Saturday, March 31, 2007

Resurrecting Mary Magdalene and excavating Migdal

In his latest contribution to the Talpiot tomb debate, James Tabor commends to us Jane Schaberg's 2002 monograph, The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament. I agree: Schaberg's work is a delightful read. She is a wordsmith whose passion and imagination serve, rather than obscure, her scholarship. Stitching traditions to texts to physical remains to meditations, she advances a savvy feminist agenda, a "Magdalene Christianity" meant to challenge the prevailing "Petrine Christianity" (p.19).

Toward that end Schaberg's second chapter is a poignant lament over Migdal, home to the Magdalene. In sharp contrast to the attention (and money) lavished on Capernaum, Migdal, a few miles down Galilee's shore, suffers from severe neglect. Pilgrims descend from their tour buses at Capernaum only to ascend into a modern "(magnificent? tasteless? expensive)" (p.59) church that memorializes and protects what may well be the ancient house of St. Peter. By contrast, the excavations at Migdal lie overgrown and abandoned (ostensibly due to flooding), the desolation of the site summoning Schaberg to the "feminist task" (p.48) of reclamation and recovery. The difference between the opulent Franciscan church at Capernaum and the barbed wire of Migdal illustrates, for Schaberg, "the sexual politics of archaeology" (p.60).

I'm inclined to agree. Even if archaeologists have shied away from Migdal because of its high water table, and even if New Testament ties to the site are limited to references to Mary Magdalene's provenance (Mk 15:40, 47; 16:1; Matt 27:56, 61; 28:1; Lk 8:2; 24:10; Jn 19:25; 20:1, 11-18) and perhaps to Jesus' port of call after feeding the crowds (Dalmanutha/Magadan in Mk 8:10; Mt 15:39), I'm betting the ruins would have received much more attention had Migdal been, say, home to one of Jesus' male disciples.

Tabor's interest in the home of Mary Magdalene is principally driven, it seems, by the Talpiot tomb ossuary bearing the name Mariamenou Mara. Is there anything about ancient Migdal that might encourage us to link this Greek inscription to Mary of Migdal? Tabor's summary of Schaberg's chapter (pp.47-64) on Migdal hints that there might well be.
Schaberg’s treatment surveys the material/archaeological evidence on the city of Migdal, home of Mary Magdalene. That portion of the book alone recast things for me as much as beginning to factor in Jesus’ hometown Nazareth being just outside Sepphoris, the urban capital of the Galilee. Migdal, according to our sources, had a large aqueduct system, a theatre, hippodrome, and a market. Josephus describes it in some detail and made the city his headquarters when he became commander of the Galilean revolt. It was culturally and commercially diverse, opulent, and “wild.” Meyers and Strange concluded that the city was more “Romanized” than Capernaum or Chorazin, and thus closer to Sepphoris, Tiberius, and Beth Shean as a Roman polis.
This summary of Schaberg is close enough to be considered fair, though the phrase "Roman polis" seems to be Tabor's (somewhat loaded) paraphrase of J. F. Strange's suggestion (cited by Schaberg, p.57) that places like Migdal show us "the imprint of the Roman idea of the city" (p.57). And terms like "opulent" and "wild" are apt only as descriptions of Migdal's reputation in the Talmud and Midrashim (p.55), which later rabbinic reputation likely derives (according to Schaberg) from evolving Christian legends about Mary Magdalene rather than from historical knowledge about the town.

In any case, the implication seems to be that Migdal's "Romanized" character may well explain the Greek on the Mariamene ossuary inscription. Recall Tabor's comments from a week ago:
We don’t know much about Mary Magdalene in our N. T. sources, but she does seem to be a woman of means and she is associated with several other women of standing (Luke 8: 1-3). The Mariamene ossuary is decorated and the inscription is in Greek, which surely fits this data, and Migdal, according to the record of Josephus, was a large, thriving, and culturally diverse “Romanized” city with theatre, hippodrome, and a large aqueduct system.
Was Migdal as "Roman" as, say, nearby Tiberias? Should we perhaps even expect that the ossuary of someone from such a town would be inscribed in Greek? Does the size and significance of the town lend credence to the translation of Mara as master or honorable lady?

Scholars these days (Tabor included) know better than to dichotomize sharply between Hellenism and Judaism. All 1st century "Judaisms" were Hellenized to some degree. Nevertheless, the emerging consensus is that pre-70 Galilee was much less Hellenized than previously thought. Mark Chancey's recent monographs (The Myth of a Gentile Galilee and
Greco-Roman Culture and the Galilee of Jesus), for example, show how most evidence for Roman culture in Galilee dates to the time of Hadrian. Even the use of Greek seems to have been limited in earlier periods.

But if Roman culture and influence (including the use of Greek) were limited in the Galilee, and not evenly distributed, can we say anything specific about Migdal? Was it uncharacteristically cultured, cosmopolitan and Hellenized for pre-70 Galilee?
Ben Witherington's assessment of Mary Magdalene's hometown seems to differ sharply from Tabor's:
As for Migdal, it is simply false that it was a major cosmopolitan commercial center. It was a tiny Jewish fishing village---give me a break! No one who has been there and compare it to Bethsaida just up the road could ever come to that conclusion about Migdal. Their explanation is one based on ignorance apparently.
Unfortunately, the overgrown, unfinished state of affairs at Migdal makes it difficult for visitors to assess just how "major" or how "tiny" the town was; surely there was far more there than now meets the eye. Witherington seems to underestimate the economic heft of the place, perhaps to offset overstatements in the Jesus Tomb documentary.

Dennis Duling
describes the first century town as a noteworthy "boat building and fish processing center." Chancey's analysis, however, highlights the city's "adherence to Jewish tradition" and its apparently enthusiastic support of Josephus' mobilization against Rome during the first revolt (Myth, 99). Although Josephus mentions a theater and a large hippodrome in Migdal (a.k.a. Taricheae; cf. War 2.598-599), the lack of corroborating archaeological evidence has led some (including Schaberg) to declare Josephus' description and population estimates exaggerated. For her part, Schaberg bemoans the lack of a full-scale scholarly treatment of the site but she does find enough evidence to suggest that Migdal was a place of "traffic, commerce, and the flow of ideas and information" (57, citing J. F. Strange). Fair enough. But when she says that Migdal was "a place where Jews and non-Jews met" (idem), she seems to move beyond the evidence she herself has so carefully mustered. The idea that Migdal's Jews in the early 1st century would have spoken and written principally in Greek rather than Aramaic or Hebrew moves us even further beyond that evidence.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Robert Gundry on the physicality of Jesus' resurrection in earliest Christian proclamation

In the following guest post, Robert H. Gundry, Scholar-in-residence & professor of New Testament & Greek at Westmont College, enters the Jesus tomb debate by examining James Tabor's claim that the earliest Christians did not proclaim a physical resurrection.

Robert Gundry

There’s an element in the current discussion of Jesus’ family tomb, so-called, that needs more scrutiny, it seems to me. I have in mind the agreement or disagreement between the earliest oral and literary traditions of what happened to Jesus’ corpse, on the one hand, and the interpretation of an ossuary found at Talpiot as having contained the secondarily buried bones of Jesus of Nazareth, on the other hand. If I understand Professor James Tabor correctly, he believes:
  1. that the said ossuary probably did contain Jesus’ bones;
  2. that Jesus’ brother James revived and carried forward a messianic movement started by John the Baptist and taken over by Jesus;
  3. that because of the removal of Jesus’ corpse from the tomb into which Joseph of Arimathea had put it, and because of a secondary burial of Jesus’ bones about a year later, James and others in the revived messianic movement knew that Jesus hadn’t physically risen from the dead, nor did they proclaim that he had;
  4. that because of visions Paul claimed for himself, he proclaimed that Jesus had risen from the dead;
  5. that Paul presented Jesus’ resurrection (and ours to come) as spiritual rather than physical; and
  6. that in the Pauline offshoot from the messianic movement then headed by James, the notion of a spiritual resurrection morphed into legendary stories of a physical resurrection, such as we have in the canonical Gospels (The Jesus Dynasty [New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006]; idem,
With such an understanding, there’s no disagreement between the earliest literary version of Jesus’ resurrection—that is, Paul’s presentation of it as spiritual rather than physical—and an ossuary’s having contained the bones of Jesus.

