Thursday, March 01, 2007


Joe Zias is a fine archaeologist of long standing and good reputation. He is the person who catalogued the ten ossuaries from the Talpiot tomb, and personally catalogued the tenth ossuary. He worked with Amos Kloner as part of the team who made the original discovery. In two emails this morning to someone I have been talking to he made crystal clear that the tenth ossuary was blank, certainly was not the James ossuary at all despite the assertions of those involved in making the Discovery Channel special. These emails have been sent along to me, and I will let them speak for themselves, except I have edited out the personal and extraneous stuff.

Joe Zias jezias@yahoo.comTo: Subject: Re: Jesus Tomb Sent: Thursday, March 1, 2007 6:02 AM

"Amos Kloner is right as I received and catalogued the objects, the 10th was plain and I put it out in the courtyard with all the rest of the plain ossuaries as was the standard procedure when one has little storage space available. Nothing was stolen nor missing and they were fully aware of this fact, just didn't fit in with their agenda." ShalomJoe

From: Joe To: Subject: Re: Jesus Tomb Sent: Thursday, March 1, 2007 4:31 PM

"There was no photo of the 10th ossuary as there was no reason to photograph it, plain white ossuaries, basically once you have seen one you have seen them all. time is money and it would be a waste of time to waste resources on something which was put out in the courtyard. Remember these are large, and heavy not to forget that Kloner has the measurements. They knows this from me personally. The conspiracy idea fits in well with their agenda of hyping the film as well as his/their book."

In short, the tendentious agenda of this film becomes so very clear when confronted with the naked truth.

To this I can now add the following fuller, more considered report from Richard Bauckham. I have left it entirely as he has written and endorse it as being careful and very likely right in all the particulars. There are small details we differ on, but they are inconsequential for these purposes. The crucial bit is the last line-- there is no way Mariamenou is Mary Magdalene. No way at all.

The alleged ‘Jesus family tomb’--- Prof. Richard Bauckham

"As I understand it (I have not yet seen the film itself) the Discovery Channel programme “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” claims that a tomb discovered in the Talpiot area of Jerusalem in 1980, containing ten ossuaries, is the tomb of Jesus’ family and contains some of the remains of Jesus himself. If my memory serves me correctly the same claim was made in a British television programme, fronted by Joan Bakewell, just a few years ago. However the Discovery Channel programme claims to have new evidence and arguments.

The basic arguments concerning the names on the ossuaries seem to be two (1) The names, including ‘Jesus son of Joseph,’ ‘Judah son of Jesus,’ Yose, Mary and Matthew, are the names of key figures in the New Testament Gospels. Some statistical arguments are alleged to show that the odds are hugely in favour of the view that the names on the ossuaries in fact refer to the figures known from the New Testament. (2) The form of the name Mary (in Greek) is the distinctive Mariamenou. This, it is claimed, is the same form of the name as Mariamne, which is the name of the sister of the apostle Philip in the fourth-century Acts of Philip, presumed to be Mary Magdalene.

I wish to stress at the start that the issues raised by this proposal are complex and difficult. My first reactions to what I was told about it by journalists were too little considered and I had not then had time to track down all the relevant evidence and study it carefully. So I made some mistakes. (I recommend that no one pronounce on this matter without having the relevant pages of Rahmani’s catalogue of ossuaries actually in front of them. My initial lack of access to them misled led me at some points, even though I was told quite carefully what they contain. They can now be seen on the Discovery Channel website.) I am fairly confident of what I’m now saying here, but ossuaries and onomastics are technical fields, and I’m open to corrections from the experts. I’ve no doubt that refinements of the argument will result from further discussion of the issues.

I shall divide my discussion into the matter of the names on these ossuaries in general, and a longer consideration of the name alleged to be Mary Magdalene, since this requires quite careful and detailed consideration. (I have refrained from using Hebrew and Greek script, and have tried to make the argument intelligible to people who know no Greek. Unfortunately at the moment I don’t have a functioning transliteration font: hence the overly simply transliteration of the names that I’ve had to use.))

The names in general

The six persons named in the ossuary inscriptions (Rahmani 701-706) are:
(1) Mariamenou-Mara ( the first name is a unique form of the name Mariam, Mary, and will be discussed separately below).
(2) Yehuda bar Yeshua ¢ (Judah son of Jesus)
(3) Matia (Matthew)
(4) Yeshua ¢ bar Yehosef (Jesus son of Joseph)
(5) Yose (a common abbreviated form of Yehosef)
(6) Maria (a form of Mariam, Mary)
All the inscriptions are in Aramaic except the first, which is Greek.

We should note that the surviving six names are only six of many more who were buried in this family tomb. There may have been as many as 35. The six people whose names we have could have belonged to as many as four different generations. This is a large family tomb, which would certainly have been used for quite some time by the same family. We should not imagine a small family group. Some members of the family of Jesus we know lived in Jerusalem for only three decades (from the death of Jesus to the execution of his brother James in 62). None of our other evidence would suggest that there were so many of them as to require a tomb of this size.

