"He's not the Messiah, he's a very naughty boy!"
- Terry Jones as Brian’s Mother - Monty Python’s “Life of Brian”
A week ago, “Titanic” director James Cameron and journalist Simcha Jacobovici released a TV film called “The Lost Tomb of Jesus”. If you haven't heard of the film you can visit the Discovery Channel for the details.
You know this is going to be a serious film when right at the beginning they tell you, in all upper case: THIS FILM CONTAINS RECONSTRUCTIONS. Well thanks for the information, because without that, I might have thought they’d found some actual original first century film footage or something. Oh I see – you got some actors to reconstruct some scenes you think happened. Thanks for clearing that up. Perhaps all these reconstructions, plus the stuff they included that was totally unnecessary (eg filming the wrong tomb), were the reason this epic lasted for two hours. With some editing it could easily have been reduced to under an hour without omitting anything important. Still, what would you expect from someone who made a three and a half hour film of a ship sinking?
Who’s Buried in Jesus’s Tomb?
As it turns out, that’s not such an easy question to answer. Here’s the thing. If some future archaeologist found a tomb containing the names John, Paul and George, he wouldn’t necessarily get too excited. However, if he found a tomb containing the names John, Paul, George and Ringo – he might be excused for thinking he had found the lost burial place of The Beatles. The filmmakers think they found the tomb with (by analogy) all four members of The Beatles – ie the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth including his “wife”, Mary Magdalene. The important question though is: did Cameron and Jacobovici really discover the lost tomb of the Messiah and his wife, or are they both just very naughty boys? To answer that question you have to examine the statistics – specifically the 1 in 600 claim.
(Note: when I refer to “Jesus” in this post, I mean the Jesus of the New Testament. By “Yeshua bar Yehosef” I mean the (alleged), inscription on the ossuary that translates to “Jesus son of Joseph”.)
One in 600!
Here are the probabilities that the filmmakers gave us for each of the four names found in the tomb.
- Yeshua bar Yehosef (Jesus Son of Joseph) - 1 in 190
- Maria (Mary) - 1 in 4
- Mariamene e Mara (possibly “Mary Magdalene”) - 1 in 160
- Yose (a diminutive of Joseph, Jesus’s brother) - 1 in 20
They then showed some simple math that they said meant this was Jesus’s tomb with odds of 600 to1 in favor. The calculation was as follows:
- Multiply the probabilities: 190 x 4 x 160 x 20 = 2,400,000
- Divide by 4 (to adjust for “unintentional historical biases”): 2,400,000 / 4 = 600,000
- Divide by 1,000 (to adjust for all possible first century Jerusalem tombs): 600,000 / 1,000 = 600
Unfortunately this math is almost certainly wrong. First, you don’t multiply probabilities the way they do in the film. If you don’t believe me, think of this: there were six named ossuaries in the tomb. Imagine if there had been 60, or 600 or 6,000. Hey, let’s imagine there were six million ossuaries in the tomb. With that number you would be certain to find probably hundreds of examples of each of the four names listed above, but with the math they’re using they would still show only a 1 in 600 probability of them occurring! Clearly absurd. Then there was a division by 4 to adjust for “unintentional historical biases”. This doesn’t seem to relate to any standard “bias adjustment” I can find a reference for. In fact, I think the filmmakers simply made it up. We know this because the film’s statistician Dr Andrey Feuerverger has just posted a clarification (and listed assumptions – more of them below), and was interviewed by Scientific American on these very statistics. If you read those two links you’ll see that although he did originate the 1 in 600 figure, his calculations were not the ones shown in the film. Apparently the filmmakers didn’t think the actual math used by Feuerverger was important, just as long as they showed an equation that agreed with his end figure. Naughty boys!
Feuerverger is preparing a paper for peer review, and until then we cannot know exactly how he calculated the 1 in 600 number, although I presume he knows what he’s doing. (More so than the filmmakers, anyway.) However, we know many of his assumptions – specifically that he seems to have used the probabilities of the names as listed above (or pretty close in most cases). As Feuerverger himself says, the computations are highly dependent on the assumptions that enter into it, so the assumptions are where we should look.
Something About Mary
You should understand one thing the filmmakers are muddled about. It’s this: the 1 in 600 probability is not 1 in 600 that this is the tomb of Jesus. It is a 1 in 600 probability that there would be a tomb with these exact four names, or an even closer match to Jesus’s family, in one of the 1,000 tombs found so far. The filmmakers’ assumption is therefore that these four names (or an even more specific group) would be the ones you would expect to find in Jesus’s tomb. Hold that thought for a minute.
