In my preceding post, I examined the question “Is Christianity falsifiable?“. In that post I talked about how each new piece of evidence I come across has the potential of revising my beliefs on specific questions, and how my encounters with significant new information became less frequent over the years. This is not surprising, as very little new relevant information is produced; my own thinking evolves mostly because I come across information that has been out there for years (or even centuries) that I am processing either for the first time or from a new perspective.
However, there is one significant exception to this that has affected my faith this year. On Easter morning 2015, the New York Times ran a story citing new geochemical evidence about an archaeological site suspected by some of being the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and family.
I’m not going to give an exhaustive review of the issues here. Google Talpiot tomb and poke around for a while, and you will find all of the background information that I have. Long story short, the claim that the tomb was linked to Jesus of Nazareth was popularized in 2007 by a Discovery Channel documentary. The argument relied on some subtle statistical arguments, that did not hold appear to hold up to scrutiny (see Randy Ingermanson’s analysis here), resulting in most archaeologists treating the idea dismissively.
Nonetheless, the proponents of the theory were undeterred, and were encouraged to continue the research. The acquittal of Oded Golan of forgery charges related to the James Ossuary in 2012 was helpful to the theory, as that ossuary’s authenticity is important to the case. The new geochemical tests reported this year claim to have established the James Ossuary’s link to the Talpiot Tomb. This is significant, as even skeptics of the 2007 documentary (such as Ingermanson) have agreed that if the authenticity of the James Ossuary (and its full inscription) and it’s origins in the Talpiot Tomb were to be confirmed, this would be significant in favor of the theory of a link to Jesus.
Even with this latest announcement, numerous problems with the theory remain. The ones that stand out to me are:
1) As of yet, the new evidence announced to the press is unpublished, and as such it cannot be refuted.
2) The “not guilty” verdict in the Golan forgery trial is not proof of innocence, just failure of the prosecution to prove its case. While I would try my best to ignore such sentiments if I were a judge or juror, I do admit to believing that a prosecutor’s decision to prosecute is itself an indicator of the likelihood of guilt; there are many acquitted defendants out there that I wouldn’t, say, hire as a babysitter. Experts are still divided on the authenticity of the James Ossuary’s inscription, with Amos Kloner being one notable voice.
3) There is still some doubt about whether the inscription on the “Jesus son of Joseph” ossuary actually says Jesus; at least one scholar thinks it reads “Hanun”. Unlike the James inscription, the Jesus inscription looks to most observers to be sloppy, like graffiti (not what one would expect if the deceased were a revered figure… and if Jesus were not, then He would have likely been buried ignominiously or left to rot like most victims of crucifixion).
4) There is no direct documentary support of the existence of a Jesus family tomb, everything is circumstantial. The theory depends on the Gospels’ reliability for identifying the names of those involved, and even the detail that Jesus’s body was given to Joseph of Arimathea, but rejects their central claim of resurrection.
5) Even assuming the James Ossuary (with full inscription) is authentic *and* that it did come from the Talpiot Tomb, there are many alternative narratives that could explain both the Gospel accounts and the physical evidence. One of the best of these speculations is that the “Joseph” mentioned could be Joseph of Arimathea (as discussed here). This doesn’t seem to have received as much attention as it deserved (I came up with something similar, independently, and there are many possible variations on the theme).
One last objection that deserves more attention than it has received. is that the various statistical analyses, while useful to an extent, all suffer from a data dredging bias; something interesting was observed, and then a model was built to test it. In this case, the question is often framed as “assuming Jesus was buried somewhere in a family tomb, what names might we expect to find in such a tomb, and what would the probability of finding the cluster of names found at Talpiot be, given the estimated number of tombs in Jerusalem and the frequency of names in the population at the time?”. Only once several assumptions have been made and the problem has been neatly framed can any number-crunching begin.
In historical analysis (as in looking at financial time series, an area in which I happen to be quite familiar with data dredging problems), these problems are unavoidable, but one learns not to take the statistics at face value on a standalone basis. Instead, they need to be interpreted in light of a mass of pre-existing understandings about a particular field, using a “Bayesian” approach of giving weight to one’s prior beliefs – properly formed as a probability distribution, not a certainty – but allowing new information to modify that distribution of one’s beliefs. In this case, one’s prior beliefs about the Gospels is central to deciding how much weight to give the information that is being presented. If one is convinced (or nearly convinced) in the inerrancy of scripture on other grounds, there’s nothing in the Jesus family tomb evidence that can’t be better explained another way.
Similarly, if one is convinced (or nearly convinced) that Jesus never existed, there’s also nothing in the Jesus family tomb evidence that can’t be better explained another way. The tomb is only of interest to those who believe there is a lot of true history in the Gospels, but not the resurrection or the other miracles. Admittedly, this is a large group, but the main statistical force of this evidence falls on those who give just the right amount of credence to just the right pieces of the Gospel narrative. Nonetheless, these background questions about the Gospels are (understandably, given the difficulty of including them) left out of all of the statistical wrangling, as a “matter of faith”.
So as an interested observer, I am left to do a lot of the “mental math” of combining beliefs I have formed in other ways with the information being presented to me here. I wonder to myself, suppose a “Jesus and Disciples” tomb containing a Jesus, a James, a John, and a Lazarus had been found – would that be interesting? How about Jesus, Stephen, Bartholomew, and Thomas? Or how about just a tomb with a Jesus, iron nails, and carpentry tools? In a sense, the correct denominator in assessing the probability of a “Jesus tomb” isn’t just combinations of names of brothers and sisters, but all of the things in the archaeological record that one might associate with a dead Jesus that haven’t been found. After all, the question on everyone’s mind is really whether Jesus had a tomb at all, not whether a specific location in Talpiot is the best candidate. In the end it still comes down to forming narratives and assessing their credibility, a process that is more analog than digital. The narratives being offered by the Jesus family tomb advocates (requiring a number of coincidences, such as either (a) the James Ossuary being “left by the door” to be robbed while the other ossuaries stayed buried, or (b) Golan having lied about the James ossuary having been obtained in 1976, but not lying about not having forged the inscription) are interesting, but far from compelling.
The evidence that is being presented so far for Jesus’s bones having found their final resting place at Talpiot (even including what I am holding as a placeholder in my head for a high likelihood that the recent geological evidence will hold up to scrutiny), is not yet persuasive, but I am intrigued enough to keep an eye on any new developments. James Tabor in particular does an excellent job in explicating the theory of the Jesus family tomb (complete with a reinterpretation of Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians, the earliest testimony of Christ’s resurrection) and defending against the various criticisms, all with a welcome level of civility that is lacking from most online debates of this sort. For now, his view seems to be in the minority among the numerous people more qualified than myself to weigh in on such matters, but it has “moved the needle” for me in terms of my beliefs. While all things considered, I still view a fully resurrected Jesus as probable, it does feel less probable now than it did a few months ago before I dug into all of this material. And for me that has been a difficult thing to deal with, spiritually. In my next post, I plan to discuss that process in more detail.