Only three of the six named persons correspond to the names of known members of the family of Jesus: Jesus son of Joseph, Maria (Jesus’ mother or his aunt, the wife of Clopas), Yose (Jesus’ brother was known by this abbreviated form of the name Joseph: Mark 6:3). In a family tomb only members of the family (members by birth or, mostly in the case of women, marriage) would be interred. The fact that one of Jesus’ close disciples was named Matthew has no significance at all for identifying the person in the ossuary labelled Matthew. We shall discuss Mariamenou-Mara below, but it cannot be stressed sufficiently that there is no evidence at all for the conjecture that Jesus married Mary Magdalene (and note that an extra-marital affair, which some postulate, though again without evidence, would not qualify Mary Magdalene to be in the tomb of Jesus’ family). Similarly, there is no evidence at all that Jesus had any children. (If he really had a son named Judah, would he not be mentioned somewhere in the ancient literary evidence? He would have been a useful figure for a Gnostic wishing to claim esoteric teaching of Jesus handed down from someone close to him, but he goes unmentioned in the Gnostic Gospels that do make such claims for other figures and unmentioned also in the church fathers who relay information about Gnostic claims.)

All of the names on these ossuaries were extremely common names among Jews in Palestine at this period. We have a great deal evidence about this (the data is collected in the enormously useful reference book: Tal Ilan, Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity, part 1 [Mohr-Siebeck, 2002], and also analysed in chapter 4 of my recent book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses [Eerdmans, 2006]). We have a data base of about 3000 named persons (2625 men, 328 women, excluding fictional characters). Of the 2625 men, the name Joseph (including Yose, the abbreviated form) was borne by 218 or 8.3%. (It is the second most popular Jewish male name, after Simon/Simeon.) The name Judah was borne by 164 or 6.2%. The name Jesus was borne by 99 or 3.4%. The name Matthew (in several forms) was borne by 62 or 2.4 %. Of the 328 named women (women’s names were much less often recorded than men’s), a staggering 70 or 21.4% were called Mary (Mariam, Maria, Mariame, Mariamme). (My figures differ very slightly from Ilan’s because I differ from a few of her judgments for technical reasons, but the difference is insignificant for present purposes.)

I am not a mathematician and do not know how to get from these figures to calculations of odds. I must leave the assessment of Feuerverger’s case to others. But it seems to me incredible.

The name Mariamenou-Mara

The Hebrew name Mariam was very popular among Palestinian Jews at this period, though hardly used at all in the diaspora. It was usually rendered in Greek in one of two forms: Maria and Mariamme (or Mariame). It could, of course, be simply written as Mariam in Greek characters (and this is the practice of the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, when referring to Mariam the sister of Moses, called Miriam in English Bibles). But we know only four cases in which this was done with reference to a living person of the early Jewish period. (One of these is Luke 10:39-42, referring to Mary the sister of Martha, though there is a variant reading Maria).

Much more popular were the forms Maria (the form used everywhere in the New Testament, except Luke 10:39-40, for all the various Maries it refers to) and Mariamme/Mariame (used, for example, by Josephus). Both give the name a more Greek form than the simple transliteration Mariam. Palestinian Jewish women who themselves used a Greek form of their name as well as a Semitic form (a common practice) would be likely to have used Maria or Mariamme. This accounts for the fact that the Greek form Maria is often found on ossuaries transliterated back into Hebrew characters as Mariah. (Odd as this practice might seem , there are examples for other names too.) This is what has happened in the case of the woman called Maria (in Hebrew characters) on one of the ossuaries we are studying.

It is worth noting that this Greek form of the name Miriam has nothing to do with the Latin name Maria, which also existed. The coincidence is just a coincidence. It was, however, a coincidence that Jews living in a Latin-speaking environment could have exploited, just as Jews in Palestine exploited the coincidental near-identity of the Hebrew name Simeon and the Greek name Simon. The woman called Maria in Romans 16:6, a member of the Christian community in Rome, may have been a Jew called Mariam in Hebrew (an emigrant from Palestine), or a Gentile with the Latin name Maria, or a Jew living in Rome who had the name Maria precisely because it could be understood as both Hebrew and Latin.

In the Gospels Mary Magdalene’s name is always given in the Greek form Maria, which is the New Testament’s standard practice for rendering Mariam into Greek, except for Luke 10:39-42. As we have noted it is standard Greek form of Mariam. However, from probably the mid-second century onwards we find some references to Mary Magdalene (often identified with Mary of Bethany and/or other Gospel Maries) that use the alternative standard Greek form Mariamme (or Mariame). These references are all either in Gnostic works (using ‘Gnostic’ fairly loosely) or in writers referring to Gnostic usage.

We find the form Mariamme in Celsus, the second-century pagan critic of Christianity, who lists Christian sectarian groups, including some who follow Mary (apo Mariammes). These may wll be the group who used the Gospel of Mary (late 2nd century?), a Greek fragment of which calls Mary Magdalene Mariamme. This form of her name also appears in the Coptic (a translation from Greek) of the Gnostic Work the Sophia of Jesus Christ (CG III,4). The usage may have been more widespread in Gnostic literature, but the fact that we have most Gnostic works only in Coptic makes it hard to tell.)