It would be problematic, though, if the earliest oral and literary versions of Jesus’ resurrection presented it as physical. For the earlier the notion of a physical resurrection of Jesus, the greater the tension between that notion and the knowledge of Jesus’ original followers that his bones lay in an ossuary of nearby, known location, especially if those who held the notion of a physical resurrection and those who had contrary knowledge of Jesus’ ossuary-interred bones were in conversation with each other. On so fundamental a point we should expect some literary evidence of disagreement among them. And the tension becomes even more severe if the original followers of Jesus knew about his bones and some of these followers had themselves interred those bones yet proclaimed him as physically resurrected.

Professor Tabor affirms correctly that Paul and Jesus’ original followers were in conversation with each other: “There is little doubt that the apostle Paul was accepted into the inner circles of Jesus’ original followers,” and they “publicly endorsed his missionary preaching to the Gentile Roman world (Galatians 2:9). It was what he preached and taught that began to create problems” (The Jesus Dynasty, 262). But Tabor immediately goes on to discuss Paul’s view of “a heavenly Christ,” including a nonphysically resurrected one, as though that view of him created problems for Jesus’ original followers. Not so! As Paul clearly points out in Galatians 2, the problems had to do with issues of circumcision, law-keeping in general, and table fellowship. There’s nothing about a problem of disagreement over whether Jesus was physically resurrected.

To support a Pauline presentation of a nonphysically resurrected Jesus, though, Professor Tabor states that Paul “claimed to hear a disembodied ‘voice’ that he identified as ‘words’ of Jesus” (The Jesus Dynasty, 262). But the texts Tabor cites in note 4 on page 262—that is, 2 Corinthians 12:9; 1 Thessalonians 4:15; 1 Corinthians 11:23—say nothing about a disembodied voice. (Nor, for that matter, does the word voice appear in those texts despite Tabor’s putting quotation marks around it.)

Professor Tabor’s view that Paul presented a nonphysically resurrected Jesus rests above all, however, on Paul’s statements in 1 Corinthians 15:44, 46, 50, about which Tabor states, “Paul, our earliest witness to the resurrection, speaks of a ‘physical body’ and a ‘spiritual body,’ and though it is a body, he clearly presents both the resurrection of Jesus and the future resurrection of the dead at the end of the age, as putting off the flesh like a garment and being transformed into a higher spirit life.” Likewise, Tabor writes that according to Paul, at the second coming the Christian dead will be resurrected “in gloriously transformed spiritual bodies” (The Jesus Dynasty, 264), that Christians still living at the time “will likewise be instantaneously changed from flesh to spirit” (ibid.), and that “Paul seems to be willing to use the term ‘resurrection’ to refer to something akin to an apparition or vision. And when he does mention Jesus’ body he says it was a ‘spiritual’ body. But a ‘spiritual body' and an ‘embodied spirit’ could be seen as very much the same phenomenon” (ibid., 232). (Actually, Paul talks about a spiritual body only in connection with Christians’ resurrection, but the parallel with Jesus’ resurrection, which Tabor draws, is to be accepted.)

Has Professor Tabor understood Paul’s discussion of resurrection correctly? I think not. In the first place, Paul contrasts “a spiritual body” with “a soulish body,” not with a “physical body” (1 Cor 15:44, 46). But what do these expressions mean? Take first the adjective “spiritual.” When Paul describes some Christians in Corinth as “spiritual” rather than “fleshly” or “carnal,” he doesn’t mean that some Christians in Corinth are floating around its streets in a ghostly form as opposed to others who are pounding the pavement with their feet. No, he’s describing some Christians as taught, filled, and led by the Holy Spirit, whose temple is their present physical bodies, as opposed to others dominated by their sinful proclivities despite the indwelling Spirit (1 Cor 2:10–16; 3:1; 6:19; 14:37; Gal 6:1). When Paul speaks of “spiritual gifts,” he means gifts given by the Holy Spirit (Rom 1:11; 1 Cor 12:1; 14:1). The manna, the water-supplying rock, and the Mosaic law—all in the Old Testament—are “spiritual” in that the Holy Spirit gave them to the Israelites (Rom 7:14; 1 Cor 10:3–4). And the gospel is “spiritual” as given by the Holy Spirit (Rom 15:27; 1 Cor 9:11). So we should capitalize the adjective Spiritual and dismiss the notion that it indicates nonphysicality. In Paul’s view, that is to say, the resurrected body is Spiritual not in the sense of nonphysicality (he even switches back and forth between “body” and “flesh” in 1 Cor 15:35–41) but in the sense of its having been raised by God’s Spirit, which is none other than Christ’s Spirit, rather than procreated, as in the case of our present bodies, animated as they are by the soul—hence the contrast with “soulish bodies.” But let Paul speak for himself to the effect that in resurrection a Spiritual body is a body raised by the Holy Spirit: “The last Adam [Christ] became a life-making Spirit” (1 Cor 15:45); “But if the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will make alive also your mortal bodies through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Rom 8:11).

Ah, but what about 1 Corinthians15:50, “Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God”? Professor Tabor appeals also to this text for a nonphysical understanding of resurrection on Paul’s part (The Jesus Dynasty, 264). Well, the immediately following statement reads, “Nor does perishability inherit imperishability.” These two statements parallel each other, so that the phrase “flesh and blood” corresponds to “perishability.” Together, the terms refer to the present body in respect to the perishability of its flesh and blood, not in respect to the physicality of its flesh and blood. For Paul proceeds to say that it is “this perishable body” that will put on imperishability and “this mortal body” that will put on immortality (1 Cor 15:51–55, especially verse 53). And since for Paul the resurrection of Christians will follow the pattern of Christ’s resurrection, as Tabor recognizes, Paul must have thought that when Christ was raised, it was the perishable, mortal body of his earthly lifetime that put on imperishability and immortality, not that he was raised and exalted to heaven in some nonphysical form.

According to 1 Corinthians 15:1–7 Paul “received” information about Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, and appearances as resurrected to Cephas (Peter) and others, including James. On the basis of Galatians 1:10–23 Professor Tabor interprets this reception as a direct revelation from heaven rather than as the passing on of tradition by one or more earlier followers of Jesus. But in Galatians Paul is talking about the gospel he preached before going to Jerusalem and conversing with Cephas three years after that direct revelation, whereas in 1 Corinthians he’s talking about the sort of information he’d get from one or more earlier believers. So contrary to Tabor’s earlier cited identification of Paul as “our earliest witness to the resurrection,” our earliest witnesses to it are the ones or one (probably Cephas) who passed this information on to Paul. Or, rather, our earliest witnesses are those who claimed to have seen Jesus as resurrected before Paul did, as admitted by Paul in his phrases, “And last of all . . . also to me” (1 Cor 15:8). Therefore we have to investigate not only Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ resurrection, whether it was physical or nonphysical, but also what was the understanding of it by the earlier witnesses and traditioner(s). “Cephas,” the Aramaic form of “Peter,” and the two instances of “according to the Scriptures” in 1 Corinthians 15:3–7 favor that the tradition stemmed from Jesus’ original followers, Jews still closely tied to their ancestral faith, Judaism. Now Tabor correctly writes, “In Judaism to claim that someone has been ‘raised from the dead’ is not the same as to claim that one has died and exists as a spirit or soul in the heavenly world. What the gospels [here we might substitute the witnesses and traditioners behind 1 Cor 15:3–7] claim about Jesus is that the tomb [in which he ‘was buried,’ according to the pre-Pauline tradition] was empty, and that his dead body was revived to life [‘raised,’ according to that same tradition]—wounds and all. He was not a phantom or a ghost . . .” (The Jesus Dynasty, 232). So it looks as though those witnesses and traditioners, given their Judaistic upbringing, would have understood Jesus’ resurrection as physical just as Paul did and just as we should expect in that by definition “resurrection” means the “standing up” of a formerly a supine corpse.

