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James Tabor on the Jesus/Talpiot Tomb

26th February 2007

Dr. James Tabor, Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, was one of the scholars involved with the discovery and the documentary. Now that the publication ban has lifted on the material, he will be posting his thoughts on his blog, The Jesus Dynasty.

Here is a quote from his opening post on the Talpiot Tomb:

For the past few days I have read many news reports and Blogs on various aspects of the Talpiot tomb as aspects of this story have “leaked out� and lots of inaccuate and erroneous information has spread rather crazily on the internet. Because of a non-disclosure agreement that protected all of us working on this research I have not written in any detail beyond what I cover in the Introduction to The Jesus Dynasty. Following the press conference tomorrow that all changes. Now with all the facts officially released I will do my best to share with readers of this Blog what appears to be our present state of knowledge about this tomb. I will also be participating with a number of scholars in a Discussion Forum at the Discovery Web site.

In a second post, Tabor gives some of his initial thoughts on the whole discovery. His first two points are worthy of repetition:

1. I do not find it inherently unlikely or improbable that the family tomb of Jesus might be found in the Jerusalem area. Here the point I want to make is that most academics and professionals would scoff at the very possibility of such an idea as sensational and ridiculous nonsense. It is much like someone claiming to have found the “ark of the covenant� or any other Indiana Jones type nonsense. I think that sort of knee-jerk scoffing is unprofessional and we should hear out the evidence. I do indeed hold the view that Jesus’ body was taken from its temporary tomb and moved to a permanent place of burial, very possibly in Jerusalem, and likely kept private and within the inner circles of the family. Accordingly, it is unscientific to dismiss out of hand such a possibility with smirking and scoffing. I also respectfully disagree with those who have made the point that the Jesus family would have been too poor to have been buried in such a manner, with rock hewn tomb and ossuaries. I have been in this tomb. It is small and very modest, quite plain, as are most of the ossuaries. My own understanding of the Nazarene movement as it began to thrive in the 40s through 60s CE is that one would expect, rather than doubt, that the inner family would receive such an honored and traditional burial. Also, the records we have indicate that the inner family lived in Jerusalem after 30 CE.

2. Although the names are “common� (9%, 2%, 14%, 25% depending on which name) as many have pointed out, it does indeed seem to be the case that the statistical grouping of these particular names in this particular tomb is far from common, in fact it is so rare that the conclusion that this particular “Jesus son of Joseph� is indeed, most likely, the figure we know as Jesus of Nazareth becomes highly probable. Statisticians often point out that “common sense� when it comes to probability theory, is often quite misleading. What we have to ask is what are the probabilities of these six names occurring together in a 1st century Jewish family tomb, namely: Mary, a second Mary, Jesus son of Joseph, Jude son of Jesus, Joseph, and Matthew. Experts I am working with tell me that assuming a family size of six, the probability of these six names in these relationships occurring together in one family is: 1/253,403.Therefore, out of 253,403 families (a population of 1,520,418), this particular combination of names would occur only once. Obviously the population of late 2nd Temple Jerusalem was nothing of that sort, but perhaps only 25,000 (Jeremias) to 50,000. Further, two of the names, particularly, Mariamene and Jose, appear to be rare forms of names we know associated with Mary Magdalene and with Jesus’ brother Joseph, which further indicates a significant statistical uniqueness, and a correlation with what we know of the Jesus family. A third name, Maria, is that form known to us in the New Testament for Jesus’ mother Miriam, and perhaps his sister Mary as well. It is a relatively rare form of the name.

My statistical consultant gave me a very simple analogy: Imagine a football stadium filled with 50,000 people—men, women, and children. This is an average estimate of the population of ancient Jerusalem in the time of Jesus. If we ask all the males named Jesus to stand, based on the frequency of that name, we would expect 2,796 to rise. If we then ask all those with a father named Joseph to remain standing there would only be 351 left. If we further reduce this group by asking only those with a mother named Mary to remain standing we would get down to only 173. If we then ask only those of this group with a brother named Joseph only 23 are left. And finally, only of these the ones with a brother named James, there’s less than a 3/4 chance that even 1 person remains standing.

I encourage you to take a gander at it. For now, I have to go teach!


8 Responses to “James Tabor on the Jesus/Talpiot Tomb”

  1. Jamie Says:

    The official site: http://www.jesusfamilytomb.com

  2. Steve Coffee Says:

    The statistical analysis seems to me to be addressing the wrong question. While the stated probabilities may be quite correct for this particular set of names, they presuppose that this is the only configuration of names that would indicate a “Jesus Family Tomb”.

    For 1000 tombs and a frequency for “Jesus son of Joseph” at 1/190, approximately 5 tombs meet the primary requirement that Jesus be mentioned. The secondary requirement is that given 4 names taken at random from the population, what is the probability that 3 of those names would be among the 8 known or suspected names in Jesus’ immediate family.

    If the family names are in the 5% frequency range and my math is right, the probability is about 20%. With 5 tombs and a 20% chance of some similar naming cluster appearing at random, it seems like a closer look at the statistics is warranted.

    If my SWAG percentages are even close to correct, the entire statistical argument appears to fall apart.

    Can someone with the actual name frequencies and some statistical prowess comment on this?

  3. CB Says:

    I agree with Steve (above). I put together some points of my own here.
    Also, the name frequencies point is quite valid. Ben Witherington explains this in a post on his blog this morning (here).

  4. Michael Zappe Says:

    Taking a look at the “Jesus” inscription, it doesn’t even say Yeshua, Yehoshua, or anything similar. It says Hanon, or maybe Hanoq. This is nuts.

    And as to the previous posters comment on the statistics, you’ve got the right idea.

  5. Mindy Says:

    This question is directed towards Professor Tabor:
    I don’t know much about statistics but i have a question regarding the testing of DNA from the tombs. Has testing been done to determine that all these family members are related apart from proving that the remains in the crypts of mary magdalene and jesus are not genetically related? are there even any remains left from these tombs?

  6. Kevin P. Edgecomb Says:

    His statistics are manipulated in his favor by his limiting the sample set to the population of Jerusalem. A more likely set would be that of the entire Jewish population of Judea, Galilee, etc. Numerous families will have had the same concatenation of names (200 if my math is right, but I’m decidely not a math guy!). Obviously at least one such family was in Jerusalem.

    It’s coming up toward Easter-time. This “Jesus Tomb” garbage is this year’s sensationalist hype-baby. Maybe we should work on one for next year? Something simple, with good graphic potential, a scandalous aspect, and completely independent of both scruples and good scholarship?

  7. Mindy Says:

    Also Professor Tabor,

    regarding the DNA testing, is there any methods of determining the age of the family members at death? it would help if for example that the remains of mary show that she is a woman older than jesus..

  8. potroub Says:

    you can claim jesus’name in 2007
    and don’t get fear to get caught by Romans to be Crucified for mentionning his name…

    you can delete my posts in 2007 as easy as 123.
    but you cannot delete the truth

    And the Truth shall come to all of us
    when the advent of parousia will demestify not only
    mysticism that dwells in human circles and often shed only blood. But also demestify their truest alliegence
    in conjunction with their soul’s imprint and their DNA

    Peace

    R