We would expect Jesus’s family tomb to contain a Yeshua, a Maria etc. However, we would not expect a Mary Magdalene since there are no records that she was in Jesus’s family. In other words, she is not the “Ringo” of The Beatles analogy, because although we know Ringo was in The Beatles, we don’t know Mary Magdalene was in Jesus’s family. The filmmakers just assume Mary Magdalene was in Jesus’s family and they include the low probability of this (I in 160) as part of the 1 in 600 calculation. But Mary Magdalene being in Jesus’s family is also a conclusion they draw from the 1 in 600 odds. That means they are assuming their conclusion – the definition of circular reasoning. The 1 in 160 odds of Mariamene must therefore be taken out of the calculation.
Now, you might say that Jesus knew Mary Magdalene, and so she might be in the tomb. For example, if the inscription had unambiguously read “Mary of Magdala”, you might want to include the odds of this in the calculation. This would still, strictly speaking, be circular, but you could perhaps make a case. But this would only be worth even considering if “Mariamene e Mara” has to be Mary Magdalene. Not only can you not say this, but on the contrary few scholars even think “Mariamene e Mara” could be Mary Magdalene, who is always referred to as “Maria” in first century documents. The filmmakers slyly slip in the information that according to the Acts of Philip, Mary Magdalene was known as “Mariamene”. The difficulties with this are that (1) the information presented in the Acts of Philip are questionable at best and (2) the “Mary Magdalene” interpretation of this questionable document is actually just the speculation of one person - Francis Bovon – and not generally accepted by other scholars. The filmmakers engage in speculation about the “e Mara” part too. There is really no reason to suppose “Mariamene e Mara” is Mary Magdalene and/or should be in Jesus’s tomb at all.
What would the revised odds be when we remove Mariamene from the mix? It’s hard to say, since we don’t have Feuerverger’s actual calculations, although if you use the formula described in the film you arrive at just under 4 to 1.
If that wasn’t enough, scholars such as Ben Witherington even have doubts about the accuracy of the translations and the historical fit of the other three names. I’ll just quote one example – numerous sources state that Jesus was never referred to as “bar Yehosef” (son of Joseph). That alone, if true, would sink the whole “Jesus’s tomb” claim.
In summary – statistics don’t support the filmmakers’ conclusions.
Neither does the supposed DNA “evidence”. The mitochondrial DNA information they make such a song and dance about only shows that Yeshua bar Yehosef and Mariamene were not maternally related. But she doesn’t have to be Yeshua’s wife. She could be the wife of one of the other three named men, or of any man in one of the four unnamed ossuaries, or the daughter of any of the other nine in the tomb. And that’s if the DNA is even from the former inhabitants of the ossuaries, and some experts even doubt that. In summary, the DNA evidence is worthless too.
Britney, not Ringo
It's as if our future archaeologist had found a tomb with the names John, Paul, George and Britney, calculated the really small odds (say 1 in 600) that these four names would appear together randomly, and concluded that (with odds of 600 to 1), Britney Spears, and not Ringo Starr, was the drummer in The Beatles! In fact it’s worse than that: the “Britney” inscription isn’t even Britney Spears.
In the program that followed, Jacobovici defended his film along the lines of “the film was just to get a debate started”. In other words, he’s not really saying this is Jesus’s tomb, he’s only trying to get the scholars interested in examining the evidence. Considering the way the 1 in 600 data and DNA conclusions were presented, and considering the numerous “reconstructions”, I think he was being disingenuous. He presented the film the way he did because if he had made a film that said “very small probability we found the tomb of Jesus”, no one would have shown it. So yes, I think Cameron and Jacobovici were very naughty boys indeed. Perhaps we shouldn’t blame them too much – they’re only filmmakers. But this exercise demonstrates why we should look to peer reviewed scientific literature, and not TV films, to answer scientific questions.
I’ll end with a joke.
One day while Jesus was out walking, he came upon a group of people who were about to stone an adulteress to death. Jesus stopped them, saying "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone". The crowd, chastised, starts to disperse, until an old lady at the back of the crowd suddenly throws a large rock, hitting the adulteress on the head, killing her instantly. Jesus turns to the woman and says, "Mother - sometimes you really piss me off".
April 12, 2007 Update
Read about how the experts shown in the film are backtracking on the film's claims.