We’re left with this question: If Jesus’ bones were known to be lying in an ossuary near Jerusalem, how is it that the earliest literary tradition in 1 Corinthian 15:1–7, the even earlier oral tradition stemming from Jesus’ original disciples, and Paul’s properly exegeted understanding—how is it that all of them presented Jesus’ resurrection as physical? This question seems to me hard to answer.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Jesus' tomb: impossible, unlikely, possible or probable?

James Tabor's latest post, Clearing the air: Rational Thinking on the Talpiot Tomb, distinguishes helpfully between Jacobovici and Cameron's The Lost Tomb of Jesus (with all its strengths and flaws) and the underlying question: whether or not the Jesus-son-of-Joseph of the Talpiot tomb was Jesus-of-Nazareth. Ultimately it is the latter question, not the media event, that matters. Tabor can imagine four possible positions among responsible academics:
  1. There is good evidence that this Jesus son of Joseph cannot be Jesus of Nazareth
  2. The identification is inconclusive, or even unlikely; there is not enough evidence to draw a solid conclusion.
  3. Such an identification is possible, even likely, though not conclusively proven.
  4. There is evidence that such an identification is probable or even highly probable.
Four thoughts.

First, some will complain that Tabor unfairly excludes the view that "this could not be the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth since he ascended bodily to heaven." But since historians can only trade in probabilities and since the bodily ascension of Jesus surely qualifies as an extremely improbable historical event, I'm not sure Tabor's exclusion can be faulted, given the context of an academic debate. Moreover, he seems to be excluding only the view that says, up front and without concern for possible physical evidence, that historical and archaeological data are irrelvant to questions about the historical Jesus.

Second, Tabor suggests that "the only scholar who has argued the 1st option in print is Jodi Magness." A key phrase here is "in print," the meaning of which is becoming increasingly opaque in our digital information age. Evidently Tabor would include articles published in academic e-journals and posted on e-bulletin boards like SBL's Forum,where Jodi Magness' piece appears. But what are we to make of the negative verdicts handed down by generally respected academics who, only since the Jacobovic documentary and thus not yet "in print," have posted on websites and blogs, or spoken out on television, radio and in the press? I'm thinking of Richard Bauckham, Eric Meyers, Craig Evans, Ben Witherington, Stephen Pfann, Jonathan Reed, Joe Zias, Byron McCane, Darrell Bock, Randy Ingermanson, Chris Heard and others, all of whom reject the link between the Jesus tomb and Jesus of Nazareth. Perhaps I need to re-read their statements more closely, but my sense is (a) that many statements are effectively "in print" and (b) that these statements lean much more toward option one than Tabor implies.
UPDATE: Thanks to James Tabor who clarifies his meaning in the comments section below. By "in print," he had in mind what he calls "solid and sustained academic treatments."
Third, the wording of option two may create confusion. Some of those who adopt it--Christopher Rollston, for example--may actually be much closer to position one than Tabor allows. Take Rollston as an example:
Based on the prosopographic evidence, it is simply not possible to make assumptions about the relationships of those buried therein, and it is certainly not tenable to suggest that the data are sufficient to posit that this is the family tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.
Tabor is technically correct--Rollston doesn't say the identification is impossible--but I wonder if Tabor's position two would be more accurate if it read as follows:
2. The identification is inconclusive, or even unlikely; there is not enough evidence to draw a solid conclusion and plenty to warrant profound skepticism.
Fourth, the phrase "even likely" in option three all but removes the distinction between three and four. How are we to distinguish betwen position three (the identification is "likely") and position four (the identification is "probable")? Perhaps the four views should simply be: essentially impossible, unlikely, possible and probable.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Israel, Palestine and the pitfalls of rhetoric

In order for international aid to flow once again to the Palestinian people, the four major international players—the E.U., U.N., U.S.A. and Russia—stipulated last year the following conditions:
“All members of the future Palestinian government must be committed to non-violence, recognition of Israel and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations, including the roadmap.”
Having witnessed first hand various acts of violence directed, with Israeli sanction, against unarmed Palestinians (e.g., tear gas, “rubber” bullets, percussion grenades, clubs, house demolition), I have to ask: why are not both sides being held to standards of non-violence? I strongly oppose Palestinian suicide bombers and lament the tragic loss of Israeli lives. I also strongly oppose Israeli acts of collective punishment and the excessive, disproportionate use of force displayed by the Israeli Defense Forces. Argue if you like about which side started it or which side should stop first, but it’s hard to dispute which side is causing more loss of life and property.

My second question concerns the Quartet's demand that the Palestinian government “recognize” Israel. (Even the famous roadmap only required the Palestinian leadership to affirm Israel's "right to exist in peace and security," which amounted to their accepting the political status quo and rejecting violence.) A recent L.A.Times opinion piece by U.C.L.A. professor Saree Makdisi has drawn intense fire (metaphorically speaking) for disputing the fairness of this demand:
[T]he formal diplomatic language of "recognition" is traditionally used by one state with respect to another state. It is literally meaningless for a non-state to "recognize" a state. Moreover, in diplomacy, such recognition is supposed to be mutual. In order to earn its own recognition, Israel would have to simultaneously recognize the state of Palestine.
She continues:
[W]hich Israel, precisely, are the Palestinians being asked to "recognize?" Israel has stubbornly refused to declare its own borders. So, territorially speaking, "Israel" is an open-ended concept. Are the Palestinians to recognize the Israel that ends at the lines proposed by the 1947 U.N. Partition Plan? Or the one that extends to the 1949 Armistice Line (the de facto border that resulted from the 1948 war)? Or does Israel include the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which it has occupied in violation of international law for 40 years — and which maps in its school textbooks show as part of "Israel"?
Provocative stuff. Persuasive to some, no doubt, but perverse to others. I wonder, though, if we can agree that Makdisi articulates nicely how it is that many, even most, Palestinians see things. This is their reality. To demand that Palestinians "recognize" Israel—to demand that they acknowledge her "right to exist"—is to require them to say (again quoting Makdisi)
that it was right for them to have been dispossessed of their homes, their property and their livelihoods so that a Jewish state could be created on their land.
Part of the problem is that acknowledging someone’s "right to exist" (the language of Condoleeza Rice, among others) seems so basic, so reasonable, so innocuous. From this, as John Whitbeck (Christian Science Monitor, Feb.2) explains, it follows that
if the "right to exist" is reasonable, then refusing to accept it must represent perversity, rather than Palestinians' deeply felt need to cling to their self-respect and dignity as full-fledged human beings.
To Palestinians, ordinary non-militant, struggling Palestinians, it is like demanding that they acknowledge that they deserve what has been done to them. I suppose some people think they do indeed deserve what the last 60 years have wrought, but can anyone seriously expect the Palestinians themselves to concur?

I pray for the day when Israelis and Palestinians finally live together in peace, security and dignity. To get there, however, the international community needs to respect the power, and avoid the pitfalls, of ill-chosen rhetoric.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Crunching the Jesus tomb numbers, once again

Add Jack Poirier to the list of those ready to challenge the "Jesus tomb" number crunchers. Poirier's piece, published at Jerusalem Perspective Online, takes its place along side Randy Ingermanson's and Jay Cost's as another (ostensibly independent) attempt to assess the statistical probability that the Talpiot tomb belonged to Jesus' family. Poirier seems to know what he's doing (though I'm no judge in such matters) and his essay is worth a read. A few soundbites:
Multiplying the odds of one being named “Jesus” by the odds of one being named “Joseph,” one finds that the odds of a given male patronymic being “Jesus son of Joseph” is about .38%. Since there are two patronymic ossuaries in the Talpiot tomb, the odds of one reading “Jesus son of Joseph” is about 0.75%.
. . . it is necessary to address the “after the fact” nature of many of the statistical studies made in connection with this tomb. That is, what obtains in this tomb’s sampling is sometimes being treated as the only combination of names that could foster the suspicion that this is the tomb of Jesus’ family, when in fact a number of other combinations of names could do so just as impressively. . . . the same arguments that have been made in connection with the appearance of “Yose” would then have been made in connection with “Judah,” “Simeon,” or “James.” A more meaningful approach would calculate the odds of finding one patronymic relation known to obtain within Jesus’ family, together with one other male family name and one known female family name, within a sampling of ossuary inscriptions featuring two patronymic male inscriptions, two non-patronymic male inscriptions, and two female inscriptions.