This tradition of using the form Mariamme for Mary Magdalene must have been an alternative tradition of rendering her name in Greek. It most likely goes back to a usage within the orbit of Jewish Palestine (since the name Mary in any form was very rare in the diaspora and Gentile Christians would not be familiar with the name Mariamme ordinarily). But so does the usage of Maria in the New Testament Gospels, at least one of which is at least a century earlier than any evidence we have for giving her the name Mariamme. It would be hazardous to suppose that Mariamme was the Greek form of her name used by Mary Magdalene herself or the earliest disciples of Jesus.

The Gnostic use of Mariamme is also reported by Hioppolytus in his Refutation of All Heresies (written between 228 and 233). He says that the Naassenes claimed to have a secret teaching that James the brother of Jesus had transmitted to Mary (5.7.1; 10.9.3). What is especially significant is that the manuscript evidence is divided between two forms of the name: Mariamme and Mariamne (note the ‘n’!). It is probably impossible to tell which Hippolytus himself wrote. However, it is easy to see that, in a milieu where the name Mariamme was not otherwise known, the usage could slip from Mariamme to Mariamne.

These variant readings in Hippolytus are the first known occurrences of the form Mariamne (which the Discovery Channel programme claims is the same name as that on one of the ossuaries). Since it occurs in Hippolytus as a variant of Mariamme, and since the latter is wll attested in Jewish usage back to the first century CE, it seems clear that the form Mariamne is not really an independent version of the name Mariam (independent of Mariamme, that is). But a late deformation of the form Mariamme, a deformation made by Geek speakers not familiar with the name. This must also then explain the usage in the apocryphal Acts of Philip (late 4th or early 5th century), where Mariamne is consistently and frequently used for the sister of the apostle Philip, apparently identified with both Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany.

We can now turn to the inscription on the ossuary, which has, in Greek: MARIAMENOUMARA. The two words Mariamenou and Mara are written consecutively with no space between. This makes it rather unlikely that two women are named here. But Rahmani takes a small stroke between the last letter of Mariamenou and the first of Mara to be a Greek letter eta (long e). He takes this to be the relative pronoun he Ieta with a rough breathing), reading: ‘Mariamnenou who [is also called] Mara.’ (Note that this is different, it seems, from what the Discovery Channel do when they read the eta with a smooth breathing, meaning ‘or’.) There are parallels (I gather from Rahmani) to this abbreviated way of indicating two names for the same person.

The form of the name on the ossuary in question is Mariamenou. This is a Greek genitive case, used to indicate that the ossuary belongs to Mary (it means 'Mary's' or 'belonging to Mary'). The nominative would be Mariamenon. Mariamenon is a diminutive form, used as a form of endearment. The neuter gender is normal in diminutives used for women. But the name Mariamenon is found only here in all our evidence for ancient Jewish names. It is, of course, a specifically Greek formation, not used in Hebrew or Aramaic.

This diminutive, Mariamenon, would seem to have been formed from the name Mariamene, a name which is attested twice elsewhere (in the Babatha archive and in the Jewish catacombs at Beth She’arim). Mariamene is an unusual Greek form of Mariam, presumably invented because it has a rather elegant hellenized form. When I first looked at this issue I was rather persuaded that the form Mariamne was a contracted form of Mariamene (which I think is what the Discovery Channel film claims), but I then found that the second and third century evidence (reviewed above) makes it much more plausible that the form Mariamne is a late deformation of Mariamme that occurred only in a context outside Palestine where the name was not known. So the Discovery Channel film’s claim that the name on the ossuary is the same as the name known to have been used for Mary Magdalene in the Acts of Philip is mistaken.

But we must also consider the rest of this inscription. The Discovery Channel film proposes to read Mara as the Aramaic word ‘the master’ (as in Maranatha). But, since we know that Mara was used as an abbreviated form of Martha, in this context of names on an ossuary it is much more plausible to read it as a name. This woman had two names: Mariamenon and Mara. It could be that the latter in this case was used as an abbreviation of Mariamenou, or it could be that the woman was known by Mariamenon, treated as a Greek name, and the Aramaic name Mara, conforming to the common practice of being known by two names, Greek and Semitic.

If the woman, for whatever reason, is given two different names on the ossuary, it is very unlikely that she would also have been known as Mariamene, even though this is the form of which Mariamenon is the diminutive. One other point can be made about Mariamenon. As a term of endearment it would be likely to have originated in the context of her family. But in that case, we probably need to envisage a family which used Greek as an ordinary language within the family. This does not mean it did not also use Aramaic, which would probably be the case if the names on the other ossuaries are those of family members closely related to Mariamenon. The family could have been bilingual even within its own orbit. Alternatively, the ossuaries in Aramaic could come from a branch of a big family or a generation of the family different from that of Mariamenon, such that their linguistic practice would be different. In any case, it is unlikely that the close family of Jesus would have spoken Greek within the family, and so it is unlikely that Mariamenon belonged to that close family circle.

The conclusion is that the name Mariamenon is unique, the diminutive of the very rare Mariamene. Neither is related to the form Maramne, except in the sense that all derive ultimately from the name Mariam. There is no reason at all to connect the woman in this ossuarywith Mary Magdalene, and in fact the name usage is decisively against such a connexion."


Daniel said...

Prof. Richard Bauckham's examination of the names reminds me of the statement that Simcha made on the Today show to an entranced Meredith Viera: (I'm paraphrasing) "They (meaning the original excavators of Talpiot) missed the importance of the Mariamene name because they didn't have the Gospel of Philip." Obviously, the Gospel of Philip is not the beginning and end of the exploration of this name. Simcha should have dug a little deeper.

