I don't know for sure. The true probability may well be much less than 2%, but there are some historical judgment calls to make. I leave it to the historians and archaeologists to make those judgment calls.

Why Only 2%?

If you are not willing to plow through many pages of math, you can still understand roughly why the correct probability is around 2%. Let me sketch it out quickly here. We'll begin with a very rough guess and then refine it.

First of all, how many men named "Jesus son of Joseph" were there in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus? The best estimate I've heard is about 128 men. This is based on calculations by Camil Fuchs, who estimated that there were about 36,000 men who died in Jerusalem during the relevant time period. We know the fraction of men named "Joseph" and the fraction named "Jesus" and from that, we get around 128 men.

IF that was the ONLY information we had, then we would estimate a probability of 1/128 that the "Jesus son of Joseph" in the Talpiot tomb is Jesus of Nazareth. And 1/128 is slightly less than 1%.

But of course, we have quite a bit more information, and each bit of information we have will tend to adjust our initial estimate up or down a bit. Some of this information tends to favor the hypothesis that the man of the tomb is Jesus of Nazareth. But some of it tends to oppose this hypothesis. Here are the most important extra pieces of information:

  • There was a woman named "Maria" buried in the tomb. Jesus of Nazareth had a mother who would fit this name, so this fact favors the hypothesis. But "Maria" was a common name, and it is not surprising to find this name in a tomb that contains two female names.
  • There was a man named "Yoseh" buried in the tomb. Jesus of Nazareth had a brother who would fit this name, so this fact also favors the hypothesis. But "Yoseh" is the short form of "Yehosef," which was also a common name. It is not terribly surprising to find it in a tomb with several male names.
  • There was a man named "Judah son of Jesus" buried in the tomb. We don't know if Jesus of Nazareth had a son, but the historical data says that he was less likely to have a son than other men of his time. This tends to oppose the hypothesis.
  • The Talpiot tomb is a rock-cut tomb a couple of miles away from the last known location of the corpse of Jesus of Nazareth. Archaeologist Jodi Magness has argued that Jesus of Nazareth was unlikely to end up in a tomb like the one at Talpiot. This fact tends to oppose the hypothesis.
According to my calculations, when you put together all of the above, the initial guess of the probability becomes a bit fuzzy because of various historical uncertainties. The probability could go up a bit, but it is not likely to go above about 2%. It could go down toward 0%. I do NOT believe it can jump up radically to 10% or 50%.

Virtually Nil?

In January, 2008, an international conference in Jerusalem discussed many aspects of the Talpiot tomb. Andrey Feuerverger presented a talk on his statistical approach. Most of the historians and archaeologists at the conference strong disagreed with the assumptions he made, for reasons that I've reviewed above.

It was generally agreed that Feuerverger's calculated probability was too high. Prof. Camil Fuchs expressed his preference for a Bayesian calculation like that of Kevin Kilty and Mark Elliott. Kilty and Elliott estimated a probability of either 48% or 6% that the tomb belonged to Jesus. (My own Bayesian calculation yields a probability of less than 2%.)

After the conference, a number of scholars signed a statement saying that, without the "Mariamenou" inscription, the probability of the tomb being authentic was "virtually nil."

I don't believe that "virtually nil" is accurate. These scholars are all very distinguished in archaeology, history, and New Testament studies, but none of them are statisticians or mathematicians. The 48% that Kilty and Elliott computed is not "virtually nil." Neither is the 6% that Kilty and Elliott computed in an alternate calculation. As a matter of fact, the 2% I calculated is not "virtually nil." Even if you cut my results by a factor of 10 or 100, that would still not be "virtually nil."

It's a little unnerving for me to disagree with a group of scholars like these, because a number of them are heavy hitters in their fields. Still, I have to disagree.

I would say the probability is either "quite small" or "very small" that the tomb is authentic. But "virtually nil?" I don't see it.

Concluding Remarks

The claims that were made very confidently in late February of 2007 have evaporated. They were based on unrealistic assumptions created by Simcha Jacobovici.

No scholar in archaeology, history, or New Testament studies accepts all of these assumptions. In light of that, Andrey Feuerverger is unwilling to assign "statistical significance" to the claim that this is the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.

What is left? Is it true that the probability of authenticity is "virtually nil?"

No, I don't believe that either. My best estimate is that the probability of authenticity is less than 2%. Based on my best understanding of what the scholars say, the probability may well be much lower than 2%. But I don't believe it is higher than 2%.

Acknowledgments

I thank Jay Cost, who collaborated with me on the early analysis of the alleged Jesus Family Tomb, and who critiqued several early versions of my most recent calculations.

I would also like to thank a number of scholars who've given me their time to understand the archaeological issues better: Richard Bauckham, Mark Goodacre, Gary Habermas, Michael Heiser, Stephen Pfann, and James Tabor.

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. Ben Witherington's blog. Dr. Witherington is a New Testament scholar who wrote the book on the famous ossuary that reads "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus".
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The Codex blog of Prof. Tyler Williams has been following the story with interest and has a good collection of links. At the time the controversy erupted, Dr. Williams was the chair of the Religion and Theology Department at Taylor University College in Edmonton.
  • Francois Bovon has posted a short article on the SBL web site clarifying his position on the identification of Mariamne with Mary Magdalene.
  • 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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