. . . we need to determine the odds of finding “Jesus son of Joseph,” “Mary,” and the name of any one of Jesus’ brothers. Now the odds of finding one of Jesus’ brothers’ names on one of the three remaining male ossuaries can be calculated [note] to yield a probability of 63.26%, or odds of one in 1.6. Multiplying that figure by the above-determined figures for finding “Jesus son of Joseph” and “Mary,” we arrive at a probability for the full package of 0.21% (that is, 63.26% x 0.75% x 44.10%), or, more precisely, of odds of one in 475.1. Considering that there are some 1,000 tombs similar to “the Tomb,” it should hardly be surprising that one should yield this cluster of names. On average (and holding the number of inscribed ossuaries to be typical), we might actually expect to find two or more.
Though some of Poirier's charges are not new, both his logic and his results are distinctive. He likens Jacobovici's argument to watching someone pick several wild cards after being dealt a hand of cards and then brag about his royal flush.

At the end of the day there are surely countless wrong ways to run the numbers (Jacobovici's evidently among them). Poirier's model, alongside several others, suggests there may be several right ways as well.

UPDATE (9:52 a.m.): Mark Goodacre's latest post is a useful catalog of contributions to the Talpiot tomb statistics debate.

Paul and Scripture: An on-line collaborative Bibliography

Some of us in the Paul and Scripture Seminar of the Society of Biblical Literature are developing an on-line wiki bibliography on Paul's use of Scripture. We're still working out the bugs but as of today the database includes 351 sources. Anyone can search it (using various criteria) but you need clearance to post entries. Those interested in helping to build the database should contact me by e-mail.

To poke around, click on Resources, then List. Feedback is most welcome.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

WWJB? (Where Would Jesus be Buried?)

Jay Cost of RealClearPolitics fame has weighed in on the "Jesus Tomb" debate on the side of the skeptics. His principal target is the argument from statistics and probability. It differs from Randy Ingermanson's argument in significant respects (I like Randy's better) but others will have to assess its merits. His case includes, however, some historical claims that I think are problematic. Like,
Few scholars - including those who think Jesus was not bodily resurrected - believe that he was buried at all.
Actually, almost all scholars think he was buried. A few (e.g., J. D. Crossan) suggest the Romans might have denied Jesus' body a proper burial, but most believe his body was buried either in a shallow trench grave or (more likely) in a tomb, as indicated by the Gospels.
Even if we assume that Jesus was buried, it is exceedingly unlikely that he would be buried in or around Jerusalem. . . . One would expect the Jesus family tomb, if it did exist, to be either in the north (the family's first century A.D. home), or in the south (the family's ancestral home). There is no reason to expect it to be in or near Jerusalem.
First, all four N.T. Gospels agree that Jesus was buried immediately just outside of Jerusalem. John (19:41) adds that the tomb was near the place of execution. The Gospels give no indication that Jesus' family and friends intended to move his body, certainly not to Galilee or down to Bethlehem. I can picture a regal procession bearing Herod the Great's body south to the Herodion (near Bethlehem), but surely his was the exception to the rule that people in Jesus' day were buried more or less where they died. (I'll happily stand corrected on this one.)

Second, the N. T. (Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:18; Gal 1:19) seems to indicate that James, Jesus' brother, remained in Jerusalem after Jesus' death. It seems quite plausible that others in Jesus family would have settled there as well. The "Jesus tomb" folks like to point out that there is no ossuary for Joseph in the Talpiot tomb--only one for Jesus-son-of-Joseph. So, the theory goes, Joseph died earlier in Galilee and was buried there. Thereafter the clan moved south.
Everybody had an interest in finding his body. It would have been a prize "get" for early Christian opponents - who were of course centered in Jerusalem - to produce it. How did they miss it when it was so close by?
This may well be right (cf. Mt 27:64; 28:11-15). Charlesworth makes a similar point. But we need to keep in mind that the "Jesus tomb" hypothesis proceeds by challenging the reliability of the Gospels' testimony. That is, the Gospels preserve later traditions and pious embellishments rather than (or mixed with) authentic history. In the aftermath of Jesus' death, says Tabor, none of Jesus' followers was claiming that Jesus' physical body had risen. That all came later, after 70, when the whereabouts of the Jesus family tomb were unknown. So the important historical question is: how soon after the crucifixion were Jesus' followers publicly proclaiming his resurrection?
Jesus' was a lower-class family from Galilee. Where did they acquire the resources to purchase what the original investigators call a tomb for a middle-class family?
The claim that Jesus' family could not have owned the Talpiot tomb may well be correct, though two of James Tabor's claims (here or here) weigh against it: (a) that the tomb itself is rather plain and (b) that Jesus had friends and supporters whose means could have made up for his lack (cf. Luke 8:3; 23:50; John 11:38; ).

Jay Cost's statistical argument may ultimately be persuasive, but some of its historical pillars need shoring up.

How many Jesus-son-of-Joseph ossuaries are there?

Swirling around the blogosphere today is the report of another cluster of ossuaries with the very same group of Jesus-related (and rather common) names: Mary, Martha, Matthew, Joseph, Jesus. It looks to me, however, that this second cluster is simply a confused reference to the first--to the Talpiot tomb ossuaries themselves. James Tabor pointed out on March 5, in response to Eric Meyers' interview on NPR, that:
the second example Prof. Meyers cited, supposedly from a tomb on the Mt. of Offense, is in fact not from the Mt. of Offense at all, it is the very Talpiot ossuary under discussion. I have pointed this out privately to Tal Ilan, and I noticed it two years ago, and made all the corrections in my copy of the book, but now that all these things are in the public it can be very confusing if anyone wants to do a bit of research, which many want to do.
I'd like clarification on this point. If Tabor is right, then the Tal Ilan catalogue of Jewish names (published in 2002) confuses ossuaries found on the "Mt. of Offense" with the ones in the news from "East Talpiot." Assuming the "Mt. of Offense" is identical with the "Mount of Olives," it looks like posts like this one may require revision and we may be back to one "Jesus family." Or am I confused?

UPDATE (10:00 PM): I think the fog is lifting. In a comment James Tabor posted today on Jim West's site, he commends Jack Finnegan's Archaeology of the New Testament (which I'll track down) for the Dominus Flevit ossuaries as well as the nearby Mt. of Offense tombs. He describes
a vast Jewish/Christian burial “track” running from the Mt. of Olives, past the Mt. of Offense, to Talpiot, east and west.
My understanding has been that the Mount of Olives is a ridge that includes, as one of its southernmost knolls or "summits," the "Mount of Offense," which explains my confusion. In The Jesus Dynasty, p.236, Tabor describes the 40 Dominus Flevit ossuaries (inscribed with names like Lazarus, John, Joseph, Juda, Martha, Miriam, Matthew, Salome, Simeon, Yeshua and . . . wait for it . . . Simon bar Jonah) and then says:
There are similar clusters of names at burial places nearby, but further south, on the Mount of Offense and in Talpiot.
So let's see: the names from the Dominus Flevit necropolis that one might want to associate with Jesus were never confused with those from the Talpiot tomb. Not far away, however, roughly between Dominus Flevit and Talpiot, are the Mt. of Offense tombs which, notwithstanding the Tal Ilan catalogue, do not include ossuaries inscribed with names like Jesus-son-of-Joseph, Jose, Mariamne, etc.

A final note: it isn't as clear to me as it is to Mike Heiser that "the statistical odds touted in such assured terms have taken a sound beating – fifty years ago" (i.e., when the Dominus Flevit necropolis was excavated). A cemetery and a (family?) tomb are not at all the same thing. One would expect (wouldn't one?) that the large Mt. of Olives necropolis would contain bones from unrelated people. By contrast, the cluster of names that has impressed Jacobovici and Tabor all come from the same tomb.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

James Tabor's curious appeal to Randy Ingermanson

James Tabor's latest post is a plug for the book by Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino that accompanies the Discovery Channel documentary. As someone who bought the book (before watching the film), I agree with Tabor that the book moves along nicely and tells a good tale. It's a fun read with great graphics.

