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.


J. B. Hood said...


This is Jason Hood writing--met you at SBL this past year and quizzed you on Rewritten Scripture, etc. I tracked down the material on Hays and the "story of Israel" in Matthew as you suggested (HervTeolStud 2005 is all I have at present, presumably Richard is working on more material), which will come in handy on my dissertation; I still think I've got a nice unique argument so I don't have to put a hit out on him. Which is good, since I like the guy's work.

Noticed you commenting somewhere else (Carlson's blog). I'll keep an eye on your blog. Don't forget to blog something other than NT studies (but don't go straight other stuff either). Here are some suggested titles to get you going:

Synoptic Problem and Re-written Scripture (Craig Evans, Goulder or Davies one)

Canadian Songwriters

I changed Gundry's mind on _____

Bob Gundry changed my mind on ____

What I learned from Richard Hays (you could make this last one a series)

Grace and peace...

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