Joe Zias' statement should put all questions about the "Tenth" ossuary to rest for good and make all previous attempts at back-peddling by the "Wait and See" camp seem even more ludicrous.

Bauckham has debunked the names, Zias has proven that the 10th Ossuary was blank, Jay's work on the statistics has proven them to be fatally flawed...what's left? What are we left to "Wait and See" Sunday night? I can only hope that the scholars Discovery gathers for their discussion after the broadcast are actual experts and not the same crew of "we don't know for sure" talking heads from "Mysteries of the Bible" and other such shows. If serious scholars accept the invitation and show up for this, will Simcha J., Cameron and Tabor all decide to set this one out and declare victory from afar? THAT'S what I want to "Wait and See."

Ben Witherington said...

The follow up show will involve the producers, an Israeli curator, James Tabor, Jonathan Reid (archaeologist/social historian), Darrell Bock and several others. It should be interesting. Ted Koppel knows what's up, so we shall see how he approaches this.


Chris Tilling said...

Hi Ben,
I tried posting here earlier but it vanished. So, apologies if it appears twice.
The article pasted into your post is also a guest post on my blog, so perhaps your readers will be interested to follow any discussion that is produced in those comments as well.
I think Bauckham may be reading the comments too.
I also generated a pdf of the article for easier reading.
All of that is on my blog, Chrisendom, and the Bauckham 'guest post' here.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Chris:

Thanks so much for the link. For some reason some folks have trouble making links from my blog so I told Richard I would put it up here as well.


Ginro said...

Been 'lurking' for a while but just thought I'd drop a thought in.
With regards Daniels comment asking what's left, there is just the DNA 'evidence' really, and taking this quote of Mr Jacobovici's from the NYT it's going to be very easy to deal with that as well:

In an interview, Mr. Jacobovici was asked why the filmmakers did not conduct DNA testing on the other ossuaries to determine whether the one inscribed “Judah, son of Jesus” was genetically related to either the Jesus or Mary Magdalene boxes; or whether the Jesus remains were actually the offspring of Mary. “We’re not scientists. At the end of the day we can’t wait till every ossuary is tested for DNA,” he said. “We took the story that far. At some point you have to say, ‘I’ve done my job as a journalist.’ ”

I couldn't believe what I read him say there. Having studied biomolecular archaeology myself I see that the approach has been so slovenly and unprofessional it's difficult to understand why on earth he thought he'd be taken seriously. Firstly, the risk of contamination is so huge that it's genuinly difficult to know who's DNA has actually been tested. And secondly, even if the DNA was of the people concerned (although this is very very uncertain) DNA samples should have been obtained from all the ossuaries and comparisons made with all of them in order to arrive at as truthful a picture as possible. The impression given however, is that they got the result that fitted in with a preconceived idea, so weren't going to run any tests that might rock the boat. Either that or it was assumed that by using the magic words 'DNA results', it would immediately confer some kind of authoritative status voice to their theories.

Steve said...


It would be helpful if you could post your statistical critique on a separate blog so we can link to it and so others could begin reviewing the work.

Jay said...


That should be coming on Saturday at It will be a comprehensive critique -- attacking their conclusions on the DNA, the patina, and the statistical lines.

Here is a question for all and sundry. The final statistical result depends greatly upon the initial probabilities we have.

And, thus far, I see three different ones. Take the probability of finding a "Jesus son of Joseph."

Tabor's estimate is about 0.7% of the whole population.
Feuerverger's estimate is about 0.5% of the whole population.
Bauckham's data provides an estimate of about 0.2% of the whole population.

Bacukham's estimate comes from multiplying the chances of finding a Jesus ossuary by the chances of finding a Joseph ossuary. In other words, I use the ossuary record as an estimator for the population. It seems that Feuerverger and Tabor do not use that. I do not know what they are using.

Which one is the best estimator? My intuition is to go with Bauckham's ossuary record because (a) it actually lowers the number of potential candidates below what Feuerverger and Tabor should find if they run their model properly (it is thus the most favorable to their overarching thesis and, given that it still yields at least 50 candidates, basically destroys it) and (b) I have very little confidence in any of the Tabor/Feuerverger argumentation, and so I am suspicious of their data. Specifically, I think they are improperly conflating men and women.

Can anybody offer any assistance on this? All I need is the initial probabilities of three things in the time period.
1. Probability of any one person named Mary.
2. Probability of any one person named Jesus.
3. Probability of any one person named Joseph.

Eric said...

Hi Dr. Witherington,
It's been a great pleasure following your posts. Normally, I don't post comments (as I enjoy being the anonymous reader / learner), but might I make a suggestion?

It would probably help Joe Zias if you edited out his email address from this particular post. There are bots known to just search the web for anything "_____@____.____" and spam the address.

Keep up the work,

Jay said...

Here are some more fun mathematics.

The documentarians argue that the probability that this is Jesus of Nazareth is 600 to 1.

However, this number only considers the extent to which their hypothesis fits the facts. It fails to consider the extent to which it does not.