For additional praise of the book, Tabor points us to Randy Ingermanson, self-described physicist (U. C. Berkeley Ph.D.) and author whose work lies at the interesection of faith and science. But here's the thing: the page (posted March 3, 2007) that contains Ingermanson's brief commendation of the book is also the page where he lays out, in great detail, what I consider to be the most damning critique to date of the statistical argument for identifying the Talpiot tomb with Jesus and his family. Ingermanson writes as a Christian (so one could suspect him of bias against the documentary) but there isn't a hint of defensiveness or righteous indignation. And he uses phrases like "binomial distribution"without breaking a sweat.

Bottom line: Ingermanson's statistical argument (which you really should read in its entirety) reaches a stunning conclusion: the odds are 10,000 to 1 against this being the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth. I'll let others (hopefully including Andrey Feuerverger) respond to Ingermanson's math. All I'll say is that his calculations (using the same basic data) do not bode well for the Jesus family tomb proposal.

Tabor has read enough of the post to know that Ingermanson disputes the book's thesis. But what puzzles me is that he cites the incidental comment about the book but completely ignores the substance of a potentially damning argument. Hopefully Feuerverger (and qualified others) will respond.

In the mean time, here are a few of Ingermanson's points. For the rest, do see for yourself.
  • Since Maria and Mariamenon are two of many variants of the name Mary, they should be treated as such. (If one ossuary had read, say, Mariam, Jacobovici would have been just as inclined to investigate the Jesus family connection.)To treat Mariamenon as more than a variant of Mary, and thus as more statistically significant, one has to show that this variant is distinctly appropriate as a designation for Mary Magdalene. This is precisely what they have not done.
  • The correct factor to use when estimating the probability that we have found Jesus' tomb is 80,000, not 1,000. That is, we want to know "how many men in Jerusalem could have conceivably had a father named Joseph and who could have been buried with five persons with a given set of names related to Jesus of Nazareth (2 Marys, 3 males with names chosen from the known brothers and disciples of Jesus)." The number of males who lived during the relevant period is estimated at 80,000.
  • The proper question is not: "How many such men might have existed and then been buried in family tombs of the type we've found?" Feuerverger "effectively added a factor that is irrelevant -- being buried in a family tomb. There is no reason to believe that the family of Jesus of Nazareth was more likely to have a family tomb than other families."
  • "The probability is VERY low that Jesus of Nazareth had a son." This fact should have been included in the Feuerverger's calculations.
UPDATE (March 12, 2007): In a comment posted on Mark Goodacre's NTGateway blog James Tabor, gentle and respectful as ever, has promised a reply to the substance of Ingermanson's critique:
What a model of sensibility and good taste. I do not think he is correct on his statistical analysis as far as I can follow it, but I want to consider it further and run it by the people I am working with. I have a take on the historical circumstances that I think really adds to the picture considerably from the work I have done on the Jesus Family.

Charlesworth: Jesus' bones? No. Jesus' family tomb? Maybe.

Perhaps to qualify or clarify his earlier statements that seemed to validate Jacobovici's claims, James H. Charlesworth, George L. Collord Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary has posted a statement on the seminary webpage that includes seven observations about the "Jesus, son of Joseph" ossuary. I like them because they span the disciplines from epigraphy to archaeology to social science to history to biblical studies. Here they are, as they appear on Deinde:
  1. The scribbling is not an inscription, it is a sloppy graffiti.
  2. The name "Jesus" before "son of Joseph" is the most difficult name to read among all the names in the tomb.
  3. All archaeologists and historians know that the names "Jesus" and "Joseph" are two of the most common names in first-century Jerusalem.
  4. The ossuary is remarkably ordinary without any ornamentation; this may indicate that the remains placed inside belonged to someone rather common.
  5. After Jesus' crucifixion as a common criminal, some priests wanted to stop (even kill) those who were claiming that Jesus was the Son of God because God had raised him from the dead. They could have produced the bones of Jesus rather easily and thus thwarted those who claimed that God had raised Jesus from the dead.
  6. The so-called "Jesus tomb" is not far from the place where Caiaphas's ossuary was recovered. The "Jesus tomb" is decorated and elegant and would have been clearly visible before 70 CE when Roman soldiers destroyed the area. The priests who sought to stop the Palestinian Jesus Movement would have known about this tomb, regardless of who was placed inside.
  7. The authors of the Gospels report that Jesus was placed in a tomb prepared for the family of Joseph of Arimathea; there is no New Testament evidence that Jesus' family had a tomb.
Points 1, 2, 4 & 6 are more substantive together than separately. For the Jacobovici hypothesis to be true, we would have to imagine that although the family tomb was "decorated and elegant," Jesus' clan did almost nothing to honor the bones of their most honorable member. Indeed, his ossuary was more hastily and less carefully "inscribed" than any of the others, including the one belonging to little "brother" Jose.

Points 5, 6 & 7, in combination, amount to a historical argument that Jesus' enemies would likely have known where his family tomb was. This has not, to my knowledge, received an adequate response from the documentary's proponents. To be fair, though, the claim that the tomb's location and association with Jesus would have been public knowledge involves a measure of speculation.

Point number 3 (the commonness of two names) is not in disupte but carries little weight if the issue is the statistical probability of a cluster of names.

Two additional thoughts relate to other remarks by Charlesworth. First, about Jesus' "clan":
a good case has been made for the possibility that the tomb of Jesus' "clan" may have been discovered. By "clan" I mean "extended family group". This possibility needs to be researched and debated in a scholarly symposium.
This puzzles me. If Charlesworth doesn't think the "Jesus, son of Joseph" bone box held the bones of Jesus of Nazareth, how would the Talpiot ossuary evidence amount to a "good case" that this particular tomb belonged to Jesus' "clan"? Perhaps he doesn't view his seven observations as ultimately decisive.

Second, about his closing word:
There is nothing that archaeology can provide that can be damaging to Christian faith. Archaeology cannot form faith; it can only inform faith.
This notion that nothing unearthed by archaeology can be damaging to Christian faith is entirely unpersuasive to me. If Christianity is a fundamentally historical faith--a faith that rests on claims about events that really happened--and if archaeology sometimes overturns the way we understand history, shouldn't we be open in principle to archaeological discoveries that undermine faith? What if the Talpiot tomb had been found, intact and undisturbed, with ossuaries inscribed with the names of all known members of Jesus' family (but no one else), each one containing bones (one with nail holes in all the right places)? And what if the same tomb held jars containing previously unknown scrolls (whose authenticity and dates could not be denied) that offered a narrative that completely challenged the Gospels credibility? Would Charlesworth's faith still come through unscathed? It's a crazy hypothetical, of course, so maybe it doesn't help. But I still have to wonder.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Who's your daddy? The contribution of Patronymics to the Talpiot ossuary inscriptions

The ancient practice of patronymics--of naming people based on their fathers--spans both continents and centuries. Examples from four different languages are Johnson, Ben-Gurion, Ibn Ezra, and Barnabas. On the Society of Biblical Literature Forum, Christopher Rollston, Professor of Old Testament and Semitics at Emmanuel School of Relgion, helpfully explains the significance of patronymics for the current Jesus tomb debate. Rollston's point is simply that it is irresponsible to imply that we can know how the tomb's various occupants are related since only two of the inscribed names (Yehudah bar Yeshua and Yeshua bar Yosep) have patronymics:
without patronymics it is not possible for someone in the modern period to ascertain the precise kinship relationships of antiquity
He is not the first to note that the nuclear family the Jacobovici team claims to have found is only one of many possible configurations. But he may be the first to press the point based on the regretable lack of explicit father-child relationships among the inscriptions. Here's what Rollston has to say about Jose/Josah, the name Jacobovici matches with Jesus' brother Jose (Mark 6:3):
Yoseh could be the son of Mattiyah, or the son of Yehudah, or the son of Yeshua'. Perhaps, he was the father of Maryah, or the father of Miriamne, or Mattiyah. Maybe he is the uncle of one of these. Perhaps, Yoseh was the son or father or brother or uncle of someone who was buried in one of the ossuaries that does not contain an inscription. It is possible to suggest that he was a cousin of someone in the tomb. Not all of these are mutually exclusive, but ultimately, because there is neither patronymic, statement of relationship (e.g., brother), or title, any suggestion about the relationship of Yoseh to those interred here remains conjecture and speculation. (emphasis added)
You get the idea: the lack of patronymics dooms us to uncertainty regarding the various family relationships in the Talpiot tomb. But it seems to me that James Tabor, Simcha Jacobovici and Andrey Feuerverger would conceed the point. Their argument only requires that the collocation of these four names--Jesus, Joseph, Mary and Jose (with only one father-child relationship specified)--be sufficiently improbable that it would not have occured more than once in, say, every 600 familes. Rollston's point carries weight: we can only guess at how to draw the family tree. But it is not clear to me that it defeats the argument from probability.

