The Lost Tomb of Jesus

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A lot of hay is being made about the forthcoming documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus. Apparently a tomb has been found that has some names from the family of Jesus, and some people are making some pretty strong claims about how improbable it could be that it's any other family. Oh, and Jesus' bones are supposed to be present, which (if true) means not only that Jesus not only died and wasn't resurrected (or at least that after his resurrection he died and didn't ascend) but that we now have access to his DNA! See the links from Sam's post for more on the popular-level discussion of this.

There's a lot being said by people who actually have some biblical scholarship and first-century Palestinian history credentials. Tyler Williams has a good roundup of what different people are saying. I'm particularly recommending what Darrell Bock has to say, since he was involved with the documentary, and he's not very impressed with their evidence. Ben Witherington has a more detailed response. Andreas Kostenberger's is also probably worth looking at. I love Kostenberger's first sentence. Michael Pahl has further thoughts, including on what relevance the James ossuary might have to this (basically none that helps their case and perhaps some that hurts it if the ossuary is authentic.

My first impression is that this is an old story that is finding new life because a big name (James Cameron) is associated with it, and it's a story that scholars have already looked into carefully and dismissed as not really showing very much. There are all sorts of assumptions being made for the probability claim that this is resting on, a number of which are probably unlikely assumptions (that we should expect Jesus' parents to be buried in Jerusalem to begin with, never mind in a location that very clearly is not where Jesus was buried after the crucifixion, that we should expect to find a tomb of Jesus' family with only one of the three brothers of his mentioned in the gospels but some other male we know nothing of named Matthew).

Update: Several more excellent responses have appeared. Richard Bauckham's is probably the best I've seen so far, and it covers some of the most important issues that some of the others have only really gestured at. For problems related to the DNA issue, see Chris Heard and Mark Goodacre. Mark also looks at the statistical claim. I was a little disappointed at some of the earlier discussions of this, including Ben Witherington's, which I thought had argued too much in several places, but Mark's post is much better and doesn't try to claim as much while still making the statistical claim look unwarranted because of its reliance on a number of possible but perhaps unlikely assumptions, which would then lower the probability considerably. The paragraph beginning "perhaps this is labouring the point" is actually one of the most helpful for seeing one of his main points in brief.

Update 2: Rebecca Starks informs me of Scott Gilbreath's response to the statistical claim. Statistics is Scott's field. His summary is great: "In sum, Dr Feuerverger’s probability calculation is one big example of begging the question. He has assumed what he purports to prove. Assuming that Jesus was buried in a tomb with brother Yose, mother Maria, and wife Mary Magdalene, the calculation indicates that there is a 99.8% probability that Jesus’ tomb has been found." See also my comment on that post, which gives some reasons why his analysis doesn't go far enough.

Update 3: Mark Goodacre has a guest post from mathematician Joe D'Mello with more on the statistics issue.

Update 4: Mark Goodacre has one more post, with a couple more statistical observations no one has noted before. He also links to some humor based on this whole affair.

Update 5: Donald Crankshaw also looks at the statistics, adjusting for several other factors (although he doesn't include many that I think are the most important ones that were ignored).

Also, Andreas Kostenberger has a relatively short list of questions to ask of the documentary while watching it. It's not as comprehensive as I'd like, but it's gathering together a lot of the shortcomings in the reasoning that we've already seen.

It just occurred to me to wonder whether those who regularly accuse Christians and/or conservatives of being anti-science are going to have anything to say about this abuse of scientific-sounding language to cover up a case that really has nothing to it.

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Have you been following the story of the Tomb of Jesus? I haven't been following it in detail, I'll admit, just reading the odd blog post here and Read More

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Another good resource is Michael Heiser's 2003 paper on the tomb. It includes reproductions and analysis of the relevant inscriptions. And Ed Cook points out that this 'Jesus ossuary' is the second known 'Jesus bar Joseph' ossuaries.

Ed Cook seems to have removed his post and replaced it with a statement that he wasn't happy with his response.

I’ve written a comprehensive rebuttal to claims and evidence of this film. Please read it and decide for yourself.

You will find it at extremetheology.com

Thank you for the excellent summary. This story will be completely shot through by the time it reaches air Sunday night.

Yes, but that happened with The Da Vinci Code and the Judas gospel, and plenty of people still took those as presenting historically accurate information about Jesus. It's amazing what people will believe if you can just find someone with the right sort of academic position to give some quotes they can take out of context to make it sound more favorable.

"It just occurred to me to wonder whether those who regularly accuse Christians and/or conservatives of being anti-science are going to have anything to say about this abuse of scientific-sounding language to cover up a case that really has nothing to it."

Well, you can't get much farther along that line than PZ Myers, and he has just posted an extremely negative review of the documentary.

Well, it's good to see him get something right for a change. But I don't think he's using the same rhetoric he uses when he rails against philosophy of religion as anti-science.

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