There are at least three broad ways that it fails.
1. The historical record makes it highly unlikely that he would be buried in or around Jerusalem, let alone buried at all. In other words, if this were in fact what really happened to him, it would be a scenario that fits the historical record much better.
2. The record also makes it unlikely that he would be buried with people who are strangers to it. In other words, if Jesus did in fact have a son named Judah, it is very unlikely that the record would omit any reference to him. Ditto for Matthew and the second Mary.
3. It is unlikely that his family tomb would contain less than 30% of his rematives.

Let's suppose, then, the following.
1. We are 95% confident that the historical record is not in error when pointing to a place other than Jerusalem for his final destination.
2. We are 95% confident that the historical record is not in error when pointing to the absence of a son named Judah and a close relative named Matthew.
3. We are 95% confident that his family would be able to get more family members into the family tomb.

We therefore must factor their 600-to-1 likelihood by the probability that (1) is wrong, that (2) is wrong, that (3) is wrong.

In other words:
99.83% X 5% X 5% X 5% = 0.0125%

That would be the probability that this is Jesus of Nazareth. Of course, as I have discussed at length, they have incorrectly computed that probability. If we use Baukham's estimate of ossuaries, we can arrive at a 2.3% probability, rather than 99.83%.

2.3% X 5% X 5% X 5% = 0.000287%

This is the likelihood I would attach to this being Jesus of Nazareth -- (a) given the match between him and the remaining ossuaries, (b) given the mismatch, (c) given the historical record that points away from Jerusalem, (d) given the missing family members.

Note that those 95% values were not assigned arbitrarily. A common convention in the quantitative sciences is that you can only take something as a given when you are 95% confident. The NT studies community, though it is not a quantitative science, is still a science -- and, for several millennia, they have taken these three things as a given. As a matter of fact, one might be inclined to assign higher probabilities to each one, perhaps 99% confident.

That would put the probability at 0.0000023% that this is Jesus of Nazareth.

Ang said...

Mr. Witherington,

In your first post addressing the tomb, you noted Cameron's "Titanic" affections as an ominous backdrop. What was striking to me (on the night of the original story release), was the juxtaposition of the Anna Nicole Smith saga with this Jesus Tomb. A woman who died around two weeks ago is being shipped around with multiple claims on her life and memory. Meanwhile, in the minds of the journalists, (for a day) the Jesus of history has been definitively discovered.

Tragic Irony.


CK said...

Concerning the statistics, it seems there may be a fundamental and obvious flaw. The question we're interested in is what's the probability that this is Jesus's tomb given the names on the ossuaries, denoted p( J | N ). But from the media description, it sounds like the statistical argument is based on the probability of finding these names if it's not Jesus' tomb p( N | ~J ), the number you get by simply multiplying the frequencies of the names, which might very well be small, but doesn't directly tell us anything about p( J | N). To get that we need to apply Bayes' rule

p( J | N )
= p( N | J) * p(J) / p(N)

Say we're very confident that these would be the names in Jesus's tomb, so much so that p( N | J ) = 1. Then

p( J | N )
= p( J ) / ( p( J ) + p( N | ~J )( 1 - p( J ) ) )

Since it's safe to assume that p(J), the probability of any random tomb being that of the biblical Jesus, is much less than one, this is approximately

p( J | N )
= p(J) / ( p(J) + p( N | ~J) )

In other words, you have to take into account the prior probability that any tomb chosen at random would be Jesus's tomb. If you do that, then the chance you've found the tomb of the biblical Jesus is 50/50 only when p( N | ~J ) = p( J ).

The statistician they're working with sounds competent, so I can only guess and hope that the media description of their method is incomplete and inaccurate, and that p(J) was somehow factored in. Even so, how would you estimate p(J)? Is it 1 over the number of people alive in the middle east during Jesus's time, which has got to be in the millions? Or the total number of ossuaries, in which case you're assuming that Jesus's is among them? What about accounting for the probability of someone from Jesus's demographic being buried in this location and in this kind of ossuary? If the number cited in the press, 1 in 600, refers to p( N | ~J ), then these statistics aren't even remotely convincing, since p(J) is certainly much much smaller than 1/600 and p( J | N) could therefore still be miniscule. And if they do represent an estimated posterior probability, I think the number belies the many uncertain assumptions you have to make in getting it. Once could surely come up with compelling arguments to justify a huge range of p(J)'s.

Daniel R said...

Ben- I am really enjoying your website and wanted to leave you a humble note of encouragement. I learned about the so-called "Tomb of Jesus" today and your website has been an invaluable source of information on the topic. Not that I really believed the woefully inept claims made about the tomb to begin with ;-) but like the Bereans I have a habit of digging deeper and getting to the heart of the matter for myself. I have a friend who attended Asbury Theological Seminary; from reading your blog I can see why.

I myself am trained as a Chemical Engineer and have been involved in research for several years. That's why these claims make me laugh; when you deal with real data and accompanying analysis for a living, you see through jokes like the ones they are presenting. Honestly, there is no way the statistics presented in the documentary are even worth considering. They are a magician's trick little better than the inclusion of the "DNA evidence"; anyone with objectivity and half a brain would dismiss them without hesitation. A proper stastical analysis would have to account for the fact that according to the claims of the gospels, the probabiliy of encountering Jesus' tomb on the earth is exactly 0. In other words, in order to even begin their analysis they have to dismiss right off the bat the existing, well-supported, and widely accepted evidence presented by the New Testament that Jesus rose from the dead. Since I have not seen even the beginnings of a sufficient or heartfelt attempt at this (nor by anyone else for that matter), why even bother looking at their numbers? It's a waste of my time. After all, no matter how professional the statistician is, their analysis is only as good as the data and assumptions they are provided. And there is not enough data for a serious analysis, not by a long shot.