Was the Talpiot tomb robbed in antiquity?

Thanks to James Tabor for posting the preliminary report written by the late Yosef Gath, the archaeologist who was assigned to the Talpiot excavation in 1980. Shimon Gibson is credited for the English translation. It confirms that when excavated the tomb floor lay buried under a meter of soil. Two other lines caught my eye:
It appeared that the blocking stone for the entrance had been removed
This seems to be describing the state of the tomb before it was discovered by construction workers (though this point should be confirmed). Consistent with this, the report also notes that:
Two ossuary lids, found on the floor of the central room, under the fill of soil, indicate an ancient disturbance.
Presumably these two points complicate an argument that the remains (including DNA material) in each box must correspond to the names on the lid. And they raise other questions. Do we know to which ossuaries the two lids belonged? Can we know when the grave was disturbed? And for how long it stood open? Tabor promises to add his own comments that may address some of these points.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

James Tabor on the 10th ossuary

I posted earlier on the shifting fortunes of the so-called "James ossuary." Apart from its role in the on-going antiquities fraud trial of Oded Golan, the issue garnering attention on the blogs is whether or not it might have come from the Talpiot tomb. Even if someone forged brother of Jesus, the first half of the inscription--James, son of Joseph--could be significant in its own right. Two recent blog entries by James Tabor are sure to add fuel to this debate.

In the first, from March 6, 2007, Tabor takes issue with the story (recounted, e.g., here) that Joe Zias claims the 10th Talpiot ossuary was plain, un-inscribed, and thus relegated to the lowly courtyard of the IAA warehouse where it cannot now be located. According to Tabor, Zias acknowledged to him on June 30, 2006, that
he had no idea what might have happened to it but it was possible, in those days, that it was put back in the courtyard and just left and forgotten. He also suggested it might have just been misplaced in the IAA warehouse and gave me examples of other things that had just gone missing, or were just misshelved and could not be found.
So we have two versions of what happened back in 1980, both attributed to the same source: Joe Zias. Curious.

In the second post, dated Mary 7, 2007, Tabor explains that the designation "missing," as applied to the 10th ossuary, was not coined by him or Jacobovici for dramatic effect. Rather, it was used by the curator of the IAA warehouse in Bet Shemesh, when Tabor and Shimon Gibson inquired about the 10th bone box in 2005. And in response to suggestions that the 10th box was placed outside because it was plain, Tabor observes:
the other “plain” ossuary (80.506), of the four listed “uninscribed,” is not much to look at, yet it was retained and is on the shelves today, and there is a photo and description of it in the files. In contrast there is no photo nor description of the “10th.”
Why would some plain boxes be catalogued and photographed while others are not?

I'm struck by three things in reading Tabor's latest posts. One, he knows more than he is telling. Two, back in the 70s and 80s the IAA may have had difficulty handling the influx of archaeological artifacts. And three, Tabor (at least in print) is remaining remarkably gracious, irenic and non-combative, in the face of harsh criticism. If only the rest of us were as well-behaved.

Ground Zero in the Jesus Tomb Debate

Whether due to fatigue or the onset of March Madness, "Jesus tomb" blogging is definitely slowing. The key issues continue to be two:

1. The statistical improbability of the collection of names inscribed on the Talpiot ossuaries.

How significant is it that we would have in one tomb the names Jesus son of Joseph, Maria and Jose, all of which are known to belong to Jesus' nuclear family? [Far less clear is the statistical relevance of the other three Talpiot names: Mariamenou Mara, Mati and Judah son of Jesus. As for James son of Joseph brother of Jesus on the separate James ossuary, the jury is literally out.] Evidently Andrey Feuerverger, Professor of Statistics at U. of T., has been quoted and misquoted, understood and misunderstood. Alas, most of us know just enough to know that we don't know enough to add anything useful to the debate. Meanwhile the beseiged James Tabor, aided by statistical "advisors," continues to find the stats in the documentary persuasive and promises more blog entries to come.

2. The historical improbability of several key claims.
These claims include:
  • that Jesus' family would have had a family tomb in Jerusalem
  • that Jesus' family would have continued to use a tomb (containing Jesus' bones) between 30 and 70 C.E. while the Jesus movement was emerging
  • that Jesus of Nazareth was married
  • that Jesus of Nazareth had a son
  • that Mariamenon was a name applied to Mary Magdalene in the 1st century
  • that Magdala (Mary's home town on the Sea of Galilee) was a center of Greek language and trade (thus explaining why her inscription is in Greek while her "husband's" is in Hebrew characters)

Monday, March 5, 2007

Lingering Questions and Loose Ends

Here's a list of lingering questions about the Jesus tomb controversy. Several of them were prompted by remarks from archaeologist Joe Zias whose "viewer's guide" I noted earlier:

1. What are the odds that a DNA sample taken from any given ossuary is from the name of the person inscribed on it? Joe Zias says he "published in 1992 a tomb with 15 ossuaries, 88 people and one name." That's almost six skeletons per ossuary, likely added over a period of decades.

2. Was secondary burial (i.e., the use of ossuaries) practiced only by the conservative religious fringe of Jewish society, as Eric Meyers (a renowned archaeologist and former professor of mine) seemed to suggest on NPR today? Here's a quote from his interview:

Secondary burial was practiced by Jews in the first century, first century BCE as well, by very, very pious--the most pious--individuals whom many identify with [an] extreme version of the Pharisees. This is an odd group for Jesus to be associated with.
3. Can we verify that a dated (and undisputed) picture of the James ossuary confirms it was in Oded Golan's collection in 1976, four years before the Talpiot tomb was opened? According to Joe Zias:
last week . . . Oded Golan the owner of the ossuary in question, who is on trial for forging objects, produced a photograph of the ossuary with a time stamp 1976, four years before the Talpiot tomb was accidentally discovered!
In one post Ben Witherington refers to a "1970s-era picture"; in another, dated Feb 26, 2007, he is more specific:
Former FBI agent Gerald Richard testified that a photo of the James ossuary, showing it in Golan's home, was taken in the 1970s, based on tests done by the FBI photo lab.
So one version of this story suggests a date-stamped picture, and another has the FBI doing tests to determine the date.

UPDATE (Mar. 8, 2007): This article in Haaretz, dated Feb. 9, 2007 (o.k. I'm slow), appears to have answers to my questions. The relevant part is this:
In the defense's photographs, dated 1976, the ossuary is shown on a shelf, apparently in Golan's home. In an enlargement, the whole inscription can be seen with great difficulty. The photo was examined by Gerald Richard, a former FBI agent and an expert for the defense. Richard testified that "Nothing was noted that would indicate or suggest that they were not produced in March 1976 as indicated on the stamps appearing on the reverse side of each print."
Golan's attorney, Lior Beringer, told Haaretz that the photos support the defense's position. "The prosecution claims that Golan forged the inscription after the beginning of 2000. But here is a detailed report from an FBI photo lab that states that the inscription existed at least since the 70s," Beringer said. "It is unreasonable that someone would forge an inscription like this in the 70s and suddenly decide to come out with it in 2002," he added.
The date of the photo is also significant legally because any antiquity discovered in Israel since the passage of the 1978 Antiquities Law belongs to the state.
If this withstands scrutiny it could conceivably accomplish two things simultaneously:
1. Exonerate Golan of charges that he forged the James ossuary.
2. Preclude the possibility that the James ossuary was originally found in the Talpiot tomb.