It is also interesting to note that no one has yet raised any objections pertaining to Jesus' burial method. Even assuming that Jesus didn't in fact rise from the dead, how do you reconcile the account of the Gospels that Jesus was wrapped in a linen burial cloth and annointed with spices according to the common practice, and then placed in the tomb of Joseph of Aramethia which was sealed and guarded, with the documentary's (and I use that word loosely) claims that he was later buried in an ossuary in a completely different and unrelated location? If Jesus were to be interred later in an ossuary, one would expect that ossuary should be in Joseph's tomb, not the Talpiot tomb. It might have been moved, but the Jews and Romans would have reported that the disciples stole Jesus' body. This was reported, but of course the possibility that the disciples did that is clearly preposterous and has already been dismissed. The fact that the disciples were permitted to carry on and share their faith in Christ as is recorded in Acts alone is proof that the Sanhedrin knew that Jesus was alive, and that there was no way the disciples ever could have stolen Christ's body. Furthermore, Jesus had to have been dead at that point; the reaction of the Jews and Romans as well as ancient writings clearly demonstrates this, though it is easy to incorrectly imagine that he might not be when we are nearly 2000 years removed from the event. It is simply impossible by every consideration that Jesus could be buried in the Talpiot tomb.

This travesty is what you get when filmmakers pretend to be experts. As a professional myself, I am utterly appalled simply at the incompetence of their investigation and the fact they are being permitted to make money off of it.

Peter Kirk said...

I am sorry to effectively repeat my comment on an earlier post in this series, but I must do so because Prof Bauckham is repeating and emphasising false information about the name Mariam. I write this not at all to support the baseless identification of the Marianmenou ossuary to Mary Magdalene, but for the sake of truth and accuracy, something which I am sorry to see lacking on both sides of this issue.

Dr Bauckham writes:

Much more popular were the forms Maria (the form used everywhere in the New Testament, except Luke 10:39-40, for all the various Maries it refers to) ...

In the Gospels Mary Magdalene’s name is always given in the Greek form Maria, which is the New Testament’s standard practice for rendering Mariam into Greek, except for Luke 10:39-42.

This is simply not true of the Greek New Testament, in the standard scholarly text (Nestle-Aland and UBS). In this text the form Mariam occurs 28 times: Matthew 1:20; 13:55; 27:61; 28:1; Luke 1:27,30,34,38,39,46,56; 2:5,16,19,34; 10:39,42; John 11:2,19,20,28,31,32,45; 12:3; 20:16,18; Acts 1:14. In Matthew 27:61; 28:1; John 20:16,18 this form refers unambiguously to Mary Magdalene. Now I accept that many, maybe all, of these references are textually uncertain; indeed in the much later Byzantine text Mariam is not used in reference to Mary Magdalene, although it used of the mother of Jesus (Matthew 13:55; Luke 1:27,30,38,46). And Dr Bauckham may have good scholarly grounds for preferring the reading Maria in these cases. But in cases like this, where there is real textual uncertainty and the best respected textual scholars prefer the reading Mariam, Dr Bauckham should not be making unqualified statements like the ones quoted above.

Ben Witherington said...

I think the issue is more complex than you make it. How many of those 'Mariam' references are in the accusative case, rather than the nominative? It makes a difference.

Ben W.

Anonymous said...

The obfuscations of James Tabor:

Look what happens when your 'experts' cannot help but be aware of substantial criticisms, but are contractually obliged to continue to support your project anyway. In response to the (now multiple) accusations that the statistical argument is deeply flawed, James Tabor writes on his blog:

"When it comes to statistics regarding name frequencies and the matter of the probability of the cluster of names found in the Talpiot tomb, the figures I have been using are NOT about the probability of the Tomb being that of the Jesus family...The matter of identifying the individuals in this tomb with the family of Jesus is kind of “next step.” It builds upon the statistics, in that one can show the cluster is not “common” and can thus be dismissed, but the identification per se is based on historical correlations of the names, the probable relationships, DNA, whether the James ossuary was from this tomb, and so forth. In other words it is a complex of integrated information of which the statistics on probability of the names is one part."

Um...will somebody please inform the filmmakers? Because they seem to think otherwise. This is from the official book site:

"The new probability (after the first calculations) that this was not the family of tomb of Jesus was 1 in 2,400,000. Once the unintentional bias had been accounted for, that number dropped to 1 in 600".

And this from the Discovery Channel site:

"Taking into account the chances that these names would be clustered together in a family tomb, this statistical study concludes that the odds-on the most conservative basis-are 600 to 1 in favor of this being the JESUS FAMILY TOMB".