On a related note, Jonathan Reed was adamant on Ted Koppel's panel last night that the archaeologists who removed all ten ossuaries would not have missed an inscription on the 10th one, as Jacobovici and Tabor are suggesting. Of course, if it were blank, the James ossuary must be eliminated from the equation.

4. Can we confirm that the James ossuary is indeed 20% different in (at least) one dimension compared to the so-called 10th ossuary from the Talpiot cave? Here's Zias once more:
an enterprising skeptic here in Jerusalem checked the dimensions of the two 'identical' ossuaries and found that the Talpiot plain white "missing" ossuary is approximately 20% longer than the James brother of Jesus ossuary.
Who was this "enterprising skeptic"? Where is this information available? This is important because James Tabor, in The Jesus Dynasty, p.32, says otherwise:
Just recently I noticed that the dimensions of the missing tenth ossuary are precisely the same, to the centimeter, to those of the James ossuary.
UPDATE (March 12, 2007): J. D. Walters points us to the relevant measurements of the "James" bone box) on his site, Theory of Everything: God.
according to the Biblical Archeology Review reportof the James ossuary, these are the dimensions given: "This ossuary is . . . 20 inches long (50.5 cm) at the base and flairs out to almost 22 inches (56 cm) at the top. . . The ossuary is 10 inches (25 cm) wide and 12 inches (30.5 cm) high.
As for the missing "10th" ossuary, its measurements are given in Amos Kloner's 1996 report, conveniently available on the Discovery Channel site, as 60 x 26 x 30 cm. Given this discrepancy--roughly 10 cm difference in length at the base, 1 cm difference in width--Walters presses Tabor to back his claim that the two ossuaries are the same size in a lively exchange (sizzling by academic standards) in the comments of Mark Goodacre's March 8 post:
Kloner 1996, based on the original notes of Yosef Gat, states the dimensions of the 10th ossuary as 60-26-30 (cm). The official report on the James Ossuary at BAR lists the dimensions of the James Ossuary as 50.5-25-30.5(cm). Yet Dr Tabor claimed in his book that the dimensions of the 10th missing ossuary match those of the James Ossuary "to the centimeter". So the question is, does he have measurements of the 10th ossuary and the James Ossuary different from those cited in the literature, and if so where did he get them from? And if not, how does he justify this claim?
In response, Tabor indicates that he isn't free or ready to give a fuller account. This seems strange but I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps there are conflicting accounts of who measured what (and how carefully) during the 1980 dig. And there's always politics. In Isael, archaeology is always political.

5. What is the evidence that this tomb, or any other, was a family tomb? I don't doubt that family tombs existed, but I'm wondering how we know. Were all tombs family tombs? And how common would it be to have non-family buried in a family tomb?

6. Is there any evidence from ancient Jewish sources of Friday (pre-Sabbath) burials in tombs that were only intended to store the body until after the Sabbath? Is there any evidence at all of any body being buried with the full intention of retrieving and re-burying it in another tomb?

7. According to the Gospels (Luke 23:50-54; John 19:38-42), Jesus was buried in a new tomb near the site of execution--a tomb that presumably belonged to someone other than Jesus' family since the burial was arranged by council member Joseph from the town of Arimathea. Doesn't this story imply that Jesus' family did not have a family tomb in the Jerusalem area?

8. What do we know about the relationship of social class to burial practice? In general the literature suggests that rich people had tombs and poor people used trenches (and thus no secondary burial). Jodi Magness' recent article on the SBL Forum makes precisely this claim. (Magness' article is also now available on the Biblical Archaeology Review site.) Do we know how rich one had to be to have a family tomb? What other factors (besides wealth) might cause one to be buried in a tomb rather than a trench?

9. What do we really know about the social standing or class of Jesus' Galilean family? Were Jesus and his disciples lower class as Jodi Magness and most scholars contend or is James Tabor right that they weren't as poor as Christian tradition tends to assume?


I guess I was hoping for more from Ted Koppel and the post-game discussion of the Lost Tomb of Jesus documentary. He did show that he'd done his homework; he'd called a number of the scholars quoted in the film and learned that they weren't nearly so supportive of the film's thesis than they appeared to be on screen.

But Koppel spent so much time challenging Simcha for his lavish historical re-enactments. Apparently they were too well done (or something) and too "powerful" (so, Professor Judy Fentress-Williams from Virginia Theological seminary, one of Koppel's panelists). This is curious to me for two reasons.

First, what's wrong with dramatizing what you are describing? As Darrell Bock rightly pointed out, preachers do it all the time. The film was clearly advocating (commending, proposing) a particular reading of the evidence; it did so explicitly through the journalistic bits and implicitly through the dramatic scenes. I disagree with the film's findings but I thought the acted bits were nicely done. James Cameron knows what he is doing. (Indeed, many of the scientific and archaeological scenes were re-enactments as well. And superbly done. Nothing wrong with telling a well-wrought tale.) The problem is that The Lost Tomb of Jesus consistently fails to live up to the ideals of dispassionate journalism. It isn't an even-handed documentary, it's one-sided advocacy bordering on propaganda.

Second, I thought this angle took valuable time away from more important matters. William Devers and Jonathan Reed were woefully underused. They should have been given much more air time than they got. Rather than have Koppel ask the questions, why not let Dever and Reed pose a few? Both seemed to have much more to say and, from all I've read, their negative assessments of the project are typical of the academy at large, so they spoke on behalf of the (vast?) majority of religion scholars and archaeologists.

Jonathan Reed, archaeologist and University of La Verne professor (and friend), had one of the best phrases of the night. He called the documentary "archaeo-p_o_r_n." I don't know if he coined the term but it's a keeper. Dever leveled a similar charge but used less colorful language. The complaint is that the film makes archaeology look like an Indiana Jones movie or a Dan Brown novel. Real archaeologists, scientists and historians labor in relative obscurity and poverty trying to say only what the evidence requires. And no more. By contrast, the wild speculations of the Jacobovici documentary are to responsible investigation what promiscuous sex is to faithful monogamy.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Stats anyone?

The key statistician used in the Talpiot documentary research was Andrey Feuerverger whose reply to critics and inquirers is now available on his website. Mark Goodacre reflects on some of his comments.

UPDATE (3-9-07): All agree that Feuerverger's statistics can only be as good as the assumptions underlying them. Chris Heard, over at Higgaion, notes problems with some of those assumptions. He links to posts by Mark Goodacre and Richard Bauckham but also offers his own insights. For example, on Feuerverger's assumption that Yose/Yosah on ossuary #4 (allegedly the Joses of Mark 6:3) is not the same person as Yehosef (father of Yeshua) on ossuary #1 (allegedly Joseph, the father of Jesus of Nazareth), Heard observes:
I’m not sure why this should be assumed. I suppose that it seems common-sensical to think that the same person wouldn’t be named in two different ways on ossuaries in the same tomb, but then again, it’s hardly a slam-dunk case. The filmmakers argue that יוסה is a diminutive form of יהוסף, but that the Talpiot יוסה is not the Talpiot יהוסף, but at the very same time, they want you to believe that the Talpiot Μαριαμήνου Μἀρα is Mary Magdalene, even though no early Christian source—not even the apocryphal Acts of Philip, on which the filmmakers apparently rely—calls Mary Magdalene by this name. This double-standard—the same man couldn’t possibly be known by his full name on one ossuary and a nickname on the other, but a woman could be known on her ossuary by an otherwise completely unattested name—undermines the entire case.
Jacobovici may be right that Yehosef and Yose are different people, but it does seem to be a case of assuming what you set out to prove.