The filmmakers, in other words, are clearly using the statistical study to DIRECTLY assess the odds of this being Jesus' family tomb. They don't just use it as a 'first step' in the right direction, as Tabor intimates. To be fair, he DOES distinguish between the numbers he quoted on his blog and the official statistics provided by Andrey Feueverger, but of his own numbers he says that "in fact the combination is such that the case that this “Jesus son of Joseph” can be identified with Jesus of Nazareth appears to have reasonable mathematical probability", but he acknowledges that Feueverger's calculations were more formal and sophisticated, and they clearly aim for the probability that this is Jesus' family tomb.

I would just like to understand how anyone could be so disingenuous.

Jay said...

I'd like to add my two cents into the Feuerverger statistics. They are ridiculous. And not just because they do not provide the information that they think it does. It is because it appears to me as though they know that it does not, and have tried to throw a little slicing-and-dicing into the mix.

What I mean by that is the following. They calculat the probability that you would get Jesus son of Joseph, Joseph, Mary and Mary. They get a ridiculously small number 1 in 2.4 million.

Why is this number so small? It is because all they have done is calculated the probability that, in selecting any four people, you would select people with these four names. This is specious. There are, miminaly, 10 people buried in this tomb. What are the chances that in a family of 10 you would find these four? THAT is the question they must ask.

But what is really ridiculous is that, rather than go back and re-do the math, they just put a band-aid on it. They next divide by 4 to all for "uninentional historical biases."


This is NOT something that is valid. You just do not go dividing your results by 4 to allow for biases. How do they know the bias does not swing the other way? How do they know of any bias at all?! As I said, ridiculous.

But then they double it by dividing by 1,000 to allow for "all tombs." This makes no sense either. After all, your probabilities, so long as they are not biased, are an estimate of all tombs. And they just corrected for the bias! So they are basically correcting for the bias again, by a favor of 4,000.

Interesting point, too, is that, if you feel a need to correct your data that much, by basically 4,000%, you have no business using that as a data set!

This is ridiculous. I think it speaks volumes that there is no statistician who has actually affixed his name to the project. Feuerverger is a contractee, and my guess is he just did what they asked him to do. Ditto for Tabor's guy. I wonder if Tabor went back to his guy and say, "People are saying this." And his guy said, "Well...that's because they're correct."

RKK said...

I have appreciated your work.

Please see:
For an article I prepared about the so-called "Jesus Family Tomb"

Dr. R. Kirk Kilpatrick
Associate Professor of OT & Hebrew

Rob Tornoe said...

I'm an editorial cartoonist from New Jersey, and here is my thought on the whole "Lost Tomb of Jesus" debate.

Check out my cartoon here

Jay said...

CK --

Your insight is excellent. Thank you.

Consider, as you well know, that p( N | J) and p(J) must be assigned probabilities independent of our acceptance that this tomb is legitimate.

Given that we have no reason to expect, and every reason not to expect, that Jesus of Nazareth would not be buried with this constellation of names, P(N | J), necessarily turns to zero.

Given that we have no reason to expect, and every reason not to expect, that Jesus of Nazareth would not be buried in or near Talpiot, P(J), necessarily turns to zero.

Thus, there is literally no chance that this is Jesus of Nazareth.

This is typical of pseudo-scientific work. They want us to accept that this is Jesus of Nazareth's tomb. But, to do that, we must have evidence that he would be buried with these people AND evidence that he would be buried in Jerusalem.

The filmmakers respond: look at the tomb! That is your proof!

But the tomb is what requires proof. You cannot use your theory as evidence for your theory!!!

Thank you again for your contribution. I think the statistical argument is now settled.

Ben Witherington said...

Rob: How cool is that--- I'd love to post your cartoon.

Ben W.

Peter Kirk said...

None of the four references to Mary Magdalene as Mariam are in the accusative case. Three of them (Matthew 27:61; 28:1; John 20:18) are nominative, as is clear from he Magdalene in apposition; the fourth (John 20:16) is vocative. Anyway, the -m ending cannot be explained as an accusative case; this is Greek, in which the accusative ending is -n, not Latin in which is it -m. Indeed real Greek words never end in -m, which makes it clear that this is a loan word form which has not been adapted to regular Greek spelling. In the two Matthew verses we actually have a contrast (in many but not all manuscripts), in the same grammatical construction, between two spellings, Mariam for Mary Magdalene and Maria for "the other Mary". I'm sorry to give some excuse for Tabor, Cameron etc to claim that this matches the distinction between "Mariamenou" and "Maria" on their various ossuaries, but the fact is not at all "more complex", but very simple, that that is what is written in Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, the two oldest complete manuscripts of the New Testament, at least in Matthew 27:61. Now you might be on safer ground to suggest that Mariam was used before a vowel and Maria before a consonant, but Bauckham is still wrong to state that the form is always Maria.

Jay said...
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Ben Witherington said...

Hi Peter: Thanks for the further qualification of the matter. I agree with you that 'Maria' is not everywhere. The problem of course is that these documents, particularly Mark is written in a mixed-language milieu, and unfortunately we have Latinisms in Mark. probably in John as well, though I don't see any in Matthew, the most Jewish of the bunch. I suspect that this affects names. Just as we have Semitic interference affecting things, so we have Latinisms as well.



Steve said...

Thanks Jay (and CK)--I'll be looking forward to it. I believe a more-public publishing of some significant mathematical work that can be peer reviewed and further validated will be a great resource--and quite difficult to circumvent in the discussion.