Viewers' Guide to The Lost Tomb of Jesus

Joe Zias has posted a very useful (and highly critical) "viewers guide" to the Talpiot tomb documentary. Among many interesting comments you'll find remarks like this:

Whereas their attempt as probability looks impressive, a 600 to 1 chance that it is the 'Family', it falls flat when one realizes that the info. given to the statistician was that of a nuclear family of ca 10 people whereas the truth of the matter is that the family of 10 is an extended family of maybe 50 or more comprising 4-5 generations, as a result it simply cannot be computed. They knew this and I have the feeling that this info. was not divulged to the mathematician.
Joe Zias is a highly respected anthropologist/archaeologist known for his sound judgment and solid scholarship. Here's a nice piece by Zias on ancient crucifixion (in case you've had enough of the Talpiot tomb).

Saturday, March 3, 2007

DNA Test proves Virgin Birth!

Well, no. Not yet, anyway. But as Allessandra Stanley says in today's New York Times, the same logic driving the Lost Family Tomb findings could be put to use in other ways:

forensic research could solve all kinds of mysteries. If Y-chromosome samples from Joseph and Jesus showed no genetic link between father and son, then the Discovery Channel could take credit for proving the Virgin birth.
She's kidding, of course, but still.

The Beloved Disciple: Not John or Mary Magdalene but Judas, son of Jesus (?)

O.K. so I bought the book. I was in Chaucer's yesterday buying travel books about the Middle East for a trip this summer when I spied it prominently displayed on a table by the door. Since I'll be screening the documentary with my students Sunday night, I sheepishly added The Jesus Family Tomb to my stack of books and got in line to check out.

Skimming the book, I landed on the Conclusion in which Simcha Jacobovici muses over how the and film came to be, and what it all means. Several bits caught my eye including this recollection of how the media executives reacted when they first screened the film:

There was nervous laughter in the room, and then the executives fell back on executive-type talk: How close to Easter should we play this? How long should it run? And my favorite: We should adopt a skeptical tone throughout (p.193).
It's just a brief glimpse behind the curtain, to be sure, but it's also a good reminder that television is, above all, a commercial enterprise cloaked in a veneer of sober minded journalism. If I were Simcha, I would have left that part out.

Simcha uses his Conclusion to boil down and press the book's thesis. It also contains, however, several howlers. Like this:
"the only reason two unrelated individuals, male and female, would appear together in a family tomb in first-century Jerusalem is if they were husband and wife."
This is so palpably illogical that I read it multiple times looking for a typo. Let's see: we haven't established that it is a family tomb in the first place, and the filmmakers only ran DNA tests on two of the nine ossuaries, and no one knows how many people's bones were stored in each one, and either of the two DNA contributors could be related by blood, or by marriage, to someone else in the tomb (including someone in the same bone box!). Perhaps I'm missing something or maybe Simcha was suffering from authorial fatigue. Even James Tabor, one of very few religion scholars to publicly support the project, acknowledges that
any family tomb of this type, whether that of Jesus or anyone else, can have individuals not related by blood to the main clan.
Here's one more example of how bold indeed is Simcha's thesis (and why I should have saved my $27.95). It turns out according to Simcha that Didymus Thomas (see Jn 11:16; 20:24; 21:2), who is explicitly numbered among the Twelve in John's Gospel, is Jesus' son, whose real name, as inscribed on the Judah-bar-Jeshua ossuary, is now known to be Judah.

Does the fact that "Thomas" and "Didymus" mean "twin" mean that the Gospels are hiding something? Could it be that "the Twin" wasn't actually a twin but was Jesus' son? Could "twin" be code language designed to protect the child from Roman rulers who were inclined to kill not only royal pretenders but their offspring as well?

Breathless stuff, this. But there's more. This son of Jesus is also the cryptic "Beloved Disciple" of John's Gospel, the one who famously reclined on Jesus' breast at the Last Supper (Jn 13:23). How do we know? Because, as Simcha explains, no one but a son would snuggle up to Jesus like that:
Unless your eating habits are very different from mine, at my dinner table only my kids cuddle with me and lean against my chest. The Beloved Disciple, therefore, is clearly very young.
To what authority does Jacobovici turn to bolster his argument? To a woodcut of 16th century German artist, Albrecht Durer. So there you go: it must be true. So Dan Brown's hypothesis that the breast-leaner was Jesus' wife must give way to another--it was his child. (Perhaps Mary Magdalene was nearby, serving drinks.)

I'm surprised that Simcha doesn't seem to know that Jesus and his disciples did indeed have different eating habits from ours: they ate reclining, leaning on one elbow, so that pretty much everyone was reclining on someone else's breast.

Given that his story has by this point taken on a Fletch-like quality, we shouldn't be surprise that we are invited to identify Didymus-Judas-Thomas (i.e., Judah, son of Jesus a.k.a. the "Beloved Disciple") as the unnamed young man who fled naked from the scene of Jesus' arrest (Mk 14:51-52). Here was Jesus' son, watching in horror as his father is arrested, then fleeing the scene to relate through tears what he saw to his mother who is, of course, Mary Magdalene.

This connection between three historical figures--Thomas, the Beloved Disciple and the young, fleeing disciple (bracketing, for the moment, its corollary that Jesus of Nazareth was a father)--is wildly speculative, historically problematic and sure to be ranked among the least serious elements of Jacobovici's proposal.

UPDATE (3-6-07): Danny Zacharias has a nice post on the "supposed literary evidence for Jesus' son" in which the identities of the various figures here mentioned are examined.

Married, with children? Or buried, with family?

In today's Ventura County Star, journalist John Scheibe weighs in on the "Jesus Family Tomb". Having spent an hour with John on the phone two days ago, I am one of the local scholars he features in the piece.

Which is why I'd like to follow up, not because I was misquoted but because of the way the article frames the controversy in terms of two key issues:

The claims are an assault on two of Christianity's central tenets: The first is that Jesus was resurrected after his brutal crucifixion and ascended to heaven in his earthly body some 40 days after he arose from his tomb. The second is that Christ lived a celibate life on Earth free of any knowledge of the flesh.
Apart from the odd way the final sentence is formulated, the quote suggests that the celibate status of Jesus is a "central tenet" of Christianity. So whether or not Jesus was "married with children" ranks right up there with whether or not Jesus' body remained in the grave.

In fact Scheibe credits Julia Fogg, assistant professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at California Lutheran University, with the idea that whether Jesus was a family man is "the deeper question" raised by the documentary.

Jesus' celibacy is a "central tenet"? It's "the deeper question"? Even though my favorite comedian, Jon Stewart, apparently agrees, this seems to me to be a fundamental misreading of the New Testament story. Even Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code, p.245) knows that the New Testament is completely silent on Jesus' marital status. But for Brown and a few others, this silence counts as evidence that Jesus was married. Every good Jewish boy got married, the argument runs. So we should assume marriage unless told otherwise. The burden of proof is on those who argue for Jesus' celibacy.

This is problematic on several levels. As Bart Ehrman, religion professor at UNC Chapel Hill, points out:
Not a single one of our ancient sources indicates that Jesus was married, let alone married to Mary Magdalene. All such claims are part of modern fictional reconstructions of Jesus’ life, not rooted in the surviving accounts themselves.
More positively, there is good reason to believe that a Jewish apocalyptic prophet who was fully convinced that God was present and active in his ministry would forego marriage for the Cause. Since others have posted at length on the subject, you can read more at "Religion Facts" as well as the BeliefNet comments of Darrell Bock and Bart Ehrman.

My point in this post is that, in contrast to the New Testament's silence on Jesus' marital status, the noise it makes about Jesus resurrection is deafening. Not only do the Gospels contain stories about the empty tomb and about Jesus' appearances, but the book of Acts makes it clear that early Christian proclamation could be boiled down to a simple one-liner: God raised Jesus from the dead. Here's a sampling:
Acts 2:24; 3:15, 26; 4:10; 5:30; 13:30, 33, 34, 37; 17:30-31; 23:6; 24:15, 21; 25:19; 26:8, 22-23.
Was Jesus married, with children? I don't think so. If he were I'd be surprised (and would feel for his wife), but nothing essential to my faith would change. Was Jesus buried, in the family tomb, and were his bones collected and tucked into an ossuary? I don't think so. But if he were, the ground would move under my feet. My first moves would be to resign my teaching post at an evangelical college and cancel my membership at church. After that I'm not sure what I would do. Probably go back to carpentry.