I've been unhappy with the lack of independent assessment I've seen on several media reports. I believe we can help your material reach some of the press and give them a new line of questions to be publicly asking and expecting answered.

Along that vein, the New York Times posted a nicely reasoned article here today. It was encouraging to see the burden of proof handed back to the film-makers.

nick said...

Thanks for the scholarly response to the Jesus Tomb 'frenzy'.
I was reflecting on it today as I would like to address it in my sermon tomorrow. One thing that does seem to be missing from the discussion is the following absurdity. Grant for a moment that the followers of Jesus made some elaborate and clandestine operation to remove and conceal Jesus' body- for the reason of propagating the fallacious claim that he rose from the dead. These conniving followers then place Jesus’ body in another tomb and write his name on the ossuary. How ridiculous is that? Going to all that trouble to hide Jesus body so they could preach his resurrection, and then they identify him by inscribing his name on the ossuary!

Rev Nicholas Tuohy
Melbourne, Australia

jabre said...

The N.T. Wright page ( has a link to an article he wrote for Christianity Today in 1998 about all this. Look under articles and go to "Grave Matters."

Daniel said...

Here's a link to a fascinating article at the Washington Post which is the most aggresive attack on the "Jesus Tomb" that I've read yet:

I find it interesting that James Tabor, at his "Jesus Dynasty" blog, is implying that Joe Zias has "flip flopped" on his initial findings regarding the James ossuary and its relationship to the Talpiot tomb. Tabor claims that Zias initially backed him up, but has now changed his mind. That makes sense, actually, since Zias is a serious academic and actually does research which can challenge his own hypotheses. Also, please check out Tabor's positive reaction to the Israeli newspaper's swallowing the Tomb story hook, line and sinker. Apparently, that's Tabor's definition of "free thinking." It is unbelieveable to me that he is not trying to put more distance between himself and this mess. AND, he's still crying "Wait and See!"

Daniel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daniel said...

Had to re-write the web address! Anyway,one last post. Here's a link to an article posted yesterday (March 3, 2007) on Scientific that has recent quotes from both Tabor and Judy Magness (a well respected archaeologist). Be sure to notice Tabor's claim of excavating "over 500" tombs in Jerusalem ALONE! Anyway, here's the link:

Scientific American

Peter Kirk said...

In the original Greek of all four gospels (in the Nestle Aland text) there are 148 words ending in -m. All of these words are proper names, probably all of Hebrew origin and in most the -m demonstrably comes from the Hebrew. Mark has by far the smallest number of such words, only five. To me this is a sign not of Latin but of Hebrew influence, and a general tendency to preserve the final -m of Hebrew names like Mariam/Miriam.

Ben Witherington said...

O.K. Peter you have convinced me! Semitic influence it is then.

Jay said...
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BobGriffin said...

Has anyone considered the possibility that the members of the family buried in the Talpiot tomb are actually relatives of Flavius Josephus? Unlike the case with Jesus of Nazareth, two of the names match, with NO counter-evidence.

Be Well,
Bob Griffin

Moe said...

I wanted to let you know that I truly enjoyed all three of your entries concerning the Talpiot Ossuaries. You did a great job of getting the relevant facts, something the Discovery Channel never seems to bother with, and concluding with a well supported opinion. I took the time to link to you blog entries on my new blog

Chong-Fuk Lau said...

Although it seems to boarder on the sacrilegious my question is about-the examination of a Prof Segni I ran across her talk on the inscriptions. She has the highest regards for Rahmani and expressed surprise that anyone proposing to “correct” him Dr. Di Segni recalls that she was consulted by Rahmani when he prepared the Greek inscriptions and she writes: “I well remember that, while here and there I had some suggestions about interpretation of a particular form (for instance, Mariamenon being an hypochoristic form of Mariam), I could not but confirm all his readings. I have not changed my mind now.” Di Segni’s conclusion: She reads the inscription as a double name, Mariamenou/Mara " About both, each are personal names, as .."indicated by the use of the signum, indicated in this inscription by a single “stroke” (signifying ho kai or he kai so-and-so), thus one woman with a double name. This is much like saying “aka” or “also known as.” Di Segni is not of the view that Mara is an epithet, “Lady Mariamenon”: if so, it would precede the name of the lady. She notes that this use of the signum became common only in the late first century, so this would be a rather early occurrence, if one accepts the reasonable surmise that secondary burial in ossuaries . ." etc. This is why I have reserved judgement until it comes out on Paperback about findings from at the Talpiot tomb.
A Transliteration has not been provided for or given by Richard Bauckham. That is unexpected. I not sure how much of this is due to the time pressures he is under. I have tried to order Rahmani book (but may withdraw instead of waiting some ten weeks) I would like to find a "transliteration" of the inscription and of the term Mariam Can you please assist me ?
Ps -- Ascension is one of 'the' most difficult of the things to wrestle with

S. E. Ray said...

This is one of the better outlines on the issue which was also published in Christianity Today and 22 other global publications.

We Demand A Neutral Scientific Exhibit said...

Some of you may be interested in an opinion piece by U. of Chicago prof Norman Golb that just came out in the Forward, entitled "Take Claims About Dead Sea Scrolls With a Grain of Salt". He weighs in on the Jesus-tomb claim in passing.

The link is: